Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blogging Matters

I have found Google's new approach on Blog Search, the initial listing of top stories, interesting but a little frustrating.

There is no doubt that the list, as well as the capacity to click on certain topics to get top stories there, is a useful guide to current hot topics. However, there appears to be a US bias in the algorithm used to generate the list over and beyond the relatively large number of US blogs.

To test this, I decided to click through not just the immediate top pages but to drill down to lower orders. As I did, the number of blogs required to generate a list ranking on a topic dropped down to as low as five. However, the US or perhaps more accurately North American bias continued. It was also interesting to see how often the same story re-appeared with somewhat different wording.

I also find the general blog search facility very useful in looking for topic information. With a general Google search, the large number of results can be very frustrating simply because of the time involved in checking results. One specific danger is that you can pick up stories that are in fact old, but which appear current. Dates have to be checked.

By contrast, blog search brings up current posts that can be more quickly drilled through to get to the guts of an issue.

However, I did strike one problem in all this. My attempt to test top blog rankings by clicking through page after page while sampling individual topics on the way actually triggered some form of security alert in the Google system. Suddenly, I found my access blocked. It was some time before the system would let me back in again.

For most bloggers, Technorati and Alexa have been two main vehicles for assessing blog performance. These sources are also used in generating various ranking lists such as the Top 100 Australian Blog list.

The problem is that for most of us, neither Technorati or Alexa are especially helpful. I still check Technorati from time to time for links, although increasingly I simply rely on using Google Blog Search and Google Search (link:add your URL) plus the referrals component of my own limited stats packages.

You can see the difficulty if you look at the Top 100 Australian blog list. How many of these sites do you know, let alone visit? None of the Australian sites that I visit regularly were on the latest list, although there are three sites on my irregular check list.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that there should be a new ranking system. Rather, I am simply questioning the relevance of ranking systems for most of us. Here I keep coming back to the concept of the village.

The fact that this web site has a global web site traffic ranking of 2,588,131 and apparently attracted 0.000029% of global traffic over the last three months is obscurely interesting. Far more interesting, however, is just what is happening in my immediate blogging neighbourhood.

There were two interesting traffic spikes during immediate period.

The first showed the influence of StumbleUpon. Here a plug by Aldhis (thanks, Aldhis) for this blog led to a noticeable traffic surge.

The second showed the importance of the news cycle in attracting traffic.

I found out about the death of Michaell Fussell fairly early in the cycle. I then wrote the two posts (here, here) because of the linkage with my old school. Because these posts were early in the news cycle, they attracted considerable traffic.

This was especially obvious on the lower traffic New England Australia blog where traffic more than doubled. Once I realised what had happened, I provided updated information to try to be helpful.

I have noted something like this before.

Quite simply, if you want to increase your traffic, follow the breaking news leads. If you then write a post early in the cycle you will actually be in front of the mainstream newspaper, TV responses. The interest they attract will then feed back into visits to your post.

Mind you, it helps to have something interesting or useful to say! However, this is actually not hard if you do some investigation of your own.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Now is the time to play India cricket in India

Photo: Indian soldier outside Taj Mahal hotel.

Like many Australians, I have watched events unfold in India with a sense of appalled fascination. I cannot help it. The coverage is there all the time.

I will comment on what I see as the lessons later. For the moment, I want to make a different point.

I can understand why English or Australian cricketers might not want to play in India. I am not saying that individuals should play. It depends on their personal circumstances. That said, I am saying that the cancellation of cricket is a victory for the terrorists, a blow to India and Indians.

Cricket is the great game that unites certain countries including India, Pakistan, England and Australia. The phrase "that's not cricket" used to indicate an act outside the rules is still current English despite sometimes problems with the professional game.

One of the casual staff at a local bottle shop I go to from time to time is from India, a student working part to help fund his Australian studies. We talk about cricket. He takes great pleasure in Indian wins, especially over Australia and England.

Am I being too far left field when I say that now is the time to consider a special Indian cricket series? This might include teams from Australia, England, Pakistan if possible, the West Indies, South Africa etc.

If this is not possible, how about some special challenge cup with teams made up of volunteers? I am sure that cricket and cricket lovers could fund this.

Fanatics of the Mumbai type cannot win militarily. They aim to win through the destruction of civil society, through the creation of fear in and between communities and countries.

To counter this, they are best regarded as a disease. Thinking of them in this way, they are less dangerous than most measured by real effects. They become really dangerous only because of our responses to them.

So let's respond with a focus on business as usual. Cricket could be a valuable part of this.

How about a cricket challenge to India from the rest of the world? My friendly bottle shop staff member would argue that India could win. For my part, I would like to take him on!

Saturday Morning Musings - TAS Old Boy killed in Afghanistan

It turns out that the latest Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan, Michael Fussell, came from my old school, TAS (The Armidale School). I did not know Michael, he was well after my time, but his death brought very mixed emotions.

TAS has a proud military tradition.

The school was founded as an Anglican boarding school along English lines. As such, it was expected to reflect the philosophy and style of the English public schools of the time. An Englishman, the Rev. William Fisher was appointed as first head.1905-Building

The school accepted its first pupils in February 1894 in new buildings designed by the architect John Sulman built in paddocks on the eastern edge of Armidale. Sulman had been instructed to allow for 70 boarders, with scope to expand to twice that number. The photo shows the main school building in 1905.

By the end of 1894, the school had 55 pup1895-1st-XI-Cricketils and continued to make good progress. A prefectorial system was introduced, sporting teams established who played against local and Sydney Schools and dramatic and musical entertainments produced. The photo shows the School first eleven in 1895.

In 1897 TAS joined the Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of NSW (GPS) and has remained a member since. In 1899,the Old Boys' Union was established.

Despite the increase in numbers, TAS was still a small school at the outbreak of War in 1914. Most of the boys were country boys were already very good shots, most were good riders, while a cadet unit had been established in 1898. The photo shows the unit on biv1899-Cadets-1ouac in 1899.

Enlistments were heavy from the start of the War. By the end, TAS had lost 44 old boys and two staff to the carnage. I do not know the total number of Old Boys by then, but this was a high death rate for a small cohort.

After the War, student numbers increased steadily, reaching 140 in 1926. Then came the depression. Numbers plunged to a low of 110. Loans arranged to fund new buildings were now a crippling burden. Staff salaries were slashed, allowing the school to just limp through.

While numbers stabilised, the school still had only 113 pupils in 1940. You can get a feel for the small size of the school from the photo below of the school cadet corp in 1941 being inspected by a visitor accompanied by Gordon Fisher (GAF). GAF had been appointed Head the previous year. 1941-Cadets

Numbers then grew rapidly to 250 in 1942 as parents shifted children away from capital cities in face of possible military threats. The school itself suffered more casualties. Four Hundred and fifty seven served during the Second World War, with 49 old boys and two staff killed.

When I arrived at the school as a pupil, reminders of the school's military past were ever-present.

It was only eleven years since the Second World War had finished, to be followed by the Malayan Emergency and the Korean War. War books were still very popular among the boys, while war films and documentaries were popular, including the Saturday evening film showing for the boarders.

