Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Snippets - community development, soil sequestration, remote eye care

At the risk of upsetting KVD, I am not going to write my normal Sunday Essay. I am all written out, and have to focus on other things. Instead, a few Sunday Snippets.

At my request, Kanani kindly posted something that she had originally written as a Facebook note. Now in Newcastle, Armidale and the process of community renewal I have written a localised companion post.

The process of community change does fascinate me. Generally this is dealt with in terms of specific communities. I am also interested in the way change in related communities interacts to create new patterns. This, I think, a neglected topic in both urban and country areas.

Both industry and governments necessarily rely on trend analysis for planning purposes. But what happens if the relationships underlying the trends change? To use the community change example, if interaction between communities creates new patterns, then all the statistics such as population trends may change.

The higher the level of aggregation in the statistics, the more muted become this type of effect. At the same time, the less useful the statistics become for specific planning purposes.

To illustrate all this with a very simple, parochial example.

The population of the New England Tablelands has been stagnant for many years, part of the decline in inland NSW. Between 201 and 2006, the population of the Armidale-Dumaresq local government area, the biggest local government unit on the Tablelands (the bigger Tamworth lies on the Western Slopes) actually declined from 23,920 to 23,368 people.

This type of trend affects Government planning decisions, with resources concentrating in higher growth areas where projected needs are expected to grow. This actually reinforces the existing trend process.

Guyra Shire is 24 miles north of Armidale. Between 2001 and 2006 its population increased marginally. from 4,201 t0 4,220.  Again, this affects allocation of services.

Things change.

In 2005, a major tomato farm opened in Guyra, adding 250 jobs. This created great pressure. The houses weren't there. Now with State Government assistance, the Guyra Council is developing a housing estate to create 50 new blocks intended for mid-price housing. This will free up the pool of lower price existing houses for rental and first home buyers.

In Armidale to the south, the population declines that had been associated with structural change in the city's core industries of education and agriculture bottomed. Job creation began again, if on a smaller scale, Now this and an increase in the birth rate has translated into an an increase in school enrolments. Teachers, one of Armidale's largest occupational groups, had been falling in numbers, adding to stagnation.  More teachers will now be required.

In large part because of its educational base, Armidale did remarkably well out of the Rudd Government's stimulus packages, growing the construction industry and adding to the city's recovery.

Now factor in Guyra. Armidale is the major service centre for Guyra, so a small part of every extra dollar going to Guyra flows on to Armidale, helping growth. In turn, Armidale's growth adds to Guyra's revival, if only because it opens new job opportunities for those living in Guyra.

I accept that these are very micro trends, although in the days when I had money I did pretty well out of Armidale real estate simply because I understood the micro trends. However, my point is that when we come to look at community development the micro and the interactions between the micro is central.

Turning to other matters, the apparent Departmental response from Canberra to Opposition leader Abbot's climate change position struck me as remarkably city-centric. I quote from the Melbourne Age report:        

The Government has moved to torpedo the Coalition's alternative climate change policy, alleging that it would require tens of millions of hectares of trees to be planted, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

A departmental document estimates 30 million hectares of trees would need to be planted for the Coalition to meet the minimum greenhouse gas reduction target of 5 per cent by 2020.

Abbott talks to Cam McKellar Trees are city thinking. Trees capture carbon in the wood. Soil sequestration aims to capture carbon in the soil, a very different concept.

The photo shows opposition leader Abbott talking to Liverpool Plains farmer Cam McKellar about soil sequestration. Now, unless I am much mistaken, Cam is very much a blast from my past.

I still don't pretend to any expertise on soil sequestration. However, I note from The Land that an FAO report points to the huge gains to be made from better management of the world's grasslands. Grasslands, not tree lands.

Finally, and still on rural issues, I see from the The Land that the continued decline in rural air services in NSW is placing further strain on the delivery of country services.

However, I was struck by one part of the story. I quote:  

Joanna Barton, the manager of Outback Eye Service, which provides ophthalmology services to remote areas in NSW from Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, said her organisation made at least 52 field trips a year and travelling by car had dramatically increased their workload.

The six eye surgeons she managed now had to fly to Dubbo, then drive several hours, work until 9pm, and leave at noon the next day to return to Dubbo for an afternoon flight to Sydney.

Now as it happens, I dealt with this very specific issue  back in July 2007 in Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 5: Policy and Administrative Issues. I was reasonably discrete in that post. However, I will be a little franker now.

As then CEO of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists, I thought that the idea that we could meet eye care needs in remote Western NSW from Prince of Wales in Sydney  was absurd and unsustainable in the longer term.

My alternative was to build ophthalmic capacity in Dubbo, a major city with very poor ophthalmic services. This never got off the ground. One key argument was that we would never get the specialists to go to Dubbo. Other problems lay in the importance of Dubbo as a marketplace for services from Orange, as well as a proposal from the University of New South Wales to set up a service to supply Western NSW remote needs from Sydney.

I regret that I did not push this one harder at the time, but I was involved in other fights aconnected with the restructuring of College services. Ten years later, Dubbo is to my knowledge still poorly serviced, I stand to be corrected here, while the UNSW service is hitting the problems I expected.

I still think that we could have got the specialists to go to Dubbo so long as we designed an attractive enough package.       

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - yet more on the My School web site

Another Saturday morning.

Thursday the girls left for their South East Asian trip. They have both travelled internationally before, so I am not worried about that beyond the normal risks associated with particular destinations. Facebook also provides a useful mechanism for keeping in touch.

It will be odd, however, to have them away together for such a long time. I guess that I had better get used to it. It's just part of the normal transition process as they get older, but I feel it a bit since I have been the primary child carer since 1996.

I have continued to dig round in the My School web site. Given that I have already done four posts on this, I don't really want to bore readers with a further detailed analysis. However, I thought that I might make a few more purely personal observations since its still nagging away at me.

Like nearly everybody else in this country, I have been sucked into looking at comparisons between schools. This is actually quite dangerous unless the limitations on the web site approach are kept firmly in mind.

To begin with, the site focuses on a very limited measure, the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy) test results. The results say nothing about the broader education provided by the school.

I actually found myself quite angry on this one. I will deal with the technical problems associated with the use of the test results in a moment. But first, I want to take my old school, The Armidale School (TAS) as an example. I will give you the link to the school web site later.

On the Sydney Morning Herald NSW league table the school's secondary wing ranked 85 in the State on the  Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA). This simply means that TAS parents are generally better off, but not as well off as some parents. On the NAPLAN results, the school ranked 213, quite a long way down the list.  

TAS operates in a very competitive environment, especially on the boarding side. The presentation of these results will positively disadvantage the school. Now Ms Gillard would argue tough luck, the school just has to do better in the NAPLAN tests. This captures the silliness of it all.

TAS is a non-selective school, drawing its students from particular cohorts in particular areas, including a still significant proportion of kids from the land. It prides itself on providing a general education. It has quite wonderful facilities areas like sport, IT (the school has been a leader in the use of IT for more than thirty years) and drama built up over the years. Now look at the web site to see what I mean. 

How should TAS respond to the NAPLAN rankings? Does this mean that the school has to change its educational philosophy and indeed its entry requirements in order to claw its way up the NAPLAN rankings? 

I want now to turn to some general technical problems.

NAPLAN attempts to measure individual performance in two areas, literacy and numeracy at certain specific points along the school path. It is a limited measure with just two annual sets of test data at this point.

Entry level cohorts vary to some degree from year to year in all schools, even in selective schools with their very tight entry requirements. This means, in turn, that school results for individual years will vary as individual cohorts move through the school.

This is actually quite important. I found myself wanting to compare the 2008 and 2009 results, so if 09 was worse than 08 in, say, year 7, then that implied a deterioration in school performance. I suspect that I was not alone here. However, the comparison is quite meaningless unless you actually know the differences between the respective cohorts.

