Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kevin Rudd's scum of the earth

I had not intended to post again today, but this matter is so germane to some of the things that I habe been saying that I felt that I had too.

Please read Bob Gosford's Meet Kevin Rudd’s “scum of the earth” – 5 years in Berrimah for $560.

The post raises two different issue.

The first is the impact of the mandatory sentencing laws so beloved by Australia's politicians in recent years. In removing judicial discretion, we have guaranteed injustice.

The second is the application of laws designed for big fish to small fish. In combination with one, this extends the injustice.

Mr Rudd's use of language illustrates the point I was trying to make in Refugees and a contempt for the ordinary person. The people who got the Jews out of Nazi Germany, some did it for reward, were not the scum of the earth because they did this. If they were the scum of the earth, and some were, they were so for other reasons.

Mr Rudd and his apologists may argue that Bob Gosford and I are misinterpreting his remarks, that he did not intend them to apply as a universal. I doubt that he even considered the broader implications.  

The only way to stop Mr Rudd and others from getting away with this type of rubbish is by applying a combination of forensic analysis and ridicule.

In today's post, Saturday Morning Musings - on being British, I spoke of my feeling of being British. To my mind, the central most important feature of being British is recognition of the need to protect the individual against the unbridled exercise of state power.

Today we live in a world where executive government has assumed the role previously occupied by the divine right of kings. The supporting arguments may be different, but the practical effect is the same. Government is entitled to over-ride the individual to protect the state and its position.

The phrase "in the national interest' is one of the most slippery phases in the English language. It justifies every extension and application of state power.

I am not a Libertarian. I believe that individual action must be constrained in the interests of the broader society. Yet I also believe that every such constraint must be intensely argued and closely scrutinised.

In the case of the Howard Government, I am still struggling with the way that a Government that I broadly supported should have presided over so much individual injustice. I am also struggling with the way that this was simply accepted by the broader Australian community.

I use the word struggle advisedly.

As an historian, I am not blind to Australia's past. I have seen many cases where Australian Governments have wrongly over-ridden individual freedoms in the interest of the broader community. I have seen the community accept this.

Yet at no stage in Australia's past have I seen so many cases of wrongful detention in such a short period. At no stage have I seen such acceptance of individual wrong.

Do you see why I struggle?

Now some might argue that internment during the First and Second World Wars created the same number, if not more, injustices. That's probably right, but Australia was at war.

Anyway, time to finish.

Saturday Morning Musings - on being British

One of the things that used to confuse me as a child was the distinction between English and British.

Growing up, my close identification with my maternal grandfather meant that I identified strongly with Scotland because he did. At one level, this did not make a lot of sense. Both my paternal grandparents were born in England, my maternal grandmother came from English stock, so the Scottish side through one set of great grandparents made me at best perhaps a quarter Scottish. However, it was a matter of emotional connection.

The link was emotional, but it was more than that.

I was a reader, and my grandfather used to give me books. One of the first more serious books I read as a child was H E Marshall's Scotland's Story (first 200px-Sir_Walter_Scott_-_Raeburn published 1905). I read Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and browsed the books on the clans and tartans of Scotland. (photo: Raeburn's 1822 portrait of Sir Walter Scott).

I had a Drummond tie, while my mother and all my aunts had clan broaches with the Drummond motto Gang Warily. While I was at primary school my grandfather gave me a copy of John MacDonald MacCormick's Flag in the Wind (1955), the story of the Scottish National Movement. This book resonated since I was already a strong New England New Stater, so I became a Scottish nationalist by sympathy. We wanted self-government, so did Scotland.

As an aside, all this reading had one odd, later, outcome. Many years after this I was at a cocktail party at the British High Commission in Canberra. Some of the younger staff I was talking too were puzzled about the rise of the SNP, Scottish National Party. I realised that they were all southern English and actually had no idea of Scottish history. They saw the SNP as a strange aberration.

This was well before devolution, the creation of Scottish and Welsh parliaments in 1998. A slightly odd conversation followed, which saw an Australian public servant explaining to British diplomats something of Scottish history and the possible constitutional implications for the UK!

This Drummond and Scottishness of my early childhood was, in retrospect, quite intense. It led my father to complain bitterly once that he was sick of hearing about the Drummonds. What about the Belshaws?

All human beings are quite capable of multiple and indeed sometimes conflicting identities. As a child I was a nationalistic Australian. I was also prepared to claim a New Zealand connection (Dad was born there), I was Scottish, but also British. Since much of my family was English, I did recognise the English connection. The one thing that I was not, nor am I now, was a New South Welshman in other than a purely legal sense. I remain a New Englander.

One of the things that puzzled me at a very early stage was the apparent confusion between English and British. It was all clear to me: English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish all referred to major groups within the British Isles. British referred to the varying collective entity and included all those within the broader Empire and Commonwealth with connections back to the mother countries.

From my perspective as a child, the Irish were always a bit confusing. They were British, then they weren't. The Irish were meant to be Roman Catholic. How, then, did I fit in all those Protestants who also claimed to be proudly Irish? What was the relationship between some English speaking Australian Catholics I knew of Irish descent who fulminated against the evils of the English/British Empire and the Gaelic speaking Irish Protestant from the Republic who was proudly proclaimed his Britishness and attacked the Republicans as a blight on the landscape?

All this was a bit too hard to understand. But what was more confusing still, was the way in which English was conflated with British when it clearly wasn't. The English history I first studied, some of the popular books I read, that were meant to have a British flavour did not. Where were my Scots?

I put many of these things aside after I left university. There were too many other things to worry about. However, once I started writing a biography of my grandfather I was drawn back to these issues.

This was another of those times when I had decided that what I really wanted to do was to research and write. As now, I read widely around my topic.

I had always been interested in the Bloomsbury set since first reading Harrod's Life of Keynes.

Keynes fascinated me because he seemed to me from Harrod's writing to be the archetypal intellectual all-rounder, combining thought with the capacity to make money. I loved the idea of sitting in one's bath in the morning thinking about the markets, then getting up and placing the orders that made his College so much money, before going off to reshape the international monetary system! A slight parody, I know, but it captures the flavour.

Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury set, a group of London based writers and intellectuals from the first decades of the twentieth century. All the male members of the Bloomsbury set with the exception of Duncan Grant were educated at Cambridge. This was a family connection, because Uncle Horace Belshaw did postgraduate studies at Cambridge under Keynes. Cambridge life fascinated me not just because of Horace, but also because I had grown up in the personally intense world of a small university city that combined the intensely local and parochial with the global.

This Cambridge period centred in part on the Apostles, a university group linked in some ways to Keynes and the other men within the Bloomsbury set. Left of centre, contemptuous of current mores, the Apostles nurtured the most famous group of traitors - Philby, Burgess, MacLean and others - in modern British history. Among other things, the Apostles gave the USSR the atomic bomb.

I was fascinated with Cambridge, the Apostles and Bloomsbury: the intellectual debate, the idea of reading parties, breaking free from conventional mores. Yet when I came to research them, disillusion led to distaste. I had200px-LyttonStrachey nothing in common with this narrow and blinkered set of people.

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was the turning point. The painting is a study of Strachey's face and hands by Carrington.

Strachey was one of the pioneers of English biography. I was interested in him as a biographer and as a member of the Bloomsbury set. Yet as I read Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey I turned off.

My research had drawn me into the Imperial British world of which Australia formed a part. This was an expansive, outward looking, world. Now I contrasted this with the world of little England of which Strachey and indeed most of Bloomsbury were deeply embedded. I had nothing in common with that world.

In Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1 I gave an initial overview of Norman Davies' book on the history of what I would have called the British isles.

Like me, Davies writes from an outside perspective. Davies writes from a perspective of a Welshman, I write from the perspective of a New Englander and a country person. Neither of us are inclined to accept current metro centred views.

From my perspective, Davies' exploration of what what it means to be British is very important because it explains why I feel so confused about British and English. His exploration of the development of Britishness, of the continued expropriation of British by the English establishment and the little Englanders such as the Bloomsbury set, of the evolution of the inner empire (the Isles), is remarkably well done.

To be British is to address some hard questions.

I am Australian. Looking at Australian history in the context of the Empire, the damage that was done to the Australian Aborigines beyond the impact of first settlement was not the fault of London or Empire, but of the settlers who were evolving into Australians. We did it. We cannot blame others.