The buildings themselves were a constant reminder. The Maxwell Library (1924) was named after Lt C F Maxwell killed on the Western Front in 1916 at he age of 24. The school magazine recorded his death in this way:

“His regiment went over the parapet 1100 strong, and that night 98 answered the roll call. Of his company only 20 were left, all ranks. He was wounded early in the engagement, and had he given up and been cared for might have been living to-day but he fought on, taking prisoners and organising bombing for more than three hours At last he was seen to be so weak from loss of blood that he could no longer speak, and kept constantly falling down. He picked himself up each time and still tried to lead, and then even to follow his men. The regiment had to go on and they were finally forced to leave him alone, to die. He had a deep wound near the temple and was rapidly bleeding to death. The body was never found and it is thought that when he could no longer rise, he crawled into a dug-out, which was afterwards blown in by a shell. The trench in which they left him was completely wrecked."

Dangar House (1924) was named after Captain C C Dangar who had first served in the Boer War and then 1n 1917 was wounded while acting as Brigade Major for the Australian Light Horse in Palestine, wounds that he died from the following year. As you might expect given the number of boys who could ride and shoot, the Light Horse was a popular choice.

The school assembly hall (1956) was a memorial, with the names of all those who had served inscribed along the walls, crosses marking those who had died. Gordon Fisher as head read the names of those who had died, many of whom he had known.

The school also retained its traditional semi-military structure.

The school sergeant wore military style dress. Every weekday during the term time, the mid and senior schools formed up by dormitory on front field. The small group of day boys of which I was one counted as a dormitory for parade purposes. Under instructions from the prefects and monitors, the school parade was ordered and the roll called. Once this had been done, the Head would appear. The school then marched to daily chapel.

My own ambivalent attitudes towards the school's military record dates from this period. While I had some country connections, I was bookish, a townie and the son of an academic and did not quite fit in. My first three years at the place were awful, the last three some of the best of my life.

At the mid-point, I rebelled against elements of the school's military flavour, a rebellion that would carry through into university when I registered as a conscientious objector following the start of the Vietnam War and the introduction of the draft.

At school, the deciding moment came when I withdrew from compulsory cadets, prepared to leave the school if required. Despite great pressure, I maintained my position. Finally, Gordon Fisher as head backed my stand. I will always be grateful to Mr Fisher, nor was this the only time that he tried to help me, educate me, give me responsibility.

I have introduced this autobiographical note for a number of reasons.

I hope that it helps gives a feel for elements of the school's past.

Further, I do not want to appear hypocritical in writing to those who have known me from past periods. My views have changed, although my past explains my ambivalence on some matters. I still cannot share in the current Australian interest in, celebration of, military matters. I am too conscious of all those who have died, of the names with the crosses or who were read out in assembly.

TAS today is a very different school. dangar_house

Part of the changes are physical. It is a bigger school in both numbers and buildings. The facilities that students now have would have seemed unbelievable to those who knew the school in the past. It is also a very attractive school in visual terms.

Part of the changes are cultural. As with many aspects of Australian life, the seventies marked a major change decade. The students themselves during that period forced change because they were no longer prepared to accept certain past disciplines. Further, while the school is still major boarding school, day boys now outnumber boarders, changing the school feel to some degree. The junior school is also co-educational.

Like many other Australian schools, the school today is both freer and more rigid than in the past. While pre-seventies students lived under what was a formally strict regime, in practice students had a fair bit of freedom. Some of the things we did would make a modern head's head go white quite quickly!

When I learned about Michael Fussell's death, my first reaction was sadness for he and his family. However, I also felt a sense of pride that TAS and TAS old boys had continued the tradition of service that began all those years ago.

No matter what I may have thought at times in the past, we still need to be able to defend ourselves in a sometimes dangerous world.

Note on sources

The school historical material in this post is drawn especially from the community section of the TAS web site. This provides access to historical material including a summary history by Jim Graham, war service material, copies of past Armidalians and a photo archive.

To my mind, the school has done a remarkably good job here, progressively adding material. Obviously the material is of most interest to those with connections to TAS. However, it is actually a very useful resource for those with an interest in social history.


There have been a fair number of searches on Michael that have brought people to this or the other post I wrote. For those that are interested, I understand that his funeral will be held in Armidale next Thursday. I am sure that the Armidale Express will carry some details, although its publication cycle means that nothing is on-line yet.

Postscript 2

TAS Head Murray Guest has advised that Michael's funeral will be held at Armidale's Old Teachers' College at 10:00am on Saturday 6 December.

For those who do not know Armidale, the TC stands in a prominent position on South Hill. There is plenty of parking around it.

Postscript 3

TAS Deputy Head Grant Harris provided the following update:

"Michael's body arrives at Richmond at 11.30am Wed (today) where there will be a Ramp Ceremony for family only. There will be a Military Service at the 4 RAR Barracks on Thursday in Sydney. His funeral in Armidale is at 10.00am on Saturday at the Old Teachers College Auditorium."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Neil's bad habits!

Neil's practice of limiting his Google Shared Reader, an invaluable source, to a certain number of items has finally caught me out.

Neil, old chap, can you give me a link to the Scottish doctor who wrote on evidence based medicine. And, while I am at it, the blog that carried the Australian posters?

I understand why Neil limits rolling content. However, as a matter of general advice to all our colleagues. Do bookmark items that Neil spots when you see them. Otherwise you too might have to write a begging post!

Why I remain an optimist - and why I still believe in progress

At this stage it appears that two Sydney men are among the Mumbai dead.

It is hard to remain optimistic just at present. TV and radio with its constant negative drip feed erodes the spirit. Yet, and as I have said before, I remain optimistic. I do so for three reasons.

First and least importantly, optimism is more practical. Without attempting to document the case, there is considerable evidence that optimistic people tend to be more resilient, happier, than pessimistic people.

Secondly, while we know from history as well as current events that dreadful things happen, we also know that in most cases troubles pass. This may be small consolation to those affected, but is I think true.

Thirdly and most importantly is what I think of as the evolution of the human spirit.

Human beings are hard wired from a past that began as hunter gatherers struggling to survive in a hostile environment. The best and worst of the human character comes from this; our drive, our sometimes compassion, our willingness to turn on others to protect our own or to get what we want.

A few years ago I re-read Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both the question of the real authorship and the exact dates of these works are uncertain, but they are old in human terms. I had not read them since school, and I found that my reaction was completely different.

At school, I just read them as stories. Now I was interested in what they told me about Greek society at the time. Here I was struck by what I thought of as their primitive nature, constant violence, constant fights to gain cattle or olive oil.

In the years since I first read Homer, I had also read other early works such as some of the Norse sagas. These formed my later views because they too displayed similar features.

The features presented in these works still exist. However, if you look at the evolution of human society and thought, you will see that the need to control our human weaknesses, the desire to find a better way, is a constant thread.

The evolution of religion, philosophy and ethics is central to our social evolution. Yes, progress is patchy. However, there is a world of difference between the Europe presented in these earlier works and today. I say Europe only because I know European society best.  

Take, as a simple example, the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. While economic factors were involved, this was still a decision campaigned for and finally taken on ethical grounds. It was a decision that would have been incomprehensible just a few years before. 

This short post is not meant to be a history lesson. My point is that it is helpful to remember that history does show evolution, development, progress in human thought even if the results are patchy.

Hitler used the mechanisms of a modern nation state to carry out genocide. Millions perished. Yet one outcome was the first attempt to create an international framework that might control genocide.

