Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two reasons why you should see Australia, the movie

Tonight the family finally went to see Australia, the movie. Even though it is late, I thought that I should record our reactions.

We actually went to see it with a degree of caution, one of those things that as Australians we thought that we should do. I, for one, had really wanted to go, but was then put off by some of the commentary.

Our reactions?

Wife and eldest daughter absolutely loved it. Youngest and I had reservations, but were still swept along.

Nearly every criticism of the movie is justified in some way.

It is too long. It tells the story not of Australia, but of one slice of Australia at a point in time. It is not historically accurate. Some of the acting is wooden. There are too many cliches.

This must sound devastating. Why, then, should you see it? In saying this I am thinking not just of Australians, but of people around the world. There are two main reasons.

First, it is visually stunning. Some of the scenes are quite spectacular.

Secondly, in spots it is very exciting, in others very moving. As an example, the cattle stampede was the most nerve racking, the best, I have ever seen. And the final scenes set during the bombing of Darwin reduced this family, and most of the audience, to something approaching tears.

Do not go to this movie expecting the greatest movie you have ever seen. It is not. But if you go accepting and expecting the weaknesses, you are likely to find that you will be carried along and come out with a movie experience that you will remember.

To put this in perspective, we went to see the latest James Bond movie some time ago because we wanted to. We saw Australia because we felt we should.

We enjoyed the Bond movie, but it just passed. Indeed, what was its name? We will remember Australia.

International audiences are in fact likely to enjoy Australia more than Australian audiences because they can see it just as a story without the intellectual and emotional baggage that Australians apply to the film.

Do see it if you get a chance and let me know what you think.


Dinner last night with some old friends, where the conversation turned to Australia, the movie.

Like Winton Bates in the comments, Debbie thought that it was really several stories loosely joined. There was also discussion on the stolen generations issue in the film, and some of the stereotyping of views.

However, one comment from Debbie captured, I think, the crux of Australia, the film. All those who have seen it agree that it is a flawed film. Despite that, Debbie has found herself talking about it it more than most movies she has seen. This family is exactly the same.

The movie is opening in Indonesia. Both Aldhis and Niar indicated in comments that they planned to see it. I am going to be very interested (if a little nervous) to hear their comments.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blogs and blogging - 2008 in perspective

Up very early again this morning. I have happily spent the last few hours browsing around, catching up on some of the blogs around me.

As in previous years, 2008 saw a number of my favourite blogs go into effective suspended animation including View Italy (March), the Legal Soapbox (May), the blonde canadian (August) and Demography Matters (September).

In the case of the Legal Soapbox, the suspension was due to LE's decision to transfer her writing to the new scepticslawyer blog, so we still have the benefit of her writing. In other cases, I think that progressive weariness set in.

This type of loss is inevitable, with newcomers taking their place. Winton Bates began blogging in March, Tikno July, Niar in September. The pattern of loss and gain among our respective favourites not only changes what we read, but also what we write about.

In my case, I increased my focus on India and Indonesia, the first because of Ramana, the second because of Tikno and Niar. By the way, I have not been able to access Ramana's blog and was going to email him to find out the problem. However, it seems that he has been moving to a new platform.

In addition to these changes, the global financial crisis drew me back into writing on economics, adding new economics blogs to my reading list.

I was already reading John Quiggin (yes, I know that I still have an outstanding article obligation) for an alternative view. Now I added other blogs including Michael Pettis's China Financial Markets, Harry Clarke and John Taplin.

One thing that I have found helpful with the economists' blogs are their blog rolls. I use these from time to time to find other views.

2008 saw the further rise of social networking tools. I became involved to some degree with some (Facebook), not others (Twitter).

Some fellow bloggers have suggested that these tools mean the end of blogging. I don't think that this is in anyway true. However, the new tools have certainly affected blogging - activities more suited to the tools have migrated to them, while the time devoted to blogging has been reduced, in some cases to zero. There are only so many hours in the day.

2008 also saw the further rise of what I think of as platform, syndicated or sponsored blogs. This is a messy way of putting it, because it mixes together several very different things.

scepticslawyer is one example. This blog combines the efforts of Helen Dale (scepticlawyer) and LE as writers, with Jacques Chester providing platform support. This allows the authors to concentrate on writing. I am not sure of the economics of the blog, although it does carry specific advertising that I assume is paid for. scepticslawyer was an immediate success because of the high quality of the writing.

A related but very different example is the Crikey blogs. In this case, Crikey gathered a number of individual blogs together under the one banner.

I find this quite useful because I had been following several of the blogs individually, including The Poll Bludger, Andrew Bartlett and Bob Gosford's Northern Myth, so I can now check content in one place. As a consequence, I also check some of the others.

2008 also saw the further rise of "blogs" in the mainstream media. I am using this term loosely to include the addition of comment sections to on-line stories.

In audience terms, this is quite an effective fight-back mechanism against the blogging world because it attracts certain groups of readers that might otherwise spend the time following blogs.

The progressive penetration of the mainstream media into the blogging world not only takes away readers from other and especially independent blogs, but also adds to what I now think of as the battle for content. There is only so much writing time to go round.

You can see this in my own case, given that in December I started a newspaper column as well as writing an article for a magazine. I am not unique, just the latest in a long line of people who have broadened from blogging into other forms of writing.

The time pressures faced by independents, together with alternative content demands, gives the multi-author blog an advantage. We independents all struggle to find writing time. You can see this in fact with the crikey blogs - posting is not always regular.

Catallaxy and Club Troppo are, I think, the oldest multi-author Australian blogs, although I have noticed that recently Catallaxy authorship seems to have largely shrunk to Jason Soon. Rafe himself now seems to be mainly writing for Club Troppo.

Both Catallaxy and Club Troppo occupy very particular spots in the Australian blogosphere, attracting their own audiences. Both are to be found on the blog lists of some of Australia's major independent bloggers. Lavartus Prodeo is another example on the Labor side.

Club Troppo itself has become something of a blogging establishment in Australia.

Outside specialist bloggers - Media Hunter is one example that has acquired a large audience from its Newcastle base - the number of very regular Australian bloggers writing broadly on economic, social and political issues is actually quite small. I haven't undertaken a proper study, but a remarkable number link and overlap in some way with Club Troppo.

Where does our own little blogging community fit within this evolving blogging scene?

In some ways we are, I think, a bit unusual.

To begin with, we are actually quite diverse, more so I think than most communities. We also span age groups in a way that is a little unusual.

Each regular blog has its own focus and readership, creating a series of overlapping circles.

Neil has, I think, the biggest and most diverse community and plays a role in keeping things together and creating overlaps. For my part, I am very happy with and grateful for my regular readers and commentators. They have given me value that I did not and could not have expected when I started blogging.

The peripheries of each circle, each community within our community, are very remote from each other in terms of attitudes and approach, so remote as to have nothing in common. Just as well, perhaps, that they remain separate or we might all end up in fights!

It is the constantly evolving overlaps between blogs that provide a central unity. Here there is also a sense of inclusiveness, of courtesy, that builds links. Our Indonesian friends are the most recent addition.

The community includes some very good writers, Marcellous and Thomas are examples. While content varies according to purpose, the content level is remarkably high by blogging standards.

As a collective community, we sit on the periphery of what I referred to in the context of Club Troppo as the Australian blogging establishment. Sometimes read by, but not part of. I do not think that this could be otherwise, given the diversity in views and indeed country among us.

From a blogging perspective, I am looking forward to 2009 just to see how things evolve.

The death of Alex Buzo in August 2006 established the link between Neil and myself. It is from this date just over two years ago that I mark in my mind as the establishment of our blogging community as I see it.

I accept that this is a very egocentric position, Neil already had an established place, so I am just looking from my perspective. Since then people have come and gone, but the community has continued to evolve. I have a feeling that 2009 is going to be another remarkable year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cultural change and indigenous Australia

In my last post Sunday Essay - academic research and indigenous ownership I referred to the interaction between historical research and current events in an Australian indigenous context. This post addresses the issue of culture and cultural change with a special but not exclusive focus on indigenous Australia.

