Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the unforeseen effects of Women's Liberation - 1

This post continues my musings on social and cultural change, using women's liberation to tease out some of the complexities and unforeseen effects that can arise from change.

To avoid unnecessary argument of the type I got into at a function a little while ago on this issue, I will make my own position clear up front.

I believe that gender blindness - treating people as people independent of gender - is very important. I am strongly opposed to gender based social, institutional and legal barriers that prevent women achieving their full potential within the bounds of what they want to achieve and are prepared to pay the price for.

Phew. That said, what on earth am I talking about? It's just that women's liberation has had some very unexpected results.

In my post Ladettes - girls acting like boys I talked about one, the way that some groups of young women have, or so it is argued, taken on the undesirable characteristics of males. This apparent trend led Eva Cox, one of Australia's leading feminists, to complain:

"For women looking for equal status, sometimes by being equal to inappropriate male culture is the only way to go."

I think that Eva Cox is wrong, that the ladettes are a sign of a far more complex process. However, her quoted response is indicative of something else, the confusions that have arisen in the women's movement over the apparent results of their earlier efforts.

Like many social revolutions, the triumph of the women's movement seemed to occur quite quickly.

The traditional concept of family (traditional as in well ensconced) with its gender roles seemed alive and well in Australia of the 1950s. By the 1980s it had gone, swept away in a tide of social change. The concept of "the family" survived, but in a strangely attenuated form.

The early women's movements focused on the achievement of civil and legal rights for women. I, for one, had not realised just how limited these were in the quite recent past until I came to look at the history of the family.

A key focus was on the right to vote. In an Australian context, women achieved the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893, in South Australia in 1895 (women were also allowed to stand for Parliament) and in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902.

The women's movement that emerged in Australia in the 1950s, again part of a global movement, was different in that it focused on the role of women as well as women's rights.

By the time I was at university in the 1960s, the changing role of women was much discussed. By the 1970s, this was being translated into legislation. This process reached its peak in the 1980s, with the sometimes obsessive desire to rid the English language of every form of sexist language.

Language is important because every social change involved sometimes rigid exclusion of certain words, often forced adoption of alternative expressions. All revolutionaries know that what we think is defined in some way by what we speak. All revolutionaries use language as a political weapon.

Looking back from 2008, the 1980s' obsession with gender correct language seems another world, as was the day-to-day dominance of women's issues.

I find this hard to explain. It really was pervasive, at least within the Commonwealth Public Service. It was enforced by circular, enshrined in style guides, enforced through personnel manuals.

Here its probably true to say, and this is really a different topic, that official agencies necessarily reflect the dominant official views in ways not necessarily representative of language and actions in the broader community.

The rise of women's liberation was not welcomed by all women.

My mother was born in 1912. She grew up in a world in which the traditional model still held true. Women generally worked until marriage, then focused on the home. So in my mother's case, she stopped working following her marriage in 1944.

My mother also lived in a world - Armidale - that in some ways has been a microcosm of change because it combines three very different groups - town, gown and country - in a single relatively small community.

In the context we are talking about, the university was the hotbed of women's liberation. It is also true that at least some university women looked down on those with less education. In my mother's case, she had done librarian training, but not a degree. She was made conscious of her lesser education.

All this came to a head one day. I do not remember the trigger, perhaps a University Women's Association meeting.

Normally a gentle woman who used restrained language, she let rip. The core of her complaint was that women's liberation invalidated, devalued, the role she had chosen as full time wife and mother.

As a wife she had supported her husband, including all the social entertaining and social secretary work that went with being the wife of a senior academic in a small community.

There were then no external alternatives. The restaurants that we take for granted today did not exist. All entertaining was home based. Year after year she put on dinner parties for visitors, played the social networking role, patted people down, was nice to people she did not necessarily like.

Don't get me wrong. My mother was a very sociable woman with an absolutely wicked sense of humour in private. Most of the time she really enjoyed her role and was punctilious in keeping in touch with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.

This included some of the difficult ones who, with time, came to see her as a true friend and confidant. Always slightly insecure, I doubt that my mother had any idea as to how widely she was liked.

My mother's outburst was unusual, but did capture the views of many women at the time. How do you support a movement that seems to attack the very foundations on which you have based your life?

The impact of women's liberation on family structures is complicated because women's liberation was one of a number of movements at that time that between them had a profound effect on Australian society. However, we can tease this out a little by looking at some examples.

The idea of the family - mum, dad, the kids - was deeply embedded.

In social terms, dad was the bread winner, mum the home care.

This affected social attitudes. One traditional phrase still with us today among some groups is that so and so was a good provider. That is, dad earned enough money to support the family, did not fritter it away on the pub or gambling.

This was especially important among women in working class families. To be seen as a good provider was an important compliment. Much could be forgiven if you were a good provider.

It also affected legislation and public policy. The concept of a living wage - the amount of money a man needed to earn to support his family - was built into legislation. Known as the basic wage, this formed to core of industrial relations. It also led to the exclusion of women from work after marriage because they competed with the male bread winner.

One partial effect of the rise of women's liberation was the rise of the two income family.

Many married working class women had always had to work. Now the increasing expectation was that all women should work, should seek careers. In turn, this led to a rapid growth in the female participation rate - the proportion of working age women in the work force - that helped fuel Australian economic growth. The workforce rose faster than the population.

Women's liberation was not the only cause. Changing social expectations were also important - we wanted more goods and services, more freedoms.

But how do you maintain a simple concept such as the living wage in a world where families have multiple income earners? The answer is that you cannot. At least, we have not so far been able to do this.

I am not suggesting that women's liberation and the consequent social changes were the only cause of the destruction of the living wage concept. There were other forces at work as well. However, they were important contributors.

Women's liberation and the rise of the two income family were associated with - reinforced by and in turn reinforcing - another change, growing divorce rates.

The traditional family structures and the social and legal forms that reinforced this placed considerable pressure on couples, and especially wives, to stay in marriages that were in some ways unhappy.

I say especially wives because limited female employment opportunities really limited women's choices. Stay unhappy but eat. Leave and face financial ruin.

Australia's Family Law Act with its no fault divorce combined with widening work opportunities for women to unleash a torrent of divorces.

Am I opposed to the Act? No, I am not. I am just talking about consequences.

Today's young people are the children of the Family Law Act.

Talking to them, their condemnations of the inability of their parents to stay together, of the disruption caused by divorce, are harsh. They do not want to put their children through the same pain.

This feeds back into changing social attitudes, including the role of women.

Many women from the high water mark of feminism are distressed by what they see as the conservatism of the young, their apparent rejection of feminist ideals. They also struggle with growing attacks from adults including former colleagues who argue that feminism has failed.

The problem is that feminism was successful. The world has simply moved on. However, there are two different but linked social trends involved.

At one level, Australia's young have simply absorbed the key message of feminism, that girls have the right of choice.

This is a world not of stereotypes, but of individual choice. Things that the feminists fought for are now taken for granted. However, it is also a far more complex world in that choices have to be made on an individual basis, negotiated between partners. This includes variants of traditional relationships.

At a second level, there is a growing conservatism in Australian society that includes the young, although the rise of conservatism is most marked among their parents.

At the youth level this is concealed to some degree because attitudes to sexuality and personal presentation have changed. This is a world of bling, raunch, of overt sexuality that shocks many older Australians.

I do not want to get involved in a discussion of sexuality in this post because it lies outside the scope of my current focus. My point is that when I talk to the young - I accept that I work from a limited sample - I find their views quite conservative.

I will finish this discussion in my next post.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The March Fly

The early historical records suggest that the Aborigines used to leave the New England Tablelands at certain times of the year because of the bite of the March Fly.