Given the variations in cohorts entering individual schools as well as the huge differences in school populations between individual schools, arguably the only real measure of relative school performance if still a limited one, is the extent to which each school improves the performance of individual cohorts over time. However, there are  still problems here.

By its nature, this measure would tend to favour the general rather than selective school, simply because children entering selective schools are, on average, already at a higher starting point on the NAPLAN scores. There is simply less room for improvement as measured by NAPLAN. Further, this type of measure of school performance by improvement actually says very little about the suitability of schools for individual students. It also still risks twisting school performance.

Speaking just as a parent, I first came across this type of twisting effect at a school speech night a few year's back.

After a general statement on the importance of a general education and the need to treat test results with care, the Headmistress effectively devoted the rest of her speech to extolling just how well the school was doing on various test measures. I was frankly appalled, and I wasn't the only one. Not only did it take attention away from the graduating girls, it left us most of us wondering just where the school was going in terms of its overall philosophy.

Minister Gillard suggests that the publication of the results may assist parents in choosing a school and in identifying performance problems within schools.

Speaking just as a parent, I wondered how I would have used the results had they been available earlier. It would certainly have affected the pool of schools we looked at at the margin in terms of exclusions and inclusions. However, it would probably not have affected our judgements as to school performance. Any parents reasonably close to their children and school generally know how well kids are doing.

  This has become yet another long post. However, I do want to make one final point.

While I have expressed strong reservations about the net benefit of the site in terms of Minister Gillard's stated objectives, I have also suggested that it does have some value in terms of what it tells us about patterns.

Those who read this blog will know that I am interested in Aboriginal education.

Few people know, I suspect, that there are more schools in NSW with 20% to 100% Aboriginal students than there are in the Northern Territory.

Because of the demographic work that I have done as well as my fairly detailed knowledge of geography, I was able to identify and track across the State a number of the NSW schools with high proportions of Aboriginal students.

While the NSW Aboriginal community remains disadvantaged compared to the general population, the results seem in no way comparable to the Northern Territory or to Northern Australia more broadly defined.

Consider, for example, Our Lady of Mt Carmel Primary School in the inner Sydney suburb of Waterloo. The school has 122 pupils of whom 56% are indigenous. It ranks below average on the ICSEA value. Yet in 2008 and 2009 it generally scored average to above average against all schools nation wide on the NAPLAN test.

Interesting, isn't it?      

Friday, January 29, 2010

Media reactions to the My School web site

Yesterday morning in Australia's new My School web site goes live - more or less, I provided some preliminary comments on the data contained in the site and the way in which it might be used. This morning instead of doing more analysis on the site itself, I thought that it might be interesting to look at some of the media reporting across the country. Here I see that the comparative/competitive streak is alive and well in Australia.

Up in the Clarence Valley in Northern NSW, the Grafton Daily Examiner compiled the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy) results from almost all of the Clarence Valley’s 34 schools into a graph. Sadly, the graph itself is not available.

Reactions from school principals in the Valley were generally cautious.

The paper quoted McAuley Catholic College principal Leon Walsh as saying that there was a real danger that subjects not tested by NAPLAN, such as art, history and music, would suffer while schools put potentially unbalanced focus on numeracy and literacy to satisfy the testing process. A primary school principal, who asked not to be named, said the figures were based on one test on one day in the life of each student and did not reflect the whole picture. Another principal said the NAPLAN tests were open to manipulation by unscrupulous teachers who may ‘give’ the answers to students to prop up the school’s results or offer poorer performing students the day off on test day.

This is something that I have written on before quite extensively, the way in which this type of test can twist things simply because you force people to focus on the measured. The most classic case here is actually law firms who focus on billable hours and then complain that other things like marketing don't get done.

In other comments, Liza Bloomer, of Grafton, whose nine-year-old son Sam attends St Mary’s Primary School, Grafton, supported the MySchool website, saying it may help government and the community identify areas where resources needed to be improved. This actually links to a point I made yesterday, the way in which the site may affect allocation of spending. Resources are limited, so the site is actually likely to reinforce moves to redistribute spend towards areas of poorer performance.

Here I noticed from the Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth) that  NSW opposition spokesperson for education Adrian Piccoli has been slamming the State Government for failing to provide disadvantaged schools in the New England region (New England in this case means the Northern Tablelands and North Western Slopes and Plains) the resources required to improve students’ literacy and numeracy skills.

According to the paper, documents obtained by the Liberals and Nationals under freedom of information have indicated New England schools have received the least funding under the Government’s Best Start Program, despite having the highest proportion of students not meeting minimum education benchmarks.

In the region, about 8-12 per cent of Year 3 students are not meeting the minimum standards in literacy and numeracy, yet the region has only received $74,000 over the past three years under the $15.2m Reading Recovery program.

The new web site will certainly reinforce this type of argument.

Staying in Tamworth, the NDL had quite extensive coverage (not all on line) including an editorial that took a side-swipe at we bloggers. I quote:

This is one occasion where – if they were allowed – the mainstream media could provide expert interpretation and commentary.

In the absence of that, look out for a deluge of ill-informed blogger comment from a website near you soon.

Ouch! I wonder if they were talking about me?

Tamworth reactions were again mixed, and not dissimilar to those in the Clarence. 

Returning briefly to the Clarence, there staff at St Joseph’s Primary School, South Grafton were investigating why figures from that school were not available on the My School website. This type of error is inevitable in such a huge site attempting to cover all of Australia's schools, including the very small.

Speaking of the very small, in a story in The Australian, Site comparisons just don't add up, Chip Le Grand and Justine Ferrari begin their coverage:

DARGO Primary School is less a school than an abandoned building. Last year it had one student. This year it has none.

Yet according to My School, it is statistically similar to privately operated Camberwell Grammar, with 12,055 enrolments in Melbourne's inner east.

The story deals with the use of the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) to group schools for comparative purposes. I briefly discussed the use of these type of indices in Use and abuse of socio-economic rankings in public policy.

In this case, Le Grand and Ferrari point to some of the very strange combinations that can result.  As an example, Geelong Grammar, which has the most expensive school fees in the nation at more than $26,000 for Year 12, has been grouped with Kangaroo Ground Primary, a small government school of fewer than 150 students on the semi-rural outskirts of Melbourne, and Arthurs Creek school, with about 70 students.

Staying with The Australian's coverage, the paper also looks at what the site tells us about private vs public education. For the benefit of readers outside Australia, all Australian state governments provide universal public education open to all. In recent years, the private sector has grown quite rapidly at the expense of the public sector, due in part to perceived weaknesses in public education, as well as a structural bias in Commonwealth Government that favours private schools.

The various league tables prepared by newspapers based on year twelve results have in fact always shown mixed results. However, and accepting that NAPLAN is a very narrow performance measure, the My School site does allow more broadly based comparisons for the first time.

In The Australian, Lanai Vasek's story, Site tests family's view on public option, begins:

FOR Penelope and Dean Anastasiadis, sending their children, Elizabeth, 9, and Nicholas, 4, to a government-run high school was never on their radar.

But that changed yesterday when Ms Anastasiadis, of Melbourne, logged on to the My School website.

She discovered the test results of the public high school in the family's local area of Glen Iris - Canterbury Girls Secondary College - were similar, and in several cases better than, the private girls schools they were considering for Elizabeth.In a

The impact of the site on public vs private education is explored further in another Australian piece by Education writer Justine Ferrari, Focus falls on big-fee schools as parents get reality check. Again, the issue is the same. Overall, while the comparisons generated may adversely affect some public schools, they could well increase the competitive position of public education as a whole.

The Australian also has a PDF setting out some comparisons. My first reaction on reading this, mind you, was one of caution because you actually have to know the schools.

Both the Australian and its stable mate the Brisbane Courier Mail are supporters of the web site. In the Australian in Parents are hungry for information on schools, Ebru Yaman reports on the paper's earlier attempts to generate comparative data, while the Courier Mail has a strongly supportive editorial in  Australian community deserves to know more about schools.