As with so many of my longer posts, I write to try to clarify my own thinking.

In 541 AD, plague arrived for the first time in the great city of Constantinople. From then until around 750, it recurred round every generation, although the effects diminished somewhat with time.

The effects were quite devastating and changed the course of European history. At the time plague struck, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was at the height of its power. With a population of perhaps 19 million and 350,000 men under arms, its wealth and power had allowed the Emperor Justinian I to pursue his dream of recapturing the west to reform the full Roman Empire.

The plague struck hardest in the cities and especially Constantinople. While records are uncertain, perhaps 40 per cent of Constantinople's population died under the first onslaught.

The plague killed soldiers, sailors, merchants, artisans, administrators and peasants alike. The Empire was impoverished, surviving only because of the strength of its institutions.

Something similar happened to the Aboriginal population after 1788. Here European diseases spread far beyond the initial settlement in waves as adjoining groups met, transmitting disease from one to the other. 

We do not know how long it took for natural resistance to build, nor what proportion of the Aboriginal population died. However, it is likely to have been substantial.

The effects on Aboriginal cultures, by this term I mean simply all the learned things, must have been substantial.

In the Byzantine case, the loss of skills as well as wealth led to a decline in art, building and literacy itself. In pre-literate indigenous society where culture depended upon knowledge and skills directly transmitted between generations, the effects were likely to have been just as significant.

We know that Aboriginal cultures were never static, nor were they uniform across the continent. They varied depending upon resource availability and were affected by things such as climate and climatic change. There were major differences, for example, between the large and relatively sedentary populations on the resource rich North Coast of what would become NSW and the Aborigines of the western plains. 

Disease, the first shock from the new European settlement, was followed by a second shock, the arrival of the new settlers spreading in waves across the continent.

We have a modern tendency to couch this in terms of invasion and war. Certainly Aboriginal communities are entitled to argue that it was. However, the use of these terms in a general sense is likely to mislead, even twist thinking.

Continuing with the Byzantine example, there is no comparison between the European settlement of Australia and the constant wars of the Byzantium period not just between Empires, but also in response to wave after wave of invasions by new peoples. During more troubled periods, the combination of war with plague could see entire areas de-populated, re-populated, de-populated again in periods of time equivalent to the span of Australian history.

Focusing just on indigenous cultures, the first waves of settlers did not of themselves destroy those cultures. We now know that while traditional life was affected, it continued as indigenous people adapted in a variety of ways to change, adding some things, retaining others. 

The patterns here varied greatly between and even within areas and can only be understood at local level. Both the continuity of indigenous life and the variations in patterns across areas were largely ignored in the first local histories that came to be written, these were totally Eurocentric, but were picked up in settler records and reminiscences.

The better local and regional histories are now drawing this previously hidden history out. As they do, the Aborigines emerge from their often presented role as victims to become intelligent people with their own often sardonic view of the strange Europeans, trying to respond as best they could to change.

The thing that really affected the various indigenous cultures were subsequent Government policies, policies that varied greatly between jurisdictions and were themselves affected by the timing of the moving wave of new settlement across the country.

In thinking about this and the affect on culture, we need to put aside questions of right and wrong, even the why, and ask instead what happened, what impact did it have, recognising that there is no single uniform national pattern.

We also need to think about the Aborigines as people with their own responses. They were not mere passive victims, but people responding to change in ways that sometimes frustrated and even confused the authorities.

In writing about this, I want to focus on a small number of things in a NSW context, since this is the constitutional entity that I know best.

As a first and general point, all minority cultures define themselves in part through comparison with the dominant culture. This is true of the country movements of which I was part and about which I write so often. It is equally true of the Aborigines.

In 1788 there was no such thing as Aboriginal. The Aborigines did not see themselves as an entity, but as very different peoples. The very concepts of "Aboriginal" and "Aboriginality" are cultural constructs created out of interaction between the newly dominant European culture and its governing institutions and various Aboriginal groups. Further, those concepts have evolved with time, acquiring a life of their own, so that the concepts themselves feed back into discussion.

We can think of this in terms of policies and attitudes within the dominant culture, the responses within the minority culture, and the interaction between the two.

To illustrate this, let me take a simple example, the NSW system of reserves and missions. Again, I am concerned with results, not the reasons for the policies.

In simple terms, the reserve system created a separate sense of being Aboriginal.

Those inside the reserve system often forced together from different groups developed a sense of Aboriginality, of being Aboriginal as compared to being a member of their traditional group alone. Those outside the reserve system were more likely to identify with and merge with the broader community.

By emphasising distinctiveness, by creating barriers to integration, official policies actually created the very thing - a continuing and distinctive Aboriginal presence - that in some ways the policies were intended to avoid.

I had to laugh.

I was reading a chapter from a history of the reserve system. I found it by accident during a search on a different matter and unfortunately did not keep the reference. I will try to find it again, it was a thesis.  

Under pressure from local European residents, the Aborigines Protection Board created a new reserve. However, it was used not by local Aborigines, they stayed where they were, but by in-comers who often stayed for short periods. The Board had in fact created a transit point that was of great assistance to those visiting other areas! 

I could replicate this story by examples from other areas. However, the reserve example does illustrate my point about the way in which attitudes and policies in the dominant community feed into indigenous responses, leading to continuing cultural effects.

This is as true today as it was during the life of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board.

I do not fully understand just what current dominant community attitudes and policies are doing in cultural terms, although my feeling is that they are reinforcing and creating difference in just the same ways as in the past.

I actually have the dreadful feeling that current policies may in fact be worse.           

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday Essay - academic research and indigenous ownership

During the last week or so I have spent some time browsing around trying to fill some gaps in my knowledge of the distribution of Aboriginal language groups in New England. I had downloaded some of my posts with the thought that I might actually be able to write a properly referenced paper.

Looking at the material I had written, the main thing that stood out were the gaps.

I am very nervous about writing in this area in part because I don't always know about the most recent work. There is a real problem for those of us researching from home because so much of the academic material is behind pay-walls. This is fine for those in university environments who can access material through university library subscriptions, but I cannot afford to pay out cash to access individual items unless I know that the item in question is absolutely critical. And in most cases I don't know this until I have read the article. Sort of a chicken and egg problem.

I am also nervous because the question of the distribution of languages and people is now bound up with ownership questions.

I have no real problem with the modern habit of paying tribute to the traditional owners of the land, although I find it sometimes ritualistic. But who were the owners?

At one level, this should not matter.

Traditional Aboriginal life was structured very differently from conventional models built into current thinking, with family groups aggregating to larger clans or hordes linked on kinship lines that then aggregated into language groups.

Professor Peter Austin notes that the southern two thirds of Australia plus eastern Arnhem Land belonged to a single language family called Pam-Nyungan. Within this, there were a multiplicity of languages that shaded into each other.    

From a historical viewpoint, languages and relationships between languages are interesting because of the clues they can provide to the changing pattern of Aboriginal history.

Much has been lost. So far as New England is concerned, the 1970s stand out in some ways as the last lost opportunity.

Peter Austin's short history of research into the Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) language from New England's Western Slopes and Plains records that the Late Stephen Wurm visited and collected some material in 1955. At the time there was one fluent speaker, a small number of others with a reasonable knowledge of the language.

Professor Austin also quotes Arthur Capell, someone who had been working in the indigenous language area since at least 1945. In 1963, Capell wrote of the Gamilaraay:

The speakers are mostly elderly but possess considerable knowledge. SAW has recorded some 300-500 items and a fair amount of structural information, along with 12 minutes of tape recording. Up to 50 speakers have been located, Gamilaroi is one of a number of related dialects in NW N.S.W. and a comparative study of the whole series of dialects might well be made.    

Nothing appears to have been done. By the time Professor Austin began his studies in the 1980s these speakers had been lost. The language has gone through a form of revival, but while a revived language may be important in cultural terms, it is not the same as the original.