Like Davies, I find the Empire to be a generally good thing when set within the context of the times. The simplistic post-colonial models distort. The reason that I have so much in common with Ramana, for example, is that India and Australia were part of the same constitutional and historical entity, the Empire.

It's not just a shared love of cricket. It goes far deeper than that. It's shared experiences that bridge very different worlds.

Again, to be British is to address hard questions. My current boss is Nigerian who, by one of those historical connections, is Cambridge educated. He want me to read a book on the impact of British colonisation on what would become Nigeria. I will do so.

I would not do so were I not British.

My children who are just modern Australians, I am deliberately using the word just, have no interest in Nigeria. They do not see the linkages. They have little interest in India or Pakistan, little in Canada, far less in Africa or the Caribbean. I doubt that they could find Zimbabwe on the map, would have no idea of the historical links with Malaysia. Their immediate world has shrunk.

I think that this is a bad thing. But then, I am now somewhat old fashioned.

Finishing on a purely professional note.

Note how I have attached dates to references in this post. In trying to cover a very broad canvas, Norman Davies inserts dates in brackets after particular events. This actually very helpful because it makes it easier to see threads.

Davies also reminds me of the need in writing about New England to break out of the purely Australian context. The people and stories I am writing about are not just Australian; their links extend around the world.

Note to Readers: for a full list of posts in this series see Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Governments should explain

The issues involved with Refugees and a contempt for the ordinary person really side-tracked me from my normal posting. They niggle and niggle.

Speaking at a purely personal level, I know that Governments have sometimes to make hard choices. I also know that working at policy level involves, to use KVD's colour, shades of gray. Often, you have to try to find what can only be described as the least worst outcome.

My problem is that I actually expect Governments to explain, to say what they are doing and why, to engage in a dialogue with the Australian or state or local population.

For a number of reasons, Governments (and the media) give opinion, give opinion, give opinion, when I want them to give information, give information, give information.

I am capable of making up my own mind. I may not agree with an action, but if I at least understand the rationale I can respond in a sensible fashion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Refugees and a contempt for the ordinary person

Viking1-420x0 This is a very simple post with a deeply heartfelt plea.

This photo shows Shri Lankan refugees on the Australian customs ship Oceanic Viking moored 10 nautical miles off the Indonesian port of Tanjung Pinang. They were rescued when their ship sent out a distress call. This Age story will give you more details as at the current position.

Neil Whitfield has carried two stories on the re-ignited debate in Australia on asylum seekers (here and here). Neil, I and many other thinking Australians are deeply upset with the way Australia's major leaders are handling this issue.

I do not think that either Mr Rudd or Mr Howard before him know how deeply upset we are.

There are, as Neil noted, some 16 million refugees globally excluding internally displaced persons. There is no way Australia could manage this current number. Hard choices have to be made.

My charge against Messrs Howard, Rudd and Turnbull is simply this. They are treating the Australian people as dumbies, incapable of forming a sensible view. They play to our emotions, not our thoughts. My further charge is they (and especially Mr Howard and his ministers) created an inhumanity in Australian thinking.

We cannot win on refugees, we all know that. All Australia can do is to help a little. So what we must do? Simple enough, I think.

The Government should release a green paper for consultation setting out problems and principles for discussion. Then a white paper setting out a proposed approach. This can lead to a formal policy statement.

With proper consultation, this would provide a base that I could at least understand and explain.

There is a current argument that Australians are just too dumb to understand serious policy thinking. This is crap.

I am, I think, reasonably bright in an intellectual sense. In most cases, the only difference that I have found between an intellectually bright and a dumber person lies in speed of learning new things. Certainly I have found no difference in what I would call moral grounding, the capacity to understand and value moral judgements.

The job of politicians who represent us all is to explain. Our leaders do not do this. They go for the short media grab, the immediate response. In doing so, they fail us all.      


Instead of doing a new post, I decided to extend this post by bringing up and responding to a comment from Kangaroo Valley David (KVD). David is a regular commentator. The material that follows is not intended as a rebuttal, rather an attempt to extend the debate. I have inserted responses in David's material.

David wrote:

"Your post irritates just as much as I suspect you wished it to."

I was angry and disappointed when I wrote this post. Instead of trying to maintain my normal balance I was indeed deliberately writing for reaction. 

David continues:

"While I hold no high hopes for Mr Rudd’s response to this situation (and like many, was quite ashamed and embarrassed by the Howard era cold-heartedness) I think it is unfair to hang Rudd out to dry on the basis of media sound bites.

Maybe this is one time when the messenger (and I mean the media) really should be shot? Rudd operates (very successfully) in the given media environment. I just think you are selling both his and the Howard governments short if you believe that the only things achieved are those reported in the obligatory sound bites that pass for news these days.

I think it is the media which is treating (and thus profiting by) “treating the people as dumbies”, not Rudd, Howard, Turnbull etc."

David raises a number of different issues here.

To begin with the media. We can look at this at several levels. The sound bite problem has been dealt with extensively in commentary. There is no doubt that this, the need to get short excerpts, has distorted reporting. However, the problems go beyond this. The media has come to stand between us and understanding.

In the case of the treatment of the Sudanese refugees in Tamworth, the initial simplistic reporting of the matter in terms of black-white relations and racism went round the world. Deadline pressed reporters imposed their own views on the evidence. It took hours of research on my part to start untangling the issues. I did so in what were some of the highest trafficked posts that I have achieved. Yet the damage had been done. Tamworth, and by implication Australia, was racist.

Last night on the 7.30 Report Kerry O'Brien interviewed Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on the Oceanic Viking affair. The transcript does not properly bring out the tone of the interview. I wanted to listen to the Minister. I thought that he was explaining things in a calm and rational way. Mr O'Brien's bleeding heart stood in the way of my understanding.

In talking about reporting I have deliberately chosen examples on one side. I could equally have chosen examples on the other.

Governments cannot control the sound-bite mentality, nor can they control the biases of reporters whose own views act as a filter between events and public understanding. They can control their responses.

Herein lies my specific charge against Mr Rudd. This Government did introduce long needed changes to the previous Government's policies. However, in his desire to appear tough, Mr Rudd played into his opponents hands. After all, it was Mr Rudd who gave the sound bites. You cannot blame the media for running lines that they have been given!

He could have gone other routes. Consider these line:

"Is the Honourable Member seriously suggesting that we should reintroduce policies that, according to the Commonwealth Ombudsmen, caused at least 300 cases of wrongful detention? Does he want to bring back a system that saw Australian citizens wrongly interned or deported?"

David continues: 

I would prefer to believe that all possible options have already been carefully, endlessly weighed, amended, discussed, and reconsidered by our Public Service, and that this is yet one more of those problems where any so called “solution” will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction for one or other (of the many) points of view which can be reached on this subject.

I wish that I could believe this. The difficulty that I have, and it is one that I have written about a fair bit, is that our public service has lost the capacity to provide independent advice.  

As a branch head in the Commonwealth Public Service I jealously guarded my direct lines to the Minister. Of course, I took Departmental views into account. Every minute I wrote to the Minister was seen in the Departmental blues circulated to senior staff. But it was my advice. I stood by it at a personal level. 

I resigned from the Commonwealth Public Service as this became harder. There was more interference. Suddenly I had to clear things. The policy issues I was working on had long pay-back periods in national terms of five to ten years. We were constantly flexible. Meet one barrier, go another route. Suddenly I had to report in quarterly terms. I said that I was to do x, why had I not done it?   

I tried to explain that x seemed important when I set the quarterly targets, but things had changed. We needed to do something different. This type of flexibility is impossible to justify when you are working in a rigid world.

Things have got worse since. Strategy piles on strategy, plan on plan, corporate reporting target on corporate reporting target. Minutes or memos have to be signed and counter-signed.

Say I wanted to do something new in the past. I would put up some thought pieces to the Minister. His staff would prepare a short overview and attach it to the minute. I knew the staff, knew their views, would have spoken to them. So no problem. Then I would put up a recommendation. Then implement.

Today I would have to first prepare a policy paper for consideration by the various decision making bodies in the organisation. If something really new, I might need a communications and risk management plan. All this would be reviewed for consistency with current policies and plans. Only then would it go to the Minister, and then after multiple vetting.

