Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Snippets

Well, my girls have indeed arrived back in Australia and very exciting it was too! Lots of travel stories and showings of new clothes and shoes. Then last night Dee and I went out to dinner with old friends of mine that I had not seen for thirty years since they moved to Hong Kong.

Both a reasonably fluent in Chinese - Cantonese as well as Mandarin - and lived in Hong Kong over that period from British colony to today's Hong Kong. It was a pleasant and interesting evening. Perhaps the biggest change in Australia that they have noticed since their return has been the rise of a fairly brash Australian nationalism,

This came up in a discussion on some of the Australia media commentary on the Vancouver Winter Olympics. These - the games - have been quite fun to watch, in part because I keep seeing shots of Vancouver that I recognise from last year. But some of the Australian reporting makes me cringe.

Monday sees the release of new draft national curriculum in various subject areas. So far we only have newspaper reports to go on.

 Neil's professional response based only on reporting was that the English curriculum looks pretty good, newspaper reports on the history curriculum made me very cautious, while the reports on the science curriculum really have Legal Eagle up in arms.

As it happened, a week back in Around New England's Universities February 2010 I did one of my periodic round-ups of university news. One of the stories that I picked up there was a story from the University of New England on science education. I wrote:   

"The University also reported the results of an unexpected finding in a new research report on science education commissioned by the National Centre of Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) at the University that involved around 590 teachers and 3,800 students throughout the country.

Despite the current serious decline in the proportion of senior high-school students taking science subjects, there has been no corresponding decline in students’ enjoyment of science, their appreciation of its importance to society, or their interest in science careers.

If I understand the results correctly, the crux of the problem lies not in lack of interest, but rather in a widening of school choices that has reduced the role of traditional science core subjects."

I found this interesting at the time, more so in light of LE's response.

Risk and risk taking was another topic at last night's dinner. Australia's changing attitude to risk was another thing my friends had noticed on their return. Again as it happened, this morning I read Ramana's post, The Wildest Thing That I Did In My Youth:

We were a bunch of wild Hyderabadi young men with plenty of hard earned money in our pockets with a passion was motor cycle racing.

I find it interesting just how many older Australians (me included) have a certain nostalgia for things they did in their youth that are now verboten. Some were, in fact, verboten then!  During the week another post that struck a chord with me was Le Loup's Primitive Camping, what I think it is and is not. This has given me at least the title - Playing with fire - for my next Armidale Express column. 

Stubborn Mule has launched a new discussion forum, Mule Stable demo video. I saw this earlier and have had a bit of a look. I will be interested in how it goes.  Staying with SM, Junk Charts #3 – US Business Lending is one of those regular posts SM does de-muling mispresented data. It is worth browsing even if you have no interest in economics or economic matters.

Going back to Hong Kong, hey I like wandering around!, I found Thomas's A look into China interesting. In Australia, the Federal Government's moves to censor the internet keep rumbling along, as does its desire to measure, monitor and record everything. A little while ago, Neil had an interesting post - Has school bullying increased?.

I discussed this issue a little in Where ignorance is bliss. There is no doubt that Facebook and SMS texting have become bullying tools. One point that I have tried to make is the way in which this type of thing hurts so much more because it reduces the bully free space available to bullied kids. I am not a supporter of internet censorship for a whole variety of reasons, but we do need to recognise that there is a genuine problem.

Like many people round the world, I have watched the unfolding events relating to the murder of Mahmud al-Mabhuh with morbid fascination, including the apparent misuse of Australian passports. Nothing like a local angle to add to people's interests. There are a number of strange aspects to the whole affair, including its scale and visibility.

Paul Barratt's Israel and the forged passports provides one local take on the issue. Paul also deals with a purely local Melbourne issue in Clearways: about as bad as it gets. Now here I cannot resist a little dig.

If my memory is correct, when Paul writes Prahran/Armidale, doesn't he mean Arm-a-dale? Arm-i-dale is in New England, Arm-a-dale in Melbourne or, for that, matter Perth. Now this is a bit of an in-dig. Both Paul and I come from Arm-i-dale - you can't get away from us, can you? - and both write about it a fair bit. So this is a case of Paul's past catching up with him.

Finally, two notes on future posts.

I have been meaning for a little while to do a full blog review on Winton Bate's Freedom and Flourishing. And, no, the Jim Winton refers to is not me, although we were together at university in Arm-i-dale (there you go, again!) all those years ago. Winton's is a serious blog with some interesting ideas, so I thought that I should look at them.