Despite the lost opportunity, and this is not unique to the Gamilaraay/ Kamilaroi, the earlier work on languages can still tell us a lot in combination with other things. Yet this brings us to the ownership problem that I alluded to earlier.

The question of ownership has become very important because traditional ownership now carries with it questions of rights, power and prestige that can lead to serious conflict, claim and counter claim between and within communities.

Traditional indigenous structures means that there is no clear correlation between ownership then and our current concepts of ownership. Take, as an example, the ritual phrase used in central Sydney - "We acknowledge the Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation who are the traditional owners of the land on which  ...". There are variants, but this is pretty typical.

Leave aside questions such as what is a clan, what is a nation, where did ownership actually rest? At least everybody seems to broadly agree on territory in this case.

But given that "ownership" can now carry with it questions of rights, powers and prestige, what do you do when there is conflict over ownership?

This creates a problem for me as a historian trying to understand, because what I write may upset people and become cannon fodder in local disputes. It is sad but I think true that a fair bit of recent historical and archaeological research has been carried out not in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but in support of or even opposition to claims about rights.

I have tiptoed around this issue for a while. I think that it's time to place it front and centre. We have a mess.

The actions of various Government institutions pushed different Aboriginal groups together, damaging or even destroying traditional kin relationships. We failed to carry out the research at the time that might have helped us resolve some of the complex relationship questions.

More recently, we have created structures that have made the issue of belonging and ownership very important. So far as NSW is concerned, State and Federal economic policies have encouraged rural population loss. While this affects all, Aboriginal in-migration has led to further mixing.

Many NSW Aboriginal communities are riven with tensions between families, between originals and new arrivals, between groups with rival claims. The LALCS (Local Aboriginal Land Councils) control certain lands, but who controls (or should control) the LALCS? The very question of Aboriginality is a growing issue. Are we going to introduce DNA testing to establish who is entitled to what? Some indigenous people think that we should.

Just to make the point a little further, let me quote from an email I received. I have disguised the places.

The community in blank has a shocking name for not working together that has spread around the country. While working in another blank, the Elders group informed me that I was up against a rock and hard place working with them - they don't have any communication with the blank mob but keep to relatives who leave blank and come to visit them ..

Or to paraphrase a report from another place. I say paraphrase because I do not have the original.

They (the new arrivals) do not recognise the Elders. There is no respect. We have tried to teach our children this (respect), to get them to go to school, to work hard The new arrivals destroy all this.

Again, another disguised quote:

There is a constant running debate about tribal boundaries in and around blank. The blank mob claim it as theirs - they descend from (name omitted). The blank family are from another blank and have control of the local LALC (why are they still voted in?)

My point in all this is one that I have made before, we need to spend more time disentangling issues, more time getting information, more time asking questions, more time focused on the variety in indigenous conditions, less time arguing fixed positions.

In all this, we need to focus also on the positives. To quote from a paper written by Maria Lane just before her death, one element in a series of posts that Joe Lane and I were talking about:

In 2007, a record 9,370 Indigenous students were enrolled at universities around the country.  This represented a forty per cent increase in award-level enrolments in ten years, a healthy average increase of close to four per cent per year.   The increase in enrolments in higher-level courses has been even greater.  Almost two-thirds of Indigenous students enrolled were female and, in fact, a higher proportion of Indigenous women were enrolled at universities in 2007 than non-Indigenous ‘domestic’ men.    These figures are set to rise markedly by 2020.

Remember, in 1965 there were just two indigenous university graduates.

Despite the problems and tensions, I will continue with my research if only because I want to understand. However, I would plead for more rigour and less emotion, less special pleading, in our discussion on indigenous issues. 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - more on the media

My post More on perceptions, selection and bias in the Australian media drew an informed comment from Michael Gorey, the editor of The Border Watch in Mount Gambier.

Michael's personal web site can be found here, his blog on newspaper matters here. Michael began his career as a journalist in, I think, 1987 and has had extensive experience with the non-metro press.

I plan to use Michael's comments to extend my arguments with a special focus on New England media's newspapers. However, I want to set the scene first, so bear with me while I ask you to do something.

First click here and then on the NSW tab. A window will open up showing all the Rural Press owned newspapers in NSW. A lot, aren't there?

What will be less clear unless you really know your geography, is that with the exception of a few independent community papers, Rural Press owns every New England newspaper in Newcastle and Hunter, the Northern Tablelands, Western Slopes and the Mid North Coast up to Coffs Harbour. This is an almost complete monopoly.

Now click here and you will find the APN papers. APN owns major papers from Coffs Harbour through the Northern Rivers into Southern Queensland. Two companies thus control New England's newspaper press, each with something approaching a monopoly in specific regional areas.

If we compare this with 1968, the comparison point I used in my previous post, the Newcastle daily was owned by John Fairfax and controlled out of Sydney.

The other four Northern dailies (Maitland Mercury, Northern Daily Leader, Grafton Examiner, Northern Star) cooperated as they had done since the 1920s through the Associated Northern Dailies. This provided a joint marketing platform. They and the other generally locally owned New England papers also cooperated through the Country Press Association, an active and influential organisation representing the independence and interests of the country press.

As I said with the previous post, this is not a history post. However,this brief background sets a context for my discussion of Michael's comments.

Michael wrote:

Country papers: Rural Press has cut them to the bone and introduced syndicated content which nobody wants to read. Their niche is local news. Those papers that also own the web space will do well.

Michael's comment here is the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Both Rural Press and APN Regional have been very profitable entities, yielding better returns than the major dailies. This return has been based in part on their local monopolies, in part on their business models.

The New England and country press and, more broadly, the country media have not always been so profitable.

The press operated as a business, but they did not see their key roles in business terms. They had to make money, but the delivery of news and the representation of the local community was the key, not a constant increase in shareholder returns.

All the New England media - press, radio and later TV - faced similar commercial difficulties.

Because of the research I was doing at the time, I read the board papers of the Armidale Express, Broadcast Amalgamated (the Tamworth Higginbotham family controlled company that ran the New England radio network) and the first years of TV New England.

The same issues recurred. How to meet the increasing fixed costs imposed by Government regulations and by changing technology? How to spread maintenance costs? How to find more cost effective ways of accessing city and national advertisers?

A small example to illustrate the point. Changes to NSW industrial legislation in the 1950s required the Armidale Express to install a staff toilet. This may sound a small and very reasonable thing. However, the capital costs involved in modifying the building were substantial and were the subject of considerable Board discussion. The Board worried about their ability to maintain local independence in the face of increasing fixed costs.

They were right to worry.

To improve economics, the Board agreed a little later to merge The Express with the Sommerlad controlled Northern Newspapers, creating an entity with papers in Armidale, Glen Innes and Inverell, plus a 50 per cent share in 2AD Armidale.

Then a little later again, Rural Press made an unsolicited bid. I actually tried to fight this takeover, in part because I thought the price was too low, in part to preserve Northern Newspaper's independence because I saw the move as yet another loss of New England independence. I had enough proxies to force a very long meeting - the cups set out for morning tea went unused as the shareholder meeting dragged on and on - but in the end I lost.

I was in fact right on both counts. However, that is little consolation.

Rural Press greatly improved the economics of the papers it acquired.

It centralised many activities including printing, so the Express as an example came to be printed in Tamworth. It cut news gathering costs. It introduced network supplements, the syndicated content that Michael refers to, that increased advertising and bulk. And, finally, the size of news content in the paper was directly linked to the volume of advertising, not the volume of news. This was not necessarily immediately clear because of all the other stuff included in the papers.

I will not deal with Michael's comment about web space in this post because I want to make it the subject of a full post. For the moment, I would simply note that Rural Press has been very profitable, but this has come at a local cost.

Michael continued:

Reporter opinion: There should be no such thing. Newspapers should report, not commentate. I know there's a trend towards "campaign journalism" especially at APN papers, but I don't agree with it.

Now here I absolutely agree with Michael, while also disagreeing with him at a different level. This second level raises a number of complexities that bear upon my concern about selection, perception and bias in the Australian media.