The paper also has a Q&A session with Federal Minister Julia Gillard that is actually quite useful in telling us something about her views as to how the system is intended to work.

I will comment on this in another post. However, at this stage that one of the difficulties relates to the real choices available to parents and the way those parents respond.

In a story to which I do not have a link, the Isolated Children's Parents' Association warned parents about problems that could arise if they moved kids from local to boarding schools as a consequence of the tests. In NSW, and based on my own experience there is already a problem with parent's actually falsifying residential addresses to get into particular state schools well regarded state schools. 

As you might expect, the Courier Mail reporting has a strongly Queensland focus. The story My School shows where Queensland schools must improve begins:

THE controversial My School website has exposed where Queensland needs to lift its lagging literacy and numeracy results most - in state schools, nearly all primaries and among indigenous students.

We have to be a little careful here. My understanding is that differences in the state education systems actually make this type of cross-state comparison difficult.

Returning to NSW, the Sydney Morning Herald has done just what everybody feared, creating a school league table showing the top fifty primary and secondary schools in the state using NAPLAN measures. The paper also provides an alphabetical list of primary and secondary schools throughout the state with their scores and overall rankings. The paper's justification is free speech.      

This data is actually quite useful to me, but is still going to be misused.

In this context, I had to feel for Stubborn Mule, my favourite statistical nut blogger. As reported on Twitter, his attempts to data scrape the My School web site so that he could run tests on the data were defeated by Java problems. The big media organisations had the resources  to overcome this. 

I am out of time this morning. I suspect that I am going to return to this issue. It's just so interesting.

Signing off this deluge as one of those Northern Daily Leader bloggers near you!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Australia's new My School web site goes live - more or less

Well, the Australian Government's much anticipated My School web site went live last night. One should say, perhaps, more or less live because it keeps crashing. Most frustrating.

For the benefit of readers outside Australia, the web site provides information on school performance across Australia in certain test areas, along with comparative data for statistically similar schools based on the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) and the overall national average. The site also includes a statement by each school, along with statistical data about the school including number of students, proportion of indigenous students and the schools ICSEA ranking.

I was able to do some preliminary searches before the search function crashed. Like any curious person, I started with my daughters' old school. Then I searched on Armidale by school name and then post code, giving me a list of all schools in that post code. I chose Armidale because I knew the schools as well as the city's socio-economic structure and thus was able to look at patterns in a small geographically contained area with a significant number of schools across school types.

The site crashed before I had done more that half a dozen searches. Still, I was at least able to form a preliminary view.

To begin with, the information provided was fascinating from the viewpoint of the social analyst. In the Armidale case, there was far greater variation in ICSEA ranking even between schools of the same type than I would have expected. To a degree, this appears to link directly to the proportion of Indigenous students.

Armidale has quite a high Aboriginal population, but there is great variation in the proportion of Indigenous students between the schools.  Among the schools I was able to check, the range was from 1% at TAS, one of my old schools, to 52% in the case of Drummond Memorial Primary School, the school named after my grandfather. This affects the ICSEA ranking.

There also appeared to be greater performance variations between schools than I would have expected, again almost certainly linked to the varying ICSEA rankings.

Parents aren't dumb. All the Armidale schools are within a few kilometres of each other, so parents with cars and cash who don't mind their kids not walking to school have wide choice. In our case with Helen, eldest, we school shopped before settling on Newling Public School.

We can see the parent choice effect in existing variations between the city's primary schools. The new data will certainly further affect choice between private and public and between the different schools in each sector.

Armidale is an unusual case, because the city's role as an educational centre means that it has an unusually large number of schools in a small area. The type of local effect that I am talking about is likely to be somewhat muted in other areas, but will still certainly occur.

In considering this, it is important to realise that the key comparison that parents will use is not the school's performance compared to schools with a comparable ICSEA ranking, but the relative performance of those schools open to them.

The new ranking system is going to have broader political and public policy effects.

For the first time, we have a quantifiable public measure that allows relative disadvantage at school level to be plotted in geographic terms. We may have known it, but we couldn't easily measure it. With people like me digging around, let alone those at official level, it won't be long before all this starts affecting political debate and school funding decisions.

If you look at Neil's Education: wrong path, Ms Gillard?, you will get a feel for the issues that have dominated debate about the new measurement system. Those issues are important. However, I for one had not realised the full dynamic effects of the new changes. I needed to see the new site and play with it a bit to start getting a feel.

Which leads me to wonder just how long My School will survive in its present form.

As I write now, the world has woken and the air waves are full of discussion about the site. It is one thing to mount an argument based on parent choice, a second to manage a broader debate that drives to the heart of education policy and the allocation of funds determined by that policy. I wonder if Minister Gillard realised this?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Australia Day story

The photo from the Sydney Morning Herald shows the Australia Day ferrython on Sydney Harbour. You can find a full set of photos here.

This is the story of a lunch yesterday.

Just a simple lunch. It was not held to mark Australia Day. It just happened to be held on that day. Yet it says something about modern Australia. It also shows, I think, how the cross-linkages that bind Australians in modern multicultural Australia go back some distance in time, in fact more time than I care to remember.

Our host and hostess were Indian, as are their two daughters, although both daughters were born in Australia. By this I simply mean that the family retains its Indian cultural traditions. Eldest daughter has completed her medical degree and is doing post-grad work, youngest is still at school. They are a rather wonderful loving family.

It was almost eight years since we had seen them and then at our host's fiftieth birthday party.

My wife, Australian born of English and Irish heritage, met the host while they were both at Sydney University's International House. In 1982, they shared a house with two others, both of different nationalities to Indian or Australian. None of them had been in a share house before, but they were well looked after by the wonderful Greek woman next door who used to cook meals and bring them in to ensure that they were well fed.

The other couple present were R. and S. You see Marcellous, I have adopted your initials technique!

Born in England, R. joined the Australian Diplomatic Service in 1966. I met him in 1967 when I arrived in Canberra as an Administrative Trainee. You see what I mean when I say that the cross-linkages go back in time further than I care to remember!

R. has in fact featured in a number of stories on this blog, if disguised. Both R. and I belong to the Australian generation that first discovered Asia, although R. travelled far more than me.

It was at R.'s flat that we heard that Harold Holt has vanished. It was at R.s flat that I discovered Vietnamese cooking as R., St. ( now a very well known Australian economist), their Vietnamese girlfriends  and the rest of us cooked up Vietnamese spreads. It was at R.'s flat where we worked out a campaign (my job was to work on Ian Sinclair because of the family connection) to try to overturn Mr Whitlam's decision to refuse entry to Vietnamese people who had supported Australia during the War,

I had been opposed to the Vietnamese War, but this was a different issue because Australia had a moral obligation to help those who had helped us.

Later, R. married S., a Singapore Chinese girl. S. had been at International House with my wife and had visited the share house. Mind you, it was some time before I was to find this connection. I was not married when R. and S. started going out.

So now we have a multi-ethnic lunch with personal linkages going back in some cases more than forty years, in all cases more than twenty-five years.

As you might expect, the conversation ranged quite widely.

There was a lot of conversation about India and Indian history. I thought of Ramana here.

Perhaps oddly. there was no mention of India's Republic Day. It was not until we were in the car coming home that I was reminded by the radio that the date is the same as Australia Day. Rather, the conversation roamed over family visits, rail trips, shopping and aspects of daily life in India. R. and S. have been to India a number of times and had met our hosts' family.

I mainly listened, asking the occasional question. While I know a fair bit about the sub-continent, I have never been there beyond a transit at Bombay. This put me at a disadvantage.

As you might expect, there was a fair bit of discussion about children, school and university.