When Mr Rudd became PM he thought that there would be a repository of Public Service ideas that he could draw from to refine the new Government's thinking. Poor Mr Rudd. Not only were ideas not there, you try to think of new ideas when when your time is spent in a rigid system, but he couldn't get to those in the system who might have new ideas! New ideas generally come from those who want to change things, and there was no way for the Government to tap this.  

All this said, I am side-tracking. David is, of course, correct that any "solution" will leave at least some people dissatisfied. This is an issue that we cannot win on.        

David continues:

You now suggest a white, then green, paper be prepared. But this is just a ‘process’ – not a ‘solution’. H. Appleby would be delighted. The boat people less so.

My bet is that the cupboard is full of multicoloured position papers by this time and no miracle will occur if yet another review is undertaken.

David is, of course, right that I am focusing on process. I want the Government to set out its views so that I and others can comment in a sensible fashion. 

David finishes:

I have three simple hopes:
1 that a decision (any decision) is made shortly and then held firm.
2 that this decision is “less wrong” than all other possible decisions.
3 that you have had a nice day

David, as it turns out I had a very nice day! I agree with your first two points, although one of our problems is, I think, that discussion is too dominated by individual examples such as Oceanic Viking. By this I mean simply that we have become reactive.

Taking the Oceanic Viking as an example, it would seem to me on the available information that the Government has in fact done the right thing to this point so far as actions are concerned. If the people in question cannot be landed in Indonesia for a whole variety of reasons, then they will have to go to Christmas Island. This will be presented, wrongly, as a failure.

We cannot solve the refuge issue, we can only control our responses to it. Herein lies my problem. Right across the spectrum from the Government to the opposition to the media, the need to play to the domestic short term makes it very hard to deal with the issue in any sensible way.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1

I began this book some time ago and was enjoying it. However, it's a very long book (over a thousand pages), so I got sidetracked. Now, feeling the need for a break from current events as well as Australian history, I have picked it up again.

I am not going to write a long post tonight, just a few introductory words.

While the book has a few annoying features, I will write of these a little later, it is to this point a very good read.

The book covers the long history of the Islands now occupied by the UK and Ireland. One of its strengths is that it addresses the whole history of the Isles, including that long period before the emergence of England as the dominant (and dominating) Kingdom.

Today in talking about the English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh (or the British for that matter) we are using labels. These national groups did not just emerge, nor were existing cultural, linguistic and political structures pre-ordained.

The Isles were subject to wave after wave of invasion. Then there were the constant internal wars. I think that Davies does a pretty good job in disentangling all this, in showing us how our own mental structures derived from that past can interfere with understanding.

The book links to a number of the themes that I have been pursuing from time to time on this blog, so you can expect some more posts!

Other posts in this series:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Australian regional civil disaster response force to be established

In two earlier posts (here 1, here 2) I spoke in the context of Padang of the need to boost regional cooperation in emergencies.

This Defence Department video shows the reverse osmosis water treatment plant being packed up now the main Padang water supply is coming back on line. The Australian system helped buy time while the Indonesian authorities worked to get the main system on line. This was helped by three emergency generators supplied by AusAid to support pumping from three deep wells.

At the ASEAN summit Australia Prime Minister Rudd has announced that Australia is to set up a rapid-response civilian emergency team to be deployed across Asia.

Details are still a little sketchy, but there will apparently be a register of 500 civilians who can be sent immediately to help in overseas disaster and conflict zones. This team will form part of a broader regional strategy to coordinate military and civilian responses to natural disasters.

I think that the idea of having a structured stand-by civil team that can assist Defence efforts is a good one. As the PM said, the more assistance that can be provided in the first days and weeks the greater the chance of avoiding follow-up disasters such as disease.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Essay - time, technology and the fallacies of modern communications

I am fairly conservative about who I follow on Twitter simply because of time constraints. I am far past that point where activities outstrip available time.

One person that I do follow, however, is Noric Dilanchian. I do so because his twits on technology and internet issues generally lead me to interesting material.

I am still struggling with my own use of Twitter. At this point I have really narrowed it down to blog posts and the very occasional comment.

Still linked to Twitter, yesterday's post Saturday Morning Musings - for Kanani on writing actually led onto my next Express column on the Twittering of English. I will bring this on-line in the usual way Wednesday week. This extends the point made in this comment:

A remarkably small number of NSW Public Servants actually write very much: they live in a world of spread-sheets, of emails, of power point presentations; a world in which written forms (briefing note, memo, ministerial, Cabinet minute) must comply with templates and rules; a world where every word is scrutinised for message.

In writing, I am focusing not on the NSW experience as such, but on a couple of broader issues linked to the decline (as I see it) in written English. Really its about the impact of the two T's, time and technology. Some of these issue are are dogging my thinking at the moment a bit like grit in the eye. I need to wash them out.

The grit is partly personal (the time issue), partly professional (the best way to use different forms). So long as the irritation continues, you can expect more posts.

Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase the medium is the message; the medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan was of course talking about the more traditional media, but it is even truer today.

My concern, personal and professional, is that we do not appear to have a way of classifying and disentangling effects. Instead, we focus on a symptom or a single issue and try to address it in isolation of all the things that affect it.

A very long time ago now, so long that the term knowledge management itself had still to come into vogue, Noric D and I developed a taxonomy of knowledge management. Nothing very profound, just a way of clearing the undergrowth that had grown up around concepts such as data, information and knowledge. We did so in part because of the then current nostrum that knowledge was increasing at an exponential rate. It wasn't of course. It was data and, to a lesser degree, information that was compounding.

Now I feel a new taxonomy coming on, one that clarifies and simplifies some of the confusions that surround the latest versions of internet and computer based communications and their interactions with other forms.

There is so much rubbish out there. Sounds harsh? Well, consider this.

The new technologies are meant to aid communications and the development and dissemination of knowledge, as well as social interaction.

I know of no evidence to suggest that they have in fact improved performance in either Government or business in the way claimed. The standard of public administration has clearly not improved over the last twenty years, nor has the standard of business management. All the new technology has done is allow the creation, maintenance and institutionalisation of systems that are, in fact, inherently inefficient.

This may sound some distance from my starting point. It is not.

The rub is that the amount of time now spent in communication broadly defined has begun to really squeeze the amount of time available to determine just what should be communicated. Communication has replaced content as the central concern.

Worse still, the focus on the form of communication is actually creating a growing barrier to the real creation and dissemination of new ideas. What you can say has to be tailored to the constraints of the medium. It is not so much that the medium has become the message, rather that the medium has become the limiting factor on the message.

It used to be the case that you expected the person or people on the other side to be willing to put in a little time and effort to think about the points raised. Now things are slimmed down to the point that they are simply meant to get and accept a few key points so that we can all move on.

I do not think that this is a good thing.  

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - for Kanani on writing

The Lowery Institute blog in  Friday funny: Always blow on the pie carries the New Zealand always blow on the pie video clip that has become such a smash. Do visit. It's really quite funny. Meantime, Lexcen in Retirement - now why didn't I think of that? carried a very funny real life story. Only the English. Both posts made me laugh, and that's a good thing.

I usually refer to Kanani Fong's Get Lost with Easy-Writer. There she wrote a little on her visit to the Blog World Expo including Blog Blog Blog Blog. However, she also has another blog, The kitchen Dispatch, where she is part way through a Friday series on writing. The message in her last post, Part 3. After War: Writing & Reading, is:

So go to it. Read. A lot. Then, start writing but don't think too much. If you do, you'll never be able to finish.

Kanani and I have dialogued before on writing in cross-posts and in comments. There we talked in part about the need to immerse yourself in the material. In her latest post, she is making in part a different but related point, reading other people's writing including those outside the immediate genre just to see how they do it. From my experience, that's pretty right.

If you look at what I have just written, you will see that it's in my normal style: short sentences, short paragraphs. I use this in my official writing, in my column and in writing in an-online environment.

Just at present, NSW, Premier Nathan Rees is concerned with the poor standard of official English in NSW.To quote the story from Lisa Carty in the Herald:   420nathan-rees-420x0

NSW public servants will be put under a plain-English microscope to make sure the documents they produce are clear and precise.