We may argue that there have been more failures than successes since. However, you can see the progressive evolution of laws and structures intended to address those failures.

Progress takes time and always involves setbacks. My own concern, one I explored to some degree in Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West, is that our own negativity and fear - moral funk - is of itself the single biggest longer term threat we face.

Niar's Graduation - our congratulations

Niar's graduation one

I know that all in our blogging community will join with me in congratulating Niar on her graduation (here and here). Niar is, I think, second on the left in this photo.

I am a fair bit older than Niar, probably older than her father (!), but our discussions have been a pleasure.

Niar now wants to work as a journalist and then do her Masters. After that, she would like to work for an NGO in a third world country.

Niar, no less than six members of my family have worked for the League of Nations, the UN or an international NGO. So that's a great ambition, although I would not rule out studying in Australia even though we speak English!

Niar, just speaking as a dad with girls not much younger than you, keep the dream. As part of this, do keep blogging. The loose blogging network that you are now part of is reasonably high-powered, although some of its members may blink at this description. Yet it's true.

I say this for two reasons. First, the intellectual content is quite high. Second, the network spans countries and occupations. So there are people who can at least give you advice a little bit down track.

There are some issues here that I have been meaning to pick up in a post, perhaps several posts.

As I have said before, I actually think that we have begun to build soNiar's graduation twomething unique in our network. I spend a lot of time in the blogosphere. I know lots of communities built around individual sites or causes. So far, I have found very few communities who span sites in a loosely knit overlapping set of communities that hold independent of age, country or ethnicity.

I stand to be corrected here, but I think that its is true.

Finishing, the next photo of Niar again has her second on the left.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Another non-post

I do not intend to do a full post today.

As I write, BBC World is providing live coverage of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. My thoughts are with all those affected.

I have updated two earlier posts with some supplementary material.

Earlier in the week I also put up two new posts on the New England Australia blog. The first, UNE passings - death of Erle Robinson records the death one of UNE's best known identities. The second, New England Writers - Tales from New England launched, reports on the launch of a new book by John Ryan discussing the New England connections of some of Australia's better known writers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now is the time for Australia to support Indonesia

Yet another post!

Yesterday in the The Howard Years - Indonesia and Australia I spoke of the importance of our relationship with Indonesia. Now it appears that Indonesia has requested a loan from Australia of around $US2 billion to help the country cope with the effects of the global financial crisis.

I sincerely hope that Australia can help Indonesia as we did during the Asian Financial Crisis and then the Tsunami. This is a time when neighbours must, to use a Scottish phrase, gang together.

The Asian Financial Crisis badly hurt Indonesia. The country took some time to recover. Now it is in our interests as a relatively wealthy and still very lucky country to try to ease the latest burden.

We cannot help everyone. We can help our neighbours.


I have been trying to find out more information, so far without success. However, a story in the Jakarta Post is indicative of the local impacts of the global economic problems, with companies reporting that they intend to lay off more than 40,000 people following export contraction.

Problems with Australian historiography

I had no intention of posting again today, but I want to share a gripe.

For some time I have been complaining about what I see as bias in the publication of Australian history and especially the bias that appears in the selection of books by bookshops. I accept that part of this reflects my interest topics that are no longer fashionable, but it is more than this.

Today I went with youngest to a major bookshop at Sydney's Bondi Junction. I had a simple objective. I wanted to buy a book on Aboriginal history, prehistory really, in the period up to 1788. I was driven to this because very little good material is available on-line.

After going past the many shelves devoted to Australians at war, I found the two book cases dealing with Australian history. Within this, there were two rows on Aboriginal history almost totally dominated by Aboriginal-European relations. There was not one book dealing with the Aborigines prior to 1788.

I went to the information desk and we did some searches. There was one copy of John Mulvaney's classic study at the city store. That was it. I was advised to go to a university book store.

I complained about this to youngest as we left. She said that this was why she disliked Australian history. I wasn't sure what she meant and asked why. Apparently, and from her perspective, the dominant theme in the Australian history she did at school all centred on the evils of our treatment of the Aborigines, the question of Aboriginal-European relations.

I won't go on, except to say that I think that we (Australia) have a problem.


Neil wrote in a comment on his Google Reader Shared Items:

"Jim has been busy. I did go to the Gleebooks site and found some things I would find quite fascinating myself, but not much on pre-1788 -- which technically is prehistory in this area. Guess there is stuff in journals. As for the "problem" -- I don't see this as necessarily a problem; much depends on the way the topic is presented. No doubt we are still getting used to telling stories that certainly weren't told when I went to school, or in the first 15-20 years of my career as a History teacher either. That had to be redressed; I guess the balance is still evolving, but I would assert that the Apology in February 2008 will eventually lead to a more sharing tone than we have sometimes seen... It ought to, anyway. I am not sure bookshops are biased; Gleebooks for one probably carries most of what is currently in print -- or can get it. That's what publishers have been offering.”

Thanks, Neil, for the link. There is some interesting material there.

My post was written as a gripe. Standing back from the post itself, there are a number of issues involved.

What appears in the bookshops at any one time depends upon past decisions.

Authors have to select topics and then find a publisher. Publishers accept only a proportion of material offered to them. Publishers then have to get their books into the book stores. Book store economics means that even big book stores now carry a smaller range of material than in past years.

Research and writing takes time. If you look at this chain, the original research and research topics reflects popular issues especially in universities ten to fifteen years previously. This process can be short circuited where a topic is perceived to be hot. Then publishers may commission works to try to get them into the marketplace quickly.

Interest in topics changes.

Many of the historical topics that I am most interested in such as the history of the country movements are no longer of popular interest. With rare exceptions, broader regional analysis has been squeezed out between the purely local on one side, the state, metro or national on the other. Most of the published works date from the 1960s and 1970s and in turn are based on research work that began accelerating in the 1950s, especially within the University of New England.

More broadly, my impression is that overall interest in Australian history peaked in the 1980s and then went into decline. Part of the reasons for this lay in fragmentation within the history discipline - to some degree a gap opened up between the interests of researchers and more popular interests.

By the early 2000s, the range of Australian history books carried in local book stores had greatly diminished. I used to buy Australian history books all the time. I stopped buying because there was nothing I really wanted to read.

In recent years, this has begun to reverse itself to some degree. There is actually greater interest in history in general, as well as greater interest in Australian history. However, as is always the case, material is skewed.

Without being too scientific about it, I was expressing a perception rather than a detailed analysis, there were some four bookcases dealing in some way with Australia or Australians at war. Then there were two bookcases dedicated to Australian history as such. Within that, there were just under two shelves entitled Aboriginal history.

This is quite a big bookshop. If the stock composition is any guide to current reader interests, we can roughly say that twice as many Australians are interested in Australia at war compared to broader Australian history, perhaps sixteen times as many Australians are interested in Australia at war than the entire scope of Aboriginal history.

My particular interest this time lay in the history of human occupation of this continent prior to 1788, a vast span of perhaps 100,000 years.