For those who don't know Sydney, geographically it is a huge sprawling city increasingly segmented on a regional basis. It took us fifty minutes driving time to get to our host's place along toll-roads with remarkably little traffic. In addition to the varying family backgrounds, our kids have grown up in three very different parts of Sydney -  Eastern Suburbs, North Shore and North West. This made for differences, as well as commonalities.

One common theme was the pressure of life in Sydney, mixing work, life and study. This applied to adults as well as children. S. commented that her Chinese friends and work mates who had come to Australia were taken aback by the intensity of what had become an instant response work culture. While I have written on the changing work culture in Australia, I hadn't seen it in quite the same way, so found this external perspective interesting.

As it turns out, S. and R. are proposing to relocate to Singapore in two years time, partly because S, wants to be closer to her own family, in part for a break from Sydney. Both R. and I have known Singapore over many years, I first went there at the end of 1965, although R.'s recent knowledge is far greater. He described modern Singapore as safe, efficient and boring, with very good if expensive medical facilities. Both he and S. thought that medical care in Singapore was better than in Australia, based in part on R.'s recent  experience.

Four of our collective kids are presently at two universities in Sydney, while our hostess is on the faculty of a third and has also taught at several others. Two of our respective kids have experienced some difficulties at the same university in classes with a heavy dominance of overseas students.

R. commented that students from Mainland China no longer had the same work ethic. I challenged this because my experience had been that the family pressure on Chinese kids to perform was still huge. The problem, in fact, appears to lie with pampered kids from the modern Chinese elites who expect to be given, not earn, things. Our hostess provided us with a war story that illustrated this and the difficulties it could create for faculty members.

There was much talk of food. Our hosts had prepared a rather wonderful Indian vegetarian meal with multiple dishes drawn from several parts of India. I am still not used to carrying my camera with me at all times. This was one case where a photo would tell the story better than a thousand words.

I reminded R. of the weekend trip we had made to Paris in 1979 when a friend and I were staying with him in London. Joined by St. who was then at the OECD and his wife, we had the most marvelous lunch, still the best French food I have ever eaten. By accident, François Mitterrand and his party were at the next table, adding to the memories of the meal since Mitterand, already a well known politician, would become President of the French Republic in 1981.

This will give just a taste of a conversation that ranged widely over a three hour lunch. It was fun, but also does, I think, give a feel for one part of current Australian life.

Australia Day blog review

Today is Australia Day, the third since I started this blog. For those interested, you will find past posts  here, here, here

The usual themes are present.

There is the patriotic, almost jingoist theme especially at official level. There are those who want the date moved because of the conflict between the arrival of European settlers and what the Aborigines have entitled invasion day. Former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull continues to rumble away like an old volcano on the need for a republic, TV presenter Ray Martin wants the flag changed to get rid of the union jack, while others wrap themselves in and defend the flag.

In all this, for most Australians its a chance to have a party. This year with Australia Day falling on a Tuesday, employer groups are up in arms about the number of Australians who took a sickie on the Monday to get a longer weekend break, threatening retribution.

I haven't really anything to write about Australia Day beyond noting its presence. Instead, I have taken the time this morning just to do a wander around some of the blogs I follow.

On Poll Bludger, William Bowie continues his regular reporting on Australian public opinion polls as well as election matters. This is a blog for Australian election and political tragics, those like me with an interest in the minutiae of the political process. I also use William's blog as the entry point to the other Crikey blogs. This is easier than separate bookmarks. Just click on crikey blogs on the top of the page.

The Stump is a Crikey Group blog, one described as its keystone blog. Here I was struck by one of Andrew Bartlett's posts,  Public housing prejudices live on. For the benefit of international readers, Andrew Bartlett is a former Australian Democrat MP (how I miss the Democrats) who writes from a left of centre/centrist position on social and political issues.

One of the difficulties of the internet age is that it exposes more easily the soft underbelly of prejudice in this country. In this post, Andrew is looking at prejudice attached to social housing.

In somewhat similar vein, in Fuck Off We’re Full”, “Speak English or Piss Off!!!” – Australian hate-groups, viral expansion loops & Facebook Bob Gosford, another Crikey blogger that I follow, looks at the way Facebook facilitates the formation of certain types of groups.

This type of problem is not unique to Australia, of course. However, there is a further difficulty in that prejudice is often linked to genuine issues that then become conflated to the prejudice. As I have found to my own cost at times, exploration of such issues can lead to instant dismissal as prejudice.

Changing directions sharply, Bronwyn Parry is a writer's blog.

Bron writes romantic suspense generally set in Northern NSW and has managed to break through in the incredibly competitive world of modern writing and publishing. The partner of another of my favourite bloggers, Gordon Smith, Bron's blog deals with writing but also evocative pieces on the life around her.

Kanani Fong's Get Lost With Easy Writer is another writer's blog, this one from a US perspective. She has two other blogs. The Kitchen Dispatch is billed as billed as a literary Milspouse blog, while The Literary Fashionista is described as fashion with a literary eye.

I came to Kanani through Ninglun, Neil Whitfield, of whom more shortly. We have bounced off each other because of our shared interest in writing. I also find her views and comments on life in the US military interesting, simply because this is such a different world.

In  A very personal Australia Day 26 January – my family, Neil looks at Australia Day through a prism set by his own family history. He has also been recollecting part of his teaching career in a recollections series. Some of this is very funny indeed. One quote from parent-teacher interviews:        

“You tell me when he’s not behaving and I’ll bash him.” — I was from then on very sympathetic to the student and never took up the offer.

On tales from the staff room:

One day a member of the English staff disappeared. This was just one of several bizarre events that year, which led to questions in parliament.

We later heard she had eloped with a reporter from the local newspaper.

I have just given you a taste. You will need to read the posts for more.

Turning south, Lexcen's post Risk as a part of life brings out an element of something that I know worries many of us, the modern approach to risk and protection.

Up in Tamworth, country music singer John Williamson got into trouble with the police for remaining in the back of his ute (utility) unrestrained after the cavalcade along Peel St. The driver of the ute, believed to be Williamson’s partner Meg Doyle, copped a $250 fine and received three demerit points.

Mr Williamson was upset. In an opinion piece, No-one is too big for our laws, the Northern Daily Leader took a different view. I am with John Williamson on this one. In the circumstances, a police warning would have been sufficient.

In a post on Scepticslawyers, The limits of law, Legal Eagle explored in a preliminary way the limits of law and regulation. Today, we have a tendency to legislate on issues that really belong to the domains of common sense and education. When this fails as it must, we respond with more legislation.

Changing directions again, I do enjoy Randy McDonald's A Bit More detail. Canadian based, this is one of those link blogs bringing in material from other sources with a brief comment. I enjoy it because the inclusions are different. I never quite know what I will find, and that's nice.

By the way, I see from Neil that Ann in Sydney Meanderings has just brought up an Australia Day collage of photos that rather neatly captures the diversity of modern Australia.

Well, its got quite late and the household is stirring. Time to finish, although I have barely scratched the surface.      

Monday, January 25, 2010

The lessons from the current IPCC kerfuffles

The apparent errors in the IPCC's climate change material has created quite a storm. You can get a feel of the Australian media coverage here, here, here, here, here and here. The Australian itself, home to a number of climate change sceptics, has the greatest coverage.        

Several years ago now I explored (Science and Political Correctness December 2006, Counterpoint and the Climate Change Zealots April 2007, Climate Change Zealots Revisited April 2007) concerns that had been raised about the IPCC process. These concerns related to the objectivity of the process, the way alternative critical views could be squeezed out, the impact all this had on the direction of research funding.

Scientists involved with the IPCC process have reacted defensively. To quote from the Sydney Morning Herald story:

An Australian lead author of the report, Professor Andy Pitman, also said the mistake did not affect the veracity of the UN body's conclusions. He said that scientists were being subjected to ''an orchestrated campaign that's exactly the same as that was used by the smoking lobby to try and discredit science''.

In considering the concerns raised earlier as well as the responses by scientists, we now have three very different examples to consider. What might they tell us?