Premier Rees is quite correct to want to improve NSW official English. From my own experience, some of it is quite dreadful. However, there is a problem.

A remarkably small number of NSW Public Servants actually write very much: they live in a world of spread-sheets, of emails, of power point presentations; a world in which written forms (briefing note, memo, ministerial, Cabinet minute) must comply with templates and rules; a world where every word is scrutinised for message.

Note that in my last paragraph I deliberately switched to the use of colons and semi-colons. More on this a little later. 

In my management writing I have often commented that management issues become popular just when (indeed because) the underlying reality is going in the opposite direction. It used to be the case that the need to explain, to get the message across, was an implicit part of everything done. It was just there. The focus was on technique. Today the communications strategy is de rigueur, a mandatory part of every policy move. Officials spend more time strategising on how to communicate than they do in actually communicating!

I learned to write in a more expansive world. There were two forms of communication, written and oral, each with their own requirements. Both involved writing. Beyond this, the structure and form of communication was dictated by purpose. I accept that this is a generalisation, one that blurs as we move into film or TV. 

Today with multiple media, the writer ( I am using this term in a broad sense) has to take into account not just message and purpose, but also media and mixed media that in themselves require very different approaches. Is is any wonder that the actual act of writing, a craft that depends upon practice, has become diminished? We end by letting medium dominate. 

Kanani herself, I would argue, has become caught in this trap. Her post, Compression: The 50,000 word book is the new Dodo bird, shows this because it suggests that the medium has become dominant over the writing.

Earlier I mentioned colons and semi-colons.

My benighted PhD thesis (here and here) has, I recently discovered in emails with an old colleague, achieved minor mythic importance in my old university. This was a 100,000 word biography of my grandfather. Essentially I failed - the thesis is formally classified as "unfinished" even though it was submitted and marked.  

In the introduction, I explored the difficulties that could arise between writing history as dictated by the thesis structure and biography. Biography involved judgements about perception and feeling that could be difficult to accommodate in the more formal thesis structure. I felt that I had bridged this gap.

Speaking just as a writer, the writing of the thesis was enormously liberating. I wanted to write a readable document as literature, not just history. My normal short sentence paragraph style was replaced by longer paragraphs using multiple punctuation. The literary tests I applied linked to readability, but also sound.

In writing the thesis I did, as Kanani suggested, read lots of biography. I also, again as Kanani suggested, looked at alternative writing including Jane Austin! How were sentences structured? How did the words flow? Did it meet the quick read test (getting substance with a scan), while also attracting the reader into a detailed read?

I then experimented with all this in my writing. It was fun not to be constrained by the restraints I normally wrote under.

Friday, October 23, 2009

US state budget woes lead to service cuts

I was struck by a story that Hawaii's public schools will be closed in the first of 17 "furlough Fridays" that will see a drastic cut in school time for up to 171,000 children. The reduction of the school week from five to four days will last for at least the next two years. The cut is due to the decline in state revenues following the downturn.

Then, checking, I found a useful story from the Centre of Budget and Policy that provides an overview of the budget effects across US states. I quote from one element:  

Every state save Vermont has some sort of balanced-budget law. So the shortfalls for 2009 and most of the shortfalls for 2010 have already been closed through a combination of spending cuts, withdrawals from reserves, revenue increases, and use of federal stimulus dollars.

But in over half the states, new gaps have recently emerged for 2010, as revenues have fallen short of the projections on which the 2010 budgets were based (even though the projections themselves seemed pessimistic at the time). Already, 26 states have identified mid-year gaps — some but not all of which have already been addressed through spending cuts or other measures — totaling $16 billion or 4 percent of these budgets.

Hawaii is not alone. The problem would be much worse were in not for Federal Government assistance.

At this distance I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the detail of the US position. However, the capacity of the US public to impose or accept ideological positions - mandated balanced budget laws among others is an ideological position - is a little remarkable.

Australia does this too of course, and I am talking about Australian Governments as a whole, but ideology tends to be tempered a little by pragmatism.

Am I being fair when I say this?     

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Indonesia's democratic values

There is a fascinating piece by Larry Diamond in today's Australian looking at democratic values in Indonesia.

Indonesia was one of six emerging East Asian democracies surveyed by the Asian Barometer during 2006. Based on national random samples of the voting age population, The barometer asked a large number of standardised questions about people's attitudes and values towards democracy and their evaluations of their own governments.

Indonesia scores strongly, leading Diamond to conclude:

While further research is needed to explore the underlying correlates and causal dynamics of these value patterns in Indonesia, and to determine their evolution and resilience over time, it appears there is a normative foundation in society for the progress that Indonesia's democracy has made in the past decade. Whether this is a response to democratic improvement or a cause of it is not clear, and we should be wary of inferring too much from one survey.

But the picture that emerges is certainly an encouraging one.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Belshaw's Best 5: GDP - Australia in its Region

GDP - Australia in its Region dates from November 2006. This was one of a number of posts intended to put Australia into a global and regional context. Given that this post is now almost three years old, how does it stack up?

I don't think that I would change the analysis at all because the drivers I talked about then have continued, as have the Australian policy responses. Growth in India and China has been somewhat faster than I expected, the US's position has been weakened by the Global Financial Crisis, Australia has performed well in economic terms.

Even given our good performance and our current membership of the G20, Australia's share of global GDP must continue to shrink. For the present, we remain a regional economic super power and a small but significant player in the global economy.

The changes to the composition of the Australian population that I talked about have continued apace, with immigration in fact being higher than I had expected. Mr Akya's suggestion that we should all pack up and return to Europe looks even sillier now than it did then.


In July the Australian Bureau of Statistics release migration data for the 2007-2008 financial year.

As a end June 2008, 5.5 million migrants from over 200 countries living in Australia were born overseas, over 25% of the population.

People born in the United Kingdom remained the largest group with 1.2 million, followed by those from New Zealand (495,000 people), China (314,000), India (239,000) and Italy (222,000).

However, over the last 10 years those born in the UK declined from 6.1% of Australia's population in 1998 to 5.4% in 2008. Likewise the Italian-born declined from 1.3% to 1.0%. In contrast, increases were recorded for people born in New Zealand (from 1.8% to 2.3%), China (from 0.7% to 1.5%) and India (from 0.5% to 1.1%).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Australian higher education - the Qualifications Framework, Indian Students and Rudd Government problems in service delivery

Just a brief post today updating myself on developments in the Australian higher education sector.

Back on 27 August 2009 in Indonesian Government downgrades certain Australian degrees to diploma status I referred to problems that had arisen in the context of Indonesian Government ranking of certain Australian qualifications. A key problem lay in different input standards between Indonesian requirements and those set out in Australia's National Qualification Framework.

Some time ago, the Australian Qualifications Framework Council released a discussion paper, Strengthening the AQF. Comments close this Friday 24 October. The paper may seem a little dry, but is worthwhile reading because of the way it affects all Australian levels of education.

Interestingly, there is still no apparent interface between the AQF and the qualifications awarded by Australia's specialist medical colleges.

The problems with Indian students that I discussed in Indian Students Australia - the real lessons and in two earlier posts (links in the first post) have had an interesting double whammy effect.

According to an article by Andrew Trounson in The Australian, the number of Indian students applying for student visas fell from 20,000 in the June quarter to 11,000 in the September quarter. That's a very big fall, but its about what might have been expected. However, another factor has come into play as well, hence the double whammy. Because of the tightening in visa requirements, total visa rejections rose to 4400 in the September quarter from 3308 in the June quarter. The net effect  was a fall in the number of Indian student visa  approvals from 17,237 in the June quarter to just 6804 in the September quarter. That's a huge fall.

Despite all the troubles, it appears from an IDP survey of 1130 Indian participants that Australia still rates well ahead of British, US, Canada and New Zealand on Indian perceptions of safety, government policies, access to residency and student visas.

In July in Education Targets and Australia's Universities - delivery problems for the Rudd Government I used simple back-of-envelope calculations to show the the Government's targets on higher education were likely to be unachievable.  I followed this up with another piece in October, Use and abuse of socio-economic rankings in public policy.

Now as it happens there have been quite a few stories and scuttlebutt, I cannot give links, suggesting that Australia's biggest universities have ruled out any further increases in student numbers. As I read it, they are really focused on maintaining their places in the global university rankings. I think that they are right to do so, but it has all sorts of structural implication.