And my thanks to Jayne for her comment on Saturday Morning Musings - more problems in public administration. Here Jayne pointed me to a story that I had been meaning to say something on. There is another, more detailed, report that I still have to find.

You see, what I thought that I might do with this story if I can get sufficient information is to subject it to the type of forensic examination that I do from time to time. It actually says a fair bit about what is wrong with the way the Australian political system is currently working. But to really see this, you have to stand back a little and look at some first principles that underpin, or should underpin, the way the system works.     


The ABC blog, The Drum,  carried the following item that bears upon the story that Jayne pointed me to.

Two recent articles in The Age gave a rare insight into the workings of the public service. In one a former defence insider spoke out about a culture of 'excessive spin and unnecessary secrecy' and in the other, a former health department insider dished the dirt. The Federal Health Department issued a furious response which is towards the bottom of this blog.

I followed the links through, but don't have time to comment properly now (I am cooking a roast chook for lunch), so I am recording it so that I don't lose it.  These things really deserve a proper analysis because the issues are by no means clear cut.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - more problems in public administration

Well, the girls get back this morning from their South East Asian tour. It will be nice to see them.

It's really quite odd.

I decided some considerable time ago that the probabilities were that climate change was a problem and that we needed to do something about it. Then Neil increased his focus on climate change on his Google Reader. As a dedicated reader, I have at least scanned the material. At the end of the process, I find myself with a higher degree of skepticism, as well as a somewhat greater degree of disinterest.

I have tried to work out why this might be the case, because it is an emotional rather than logical reaction.

I don't bother reading much of the anti-climate change stuff, although I do scan it from time to time because it does sometimes contain useful material about the sillier proposed responses to climate change. I find that helpful. Now when exposed to so much pro-climate change material I find myself responding in the same way as I so often do to the anti-material, I turn off.

I think that my core problem remains that, having decided that climate change is a real problem, I want to better understand what we might do about it. Neil's post, Also getting impatient with Mr Garrett, contains a useful link through to a McKinsey paper that attempts to rank various options by cost. However, the paper left me dissatisfied because it didn't give me enough information to make my own judgements.

I suppose, too, that I am more interested at the moment in the question of what Australia might do. It seems quite clear that there are going to be significant variations between countries as to the best course, taking into account economic and geographic differences.

If you look at my arguments on public administration and policy in an Australian context, you will see that one of my continuing themes is the way in which one-size fits all national policies fail because they fail to take into account diversity within this country. Global action on climate change faces the same type of problem, but just writ very large. To manage this, we really need to have worked through the detail as to which options will best suit this country, given overall potential targets and our specific conditions.

By the way, Neil, I have been enjoying the variety of posts on Neil's Second Decade!

Sticking with public administration for the moment, one of my difficulties in arguing for change in current approaches to public policy and administration, a topic that is probably eye-glazingly dull for many readers, lies in the risk of simply being typed as old fashioned, as harking back to some past golden age. There is no such thing, of course.

There have been two legs to my arguments.

The first is that current approaches simply don't work very well. Over the last three years I think that I have had a pretty good predictive record in pointing out why some things were unlikely to work, along with the reasons why. There was no rocket science in this, simply the application of first principles combined with experience and a bit of research. While I do take some degree of morbid pleasure in my track record, it would obviously be better if things did work.

The home insulation fiasco has drawn out some of the things that I have been talking about in quite dramatic fashion. Now here there has been some very revealing evidence before the current Senate Inquiry. By the way, do read my last post, Patrician Rudd, after you have read this one.

The Office of the Coordinator General was set up to supervise the rollout of stimulus programs and coordinate with states and territories. According to the ABC report:

Coordinator General Glenys Beauchamp said her office did not raise any safety concerns with Mr Rudd or other ministers following the first three deaths.

"There wasn't much point in briefing the PM or Minister [Mark] Arbib on something that was already in the public arena," she said.

She also confirmed that no concerns were raised with her.

I blinked. The first line of reporting should have been Environment to Minister Garrett. But how can you see not much point in briefing just because things were already in the public arena?

When asked if she considered the program a success, Ms Beauchamp replied: "From the department's point of view we had arrangements in place to monitor the program and the program was meeting its milestones."