The first is the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia. At this point, I am not sure that these reveal that the science itself was wrong. However, it is probably fair to say based on the reporting I have read that those involved displayed a somewhat combative approach. No doubt we will learn more from the British Parliamentary inquiry into the matter.

The second was the inclusion of material on melting glaciers in the Himalayas that was simply wrong and was apparently known to be wrong. This flaw was actually picked up in the peer review process, but still got carried forward. Again, we have an apparent example of partisanship, in this case by the lead author. However, to my mind the key point here is not the original error, but the fact that it got picked up. The scientific process actually worked, if with a lag.

A somewhat similar issue arises with the third case, the argued correlation between climate change and natural disasters. If I understand this one correctly from the reports, the original claim included in the IPCC material came from what was in fact work in progress, and appears to have been corrected by the original researcher himself. Again, the scientific review process seems to have worked.

I think that we now need to distinguish between two things, the science itself and the responses to the science.

The reason why both the glacier error and the climate change/natural disaster process have proved so damaging lies not so much in the science itself, but in the way that the apparent scientific results were used and abused in the broader climate change debate.

In Australia, for example, the perceived relationship between climate change and the incidence of drought linked to IPCC arguments became a major factor in debates about proposed actions in the Murray-Darling basin, including especially land-use questions. If you look at some of the things that I have argued here, my concern here has been the way in which the debate seemed to be twisting judgements.

Now there may in fact be a relationship between climate change and current droughts, we just don't know at this point. My problem from an analytical perspective is that the previous over-emphasis on the IPCC material in reporting and popular and political debate may now twist thinking in the opposite direction, again making it difficult to look objectively at the issues.

To finish by summarising the point I have seemed to reach in my thinking.

To my mind, the concerns expressed back in 2006 and 2007 about the objectivity and impact of the IPCC process seem to have been justified, at least in part. However, I am also reassured in that the scientific process does seem to have worked in pointing out specific errors. This actually gives me greater comfort in the broad IPCC results, an opposite conclusion to that likely to be reached by many.

The big problem, and the big lesson from my viewpoint, lies in the way the scientific results were misused in discussion and debate. Here the question of balance remains important. Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday essay - more on the lessons from the Haitian quakes

Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner has announced that about five Royal Australian Air Force air traffic controllers will be sent to Haiti to help meet air traffic control needs. This strikes me as the type of small practical thing that Australia can do.

Over dinner last night there was a discussion on the apparent slowness of the initial relief effort, a concern at the apparent lack of any disaster planning that could then be quickly activated. I defended the apparently slow response by pointing to the logistic difficulties involved. However, looking at the posts on the Livesay  (Haiti) blog there does appear to have been a problem with what, in military terms, would be called the rules of engagement.

All organisations, nations as well as individual organisations such as the military, operate by rules. These include rules intended to protect personnel. While I have been extremely critical of aspects of this rule based culture, rules are necessary. The difficulty that arises is that the rules make it harder to respond quickly, especially in circumstances that in some ways fall outside the rules. We saw this in some of the slow responses to the Victorian bushfire disaster.

Just to expand a little, one country or its agencies cannot simply enter another country. Approval has to be obtained. In the cases of the Padang quake, for example, Australian assistance had to wait for official Indonesian Government approval. This took two days.

This, by the way, is not a criticism of the Indonesian Government. It had to do its own assessment, including responding to immediate need, as well as setting supporting logistics up. Australian planning proceeded in conjunction with the Indonesian authorities in advance of approval. Planes lifted with medical teams and relief supplies within hours of the approval.

The Haiti quake essentially wiped the Government out. It took hours just to gather ministers together. Communications were down. The UN, the one organisation on the ground with the capacity to provide leadership, was itself decapitated by the quake.

I can only begin to imagine the frenzied activity that must have taken place in and outside Haiti as people tried to do damage assessments, to work out how to respond. The US itself was in a difficult position. Without an official invitation from the Haitian Government, any action could be (and in fact was by some of the left) presented as invasion. 

Such a simple thing, really, an official request for help. Yet without it, all the rules and protocols governing engagement were frozen.

As the relief effort got underway, another set of rules of engagement problems appear to have emerged.

To begin with, who was in charge? In the Padang earthquake, the Indonesian Government was in charge. All the teams assisting, Australian included, knew this. With the Haitian Government crippled, the UN  present but still in shock and missing its top leadership, time was almost certainly required simply to define some form of operating protocols.

Then those coming in were also bound by their own rules. On 14 January, two days after the quake struck, Mark Turner wrote on Dispatches from a Fragile Island:

Right now, the focus remains on trying to save what survivors may remain, and to put in place systems to care for the dispossessed. This is entirely right. The UN has two related, but separate, jobs: to alleviate the suffering of Haitians as a whole, and a duty of care to its own staff. It is a very stressful time; many people are in deep shock. There has been an outpouring of offers to help from throughout the system and it is doing what it can given the logistical challenge. Communications remain limited.

I have included this quote because it gives a feel for the stresses, but also because of the reference to duty of care.

As the crisis proceeded, journalists and NGO volunteers entered areas well before the relief effort. This led to considerable criticism and especially on the apparent US focus on securing defensive perimeters. This focus was a standard military response, but also reflected operating rules including the need to protect those involved.

There is no easy answer in such a horrendous disaster. However, as happened with the Asian tsunami, we do need to learn the lessons. Here I want to point to just two lessons from the tsunami.

The first is that reconstruction takes a very long time in a disaster of this magnitude. This is, of course, already recognised. However, the length of time involved should not be underestimated, nor should the resources.

The second is that good can come.

It is very hard to see this at the time when personal disaster is still so fresh. In the Asian tsunami it led to a peace agreement in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. This failed. However, the long running civil war in Aceh was brought to a so far successful peace. We can hope that this tragedy will actually give Haiti a chance to rebuild for the longer term. Andrew Marshall's piece in Time, Memories of Aceh: Indonesia Five Years After the Tsunami provides a positive picture of the results in the Asian case.

The disaster also transformed the relations between Indonesia and Australia to the longer term benefit of both countries. A small part of this was the enhanced cooperation on disaster response that played out in the Padang case or in indonesia's decision to send specialist help during the Victorian fires.

Looking back over recent posts, the theme of learning from disaster has recurred quite often. However, it is important. 


I thought that Niar had a very good post on the issues raised by Haiti.      

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - heat, the niqab and a French Australia

It's just coming up on dawn. Yesterday was a hot day, today is expected to be more so. They are talking about 43c, 109.4F. That's quite hot.

Last night we went out for a fish dinner then walked along the beachfront at Coogee. For  those who don't know Sydney, Coogee is a beach-side suburb in eastern Sydney that has long been a Sydney playground. It's a five minute drive from our current house.

The walkway along the beach was still packed with people just ambling or sitting on benches or the grass eating and talking. Very much a mixed crowd, with people from all over the world.

I was thinking about this in the context of the current discussions in France over the banning or otherwise of full face coverage such as the niqab, together with associated worries about French national identity. These left me a little bemused.

I can understand to some degree the concerns about French identity given the country's history, including the perceived centrality of French language and culture. I used to worry about identity issues in Australia too until I decided that popular Australian culture itself was just so strong that it was a powerful melding force independent of other things.

While I can understand the identity question, the earlier banning of head scarves in school and now the debate about the niqab really does bemuse me.

You will find the niqab in Australia in places such as the Sydney suburb of Eastlakes near where we used to live, but it is rare. My reaction to it is very much the same as it used to be to nuns wearing full habit when I was a child, curiosity. It must be bloody hot on a scorching day!

The problem that the French face is that once you turn a thing from a curiosity into a symbol, then you actually create risk creating the thing that is worrying you, in this case a threat to national identity. 

Mind you, France has quite a long history of central enforcement, of an authoritarian state. I have sometimes wondered in an idle way just what would have happened had the French rather than the British settled Australia.