Take Sydney, where the three biggest universities - Sydney, NSW and UTS - are all located in the city/eastern suburbs. The city universities are simply overloaded, and also face problems in accommodation and access.

The fastest growth in young people lies in Western Sydney. Here the University of Western Sydney is the main institution. However, it already has over 35,000 students (24,000 full time student equivalents). I can't help wondering where the students from Western Sydney are to go to university.

  One of the perverse distributional effects in all this is the bias towards country students. In addressing social and economic disadvantage, the big city universities are all offering special treatment to country students. This actually takes students away from regional universities.

More importantly, and I have not seen any objective analysis on this, it gives a student from say the small town of Bingara on the western slopes near Armidale a significantly better chance (20%+?) of getting to university than an exact equivalent from Campbelltown in Sydney's west.

Far be it for me to argue against a country bias. Still, I don't actually think its fair.    

Sunday, October 18, 2009

War Powers Bill: Pre-emptive self-defence - and a link with Canada

You know, things do connect in the most interesting ways.

My current interest in Canadian history actually began with the war of 1812. Then I went there, so I had to write something, and then I found Christopher Moore's Canadian History.

Now my old Armidale friend and colleague Paul Barratt has established a link to Canadian history in the period after the end of the War of 1812 and the current War Powers Bill being discussed in the Australian Parliament.

I really do love these cross-links. I must email Chris Moore. I suspect that he would be interested!

Sunday Essay -country mindedness, Indonesia and the importance of mutual support

In Saturday Morning Musings - Operation Padang Assist I reported on the Australian operations to assist Indonesians devastated by the Sumatra earthquake. A comment from Harry Nizam reminded me of the need to remember the human suffering at the other end of assistance. 20091013adf8208022_231.JPG

No Australian assistance can possibly undo the human tragedies resulting from an event like the Padang earthquake. All we can do is to help the survivors.

This photo shows an Australian Army nurse, Captain Jane Currie, at work helping an elderly patient at the Australian Defence Force Primary Health Care Facility in the village of Sungai Gerringging. I would guess that the bloke on the left is the patient's son.

A small country like Australia cannot solve the world's problems, nor ease every disaster. Care spread too thinly is no care at all. What we can do is to focus our efforts on our neighbours where our help can have an impact. This does not mean that we should not help more broadly in tragedies like Darfur, simply that our first focus should be local.

Anybody who reads this blog will know that I think of myself as a country person even though I now live in Sydney. To my mind, the essence of country is helping one's neighbours. If a neighbour is sick you may not be able to solve the sickness, but you can bring food. At one point when Mum was ill, our family was fed on meals brought by neighbours.

In disaster, sometimes the most important thing is just to know that people care in simple, practical ways. This does not stop the pain, but it does make it easier to cope.

I was in Montreal when my mother died. I came back to find things organised. At the afternoon tea after the burial, the food, the alcohol, the urns, even the plates and cups, were provided by people from the district. This made it much easier for me to manage.

I am not good in remembering the personal; I get too involved in other things. Yet I do try to remind myself just how importanindonesianexperts160209-420x0t reciprocity, country mindedness, being a good neighbour, is.

Reciprocity is central. As a local example, we help Indonesia, Indonesia helps us.

This photo shows an Indonesian team arriving in Melbourne to help in the Victorian fires. I have no idea how useful they were. That's not the point. The help was there when we needed it most.

There is, I think, a weariness in Australia about helping international disasters. There are so many. Yet if we lose our compassion we have little left.

In trying to argue, as I am at present, for Australia to continue to play an active role in regional relief, to help coordinate regional responses, I am not saying anything new. This is official Australian policy. Simply, I am trying ensure that we Australians continue to support regional disaster support.

I am also trying to promote the idea, not new, of proactive regional cooperation.

The next photo shows HAMA Kanimbla on her way to Indonesia. T20091014ran8106603_010.JPGhe ship arrived Friday, 16 October.

Just at present, Australian politics is dominated by the latest asylum seeker story. I am sorry to say this, but in terms of importance this is very much a tenth order issue, From an Australian national perspective, it really does not matter.

What is more important: the arrival, in this case non-arrival, of a few hundred boat people or the building of mutual support networks that may help millions?

Don't get me wrong: who harms one, harms many. Yet the size of the response to the illegal immigration issue as compared to the Padang disaster is deeply and profoundly out of kilter.

As a mere blogger, my influence on Australian opinion is very limited. Still, blogging does at least give me a chance to put on the public record views that others may, at least, read.

Finishing on a purely personal note, my interaction with Indonesian bloggers has been very important in refining my views. They put a personal face on issue that would be otherwise abstract.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - change at a local context

Beardy Street 1905 In a post yesterday, The Armidale School (TAS) changes its organisational structure, I looked at changes in the structure of my old secondary school. This got me musing about things past and Armidale as a microcosm of change within Australia.

Just for the benefit of international readers, Armidale is an educational centre in Northern New South Wales (New England) with a current population of about 22,000.

This photo shows Armidale's main street, Beardy Street, in 1905. This was two years before my grandfather arrived in town as a farm labourer. The big building in the right background is Richardson's Department Store.

My first ever consulting assignment was to advise the new owners of this building what they might do with the upstairs' area. We suggested that the idea of a Rural Information Centre was not viable; office space would be a better alternative. As it happened, our consulting business ended as the lead tenants. We occupied the entire street facing top floor around both corners. Somewhere I have a photo of youngest still in nappy's crawling backwards down the steep stair to the tower.1905-Building

The next photo shows the main TAS building in 1905. Founded in 1894 as a boarding school on English lines, the main school building was built on what were then paddocks to the east of Armidale. Note the absence of trees and the roller. 

School conditions could best be described as austere. This was a very different world. There was no expectation of the comfort or privacy that we would take for granted today.

1913-Dorm-2 This photo shows a school dorm (dormitory) in 1913. You can see what I mean.

A modern audience seeing this photo in isolation from context - a private school where parents paid substantial sums of money to send their boys - might think of work house conditions.

I make this point because when we are considering visual material of conditions in Aboriginal establishments like Kinchella for example, we compare from today, not from the conditions of the time.

When I started at this school the conditions were not dissimilar. There were fewer beds, there was a  small personal chest of drawers between each bed, but still very similar. I was a day boy in a mainly boarding school. But I used to change in these dorms; then as a monitor on duty I had to check the dorms as the boys went to bed, reporting to the master on duty that all was well before I went to my o1962-100yds_How_Heathwn home; finally as a student (duty) master I lived in a room of one of these dorms for a school year.

Just for the sake of nostalgia, this photo shows the finals of the 100 yards at the school   athletics carnival in 1962.

The winning bloke on the far right is Rick How who won the GPS sprint that year and went on to play for NSW in Rugby with one match for Australia as wing against Ireland in 1967. I played against Rick. My god he was hard to catch. The bloke to the next of him is Rollo Heath, I am not sure who is coming third, but I am fourth on the far left. I have to tell you that these two - Rick and Rollo - were some of the nicest people I have ever met.

I remember this meet. I had met a NEGS girl on the train at the end of the previous year. I saw her again, a bit embarrassed because I hadn't bother to shave, and we started writing to each other. That's another story.

Six of my extended family have been to TAS, starting in the years of the Second World War.

I tried to find a photo to illustrate this period, but could not. This was the first period that social change hit TAS, greater I think than that that happened in the First World War. Frankly, the school was a bit of a bear garden because every boy knew that they would be entering the military as soon as they finished. The masters themselves knew this, so allowances were made.

The next big change was the ninety seventies. It began a little earlier, signs were there in my time, but the 1970s were the time of huge change in which the student body actually rejected in a combined way certain school rules and approaches. I haven't attempted to trace the social history, indeed I had no idea at a purely school level how great it had been until talking later to cousin Will.

I was not a great supporter of Alan Cash as head at the time he became head. I was actually a fairly one eyed supporter of Gordon Fisher, the former head. Now, in retrospect, I tip my hat to Alan. He took the school through a period of fundamental change, one that must have been very difficult, in ways that preserved the past while laying the basis for the future.