Exactly. I have written a fair bit about the problems that can arise with the current approaches to cascading milestones and key performance indicators. Once you have them, you have to work to them even when it becomes clear that they are incomplete or don't necessarily make sense.

The inquiry also heard that the Government had made it clear there should be no delay to the July 1, 2009 start-up date for the program.

"There certainly was a strong view by Government and by senior officials that we should continue to press on to meet the timeframes that had been set out by the Government," former coordinator general Mike Mrdak said.

While I have been critical of the Rudd Government's approach in trying to do too much too soon and in a mechanistic way without working all the issues through, I don't necessarily have a problem with this one. This was an economic stimulus measure that had to be delivered in certain time frames to achieve its effect.

The key issue is how you manage the risks and uncertainties that flow from the necessary haste.

The second leg to my argument about the need for reform covers the changes that need to be made to improve performance. This one is far harder to both develop and argue, for the systemic problems we now have are due to a complex interaction between different forces including public opinion, the media and prevailing views about structure, governance and management.

While I will continue to dig away at particular policy problems, I guess you can expect a fair bit more now on what needs to be done at a system level.                

Friday, February 26, 2010

Patrician Rudd

In Australia, a new term has been coined to describe PM Rudd's acceptance of full responsibility for the national home insulation, patrician politics. I laughed.

I can understand why Mr Rudd took the action he did because it deflected attention. Looking at his body language on TV, I am sure, too, that he found the whole thing deeply upsetting at a personal level. You can get a feel for this if you read the transcript of last night's ABC 7.30 report. However, the whole affair has reinforced two trends in Australian public life that I think are unfortunate.

The first is the continued presidentialisation of the Australian system. Traditionally, the Australian PM was first among equals  - ministers had real authority and took real responsibility. I am not talking here about the oft discussed question as to when a Minister should resign because of a bungle, rather the processes of decision making themselves.

The trend to transfer decision making power to Cabinet from Ministers was clear back in the late 1970s. Even then, it was beginning to slow decision processes. Today we are going through the further process of transfer of power to the PM from Cabinet. You see, once the PM accepts this type of general responsibility, makes himself accountable, then he has to follow through with greater direct control and supervision.

In practical terms, this flows through to an increased monitoring and power role for what are called the central coordinating agencies, including the PM's own Department. In real terms, the PM cannot personally control the whole machinery of Government, it's just too big and complex. He therefore has to rely on his officials. In turn, they have to set up reporting and control systems so that they can assist the PM to fulfil his newly assumed responsibilities. Inevitably, this further complicates decision making.

The second trend likely to be reinforced is the continued growth in the obsession with risk. Again looking at this from a practical management perspective, all new policies and programs involve different types of risk. As a policy adviser, manager or project manager, part of my role has always been identification of risks that might cause policy or program failure. This is not always easy. For that reason, the monitoring of progress against plan, the identification of emerging risks that must be addressed, is part of the role.

Clearly there have been failures here in the national home insulation scheme. Again just looking at it from a management perspective, the most important issue is the plotting of those failures, the identification of what (if anything) might have been done to avoid them or to ensure a faster response once the problem was identified. This should be a learning process, not a blame game.

I have absolutely no problem with the formalisation of risk assessment processes if this improves decision making in the first instance and then subsequent responses. It is not clear to me that current approaches actually do this, rather the opposite. I say this for two main reasons.

First, they place an emphasis on the identification of risks at early stages when not all risks can in fact be identified. This, in combination with the rising power of the central coordinating agencies, complicates decision processes.

Secondly, and this is linked, they can actually slow response times when risks are identified. The reason for this is simple and human. If you are locked in to an early analysis of risks, if you are then measurable by performance indicators based on the early planning stage, it becomes far harder to say hey minister we made a mistake, this is what we should do about it. You try to sort things when in fact you should be reporting problems and recommending basic changes.

An added problem in the modern public service is one of time. Public servants are so busy doing and reporting, that there is very little time for reflection and review.

Speaking at a purely personal level, there is no longer time for the type of reflective papers and minutes that I used to write just exploring issues in advance of recommendations and decisions. I know that my then Minister sometimes found me far too wordy, although he was pretty tolerant. However, he could be sure that when we put up firm recommendations, the course proposed was likely to work.

