Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Essay - further musings on writing

So much to write about and so little time. I suspect that many writers feel this.

Until very recently I have rejected the temptation to call myself a writer. I actually felt that it was pretentious. To me, a writer was a person who wrote for a living. Alex Buzo, Judith Wright or Patrick White were writers. By contrast, I wrote, but it was always for a purpose. Writing was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I do not know how much I have written over the years. I could not even begin to calculate it. Three theses, multiple university essays, a number of published articles or chapters in books, tens of thousands of minutes, memos and official papers, conference presentations, over a thousand client reports, over two thousand blog posts. Words piled on words piled on words.

As recently as last year when I said that I wanted to be a writer I did not claim to be a writer. I think that the distinction is that, for writers, the writing is central, not just a means to an end.

I think that Kanani Fong is a writer, Bronwyn Parry is a writer, my eldest is not. Helen writes with great clarity, but to her writing is simply a tool. By contrast, youngest Clare is a writer; she writes because she must.

Growing up, there was a certain romance attached to writers and writing. Like many, I thought about writing novels. There were two problems.

To begin with, I had no idea how to do it. Somehow writing novels was an arcane process. I had this idea that the characters were meant to emerge, to create a life of their own, so that they took control of the writing. My role was to record. But how did this happen? I had no idea. Then, too, I kept getting distracted. Wine and women (I am not musical, so there was not so much song), as well as work and the day to day distractions of life kept diverting me. 

Writing, like acting, is a craft; as with all crafts, practitioners are better at some things than others. I have taught myself to perform in public, but cannot act. Acting requires control over the process, as well as the ability to put self aside. I lack the second. I become self-conscious.

  I think that I can write clearly. However, I struggle to capture the rhythm of language. Like most of us, I have experimented with poetry. In later years at school and at university I wrote quite a lot of poetry. Looking back, it was just bad.

I have thought about writing plays, but the same issue has always put me off. Language as well as plot is central to a good play. Mind you, I actually feel a little more confident about plays now than I did because of my daughters.

Both did drama at school, requiring me to attend session after session. Helen focused on acting and production, Clare on acting and writing. Both loved it. Helen in particular has a very analytical approach to production, so I actually learned quite a bit looking at what she had tried to achieve and what I thought of the results.

I still don't think that I could write a good play, but at some stage I do intend to try. It seems a bit sad to put something aside through fear of failure. After all, I am writing for my own pleasure.

Am I ready yet to claim that I am a writer as opposed to a person who uses writing as a tool for other purposes? It now seems a bit silly not too.                  

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Paul Barratt's Blog

I had an email from Paul Barrett giving me a great lead on another aspect of the New England experience. Via this mechanism I found that Paul had a blog established in February.

Apart from being another Armidale lad, Paul is a former senior Commonwealth public servant whose last post within the system was head of the Defence Department.

Paul's blog is called Australian Observer. His last post, Resettling for Uncle Sam, provides a picture of an almost surreal past official episode. Read it and see what you think.

Saturday Morning Musings - access to an Aboriginal past

It is very important in writing history, if sometimes a little dispiriting, to recognise that what seems like a bright new idea to you is not bright and new at all!

My current obsessive digging down into New England history, something that I fear makes me a very dull read from a general blogging perspective, means that I have been mainly stuck in the period from about 1800 to 1850. This fifty years covers the main period of initial colonisation.

In Invasion, massacre, murder and just death in battle I talked about the way in which a change in the use of words can lead to unexpected changes in thinking. A little later in Belshaw's jottings - 27 May 2009 I used the device of a Daingatti man who was twenty when the first fleet arrived as a way of penetrating, however imperfectly, to the Aboriginal perspective.

I wonder what people think of me sitting in the train?

There they are with their ear plugs or, sometimes, just dozing. There am I with my glasses stuck on the end on my nose, briefcase on knee, flicking between book and spiral bound writer's diary as I read and write furiously. Every so often I lift my head up, take my glasses off and chew the end and then look around. Usually I have a thought niggling away and actually need to let it sit for a moment.

For those who know Sydney trains, I usually aim to sit at the end of the carriage where there are bench seats on each side. This just gives me a little more room. When I suddenly look up, it is not unusual to to have a quarter of the compartment looking at me!

Anyway, this time when I looked up I had been thinking that one device I might use to further explain what happened in a simple and interesting way was to use the techniques of military history to explain the moving frontier. Of course, it's been done.

In The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838, John Connor explores the moving frontier from a military perspective. In his review of this book Alan Atkinson, one of Australia's best current historians, made the point that it cut through the fog of history (my words) created by  Henry Reynolds on one side, Keith Windschuttle on the other. He wrote:   

Thinking in this way about frontiers means stepping into the intellectual jungle of multiculturalism. Black and white are held in balance - their aspirations seem equally complex and equally interesting. Connor chooses to hold the balance by leaving out stories of massacres, which imply the helplessness of indigenous people. He works instead with the conviction that along the Australian frontier, "at certain times in certain places there was sustained conflict that can only be defined as 'war'."

This makes the Aboriginal response into a matching of wits for the sake of survival. "Frontier warfare", by Connor's definition, involved a level playing field, at least for the moment and in the imagination of those who took up arms on either side.

Alan's review concludes:

This is military history, and the Aborigines are military tacticians. The methods of the British troops are compared with their methods elsewhere in the Empire, and the indigenous response is described in the same carefully comparative fashion. Their new techniques included attacks on introduced crops and livestock, a type of economic warfare which frequently held back settlement.

Previously, Aboriginal wars had been interrupted by hunting, but now warriors could live on food taken from their enemies, and that too changed the way they operated. Alliances were formed, between the Dharawal and the Gandangara in Macquarie's time, and among Tasmanians in the 1820s. This might mean a sense of Aboriginal solidarity unknown before the arrival of the British.

Connor doesn't overstate his case. As he says, Aboriginal achievements were necessarily limited without hierarchical methods of command. The book is itself the work of a cool-headed tactician, who knows how far his resources will stretch and with a first-class control of the field he has chosen to make his own.

As so often happens, there is another New England connection in all this.

If my memory serves me correctly, Alan's dad was a station manager for the Wrights. His brother was in my class at school, the twins in brother David's. Now Alan is professor of history at the University of New England.

The wheel turns. Alan would not be there and writing in the way he does without the history I am writing about. As always, the present stands on the shoulders of the past.

One of the things I want to do in writing is to draw out the streams in New England thought. These varied in many often subtle ways from those presented as mainstream by Australia's metro dominated historians.

Yes, I am back on one of my hobby horses. However, I still think that it's interesting.

Remaining with the Aborigines, the continued presence of relatively large Aboriginal populations in New England long after they became an irrelevancy in Sydney or Melbourne made for racism at local level. But it also made New England very important in terms of changing responses to Aboriginal people.

If I understand my history correctly, and I have a lot of work to do, many of the Aborigines in inner Sydney first came from New England and especially the Daingatti. They are very different from the Lapa (La Perouse) mob.

More importantly perhaps, a number of key flashpoints that changed relationships actually happened in what I call New England. I want to tease this out.

The personal element in all this remains very important.

  When I am called bro or brother, I cannot respond in kind. I say mate as an alternative. I am not Aboriginal and I feel very uncomfortable using language that does not reflect my own history.

There is a big post here that I should write at some point. For the present, what I can do is to give a group of Aboriginal people better access to their own past. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lessons in public administration from the Victorian fires

I haven't commented on the on-going inquiry into the Victorian bush fires because of lack of knowledge of the detail. However, there was one story from yesterday that caught my ear because it seemed to me to be a symptom of a growing administrative problem that I have talked about before.

The facts (and here) appear to be this.

Fire hit Kinglake around 6.25 in the evening. Just after 1.30 that afternoon, a mapper at the Kangaroo Ground incident control centre predicted that fire might strike as far as Kinglake and St Andrews. By 3 an urgent threat message was ready to go from the Centre. Kangaroo finally issued a warning at 5.20, then a warning appeared on the Country Authority Web Site at 5.55. By then it was far too late.

But why the delay? I quote:

Today the senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Jack Rush, questioned CFA operations manager, Jason Lawrence, who was in charge at Kangaroo Ground on the day.

JACK RUSH: Who says that you can't issue warning messages if you haven't got control of the fire?

JASON LAWRENCE: Well the warning messages are to be issued by and signed off by the incident controller and as I wasn't allocated that role or unable to perform in that role at the time, then I was not able to sign off on those information releases.

SIMON LAUDER: Mr Lawrence told the Royal Commission he tried several times over the afternoon to contact those who did have the authority to issue warnings but he couldn't get through.

JACK RUSH: And Mr Lawrence, that wasn't released because you couldn't contact the Kilmore ICC.