The first overseas students came to TAS in my last period there. I wish I could remember all their names. They had a pretty rough time of it. Boarding school life can be tough to begin with. It is a lot harder if you come from a fundamentally different culture. But things change, if sometimes more slowly than we would like.

I remember when my parents arranged to have some TAS Thai students come to stay with us. I was than at university. TAS Overseas students 1

Mum and dad did so because they had lived in Bangkok. Mum in fact cooked Thai food to give the boys a break. But the main thing they wanted to do was to have hot showers! Ex-TAS boys might appreciate this!

The next photo shows current international students at TAS.

There is an enormous difference between the TAS world that I knew and today.  The international component is only a small part of this.

Finishing, this is only a small snapshot of change in a local context.

In writing, I try to distinguish between change and my views of change. I also try to articulate those elements that I believe are worth preserving. I will pick up further elements of the Armidale story in a later post.         

Friday, October 16, 2009

Economic literacy in Australia

Not all well this week. Youngest got flue, then me, and now my wife. Coughing and spluttering everywhere.

Some funny things happen from time to time with the Great Chinese Fire Wall. An old friend on face book based in Beijing has not posted for some time. His son advised in September that the page was blocked on the Chinese side.

I see that Michael Pettis's China Financial Markets has been effectively out of action since some time in September. You can see that there have been posts, you just can't see the posts! By digging around you can access post up to the end of August, not beyond this. Earlier Chinese access to Michael's site was blocked. Now it appears a little more. Still, it may be just a site problem.

A fascinating speech on 15 October from Australian Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens on Australian monetary policy. It emerges that in September 2007, one year before the Global Financial Crisis hit, one of the scenarios tested by Bank staff involved the implications of and actions that might follow a global financial crash. This was based on known strains in the international capital market. It didn't happen then, but when it did happen the Bank could just act. I must say that I found all this very re-assuring.  

During the week I managed to get to a speech by Access Economics's Chris Richardson. I was very critical of Access earlier in the year for their headline grabbing gloom and doom about the Australian economy. This time I thought Chris had some interesting and useful things to say. I will do a fuller post in due course. This, by the way, was my reason for checking Michael Pettis's blog.

All this got me musing. Australia has been well served at official level in a macro-economic policy sense. I may be wrong, I stand to be corrected, but I suspect that the general level of economic debate in Australia is very high by global standards. Further, economic literacy in this country runs quite deep, so that people do have views that they can argue. All this has a winnowing effect.

I could wish that the same thing was true of other policy areas. I wonder why its not. Part of the answer lies in Australians' obsessions with real estate I think that it's more than that. Another post?   

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Belshaw's Best 4: End Week Reflections - Quong Tart and the Chinese in Australia

I wrote this post back in February 2007. It was, I think, my first major post Beijing Celebrationon the Chinese in this country and beyond. Since then I have written a number of posts. I have also visited China for the first time, a visit that is now a treasured memory.

This visit shows the open air restaurant down the street from our hotel in Beijing.

This night there was some form of celebration on, a very big group spanning many tables. The women being honoured visited tables for toasts. Others visited her and so it went on.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Imagination and the role of questions in public policy

In Two (on the face of it) stories of lack of imagination, even common sense, Neil Whitfield (ninglun)referred in part to the conflict that has arisen in Sydney over agricultural land vs housing. This issue is not unique to Sydney; big cities round the world are chewing up countryside as they expand. In the Sydney case, the land under threat is prime agricultural land that not only has in place in Australia's history, but is also an integral part of the Sydney life style.

Neil's title and especially lack of imagination actually captures one of my core criticisms of current approaches, something that I summarise as mechanistic management. Essentially this involves action based around simple measurable things, often a multiplicity of measurable things, with action focused on the achievement of target. In the NSW planning case, trends indicate this population in these places. How do we get the land to build the houses to fit the people?

In an Armidale Express column, Belshaw's world: a new direction in migration policy?, I talked about the increase in the Australian population. Forget my conclusion - this was actually pretty mechanistic in itself - and focus instead on one key number: an estimated 439,000 people (2.1%) were added to the Australian population in the year to the end of March 2009. This is a very big number. You can see why the NSW Government is focused on getting the land to fit the people. The problem is that it is asking the wrong questions.

Creative policy depends in part upon the questions you ask. New questions force new answers.

In a comment on Neil's post, I said that the question the Government has asked and is trying to answer is how does the city fit x people? Instead, I would ask two different questions.

The first is whether the city should fit x people? This is, I suggested, where decentralisation comes in.

The word decentralisation, once popular, has dropped out of usage in recent years. It simply means moving people and activities away from the metro cities to achieve a more balanced growth.

Take inland Northern NSW. You could comfortably add 100,000 people there in a relatively short period without creating environmental or other problems. Indeed, it would improve life styles. One hundred thousand may not be a large number, but it would take a fair bit of pressure of Sydney.

When I raise this issue, people always point to the impediments, the problems that have to be overcome. Nobody engages in discussion on the question as to how it might be made to happen.

The second question I suggested should be asked is this: is if the city is to fit x people, what is required to make the city fit for those people? Once this question has been answered, then the original question (how to fit the people into Sydney) can be addressed.

It seems to me that preservation of agriculture around Sydney is important not just for food supply, but also for life style/livability reasons, as well as preservation of links to Sydney’s past. Given this position, the issue becomes how do we preserve it while also accommodating growth.

If we cannot do this, then growth should be constrained. Alternatively, the costs of growth should be explicitly recognised.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Canada's head of state

Interesting article in the Canadian Globe and Mail about just who is Canada's head of state. Reading between the lines, it appears that Canada's GG has upset the PM by being, well, just a little bit presidential.

I like our current system on both sentimental and working grounds. I accept that many Australians do not. However, if we are to have a republic at some point, we do need to address questions such as the relationship between PM (a non-constitutional position) or Government and head of state.

Hat tip to Christopher Moore for the story.


In an earlier (1 November 2008) essay, Our Canadian Republic, Chistopher discusses the role of parliament and parties. I made my own position here clear in Importance of Parliament, a post written in February 2007.

I have written quite a bit on constitutional issues because I regard them as important. I must pull those post together at some point.

I first became aware of just how little Australians knew about about their system of Government back in 1987 and 1988. My then consultancy business had quite a big Government relations practice. We had chosen to grow our own people, so were recruiting young graduates to train up.

We struck a very real problem here. We found that our new recruits had very little knowledge of the Australian system of Government. They knew a little of the formal mechanics, but had no idea of the underlying principles, nor of the history.

Why is this important? Let me take an example.

Quite a bit of our work involved Government procurement, helping clients bid for big Government contracts. In this type of work there are things that you can do, things that you can't. More precisely, things that you should not. Sometimes this involved telling clients that they must not do things.

I had grown up under the old system. I had also worked then for twenty years as a Commonwealth public servant. So there were a whole lot of things that were simply automatic, built into my thinking. I found that our new graduates had none of this. We had to put them through remedial training, explaining not just the formal constitutional mechanics, but also the history of parliamentary goverment. This was quite expensive, but was absolutely necessary if they were to be let out on their own.

Twenty years have passed since then. The level of community knowledge has continued to decline. It is quite hard to engage in a sensible discussion on constitutional issues when people have no idea as to what you are talking about!

I have no problems with a debate based on the tabula rasa, clean slate, principle. But that's not the debate we are having. Instead, the debate (and this is broader than simply the question of a republic) is around modifications to existing systems. How can you do this if you do not understand that system?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Just a note on social change in colonial NSW

Just a few very brief snippets today following up on yesterday's post, Sunday Essay - for Neil: threads in Australian history. This post took a fair bit of time to write, but the views should really be taken as work in progress.

In discussion with Marcellous he made, among others, this point on the sectarian divide and the changes in the Roman catholic Church in the second half of the nineteenth century:

I would have thought that the point you make about the catholic church relates to the hierarchy rather than to their flock.

Why did the hierarchy change? (I agree that it did.) Might it be because the catholic laity (at this stage almost entirely Irish) were in a position either explicitly or implicitly to get the episcopate and clergy they desired?

This pulled me up a little because it raises a question I cannot properly answer.

Back in June in church, state and social change in Australia I discussed social change through the prism set by three books, one on the Methodist Church in Uralla, a second on the Country Party, the third a history of the Ursuline Order. The view taken by  Pauline Kneipp, herself a member of the Ursulines, was extremely unsympathetic to the changes within the Church and the divisions that resulted.