We could also respond very quickly when problems did emerge. This was partially a matter of trust, more that we knew what we were doing because we had worked things through. Sometimes things became a bit frightening - it can be quite nerve wracking dealing with things in very quick time when you know that failure will lead to a political storm. You try managing the threat of a national strike in a critical industry area based on your own recommendations! Yet we muddled through.

I am not saying that we did not make mistakes, we did. Sometimes they were own fault, more often they were in fact imposed upon us. Yet in seven years as a Commonwealth SES officer dealing with often sensitive matters with a major focus on structural change, not once did we cause a significant political problem for our Ministers.

Of course, things were a lot easier and simpler then. I did not have to worry too much about specifically Departmental objectives and KPIs. Within its broad ambit, the Department existed to serve the minister and government then in power. We could and did advise, but this was set by the bounds of government policies and objectives. We would point to problems with those policies and objectives, recommend new approaches, but at the end of the day our Minister and, beyond him, the Government was boss.

Finally, in looking at the home insulation program, my instinctive reaction is to think just how much fun it would have been to manage it. Here you have a major national program with significant risks that has to be delivered in short compass. To make it work, you have to coordinate and cajole lots of people, to listen, to bang together lots of heads. You have to be prepared to make firm recommendations, to act to correct errors, to fight for the changes required to make things work. As I said, fun.

In all this, and accepting that I do not know all the details, I feel sorry for Mr Garrett. Bluntly, I feel that he has been let down by his Department for whatever reason.

Despite Mr Rudd's views, a minister is not a manager. His or her role is to define the policy and values framework. The Department is responsible not just for advice, but for delivery. I actually find it incomprehensible that a Department of State would place their minister in this position. I suspect that they were all just too busy playing modern public administration to recognise their traditional responsibilities to their minister.       

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tourism advice from Australia

I had to share this one. It comes from an email sent to my wife. It completely broke her up; laughing while you are trying to eat breakfast gives rise to a great deal of coughing and spluttering.

I probably shouldn't have laughed too, but it is very funny from an Australian perspective. I really have no ideas as to the original source.

The document begins: Keep Reading! It is just great!


It continues:

"These were posted on an Australian Tourism Website and the answers are
the actual responses by the website officials, who obviously have a great
sense of humour (not to mention a low tolerance threshold for cretins!)
Q:Does it ever get windy in Australia ? I have never seen it rain on TV, how do the plants grow? (
A:We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.
Q:Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? ( USA)
A:Depends how much you've been drinking.
Q:I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? ( Sweden)
A:Sure, it's only three thousand miles, take lots of water.
Q:Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in Australia ? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane ,
Cairns , Townsville and Hervey Bay ? ( UK)
A:What did your last slave die of?
Q:Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia ? ( USA)
A: A-Fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe .
Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not
... Oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.
Q:Which direction is North in Australia ? ( USA)
A:Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we'll send the rest of
the directions.
Q:Can I bring cutlery into Australia ? ( UK)
A:Why? Just use your fingers like we do...
Q:Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? ( USA)
A:Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is
Oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after
the hippo races. Come naked.
Q:Can I wear high heels in Australia ? ( UK)
A:You are a British politician, right?
Q:Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? ( Germany)
A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers.
Milk is illegal.
Q:Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can Dispense rattlesnake serum. ( USA)
A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca which is where YOU come from.
All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.
Q:I have a question about a famous animal in Australia , but I forget its name. It's a kind of bear and
lives in trees. ( USA)
A: It's called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of Gum trees and eat the
brains of anyone walking underneath them.
You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.
Q:I have developed a new product that is the fountain of youth. Can you tell me where I can sell it in
Australia ? ( USA)
A: Anywhere significant numbers of Americans gather.
Q:Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia ? ( France)
A: Only at Christmas.
Q:Will I be able to speak English most places I go? ( USA)
A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Systemic failures in health and other services

On Monday in a post on the New England Australia blog, Tamworth GPs close their books, I spoke of some of the workforce problems created by our current approaches to training doctors. This drew a very well informed comment from Martina.

The comment follows. Please read it. My own response follows at the end. 

We have been doing some very intensive research into medical workforce issues in rural Victoria and I would agree with the comments. The specialisation of the medical workforce means that there are no pathways to 'general' medicine which is what rural communities need most.

Hospitals need salaried medical staff but where do they get them from especially if they cannot provide enough supervision to employ PGY1+2 doctors straight out of university? If they are not in a District of Workforce Shortage (and many smaller rural centres are not classified in this way) they cannot even employ overseas trained doctors who are working towards full registration.