JASON LAWRENCE: Well it wasn't released because once again I wasn't the incident controller and not responsible for the release of that information but also in part because I couldn't contact the ICC up there to confirm that and hold those discussions.

Kangaroo finally issued a warning without authority after learning that communications at the Kilmore Incident Communications Centre were down.

Before we draw any conclusions about Mr Lawrence's failure to act independently and release the information, we should remember two things.

The first is the chaos of that afternoon. The second is the way the rules bound him, reducing the capacity for initiative. They did try to contact Kilmore ICC a number of times, but simply could not get through.

One point that I have made many times in writing on today's systems of public administration in Australia is the way they have become more mechanistic, more controlled, more rule bound, more rigid. They have been reborn as the human equivalent of a computer system, parts that are meant to work together in defined ways following defined chains of communications and operating under specified decision rules.

This system can be quite effective when working with the known, although I have pointed to specific problems here. It struggles when it has to deal with the new, or with fast moving events that require action outside the rules.

You can clearly see all this quite clearly when Mr Lawrence says:

Well the warning messages are to be issued by and signed off by the incident controller and as I wasn't allocated that role or unable to perform in that role at the time, then I was not able to sign off on those information releases.

Note the words incident controller. It is obviously sensible in managing responses to an event like the fires to have a degree of central control. However, the very words "incident controller" carry with them a tone that carries through in the idea that warning messages must be issued by and signed off by the incident controller. Mr Lawrence had a place in the chain of command and, in terms of the rules applying to him, he was not allocated the role, could not perform the role.

It seems clear from the evidence presented so far that, to a degree at least, the Victorian attempts to control and manage such a vast outbreak of fire collapsed under systemic failure. In particular, the communications systems on which central command and control depends failed. Once communications go, then the system fails.

In military terms, the phrase fog of war was coined to describe the way in which battle field ambiguities and difficulties affect action. One central control fails or becomes difficult, then you need to rely on the initiative and actions of individual units. The system itself can then become an impediment.

In considering Mr Lawrence's actions, you have to ask whether you would have acted differently. I don't know that I can say in all honesty that I would have had I been working in that system at that place at that time. The chaos and pressure must have been quite dreadful.

One of the things that worries me about likely responses to the Victorian fires is that attention will focus on ways of making the system work more effectively, of adding further layers to the system to overcome the problems that arose this time. Maybe the system itself should be abolished, replaced with one where planning starts from the local and builds up, with the central role redefined as facilitating and coordinating, not controlling.

A brief postscript

I was chatting with colleagues this morning about this one. Just a few brief comments on points made.

Once you take way or in some ways constrain individual freedom and responsibility, you cannot then expect people to re-assume it automatically when systems fail.

The role of insurance, fault and litigation. Should we adopt the New Zealand no-fault system?

Then the conversation switched to rules and unforeseen events in a more general sense, the way in which policies and official structures created a world of their own whose linkage with actual life could become very tenuous indeed. There i another post lurking around here. I will leave it there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Belshaw's jottings - 27 May 2009

I really am written out. I am also behind in other things. So just a few personal jottings.

Yesterday morning I finished my target 300 words on the current book. This was written between the time I left the house and my arrival at Parramatta.

I was trying to think through the the impact of the arrival of Europeans on Aboriginal thought. To start getting my mind around this, I took the device of a young man of the Daingatti Aboriginal language group. This group occupied the Macleay Valley.

Say he was twenty when the First Fleet arrived at Sydney. Then he would have been 53 when Port Macquarie was founded as a penal settlement at the mouth of the Hastings River just to the south of the Macleay. That's quite a long time, the majority of his adult life.

I don't know how long it would have taken for news of the strange arrivals to reach what is now called the Macleay, but I suspect that it was quicker than we might have expected. All people like to gossip, so news would have spread up the coast between neighbouring groups. But what to make of it all?

To our young Daingatti man, the immediate world centred on the particular territory occupied by his family group. This was known, familiar, constantly travelled. As distance increased from this centre, knowledge declined.

The blue rim of the mountains to the east visible from all parts of the Macleay was familiar, incorporated into the stories of the group. The territory of the Daingatti followed the Macleay up into the headwaters; the Tablelands beyond were known and visited by at least some Daingatti.

The Aborigines were great travellers, but moved within a world determined not just by geography but also by long standing patterns of friendship and enmity. These patterns almost certainly influenced what was known, the way information spread.

At first, the stories must have seemed strange, inconceivably remote. However, with time and the slow spread of European settlement there would have been more news. King's Town, now Newcastle, was established as a penal colony in 1804. Ships would have been seen. By the time Port Macquarie was established in 1821, the Daingatti had thirty three years of accumulating knowledge.

I have made the point in this way because it bears upon something that has always puzzled me a little, why the Aborigines did not respond to the new arrivals in a more aggressive, coordinated, fashion. Thirty three years is quite a long time.

Various explanations have been given and no doubt all have some truth. However, the particular thing that stands out to me is just how slow the initial spread of European settlement was.

It took twenty one years for the European population of the new colony to reach 10,000. In 1815, twenty seven years after settlement, the European population was just over 13,000.

While European settlement had devastating effects in terms of the spread of diseases and on particular clans or family groups,  its actual impact on the immediate land was quite limited.

This was still a penal colony. Transport costs limited farming to areas immediately adjacent to water transport , while the local market for produce was still very small. Early NSW, like its modern counterpart, hugged the coast and looked to the sea.

This small population allowed for a degree of co-existence between the Aborigines and Europeans, between two very different life styles. While forced to retreat in individual areas, the great bulk of the Aboriginal population continued as they always had. I just don't think that most Aborigines outside those directly affected would have seen the Europeans as a threat to them.

Wool changed all this because it provided a high value product that could bear transport costs to distant European markets. The non-Aboriginal population exploded. It passed 28,000 in 1820, 44,000 in 1830, 127,000 in 1840. This growth swept all before it, leaving little time to respond.

At 53, our Daingatti man may have had thirty three years to get used to the concept of Europeans. He would have found it hard to comprehend that within his remaining life time every part of the Macleay Valley would be under at least some nominal European settler's occupation.

The nature of the Aboriginal response to this explosion is another story.

I need to get ready to go to work. Another thing that I have discovered is that the nature of the relationship between Aborigines and Europeans was far more complicated, more multi-faceted, than I had realised. But that, too, is another story.  

Monday, May 25, 2009

Armidale's Beauty

There is no doubt that my home city Armidale is an attractive city. Tonight just a few random photos to show you.

The first photo by Gordon Smith just shows a local general store.

Just a street scene. But look at the sky. Autumn in Armidale is quite beautiful. Cool bright days, cold nights. Look, too, at the colours of the paint. The ute (utility) on the left shows that it is a country scene.


The next shot, again by Gordon, shows a foreshortened shot up to the old Armidale Teachers' College.

The park and house at front are very Armidale, but you can also see the monumental style of the house on the hill. Armidale is the place that was to be the capital of our own state.20090515-11-08-00-around-armidale--streets-and-architecture

The house below, 65 Mann Street, is presently for sale for $759,000. This is one of the many mansions built in Armidale's inner city.

This is, in fact, the house my grandparents lived in for a number of years. The agent's description says:

“Opawa” dates to 1896 and was built by Samuel Herbert, the local government architect, as his own home. The interior of the house contains many magnificent cedar joinery features.

“Opawa” has been renovated over the last three years and is now presented in pristine condition. Superb quality curtaining, carpeting, and light fittings add to the opulent feel of the home. Central heating, selected under floor heating and reverse cycle air-conditioned are all features. The grounds of the house are substantial and include a covered pergola, private seating area and a large rear north facing deck.

65 Mann Street

The photo below shows the same house in 1935 while my grandparents' were living there. The black and white better captures, I think, the character of the house. 65 Mann Street 7

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - New England's Ogilvie dynasty

Tom Roberts Edward Ogilvie 

Tom Robert's 1894 painting of Edward Ogilvie, a key member of New England's Ogilvie pastoral dynasty.    

My new train reading is George Farwell's Squatter's Castle:The saga of a pastoral dynasty (Angus & Robertson; Sydney 1983).

This is the story of the rise of the Ogilvies, one of New England's great squatting dynasties. It is a very good book that brings people and events alive. It helps in reading to have some knowledge of history, but the book does not require this, nor does it require a detailed knowledge of Australia.

Consider this. It is Sydney 1824. The family has just arrived.

Everywhere these newcomers walked they saw colour; flowering shrubs, trees in blossom, gaudy parrots in cages outside cottage or shop doors, street stalls piled with nectarines, plums, peaches, oranges, limes. The way people dressed was flamboyant after England.

The book was first published in 1973. George Farwell was then 62. Three years later he was dead.