This photo from Gordon Smith shows why this might have been the case.20090102-12-41-55-riverside-apsley-marchfly

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ladettes - girls acting like boys

Under the rather dramatic headline Ladettes lead upsurge in female crime, Tuesday's (27 January 2009) Sydney Morning Herald had a rather interesting piece by Geesche Jacobsen, the paper's Crime Editor, on increasing crime rates among young women.

THE number of women found guilty of crimes has jumped dramatically, partly as a result of alcohol-fuelled young "ladettes" trying to emulate young males.

After this dramatic start, the story is balanced reporting, pointing to some of the issues (statistical and other) that affect the apparent rapid increase in female crime rates as compared to male.

As a social observer, I found the story especially interesting because the responses quoted in the paper actually say a fair bit about differing social attitudes in Australia today.

Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, suggested that minor offences were often linked to alcohol.

The behaviour of such ladettes was the result of a societal change around alcohol, which had gone from frowning on women drinking in public to a time in which women were drinking as much, or more, than their male counterparts, he said.

"The whole idea of gangs of young women committing offences was something that was most probably not really heard of 10 years ago."

Sounds reasonable? Well, yes and no.

It is certainly true that young women drink more than they used too. It is also true that there has been some merging of male and female behaviour patterns. However, his comments have to be treated with a degree of caution for they sit at the centre of two overlapping social trends in Australia.

The first is the rise of the special interest group dedicated to the resolution of particular social problems or the promotion of particular causes. According to an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) introduction:

Paul Dillon has worked in the drug education field for almost 25 years. Through his own company Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA), he has been contracted to provide information on a range of drug issues to many different audiences. For the past 13 years he has worked as the Information Manager at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

The DARTA web site itself describes its role in this way:

Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) aims to provide high quality research assistance as well as training expertise on a wide range of alcohol and other drug issues.

So Mr Dillon is undoubtedly knowledgeable, - his December 2007 ABC piece shows this clearly - but writes from a particular perspective.  This does not make him wrong, although in this case I think that he has gone a bit over the top.

The second trend is what, for want of better words, I call the rise of social behavioural control. See behavioural problem, fix behavioural problem. Just at present, excessive drinking especially among young people has become a major social issue of great concern to Mr Rudd as Australia's headmaster. This interacts with the rise of special interest groups; the two feed each other.

Is there a problem with alcohol consumption? Yes there is. However, in looking at this we have to be careful to distinguish between the problem and the way the problem is perceived and responded too.

To illustrate this further, Eva Cox is the next person quoted in the story. Eva Cox is head of the Women's Electoral Lobby and one of Australia's long standing feminists. She has a very different take.

Like Paul Dillon. she accepts that there is a problem. However, her stance is different. According to article, Dr Cox said that rising crime rates was "one of the consequences of equality" which happened as women had greater opportunities to offend than in the past.

"The hard-drinking, hard-driving larrikin lout is still being seen as the model of how to impress society," she said.

"For women looking for equal status, sometimes by being equal to inappropriate male culture is the only way to go."

A very different take indeed. Dr Cox also noted that female crime rates were still only 19 per cent of male rates.

"There are no ravaging hordes of women about to attack men," Dr Cox said.

Demographer Bernard Salt, Australia's best known private sector demographer, had a somewhat similar take. To him, the problem seemed to be "one of the bizarre negative aspects of equalisation", such as rising rates of heart disease and smoking among women.

Mmm. The problem of unforeseen side effects such as the way the Australian Government's alcopops tax may well have increased alcohol consumption among the young is always there. But bizarre? 

University of NSW law academic Chris Cunneen moved in a different direction. As a lawyer, he noted that while some argued women were becoming more violent, others believed the courts were more prepared to criminalise women. He concluded:

"The truth is probably somewhere in between," he said.

Professor Cunneen's comment links to another change in Australia that I have talked, the effect of changing attitudes to the use of the criminal justice system. 

Andrew McCallum, the head of the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies (another special interest group), took this line of thought further. To him, it (the problem) also reflected the developing punitive culture which stressed punishment above rehabilitation.

"You need to have more carrot than stick," he said.

To some degree at least, I am sure that the various responses reflect the way in which Geesche Jacobsen phrased the questions she asked.

Do we know any more at the end about the opening issue, girls acting like boys? Not really. However, the story is an interesting snap shot of different streams of Australian thought. 

Note to readers

This post is one of a series on social and cultural change in Australia that began with A note on Australia Day and related matters.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Will Owen's "Basedow's photographs" makes best Australian independent blog posts 2008

I was very pleased that Will Owen's Basedow's photographs made the best independent Australian blog posts of 2008 now being published in On-line Opinion.

Will's blog, Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, is (as the name suggests) a US based blog. Was it in fact eligible?

I took the view that because Will wrote about Australian issues it should, and the judges accepted that view.

The about the author section at the end of the article says:

Will Owen works as a librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, where he is in charge of the University Library’s computing and internet services. He had an abiding interest in contemporary American art before seeing the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society in New York City in 1988. He has since travelled regularly to Australia, building a collection of art from communities and cities across the continent and studying Aboriginal culture. Since 2005 he has published Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American eye – a weblog that attracts international readership. He was among the contributors to Beyond Sacred: recent paintings from Australia's remote Aboriginal communities, edited by Colin and Elizabeth Laverty (Hardie Grant Books, 2008).

I have mentioned Will's blog many times because it is such a favourite of mine.

It would be good even if Will limited himself just to art, but he does not. His posts span many aspects of Aboriginal life and of thinking about the Aborigines over time. Some of his posts represent original contributions to the history of Australian thought.

I do not always agree with specific aspects of Will's thinking. We have different views on certain issues. Yet I have learned so much from him.

My personal congratulations.

A note on Australia Day and related matters

This post is a short note to myself.

Over on Thinker's Podium Bruce set out his concerns about Australia Day. Benjamin Solah had a somewhat similar take, if from a different perspective. In a completely different post on Culture Matters, Lisa Wynn looked at the confusing use of the word black in Australia from an outsider's perspective.

Australia has become a very complicated society. It is also one going through rapid change. By its nature, the language we use is a creature of the past. It changes as society changes, but always with a lag.

To manage complexity, we simplify. We also use different types of symbols and symbolic language to describe others and to provide unity, common points, within the group.

I have explored many of these issues from different perspectives. Often in discussion, the response to my post on the use of the Lord's Prayer in Parliament is an example, the focus is on the issue itself, rather than on just what the varying views tell us about the changing pattern of Australian society.

Maybe its time to pull a little of all this together from an historical as well as current perspective. As I said, just a note to myself.

By the way, Thomas, I have noticed your planned new series and will participate.


Neil wrote:

“I guess we will see some posts expanding on this...”

True of course, but I suspect that while Neil may not like some of the things I plan to talk about, he may be a little surprised at the content.

The posts I have in mind are not intended to tell people what to think nor indeed what I think on specific issues. While I will make my own views clear so that people can understand my biases, I am more concerned to disentangle issues and point to what I see as trends. Where I can, I will put things in historical context. While bias is inevitable, I want to write from a professional perspective.

I will be writing from an Australian perspective, but I hope that the material will be of broader interest.

I won't say more at this point. I leave it to you, the reader, to form your own views.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economic Autarchy

Low Depression Just at the moment, I am much concerned with economics, driven by the need to try to understand just what is happening.

The English cartoonist David Low was an acute observer of European politics during the first half of the twentieth century.

One of his concerns was the way in which the rise of economic autarchy - what we now call beggar thy neighbour policies - helped ruin the countries of Central Europe leading to the rise of Hitler.