If they employ doctors who have not got a Medicare Provider Number, they cannot access Medicare funding and have to finance the doctor's salary themselves - and thats not going to be an attractive salary.
And if they do employ salaried medical officers, what is their career pathway? They can't really get full registration unless they are vocationally registered - or working towards vocational registration. So there is no other pathway than a specialist pathway (even for GPs).

The decision to require GPs to jump through the numerous hoops required by other "specialities" means that nobody can become an independent medical practitioner in less than 12-14 years - if my calculations are correct. That means that the GP has lost the key attraction it once held - that it was an easier and quicker pathway to becoming an independent practitioner. Without that edge, why wouldn't you become an opthalmologist, anaesthetist or cardiologist and get some real money and a lot more prestige?

With increasing feminisation of the workforce, the decision to require doctors to 'specialise' in General Practice (an obvious oxymoron) is a great way to ensure that we have less GPs.... Many women want to have families and don't want to spend 14 years getting their professional qualification....

Why can't we have some kind of Diploma in Family Medicine which can be done in two years and with less associated costs?

Martina points to some very real problems, problems that have been known of for many years and yet have not been addressed. Nor are these problems limited to medicine. In our obsession with "quality", "standardisation" and "professionalisation" we are creating systems that no longer work. This may sound extreme, but bear with me for a moment.

Whatever the general arguments may be about the overall standard of medical services in this country, it really doesn't matter a damn if you don't have access to a GP at all or if the centralised out patient service is not easy to access because of distance.

Similar arguments apply to specialist medical services or even to basic obstetrics and to dentistry. We have developed a two tier system in which the best treatment is very good, but in which availability of basic services is less than it was fifty years ago.

We have known for twenty years that these problems were coming, yet the actions taken have at best been band-aid, at worst have simply compounded the problem.

Australia has a housing shortage, yet we build fewer houses than we did in the past. I think that this is true in absolute terms at least in NSW, but it is certainly true in relative terms. Just look at how many people we housed after the Second World War.

The size and standard of the houses we build is higher, but the number is less because of the rules and regulations associated with both subdivision and building. That's fine if you can afford to build or buy, small compensation if you cannot.

Fifty years ago, those on low incomes could access social housing with the later possibility of purchase. Now social housing is limited strictly to those in greatest need. We worry about the creation of affordable housing to try to meet the expanding gap between the diminishing numbers eligible for social housing and those who can afford to buy or rent in a private market whose costs have been regulation increased. 

Turning now to food.

As I understand the numbers, the cost of food has increased faster than the CPI. Indeed, as an average the CPI increase has been held down because the real cost of certain manufactured goods has declined, while the cost of essentials has increased. This explains why so many lower income families feel worse off. They are!

Fifty years ago, the average household had access to home gardens including, in a lot of cases, chooks for eggs and meat. This is less and less true today.


As with health, the gap between the best and worst education has widened. Debates about the My School web site or about overall standards of education do not have a lot of resonance when your school cannot get basic teachers.

Fifty years ago, a primary school teacher was two year trained, a secondary teacher four year including a Diploma in Education. Most teachers did more formal training, but this was generally done after graduation. Training times have increased, while the scholarships that used to be available have gone.

I could outline similar arguments for many other professionals including nurses, accountants and lawyers. In law, for example, there are major shortages in many country areas.

I am not arguing in this post for any particular solution. I am saying that if systems don't work, you change them. This includes simplification, clarification, acceptance of variety and multiple pathways. As part of this, we have to deal with what I call professional bracket creep.

Take nurses as an example.

To accommodate the professionalisation of nursing including increased training times, we have actually had to create new occupational groups to do some of the work that nurses used to do. With increasing doctor shortages, there is an increasing need in some areas for nurses to do the work once reserved for doctors. This has led to conflict over things such as prescribing rights. Professional bracket creep leads to professional boundary wars

I don't necessarily have a problem with any of this beyond the fact that things are clearly not working very well for particular and growing groups of Australians. If existing systems don't work, let's change the system.

It may be that we have to give up on the illusion that all Australians can have access to the same type of services and instead focus on the minimum level of service that must be supplied to all. It may be that we have to do away with certain standards and instead just focus on ensuring supply. It may be that it is time to review all professional structures and instead introduce a more varied approach. 