Born in Bath (England) on 3 October 1911, Farwell arrived in Australia in 1935. A professional writer, Farwell was one of those interesting and peripatetic writers who managed to make a living in that past Australia when markets were so much smaller, literary grants unknown. Still, at the end of his career, Squatter's Castle itself was written on a literary grant!

This book may not be counted as history in a formal sense, although it includes some footnotes. Rather, it is a literary work written by a craftsman who wished to entertain. It is all the better for that. That said, it creates a real challenge for someone like me.

At one level I wish to quote him. His description of the frontier war in the Upper Hunter in 1826 is, I think, the best such description I have read. He brings it alive. However, it is hard to quote him as a source in a professional history book when I cannot check his sources.

At a second level, the standard of his writing is a challenge in itself because it sets yet another standard to be met.

For a ten year old boy the sight was a traumatic one. Edward was to remember it all his life. A row of gibbets emerged from the drizzle as their launch passed down the Thames. Three shapeless figures there in chains on that raw late autumn morning, vanishing into the mist again. Thirteen weeks later, anchoring in Sydney Cove, the ship swung close to another gibbet; on Pinchgut Island, a few cable lengths away.

Farwell uses the voyage as a device to mark the distinction between an old and new land.

The Ogilvies - William, his wife Mary and their four children - sailed on the 400 ton convict barque Granada sent from London to bring eighty one female convicts to their new prison in Australia. There were nine other passengers.

To Mary and the children, ship life was a very different experience. To William Ogilvie, it was familiar. He knew this world well; he had joined the Royal Navy at the age of twelve, retiring from active service at the age of thirty two. The ship's Scottish commander, Alex Anderson, was a highly competent captain. The ship's surgeon who doubled as convict superintendent was another Scot, Peter Cunningham.

This was Cunningham's fourth voyage to New South Wales. He was an intelligent man with wide interests. His later book, Two Years in New South Wales, became an English best seller upon its publication in 1827 and remains the fullest contemporary account of life in the new colony during the period.

Cunningham's sense of irony made him an acute observer of the evolving and complicated nuances of social life in New South Wales; Sterling (English born) vs Currency (locally born); the Legitimates also known as Crossbreds who had come to Australia by force of law vs the Illegitimates, those who had come to the colony of their own free will; the Merinos whose blood was worthy of a stud book.  Each part of colonial society had its own structures, each applied a sometimes sardonic assessment to others. The result, Cunningham suggested, was a series of subtle grades as rigid as the castes of India.

Cunningham and the Ogilvies became friends, a friendship that was to last throughout Cunningham's life. His knowledge of the local scene was invaluable to the Ogilvies. He and William agreed to look for land together.

The land they chose lay in what is now the Upper Hunter. William called his place Merton after the village in England where Lord Nelson had built a house for his mistress to the scandal of English society and where the Ogilvies had lived just prior to their departure for New South Wales. To William with his naval background, Nelson was simply a great man.

At the time William took up his grant, he was undercapitalised. The grant itself, 2,000 acres (800 ha) was too small to be properly viable. Economic survival was a battle, one that many lost. As stock numbers built up, the family occupied new land beyond the grant, thus becoming squatters.

Stock and the management of stock was central. Land was cropped for grains and stock feed and gardens planted; this was both a Government requirement and a necessity to meet immediate needs. However, transport costs meant that there was little market for produce. Horses, cattle and especially sheep with their high value wool were the source of income.

Stock was in short supply. When Peter Cunningham and William Ogilvie arrived at King's Town (now Newcastle) on the Lord Liverpool's weekly service from Sydney, they found that there were no horses available. They walked from there to the Upper Hunter, walked around the area they saw as especially interesting, walked back to King's Town.

Everything revolved around stock. Sheep were purchased with a deposit, the balance to be paid with interest from the wool clip. Money was borrowed at high interest rates to buy stock. Managers were paid in part in stock. The cost of any lost sheep was automatically deducted from shepherd's wages. A careless shepherd could be brought before the bench and sentenced to flogging. Herds were carefully managed for future increase.

The Aborigines had a different view. The flocks and herds of the settlers were on their land. To them, they were another source of food. Two different perspectives that help explain frontier violence. The Aborigines speared stock for food, the settlers responded with sometimes violence to protect their livelihood. As the Aborigines came to comprehend this, stock were speared as conscious retaliation, economic warfare.

We can see a little more of this complex evolving mosaic if we look through the eyes of young Edward Ogilvie.

The ten year old Edward who travelled down the Thames past the bodies on the gibbet knew the quiet tenant farming world of Merton. Now he was thrust into the world of the convict ship, then the strange new world of colonial Sydney. Once the family moved to Merton, the world changed again. Now it was the battle to build a new life in an isolated world far removed from anything the family had known.

It seems clear that the children were involved in property work from an early age. There was no formal schooling. They were taught especially by Mary Ogilvie.

Edward was twelve when the frontier was broke out. He was home when a large party of armed blacks threatened the house. Mary Ogilvie was alone. The stories as to what happened vary. What is clear is that she persuaded the blacks to leave. What is also clear is that she was able to do so because the Ogilvie's had treated the local Aborigines well.

This is actually a pattern across colonial New England, one that fits with Aboriginal cultural structures. The Aborigines were selective. In retaliating against Europeans, they generally targeted those who had been insensitive and brutal. Young Edward himself had played with the local Aboriginal children and had learned to speak the local language.

Childhood was short in this world. The children all took on adult responsibilities at an early age. The boys had to learn to manage a largely convict workforce, one that was changing because the convicts sent to New South Wales were changing. There were more serious criminals, fewer petty offenders. At eighteen Edward reported a life for shirking his duties. The sentence was fifty lashes.

In 1840 Edward with brother Frederick was in the New England, the Northern Tablelands, looking for new land. The escaped convict Richard Craig had discovered a huge river, now called the Clarence, while living with the Aborigines.

Pardoned for the discovery, Craig was now taking a massive party from Falconer's Plains near Guyra on the Tablelands down to the Clarence following the seasonal routes he had learned while living with the Bundjalung.

The huge column moved out in order. First came Dr Dobie's cattle destined for Ramornie. The Mylne Brothers' cattle for Eatonsville followed. Dr Dobie's sheep came next, then drays, horses and a further flock of sheep. There were no roads. Craig's job was to get the column through to the Clarence down what had become known as Craig's Line though some of the most rugged country in New England. The resulting journey is an epic in its own right.

Edward and Frederick Ogilvie asked to join Craig's party. Denied, they pushed on as fast as possible with an Aboriginal and reached the Clarence at Tabulum ahead of Craig. Downstream Edward took up fifty-six miles (90 km) on both sides of the river and later named the runs Yulgilbar. By 1850 Yulgilbar was about 300 sq. miles (777 km²) and included Fairfield, a 100,000-acre (40,469 ha) cattle station in the mountains.

Not unexpectedly, there were again troubles with the local Aborigines. Edward quickly became fluent in the local dialect and at a parley explained that he only wanted the grass and gave them complete hunting rights on his run including honey.  

With success, Edward's direction changed. Father William had fallen in love with what is now Italy, something replicated by modern Australians. Edward did the same.  

In August 1854 Edward Ogilvie sailed for Europe. For two years he travelled widely. His Diary of Travels in Three Quarters of the Globe, published in London in 1856 under the pseudonym "An Australian Squatter",  describes his visits to the war front in the Crimea and his enchantment with Florence where he had his portrait painted by Pietro Milani shortly before his return to Australia.

In 1858 while in Europe Edward married Theodosia, daughter of the Reverend William de Burgh. He returned with his wife in 1859, now building what was to become known as Yulgilbar Castle.

I will leave the story at this point. I hope that I have interested you in the Ogilvies as a small part of New England's history.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The continuing insanity of NSW's approach to driving licenses

Almost twelve months ago in Saturday Morning Musings - the burden of compliance I spoke in part of the change in the law in NSW that required new drivers to do 120 hours of practice before they could get their first license. I suggested at the time that this was inequitable, costly and was likely to have adverse effects.

The evidence is now starting to come in to show that I was right. Here I want to focus on just two elements. I don't have the links unfortunately. I picked the stories up while travelling.

The first is inequity. My argument here was that we had created a system that made it hard for those who did not have access to a motor vehicle or could not afford to pay a driving instructor to actually get a license. This was a further barrier to those with little income.

There was a recent story in the Sydney press about a girl trying to create a charity that would give young people from poor backgrounds the chance to get a license. She wanted people to provide cars and volunteer drivers. Without this, an increasing number of young people would never be able to afford to get a license legally.

A driver's license is a pre-condition for many jobs. When we make it impossible for young people from low income families to be able to afford a license, we are directly adding to Australia's growing under class.