This cartoon from 1928 is an early example.

Central to Low's concerns were actions taken by some wealthier countries to look after their own interests through protective measures that ultimately failed to the detriment of all. The caption under the following cartoon reads in part - That's a nasty leak. Thank goodness its not at our end of the boat. That's a nast leak

There is a strong whiff of economic autarchy around at present. Just as happened before, it's not going to work.

One of Low's cartoons - I could not find this one - is simply headed Autarchy. It shows a man sitting there eating his own leg.

Since the Access Economic report that I complained about in Anger with Access Economics, there has been a spate of bad economic news. The interconnected nature of our modern world with its instant transmission of information and opinion makes for a great deal of instability.

This links to my recent discussion on the nature of groups - there is a herd instinct at work. There is a stampede under way, and for those who have seen Australia, we do not have a little boy to stand in front of the herd and bring it to a halt before the cliff.

Speaking from my own management consulting experience, businesses facing difficult times sometimes go down because management starts constantly changing policies in response to immediate events, rendering them ineffective. We can see something like this happening at Government levels.

It is very hard to maintain a sense of direction in the face of a barrage of bad news. The sometimes breathless reporting creates a confusing fog.

To provide something of a solid base for my own thinking, I have begun a detailed look at recent Australian economic statistics over on Management Perspectives. I am especially concerned to compare the stats with my own previous thinking and with some of the current commentary including the Access Report.

There is an argument around that the pace of current events invalidates past statistics. There is some truth in this, but only some. Even simple things like size aggregates can be used to test some of the day to day thinking.

The need to educate myself may make posting here a little irregular.

About the Cartoons

The cartoons come from the British Cartoon Archive. This has a useful search facility, making for a fascinating browse.


According to newspaper reports, Australian business confidence jumped 10 points and business conditions improved 11 points in December.

Forget the negative wrapping round the story, by global standards that's a great result.
In another earlier story, total retail sales in December were up 2% from the year before. By global standards that's a great result.

You see what I mean? Things are tough, but we are still doing okay. That is what I have been trying to argue.

By dumping in public on the Australian economy in the way they did, Access just adds to the pressure.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The effects of efficiency dividends

Looking at the ABS stats on retail sales for November, I was struck by this comment:

Due to the smaller sample size and sampling methodology (independent samples for each month of the quarter) in effect from July to October 2008, there is increased volatility in all series. The original and seasonally adjusted series are most affected and, as a result, the original and seasonally adjusted series are considered of limited use for measuring month to month movements. The ABS recommends using the trend series for this analysis.

To meet the Rudd Government's efficiency dividend targets, ABS was forced to reduce sample size. This is one result.


This post was a bit too cryptic for Neil.

So called efficiency dividends were introduced as a public sector proxy for competition. The argument runs this way.

Competition breeds efficiency and productivity gains. Government Departments are not exposed to competition and therefore have no incentive to improve productivity. So what we will do is to reduce their core budget each year by a small percentage equivalent to the productivity gains that they should be achieving. Then new activities can be funded as a separate matter.

It sounds so reasonable.

In the case of ABS they had to make some choices in an environment with high staff costs as a percentage of spend and no control over salaries. One thing that they did was to reduce sample size on surveys, thus reducing data collection costs.

The costs of this decision are summarised in the above quote.

As you reduce sample size, sample error increases. In this case to the point that two key parts of the data - the raw data and the seasonally adjusted estimates - could no longer be relied upon.

For those who don't know the term seasonally adjusted, original data is affected by a whole range of things.

Months vary in length, while sales go up and down over the year - higher retail sales at Christmas are an obvious example. Seasonal adjustment attempts to take these factors out of the data so that the real trend can be seen more clearly.

The ABS comment means that reduced sample size destroyed part of the value of a key economic indicator at just the time we needed it. That, I would suggest, is certainly an efficiency dividend. Just a negative one.

Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 3

Happy Chinese New Year to all.

I finished my last post in this series, Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 2, using Zimbabwe as an example of a growing divergence between a group view - that of Mr Mugabe and his colleagues - and external reality.

The third Reich is another example of problems with group think and of failures to recognise other people's realities.

Scourge of the Swastika I first read my grandfather's copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf when I was a child. I am not sure which edition it was, presumably the shortened version since it was in one volume. A little later, I read with a certain appalled fascination Lord Russell's Scourge of the Swastika, a graphic portrayal of Nazi barbarism.

The thing that I could not understand after reading Mein Kampf was the world's failure to really see Hitler coming. However, I was reading it from the perspective of a child in the immediate post war world.

The central problem with the rise of Hitler lay in people's inability to move outside their own world views.

To many Germanophiles, and especially in Britain, Hitler was seen as restoring Germany. To many on the right, fearful of the evils of Bolshevism, Hitler was seen as a bulwark against communist revolution. Many of those on the left did recognise the danger, but also saw it in fairly rigid terms set by their own perceptions of class struggle.

Attitudes to the Spanish civil war, in many ways a rehearsal for the greater conflict that was to follow, reflected this polarisation. Even remote Australia was affected. As I noted in Australian Individuals Fighting (and Dieing) on Foreign Soil, Australians fought on both sides of the Spanish Civil War.

Real understanding of Hitler could only come by standing outside the box set by common views. Again, there is an Australian example.

Prior to the outbreak of war and at a time when the Australian Government was still reluctant to recognise that war might be inevitable, NSW started to go onto a war footing driven especially by Country Party Leader Mick Bruxner and my grandfather, David Drummond, then NSW Minister for Education.

One trigger for this was Drummond's official visit to Europe with my mother in 1936. In Germany, Nazi officials roughly shifted a Jewish family off a ride to give preference to the important Australian visitor and his daughter.

It is clear from snippets in his writing and comments that David Drummond shared some of the common prejudices about Jews. I am not implying here that he was racist, simply prejudiced.

That act, along with other things he saw and read while overseas, convinced him that war with Germany was inevitable. It took him outside the box set by the groups he belonged to in Australia.

Unable to convince the Commonwealth including their own Party colleagues of the threat, he and Mick Bruxner did what they could in NSW.

Drummond was not only convinced that war was coming. His overseas trip had also made him see that the air was going to be critical.

Looking at the NSW technical education system, he realised that there was almost no focus on aeronautics. Cash was tight because of the lingering effects of the depression. Despite this, he increased the technical education focus on aeronautics, including authorising the purchase of new lathes for technical colleges.

This must sound like a very small thing, a few new lathes. Yet that simple act became important when, within two years, Australia had to rapidly expand its building and servicing of aircraft. Lathes were now like hen's teeth because they were needed for military reasons. NSW had them.

This problem, the inability to stand outside the box set by common group views, is very much with us today. We can see it in Canberra and the Rudd Government.

This is a professional, not party political, comment.

The desire for single national uniform approaches ignores on-ground diversity. As a simple current example, the fact that policies for indigenous advancement are driven by NT problems and then imposed across the whole country means that those policies will fail.

There may or may not be some positive results. One hopes there will be. But measured by the objectives set, the policies are already failing.

This comment brings me full circle back to my normal concerns. So I will finish with one point to illustrate the power of internal group attitudes.

Just as the Mugabe Government still announces grand new moves to solve Zimbabwe's problems, so Adolf Hitler played with his his grand building plans as the Third Reich collapsed around his ears. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Congratulations to Marcellous

To say that I was pleased that one of Marcellous's posts, E M and 'The Macropoulos Secret, had been selected for publication in On-Line Opinion as one of the best independent Australian posts of 2008 would be an understatement. I was absolutely thrilled.