Part of the problem in writing social history is to know to what extent the material that you are dealing with is in fact representative. In focusing my reading on New England just at present, I am writing of an area where the Catholic proportion of the population was lower than elsewhere, the non-Irish proportion of the Catholic population higher than elsewhere. So not necessarily representative.

Alan Atkinson's Camden, my current train reading, deals with events at a local level further south. This is a fascinating book because it deals with thought and life at a community and family level. This is also a community that was on the Catholic chain migration route to the south from Sydney.

One of the reason why good local history is so important , and this is a very good history indeed, is the way in which it forces us to question broader constructs written at state or national level.

As one example, marriage in early colonial NSW had not yet acquired the later form now seen as the norm. The ceremony itself, if there was one, was less important. A remarkably high proportion of births were very early or illegitimate. This then changed quite quickly.

Part of the reason for this, it seems, was the religious revival movement within the Catholic Church in Ireland. Among other things, this led to a large increase in the number of Irish religious.

I hadn't focused on this at all - my concern had been the interplay within the Australian hierarchy and the interaction between this and changes in the Church in Europe. What happened in Australia was in some ways the playing out at local level of events in Europe linked to the Papacy itself. When you look at the dramatic decline in the number of illegitimate births among Camden's Catholic population, you can see a social change that links directly to religious change.

I do not know to what degree Camden was representative of developments further north. There are clear differences because of Camden's particular social structures, including the role of the Maccarthurs as lords of the manor. But the broad trends do fit with my own analysis.      

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Essay - for Neil: threads in Australian history

It has been a little while since I wrote a companion piece to Neil. However, his Waltzing Matilda 21st century style – current reading drew me, as I suspect he thought that it might.

I haven't yet read Mark Davis’s The Land of Plenty: Australia in the 2000s (Melbourne, MUP 2008), the subject of Neil's post, although I will. I also look forward to reading Neil's assessment.

Given that I have not read the book, I cannot yet comment on it. However, I thought that I would clear a little undergrowth by setting out my own perspectives on some of the things that I suspect Mark has written about. Not to attack his views, I do not yet know them, but rather to clear my own thinking.

I suppose that it is sad but inevitable that age changes one's perspective. The young deal with what is, what might be. As one grows older, questions of what was, what might have been, become more important.

I make this point because in a sense it sets part of the context for this post. I look at Australia's past not just through my research, but through the prism set by my own experiences. 

It is often forgotten, certainly I find this a hard message to get across at a personal level, that the first key role of Government and Ministers is to set values. No matter how efficient or effective you may be, if the values are wrong or in conflict with policy, delivery will be wrong.

I don't mean anything high falutin by values, simply the general principles that will guide policy and indeed the nation.

The reason the Howard Government lost me despite my support for some elements of their policy lay in what I saw as an erosive style in conflict with what I perceived to be the fundamental values of Australia. I finally lost all patience, lost the ability to make excuses, with the Haneef case. I suspect that Mr Ruddock will come to be seen as a tragic figure who, despite himself, came to typify the neglect of due process, the willingness to over-ride individual rights and the increasing use of harsh use of language that marked the later Howard period.

Even as I wrote this post, the current Government was expressing regret for the sad case of Van Phuc Nguyen who was detained in 2002 and held illegally in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre for more than three years. Mr Nguyen is a permanent resident of Australia, but immigration officials at Sydney airport did not recognise his visa.

One case, a dozen cases, but now there appear to have been hundreds of cases of injustice. As an Australian I cannot stomach this, nor can I accept the way in which so many Australians even now simply shrug the matter away. I regard what happened as deeply un-Australian, in conflict with what I have always seen as the values of this society.  

I have known or known of Mr Howard for a long while. I found him a warm person. When I had to brief him as Treasurer I was very nervous; this was my first ever ministerial briefing. He was kindness itself. I have often wondered how and why such an apparent disconnect could emerge between what I knew of the man and the later language and actions of the Howard Government. I think that part of the answer lies in the events of 9/11 and the subsequent responses: Mr Howard became trapped.

Part of the answer too, I think, lies in what I see as a broader coarsening of the language of Australian politics. Language became harsher, edgier. We can see this in NSW, but it is not unique to NSW.The language of punishment, vengeance and control combined with a sort of managerial speak has come to dominate.   

One of the issues that many historians have wrestled with is the way in which Australia combined an apparently egalitarian approach with sometimes social conservatism, conformism, injustice and a class based hierarchy. This last may not have been as strong as in the British Isles, but it certainly existed.

I think that the Australian historian John Hirst provided part of the explanation for this apparent conflict with his term "democracy of manners". Language reflects values and also affects behaviour. Our language, our manners, have been egalitarian. This has of itself acted to set a social frame.

Of course a critic could point to many exceptions, but I do think that it is acceptable as a broad generalisation. I would also suggest that it was very deeply embedded indeed in popular conceptions of what it was to be an Australian. Whatever the weaknesses may have been in Russell Wards' analysis of Australian history, and in some ways Russell was one of the most patrician figures I have known, the enduring power of The Australian Legend demonstrates the way in which he captured Australian perceptions of themselves.

Mr Howard substituted a much diminished view. The Legend had shrunk to concepts of mateship, nationalism and military prowess; the overall rhetoric linked back to the images, but was in many ways in conflict with them. The image of of people wrapped in the flag substituted for the old Australian irreverence about themselves.

It is important, I think, to recognise that the narrow nationalism of the Howard period can be directly traced back to the Whitlam Government (1972-1975).

There were always two threads to Australian nationalism. One was international, empire and commonwealth. This thread was proudly Australian, but saw no conflict between this and broader allegiances. Unless, of course, those allegiances threatened Australia.  A second thread linked to the Labor and Irish tradition was more narrowly nationalistic; perfidious Albion must be rejected, replaced by a more narrowly defined and uniquely Australian model drawing from one set of perceptions of Australia's past.

Consciously and systematically, the Whitlam Government began dismantling the official and even unofficial linkages to Australia's past. Sometimes it over-reached itself: the attempt on the grounds of non-discrimination to treat New Zealand and New Zealanders for passport purposes in the same way as any other nationality foundered on the self-evident fact that they were not the same as any other nationality.

Not all this was on the public record. I do not think that the rejection of the desire by Prince Charles to buy land in Australia on the grounds that, as a foreigner, he was not allowed to do so ever became public.

Of itself, a democracy of manners is not sufficient to explain Australia's egalitarianism and sometimes social reform. Canada and New Zealand also show this, although the expression varies. This was well recognised in the past, less so today when our view of the world has become so very Australia-centric, cut of from our broader past.

The Europeans who settled Australia came from a world that still bore many of the trappings of its Feudal past. The first industrial legislation in Australia was called the Master and Servants Act. They also came from a world on the verge of the agrarian and industrial revolution.

These semi-feudal trappings, the caste systems of the old world, quickly broke down in the new colonies and for a very simple practical reason. Not only was labour was short, but it was possible for a man from an ordinary working background, even a convict, to make money. By European standards, the ordinary Australian was remarkably well off and from a very early point in colonial history. This made for an independence of attitude, one supported by growing demand for Australia's rural products starting with wool.

The Australian colonies were fortunate, too, in the early grant of responsible government. Problems of governance in a sprawling and diverse Imperial super-power are beyond the scope of this post. The key point is that we did not have to fight for the vote, nor later for independence. These things were granted to us in stages; we had real local control from a very early point.

I make these points because we have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back, to say aren't we good, when we have in fact just been fortunate. Now here I want to introduce several themes in Australian history that I think are important: accident and self-help; boom and bust; wowser and larrikin; protestant and catholic.

Life in colonial Australia was just plain dangerous. Australian living standards may have been higher, life expectancy longer than England, but danger was still there. Apart from outbreaks of disease such as typhoid, accidents were common, the possibility of misfortune always there, help far away. This bred a self-help, cooperative attitude as people strove to build support and to help each other.

Australia's largest women's movement, the Country Women's Association is a later outcome of this. Just a simple thing, really: build rest-rooms in town so that country women and their kids in town have somewhere to go, to make a cup of tea, to talk to friends, to change the baby. Our entire volunteer tradition dates to this building and self-help period, as does our approach to collective action.