The second element is continuing corruption in our attitude to the law. Again, I suggested that the effect of the increased hours would be to create a further incentive for people to lie, to falsify records. I knew this to be true from the young that I knew. Now, a survey by a motoring organisation revealed that 14% of those participating were prepared to lie to get their license.

I think that the proportion is in fact higher than this.

A law that adds hundreds of millions of dollars in costs, that further disadvantages low income families, that teaches people to lie just to get around it, is not, to my mind, a good law.

All this might drop away if there were hard evidence that the law provided sufficient benefit to offset the costs. I know of no such evidence.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Time's Past - Belshaws at Glenroy January 1964

Belshaws Glenroy 1964

This photo from cousin Jamie's collection took me back into a distant past. From left to right: Jim Belshaw, Dotty Walford, Aunt Kay (Kathleen Vickers), Mum, brother David.

I still stand that way, but I seem to have lost my hair!

This was another world.

In January 1964 I was 18, just about to turn 19. Dave is fifteen months younger than me, so he must have been 17 in one of those brief overlaps when our nominal ages were just twelve months part.

Now before going on, a short story that drives to the heart of this post.

I showed youngest (now 19) the photo. She laughed because it showed me as a teenager. She still thinks of herself in that way.

Now I cannot begin to tell you how wrong this is. To us, teenager (the word was not often used) was an Americanism that described a small slice from around 14-16. An eighteen year old was a young adult.

Because my parents felt that I was to young to go to University when I could, I was just entering second year in this photo. Many students were younger. In 1967 I joined the Commonwealth Public Service as an Administrative Trainee. Two graduates in the group were just 19. One had a young baby.

This was a more formal world.

In 1963 my group at UNE had rebelled at being called Mr or Miss; we wanted to be called by our first names. Yet I still called many older men sir as I had been trained to do. I also still recognised a complex hierarchy of place and position, each requiring modification of behaviour to fit in. University people were not the same as country, nor the same as townies.

While more formal, this was also freer world in a way that the modern young (and some of their parents) find hard to understand.

There were no mobile phones or internet.

When I went to Tasmania at 16 hitchhiking on my own, there was no expectation that I would contact my parents every day. I could not. They had to wait.

When I started working in Canberra at age 21, I was not expected to contact my parents. Yes, Mum wanted contact, but she had to wait on me to initiate it.

This type of freedom carried through every aspect of life.

Our children are long term teenagers because we make them so. As parents and authority figures, I include Government in the second, we have emasculated our kids.

Parents worry, as I do, about excessive drinking. I would argue that we have created a situation in which excessive drinking is the only form of self-expression left for young people.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Byzantium and the mixing of people

In a comment on Invasion, massacre, murder and just death in battle, Neil Whitfield pointed me to David Day's Conquest. Neil reviewed this book in several contexts - here, here.

I have yet to read the book. One of Day's points is that human history is in part the story of the supplanting and mixing of peoples.

I made some what similar points in my meandering discussion on Byzantium as part of my train reading series. If you want to read the series of posts in order, I have added them at the end of the post.

I don't think that you can properly understand the Balkans or Middle East without understanding the way in which in which different peoples and cultures have been mixed.

Byzantium Series:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Invasion, massacre, murder and just death in battle

This is the type of post that would normally go on New England's History. I am putting it here because I think that is an interesting example of the way in which a change in the use of words can lead to unexpected changes in thinking.

There are two presently recurrent themes in a lot of historical writing on the Australian Aborigines, invasion and massacre.

Invasion is the preferred Aboriginal usage for the arrival of the British. Increasingly, too, there is tendency to glory in those who fought back. Massacre as a term is applied to a very large degree to describe certain types of killing of Aborigines during the period of the moving frontier. This is well captured Bllod on the wattle in Bruce Elder's book Blood on the Wattle. I was browsing this at lunchtime in a book shop to see if I wanted to buy it. I think that I will.

Now to avoid getting caught in unnecessary traps here, I am not interested in the issue as to whether stories of Aboriginal deaths were or were not exaggerated. That is a debate in Australian historiography. I am only interested in what actually happened as best we can determine in a particular area.

The problem I face is simply this.

I was going to write about the moving frontier, then decided that I should use the word invasion because I was trying to write this part of the book from an Aboriginal perspective. That decision made, It meant that I was going to write from a perspective set to some degree within the concept of two opposing forces, invaders and resisters.

This is where my problems started to arise, because it meant that I had to apply the same language to both sides. I had to be consistent.

To illustrate my problem, take the word massacre. One definition says the intentional killing of a considerable number of human beings, under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty, or contrary to the usages of civilized people. A second definition states promiscuous slaughter of many who can not make resistance, or much resistance.

Now the murder of Aborigines at Myall Creek in 1838 was, I think, a massacre. Twenty eight people were killed in what could be fairly described as promiscuous slaughter. But what about the murder of Mrs Mason, her baby, two young daughters and the shepherd who tried to help them at Bald Hills. Massacre or simply brutal murder?

Certainly the local Europeans came to call it a massacre. But the numbers involved are smaller, so it is probably best described as a brutal murder. Or is a better not to use certain words at all, instead relying on factual description?

You see my problem? The fatal spearing of a single shepherd may or may not be a murder. I guess it depends on motive and circumstance. However, even the very word murder carries connotations today that were in some ways quite alien to Aboriginal society.

I am not quite sure where I go with all this. However, it does show the need to be very careful in the use of words.


As so often happens when I get involved with an idea, I have spent the last hour or so simply digging into what has been written before. Google books is really very useful when it comes to a quick review. As part of this, I did a very quick review of material on the small pox epidemics that affected Aboriginal populations.

Because I am trying to write at a regional level, broader stuff is only relevant to the degree that it has local implications. I say this because I am actually not sure that the impact of small pox was quite as great outside Sydney as sometimes suggested.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Start of another week

Start of another busy week.

I simply did not get as much done this week end as I had hoped. Still, I did at least make some progress with dates and population statistics.

As so often happens, my reading has outrun my writing. I have multiple books open in front of the computer. I need to focus on completing some stuff.

Those dreaded dates. They form a skeleton. With so many dates in my mind at the moment, I find that I keep forgetting key ones. I am doing a date table that I can carry round with me just to check relationships.

All this makes me a bit absent minded. One of these days I am going to miss another train or bus stop since this is my main reading, note taking time.

Ah well.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday potpourri

Great Northern Railway

Pretty scene isn't it?

This photo by Gordon Smith shows what was once called The Great Northern Railway just north of Armidale. Hard to believe that that for so many years this was the main rail line to Brisbane.

Change is inevitable. Still, I find it sad that the Brisbane Government kept its part of the line open, while Sydney shut its part down. I think that this is pretty typical of the lack of vision that has so scarred NSW over the years.     

Often on Sunday I write a full essay. However, I really did this yesterday, so bear with me today if I just ramble a little.

I found Neil's post Tiananmen and all that – 20 years on remarkably interesting, in part because it included eye witness material.

In reading about events like this I have to remind myself that things change, but slowly. This is sometimes cold comfort. 

In this context, there was another dreadful case during the week involving the Australian Immigration Department. The thing that I find hardest to bear about cases like this is the way they reveal growth in fundamental inhumanity.

There is a powerful book here. Not a passionate book, but one that coldly, factually and clinically traces the growing moral corruption that finally blinded ministers and officials to what was being done. I cannot do it, I am struggling to complete my own current writing assignments, but I wish someone would.

Yesterday in Saturday Morning Musings - the challenge of writing good history I discussed some of the challenges involved in writing good history.

The Australian Immigration example extends some of my points I was trying to make. Any book must be clinical. The layering of case after case, fact after fact, will of itself create an emotional response in the reader.

Australians are not inhumane, just a little blind and self-centred. We need to be reminded from time to time that our own instinctive reactions create things that are in fact abhorrent to everything we stand for.

Over on skepticslawyers in Some melancholy cliometrics HD, the original skepticlawyer herself, is reacting to the destruction of past material by the Christian Church. I have not read the book SL is quoting from. However, I would make two points.

The first is that destruction of material giving alternative views is not unique to the Christian Church. The second is that for every book destroyed, one survived because of Church copyists who carefully reproduced material. Without them, Western civilisation would have been greatly impoverished. I suppose win some, lose some.

On Friday in  Round the New England blogging traps - 6 I continued my irregular review of New England blogs. I have to do a lot more here, as well as in my reviews of the New England press.

I know that I am very New England focused just at present, but in doing new things I find that my personality requires me to become obsessive about something to the point that the desire to complete conquers the day to day distractions of ordinary life.

As part of my current obsessions, I have been looking at the Australian Bureau of Statistics historical estimates of the Australian population. Those who are interested can find the series here.

Why population statistics? Well, it's just that I want to know what I am dealing with. It sets one context for events.

I think that the thing that surprised me was just how slow the growth in the non-Aboriginal population was. Did you know, for example, that it was 1809 before the population passed 10,000?