I don't think that it would have made much difference to the Aborigines, the same processes of social and cultural destruction would have occurred. However, it would certainly have made a major difference to the history of European Australia.

It is quite possible that the continent would have become British territory anyway as part of the peace settlements at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, so we would then have had a French and British presence in Australia more akin to that of Canada. Had that not happened, then it seems likely that Australia would have been managed as as Department of Metropolitan France and a key centre of a much larger French Empire in the Pacific. How this would subsequently have played out in constitutional terms is anyone's guess.

Dear me, I feel a book coming on! Time for a quick slap to the wrist.

Dawn has now fully broken. Time to begin the day's activities.       

Friday, January 22, 2010

Travel, tubing and social change in Australia

Into the Vietnamese Consulate yesterday morning so that Helen could drop in visa applications for she and Clare. It was a very familiar building. We had our Sydney office there for several years.

In Sunday essay - a new Akubra I mentioned the travelling habits of Australia's young, making the point that this was one difference between the world I had grown up in and that of my children. When the Belshaws took the trip I described in Bangkok to Seam Reap via Poipet, January 1966 this stood out because it was so unusual. 

In 1968 Francis Letters' book The surprising Asians : a hitch-hike through Malaya, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam was one of the first books by a young Australian describing adventures in Asia. It was then very new. The position today is very different.

In the Cambodian post I mentioned that the girls' Asian visit was part of a much bigger and sprawling mass trip by eldest's cohort. For several of them its an end of university trip, a chance to break out after study. Different people are meeting at different points depending on the time they have.

Jenny, one of the less inhibited girls in the group and a long standing family friend, has been writing a travel blog. I won't give the link because, while it's a public blog, its really being written for the benefit of the group.

I have really enjoyed the trip so far. Jenny writes well and frankly, so its fun. I was really struck by the way in which places once strange to Australians have become so familiar to the young in the forty or so years since we went for the first time or since Francis wrote her book. The popularity of tubing - I had to look 1731806-Tubing-at-Vang-Vieng-0 tubing up - in the little Laotian town of Vang Vieng had completely passed me by!

Dear tubing took me back. Car and truck tyres provided valuable sport when I was young, too. However, as you will see from the photo, this is far bigger.

On the way to the Vietnamese Consulate I commented to eldest on the number of Australian young travelling these routes. Not just Australian of course, but there is a very large Australian presence. She replied that it had become something of a right of passage, the thing to do.

In this context, Jen commented in one of her posts "this would not be allowed in Australia!". By this she simply meant that the activity in question would either not be allowed or at least rigidly controlled because it involved some risk. She is right of course, and it points to a problem. Australia has become a less relaxed society, with ever growing controls intended to control risk.

I know that I have written on this before, and I don't want to go back down this route at any length.

To be young is to test the bounds. Sometimes this leads to very silly behaviour. However, we now live in an Australian world in which a radio presenter can seriously worry on air about whether school camping trips should be allowed because of the risks associated with falling tree branches. Perhaps only if the camp is a certain distance from trees, he mused.

Falling tree branches is a real risk. In this case, a student had just been killed. Yet this type of risk has really to be managed through common sense, and common sense actually comes from experience. So the Australian young will continue to travel not just to experience new cultures, but also to test themselves.

As part of the continuing email exchange connected with the Armidale Demonstration School, there has just been a discussion on the difference between present and past. One commented:

I have often reflected on the late 1940's through to the late 1960's and compared the social aspects (circumstances, freedom, etc.) to those the kids of today have and really think that, despite today's younger generations having the huge advantage of technological, scientific and social "advances", we were much better off.

I suspect that's true in some senses, with perhaps the biggest change the loss of the relative freedom we had.

Mind you, this is the present looking at the past and that set me musing.

When the kids were young, they liked stories out of my past. One problem was just what to tell them. After all, I did not want to tell them some of the more stupid things that I had done! How, too, should I handle activities that may or may not have been legal then, but were now either illegal or at least considered socially reprehensible?

Assuming the girls have kids, I wonder what they will tell them about their pasts? I suspect that they will face very similar problems!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Obama first year, health care and the financial markets

As we came to the end of President Obama's first year in office, I wondered how to mark his performance in my own mind. I think that I would go with the President's own assessment, a solid pass. It was never going to be possible for him to deliver on all the expectations surrounding his election to office.

I don't comment a lot on US developments because I have no special expertise beyond a reasonably deep general knowledge built up over the years. I am happy to leave commentary to Geoff Robinson or Thomas, although Thomas has been much quieter since his masterly analysis of the Presidential campaign itself.

One of the things that I did not and to a degree still do not understand was the venom aroused by the health care debate. A lot of the discussion is presented in ideological terms, yet there had to be more to it than that.

The following graphic shows the formal structure of the reforms. It all seems very reasonable, yet the devil appears to lie in the detail.


Back in July in Fortune, editor at large Shawn Tully in 5 freedoms you'd lose in health care reform set out the problems with the proposed legislation as he saw it. The central issue apart from cost lies in the way the proposed legislation changes existing relationships between doctors and patients, insurers and insured. That I can understand. It also helps explain, I think, some of Kanani's earlier posts written from the perspective of a Doctor's wife.

Now that I know this, I can put a lot of the dispute about the legislation aside. It's not just an ideological political firestorm, but one that links to substantive issues. They may be complicated issues to be sure - I am glad that Australia has a simpler system - but they are the type of issues I can understand.

Staying with the US for a moment, the announcement by President Obama of a tax on larger financial institutions to recover the costs of the financial rescue package made me blink. It was partly the populist language used, although here the President is playing to his domestic support base. To get a feel for what I mean about attitudes, have a browse of John Taplin's blog. But I also blinked because it imposed a tax that was likely to affect the global competitive position of US banks, if only at the margin.

To give full credit to the Australian Government and key officials in the Reserve Bank and Treasury, they have actually played a remarkably clever game in in a very complicated global environment. I am not talking here about the stimulus packages as such, but about the way that the support measures for Australian financial institutions not only protected them from the firestorm but actually enhanced the global competitive position of Australia's banking sector.

There were costs to be sure. One side-effect was a very large increase in the market dominance of the big banks. While this will erode with time as it has done before, customers do face reduced choice.

Now at the time that the US Administration for domestic reasons has proposed the new tax, Australia is considering taxation changes that will enhance the competitive position of the country in global financial markets.

According to Mark  Johnson, the architect of the plan to develop Australia into a regional financial hub, the export of financial services can double in the next five to seven years. At present, exports account for only 3 per cent of the sector's contribution to the economy compared with 50 per cent in Britain, 25 per cent in Singapore and 8 per cent in Canada and the US.

.. it was a reasonable ambition for financial service exports to increase their "value-add" to the economy from 3 per cent to 6 per cent, Mr Johnson told The Australian yesterday.

I have always been sceptical of plans to expand Australia's role in this way. After all, they have been around for at least twenty years without obvious effect. Australia is, by global standards, a small economy. Our global economic position has tended to shrink as other, bigger, countries have expanded. Yet it seems to me that the preconditions for an expanded international role for Australia's financial sector have slowly emerged almost willy nilly.

It's not just the country's relatively strong economic position, although there is something almost eery about the way in which current thinking and discussion about the economy proceeds independently of concerns elsewhere. It is as though the global financial crisis never occurred.

In looking at the pre-conditions for a broader Australian role, I want to mention briefly just four .

  • The Australian financial system has come through the crisis largely unscathed. As one measure of this, financial institutions are once again recruiting staff.
  • The Australian dollar is now one of the world's major traded currencies. This has good and bad aspects, but the currency is seen as secure in the sense that the country itself is sound.
  • The Australian superannuation levy ( the proportion of salaries compulsorily deducted for superannuation) has created a large and growing volume of funds under management, now in excess of one trillion dollars. This appears to have been important in easing the liquidity strains flowing from the global financial crisis.
  • Australia has sophisticated financial market sand well established infrastructure including highly skilled people.            