I found that I could buy, for example, histories of the Dutch or Jewish people in Australia, yet could not get a single title in my area of interest. Indeed, there was very little general Aboriginal history as such, although there was a fair bit dealing with recent disputes about Aboriginal historiography

The best book on Australian pre-history remains John Mulvaney's Prehistory of Australia. This book was first published in 1971. While updated since with Johan Kamminga, it still dates back to earlier times and is an outcome of the great flowering of interest in the Aboriginal past of the late 1950s and 1960s. This was the time I did my own thesis. The other outstanding work that I am aware of, Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads, was first published in 1982.

I am out of touch with recent writing, hence my visit to the book store. It may well be that there have been books published that I am not aware of. Still, I thought that there was a problem or problems.

This postscript has become quite long, really a post in itself.

There are two quite distinct sets of issues.

The first is just what Australian history Australians are presently researching, writing, publishing and buying, and how this has changed over time. I have not seen this analysed, so I am working from impressions.

The second is what it all means.

Australian perceptions of their past are formed by their exposure to that history through school and university, the media, their own reading. The effects here are quite profound. To a degree, the history that I am most interested in has largely vanished, lost from popular sight. Its place has been taken by other interests.

We cannot analyse the second without understanding the first. One of the problems with Australia's so-called history wars is that, to a degree, they took place independent of analysis of the actual pattern of research, writing and publishing.

Wood Commission Report into the NSW Child Welfare System

The report by Justice Wood into problems facing the NSW child welfare system has now been released. Those interested can find the report here.

I have written on this topic for personal and professional reasons. Posts include:

These posts form a sub-set of a broader set of posts looking at the evolution of and weaknesses in public policy and public administration in Australia. There are too many to list.

One of my central arguments has been the way in which current obsessions with measurement, risk avoidance, compliance and control create increasingly unworkable systems. In the case of child welfare in NSW, I pointed to the way mandatory reporting had placed strains upon the child welfare system that essentially made it unworkable.

I have yet to read the detail of Justice Wood's report. However, it appears to centre on the problems I have talked about.

I take no pleasure in this. It is tragic that it should take the death of children to force a change in approach. Further, I see no evidence that the broader lessons have been accepted in any real way within the community. We may improve child welfare in NSW, an important gain, while leaving broader systemic problems untouched.

The biggest problem lies in ourselves. We continue to think that Governments can and should do more than they can. So long as this continues, our systems will fail.

The Zimbabwe tragedy - South Africa must intervene

It is time for South Africa to intervene in Zimbabwe in the same way that Australia and other countries did in the Solomon Islands. Yes, there are risks, but the likely cost of not doing so outweighs those risks.

I say this for two reasons.

First, Zimbabwe's decline now seems irreversible. Even if a compromise can be worked out with or forced upon the opposition, I find it hard to see how this will make things work. The rot is simply too deeply entrenched.

Secondly, only South Africa has the military and economic power to enforce change. Yes, South Africa will need help. But nothing can or will happen unless South Africa takes the lead.

Zimbabwe has become the tragic laughing stock of Africa. This needs to change.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Howard Years - Indonesia and Australia

The second episode last night of the ABC TV documentary, the Howard Years, was again fascinating viewing. Those who are interested can find the program site here.

You can watch past screened episodes, read the transcripts, watch extended interviews and access some resource material including a detailed and very useful chronology of the Howard years.

To some degree, reactions to the program depend on where you stand or stood on issues. Regardless of position, this is remarkably ambitious TV in terms of its scope.

Last night's episode drew out some of the complexities in the Indonesian-Australian relationship. I was interested in this because I have been jotting down some thoughts on a possible series of posts on Australia and Indonesia.

The program showed just how great the risk was of some form of armed conflict between the two neighbours over East Timor, an issue that engaged popular opinion on both sides. The chance of error leading to conflict was considerable.

Knowledge in Australia, and probably Indonesia too, about the complex history of the relationship is limited.

Few Australians know, for example, about Confrontation, the undeclared war between Indonesia and Malaysia during which a number of Australian soldiers were killed on active service as part of Commonwealth forces. The photo shows Australian troops boarding a Belevedere helicopter on their way to a mission.

I think this lack of knowledge is a pity, because the future of the Indonesian-Australian relationship is a key strategic issue, especially for Australia. Both sides, and especially Australians, need to understand the way that relationship has eveolved.

The Asian financial crisis was one of the challenges faced by the Howard Government in its first term. Australia's role in extending over $4 billion in financial support to its Asian neighbours including Indonesia was important in helping stabilise the situation.

I do not think that this crisis was really discussed in the program. I suspect that it would have been had production occured now. You see, in checking the background I found that I had forgotten a few key facts about the crisis.

In July this year, some six weeks before the global financial crisis, the Governor of the Australian Reserve Bank delivered a speech looking back at the Asian financial crisis. Reading the speech and then checking it against other material (here for example) reminded me just how bad the crisis had been. I was also struck by the similarities to the present crisis. While this is being wise in retrospect, there were lessons here that we could have learned.

Australia's willingness to help its Asian neighbours was important in building bridges. Timor tore those bridges down so far as Indonesia was concerned.

In saying this, I am not making any comments about the issues themselves, simply the results. I think that it took our wholehearted involvement in Aceh following the Tsunami to largely complete the rebuilding process. Here the photo shows Prime Minister Howard talking to Australian troops helping in Tsunami relief.

Australia and Indonesia are very different countries in terms of geography, history and culture. Building bridges between such different countries involves a constant process of engagement in order to create links and understandings that can survive inevitable tensions and disagreements.

The announcement at APEC by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono that Australia will spend $67 million over the next five years to establish a joint disaster coordination centre in Indonesia is an example of engagement. It is also an example of the changing nature of the relationship.

Early Australian aid to Indonesia was driven in part by strategic considerations, but it was also set in an aid context. Increasingly, our support is driven by the need to achieve shared benefits.

We offer the things that we can provide such as money and expertise, but we now also look for gains and contributions on the Indonesian side. While still early days, the relationship is moving to a shared benefits arrangement.

To my mind, this is a much healthier relationship. Indonesia and Australia must cooperate. We have no choice. Here I think that the scope for cooperation is enormous. I also think that this can only grow with time.

Cyclical vs structural deficits

I thought that the reported comments from Opposition leader Turnbull opposing an Australian budget deficit under any circumstance were remarkably silly. Yesterday I tried to disentangle some of the general issues here in Government budget deficits - cyclical versus structural: lessons from the 1970s.

One of the consistent points that I have tried to make in discussing Government responses to current economic problems can be simply summarised as less haste, more speed. I have also been concerned about the risk of mortgaging the future through hasty responses, something the British Government appears to be doing in its latest budget review. There was, although this is a topic for another post, something very old-fashioned about the British response.

At a time of crisis it can be remarkably difficult to maintain a longer term focus. Yet to my mind this is what we need to do.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The impact of climate on history - a note

When I first studied history at school and then, to a degree later at university, there was a sometimes implicit assumption that climate was stable.

Obviously in any study of human pre-history the presence of climate change is taken as a given, something that affects the pattern of human life. In similar vein, the impact of climatic events such as cold spells or droughts in the historical period was known because it appeared in the historic record. Yet I think that it remains true that, unconsciously at least, we tended to assume for day to day purposes that these were variations within a pattern rather than variations in the climatic pattern itself.

I also think it true that we underestimated the importance of geography itself, of the interactions between geography and human life. Geography was there and important, but more or less as a framework within which activities occurred.

I discovered the importance of geography in history long ago. However, I now that find my lack of knowledge of the history of climate change has become a major defect.