This is twenty one years after the arrival of the first fleet. The population then grew quite rapidly. Even so, it took a further nine years for the non-Aboriginal population to pass 20,000. Thirty years, 22,438 people. Makes one think.

Well, I have to cook lunch. That's all for now. 

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the challenge of writing good history

In a brief discussion in another place, Kanani Fong asked if there were any specific models that I used in writing non-fiction. I wrestle with this question often. The short answer is no.

At one level, the way we write or should write depends upon purpose. A speech is not the same as an official minute or memo.

The way we write is also affected by context. I cannot write my newspaper column in the same way I write my blog posts. One I can edit, the other not. One is subject to a word limit, the other not. And so on.

Writing is affected as well by the intended audience.

In teaching communication as an element within management training, I use a simple diagram - two stick figures joined by a line. The first is the communicator. I have a message that I want to get across. The second figure is my reader, listener who takes what I say, present or write and interprets it in terms of their own perceptions of the world. The line is the communication.

This leads to the simple point that if you want to communicate well, you have to know what you message is, how you are going to communicate it, how it is likely to be received.

Writing for a general audience is far more complex than official or business writing because the audience is less well known. If I am writing an economics piece, I can reasonably assume that my reader is likely to be interested in economics or, at least, in economic developments. However, even here there are choices. In my case, I choose to write for a more general audience, trying to explain to myself and them what has been happening. To do this, I have to simplify.

I find the writing of history especially difficult because here I am writing for my own purposes in isolation to some degree from my potential readers. I write because I want to, but I also want to be read. I know that people interested in New England are the most likely group of readers, but I also want to make my writing accessible to those who have no knowledge of or perhaps no interest in the topic.

This brings me to my first challenge. How do I do this?

If you look at a lot of historical writing, you will see that a certain level of knowledge is in fact assumed. An act of parliament might be mentioned in passing. The writer assumes that the reader will know what an act of parliament is. This may well not be the case. Even if it is the case, the reader is likely to interpret it in a current context that may well be far removed from the actual reality of that past time.

The problem that now arises is that a history that assumes zero knowledge and therefore explains everything would become a dull and burdensome thing. This means that decisions have to be made as to what to explain and how. The key issue here is one of relevance. Does the reader need to understand, or can something simply be stated and let stand?

Take the act of parliament question again.

In my own case, individual acts of parliament are quite important. The Master and Servants Act of 1828 governed, as the name says, the working relations between master and those employed. If you look at local level and the cases that came before bench magistrates, this is an important act. But which parliament enacted it? You won't find it easily on the web, And what, by the way, is a bench magistrate you might ask? 

I use two main techniques to resolve this type of problem.

The first is context. Assuming that I am successful in my basic writing, the reader will be going along with the flow, reading the history as a story. This means that as I introduce new material, the reader should be able to set it in a context already created by my writing. The work becomes its own context.

The second is what I call link sentences. These are carefully written sentences that encapsulate an important idea in the simplest possible form.

Take, as an example, the transition that occurred in New England history when the long Aboriginal past was suddenly shattered by the arrival of the Europeans. How do I explain the vast incomprehension that divided the two in a way that will set a context for later discussion?

Well, thanks to a post by Will Owen on the Australian anthropologist W E H Stanner, I have finally boiled this down to just two sentences.

To the Aborigines, the present was an extension of a living past. To the Europeans, the  first stage to a still to be defined future.

I will fiddle with the sentences, but I think that I have the concept right. The reader should get what I mean, and carry the idea forward.

In writing history, I try to avoid standing between my reader and the story.

Opinionated writing has its place, but is not (to my mind at least) history. Obviously what I write is affected by my own views. I am, after all, deeply involved with New England. It is a dream, a concept, as much as a historical place.20090503-17-27-03-kempsey-road--macleay-river

Take, as an example, this photo by Gordon Smith of the Macleay River at sunset. It's a pretty scene, isn't it?    But it's more than than that. This is a scene between New England's past and present.

That thin line of road that you can see against the cliff on the top right of the photo is in fact, in historical terms, the second road from the Macleay to the Tablelands.

This was the route that the Dainggatti, the Aboriginal language group occupying the Macleay Valley at the time the Europeans arrived, followed to reach the Tablelands. They followed the river and then climbed the escarpment you can see in the background.

In modern European times, this is the main route between Armidale and the Macleay valley. Now named the Slim Dusty Way after the Australian country singer, it is still dirt. 20090503-17-23-45-kempsey-road--single-track

The next photo, again by Gordon Smith, shows the road as it is today. This is what all the roads to the coast were like when I was born. The fight for better east-west communications forms one of the themes in the history of European New England.

In writing, my own passions and interests inform my work. However, in writing as an historian I have to try to be professional and to give my readers direct access into the past. The first means documenting so that my work can be critiqued, the second means standing back a little to avoid becoming a distraction from the story.

I have used the word story several times.

As with other forms of writing, the approach adopted to writing history depends upon purpose.

In my case, I am writing a general history of an area. This is where story comes in. I don't have a thesis, I am not trying to prove a particular point. I am telling the story of a broad region over a 50,000 year period.

In writing, I think of my story as akin in many ways to a biography of the area.

If you look at good biography, it brings the subject alive as a person through the detail of life. We see the subject as a human being with all the virtues, faults and personal quirks that we all have. The very best biographies capture us so that we become, for the moment, entrapped in the subject's world.

I do not pretend that I can write to this standard, although I would dearly love to. What I can do is to use detail selectively to bring people and events alive in some ways.

In my own mind, I describe this as texture. The Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey is remarkably good at this. He presents general ideas with great clarity, then uses examples to illustrate. Alternatively, he gives examples and then clarifies them to present a general statement.

Very few of us will ever be able to write as well as he does. Still, we can try!   

Friday, May 15, 2009

We are going to Canada and the US

Well, lots of excitement.

The itinerary is still being worked out. But next month we fly to Vancouver so my wife can go to a conference. Then we drive to Alberta. From there fly to Toronto, and then to Chicago and down the US east coast before flying west.

A month in all. All very exciting.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Different Drums - insight into an Indian family

Families can be strange things. They show in microcosm the variations that can exist in broader society. We can leave them, but may not escape them.

Here I was struck by a Ramana's post Another “Success” Story. We have the community and the family that in some ways mirrors that community. And we have the person who does not fit in and drops out, but ends by finding an accommodation with the family that suits him. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Preliminary comments on Australia's 09-10 Budget

I listened to the Australian Treasurer's budget speech last night. I have put up a preliminary comment in Australian Budget 2009.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dili's Emu Parade

I would be fascinated to discover the origins of the names adopted by our friendly Dili blogger. B's adopted name -  "Diak Malae" is bad Tetun for 'good foreigner' - is clear enough. However, we also find, and I quote, "My wife’s name is Just Add Water. We have two sons, whose names are Three Strokes and Fidget."

Living dangerously, I would have said. Or perhaps Just Add Water is like my wife and does not read my blog!  Diak took a break from posting while he and Just Add water visited Darwin and Kakadu. Now he is back, and I enjoyed his latest posts, especially the description of Dili's Emu Parade.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The internet, female nastiness and the importance of manners

Yesterday I read an extremely unpleasant email chain among young women. I felt physically sick. Today I read stories about cyber bullying on Facebook that led to two girls being asked to leave a Sydney school.

In considering these two events I want to make a very small number of points.

In the past people could and did say very nasty things. Others were hurt, some permanently. Yet, with time, the damage eased on both sides.

This no longer happens. These events coarsen the fabric of society. They also inflict permanent damage on perpetrator and victim. This comes about because of the very speed and visibility of the communication.

The answer does not lie in law or regulation, the usual answer of our modern society. The answer lies in part in reinstatement of the role of manners.

Manners are designed to govern relations between imperfect human beings. They reduce the damage done by our own imperfections. Manners take many forms depending on the society. In all cases, the role is the same.

Part of the answer lies in the once understood Christian concept of redemption, the capacity of people to redeem themselves. Once a person is condemned for ever by an act including words, then redemption is irrelevant.

I was bullied. I have spoken of this. At no stage have I mentioned names. This is not a fear of libel. I still know many of these people. They are not now as they were then. To drag up my past pain and then attach it to names would do damage to others. Two wrongs do not make a right.   

We cannot turn the world back to pre-internet days. We have to focus on how we manage this in social, not legal, terms. This is hard , I think, because Australia as a society no longer has the intellectual and moral framework to do so.   

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the concept of progress

I have just brought up the post that I began last night, Personal confusions with a bill of rights. Reading it, I haven't got the argument quite right, although it took some time to write.

I don't know. Some of the research that I have been doing just at present brought me in contact with the Master and Servants Act in NSW during the 1840s. I knew of the Act, of course, but I was looking at the way it worked in practice in terms of the relationships between people.