Since writing this post, The Australian has carried a story on the next stage in the creation of national standards for teachers. I quote:

The standards, which are expected to be released for public consultation this week, are the first step in a planned uniform system of teacher accreditation and registration, which will also provide national accreditation and standards for teacher education courses in universities......

The four levels of expertise in the proposed national standards are graduate, proficient, highly accomplished and lead.

Beginners must meet "graduate" standard to be registered and "proficient" a year later to qualify for a permanent licence. "Highly accomplished" and "lead" are open to all experienced teachers but not mandatory.

"The standards . . . support the collective responsibility of the profession to ensure that those who teach have the essential knowledge and skills," the draft says.

"By publicly articulating what is required of teachers at each level, they support improved access to quality teaching for all Australian students."

Back in August 2008 in Problems with teacher accreditation I spoke of my reservations about NSW plans to introduce a standards based accreditation system. The proposed national approach mirrors the same four step approach.

The difficulty I have with the national scheme lies in the way it mixes together different things.

One is the desire to professionalise teaching, something supported by many in the teaching profession. This is linked in supporter's minds not so much with standards as with improving the prestige of teaching. There is also the hope that the approach will make it easier to reward better teachers with higher pay, thus retaining more teachers in the system. Present pay structures with quite high starting salaries but limited top salaries do lead to loss of teachers after the first few years in the profession.

The second thing is the application of standards based approaches. As I have said before, standards deal with what we can call fit for purpose, the capacity to do at a specified level. This is quite a different concept to the common idea of a standard as in some ways a mark of excellence.

Whether such approaches actually improve performance depends critically on the size of the gap between the standard or standards and existing performance. By implication, the idea that the new system will in fact raise standards means that the existing system must be failing in some way across the spectrum set by the four levels of expertise as specified in the proposed national system. It is not clear to me that this is in fact the case.

What the proposed system actually does is to superimpose a new work based qualifications framework on top of existing educational qualifications. The dynamic effects of this are a little unclear.

On the surface, teachers classified simply as proficient will be disadvantaged in job terms, creating an incentive to move to the next level. Depending on the degree of effort required to meet the formalities, some teachers may not bother. In other cases they may actually leave the system. It is quite possible that we may end up with greater teacher losses and with schools now streamed by the proportion of their staff in the two higher categories, something easily measurable for the purposes of the My School web site.

The impact on formal postgraduate study by teachers is also unclear. Traditionally, many teachers have gone on to do further university courses in their key subject areas. Time is limited. Depending on the exact form of the new standard and of the associated assessment criteria and processes, the new approach may encourage more formal study or, alternatively, substitute for that study.

Finally, the actual impact on entry to the profession is unclear.

Just at present, we have a shortage of teachers. There is anecdotal evidence, I base this just on conversations that I have had, that existing structures discourage entry by people with required subject knowledge but who lack teaching qualifications as such. We have outwards mobility, inwards immobility. Depending on the way the new system works in practice, it may simply act to create a new barrier to entry.

Of itself, none of this means that we should not introduce the new national approach. However, we do need to recognise that we are adding a new level to an already complex system whose exact effects are unclear.

What we can be reasonably certain of is that the new system will not achieve the overall stated outcome: supporting improved access to quality teaching for all Australian students. I have added the bold.      

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Problems with prorogation

I hate getting things wrong when pontificating. It's so public! Still, when I do make an error of fact or interpretation I try to correct it. Here I am conscious of the search engine traffic I get, meaning that an error may be repeated.

In Saturday Morning Musings - blogs, blogging and Canada's constitutional crisis I discussed the action of the Canadian Government in proroguing Parliament. A little later, I discussed the same issue in my weekly Express column - Belshaw's World - crisis in the Westminster system. In a letter to the Express (not on line), Dr Fidlon suggested that I was misinterpreting prorogation. He was in fact correct, although I do not think that it affects the core of my argument that the Canadian Government action was constitutionally dangerous.

Given that I have made an error, I thought that I should record the correct facts as I now understand them, at least so far as Australia is concerned.

The Senate web site states:

To prorogue Parliament means to bring to an end a session of Parliament without dissolving either house and, therefore, without a subsequent election. The Constitution gives the Governor-General the power to prorogue Parliament, which is done on the advice of the Prime Minister. Prorogation has the effect of terminating all business pending before the houses, although in certain circumstances it can be resumed in a new session. Parliament does not meet again until the date specified in the proroguing proclamation, or until the houses are summoned to meet again by the Governor-General.