Thanks to the current interest in climate change, we now know that there have been significant variations in the Australian climate even in the short period since European occupation of the continent. It is not just drought and flooding rains, but long periods of wetter and drier weather. The further we go back into the long period of human occupation of this continent, the more pronounced the changes become.

This pattern is not unique to Australia.

Each change has caused changes in the pattern of human life. The greater the change in terms of length and size, the greater the impact. There may be dispute about the detail as well as causation - the Little European Ice Age is a recent historical example -  but it does seem clear that the effects have been substantial.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Snippets - a few jottings

 Gordon Smith-huesOfSunset

This rather wonderful photo from Gordon Smith is pretty typical of the countryside I grew up in.

The late afternoons were often one of my favourite times of day because of the light. Even in drought times the colour changed and the country softened, angles blurring. Marvelous, really.

No Sunday Essay today. Just a few jottings.

Reading some of the commentary on the economic downturn is a bit like taking part in an Armageddon movie. The first bits of the asteroid are hitting the earth, getting bigger all the time while we wait for the main strike.

I am still working my way through the issues, most recently in Scoping the global downturn - a few numbers. In this case I decided to start by looking at the share of global gross domestic product held by the twenty largest economies to see what this told me. I will leave it to those who are interested to read the full post, but a few comments just for a heads-up.

Did you know that the top twenty countries account for around 81 per cent of total global GDP? Australia comes in at 15 with 1.51 per cent of the world total. 81 per cent is a large number and explains why the combined actions of the top twenty will determine outcomes.

Further, as a very rough back-of-envelope calculation, countries representing something over 55 per cent of the world economy are already in or are about to enter recession. China, even China or India in combination, cannot offset this. They are just not big enough. As a rough rule of thumb, the Chinese economy has to grow by an extra four per cent to offset a one per cent decline in US GDP.

I am more pessimistic about the short term outlook than I was. But for reasons set out in the post, I have not altered my longer term outlook. Nor, for that matter, have I changed my view on the Australian outlook.

I have been doing a little checking and updating on past posts.

In Sunday Essay - the myths and realities of Northern Development I have added the latest statistical data on Northern Territory agricultural production, as well as a link to Bob Gosford's latest post on the subject, The Northern Myth - Chapter 1.

I have also added a postscript to Bridging the gap between indigenous Australia and the broader community - a methodological note pointing to new new research using census data to compare indigenous conditions in Maningrida, Dubbo and Perth with each other and the non-indigenous community in those communities. I will try to do another post pointing to some of the conclusions that I drew from the analysis, given my own perspective. In the meantime, the paper is worth a read for those with an interest in the topic.

Looking at my rolling blog publishing plan, I now have a backlog of some twelve posts that I wanted to write on this blog alone. However, I also want to keep updating past posts, while pointing to interesting writing done by others.

I suppose that this is a long-winded way of saying that posts here are likely to be a bit bitsy over the next week.   

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - more on blogs and blogging with passing reference to Australia the film

During the week I managed to find the time to do a few things beyond posting on this blog.

In Rugby League's confusions over Green I looked at the confusions that had arisen over the naming of the new George Green Medal. This will be awarded each year to a rising star of indigenous background playing his rookie year in the NRL or the Toyota Cup.

My interest in this was attracted not so much by the confusion itself, but by the hints the story provided about elements of New England's history.

The original newspaper article by Andrew Moore contains a reference to the Bundjalung people at Emmaville. Now the Bundjalung Aboriginal peoples were a coastal group, while Emmaville is inland on the western side of the Tablelands, so my attention was caught.

I won't go into details at this point, but the New England Tablelands are an interesting case study into the relationships between various Aboriginal peoples at the time the Europeans arrived. Here my focus is on the relationships between Aboriginal groups themselves, Aboriginal history if you like, not Aboriginal-European interactions.

The Tablelands are interesting because their size - over 400k north-south, over 270k east west - and geographic structure means that you can see the interaction between the powerful coastal language groups, the inland Kamilaroi, with smaller Tablelands groups squeezed in the middle.

As part of checking I used the new widgets just added to Google. Once signed in, these allow you to delete search references, to move them up or down, and to add notes.

I think this will be useful, but there does appear to be a catch. The widgets are only on Since I use as my default, I often search only on Australian pages, I kept finding myself on minus the widgets.

New England Story - Stockton Beach was another post during the week, this time trying to tell the story of a beach. I am still learning how to tell this type of story, one that knits together an area and its history. I think that it is an interesting piece, although it relies too heavily on Wikipedia articles.

One frustration in writing is the apparent absence on-line of decent material on Australian physical geography, both past and present. There is material there, but it is generally fragmented or too localised.

Take a small thing like the sea level:

  • 125,000 years ago, it was apparently 25 feet higher than now, so a fair bit of present Sydney would have been under water.
  • About 100,000 years ago, it began to fall, creating new coastal plains stretching out six to ten miles from what is now the coast line.
  • About 20,000 years ago, the sea level began to rise, submerging the plains. This rise continued until 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, creating what we now see as the natural coastline.
  • Now of course, the sea level appears to be rising again.

I am a naturally curious person. I am also a pattern or framework person, so I do try to fill gaps in as I go along. However, there is another evolving issue here.

With some 890 posts on this blog alone, I am more and more reliant on the blog search facility to find past things that I have written. This is not always effective. I find it quite frustrating to know that I have written something and not to be able to find it.

Then there is the problem of decayed links. When I first started blogging, I often included posts that were in some ways access points to links. I did not fully realise just how ephemeral the web is. Now with thousands of links, I know that there are a lot of dead ones.

I fix them when I find them, but I really don't want to go back through and find out just how bad the problem has become!

As we discussed in Joshua Gans and our Internet community, I say we because I am including comments, we all blog for different reasons. There is no such thing as a right approach to blogging, simply the right approach for each blogger given their needs and objectives.

I sometimes worry that blogs like this one may put new bloggers off. I think it important to realise that blogs like mine or Neil Whitfield's suite of blogs belong to a small group, the obsessive blogger whose blogs have become their main form of intellectual expression and who are also prepared to invest a lot of time in writing.

Our problem is that we want to order and present our material so that we can access it for our own purposes, but also so that it will be useful to others.

In a break from writing this somewhat material ponderous material I notice that Thomas has hoed into Australia. Do read the post and then go to see the film. After all, you have to see the film before you can really make a judgement as to whether Thomas is right! There, Thomas, almost anything can be used for marketing purposes. Smile.

More seriously, since I wrote Problems with Australian Films, I have been watching reactions to the film. I also saw the trailer plus one of the tourism ads this week when we sent to see the latest James Bond movie.

On what I have seen, the movie is visually stunning. I have also found the range of reactions interesting because they say a lot about the confusions within modern Australia. But that's another post.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Only in Australia - free beer follows storm

Back in January 2007 in Australia and its People - a funny upside down land I reflected on the Australian spirit. The volunteer ethos, mucking in, was one element of this. I have just been reminded of it.

South Eastern Queensland has been struck by severe storms, in some cases the worst since 1974. SES (State Emergency Service) volunteers have been struggling to cope. Yet the Australian spirit still shines through.

When things happen, people just muck in to help. I have seen this in my own life. I can see it again in Queensland. I am not saying that this is uniquely Australian, far from it. But it is certainly Australian.