Reporting is reporting. If a journalist wants to commentate, then (like me) they can start blogging or write opinion columns. If they are dealing with news, then they should just report. This actually requires a fair degree of discipline, something that I feel is lacking today.

The question of newspaper campaigning is more complicated.

The relationship between the country media and their audience is a complicated one that is very different from the city equivalent.

To begin with, there is a very different personal relationship in that country journalists live in the community in a very different way.

Growing up in Armidale, the Express editor (Roy Blake) lived one block up, half a block in the opposite direction lived the main Express journalist (Mr White). A little later on the opposite corner to the Blakes lived the woman in love with a radio station reporter. In two out of three cases, I was friendly with the daughter. One of my nicknames, Chalky, comes from my friendship at primary school with Margaret White.

This is a completely different world, one in which personal relationships have to be taken into account. The type of journalism practiced in Sydney may simply tear a community apart. This means that different set of ethical and professional issues are involved.

Country papers are also journals of record and voices for their communities in ways inconceivable to their metro cousins. This is where issues of campaigning come in.

The Sommerlads were a German family who migrated to Tenterfield. Ernest Sommerlad became a reporter on the Inverell paper and then with assistance from friends purchased the Glen Innes paper. The Sommerlads became one of the major New England press families, one inextricably linked with my own family.

In 1950, Sommerlad published MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD. A Handbook on Journalism, Broadcasting, Propaganda, Public Relations and Advertising (Angus & Robertson). In this, I think the first ever Australian book on journalism, Sommerlad discussed in part the relationships between press and community.

We need to set a context here.

A strong supporter of self-government for the North or New England, Sommerlad campaigned actively for country development and the new state cause, using the editorial columns in his papers as one vehicle. In Mightier than the Sword he explained, simply, that part of the role of a newspaper was to campaign for the interests of its own area. The paper and the people it served were inextricably mixed.

This is a little different from Sydney's Granny Herald where the paper is happy to fulminate on a variety of issues that really have little to do with Sydney's concerns. However, in both cases the same issue arises: how do your make a distinction between the paper's editorial position and reporting? One reflects views, the second is meant to be factual, objective.

I think that the key is to be conscious of the different roles. Once, as has happened recently with some of the SMH's campaigns, reporting and campaign become mixed, then there is a problem.

I want to finish by linking the discussion back to Rural Press and APN.

A few years back I was on the periphery of marketing Country Week to Rural Press.

Developed by Armidale's Peter Bailey, the Country Week concept was simple enough. Given the systemic problems stopping Sydney people moving to country New South Wales, let's get all country areas to combine in a single annual marketing push to sell the country story to Sydney residents. The response from Rural Press illustrated the problems created by current media structures.

In the past, the need to individually approach multiple papers would have been a problem. In theory, concentration of ownership might help. The reality was very different.

To begin with, we had two main owners, Rural and APN. Take one, and you lost the other. This one was fairly clear cut - Rural Press had better NSW coverage, so APN was out even if this meant loss of Northern Rivers coverage.

We then faced two problems. Rural Press explained that they could not direct their papers' editorial content. They were prepared to consider broad sponsorship so long as we could guarantee a cash return from advertising and, as part of this, would let their papers know. After that, it was up to the papers and to the amount of advertising that could be placed with individual papers.

In the 1919 Victor Thompson editor of the Tamworth Observer (now Victor ThompsonNorthern Daily Leader) and with the support of his board began planning a campaign for a new state for Northern New South Wales. This quickly grew into a newspaper campaign involving 120 newspapers.

With modern ownership structures, this type of coordinated campaign is now very difficult.

The fact that the owners leave formal editorial independence to their editors means that you still have to coordinate at local level. However, when push comes to shove, those editors must still meet their revenue targets. Further, broader non-local campaigns that raise corporate issues do end being considered at head office notwithstanding editorial independence, if only because such campaigns involve cost.

For Thompson to do today what he did in the early 1920s he would probably need to get senior management, possibly board, support from Fairfax (Rural Press is now part of Fairfax) and APN. Both companies would need to at least agree to let editors participate. He would then need, as earlier, to sell the idea to individual editors. I don't think that this possible.

I will pause here. I hope that I have at least fleshed out some of the issues involved.


Rod Kirkpatrick's history of the NSW country press is entitled Country Conscience. That was what the country press was and, to a degree, still is.

One of the sad side effects of the growth in concentration of ownership of the country media was an inevitable decline in the role and influence of the Country Press Association as the Association struggled with changing economic and ownership conditions.

The Association's history, Serving the Country Press 1900 - 2000 by Lloyd Sommerlad with a chapter by David Sommerlad, charts some of this.

Reading between the lines, the growing influence of Rural Press led to APN's withdrawal, leaving the Association without representation north of the Bellinger Valley. APN rejoined, but seems to have left again because none of its papers are included in the latest membership list.

In a comment on this post, Michael refers to the young age of some of the country journalists and editors. There is, to my mind, a substantial difference between the old country press where editors had a long term commitment to their community and the new world where placement at a paper is one step in a career path within a large organisation.

Has the country press maintained its soul? I'm not sure.

I do know from reading many of the papers that the idea of service to the community is still there. However, there is less continuity and, I feel, cooperation across areas.

From a narrow New England perspective, the changes that have taken place continue New England's fragmentation. Rural Press looks to Sydney, APN to South East Queensland. Neither looks to New England.

Friday, December 26, 2008

More on perceptions, selection and bias in the Australian media

In Personal reflections - indigenous Australia and the variety of Australian life I stated that I found the picture of Australia presented by the mainstream media very limited. I suggested that the reasons for this were complex, but came back to the need to fit stories that appealed to the greatest number in limited space.

In response, Secret Admirer wrote:

To borrow from your words, I too believe that "the picture of Australia presented by the mainstream media" is "limited" for "complex" reasons. I'd like you to explore that complexity more. The picture in areas is distorted, wildly so. It may have been ever thus, but there's a hell of a lot of rubbish, spin, hype and delusion to get through to make better sense of things when the picture is so distorted. What say you?

I thought that in this post I would take up Secret Admirer's challenge, pointing to some of the reasons why main stream media portrayal of Australia is so limited and partial. I am talking about Australia, but the same issue applies in other countries and for similar reasons.

I think that this is an important issue because the mainstream media is the main source of information about Australia for most Australians. I may be wrong, but my perception is that Australians' real knowledge of their own country has declined somewhat in recent years. I blame this in part upon a media that has become more standardised, more homogenised.

In writing about perception, selection and bias in the media, I am not talking about political bias. This does exist, but is far from new. Rather, my  focus is on the changing nature of the media as media, and the way this affects what we hear, read and see.

The Importance of Time

To start with a point that may surprise you. There are only twenty four hours in a day. Not that the twenty four hours will be a surprise, just the fact that I make this my starting point in exploring perception, selection and bias in the media.

Prior to the advent of free to air TV, most Australians got their news from the print media, from radio and, to a lesser extent, from newsreels in the cinemas. There were also the various news magazines read by a smaller group.

In those pre TV days, it was not unusual for people to spend several hours a day reading papers and listening to radio news. TV changed this because it introduced a major time competitor. By the 1980s, our TV hours had reached a practical maximum, squeezing other activities including reading of all types.

Videos, computers, pay TV, multimedia and the internet were added to this mix during the 1980s and 1990s. Each was a new competitor for our time, placing pressure on the time shares held by existing media forms.

Audiences began to fragment - the concept of niche media markets became popular. Worse, the new media forms moved from attacking audience share to attacks on the advertising base and especially the classified advertisements that provided the rivers of gold supporting the newspaper press.

These competitive pressures are central to changing patterns of perception, selection and bias in the Australian media.

All media forms are now fighting to retain market share and to extract the maximum dollars they can from whatever share they have.   

The Media Business

These changes in viewing, listening and reading patterns as well as the emergence of new service delivery forms interacted with other changes to transform the structure of Australian media.

The Australian media has never been static. However, the changes over the last forty years have been quite profound.