The relevant section of the Australian constitution reads:

5. The Governor-General may appoint such times for holding the sessions of the Parliament as he thinks fit, and may also from time to time, by Proclamation or otherwise, prorogue the Parliament, and may in like manner dissolve the House of Representatives.

Section 5 does not constrain the Governor-General's power. However, the constitutional convention is that the G-G exercises that power upon advice from the Prime Minister.

It is normal for Parliament to be prorogued prior to an election, thus bringing existing business to an end. However, prorogation can occur under other circumstances. Again quoting the Senate web site:

Parliament was frequently prorogued in the early years of federation, and always prorogued prior to the dissolution of the House of Representatives for the purpose of a general election. Between the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901 and the end of 1925, it was prorogued sixty times. In the following sixty-seven years it was prorogued on only fifteen occasions, a session often lasting for the whole term of a Parliament. Between 1961 and 1993, Parliament was prorogued only four times, twice for the purpose of allowing openings by the Queen during her visits to Australia in 1974 and 1977. On another occasion, in February 1968, Parliament was prorogued following the disappearance in the sea of Prime Minister Harold Holt in December 1967. On the fourth occasion, Parliament met for one day in November 1969 following an election for the House of Representatives on 25 October and was prorogued until the following March.

The practice of proroguing Parliament prior to the dissolution of the House of Representatives for the purpose of a general election was restored by the Government in 1993.

My confusion lay in my failure to recognise that prorogation could and had occurred in circumstances other than a general election.  Given that mistake, why then do I say that it does not affect my core argument that the Canadian Government's actions were constitutionally dangerous?

Parliament is central to the Westminster system. In the Australian case, the constitution states:

1. The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, and which is herein-after called "The Parliament," or "The Parliament of the Commonwealth. "

The operations of Parliament are governed in part by the constitution, in part by traditions deeply rooted in history. Governments may propose, but only Parliament can dispose.

The central problem with the Canadian Government's actions in twice requesting the Canadian G-G to prorogue Parliament is that, as I understand them, they were designed to get round Parliament. In the first case, the successful intent was to avoid a no confidence motion that the Government would have lost. In the second case, the Canadian Globe and Mail described the intent in this way:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shut down Parliament for two months, killing a pesky inquiry into Afghan detainees, stalling government bills and allowing the Conservatives to take control of the Senate. 

Again as I understand the position, the practical effect is that a procedural clause in the Canadian constitution is being used for political purposes to protect a Government against Parliamentary action.

Could this happen in Australia?  I would like to think that the political outcry would be so great as to prevent it. More broadly, could the power to prorogue be used to allow Executive Government to operate without Parliament?

Well, the answer appears to be yes and no.

Subject to the views of the High Court, a Government could prorogue Parliament and operate so long as it did not require new legislation to do so. This includes promulgation of regulations under legislation. However, this is subject to certain constitutional constraints.

Importantly, clause 6 in the Australian constitution states:  

6. There shall be a session of the Parliament once at least in every year, so that twelve months shall not intervene between the last sitting of the Parliament in one session and its first sitting in the next session.

As I read this clause, this places a constitutional time limit on any prorogation. Further, clause 54 states:  

54. The proposed law which appropriates revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of the Government shall deal only with such appropriation.

Again as I read this, this clause implies time limits on spending approval as reflected in the annual budget round.

A year or so back, I would have regarded this type of analysis as quite far-fetched. I think that the lesson of the Canadian experience is that a Government prepared to ignore conventions could in fact use the power to prorogue for the purposes of a time limited political coup.    

Monday, February 22, 2010

Losing patience with Mr Garrett

Just ten days ago in Insulation, pressure cookers and Minister Garrett, I pleaded for Minister Garrett and his officials to be allowed time to work through problems associated with the national home insulation scheme. I have now lost patience.

The decision to effectively cancel the scheme is one of those "hard", "tough" decisions that actually inflicts great pain even on those who have done the right thing. Let me quote from a story in Tamworth's Northern Daily Leader.

David Robson, principal of Tamworth-based All Aussie Insulation, has more than $10,000 in stock, which he says will be unmovable for months, rented warehouse premises, which will be terminated, a soon-to-be-vacant rented house, and two soon-to-be-unemployed employees.