I have often spoken of the clarity and power of M's writing (M always uses initials!), so that was nice. More importantly, it was recognition outside the small group that tends to dominate the selections.

I am a strong supporter of the need for recognition of better blog writing. However, I do not think that the present system works very well.

I make two suggestions for improvement.

First, self-nomination should not be allowed.

Last year one of my posts, Why I am not a conservative, was selected. It came like a bolt from the blue. I was pleased.

This year the process seemed to have a bias towards self-nomination. And, no, Marcellous did not nominate himself.

I think it far better if the nominations are made by other bloggers. This comes far closer to peer recognition. If we bloggers cannot select a wide range of other peoples' posts for nomination, then there is a problem.

Second, more time needs to be allowed for promotion and nomination. There should also be a formal opening and closing date.

I suggest the closing date should be early to mid January, with the selected posts running from 1 February. January publication is, I think, too early.

Nominations might open from 1 December. Publicity should start a month before that date. Australian bloggers could be asked to promote. I, for one, would do so.

Sunday Snippets - cultural differences between Indonesia and Australia, the wonders of Sydney tribalism

A short post to record some of the things that I discovered while browsing.

In April 2008 Andress Hamenda, a postgraduate student from Indonesia completing a Master of Commerce program at the Australian National University in Canberra, started a blog called Dealing with Culture Shock. Andress described his blog this way:

This blog is created mainly to help international students who study in Australia to deal with culture shock.

The blog did not last long - only 15 posts over a few months. That's a real pity. The blog is worth a browse.

See, for example, a Comparison between Australian and Indonesian Cultures. This was slightly qualified in the next post, Exploring Indonesian Cultures, to make the point that Indonesia had many cultures; the first post had a Javanese perspective.

His last post, Saying Thanks, draws out beautifully some of the cultural nuances that can lead people astray.

Australians are generally fairly informal, straightforward and direct. They can sometimes seem rude to people from other more formal cultures. Yet saying thanks shows an example where there is a very special formality in the Australian culture. If you breach this one, Australians will think you rude.

Culture Matters is a blog I found through Neil's Google Reader series. This one is relevant to the series I began with Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 1 because it is an Australian anthropology blog. Many of the posts are what we might loosely call house keeping; calls for conference papers is an example. However, those with an interest in cultures are likely to find it interesting.

Finally, and still under the influence of Neil's Google Reader, one interesting thing about the somewhat eclectic collection of blogs that Neil has chosen is the way they illustrate different aspects of Sydney life.

I have written a number of posts over time pointing to the complexity and variety of Australian life, including the variety in Sydney itself, as well as comparisons between life in Sydney and life elsewhere.

As I have said before, Sydney's growing tribalism is quite remarkable, especially to an outsider like myself, someone who has known the city well over many years but has never belonged to it. While I have written about this, I have been wondering whether I can bring this to life in some way.

Take, as an example, this photo from Sydney Daily Photo of Bronte Beach and the sea baths on a hot Sydney heatwave Friday.

This is not the best shot I could have chosen. I have deliberately selected it because it shows the sweep across the baths to the beach beyond. It's quite a pretty shot, but it does not tell you much.

It does not tell you, for example, that this is claimed to be Sydney's second most dangerous beach.

It does not tell you that this beach is a centre for one of Sydney's most pronounced tribal cultures, the one my wife and her family most identify with.

It says nothing about the varying life styles that centre on that beach, nor the clashes that can arise. Not physical clashes I hasten to add, but clashes between residents and visitors, clashes over development, clashes over access.

You are either a Bronte Beach person or you are not. I am not.

Bronte Beach regulars know each other. On a Saturday morning, the elderly French boule players sometimes keep my mother-in-law's favourite beach shed free for her if she is late because they know that she always comes. I rarely see much of my wife on Saturdays during the day because she is off to Bronte.

This is a completely different world from that of the nearby inner suburbs such as Surry Hills that Neil so often writes about or photographs.

I sometimes think that the only thing that really unites Sydney people is their love for their city and dislike of Melbourne! Otherwise, the thing that stands out to me as an outsider are the differences.

But how to bring some of this alive to outside readers is, I find, a fascinating challenge.

Enough for the moment. I will finish my group series tomorrow.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 2

In my last post "Clean, Clad and Courteous" - Jim Fletcher's History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales, I said that I was reading the book again, but this time with a different purpose. I wanted to understand certain things that would help me in my writing.

This means that I would have approached the book differently in any case . I first read it several years ago out of general interest. This time I wanted to fix dates and patterns in my mind as another building block in my planned history of New England.

As it happened, I read it yesterday having just written Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 1, the start of my musings on the nature of groups. There I said in part:

The starting point in these (anthropological and sociological) studies lies in the separation of the observer and the observed. The group under study - town, village, tribe, club - is recognised as distinct. The aim is to understand its structure and behaviour.

I make this point because a lot of the political and social commentary that I read starts from one set of group assumptions and realities (the commentator's) that are then applied to and used to interpret or critique the behaviour of another group or groups with its (their) own sets of assumptions and realities.

As I read Jim Fletcher's book, I was struck by the way the profound incomprehension of the best intentioned people in London and Sydney created barriers to any real understanding of Aboriginal societies as societies. I kept wanting to say but you can't think that.

This is in no way a moral judgement, simply an observation about perception and behaviour.

Jim Fletcher wrote his book well before the concept of evidence based public policy became popular. However, his book is a useful corrective to the views expressed by some of the more dedicated exponents of evidence based approaches. I have Australia's current Prime Minister in mind here.

Early official policies towards the Aborigines in general and Aboriginal education in particular failed, as they were bound to fail, because they were based upon views held in the newly dominant group formed independent of and imposed upon the other group.

The reasons for failure were much debated, even agonized over. They formed the subject of committees of inquiries and official reports. The evidence presented and the conclusions drawn from that evidence were to influence policies and approaches for generations to the further detriment of NSW's Aboriginal peoples.

Again I kept wanting to say but you can't think that.

Just as the first policy approaches were formed within a frame set by the dominant group view and then imposed, so the subsequent reviews and assessments were carried out within the same frame. This meant that both were equally flawed.

There have been enormous advances in our understanding of societies, cultures and groups since the foundation of NSW. Yet similar problems continue.

At the end of my first post in this muse, I suggested that President Bush's policies in the "War on Terror" helped create the very thing that it was intended to destroy. I also suggested that the knowledge was available to pin-point some of the potential errors in advance. It simply wasn't applied.

Part of the reason for this lies in the nature of groups and group dynamics. The internal world of the group is just too powerful. It dominates to the exclusion of other views.

Particular problems arise when, as in the Bush case, a gap appears between the internal reality of the group and the external world.

The actual trigger for this muse was the situation in Zimbabwe. There is a weird Kafka like feel to Zimbabwe. The country is in a state of collapse, yet the world of Mr Mugabe and his colleagues continues as though nothing was happening.

To get a feel for just how strange the situation has become, have a browse of the stories on the Zimbabwe Situation, a compendium of daily stories about or from Zimbabwe.

To my mind, and I am surprised that no one has really commented on this, the most remarkable thing about Zimbabwe is that the country continues to function at all. Somehow, elements of order and civil society survive.

While this adds to the Kafka feel, it is a quite remarkable and indeed inspiring story in its own right. When Mr Mugabe goes, and go he will along with his cronies, it gives me hope for Zimbabwe's future.

I will finish this muse in my next post.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Clean, Clad and Courteous" - Jim Fletcher's History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales

This post links to my earlier post today, Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 1.

For my work travel movements I have moved away from Byzantium to Jim Fletcher's history of Aboriginal education in NSW. I have read the book before. This time I am reading it with a different purpose. I want to understand certain things that will help me in my writing.