If we take NSW in 1968 as a snapshot in time, Sydney had three commercial TV channels plus the ABC. Sydney had two morning newspapers, two afternoon papers plus the Sunday papers. Sydneysiders listened to ABC radio (I think that there was only one band) plus the commercial AM channels. Cross-media ownership rules restricted the number of media outlets that any one owner could have.

Outside Sydney, and with the exception of Newcastle where the local daily was owned by the Sydney Morning Herald, each town had its own local newspaper. Some proprietors owned more than one paper, but the papers were all country and generally locally owned.

The Financial Review and the still relatively new Australian provided national as compared to state or locally based news to city and country alike.

Country radio was provided by ABC though local and regional stations that also carried statewide and national feeds, as well as a single commercial radio stations. These were networked in a variety of ways, carried some network feed, but were generally locally or regionally owned. TV was provided by ABC transmitters and a number of relatively small locally owned papers.

I suggested that issues associated with perception, selection and bias in the media were not new. The various media outlets including the Sydney papers were very parochial and took lines determined by their owners and editors. However, of itself this provided some variety.

This structure was largely torn down over the next twenty years.

This is not a history piece, although as history the story is a fascinating if sometimes depressing one. Empire building and competitive games meant that the big were replaced by the very big, the small by the big. Our media ownership is now concentrated in a way that would have seemed inconceivable in 1968.

The Impact of Competitive Pressure

Media outlets have always been selective in what they cover in terms of their perception of the importance of the story to their audience. Those living in country NSW who have experienced both the Sydney bias of Granny Herald and the difficulties involved in getting any form of coverage for non-Sydney developments can attest to this.

This notwithstanding, the Herald and others including the country press took their professional reporting roles very seriously. This has become far more difficult to do for two reasons.

The first reason is the increased size and complexity of modern life. This means that there are more potential stories in general, as well as stories that require greater depth in knowledge, more resources, more time, to properly cover.

The second reason is that the resources available to cover stories have actually shrunk in real terms in the face of the need to reduce costs and to achieve stated profit targets.

There is something of a chicken and egg problem here. To my mind, reductions in reporting that began before the latest round in competitive pressures hit the sector actually weakened the media's ability to respond to growing competitive pressure. Now the media can only respond to the latest changes by further cost cutting.

The thirty second grab and the rise of infotainment

We actually have a subscription to the Sydney Morning Herald. At the moment, I generally read this on the train on my way to work. The first thing I do is quickly check all the various magazine section just in case there is anything relevant and then throw them out.

We live in a world of infortainment. We also live in a world where opinion has come to substitute for news.

At press level, the various papers have responded to the growing fragmentation of the market place by introducing a variety of magazines and supplements intended to attract niche attention and the advertising revenue that goes with it.

More and more of the papers, more and more of the writing and journalistic resources, are tied up with what is really infotainment. Rural Press in particular has made this a real art form.  

The position is worse with TV where news coverage, especially on the commercial channels but even on ABC and SBS, has deteriorated. I may come in for criticism here, so let me try to explain.

Each day I follow the just breaking news streams on ABC and the Herald, also checking the Australian from time to time. I also listen to Radio National and News Radio, as well as Sydney 702. We watch SBS news, often shifting to ABC news at 7pm in the middle of the SBS program. If stories break like the terrorist attack on Mumbai, we may shift to CNN or BBC World Service.

I do all this for professional reasons, but it also makes me very conscious of the weaknesses in reporting.

The central problem with TV news is its reliance on the visual. This limits main stories to those where visual footage is available.

This affects international stories, there is a dreadful sameness to much of the coverage across channels, but is devastating for regional Australia stories. The problem here is that non-metro stories generally lack the visual material to warrant inclusion on the main TV channels.

Sometimes this is a good thing.

The night riot some years ago in the main street of Armidale by Aboriginal youths who essentially bailed up patrons in Beardy Street hotels for hours until police reinforcements could be brought in was, potentially, a major story.

This was not a small affray. The area of Beardy Street in question covers just two blocks. There were hundreds of people involved. Yet not one mention of the matter made the metro media. Had it been Redfern, there would have been huge coverage.

I say that this was a good thing because the absence of media coverage allowed things to be worked through without the media glare. Yet the same thing holds with many other stories. What is news depends totally on the immediate availability of new resources.

The loss of a few hundred jobs at Geelong in the car industry, a factory closure in Sydney, gets national coverage because the media is close. The equivalent elsewhere does not.

Some years ago, the closure of an umbrella factory in Sydney received major media coverage. I was struck at the time because the Northern Tablelands had lost 1,200 meat working jobs over over the previous twelve months. One was news, the other necessary structural adjustment.

The general problem is made worse by the rise of the thirty second grab, the packaging of a tiny piece of footage designed to meet the programming needs of TV news. We all know this. Yet we simply accept it. 

Reporter perception and bias

Nothing that I have said to this point links to standard complaints that reporting is biased because reporters (I put commentators in a different class) have a left wing bias. I am arguing that we have a systemic problem.

However, it is true in my view that there is a bias among reporters and that this influences the selection and presentation of stories. I just think the bias is a little different from the usual simplified presentations.

I have to be very careful what I say here. I like journalists. I do not accept many of the criticisms that have been made of journalism as a profession, although I do have a problem with our current tendency to classify journalism as in some ways part of "communications".

Obviously journalists have to communicate. However, their core role has nothing to do with communications, everything to do with reporting.

My big complaint about many current journalists is that they do not know Australia nor its history very well. They simply present stories within currently accepted nostrums.

Let me try to illustrate with the story of Tamworth and its Sudanese refugees.

This story, the apparent rejection by Tamworth City Council of plans to settle Sudanese refugees in Tamworth, broke like a fire storm. All the metro media interpreted it within a racist frame. From there, the story went round the world doing Australia damage.

By contrast, I tried to dig down to see what the issues were. I found a far more complex story, one in which there were racist overtones among some local residents but, and far more importantly, one that also showed that Tamworth was struggling with weaknesses in the very resettlement program itself.

This was, to my mind, a classic case in which reporting actually posed a threat to results because of the bias in reporting.


In this post I have argued that problems of perception, selection and bias in the Australian media have increased. I have also argued that this is due to systemic change in the media itself.

Returning to my own personal biases, I feel that this has led to diminished reporting on Australia as a whole. I see this as a problem because Australians' perceptions of their country are formed in part by what they read.      

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Reflections 2008

Many of the things that I wanted to finish before Christmas are still undone. Still, that's not new. I will do some last minute shopping this afternoon, and that's it.

To me, Christmas is a time to reflect and feel grateful for the blessings I have been given. By contrast, New Year is much more action focused because of my cursed habit (I cannot help myself) of preparing to do lists!

From my perspective, there have been many blessings this year, despite sometimes problems.

I have my family, always a key. There is food in the fridge. There was the friendship I was given during the year, including my old and new friends in the blogging world.

I also made at least some progress in terms of the objectives I set myself earlier in the year and especially in writing.

My first weekly column appears in this morning's Armidale Express. I haven't tried this before, so don't know how it will go. I have plenty to write about, but there is a real difference between writing for print publication and the blogging style.

Oddly, blogging is more anonymous than print. Blogging reaches a far larger audience than print. However, outside our small immediate blogging community, visitors are very dispersed and drawn by particular searches.

By contrast, writing in the way that I do through a personal print column means exposing my views and foibles to a local audience many of whom know me, or at least know the name. I find this oddly uncomfortable.

With a blog, you can edit or even delete articles. They may still exist in cache form, but generally they are gone. With print, they are frozen for ever, or at least as long as that edition of the paper survives in some archive.

While Christmas is a joy for many, it can also be a very lonely time for some. It can also be hard to maintain joy if you are worried about money or even getting food on the table. This has in fact become more difficult as Christmas has become more of a secular celebration.

I love the mythology surrounding Christmas. However, the focus on Santa, presents and celebration also sometimes focuses more attention on what we don't have rather, than those things that we do.