The concept of collective action is deeply embedded in Australian thinking. The union movement and indeed the Labor Party itself was one expression of this. The broader cooperative movement a second: friendly societies, building societies and cooperatives spread across Australia. 

It also led to a fairly pragmatic approach to government. Government was there to do things, to help build, to provide support, to fix things up. This was mixed with a genuine reforming ideology focused on social improvement. It came in flashes, but it was always there.

A moment ago I was critical of what I saw as the narrow nationalism of the Whitlam Government. We also need to recognise that that Government was a genuine reforming Government, one that wanted to do a lot in a very short space of time. Indeed, that desire was part of its problem, because it came to power after a long period in opposition with a large agenda just at the time that economic conditions were turning to the stagflation of the 1970s.   

It is my belief, I stand to be corrected on the evidence, that this volunteer, self help, ethos has been in decline since at least the eighties, maybe since the sixties.  Speaking as someone involved with voluntary organisations over the years, my recollection is that we started talking about the problem towards the end of the seventies.

I think that this can be traced back in part to the rise of individualism and self-expression in the sixties, with its rejection of things that attempted to control behaviour, to restrict freedoms.

In some ways I am a child of the sixties. I do not want to go back to the social rigidities of the 1950s, nor do I accept that individualism and self-expression (live and let live) are incompatible with either a self-help ethos or a volunteer spirit. My problem lies in my feeling that in rejecting the things that we did, we may have failed to recognise the extent to which prevailing social attitudes affect behaviour. If you reject one element, others suffer. In some ways, the sixties laid the basis for the me generation.  

This shift coincided with a second shift that reinforced the move towards a more individualist position along the collectivist-individualist spectrum, the rise of new attitudes towards the role of the state. In most developed countries the role of Government contracted, institutional structures were reshaped and reformed.

As one small sign of this in Australia, the great cooperative institutions that had been such a feature of Australian life were effectively privatised, providing one-off gains to members, but with very little recognition of the passing of an era. The Australian Mutual Provident Society, once a dominant feature of Australia's financial landscape, became just another insurance company. 

Boom and bust has been a second feature of Australian life. Australians know this, even take a sort of pride in it. What is, I think, less well recognised is the way it has affected attitudes.

During growth periods, Australians became more expansive, more outward looking. In busts, people turned in. Society became more conservative. Knowing that good times do end, Australians tend to party when things are good; this adds to things such as real estate bubbles, with the inevitable hang-over. I suspect that Australians are more obsessed with real estate than any nation in the world.

Within the cycle of booms and busts has been the constant presence of what the Australian marxist economic historian Ron Neale has described as the middling class. Ron described them in this way:

..petit bourgeois, aspiring professional men, other literates and artisans. Individuated or privatised like the middle class but collectively less deferential and more concerned to remove the privileges and authority of the upper class in which, without radical changes, they cannot hope to share.

Writing of his own early views, the Country Party politician David Drummond said that nothing would cause him

to accept that society was divided into 2 classes & 2 only. I knew that in between there was a middle class of decent law abiding people, farmers, graziers, small shopkeepers, & to a certain extent professional men. They were either self-employed or small employers but largely consisted of people who valued their independence and sought by hard work to build a secure place in society  they could sustain ...To the solid core of the "middle class" the unprincipled exploitive greed of employers was a loathsome as the destructive ill-balanced doctrines of extreme unionism.

Neale and Drummond are in fact describing the same group, one from the broader perspective of class and ideology in the nineteenth century, the second from the perspective of a farm labourer/share farmer in the period just before the First World War.

The key point about the middling class is that they were aspirational but constantly vulnerable even during good times. Some of the most radical as well as conservative Australian political responses have come from this group, as have enduring Australian concepts such as the dislike of banks so well expressed in the popular Australian movie The Castle.

  The middling class still exists, of course, but has I think shrunk in importance and influence. In its place we now have something that Australia has never seen before: a growing group of socially deprived people whose deprivation has become generationally independent of either boom or bust.

This really is quite new. Of course such cases have existed in the past. The thing I struggle with most at a personal level is that we have actually institutionalised this growing underclass. Worse, and this would not have been acceptable in the past, there appears to be a growing acceptance that this result is inevitable. We just have to manage the problem.

Larrikin versus wowser is the third theme that I want to look at briefly. Here again we have the apparent dichotomy within Australia that we saw with egalitarianism on one side, social conservatism and conformity on the other.

The term larrikin is used to describe the Australian folk tradition of irreverence, mockery of authority and disregard for rigid norms of propriety. The term wowser was applied in a derogatory way to describe those who wanted to impose religious and social morality on the community.

Today we live in a society that can be best described, to misquote Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, as the triumph of the wowser. Larrikinism survives especially in the Australian sense of humour, but wowserism is dominant. However, it is a wowserism that has lost its soul.

  Early colonial society was male dominated, with men heavily out-numbering women. This is the world that Russell Ward believes spawned the Australian Legend. With time, there were more women and more families. The frontier with its male dominance kept moving out.

Two of the very best Australian local histories - John Ferrier's Colonial Armidale and Alan Atkinson''s Camden, winner of the 1998 NSW Premier's Literary award - trace the social transformation that resulted with the rise of the family.

Many factors contributed, including specially the various religious revival movements. However, the key was the need, the desire, to create a better environment for the family. Women played a key role here. The Temperance Movement was in fact the first Australian women's movement, one that actually redefined the role of women in colonial society. It may have been gender specific, the role of women in the home and family space was central, but it gave women power and a voice that had been lacking.

The Temperance Movement did believe in social controls, imposed limitations on things such as service of the alcohol that had been such a feature of Australian society, but moral reformation was central. Here the Movement joined with a whole series of other threads - adult education for example - all directed at social and moral reform.

The difference between nineteenth century wowserism and the modern equivalent, the reason why I say that wowserism has lost its soul, can be seen across a number of dimensions.

To the nineteenth century wowser, not that they applied that term to themselves, individual reformation was central, government action secondary. Today's Australia regards problems not so much as moral or social problems, although modern Australia can be very moralistic, but as something to be measured, assessed and then controlled. Essentially, we no longer believe in concepts such as moral or social improvement, even the idea of progress itself has been largely lost. Behaviour can and must be controlled for social good reasons, but the thought of active individual or social reformation seems strange in the extreme.

The last thread, Protestant vs Catholic, will finish this now long essay.

The term Anglo-Celtic has been coined in recent years to describe the "traditional" majority European population of this country. Past Australians would have found this term very strange indeed.

There is a common view in this country that Australia has been a uniform society. This is then contrasted with modern multicultural society with its proclaimed diversity. The reality is that that past "uniform" Australia had to manage a sectarian divide that was far deeper than today's divisions. That divide continues to affect Australian life. The Republican Movement itself is one modern outcrop, as is Australia's continuing secular society.

Modern Australian atheists deny the role of religion in Australian society. They actually struggle to understand the role of faith and belief.

At the time of the First Fleet, the England from which the fleet sailed still bore the marks of the religious struggles of the Reformation. The new colonial administration, all pragmatic men, knew that they could not simply transplant things such as the established Anglican church to the new colony. They had to deal with not just the Roman Catholics, but even more importantly with the extremely irascible and indeed tendentious Scottish Presbyterians with their infinite capacity for schism. This meant that the colony was, in an official sense, secular from the beginning.

Religion was important, but in its place. One side-effect that is, I think, little known is that NSW was perhaps the first place in the Christian world to provide Government support to Jewish schools as part of an overall financial package to support education.

The initial approach accommodated both the Anglican/Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority, as well as the minorities with other religions or with no religion at all. All this changed from the middle of the century with the Irish Catholic revival movement and the deliberate and successful attempt by Irish Catholic Bishops to assert Irish Catholic control over the Australian faithful. The result was a profound religious division in Australian society - the ghettoing of Roman Catholics -  that lasted until the second half of the twentieth century.

This division, and to my mind this was one good outcome, actually reinforced the secular trend in Australia. It also led to changes in Australian manners. Religion ceased to be a topic for discussion in polite society! It also laid the basis for acceptance of other faiths.

In this now very long essay I have tried to trace through some of the threads that have made Australia Australia. I hope that the argument is at least of some interest.