    Just how all this will play out in practice is unclear because of the number of variables involved. However, at the very least the pre-conditions for significant growth are there, 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just a meander

Through Christopher Moore I came across a review by Gideon Lewis-Kraus of Louis Menand's new book The Marketplace of Ideas, an examination of the state of higher education in the US. I skimmed the review first, found that I did not understand, so read it again several times.

It's a clear and well written review, so what's my problem? Simply, that some of the assumptions about the role of universities that seem built into the discussion are not the same as those I hold.  In August in Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities, I expressed reservations about the spread of corporate speak within Australian universities. These reservations come from a broader concern as to what I see as a decline in the real value of higher education associated with a move away from traditional university values.

I read Lewis-Kraus's review  from a perspective created  by that broader concern. Take, as an example, this excerpt:

The ultimate problem is this: How do you create a system for the production of knowledge that is, on the one hand, rigorous and peer-reviewed and, on the other, committed to aims and obligations beyond its own survival?

The words system, production and knowledge all carry very particular connotations that spark personal reactions, given my present starting point. These reactions actually make it difficult for me to read the review properly. However, I will come back to it later.

  In Consumerism & the global environment, Harry Clarke uses the State of the World 2010 Worldwatch Report as an entry point to a discussion of consumerism and the pressures this is placing on resources. He concludes:  

Finally, economists need to recognise the limits of their discipline. It is not enough to point out that Malthus got it wrong because he ignored technological progress.  It is clear that cheap carbon-based fuels and other resources acted to offset resource constraints but there can be no presumption – particularly given the devastating possible implications of climate change – that continued growth in global consumption standards is feasible in a finite world.  Taxes and transferable quotas are useful minutiae items that can be used to address environmental concerns but the broader picture of whether the continued human assault on the planet is sustainable also needs to be considered.

I found the post interesting because it raised questions in my mind.

One issue is in fact the way economics itself has created mental constructs that now affect thinking and action. The rise of the word "consumer" is an example. A second issue is the way that thinking in economics itself has shifted.

  In his recent obituary  of Professor Warren Hogan, Malcolm Brown commented that he was a traditionalist who believed that economics was meant to focus on how to make maximum use of finite resources. This was actually the way I was first taught economics at the University of New England all those years ago: the idea that economics was the study of the application of scarce means to alternative ends was introduced in the first lecture.

Economics has moved some distance from this traditional focus, focusing instead on efficiency and growth issues. By implication, the concept of scarcity has been largely relaxed at least in absolute terms.

Another issue lies in the concept of "resource" itself. Generally, we think of resources in physical terms - oil, coal, iron ore, water are all examples. In fact, the very idea of a resource is a cultural construct, a generally physical thing around which is wrapped technology and a whole set of ideas linked to use. The concept of resource therefore changes over time.

I make this point because the question as to whether a continued growth in consumption standards or incomes for that matter is possible in a finite world depends on what we mean. Clearly means will always be scarce relative to the things that we might want to do. Choices will always have to be made.

There will be cases where the supply of individual resources, oil in ground for example, are fixed. However, fuel for transport is not fixed in the same way as oil in ground. Other sources are available, if at a price.

In saying this, I am not attacking Harry Clarke's point that the broader picture of whether the continued human assault on the planet is sustainable also needs to be considered. To my mind, he is absolutely correct. However, I would perhaps add the word "present" before "continued human assault".

Some of the things that we do at present strike me as silly.

Yesterday I had to buy a new printer. I did so with great reluctance, but the costs of repairing the old one (assuming that I could find someone to do this) would have been many times the cost of a new printer. So out goes the old one to add to the rubbish stream.

The new printer came in quite complicated packaging designed to protect it. Some of this - the cardboard box for example - could be recycled. In my case, it just goes to the garden as part of the mulching process. Other parts of the packaging could not - more landfill.

My point in all this is, that we can do a lot to reduce impacts while still allowing for rising global living standards in areas such as food, accommodation, health, education, entertainment, whatever. However, it requires a change in what we demand as consumers. And that was one of Harry Clarke's key points.   

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Australian population aging and the third Intergenerational Report

The Australian Government is about to release the third Intergenerational Report into the impact of population aging in Australia.

I covered the release of the second report Back in April 2007 in a brief note, Australia's Aging Population - Treasurer Costello releases second Intergenerational Report. The links in that post to both the 2007 report and then Treasurer Costello's speech still work.

The main difference between the first report in 2002 and the 2007 report is that a combination of higher than expected births and immigration had slightly reduced the aging impact. While this effect has continued, the projected aging is still dramatic. The Sydney Morning Herald's Dan Harrison writes:

Australia must dramatically raise productivity if it to meet the challenges of an ageing population, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said last night.

Speaking in Melbourne on the first day of a national tour in the lead-up to Australia Day, Mr Rudd said by 2050, there would be only 2.7 working-age Australians for every one aged 65 or more. There are now about five working-age Australians for each citizen over 65. Four decades ago there were 7.5.

The report's expected release comes at a time of renewed debate about the projected size of the Australian population, with many arguing that Australia simply cannot sustain a population of the size now projected. The word "sustain", by the way, is a slippery one when used in this context because it means different things to different people.

Given demographic trends, Mr Rudd argues (as did the previous Government) that productivity growth is the only way that Australia can manage such a shift in the proportion of working and non-working Australians.

In some of my past posts and in my professional advice, I have tried to point to the implications of an aging population in general and in specific sectors. I must say that I have found it difficult to get people to focus on the issues involved.

Mr Rudd's emphasis on the need for productivity improvement is important, although I am sceptical about the country's capacity to achieve this within current policy and institutional settings. However,we also need to recognise that the aggregate data used in the Intergenerational Reports actually conceals distributional impacts that are already with us. There is remarkably little discussion on those impacts.

Starting with a simple statistic, the NSW public sector workforce (public servants, nurses, teachers, police etc) has been getting older quite rapidly. Now, some fifty per cent are due to retire over the next ten years. That's a huge number. It cannot be accommodated through people working past the traditional retirement age (60 for women, 65 for men).

Compulsory retirement was abolished in the NSW public service some time ago. Many public sector workers (I am not sure of the exact proportion) are over 60, a growing number over 65. The effect of later retirement has just pushed the NSW public sector demographic time bomb a little to the right.

Many of the professions such as dentistry, law and medicine display a similar if less pronounced age skew. Here, as with the NSW public sector, past workforce planning decisions created an age skew. We simply didn't train enough people.

There are major geographic differences in the age structure of populations across Australia. At local and regional level, the projected national 2050 structures are already emerging. In some cases they have emerged. 

Back in November 2006 in  NSW Ten Year Plan - New England's needs I looked at some demographic trends from a purely regional perspective. Just to quote a few statistics from that post:

  • Taking NSW as a whole, between 1998 and 2003 the workforce of Greater Sydney grew by 205,000, the rest of NSW by just 18,000. In New England, the workforce increased by 0.7 per cent in the Hunter and Mid North Coast, 0.5 per cent in Richmond-Tweed, but actually declined in Northern (Northern Tablelands, North West) by 1.7 per cent. This low workforce growth has created a very real choke point for economic development. In simplest terms, it means that economic growth especially in inland regions will hit capacity constraints very quickly. There are already significant problems in filling skilled vacancies especially in high growth areas.
  • Population growth in New England as a whole has been greater than workforce growth. The difference is largely but not completely explained by the movement of retirees into in areas like the Mid North Coast. Northern has been losing young people, Richmond-Tweed and the Mid North Coast lost young but gained working age people and retirees. The Hunter gained young and working age, but experienced proportionately greater gains among seniors. Retention of young people is a key issue for much of New England.
  • The New England population is aging and aging faster than the Sydney population. In 1954, the proportion of over 55s ranged from 13 per cent in the Hunter to 15 per cent in other regions. In 2001, the proportion of over 55s ranged from 25 per cent in the Hunter to 30 per cent in the Mid North Coast. In 2021, the range is projected to be from 37 per cent in the Hunter to 47 per cent on the Mid North Coast.
  • Using another measure of aging, elderly (over 70) people living alone already constitute more than 6.1 per cent of households in Richmond-Tweed and Mid North Coast, 5.6 to 6.1 in Hunter and Northern. With aging, the proportion of elderly will continue to increase, with (in the absence of change) the highest impact in those areas already aging fastest. This has significant implications for local council operations in terms of the rate base (down) and the required scale of council support operations (up). Population aging is probably the greatest single public policy challenge facing New England over the next twenty years.