So while I count my own blessings, I also try to think of those that are less fortunate, including those who are grieving for lost ones. Here my attention was captured by a post from Tikno in memory of his brother, one of the most moving tributes that I have read.

Tikno's brother died twelve months ago. He did not have a lot, but what he did have he shared with his family.

May you and yours have a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Personal reflections - indigenous Australia and the variety of Australian life

I find the picture of Australia presented by the mainstream media very limited. The reasons for this are complex, but come back to the need to fit stories that appeal to the greatest number in limited space.

This is not limited to the Australian media. Try the English language of edition of Al Jazeera. Yes, there are stories there that we in Australia do not get, but the general coverage is still quite limited.

I am very conscious of this because my particular interests require me to dig below the surface to check facts and determine patterns. Let me illustrate.     

The Murray-Darling basin is in drought? Wrong, parts are.

I see from the Northern Daily Leader that 2008 was Tamworth's wettest year since 1984, while 2007 was also above average. Other New England centres also experienced average to above average rainfall. So this part of the basin at least is breaking out of drought.    

In a series of posts triggered by my own China visit I argued for closer relations between China and Regional Australia. This is in fact happening.

As a simple example, earlier in December,more than 300 people, including students, parents and teachers, attended a normal_Wuxi University of New England awards ceremony at Wuxi South Ocean College in Jiangsu Province, China.

UNE’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graham Webb, and Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of The Professions, Professor Victor Minichiello, presented nine awards to Chinese students of the College.

In his speech at the ceremony, Professor Webb said that the awards “acknowledge high-achieving students of Wuxi South Ocean College who by their hard work and application have achieved top results in their academic studies, as well as those students who have shown outstanding leadership qualities”.

A pathway program between UNE and Wuxi South Ocean College allows Wuxi students to undertake 2-2.5 years of study at the College (including English language studies) and then transfer with advanced standing into a Bachelor of Business degree program for their final 1.5-2 years of study.

Numbers of students in the pathway program have steadily increased since it began in 2005. “This year we received 180 new students for the UNE program, and the demand for students wanting to study at UNE is growing,” said President Zeng of Wuxi South Ocean College.

Both these examples are from my local area. Both point to the complexity of life once we move from the generalities to the more complex realities of life at local level across our various countries.

Just at the moment I am doing a short term assignment work in an office with a a substantial number of Australian Aboriginal staff. I feel more at home with them than I have in many other assignments.


It's not just that I know a bit about indigenous Australia. That's a second order issue. It really has nothing to do with how I feel.

I feel at home because most come from country New South Wales, many from New England, as I do. Really for the first time since coming to Sydney, I am working with people who understand how I feel on certain issues, who tell me the crap as they see it in current approaches. And it equates to the crap as I see it.  

The motivation effects on my own work are quite remarkable. I am fighting to get a decent result for people who I see as my own. This is not an objective professional response, just straight emotion.

I do not know that I can do it, but I will at least try.           

Monday, December 22, 2008

The writing of history

Note to readers: I began this post Sunday, then more or less finished it yesterday, but did not post because of other pressures. However, I am still bringing it up with yesterday's date. 

Neil had a rather good post on history and historiography, the study of the writing of history. I commend it to you. Because I took my Sunday Essay of line, I thought that I might respond to Neil's post with a few brief comments on the writing of history from my own perspective.

In my historical research, I try within limitations of time and skill to write as a professional historian. What do I mean? Simply this: I try to approach the task in a professional fashion.

Problems of perception and bias are inescapable in history, as they are in all human thought.

Problems start with the selection of the questions to be studied.

While the past is always with us in often unseen ways, that is part of the fascination of history, history itself exists only so long as we study or write about it. Entire areas of history vanish as fashions change. They simply cease to exist. The past continues, history vanishes.

Bias continues in the way we approach the questions we have selected for study. Our own mental mud maps - the way we see the world - influences not just the questions we select, but the way we approach the evidence itself.

A particular issue arises when we come to deal with the way people thought or interacted. It is relatively easy, I say relatively easy advisedly, to deal with events, to say that x did y. But why did x act in that way is a far harder question.

It is also relatively easy to deal with impacts, the results of decisions, although here too the same problem arises. We may be able to demonstrate that the Great Depression created unemployment, but how did the unemployed respond?

In managing these issues, we rely on our own feelings and imagination, the things that make us human and give us a link to others.

This is a very imperfect measure. If, as is often the case, we struggle to understand those around us, how can we understand those who lived in a different world?

I was struck by this at one stage when I looked in detail at the English Bloomsbury set, a group of then very fashionable English intellectuals. 

I first read Harrod's biography of John Maynard Keynes when I was at school. It appealed greatly.

At the time I was under the influence of the ideal of the Elizabethan man, the complete all-rounder. Keynes seemed to emplify this. He was the complete all-rounder in an intellectual sense.

As I read into the Bloomsbury set I actually found them quite repulsive. There was an intellectual narrowness, a bigotry, that I found hard to accept. I also found the description of of the family life that so many of them had experienced very strange indeed. This was not my world.

My point here is that I can write about their ideas, but struggle to really understand them as people. I cannot get inside their heads.

All this means that the writing of history must, in fact, fail. How, then, can I talk about approaching the task in a professional fashion?

There are several elements to what I see as the profession of history.

The first is to write in such a way that people can see how you formed your views. This allows them to check and present an alternative perspective.

The second is to be conscious of your own biases, to be aware of and prepared to accept evidence that conflicts with your views. Nobody can do this perfectly, but the intent is important.

This links to the third element, the need to find ways of standing outside your own world view, to seek to understand the sometimes subtle differences of the past.

Personally, I find this one of the most interesting elements of all in history, a key to the abiding fascination of the subject. My need to understand drives me. I may, as I suggested, be bound to fail, but the effort is always interesting and worthwhile.

The last element in the profession of history is the willingness to learn about and apply different techniques and fields of knowledge that can inform our understanding of the past.         

As a simple example drawing from my own experience, in writing about traditional Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales in my BA honours thesis I consciously tried to apply and test concepts drawn from economics.

The thesis itself was subject to my own biases.

As I strong New England New State supporter, I consciously selected the new state boundaries my geographic territory. My decision to apply and test concepts drawn from economics actually reflected the academic history of my own family and especially our collective cross-interests in history, economics and anthropology. 

The immediate response to the thesis reflected the knowledge and biases of readers, itself another major problem area for the writing of history.

Application of concepts drawn from another discipline creates its own difficulties where your key readership does not have the mental constructs associated with the other discipline.

I have written quite extensively on the ways each profession creates its own mental world and on the difficulties this creates for true multi-disciplinary writing. This is as true of academic life as it is of professional practice.

The thesis was also interpreted - I would argue misinterpreted - within some of the commonly accepted perceptions of the time.

A particular problem was the continuing belief among some of those on what was called the old left that the Aborigines somehow represented primitive communism, an idealised pre-money world. This led to an instinctive reaction by some to reject my analysis as some-how a-historical.

This primitive savage view was an extension of a whole set of sometimes conflicting views  - noble savage, primitive savage, the romance of the traditional hunter-gatherer, the poverty of hunter-gatherer life, noble settlers, eveil settlers.

The common feature of these views lay in their eurocentricity, the way that varying popular ideas linked to often opposing schools of thought within the UK and Europe were imposed on the evidence and on the Aborigines as a people.

This continues today, and in turn has its own effect on the way indigenous people think of themselves. This combination of effect and counter effect has had profound influences on Aboriginal history and on the writing of that history.

It is now just over forty years since I did my thesis, somewhat later since part of it was incorporated in a book of essays edited by Isabel McBryde. It wasn't a long thesis, yet despite the passage of time the work continues to be cited.

Obviously parts of the thesis have dated.

There is, for example, far more information on levels of indigenous population than my first very amateurish attempts to develop population projections for Northern New South Wales at the time of European intrusion, attempts that were effectively parodied by Professor Butlin from Sydney University with a phrase something like mud maps of the worst kind.