The book was published in 1989. I know of no more recent work, although there may be. I simply don't know.

The thing that I find really tragic about the story is not racism is such. Rather, it is the way in which generations of Aboriginal children were disadvantaged by well-meant decisions based in part on evidence from previous approaches.

The white parents who withdrew their children from public schools until Aboriginal children were excluded are, to my mind, clearly racist. Their views could not be affected by evidence. The outcome was a rapid decline in the number of Aboriginal children attending school.

We are not talking modern times here, rather the 1870s, 1880s and 189os. This was the point at which Aboriginal parents in NSW recognised that their children must have access to education to compete in the European world. I am not saying that this did not happen earlier in individual cases, simply that this was the time where it became a mass desire.

Had this movement succeeded we would not be having today's conversations, at least not in NSW. We would be dealing with generations of educated Aboriginal people.

The Act establishing universal public education in NSW was colour blind. Ministers and officials held the line aginst white parents who opposed inclusion of Aboriginal children in public schools.

This changed in part because of political pressure associated with white parent complaints, more because of deeply held views as to what was best for the Aborigines.

I will deal in more detail with these issues later. For the moment, I simply note that that the people involved were not bad people. Their views were simply wrong, a white person's perspective.

Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 1

All human groups create their own internal realities.

I first saw this as a child mixing across groups - town, gown, farmer, grazier, Country or Labor, protestant and catholic. I have a part completed post on this that I may bring up some day because it explains much about my own attitudes.

This was a divided world. By accident of birth, I straddled groups. To mix, I had to learn to fit in to some degree with each group, tailoring my language and behaviour so as not to offend. A key to mixing was to talk to people about what interested them.

As Ramana said in a comment on a subsequently deleted post that dealt in part with particular language, it's "Us and them". That is, all groups define themselves to a degree by comparison to others.

Group internal realities are powerful and often poorly perceived by those within the group. They are simply there, accepted.

To a degree, all groups develop their own language based on shared experiences and common views. This language is developed in part through interaction, but is also often articulated by group leaders. At its extreme, the language becomes almost a code, a means of distinguishing the group from outsiders.

Without going into the distinctions between them, the disciplines of sociology and anthropology have developed tools and approaches for studying different groups. They seek to understand what the group is, its divisions, how it functions. Often, this requires them to live within the group, to become accepted to some degree.

The starting point in these studies lies in the separation of the observer and the observed. The group under study - town, village, tribe, club - is recognised as distinct. The aim is to understand its structure and behaviour.

I make this point because a lot of the political and social commentary that I read starts from one set of group assumptions and realities (the commentator's) that are then applied to and used to interpret or critique the behaviour of another group or groups with its (their) own sets of assumptions and realities.

We can see this play out in discussion on the Gaza conflict.

Both Hamas and the Israelis are driven by their own internal dynamics. This is reflected in the language they use. We can see something similar in the external commentary on the conflict with its varying focus on rights and wrongs.

In the one post I wrote on the conflict, Gaza, democracy and the question of world government, I began with the point that while I knew something of the history, I really did not understand the internal dynamics on both sides. This made it difficult to say anything really sensible.

We all know from experience that other groups are different in terms of their behaviour, yet we often make the implicit assumption that they should behave in the same way as us. We can't get beyond the fence set by our own perceptions. We end by critiquing external manifestations of complex internal group dynamics.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is why we don't use the knowledge gained from disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, as well as management writing on group dynamics, in a more effective way.

Our political leaders understand to some degree because they play to groups and group dynamics in seeking and holding power. But we rarely apply it in a policy sense.

The Americans are, belatedly, using anthropologists in Afghanistan. However, this is a means to an end in particular circumstances.

I think part of the problem lies in the nature of groups themselves, the way it causes people to look in and creates barriers to understanding.

To my mind, the central problem with President Bush's "War on Terror" is that it actually created the very thing that it was intended to destroy, an opposing force.

It is relatively easy in hindsight to point to policy errors. My argument is that the knowledge was available to pin-point some of those potential errors in advance. It simply wasn't applied.

I have to get to work. I will continue the discussion in my next post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Byzantium, agriculture and the movement of peoples

One of the nice things about reading history is the discovery of new things, the way it generates new ideas. The ideas may not be new in an absolute sense, but they are new to the reader.

I have mentioned before just how closely Harry Turtledove based his Videssos series on Byzantium. It is Byzantium with religions changed and the addition of magic.

There are a number of places in the series where Turtledove refers to the forced relocation of farming peoples.

In one case, the invading nomads seize farmers and forcibly relocate them to one of their own farming areas. They detest farmers, wrong life style, but need their produce. Videssos finally buys them back, resettling them in another area. Krispos, the young hero, asks his father why they are not returning to their own farm. His father explains that other people will have been settled on their land.

In another case, the Emperor is fighting against a group of religious fanatics, a splinter from the main church. Upon defeat of the rebels' army, the decision is made to forcibly break the population up and re-settle them in different parts of the Empire. Their place will be taken by peasants loyal to church and state.

In Turtledove, I noted this as part of the story. I don't think that I realised until reading Treadgold on Byzantium just how important this resettlement process was.

The first key is transport costs.

Writing of Australia, Geoffrey Blainey notes that transport by land was twenty times more expensive than by ship.

It cost more in 1820 for a Sydney merchant to send a barrel of whale oil (whaling was then a major Australian industry) 100 miles inland than around the world to London. This meant that only commodities that were extremely valuable on a per ton basis could afford transport from areas more than 40 miles from deep water.

This was even truer in the period we are talking about. Byzantium and the earlier Roman Empire before it needed food to feed its cities and towns and to support its armies. Initially food was shipped from the granaries of Eygpt and North Africa, taking advantage of sea transport. Following the loss of Eygpt, Byzantium relied upon other parts of the Empire closer to the capital to feed its people.

Agriculture needs farmers. This introduces the second key, population change.

From time to time, the Empire was devastated by disease. Famines caused by drought and pests such as locusts as well as war could depopulate individual areas in whole or part.

Say the word plague and those brought up on Western History think Black Death. This outbreak affected Byzantium in its last days, but in the huge expanse of Byzantium history it was only the latest of a series of outbreaks that had taken place with gaps over the previous centuries.

The third key is security.

Throughout its long history, the Empire was constantly pressed not just by rival Empires such as the Persians and then the emerging Western European states, but also by the constant arrivals of new peoples looking for land and plunder.

For its part, the Empire was looking to expand, to recapture territory lost. The dream of re-building the Roman Empire exercised a continuing fascination over the centuries, as indeed it did in the west. Rome did not vanish - it continued to affect the pattern of life to the present time.

These three keys dictated what today we would call population policy.

Depopulated farming areas were resettled to grow food and to provide security. Land grants were made to support locally based military forces drawn from different parts of the Empire and beyond. Invaders were fought, but sometimes also settled within the Empire's boundaries. Whole peoples from client states or outer parts of the Empire under threat might be relocated to another location.

As the Empire's boundaries expanded and contracted, people were lost and gained. As boundaries contracted, the composition of the peoples beyond the frontier changed, in some cases permanently. As boundaries expanded, new peoples were incorporated in the Empire, changing people composition within the Empire.

This process extended over centuries, continuing into the Ottoman period. One outcome was the creation of an ethnic patchwork quilt, a complicated pattern that continues to exercise influence today.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Byzantium finished

Treadgold Denise got up at 3am to watch the Obama inauguration. In this case I did not because I get up early anyway and thought that I would be just too tired during the day. A sign of age, I guess.