    In the three and a bit years since that post was written, the trends identified have continued. As a simple example, we need to build age care facilities to meet immediate and emerging needs knowing that the facilities constructed may become redundant within decades.

    As I write, Mr Rudd's speech on this issue is being reported on radio. He is again emphasising the need for improved national productivity. My argument is that while this is important, we have to drop below the macro aggregates to analyse the actual effects that are already on us.  

  • Monday, January 18, 2010

    The lessons from Haiti for Asia-Pacific disaster planning

    As I write, it is still early morning, dark but with a promise of light. The bird chorus has just begun.

    Generally, the first thing I do in the morning is to check the news sites. As you might expect, the news is dominated by the sad developments in Haiti. There is little useful that I can say on this in terms of the detail.

    In Saturday Morning Musings - Operation Padang Assist, I looked in a little detail at the Australian response to the Padang earthquake. This was one of those posts that was interesting to research and write because I was tracing through detail, the chronology and pattern of response. I followed up with Sunday Essay -country mindedness, Indonesia and the importance of mutual support.

    Padang was a far smaller quake, while Australia in responding was working with a fully functioning Government. Still, if you look at the steps and the chronology involved, you will get a feel for whole processes. Imagine just how much more complex a huge disaster like Haiti must be.

    One of the things that I have argued is the need for an enhanced regional capacity to respond the natural disasters.

    There is little that countries in this region such as Indonesia or Australia can do quickly to help Haiti and its people beyond cash and the provision of specialist support as required. The first response has to be local and regional.

    We know that there will be more natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific region. We need to be ready.

    In saying this, I am not suggesting that political leaders in our immediate region such as Indonesian President Yudhoyono or Australian PM Rudd are not aware of this, nor am I suggesting failures in current planning efforts.

    I am saying that all of us need to be aware of the need. We need to be proactive in thinking and talking about the issues involved and in supporting regional cooperation. 

    At a time when discussion in the broader Asia-Pacific region is often dominated by political and economic tensions, a simple focus on the best way of responding to humanitarian need can not only improve our capacity to respond to disaster, but can also go some distance to defusing broader misunderstandings.  

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    Sunday essay - a new Akubra

    Back in February 2008 in Birthday shopping with my girls - moleskins and double pocketed shirts, I described the joy of being taken shopping by my daughters to buy some new cloths.

    Well, yesterday I took delivery of a new hat they had purchased for me for Christmas. My old hat had been getting very tight. It's not that my head has swelled, heaven forbid, just that with exposure to the elements the hat has shrunk.

    The hat is once again, of course, an Akubra. I spoke a little of my clothing tastes in that earlier post on shopping with my girls. These hats have become something of a fashion item in recent years because of their iconic status. All APEC leaders were expected to wear one in one of those obligatory fashion shots during the APEC Australian summit.

    From my viewpoint they are simply practical in hot sun.

    Since I am so determined to wear Australian style clothes, my daughters tried to persuade me to buy a pair of riding boots as well. There I had to draw the line. I might feel obliged to get back onto a horse!

    If you look at the attached photo from cousin Jamie's collection, I am in the Kids on horsemiddle with brother David just behind. Note the direction of my eyes, down! Even now, it's still a long way to the ground.

    My maternal grandparents rode, as did Aunt Kay. However, my grandfather sold Forglen when I was still very young.

    From that point, I really didn't get on a horse again until youngest (Clare) decided that she wanted to learn to ride. I quite enjoyed it, but I will never be a horse person.

    Appropriately, the hat arrived just as I was trying to finish a story on the Kempsey floods of 1949 for my weekly Express column. You see the Akubra is made in Kempsey

    I was writing on Kempsey because Bruce Hoy, a friend from my Armidale Demonstration School days, had kindly sent me during the week a copy of a page from the Armidale Express, Wednesday 31 August 1949.

    We had been discussing the vexed question of verandah posts, why the Armidale City Council and civic leaders were so keen to have them removed from commercial buildings to the somewhat distress of later generations.

    The relevant page did contain a Council discussion on the posts. However, it also include a range of other stories, including the Mayor's Appeal for Kempsey Flood victims. These were seriously bad floods. Six people died, including a thirteen year old boy who went out on horseback to try to rescue cattle, only to drown himself.

    I have been experimenting with different ways of telling stories from Australia and especially New England's past to try to make them gripping. It's not just a writing issue, although I do want to improve my own control over the craft. It also reflects my continuing concern over the way Australian history is taught.

    Friday night saw a family gathering at a local restaurant. Chatting to a young niece, I found out that history was her favourite subject, just not Australian history.

    This is a seriously bright kid. When I asked her why, she simply said that it was boring, rather neatly summarising twentieth century Australia history as two wars and a depression! More broadly, the history she has had to do can be summarised as convicts, Aboriginal dispossession, a gold rush, two wars and a depression. No doubt Federation fits in there somewhere, it wasn't mentioned, but that's about it.

    Her attitudes to Aboriginal dispossession, I hope that I am capturing this accurately and not superimposing my own perceptions, were acceptance that wrong had been done combined with rejection of a fair bit of the wrapping usually put around this. In speaking of stories from the convict or the gold rush periods, she  compared them disparagingly in terms of interest to the story of an English girl who went to work as a maid at the French court at Versailles.  

    I think that we forget sometimes the world that middle class Australian kids now live in.

    To the kids on the back of that horse, Australia and indeed one part of Australia was the centre of the world. To even privileged children, and it is clear that my brother and I were, scenes and events in other countries were something that you read about.

    The position today is very different.

    Modern Australian middle class young have often been overseas more times than I had travelled to Sydney at their age. When you have stayed in a villa in Tuscany, visited Greece, are familiar with Paris, have been skiing in Canada to take just a few examples, then Australia is just part of a bigger picture. While the modern middle class Australian young are often quite nationalistic, uncomfortably so from my perspective, their actual knowledge of the detail of their own country is less, their knowledge of the broader world greater.

    This creates a real challenge in preserving and presenting the Australian past so far as the formal channels are concerned.

    At one level I console myself with the thought that it is interest in history that is important, not the form of history. Indeed, I would go further. I don't think that you can understand Australian history without understanding the broader historical context. Faced with a choice between an Australian history narrow and devoid of broader context and other history, I would go with other history. You can always pick up Australian later on.  

    This marks a shift in my own position and is in fact a final personal outcome of what are known in this country as the history wars. However, it leaves me with a real problem. As someone who is interested in and does write on Australian history, how do I get my story across? Will anyone come to the party I am trying to throw?   

    Here I come back to my experiments in the craft of writing. How do I tell a story in such a way that people will want to read and then continue reading? 

    There is, I think, a deep need especially among older Australians for writing that reflects their own past back to them and puts it in a context. My own stories that have drawn the greatest response, and have also given me the greatest personal satisfaction, have been those that were in some way personalised.

    My wife, children and indeed broader family sometimes laugh at the way I keep finding personal connections with strangers in the strangest places. They are not being critical, just empathetic and sometimes surprised.

    I do try to write as a professional historian should, but more and more I find that my real role is that of historical story teller.