Mind you, I would still defend myself on the grounds that this was the first attempt to measure population, that I showed that numbers were far higher than often recognised, while my broad geographic distribution was correct. Still, Professor Butlin's methodological criticisms were not without justice.

Beyond this, some of my first attempts at economic analysis and the constructs that I was using seem dated if only because the concepts that I was testing - population, trade, division of labour, capital formation, economic organisation of life - are now part of ordinary analysis. I claim no credit for this. It would have happened regardless and I do not think that my thesis as such had any measurable influence.

The areas that still seem to get most frequent citation are those where I tried to address relations between people and geography over time and especially space, focusing on the dynamic aspects of traditional Aboriginal life. Here the analysis does seem to have stood the test of time, if only as a first blush attempt to determine patterns.

Now one of the significant things here, and this bears upon this post's general theme, is that I wrote this material independent of pre-conceptions. I did not know, and wanted to find out.

My decision to write about the broader New England reflected my political views. This decision was to be central to my ability to look at broader geographic interactions, but can still be classified as bias.

My decision to try to apply economic concepts - my core thesis was that these were relevant - again reflected a personal bias. It also determined the evidence I looked for and the questions I asked of that evidence.

Beyond this, having defined geography and broad approach my core focus was simply on what was, why was it.

In his post, Neil referred to the TV documentary The World of the First Australians. To my mind, this is not history, just as a lot of my writing is not history and for the same reasons.

As with The World of the First Australians, I use history to inform and educate. I also try to tell a story. In writing, I do try to generate new ideas and to give sources. However, much of my writing lacks the intellectual rigour to be properly classified as history.

When the World of the First Australian began, I approached it as history. This led to initial disappointment. It also meant that I did not watch following episodes with the same interest.

In all this, I missed the point.

The program was not and should not have been regarded as history, but rather as an educational documentary designed to tell a particular story drawing from historical events. Further, in so doing, by far its most imaginative element was its attempt to get inside the mind on the other side of the frontier.   

Approached in this way, the program becomes an interesting and useful input to history. As with so much of what I write, it should be thought of as an input to historical thinking, an input subject to later test.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday Essay - a note

After thinking about it, I decided that I should take today's Sunday Essay off-line, at least for the moment.

While my description of something that I was doing was expressed in generic terms, I decided that it was still inappropriate to include it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Byzantium, ARIA and Australian public policy

There are usually cross-links in the things I write about even where the topics are apparently disconnected. Here one of my on-going concerns is the way our mental frameworks, the constructs we use to interpret the world, affect our thinking.

We can see this problem in history, both actual events and the way we interpret and write about them.

The Byzantine Empire is an example. In an earlier post I suggested that our perceptions of this Empire and the fall of Rome were Western European centric, leading us to ignore the long history of the Eastern Roman Empire. Now in reading about Byzantium, I find my own focus shifting as previously peripheral events move to centre stage.

To illustrate by example.

persia_shepherd When I studied ancient history at school, our initial focus was on the fertile crescent, Egypt and the middle east. This then shifted north and east to Greece, and then west to Rome.

As our focus shifted, the various Persian Empires moved from just east of centre stage to far east, from things of interest as Empires to the more peripheral role of a distant but persistent military threat. With the fall of RomeSassanid_empire_map and the "end" of ancient history, Persia largely vanished. Yet, of course, it continued with its own history.

The first map shows the Persian Empire in 500 BC, the second the successor Empire in 600 CE just before it was toppled by the invading Arabs. The dark marks the Empire's core, the light green subsequent conquests.

I was not really aware of the degree of British and Western European centricity in my own historical thinking until quite recently. I was then quite annoyed, because it meant that my own thinking had been caught, conditioned if you like, by powerful but not fully seen mental maps.

On Friday 19 December, the Australian Government released the initial priority list for major national infrastructure projects.

What has this to do with just what I have been talking about? Well, the infrastructure document has a number of mental maps built into it. In the rest of this post I want to look at just one.

Have you ever heard of ARIA? No, I am not talking about the music industry, but about the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) developed by the Commonwealth Department of Heath and Aged Care (DHAC) and the National Key Centre For Social Applications of GIS (GISCA).

ARIA measures the remoteness of a point based on the physical road distance to the nearest Urban Centre in each of five size classes, very remote, remote, outer regional, inner regional and major city. This probably sounds pretty dry stuff, but bear with me for a moment.

All big empires struggle with ways to administer and protect diverse and widespread territories. This is true of Byzantium, Persia or Australia.

This may sound an odd way of putting it, but Australia's current population is a bit more than the Eastern Roman Empire at its peak, while its geographic area is larger than either the Eastern Roman or Persian Empires. Yes, we have better forms of communication and transport, but the issues are the same.

The administrative forms adopted are dictated by the centre for its own reasons, but then come to affect thinking in a variety of unseen ways.

In the case of the Eastern Roman Empire, for example, the decision to establish the capital at the newly created city of Constantinople and the subsequent growth of that city completely altered the ways of thinking of the Empire's elites so far as the structure of the Empire was concerned.

Something similar has happened in Australia with the widespread use of ARIA in public policy.

The idea that public policy should take remoteness from services into account seems very reasonable. It also seems so reasonable that we should use some universal classification - after all, we want a measure of national uniformity. So we use the ARIA classifications as a guide in setting policy and determining spending to the point that it has become all-pervasive.

The problem with this is that ARIA, while based on geography, ignores geography.

I tried to find an on-line ARIA map of Australia as a starting point to illustrate this, but could not.

In simple terms, the ARIA maps show a series of remoteness zones largely radiating out from our capital cities. These zones actually bisect geographic regions.

To illustrate.

The Murray-Darling basin is a geographic entity made up of a number of linked river valleys. We try to deal with this as an entity in talking about water, although here too I have argued that the one size fits all approach leads to bad results. But when we go beyond this and use ARIA zones we get into trouble.

The Murray-Darling basin, or New England for that matter, is divided into very remote, remote, outer regional and inner regional ARIA. The area serviced by a major regional centre such as Wagga Wagga is likely to include bits of all these four zones.

Take another example.

The Armidale-Dumaresq local government area is inner regional, but includes outer regional localities. Tamworth Regional Council is outer regional, but includes localities ranging from inner regional to remote.

Still another example. The Kamilaroi tribal area in New England ranges from very remote on the west to inner regional on the east.

When, as has been happening for a number of years now, policy and funding is based to some degree on ARIA zones, you get a bit of a mess.

Take the delivery of health services.

Walgett in New England is remote, Moree outer regional. Both are, I think, part of the NSW Government's Hunter New England Area Health Service. The Aboriginal Medical Services in the two centres try to co-operate through shared specialisations.

Now introduce national health funding, or any other program you care to name, based to some degree on ARIA with a remote or very remote bias. Walgett may be eligible, Moree not.

Service delivery actually needs to take regional considerations into account. But how can you do this sensibly when you have to structure your approach to include ARIA based considerations in areas with multiple ARIA zones? It fragments.

I despair a bit. ARIA is deeply entrenched. It moulds thinking. I have not seen any articulated concerns about ARIA. Yet it is a problem.

I think, and I recognise that I am beating one of my traditional drums, that our predominantly metro Australians have simply lost sight of Australia's geography.

Those who make policy now largely come from our metro centres. Concerned with "broader issues", and that means metro simple because that is where the people are, they bring in policies that disadvantage country Australians.

I will stop here because I am beating my traditional drum. But I don't see a solution in the absence of major change to the way we think.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The importance of teaching in Australian indigenous languages

My thanks to Neil Whitfield for drawing my attention to a piece by Tom Calma attacking the decision by the Northern Territory Government to effectively stop teaching in indigenous languages in Northern Territory schools.

I frequently disagree with Mr Calma, although I never doubt his sincerity. On some issues I regard him as one of those soft left exponents who have (to my mind) so set back indigenous advancement. However, on this language issue, and as I have indicated in previous posts (here, here), I find that he and the views I have expressed are very much aligned. 

I suppose because I write outside some of the conventional frames I should articulate at more length why I think I think this issue is so important. For the moment, I just want to draw your attention to Mr Calma's views.  