From the perspective of 2009, the Act has many bad features. However, in writing about it from an historical perspective where my focus is on what happened and why, it becomes another piece of legislation set in the context of its time whose adverse effects were gradually removed.

It may well be that some of the things I complain about now are like this Act and will simply be remedied with time. After all, the current orthodoxy in politics, public policy and administration is in fact less than forty years old - the roots were much earlier of course - and is already bending under the strain.

In all this, I suppose that there are two things that worry me.

The first is our loss of the sense of progress outside the purely economic, although even this is under strain at present. The concept of progress is inseparable from the world we have known over the last two hundred years. Because we believe that things can get better, we try to make them so. It seems to me that our present sense of modernity is very strained because many in fact no longer believe that things will get better.

The second is our loss of wonder, of the existence of an unknown still to be discovered over the horizon. 

I am not sure when the concept of progress first emerged. We can find it expressed in different ways at different times and in different places. What we can say, I think, is that it has been central to a lot of European thought for over three hundred years. 

Some might argue that progress is an illusion, that its pursuit has done damage. I do not share this view. To my mind, progress is a liberating concept because it implies that change for the better is possible. If you don't believe that progress is possible, then what's the point in trying?

The emergence of post-modernism with its very denial of the concept of progress was in some ways a sign of the ennui that began to envelop life in many western countries. Sylvia Plath wrote around 1955:

Jeopardy is jejune now: naïve knight
finds ogres out of date and dragons unheard
of, while blasé princesses indict
tilts at terror as downright absurd.

This poem may be more than fifty years old now, but it really does capture what has happened. Gone is the sense of wonder, replaced instead by a modern approach to risk management. Or, more precisely, risk avoidance.

As always, one has to be careful about generalisations. However, the Australian material that I have been reading recently published between 1922 and the early nineteen seventies has in it a belief in progress that actually seems strange in the context of Australia today. Knowing what we know now, one might classify these beliefs as naive. Yet they also fed into individual positive action in ways that have begun to diminish in modern Australia.  

Despite all, I remain an optimist. But then, I still believe in progress! 

Friday, May 08, 2009

Personal confusions with a bill of rights

Neil Whitfield in his new role as boy reporter has just attended a gig on the question of an Australian Bill of Rights. I do love the idea of Neil as a boy reporter. I suspect he might be very good!

I used to be opposed to the concept of a Bill of Rights. This was partly a practical issue, the problems of definition involved. I also thought that we had a constitutional system whose long history provide a potent weapon against those who might misuse power.

Our freedoms had been obtained through blood and encapsulated in law and tradition. This provided a protection against those who might misuse power. They might do damage initially, but things tended to re-balance with time.

Since we moved towards a republican model I have become less sure of my position. My problems here are twofold.

The desire to move to a new form of government involves a conscious rejection of our past. A modern Australia requires a new form of Government, republicans argue. The difficulty is that our system of Government is so enmeshed in our history that rejection of one part of tradition leaves the remainder uncertain. We cannot necessarily pick and choose as to what will survive.

My second difficulty is that nobody knows what form an Australian republic might take. The favoured approach to pushing a republic through starts with a simple yes no plebiscite to the question do you favour a republic. Properly phrased, this might get through in terms of a simple majority. The intent then is to give the Australian people various choices, leading to the selection of a republican model that is preferred or at least least disliked by the population.

We now live in a heavily regulated society. The boundary between private and public space has been constantly shifted in favour of the public. I may argue against this in the general and the particular, but there seems to be no end to the trend.

I accept that I am old fashioned in some ways.

My own thoughts and perceptions about the relations between individual and state, about the use and abuse of the powers of the state, were influenced by the Vietnam war period. Then I had to make choices about personal action in circumstances where my religious views brought into stark contrast the conflict between the rights and powers of the state versus individual conscience.

A little later when I joined the Commonwealth Public Service on a year long training program as an administrative trainee, one part of our training dealt with ethics. This directly addressed the question of the appropriate relations between public servant and Government in the context of individual ethical views and of the conflicts that could arise. How should a public servant behave when his ethical views came into conflict with things directed by a Government?

The brainwashing processes used during the Korean War to progressively replace one set of values and beliefs with another were discussed. Adolf Eichmann was used as an example to point to some of the conflicts and problems involved, at the way in which a series of individual decisions and ethical compromises could lead to efficient inhumanity in the service of the state.

This was a very different world from today's focus in code of conduct training on what constitutes individual corruption. The broader ethical and principle questions we were concerned about have largely vanished.

All of this means that I am slowly coming to the view that some form of Bill of Rights may now be necessary to protect us against our own governments' actual and potential abuse of power.

My problem is that I find discussion in this area very confusing.

There seem to be two schools of thought. One sees a Bill of Rights primarily in terms of proscription of behaviours and views they believe to be incorrect. A second, the use of such a Bill as a protection against arbitrary Government action. So far, there is no common view as to what a Bill of Rights might involve.

There is also dispute between a legislated Bill of Rights and the incorporation of principles in the constitution itself. Some of those who support the first do so because they see the second as impossible.

I writing about management, I have pointed to the way in which topics become popular in discussion when the opposite is happening on the ground.

The great emphasis on people management coincided with the rise of process engineering and mass restructuring. The emphasis on the value of the brand coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in modern history.

I think that something of the same has been happening over recent years in the discussion on rights, although the process is far more complex.

I will return to the old fashioned Belshaw theme to finish this post.

As a child, I read about and shuddered at the use of partial drowning as a torture technique by the Gestapo. To my young mind, this was almost of the exemplar of Gestapo horror. Consequently I could not understand or accept the use of so-called waterboarding.

In similar vein, I could not understand how such a culture of abuse of individual rights, of systemic cruelty, could emerge under the Howard Government. Worse, I could not understand why we accepted it for so long.

Looking back at Australian history, there have been many abuses of state power. However, these stand out because they take place against a backdrop of slow improvement and of protest at the time and later that constrained what Government did.

I think, I haven't attempted to count it, that there were more cases of state perpetrated individual injustice under the Howard Government than in the entire history of twentieth century Australia outside the war years and their immediate aftermath.

In saying this, I am putting aside the specific question of our treatment of Australia's Indigenous people. This raises a different set of issues.

My problem is that I think that this systemic pattern continues because we have acquired a mindset that no longer questions.

Let me finish with an example that some might find very odd. Recently, the Rudd Government announced measures that would require young people up to the age, I think, of twenty five to either work or study. These appeared to be universally welcomed.

I was struck by the emphasis on compulsion. Of course Governments providing money can set terms and conditions. They have to. Yet the language that was used, the focus on what kids must do because we know best, to my mind simply continued the authoritarian mindset.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

When once a knight isn't enough

I have stayed home today to try to finally break this flue.

One of those silly conversations with daughter Clare who is at home finishing a university essay. The Monty Pythons' sketch involving the fictitious philosophy department at the University of Woolloomooloo triggered the conversation.

Clare is quite obsessed with MP, an obsession that carried over into the recent Macquarie University Ancient History Society review. Who can resist the drinkers' song?

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.

David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

While the sketch has very English perceptions of Australia, it is still funny.

The discussion led Clare to remark that she wanted a knighthood. I said that she would need to go to New Zealand since they had just reintroduced the imperial honours system. Apparently nobody recognised New Zealand honours.

Then I thought hang on, isn't there an equivalent in the Order of Australia?

I actually had to look this up.

When this new order of chivalry was established by the Queen on 14 November 1975 at the request of the then Whitlam Government to replace the old imperial system, it had just three levels - Companion (AC), Officer (AO) and Member (AM). Following the defeat of the Whitlam Government, on 24 May 1976, the further categories of Knight (AK), Dame (AD), and Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) were established by the Queen on the advice of Mr Whitlam's successor Malcolm Fraser. The following Hawke Labor Government then abolished the Knight and Dame categories.

So Clare still has to go to New Zealand. However, there is another problem. Clare wants to be called Sir Clare, not Lady Clare (that's too pissy) or Dame Clare (that's too old). To this end, she needs the Queen to change the rules. In theory, this could be done by the Queen as Queen of Australia. However, given the Australian attitude to honours she really needs to go to the UK and seek the Queen's assistance in her right as Queen of Great Britain. Hard, but not impossible if she becomes a super successful writer.

In the meantime, and this bears upon the recent New Zealand decision to go back to imperial honours, who is likely to get the best seating in a New York restaurant, Sir Michael Somare or his Australian equivalent carrying a mere AC?

So to finish with the rest of the song:

There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya
'Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away--
Half a crate of whisky every day.