When I did get up, I wandered across to Thomas to see if he had covered the event, and indeed he had done so for the earlier part. Palpable excitement.

Like a good part of the world, I think of the inauguration as marking a change point. However, we also need to be realistic and cut the new president some slack. He would need to be omniscient and perhaps also omnipotent to meet all the expectations invested in him.

I have finally finished Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society. I first mentioned that I was reading this book in a December post,  Byzantium, Turtledove and the power of imagination in history. By then, I was about a third of the way through.

It is a long book, 970 pages including the bibliographic essay and end notes, both of which I read. I read it mainly on trains and buses, making use of otherwise dead travel time.

This is apparently the first new history of the whole Empire published in over sixty years, and the first to cover both state and society. I can see why. This is a mammoth task.

The book begins in the Roman Empire prior to Diocletian's decision in 285 to create Eastern and Western subdivisions within the Empire. It finishes with the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with some end commentary to bring the story through to the present time.

Writing a history of such a long and complicated period is a difficult challenge in itself, more so when the original source material is often fragmentary. Turning it into a coherent story that can be read and followed through often torturous and tumultuous events is a bigger challenge. The English word byzantine meaning complex or devious - a byzantine plot - reflects Western European responses.

Treadgold's own sympathies can be inferred from his dedication:

In memory of my father, Donald Treadgold (1922-1994) who passed on to me his respect for scholarship, the classics and the Christian East.

In a sense, Treadgold writes from a Byzantine perspective, from the viewpoint of the Empire looking out. Those that the Empire dealt with in trade or war are there because they affected the Empire. Their individual stories are relevant only in their impact on Byzantium.

There is nothing wrong with this. I do not think that the book could have been written in any other way. It gains its power in part from Treadgold's immersion in Byzantium. It is up to the reader to be aware that there may be other perspectives.

In this context, I knew but was not fully aware of the continuing influence of Byzantine history on current events.

The boundaries of the original subdivision between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires were in part linguistic -  Latin on one side, Greek on the other. With subdivision, Greek became dominant in the East.

There were other languages. Some died, some survived to today. But the core of the Empire was Greek. Even in 1910, there were still large numbers of Greek speakers across parts of what had been the old Empire. The war between Greece and the new Turkish Republic following the First World War saw the forced resettlement of around a million Greek speakers on one side, 300,000 Turkish speakers on the other. The war itself was due to Greece's desire to re-establish a bigger Greece - Byzantium.

The conflicts between Eastern and Western Europe - between the Latins and Byzantium - are reflected today in religious divisions. Croatia is Roman Catholic, Serbia is orthodox.

The conflicts between the Arabs, Ottomans and Byzantium are also reflected in modern religious divisions. Egypt was Christian, but became Muslim. Anatolia was Christian and Byzantium heartland for much of its history, but became Muslim after its conquest by new invaders following the Muslim faith.

The pattern was never exact, nor was religion of itself necessarily a driving force. The Crusaders on the east, the Arab and later Turkish invaders on the west, north and south were concerned with questions of power and territory. All the entities so created were then concerned with survival.

This, the problem of conquest and subsequent control, is beyond the scope of this post. However, I will return to it because reading Treadgold gave me new insights to questions that have always interested me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Anger with Access Economics

Last night I brought up the first part of my response to the Access Economics report on the Australian economy - Has Access Economics done Australia a grave disservice? - 1.

I am really quite angry with Access.

For the benefit of international readers, Access Economics is one of Australia's most respected economic consultancies.

Sometimes known as the Treasury in exile, the firm was founded by former staff from the Australian Treasury. Their economic reports go into the board rooms of all the big firms in the country. Their reports also attract media attention, a great deal of media attention if, as appears to be the case here, they carefully craft their words to attract that attention.

The single message that came through the media reporting was that the Australian economy was buggered. Access says so.

I had the distinct feeling watching Access's Chris Richardson on TV that the size of the media firestorm was creating a degree of discomfort. He did make the point in a kind of sub-text that the Australian recession was going to be far milder than that experienced in some other countries, but this was swept away in the response to the headline statements.

A line by Australian poet John O'Brien (P J Hartigan) has entered the popular language: "We’ll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,"Before the year is out." Those interested can find the full poem here. It's a very Australian poem.

The problem with the actions of Chris Hanrahan Richardson and his colleagues lies in the concept of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If all of Access's clients accept the reported Access headlines without looking at the detail, then their responses may indeed bugger the Australian economy.

Last night on TV, the Australian Treasurer was asked if he had been receiving Treasury advice on the economic outlook and, if so, was it consistent with the Access advice? He did not answer the question directly, instead making the point that Australia was in a remarkably good position to respond.

I have no doubt that he has been receiving daily briefings. I also have no doubt that some of that advice has been sombre. Blind Freddy could see that the international downturn has been more severe than expected.

To my mind, the key requirement at a time like this is to keep a cool head. Confidence has been broken and will only return slowly. Further, there are signs that at least some countries have begun to adopt the kind of beggar your neighbour policies that helped create the Great Depression.

In all this, it remains true that Australia is in a remarkably good position to ride through the storm. Further, there were clear if still qualitative signs that a degree of confidence was returning.

I am not basing this on hard data, simply the conversations of people around me.

Unlike the position last October, the economy has not been a topic of daily conversation. It is actually weeks since I heard anyone say anything beyond flippant comments such as doing their bit for Kevin upon return from shopping. Real estate investment - always a Sydney fascination - is back as a topic, with two colleagues planning to buy.

People are concerned about jobs, but that's understandable.

Listening to the reports, I had the odd feeling that the Treasurer was quite pleased at one level with the Access report.

It completely sidelined opposition leader Turnbull, reducing him to comments about the need to protect the budget. It gave the Government greater freedom to do things. Since then, PM Rudd has followed up with his own remarks with a special focus on the importance of China.

Mind you, I am not sure that this freedom is necessarily a good thing, given what I see as the Government's sometimes tendency to shoot from the hip. Again, cool heads are required.

Some time ago I made two key points.

The first point was that conventional consumption stimulus measures were unlikely to have the desired short term effects given the crash in confidence and because they did not address structural issues that had helped trigger the crash. At best, as has happened in Australia, they can have a cushioning effect.

The second point was that it would take time for structural imbalances to correct and for longer term investment measures to start feeding into the system. The challenge was to manage through to the recovery point.

I still don't know what Access hoped to achieve with their report beyond headline grabbing. They have certainly achieved that.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sophie Masson and the New England country side

Sophie Masson is one of Australia's better known current writers. Born in Indonesia of French parents, she came to Australia at the age of five, and spent her childhood in both Australia and France.

By one of those odd coincidences that so marks Australia, she went to school with my wife and then later moved to Armidale just before we came back.

Sophie has now had one of her posts, Natural magic: inspiration from the animal world, selected for publication in the the Club Troppo/On Line Opinion best independent blog posts of 2008.

Sophie now lives with her family in a little settlement just to the west of Armidale. I mention this not just because the post is worth reading, it is, but because this is another window into the world I knew so well and which I try to describe in my own halting way.

Is the Access Economics report right?

The news this morning is full of the latest Access Economics report on the Australian economic outlook. The report is written to attract attention - the budget is buggered is an example - and indeed has.

Access is closer to the numbers than I am. My own assessment has been so far, so good. If you cut below the hype, Access is actually forecasting the start of an economic recovery with annual growth of just 0.8 per cent in 2008-2009 rising to 2.4 per cent in 2009-2010.

I have been in the process of updating my own views on the economic outlook. So far, I see no reason to vary my view.

One point in the Access Report, however, was the reported statement that the current account deficit is predicted to rise from $A65 billion this financial year to $A100 billion next year as exports fall faster than imports.