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Byzantium, Turtledove and the power of imagination in history

besieged I have long been a fan of Harry Turtledove's Videssos books. He creates a very effective world in those books.

I knew that he had based the books on the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, reflecting his studies there. I had no idea just how much he had done so.

I am in the process of reading Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society. It is a remarkably good book. However, in reading I have been struck at just how closely Mr Turtledove did base his Videssos books on Byzantium. I would now recommend that someone who is interested in Byzantium to read the Videssos series first.

In 285 Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two, east and west. He did so for governance reasons. Over time, the western half declined. The Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453, still thinking of itself as Roman.

The exact date marking the formal start of the Roman Empire is almost definitional, it evolved, but 23 BC can be taken as a start because of the constitutional changes in that year. However, it is also important to remember that the Roman republic began some 500 years before this date.

These are huge time spans.

From the foundation of Rome until the end of the eastern empire we have some 1,900 years. Australia has been in existence for 220 years. All the current financial turmoil is just a blink in historical terms.  

This ancient past is still remarkably close to modern Australia. A bit under eighty years ago my old school presented a classic Greek play in ancient Greek  to a Sydney audience. Later, Latin was still a compulsory subject when I started at that school for those in the more academic stream.

I provide this history for two reasons.  

The first is that the changes that took place over those nineteen centuries were enormous.

From the viewpoint of the ordinary citizen,the person whose thinking was measured in perhaps four generations, the changes that they experienced were often just as great as those we are experiencing today. They had to adjust just as we do. I think it helpful to remember this. We are not unique.

The second is a more complicated point.

I can and do argue that history is important. In doing so, I mount a variety of arguments. Yet the reality is that I just enjoy it. Too me, history is fun. However, in trying to understand history I also struggle to break through to that past world. What was it really like?

At one point Warren Treadgold discusses the decline in Byzantium intellectual activity during a particular period. He suggested, to use my words, that citation had taken the place of scholarship, that scholarship had taken the place of writing. I think that this is where we are today.  

The best history, the best of any discipline, comes from applied imagination. Too few people ask what it was really like, too many are simply prepared to argue present cases and attitudes.     

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Kim Beazley Sr and the teaching of Australian indigenous languages

One of the things that I so love about blogging lies in the interactions it creates. These have left me a helpless but not hopeless addict.

Bob Gosford, a blogger who informs me especially but not only about Northern Territory Issues, wrote a piece about teaching in indigenous languages in the NT. I responded with Teaching in indigenous languages setting out my own views. Now Dennis Sligar has responded in an email.

Dennis and I have been friends for many years. He is now Director Education and Training at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (we worked together there when I was CEO), but in a past  life he was Principal Private Secretary to Kim Beazley Snr. He wanted to put put Mr Beazley's contribution on the record. I leave it to Dennis to explain:

Hi Jim

Just caught up with some of your recent blog including on the teaching of aboriginal languages to young Aborigines.

One of your correspondents suggested it started in the 1980s. It started in 1973 when Kim Beazley Snr was Minister for Education. Soon after appointment, the first substantial visit he made was to the NT early in 1973, to review aboriginal education, given that it came under the Commonwealth Minister’s portfolio, and aboriginal affairs had for decades been of personal interest to him. He had many contacts in those communities. I was one of a small number of staff who went with him, along with his department head, Ken Jones. The trip covered Gove/Nhulunbuy, Yirrkala, Hermannsburg, Groote Eylandt, Katherine, Alice, Papunya, Batchelor, and more. Took about 10 days as I recall.

Soon after return he asked the department to draft legislation to provide for the teaching and maintenance of the mother’s language to the young child (as the language of nurture), and to develop written and pictorial materials to capture as much as possible of the stories and histories passed on orally. He decided to seek permission from the Clerk of the House to deliver the opening sentences of the second reading speech in Pijanjatjara, one of the more common languages. I negotiated this with the Clerk, and of course the Hansard reporters were alerted. It was then up to the department to manage the hard part to deliver the program, recruiting teachers, developing materials etc. There were some fine and passionate public servants, both in Canberra and NT, who grappled with this, but whatever was implemented then was no doubt overtaken or languished for the sorts of reasons that we can all imagine.



Dennis is right, I can image. Still, I am glad of the opportunity to put Mr Beazley's role back on the public record.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A short update

No post yesterday, and really none today.

I was up a bit before three this morning to complete a 1,200 word article for a business magazine that I began yesterday evening. Sent, but I am not yet sure that it meets their needs. Then there were emails about a possible weekly column in a regional newspaper. The tentative title is Belshaw's World, drawing together some of the things I write about.

On top of all this, I am working on-site at the moment, adding two hours travel time to my day. Still, this is not all bad.

I have been reading Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society on the train. This is a very good read, while filling in gaps in my knowledge.

Do expect some posts. I have just been reading about the first arrival of plague, something that had a devastating effect on society and state. This was far earlier than I had realised.

At work itself, I have been digging into the statistics in an area that actually interests me greatly. Obviously I cannot comment directly on what I have been doing, but I will end with greatly extended public record data plus background knowledge that I can use in analysis.

There has been an absolute plethora of Australian Government policy announcements. I try to avoid commenting unless I can add value - otherwise I just add to the bloggochurn.

There are some I really want to comment on because of their importance. Here I was stuck by what I saw as very silly and short term comments on the new emissions trading scheme.

I really must do a demographic analysis of Green supporters. I have the strong impression that they tend to occupy jobs that have a natural short to medium term protection against the adverse effects of the policies they advocate. It is easy to be pure if you are neither threatened nor tempted.

Don't get me wrong. I do support action on climate change. However, the real policy content in the material that I have read - and this includes some of the editorial material - is remarkably low. I do not think that I have learned a single new thing in the constant re-statement of stereotyped positions.

In all this, I did manage on Sunday in Economic implications of the Australian Government's Nation Building package to provide some analysis of the Government's latest stimulus package. The day-to-day statistical news is not good, but so far I see no need to vary my positive medium term outlook.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Snippets - The Rudd Government's latest package, welcome to visitor 45,000

Shanghai night scene

This photo of Shanghai at night seems somehow appropriate for this post.

The hotel on the right, the Shangri La, is where we stayed. It is a huge hotel by Australian Australian standards. Directly in front is a modern restaurant, behind a large, modern, retail complex.

All the evidence so far is that the Chinese economy has been weakening faster than most expected. Michael Pettis's blog explores some of the reasons for this.

Australia remains lucky, I think, because the steps the Chinese Government is taking to expand the economy continue to underpin demand for our exports. I stand to be corrected, but I think that this holds even if Michael's more pessimistic assessments prove to be correct.

On Friday, the Australian Government announced the next element in its stimulus package. I discussed this in Economic implications of the Australian Government's Nation Building package.  There are a number of other possible measures in the pipe line.

I find it interesting that the Government's capacity to bring in effective expansion measures - while better than in many other countries - should in fact be so constrained.

As I said in Australia's economic stimulus packages - the practical difficulties in cranking up spend, the Australian public sector has been so cash constrained in recent years that the project pipeline is much reduced. It is very hard to switch focus from doing more with less to doing more with more.

I remain quite positive about the economic outlook in Australia, positive to the point that I am prepared to chance my arm with a direct prediction. I expect the Australian economic downturn to be significantly less than that we experienced in 1990 and 1991.

The budget surplus the Rudd Government inherited from the previous administration is one factor because of the freedom it now gives Australia to expand Government spending.

The second factor is our trade position. In this context, I was struck by the forecast that the $580 million Hunter Valley rail upgrades will increase coal export capacity from 97 to 200 million tonnes per annum. These are big numbers.

Over the next few days my capacity to post is likely to be severely constrained. I have a 1,200 word article to complete for a business magazine plus several other major research pieces.

On another matter,welcome to visitor 45,000. I think that Neil was once again the visitor (he has featured before in visitor milestones) since the visitor came from Sydney with unwired as ISP and firefox as browser.