A story in the Brisbane Times illustrated this. Many people hhouse_wideweb__470x352,0ave tried to help, one offering a rent free house for a period (photo). But I was really struck by the story of a local pub (hotel) manager. 

In this case, he and two friends went driving through Brisbane's storm ravaged suburbs in a ute with a tray-full of beer handing out free beer.

Normamby Hotel manager Mark "Trunk" Lassman said it was his was of helping out the victims of the storm.

"Look at me," he said. "I'm 145 kilos, so I'm not exactly going to be able to help tarp up someone's roof."

"I've never done anything like this, before but I have to do something to help people out."

He said it hoped it would bring a smile to their face.

"People are still trying to get electricity and water on, so they're not even thinking about a luxury like alcohol," he said.

"Yeah, I could be handing out soft drink, but I'm a pubbie."

I suspect that the beer was a very welcome relief.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday Pot Pouri - problems with refugees, individual freedom, indigenous policy, council funding and NSW's collapse

A short pot pouri today, notes on things round the traps.

I knew that I could rely on Neil to watch the SBS documentary, A Well Founded Fear. I did not want to. It was just too much.

The inhumanity that crept into the Australian Government's approach to refugees from the time mandatory detention was introduced under the previous Labor Government has been well documented. As I have argued, it reflected failures in both due process and compassion, failures that became systemic.

I find it interesting that elements of the policy were finally overturned not by Government or opposition, but by individual action in the community. This started with a few and then spread until a broad based coalition emerged sufficient to turn public opinion around from clear majority support for Howard Government policies to majority opposition.

I still do not fully understand why the Howard Government dug itself into such a hole on this issue. Apart from the many cases of individual injustice, the thing that really concerned me about the Government's overall approach lay in the fact that it, and for a period the community, did not seem to care that injustices and process failures had occurred on what we now know to have been a major scale.

To my mind, this eroded one of the fundamentals of Australian democracy, the need for the state to exercise restraint in the exercise of state power affecting individuals and individual liberties. I fear that I am a bit of a broken record on this one, because I have been pointing for some time to the growing tendency of Australian Governments to over-ride individual freedoms, to the growing tendency in the community not just to accept this but even demand it.

In a post on his blog, Engagement not Intervention, Will Owen reviewed a new book by Michael C. Dillon and Neil D. Westbury, Beyond Humbug: transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia (Seaview Press). He said in part:

The authors' central thesis is that it has not been the policies of self-determination that have led to the current crisis but rather the government's withdrawal from a meaningful engagement with remote Australia in that period. It is a failure of political will.

This links to something that I have tried to argue without, I fear, a great deal of success.

By way of background to international readers, there have been two broad schools of thought when it comes to policies trying to address indigenous disadvantage. One we can loosely call the indigenous policy stream, application of a whole host of policies intended to directly address indigenous disadvantage. The second is called mainstreaming, arguing that Aboriginal programs should be merged into programs available to the broader community. Both schools incorporate a range of differing and sometimes overlapping assumptions and elements.

My approach is a little different.

I have argued that policy needs to take into account the diversity in indigenous conditions, that a one size fits all approach won't work. I have also argued that we need to make a clear distinction between indigenous problems and issues as compared to problems and issues that affect indigenous communities, but are in fact subsets of broader problems.

In this context, I have argued that many of the problems of indigenous communities are in fact subsets of broader problems linked to economic and social decline in regional and especially more remote Australia. To this degree, indigenous disadvantage is in part of subset of a broader problem. It appears that  Michael C. Dillon and Neil D. Westbury have come to a somewhat related conclusion, arguing that a focus on problems of remoteness independent of indigenous or non-indigenous not only takes race out of the equation, but also forces a focus on economic rather than sociological issues.

I think that this is relevant at the present time because of the growing volume of evidence pointing to weaknesses and failures in the Howard/Brough intervention in the Northern Territory. Here I am not talking about the usual headline stuff that people tend to talk about, but what appears to be simple on-ground policy failures in definition and delivery.

Just for the record, I have listed the posts I wrote at the time at the end of this post. I must say that I had completely forgotten that my final reaction at the time was to withdraw from the discussion, something that happened again later and for similar reasons.

Looking back, I suppose the thing that I find most depressing is that the reasons for subsequent policy failure in the Intervention appear to be just those that I pointed to at the time. I am not sure that anything has changed.

On a more positive note, and one that actually does address some of the underlying problems if as a by-blow, the Commonwealth Governments decision to make $300 million available to Australia's local councils for immediate capital works makes a great deal of sense.

For a number of reasons, local councils have been starved of capital funding in recent years. In NSW, for example, the decision by the NSW Government to impose arbitrary caps on rate increases for political reasons means that council revenues have been suppressed over a considerable period. This means in turn that all councils have already defined projects, often down to the detailed plan stage, that have been sitting there waiting for funding. 

The requirement that councils spend the money by next September means that the new funding will enter the economy quite quickly. Further, the allocation of minimum amounts to all councils means that smaller councils in country Australia will benefit too. These councils have great needs but can struggle to get any funding. So there is going to be a small but direct benefit in remoter areas.

Finally, I am completely bemused by what appears to be the growing economic, policy and political collapse within NSW. I really have never seen anything like it.

The problems that NSW is experiencing did not just appear, nor are they the sole responsibility of the recent Labor administrations. Rather, they are problems of structure, culture and system that have slowly evolved with time.

I have been writing about various aspects of these problems for a number of years now. The difficulty is that systemic change is required, and it is hard to see this coming about. Perhaps it's time to pull together again some of the issues as I see them.          

Intervention Posts

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More economics 101 - capacity utilisation and inflation in Australia

Yesterday (19 November 2008) Malcolm Edey, Assistant Governor (Economic) at Australia's Reserve Bank, delivered a short speech to the Australia & Japan Economic Outlook Conference 2008 entitled The Economy in Late 2008: Conditions and Prospects. You can find the full speech here.

There were a couple of interesting graphs in the speech that I thought worthy of a commAustralia capacity utilisationent because of the light they throw on existing economic problems.

The first graph shows capacity utilisation as measured by the NAB series.

You can see the current downturn clearly. Of more interest, you can see the scale of the crash into recession in 1990.

While I have no desire to see a repeat of 1990, it was quite dreadful from a business viewpoint, it does put the current talk of depression in context. I am sure that capacity utilisation will fall further, perhaps to 1990 levels, but this is not depression.Consumer price inflation

The second graph shows Australian inflation over the period since the start of 1996. You can see why the RBA was worried during the most recent past when Australian inflation suddenly spiked at the fag end of the boom.

Now there is something very important to note about this graph. Australia's peak inflation is much lower than it was during the stagflation of the 1970s or the end of the 1980s boom. I make this point because it changes the policy equation facing policy makers. We have much more scope to use fiscal policy than before without creating another inflationary round.

The next graph I found especially interesting. It shows the relative shift in prices for non-tradable goods and services as compared to tradables.

When you look at the graph you can see the way the rise in the price of non-tradables, essentially those parts of the economy not exposed to international price pressures, drove inflation. You can also see how the decline in the price of tradable goods - in part a reflection of China's growing role - Tradeable, non-tradeable pricesinitially cushioned price rises on the non-tradable side.