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,

And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he's pissed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Chinese in Australia 1848-1853

Like many Australians I knew that the Chinese came to Australia in numbers during the gold rushs. Like most Australians, I did not know that Chinese came to what is now Australia as migrant workers prior to the gold rushes. Almost 3,000 had arrived in the colony of NSW up to the end 0f 1853.

In exploring this question, I have just finished The Chinese in New England 1848-1853.There are so many questions, many of which will never be answered.

In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River. There were twelve Chinese on board who were rescued. But a thirteenth was also found, wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was mad.

So who was he? We will probably never know. Perhaps he was an earlier indentured labourer who could not bear the working conditions. Perhaps he survived a wreck on the way to Sydney or even Brisbane, then Moreton Bay.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mr Rudd's budget deficit

Not at all well today. Eldest has had flue, I got a dose that came back. I came home at lunch time and slept.

Tonight just a few very short comments.

Tonight's Australian TV news was full of stories about the blow-out in the Australian Government's budget deficit. A reported deficit for next year of $60 billion, followed by six years of deficits. Frankly, this scared the living daylights out of me.

I will try to write a considered post tomorrow. This post just deals with gut reactions.

If you look at what I have written on the economy over the last eight months you will see certain consistent themes.

To begin with, I have not been worried about budget deficits as such, nor have I been worried about additional Government borrowings.

Making a distinction between cyclical and structural deficits, I suggested that it was perfectly appropriate at this stage of the cycle to go into deficit to support the economy. I also suggested that Australia could borrow a fair bit without creating a real net debt problem.

The difficulty with the latest comments by Treasurer Swan is that they suggest that the Government is building a substantial structural deficit. If so, the Government is creating a real problem.

I may be wrong here. I have not looked at the numbers. For reasons that I will outline in a moment, I feel that revenues will be higher than forecast. Further, some of the Government's capital spend items have long time horizons. It will be several years before they start to phase down. Even so, six years is a long time. It all begins to carry an uncomfortable 1970s' feel.

In writing, I have also tried to make the point that stimulation spend that adds to real productive capacity is better than spend designed to prop up consumption. I have also suggested that the lead times for capital spend will be longer than the Government (and other Governments too) allows.

I have not opposed the Rudd Government's short term stimulus measures, although I did have reservations about the latest round of payments. However, I have been worried about the Government's rhetoric because it seemed to suggest that just about anything could be justified in stimulus terms. I have also suggested that we would pay a real price in that practical budget considerations (there is no such thing as a free lunch) would end by dictating cancellation for other types of spend.

One of my real problems in reviewing both the economic outlook and Government policy responses is the apparent divergence between my own assessments and official commentary.

Very early on I suggested that the global downturn lay in a combination of structural and expectational factors. I did not expect the various short term stimulus measures to have great impact. Rather, growth would resume as Government capital spend started to kick in.

I also warned that the world was becoming awash with longer term liquidity. The key risk we faced was that this might lead to contractionary measures that would choke of growth. I did not expect the scale of the downturn, nor the extent of Government policy responses that are going to leave many western countries - the UK comes to mind - in an enfeebled position when it comes to subsequent Government actions.

At local level, I suggested that Australia was in a remarkably good position. We could not affect global developments. We could only manage our response to them. The key to this lay in positioning Australia to take advantage of the subsequent upturn.

I am coming to think that we have not done this very well.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that another Government would have done better. I just don't think that our current Government systems are responsive enough. I do think, however, that sometimes hysteria and war talk have added to problems.

I was not surprised at the decision of the Reserve Bank to keep the official cash rate on hold. I do not think that the Bank should have cut the rate at its previous meeting. Indeed, I suspect that it did so only because of the influence of its private sector Board members.

I said that I would discuss the reasons why I thought that Government revenues might be higher than expected later in the post. I will hold my comments here until I have had time to prepare a more detailed evaluation.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Language, delivery and the Rudd Government

In Counting the unemployed, Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) looked at the definition of employed used for statistical purposes. Neil is correct that we have adopted international definitions. He is also correct in inferring that the way employment is defined grossly understates the level of real unemployment.

The use of standard definitions of this type means that the statistics do reflect trends. However, it can also make it difficult to use the numbers for much more than this.

Very early on in the life of the new Australian Government, I expressed two cautions.

In Saturday Morning Musings - foreign policy, Mr Rudd and the dangers of Australia's middle power status I said in part:

Internationally, Mr Rudd has been emphasising Australia's role as a middle power and seems determined to assert this in whatever forum he can. To my mind, there is a real danger that he will get what he wishes, a greater international role for Australia....

With locked in media coverage, Mr Rudd's trip appears to have played well to a domestic audience, in part because it feeds to our sense of self-importance. I would feel far more comfortable if we were keeping our national head down, playing a quieter and more subtle game.

My other concern expressed in Slow down Mr Rudd, for all our sakes, slow down was that the Government's desire to do would outrun the Government's capacity to deliver. Both have been on display this week.

The Government's new Defence White Paper was always going to attract some attention because of the numbers involved, new equipment is expensive, as well as its analysis of the strategic environment. However, the advance leaks of the Paper and the language surrounding it created an unfortunate atmosphere when set against a background of previous Government remarks on Australia's middle power status. Talking tough may play well to an Australian domestic audience, but it is not a good international line.

The new program is to be funded in part through $20 billion internal Defence reform program. This may be possible, but I do have doubts.

I have lost count of the number of times in recent years that Australian Governments have announced that they are going to part fund Defence acquisitions through savings.

Of itself, this makes me cautious. However, the announcement also comes at a time of apparent tensions between the Defence Department, the Australian Defence Forces and the Minister. This has been playing out in different ways, but adds to my caution about the actual funding and delivery of the program.

Modern weapons systems are incredibly complex. Cost over-runs are common and difficult to control. We shall see.

I haven't commented on the Government's emissions trading scheme. While I have read the various discussions and commentary, I haven't done the personal analysis required to form a balanced view. That said, it has been clear for some time that the scheme has been facing difficulties.

I don't blame the Government for deferring the start date. I don't share the current obsession about the inviolability of election promises. Things change, and Governments must change with them.

Part of the Government's problems in this case lie, and this is the link with Defence case, in the language used previously. Instead of discussing issues, the Government locked itself in to a fixed position. The changes made to the scheme appear to have been carefully crafted in political terms to gather maximum support, but it remains the case that the Government has been forced to change position.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

North Coast Memories - SS Fitzroy

Over on the New England Australia blog I have started an irregular series called Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast.  This gives me another excuse for a somewhat nostalgic peek back into the past. SS Fitzroy Coffs Harbour  Those interested can find the series here.

In preparing Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Coffs Harbour Surf Music, I came across this photo from the NSW State Library.

The photo by J H Howarth shows the SS Fitzroy at the Coffs Habour Jetty. The caption says c1925. That is almost certainly wrong for reasons that I will explain in a moment. But look at the picture first.

The Fitzroy maintained a weekly service between Sydney and Coffs Harbour carrying passengers and cargo. Notice how crowded the ship is. At 623 tons, it is not a big ship. Passengers, crew and cargo were all crowded aboard.

You can see the railway lines on the Jetty. These brought logs from the surrounding forests including the Dorrigo. The luggage with the initials JH has presumably been offloaded or, more likely, is waiting to be loaded. The women in the front in the long dress and hat leaning to the side is watching passengers being unloaded in a basket by crane. There is no gangway.

This method of loading and unloading passengers was apparently quite common. A few years back I was talking to Eric Reeves who attended the Armidale Teachers College in the 1930s. To get home for holidays, one of his friends used to take the train from Armidale to Sydney and then catch the steamer to Woolgoolga. The wharf at Woolgoolga stretched out into the sea from the beach. There he would be swung in a basket from the ship to the wharf.

For those who do not know Woolgoolga, it is on the coast north of Coffs Harbour. It is just over 212 kilometres from Armidale, a bit over 3 hours by road. The long trip to Woolgoolga by Sydney is a sign of just how bad transport could be in New England even in the 1930s. The first tarred road to the coast dates, I think, from the late 1950s or early 1960s.

From the clothes that people are wearing, it does look as though the photo was taken after the First World War. However, it could not have been 1925.

On the afternoon of Saturday 25 June, 1921, the Fitzroy left Coffs for Sydney. During the night the ship ran into a cyclonic storm. Around 6.30 am on the Sunday a large quantity of water came aboard. The ship began to list increasingly to port. Water was discovered pouring in, apparently from an open ash-shoot and from a smashed port hole. 

The crew attempted to jettison the cargo, but there was no steam for the winches. The engineer then announced that the position was hopeless. The crew prepared the boasts for launching, but the captain felt that there was too much risk of them being overturned or smashed if launched. Instead, he decided that it would be better to let them float off as the vessel sank.