I am watching the current account quite closely because I had previously identified this as the key variable. This moved into surplus at just the time we needed it to do so.

I plan to post my own review on Management Perspectives. I will put a cross-post here.

As I write, the British Government is reportedly on the point of announcing yet another bank rescue package. I still stand by all my previous views.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mr Rudd's continued New South Walesing

Back in June 2008 I asked Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed? My point in that post was that Mr Rudd's approach was beginning to bear some of the style marks so beloved in NSW.

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

Since then I have continued to point to what I see as deficiencies in Mr Rudd's approach that bear upon this point.

My arguments are not party political: I still badly want Mr Rudd to succeed for all our sakes. Rather, they are part of a broader case that I have been mounting for basic change to our approach to public policy and administration.

Now I see that the Rudd Government has appointed two former NSW senior public servants as Department heads. This brings to three the number of Federal Department heads coming from the NSW system.

Roger Wilkins was the first appointment. Mr Wilkins was head of the NSW Cabinet Office and was appointed as head of the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department after nearly two years in the private sector.

This has been followed by the appointment of Robyn Kruk and John Pierce as Department heads.

Robyn Kruk was head of NSW Premier's Department and resigned following the ousting of Premier Iemma. She has been appointed as head of Water, Heritage and the Arts. This may sound a strange combination, but that's the way we do things.

John Pierce was head of the NSW Treasury. He resigned - local scuttlebutt said shown the door - after the last NSW mini-budget. He has been appointed as head of Resources, Energy and Tourism.

At this point, the eyes of my international readers are probably glazing. So a little explanation.

In NSW, the Department of Premier and Cabinet (PMC) is one of the two dominant agencies, the NSW Treasury is the second. Between them, these two agencies control or at least influence every Government decision.

It is hard to explain just how pervasive their influence is. They set operational frameworks and become involved at an early stage in every Government decision outside the purely political. Again outside the purely political, it is hard to make anything happen in NSW without their support.

All three Rudd appointees have been key players in these Departments. All three are known for their ability and hard work.

I can understand the Government's desire to appoint people that they know. My problem is that they come from a system that does not work very well and indeed cannot because of systemic problems. All three have been acculturated by that system.

This leads me to my core concern: do they have the capacity to stand outside the system, to develop new approaches, or are they going to simply reinforce Mr Rudd's existing approach? If the second happens, they will simply continue the New South Walesing of the Rudd Government.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In praise of daughters

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I love my daughters with a passion.

My decision to take on the primary child care role, to largely work from home, has cost me dearly in a professional sense. At the same time, that decision means that I have been greatly blessed because of my closeness to my girls.

I am terrified of getting old.

I am not talking about physical aging here. That is inevitable. Rather, my fear of getting out of touch with current trends, of getting locked into the past, of getting old in a mental sense.

Tonight I watched a teen chick flick, a ballerina movie.

I was cooking tea for oldest (Helen) - Clare was at work - so missed the start and do not know its name. Helen left to play pool with friends at the nearby pub, so I watched the rest on my own with tears dripping down my face.

I would never have watched this movie by free choice. I watched it because it is one of Helen's favourites.

The length of standard family folk memory is around three generations - grandparents, parents, children.

In my case, this takes me back to industrial England of the second half of the nineteenth century or to Sydney of the 1880s boom and 1890s crash. The distance between this and the life of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs' young of 2009 is enormous and growing.

Sometimes its difficult trying to bridge the 142 years between Grandfather Belshaw's birth and today. I want to try to preserve the past while living in the present, yet the two are so different.

My daughters force me to keep in touch. However, I am conscious here that as they grow older there is yet another generation coming through.

Just before youngest left school, both girls complained that those coming into year seven had different attitudes to them. As a social scientist, I was fascinated by this. What did they mean?

As best I could work out, they were referring to attitudes to authority and discipline. They saw a quantitative change between them and the new cohort.

As best I can, I try to listen to my daughters and their friends. I want to understand how they think. I am also honoured to be included as a Facebook friend. There is no way I would have allowed this with my own parents or their friends, the gap was too great.

Sometimes I have to gulp and hold my peace. The current young are so frank on-line. It's worse where I have background and hence the capacity to fill in gaps. There are some things that I simply do not wish to know.

In all this, I am conscious that there are some things that I do not understand. The gap between experiences is simply too great.

I am also conscious that the gap between Eastern Suburbs Sydney and other parts of the country is great. I cannot assume that the attitudes of my girls and their friends are in any way representative.

Sometimes I know that they are because there is evidence to support this. At other times I know that they are not, again because there is evidence to show this. In the middle is a broad expanse of unknown territory.

Now that my daughters are growing older, how do I maintain contact with the young coming behind? I do not think that I can.

Earlier this week I got into an argument with someone over women's liberation. The crux was the attitude of the young towards gender roles. I find this nuanced and complicated.

My views here have been formed by watching my girls and their friends, listening to multiple conversations. They simply accept the successes of the women's' movement and have moved on. They are not interested in past fights, in many cases they do not even understand what they were.

To conclude, I think that I have been lucky to stay in touch as much as I have. Time for bed and a new set of thoughts.

Saturday Morning Musings - Byzantium and the pace of change

In a comment in his Google Reader series on my post Musings on the Byzantine Empire - decline, Neil Whitfield wrote:

I find it interesting too that Jim is drawing lessons from this reading which, it may be thought, converge with some of his concerns. But we all do that...”.

Neil is right and wrong on this one.

The reasons for the decline in the Byzantine Empire after 1025 are Warren Treadgolds' and are set out in considerable detail in his book. However, the things that I focus on are certainly my selection.

In the post I wrote:

The history I am reading about just at present sits at the centre of fault lines in some current divides. The Crusades and all that, Christian vs Muslim. Balkan conflicts. History is used, misused, as a weapon in some of the arguments and conflicts around the fault lines.

This is clearly my view and has nothing to do with Warren Treadgold. I think the first point, the place of the particular historical period, is factual. The second is an expression of opinion.

I won't comment further until I have completed the next stage in my reading plan, the history of the Ottoman Empire.

One of the reasons why this section of Warren Treadgold's history so struck me is that I have always been interested in the reasons why states and empires decline.

All human institutions ultimately either collapse or change their form so as to be almost unrecognisable. Entropy is a powerful force.

During the week Noric Dilanchian, an old friend and colleague, sent me the following graphic. It comes from a slide presentation by Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley published in October 2007.

The slide shows quite clearly the decline in the US share of global GDP over the last decade. This is one of the modern economic fault lines, the shift of economic power. 5_us_gdp_relative_to_world_gdp_oct_2007

Just as the British Empire, once the leading global economic power, declined, so the US is now facing a major structural shift. We all know this, but have yet to work through what it really means.

My interest in the rise and fall of human institutions is part professional, part personal.

At a professional level, much of my working life has been connected with change and reform. This is as true today as it was when I started work all those years ago. At this level, I am a professional change agent.

There may seem a disconnect here between this role and my sometimes defence of tradition and the status quo. The linkage lies in my personal experience.

At a personal level, I have witnessed the decline of many of the institutions and traditions that I once took for granted.

I am not arguing that these changes were good or bad, although I found some of them personally distressing. It is hard to see things that people have worked to build simply discarded. I am simply making the point that change happens.

Still at a personal level, I recently had cause to review my old client lists.

As a consultant, I have personally completed or managed more than 300 hundred assignments for over 100 clients including a large number of major Australian and global organisations. A remarkable number of those clients no longer exist or have changed form so much as to be unrecognisable.

Again, change happens.