The non-tradable side may not be affected by international competition, but it is affected by the current downturn. We can expect price pressures to drop here.

The position on the tradable side is more complicated. I think that the China effect, the way in which growth of Chinese exports pushed prices down, has come to an end. On the other hand, all internationally traded goods will be under price pressure because of the global downturn. So price pressures should ease, offset to some degree in the Australian case by our currently depreciated exchange rate.

Again, the net effect is to give policy makers greater freedom for expansionary measures.

Problems with Australian Films

Hugh_Jackman,_Nicole_Kidman_on_set I am sitting here frustrated. Like many Australians, our internet connection allows for a certain monthly download. Exceed that, and the system slows to a crawl.

This month we ran over our limit early. My fault. I live streamed NZ TV to watch the election. Now the system's crawl is simply awful. Add to this the slowness on this box because all the software alterations have chewed up memory, and I have a real problem. I have just spent forty minutes trying to download a few emails.

I am writing this post on Livewriter. Hopefully I will be able to load it. However, I will not be able to provide the links that I wanted.

There were two major Australian film events this week.

The first was the highly promoted ABC production on the Howard Years. I will write a critical evaluation of the content later. However, just focusing on the filmic aspects, this was gripping TV for anybody with a little background. While I do not think that anyone in Australia can yet do a West Wing, an often re-watched almost cult classic in this household, the Howard Years shows how far local production has come.

The second event was the release of Baz Lurmann's Australia. This release, one I had been waiting for and had written on, is far more problematic. To my mind, the reasons for this go to the heart of some of the problems that Australia, and its film industry, face.

Just to set a context, the share of the local box office held by locally produced films has dropped to around 5 per cent. Australians are staying away in droves. Yet when we come to look at TV ratings, Australian made product still holds its ratings on free to air. However, this household rarely watches it, although I might like to.

Lurhmann's film is a blockbuster - it cost $A120 million to produce - set in Northern Australia. The film centres on an English aristocrat in the 1930s, played by Nicole Kidman, who comes to northern Australia to sell a cattle property the size of Belgium. After an epic journey across the country with a rough-hewn drover, Hugh Jackman, they are caught in the bombing of Darwin during World War II.

At this level, the film has everything. It is by all accounts visually quite striking. Yet I was worried about its local appeal because it seemed to be playing to images that had, to my mind wrongly, receded into our past. When I looked at my own now city family I found that there was very little interest in the film, I think because it dealt with images that are now alien.

Then listening to the discussion about the film, I suddenly found that I was reluctant to go as well for very different reasons. I thought that this was a story, yet somehow it becomes a film in part about the stolen generations, Aboriginal children removed from their parents, and attitudes to race.

Don't get me wrong. These are important issues. Yet when they start being presented as a key element, the story ceases to be a story and becomes instead a politically correct statement.

Media people constantly talk about the demographics, the audience to which a production or a network appeals. When we look at demographics in this sense, Australia has always been divided into multiple audiences based not just on things such as age and education, but importantly too on geography. Melbourne viewers, as an example, often do not like the same things as Sydney viewers.

If you look at successful Australian films or TV productions, you find that they have at least one of, more often a combination of, two things.

Number one is a strong story line. The most successful productions in international terms are those that present what is in some ways a universal story. Baz Lurmann's early film Strictly Ballroom is an example. This relatively low budget has achieved continued success because it is a good story. The Australian elements are there, but they do not intrude.

Number two is that they play to specific popular local images, both seriously and in a comedic fashion. In dollar terms, Crocodile Dundee remains (I think) the highest grossing specifically Australian film. It was a huge success locally because it appealed to Australians images of themselves. It was a massive success internationally because it was visually funny, appealed to international images of Australia and also presented a universal story.

For a number of reasons, over the last thirty years we have constantly hacked away at many traditional Australian images. This has happened at a time when the Australian population itself has become more diverse. As a consequence, the local audience has fragmented.

Many Australians will not go to Australia because they perceive it as playing to past images that have been persistently and consistently attacked as no longer relevant or, worse, wrong. Now others who might be attracted to those past images may not go because they perceive it as in some ways politically correct. All this provides an over-burden that can make it hard for a film to survive.

We saw a similar problem with Ten Canoes. This was an interesting film that deserved a better box office outcome. Looking at it just as a film, while it was not a cinematic masterpiece it was also a fascinating entry point into a different world. Yet once it became embroiled in the discussion about indigenous issues, once it was presented as something that Australians should attend, the point was lost.

I have just been reading at youngest's suggestion a Terry Pratchett Diskworld novel that in fact centres on Australia. This novel is full of local allusions including drop bears, something that comes from Bundaberg Rum ads.

Youngest loves this book because of its localisms, something that I enjoy too. Youngest also likes Crocodile Dundee. She is, in fact, a rampant Australian nationalist, although she might not like me saying so. Yet she has no desire to go to Australia because, I think, she sees it in some ways as old fashioned, discredited.

There is to my mind an awful irony here. The core culture is very powerful and goes on, but has become disconnected from its past. Our cultural elites who have created the disconnect now find themselves in a strange desert, one where they seem to have won so many things. yet struggle to understand why the things that they stand for are not better accepted.

Concluding, I really hope that Australia succeeds. I would also like to see more Australian films focusing on telling a story independent of other overlays. There are so many Australians stories that would make good films. I would like to see more get there.


I was mulling this post over because I wasn't quite sure that I had it right. I did draw a comment from Neil on his Google Reader series. The comment is repeated in full below because the GR series posts are deleted after a period.

"Much here I agree with, some I don't. After all, "Rabbit Proof Fence" was a very successful movie commercially as well as artistically. I think one problem is that Baz Luhrmann's vulgarity has betrayed him rather in this one. I liked "Strictly Ballroom" and "Moulin Rouge" as musical and visual entertainments, have little time really for his "Romeo and Juliet" ("West Side Story" did it better) and fear this one has a heavy dose of "Thorn Birds" about it -- one of the most ridiculous novels I have ever read, albeit popular. Not that I have seen "Australia" yet. I am glad to see the Darwin air raids highlighted -- an episode much minimised at the time. Otherwise he seems to have a bit of a Chips Rafferty complex, from what I gather... Maybe I'll do my own post, but I'd rather see the movie first. Like Jim I hope it does the Oz industry good.”

Neil's comment raises a number of issues, some of which link to personal taste, as most of these things do in some way. To provide a basis for later discussion, I thought that should add some strictly factual material.

Neil referred to Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) as a commercial as well as artistic success. In fact, according to Mojo the global box office for this film was $US16.2 million. This means that this film, while one of the best known Australian movies because of its subject matter (the stolen generation) as well as its quality, was at best a modest commercial success.

Certainly it was a commercial success by comparison with recent Australian films. I am not sure that any Australian film made in the last two years has got to $US10 million box office, let alone $US16 million. Ten Canoes, a movie that really deserved a better fate and might have achieved it with different promotion, achieved a global box office according to Mojo of $US3.4 million.

Now compare this with Australian movies that have been commercially succesful.

Crocodile Dundee (1986) achieved a global gross of $US328.2 million, Crocodile Dundee II (1988) a global gross of $US$239.6 million, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001) a gross of $39.4 million. Let's take a few others. In some cases, Mojo only had US box office figures.