Now look again at the photograph. You can see the two boats at the back, plus one on the side not far back from the funnel. There would not be a lot of room once those boats were swung out. The ship was listing badly and tossing heavily. Getting the boats safely into the water would have been quite a task.

Around 8am, the timber deck cargo shifted, causing the ship to capsize off Cape Hawke near the Manning River. Two of the boats with people in them floated off, but one immediately capsized. Of the 35 people on board, 31 were drowned. One survivor, seaman Olaf Johannson, managed to swim for 14 miles through raging seas to reach the shore.

A few kilometres over the horizon, the SS Our Jack, 281 tons, was also sunk. The SS Brundah came to her aid, rescuing four of her crew of ten.

The North Coast seas could be quite dangerous, leading to a lot of wrecks over time. It is quite an eery feel looking at that photo and knowing what is in store for the ship in the not too distant future.            


Jack Loney, Wrecks on the New South Wales Coast, Oceans Enterprises, 1993, ISBN 0646110810, 9780646110813, p 137, accessed via Google Books, 3 May 2009.

Argus, Melbourne, 26 July 1921 carries a report on the commission of inquiry into the sinking. Accessed on-line 3 May 2009. There are some discrepancies between Jack Loney's account and that in the Argus. The most important one is that Loney suggests that four out of 26 survived.  

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the rise and fall of economics

My train reading has briefly switched to another professional interest, economics, although in this case the book - Robert L Heilbroners' The Worldly Philosophers:The Lives, Times and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers (Touchstone, New York, revised seventh edition, 1999) - actually spans interests.

Heilbroners' book was given to me some time ago by Joseph, then a work colleague. It is only now that I am getting to read it. I find it a remarkably good book. Well written, it brings people and ideas alive.

Recently a number of prominent economists have suggested that too many in the profession are failing because they do not know enough economic history, that the profession itself has failed because of the way that economic history has been squeezed out of a busy professional curriculum. I suspect that they are right. However, I would go further, and say that they they do not know enough history, full stop.

When I first studied modern history at school, much was made of the agrarian and  industrial revolutions. Frankly, I found this pretty boring stuff. The discovery of the Bessemer process for the mass production of steel from pig iron was clearly important, but I was much more interested in other topics.

I think that part of my problem lay in the way the topic was taught with its emphasis on facts. There was too little linkage between the discussion of changes in technology and the economic outcomes and other changes that were taking place in society and in the way people thought. 

One of Heilbroner's great strengths is that his discussion of the development of economic thought treats his selected economists as people and links their ideas to changes in the world around them. I found his discussion especially interesting because the book actually sits at the centre of a number of my current pre-occupations.

At a first level, the agrarian and industrial revolutions are important in economic terms. The development and application of scientific and commercial farming practices that formed the core of the agrarian revolution led to an expansion of agricultural production that supported a higher population and and helped lay the basis for the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution with its focus on technology, on new forms of production and organisation and on the accumulation of capital is arguably the central defining event in the formation of the world as we know it in 2009.

What we do and how we do it forms our thinking. However, what we think then feeds back into the what, how and why of doing. This simple statement sits at the heart of a lot of my writing as I seek to understand our changing views of the world and the impact this has on actions.

Heilbroner suggests that economics as a discipline is linked directly to the industrial revolution.

In the pre-industrial world with its feudal structures there was no scope for economics as such. As I argued long ago in my original honour thesis on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales, the questions that economists ask are relevant to the study of different societies. However, economics as a discipline depends in part upon the concepts such as accumulation, private property, investment, profit, specialisation and "the market", and these concepts did not really exist before the industrial revolution.

First political economy and then economics emerged because of changes in the way we do things. However, the ideas then developed fed back into our thinking about the world.

Smith, Ricardo, Marx were all responding to current events and thinking. Smith's arguments were then used by those opposing Government intervention with business, Ricardo's arguments by those wishing to abolish the corn laws, Marx by those opposed to capitalism. We can see this today in the use and abuse of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes.

Just as Smith became the symbol of laissez faire capitalism, so Keynes has become a symbol for Government intervention. Neither man would have supported the use to which they have been put. However, that is beside the point. They existed, therefore they will be used.

In writing about current events and thinking, I have placed great stress on what I see as an increasingly mechanistic approach to management and public policy. I have also attacked what I see as an overwhelming and wrongly conceived obsession with measurement.

I have linked all this to the the computer age, to the structuring of the way we do things to fit with the approach to decision rules required to make computer systems work. I have also suggested that this began well before computers, but that computers have rigidified and codified the approach.     

I thought that this argument was important and, to a degree, new. Important it remains, new it is not.

I find that that strange, socially dysfunctional, American economist Thorstein Veblen captured the essence well before me.

In The Theory of Business Enterprise published, would you believe in 1904, Veblen presented a theory of the eventual decline of the businessman and of the system that sustained him. In Heilbroner's words,

Veblen believed that the days of the business leaders were numbered, that despite their power, there was ranged against them a formidable adversary. It was not the the proletariat (for the Leisure Class had shown how the underlying population looked up to its leaders), but a still more implacable foe: the machine.

Veblen was writing in a world where the unrestrained excess of business buccaneers had created a system of creating wealth independent of the real productive capacity of the economy. Sound familiar? He was very much a man of his times. However, in writing he captured ideas still relevant today. Again to quote Heilbroner:

For the machine, thought Veblen, " throws out anthropomorphic habits of thought." It forced men to think in terms of matter of fact, in terms precise, measurable, and devoid of superstition and animism. Hence those who found it increasingly difficult to swallow the presumption of "natural law" and social differentiation which surrounded the leisure class. And so society divided; not  poor against rich, but technician versus businessman, mechanic against war lord, scientist opposed to ritualist.

Veblen saw this leading to a revolution in which business would be replaced by engineers who would run the economy along the lines of a huge well-ordered production machine. To some degree this has happened. However, what Veblen did not foresee is the way in which the machine would capture humanity, the full way it would affect thinking.

In forcing us to think in terms precise, the machine has effectively forced us to throw out those things than cannot be measured. Dreams, visions, faiths, hopes and emotions have no place in a well-ordered machine. Worse, the machine has taken away freedom for discretion and even mistakes. Just as the robot on a production line will destroy you if you walk in front of it, so the modern Government or business machine stamps on those who will not comply or simply do not fit.

So, to my mind, Veblen was right in pinpointing the impact of the machine on thought, but wrong in his assessment of the implications.

This type of failure is, in fact, a feature of all the great economists. It arises because all economists necessarily write from a current perspective, exploring and explaining what they see as the lessons and conclusions.

Today's economists have, I think, become captives of Veblen's machine. Their focus has narrowed. They forecast, project, apply their skills to current problems. Their focus is on technique.

This is not new. Heilbroner talks about the rise of the academic economist such as Alfred Marshall. They effectively codified the discipline, but in so doing (and there is a dreadful irony here) they laid the basis for its subsequent decline.

Initially this was concealed. The first half of the twentieth century was the age of the economist. Keynes stands out because of his prominence over a long period, but he was not alone. Economists provided new insights in many areas and played a dramatic role in public policy. We can see this in Australia or New Zealand where the small number of economists became public names, active players in intellectual debate as well as public policy.

Things changed from the 1950s. This was partially a matter of scale. There were a lot more economists. However, it was also a question of focus.

More and more economists became technocrats, using economics' skill sets to solve particular problems. The larger profession fragmented into fields - labour economists, health economists etc. Those engaged in research focused on more technical issues. Mathematics proliferated. Journals became full of arcane articles beyond the understanding of those without a certain level of mathematical understanding.

Not all these changes were necessarily bad. There were considerable advances of knowledge in particular fields. However, economics as a discipline both fragmented and passed beyond the understanding of even the educated lay person.

To my mind, the strength of economics has always been in the rigour of its thinking, the way it forces new questions, the way it integrates a range of thinking about aspects of the human condition. Once economics became a set of tool kits the discipline was, to my mind, damned.

I stand to be corrected here, but I do not think that any economist would challenge my view that the discipline has retreated greatly over the last fifty years in terms of student reach and public prominence.

Now with the global recession, economics and economists are back. At a purely personal level, that's great. However, I am struck by the apparent inability of economists to explain what has been happening and, more importantly, to suggest what we might do.

Am I being unfair? Perhaps.

Certainly I no longer claim to know the detail of current thinking. Here I am always conscious when I talk about economics or the economy of my lack of knowledge, of the risk of making simple errors. However, as a former professional economist who was drawn in different directions, the thing that stands out when I read the economics' commentary is its fragmentation.

I think that the problem that many economists face at present is the need to move from the particular to the general. At the particular level, they are comfortable. But the skill sets intended to explain the particular do not necessarily help in explaining the general. In a sense, we are back to where we were in the past when economics addressed broader questions.

I think that this is enough for this morning. I actually need to look at the latest statistics on the economy!