I still support change and reform, but my experiences have changed my views.

To begin with, I no longer take the survival of institutions or of particular sets of views as a given. Now the opposite is the case.

If we take current social attitudes and values in Australia, the only thing that we can be sure of is that they will be very different ten to twenty years out. Those presently sitting comfortably in what they see as the self-evident right position will be just as discomfited as I have been by change.

Often I pussy foot around this one. I do so because a statement warning that a particular change might be coming, that a different strategy is required to manage this, can lead into a mine-field among those still involved in pushing previous agendas.

Change analysis is also an imprecise business. This makes it hard sometimes to justify what are, after all, intuitive judgements even if based on evidence.

I do not pussy foot around another issue, the sometimes need to slow the pace of change, to create stability in the midst of change.

If you look at a lot of the discussions on the pace of change they are expressed in terms of faster economic or technological change. These are external factors. In fact, we have institutionalised change within our structures in such a way as to create instability independent of external events.

You think that I am exaggerating? Consider this.

Anybody who has been involved with change processes knows that it takes time to bed change down, to get the benefits from change. The bigger the change, the longer it takes.

The average in job life expectancy of CEOs has been falling. I am not sure of the latest number, but I think that the average has now fallen to three years or less.

Each CEO comes in under a performance agreement making their pay dependent on short term goals. Each CEO want to do new things.

Given the time involved in bringing about real improvement, we now have a basic asymmetry between institutional practices and the operations of the real world. The result is a mess.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Musings on the Byzantine Empire - decline

I continue to really enjoy Warren Treadgold's book on the history of the Byzantine Empire. This week I missed a bus stop as consequence!

I know a fair bit of history, but come to the book from a Western European perspective. I have also read lots of historical novels written from the same perspective. This helps me understand things, but also causes shifts in perspectives.

Once I have finished this book, I am going to move west of the fence so to speak, and look at the Empires west of the Byzantine including the rise of the Ottoman Empire written with them as the centre story.

The history I am reading about just at present sits at the centre of fault lines in some current divides. The Crusades and all that, Christian vs Muslim. Balkan conflicts. History is used, misused, as a weapon in some of the arguments and conflicts around the fault lines.

I had thought that the Byzantine Empire declined far earlier than it did. I also misunderstood the reasons for the decline.

Under the Emperor Basil II, the Empire as the biggest power in Europe and the Middle East had regained a strength not seen for four hundred years. The story from his death in 1025 to the pillaging of Constantinople in 1204 is one of constant if erratic decline.

Byzantium need not have declined, nor was its decline due to external threat. The Empire had been under constant threat from invasion or raid throughout its history.

The decline was not due to collapsing morals - an early popular view about the decline of the Western Empire somehow translated to the East, now was it due to economic decline. To my mind, Treadgold makes an interesting and persuasive case that both population and economic activity actually advanced for much of the period.

The real cause of the Empire's decline was simply bad Government that led, among other things, to reduced social cohesion, a rise in competing forces within the Empire itself and a weakening of central authority. The Empire fell because the state finally weakened to the point that it could no longer manage external challenge in an effective fashion.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A missing post

Last night's post has gone missing. More precisely, I decided to take it off-line. My apologies to Niar who had already commented.

I took this action for two reasons.

First, the post mixed together several things perhaps better dealt with separately. Secondly, I felt that it might be misconstrued.

We all exercise a degree of self-censorship in what we write. I am no exception.

As an observer of myself, I continue to find interest in the way the process of blogging forces me to think about what I write, to refine my views, to think about the way others may read what I write.

All writing forces thought. However, the process varies between writing types.

In my second column for the Armidale Express I got a name wrong. I picked up the error after the paper had gone to press, but just before it hit the streets. I apologised to the person in question and no harm was done. This led me to muse at the start of the next column:

This business of writing a weekly column is proving harder than expected.

In blogging, length depends upon purpose. In a column, the length is fixed.

In blogging, if you make a mistake you can correct it. In a column, the mistake is there in cold print for all time, or at least until all copies of the paper decay!

Two different forms of writing, two very different disciplines.

The issues I mentioned in passing in the missing post are, I think, interesting. However, I think that they are best dealt with individually.


Now I have to apologise to Ramana as well! He must have commented just about the time I was taking the post off-line.

It's an interesting reflection of the immediacy of the blogging world. I didn't post until quite late last night, and it was quite early this morning when I took the post down. I had far to little sleep, but that's another story. So two comments in the few hours the post was on line.

Niar, Ramana, I haven't lost your comments. I will bring the essence on line later.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The problem with Mr Rudd's rubber bands

I am getting far behind on my emails and my personal reading, so I need to take something of a break from this blog. To do this, for the next week I am going to try to limit myself to short follow up posts on particular stories or themes.

In my last post, A Monday Meander - Indonesian ferry loss, Mr Rudd's overwork and the 1978 Cabinet Records, I referred to continuing concerns about Mr Rudd's approach to the management of Government business.

I have been quite consistent in my arguments here over time - Ken Henry, Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Government's bank deposit guarantee - issues arising contains a list of some of the links at the end. See also the comment from anon at the end of the post for a particular Canberra perspective on one aspect.

Consistency does not, of course, make me right, just consistent. However, it does reflect my own growing concerns.

I have no interest at present in the party politics of it all. My sole concern lies in the effective working of the Australian systems of Government, public policy and public administration.

I once tried to explain the problem this way.

Take a packet of rubber bands. Each year, you take a few out (the efficiency dividend) on the assumption that the rubber bands remaining will do better. Then you take each rubber band, or in Mr Rudd's present case all the rubber bands, and proceed to stretch them. After a while, they start to fray and break. To compensate, you increase the pressure on the remaining ones.

I accept that this is not a perfect analogy, but it's not a bad one.

Part of the problem lies in the application of pressure to a system that already had systemic problems because of the application, I would say misapplication, of certain current theories of management, organisational design and public administration. These problems are not unique to Australia.

If you have an already creaky system and apply too much pressure, things do fall over.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Monday Meander - Indonesian ferry loss, Mr Rudd's overwork and the 1978 Cabinet Records

There has been a lot of coverage on the Australian media of the dreadful Indonesian ferry tragedy. However, a passing reference caught my ear; the ferry was travelling to Samarinda. This is, I think, Tikno's home city, adding a personal note to the story.

I do not feel like writing a lot tonight. Too tired. But a few comments on some current issues.

Without boring you with the links, here is one example, I discussed some time ago the need for the Rudd Government to pace itself or risk having things fall over.

Despite Julia Gillard's defence in the face of warnings by the Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner, Lynelle Brigg, that the workload demanded by the Government of its public servants is unsustainable, Ms Briggs is to my mind right. At the moment, everybody is trying to do to the point that there is little time for thought. The result is wasted opportunity.

I let the release of the 1978 cabinet records pass by without comment. I should not have.

For the benefit of international readers, Australia has a thirty year rule for the release of official papers unless there are continuing national security releases for restricting release. The cabinet papers provide an invaluable picture into just what then Governments thought were important.

Australian Archives provides a valuable introduction to each release. For those who are interested, you can find the entry point here.

Just one quote from the introduction:

Malcolm Fraser’s government faced significant challenges in 1978, despite a sweeping victory at the December 1977 election. Unemployment was close to 7 per cent and there were 20 unemployed for every vacancy. Inflation was falling, but it was still over 7 per cent.

When I write about economic policy, I do so from the perspective of someone who has been through previous crashes. In Australia, it is 17 years since the bottom of the last downturn. I remember it only too well. However, many of those writing or making decisions now do not have such clear memories. I think that this makes things worse.

Enough, I think, for tonight.