  • Mad Max (1980) earned $US8.8 million in the US.
  • The Man from Snowy River (1982) earned $US20.7 million in the US alone.
  • Gallipoli (1981) earned $US5.7 million in the US.
  • Mad Max Beyond Thunderdrome (1985) earned $US36.2 million in the US.
  • Strictly Ballroom (1993) earned $US11.7 million in the US.
  • The Dish (2001) earned $US16.6 globally upon release.

This is by no means a full list and excludes Australian made movies that are not identifiedly Australian like Babe.

To really make my case, I would have to go back and check every film in detail. However, my impression is that over the last fifteen years, and with a few exceptions, the Australian film industry has progressively lost its local audience without really adding international reach.

It no longer makes films that Australians want to watch to the point that to call a film Australian made is now a kiss of death. Perhaps the most damning criticism that I have heard is that the industry now really makes art house films and is a failure at that.

Contrast this to TV where Australian content is still in demand. TV has to make product that people want. There is almost no correlation between Australian TV and Australian film in terms of content.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The role of the individual in history

One of the things that I love about the study of history is the way in which the ever-changing past is slowly revealed. Ever-changing because our view of the past is affected by both the evidence available and the questions we ask of that evidence. Slowly revealed because the patterns of the past peep through as we work and are then stitched together to form a story that can be subject to further review, test and development.

Much history is by nature broad brush. We talk about trends, about forces, movements, major events and about individuals who are seen to be of particular importance. In doing so, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that history is about people.

Much of my own limited historical research, limited because of time, has a local, regional and family focus. I point and counterpoint between local, regional, national and international, but always within a frame set by my immediate interests.

In research and writing, I am constantly struck by the importance of the individual. This can be seen especially clearly at local level, but also holds at broader level.

The members of the Russian General Staff who persuaded the Tsar to play tennis at a critical time to keep him out of contact while they made decisions doomed the entire Imperial family and an Empire. The Generals could have gone a different route, the Tsar could have insisted on being involved.

I am also constantly struck by linkages, by the way in which past sets of actions set the basis for future actions.

In 1928, David Drummond as NSW Minister for Education in combination with S H Smith as head of the Department of Public Instruction pushed through the creation of the Armidale Teacher's College. In turn, this laid the base for the establishment of the New England University College in 1938.

Drummond's individual role was critical in all this. Yet his role rested on a whole series of prior actions by other individuals. Without those actions, neither the Teacher's College nor University would have come into existence.

At broader level, the continuing campaigns for improved country education created a climate that would support what was, at the time, an expensive initiative. At local level, the Armidale location could not have been chosen without previous individual actions that had led to the development of the small cathedral city as an education centre.

The fund raising campaigns that led to the establishment of The Armidale School and the New England Girls School in the 1890s meant that by 1928 Armidale had a significant public and private educational system and was already recognised as an educational centre.

Drill down below this, and you find that particular families such as the Whites played an important role in providing funds for the new Anglican schools. Later when funds had to be raised to finance the new University College - NSW legislation provided for the creation of new institutions, but only if a certain sum of money was raised first - it was again the White family who played a key funding role.

This is not a history of my own area. My point is that this pattern of individual action, of the painstaking creation of linkages between individuals over time and space, of the creation of committees and movements, is replicated time and time again when we come to look at positive changes over time.

Sometimes the contribution can be very small, attending public meetings or keeping committee minutes. However, the cumulative effect is substantial.

This holds true on the negative side as well.

Adolf Hitler could not have risen to power without the cumulative effect of thousands of individual decisions. Even Australian Prime Minister Billie Hughes played an important role through his effective agitation for the imposition of harsh peace terms on Germany at the end of the First World Way. Germany must be made to pay - and pay. We all paid as a consequence.

Just at present I think it helpful to remember that individuals do count not just in a philosophical sense, but as people who affect the course of history. We are all responsible.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Joshua Gans and our Internet community

I wanted to briefly record this one, in part so that I did not lose the reference, in part because I know that there is an interest in our immediate blogging world in research related to blogs and blogging.

In Blogging and piracy Professor Joshua Gans refers to a new academic paper discussing blogging. The post includes a link to the paper. I have yet to read the paper. However, it appears to use the livejournal community as a base, concluding that content rich blogs blogs attract more attention and links because of content, whereas less content rich blogs need to pay more attention to cite and discuss others so as to maintain status. Here the paper apparently makes a distinction between readers (content rich) and friends (links, cross-comments, etc).

I am sure that this is right. However, we also need to take into account the reason for blogging. While all bloggers are interested in things like their Technorati ranking (bloggers are human), to many bloggers it is the friends and interaction that makes blogging worthwhile, not the creation of content as such.

I follow what I think of as our blogging community quite closely. As part of this, I consciously track through comments and cross-links, watching the evolution of the community. Most recently we have seen the addition of a set of new bloggers who have added a new texture. I have picked this up in my material, as has Neil through his Shared Items.

I have used the term village many times to describe the process. In a personal sense, I do not think of the internet world as a mass. I cannot comprehend one hundred million blogs. Instead, I think in terms of people, each with their own unique features.

I can understand Tikno's flood, I may not agree with Ramana's sometimes negative view on the human condition, but I can see his viewpoint, I really laughed at Ben's descriptions of Bachelor's Day. Then, too, I had to withdraw from a discussion with Arthur Vandelay because I found that I wanted to argue, not discuss.

I cannot objectively say that our evolving village is in any way unique, although I think that in some ways it may be because of its breadth of views and the importance placed on manners. I can say that it makes an interesting study, one worthy of a paper in its own right. Certainly it makes for a fascinating sociological or anthropological study.


At Tikno's suggestion, I have added Google Translate to the side-bar to make material on this blog more accessible to those speaking other languages.

I am not sure why I did not do this before. I think the first time I thought of doing this, the number of languages covered was still very limited, the translations very odd. My thanks, Tikno, for the prompt.

Australia - Days with Rain

The following map shows the average number of days across Australia recording more than 1mm of rain. While the colouring may be a little hard to read, I thought that showed one aspect of Australia's climate in a rather useful way.rain1mmannBOM17 Nov 08

Australia is a dry continent, the driest after Antarctica. If you look at the map, you can see how rainfall increases in rings from the very dry centre of the continent, with the wetter areas forming a semicircle towards the coast in the north, east and south.

During droughts, the pale blue area expands, the darker blue areas contract. As you might expect given Australia's size, the country is affected by different weather systems.

One big concern with climate change is that the wetter belt in the south might move south, dropping its rain out to sea instead of on the continent. This is where the majority of Australians live, where the majority of agricultural production by value occurs.

The map also suggests why Australians may be so sport mad, still so outdoors. A fair bit of space with lots of sunshine encourages outdoors activities.

The map tells us a lot more as well. For that reason, I will repeat it with other material from time to time to help discussion on different aspects of Australia.


Lexcen kindly pointed me to this article in The Age (Melbourne) by Kenneth Davidson, Water waste of our dam money. The article bears directly upon some of the points I made in Saturday Morning Musings - why environmentalists (and other enthusiasts) are sometimes bad for the planet.

At this point I have not attempted a critical evaluation of Mr Davidson's views. However, they do point to the importance of balance and evidence in making assessments about perceived problems in regard to water supply.