Mr Robson said Friday’s decision had left him hugely out of pocket and he couldn’t see how he could avoid shutting down the business – at least for a while.

“It was clearly a split-second decision, with no thought to the viability of businesses that were delivering the Government’s scheme,” Mr Robson said.

“Many legitimate building and insulation businesses had geared up further to accommodate demand, and have invested in huge stocks of insulation to deliver on quoted jobs that now may never eventuate.”

A builder for 30 years and insulator for 10, Mr Robson said there were some issues with the scheme, however the biggest issue was how it was being run.

“In October, they (the Government) suddenly reduced the rebate from $1600 to $1200, costing everyone a huge amount in changing advertising, administration and redoing quotes for installations,” he said.

“This time around, all those quotes and householders that were waiting for installation will disappear.

“There is no way they will be going ahead with anything for at least three months, until we know how the new scheme will look.”

Terry Barry has been selling insulation in Tamworth for 30 years and installing it himself for 26.

He told The Leader he had already advised 38 clients waiting for insulation installation to wait longer.

“I told them I would talk to them in a month, once we know what is going to happen with the new scheme,” Mr Barry said.

“I have $25,000 of stock that won’t be moving, and work lined up for just one week at this stage.”

Mr Barry said he had lost a lot of sleep over the weekend trying to work out how to keep his two employees gainfully occupied.

“I’m hoping I can concentrate on renovations for a while, although that work hasn’t been booked because the time was devoted to the insulation side of the business,” he said.

“I want to keep my boys and don’t want to tell them they have to take a week off, but it will be a struggle.”

He said the aim of the scheme was laudable, but the running had been terrible.

This story is being replicated across the country.

Oddly, perhaps not, back in January 2009 in Mr Rudd's continued New South Walesing, I commented on the appointment of three senior NSW officials to senior positions in the Commonwealth system. I said in part: 

All three Rudd appointees have been key players in these (NSW Treasury and Premier's) Departments. All three are known for their ability and hard work.

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

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

I note that Robyn Kruk, the current head of Mr Garret's Department, is one of those three. Perhaps I was more prescient than I knew.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Welcome to visitor 70,000 from Mitchell, Queensland

Well, while I was out to lunch, visitor 70,000 arrived. He/she came from Mitchell in Queensland, searched on google on the importance of quiet time and found Sunday Essay - the importance of quiet time in a crowded world. I think that this is quite a good post and I hope the visitor thought so too. A stay of two minutes suggests that the post was read.

Now, I guess, for visitor 80,000!

Sunday Snippets

I have now started serious work on the history seminar paper that I have to deliver in Armidale on 19 March, so my time is constrained. Just a few snippets today instead of the usual Sunday Essya.

Over on the New England history blog, History blogs 1 provides something of a round-up on a few of the history blogs that I follow. I wondered if readers had their own favourites that they might point me too.

Australia now has its first saint in Mary MacKillop. For those that are interested, the Australian has a small picture gallery on her. She was quite a remarkable women, although the gallery itself does not do her credit.

For those with a little time to spare and an interest in history, Janine Rizzeti's  Letters of a Nation Archive points you to a very interesting series of letters on Australia Post's Letters of a Nation web site. Do have a browse, but don't get too distracted!

As I mentioned in Australian election update, health rather than the environment is shaping as the big electoral issue in Australian Federal politics.  Here Michelle Grattan had an interesting opinion piece: Sick system offers PM healthy trigger for double dissolution.

I am trying to think through an alternative approach to health delivery as best I can since I can't see either Opposition Leader Abbott or PM Rudd's proposed approaches having much positive effect. The Save Bellingen Hospital Facebook page is now up to 2,408 fans.

 Bellingen Hospital, Facebook and the costs to the community presents the starting point in my thinking, the proper measurement of the costs of change to those involved. There is a present asymmetry between the cost savings of changes (measurable) and the costs imposed on particular people by the change (harder to measure and generally ignored). I think that localisation is important, but the form proposed by Tony Abbott is unlikely to give better results because it is still set within a centralis522578-torah-bright-gold-medaled model.

Like many Australians, I watched the interviews with  Torah Bright after her thrilling win in the women's snowboard halfpipe at Vancouver. The photo is from Sydney's Daily Telegraph story that describes some of the turmoil she went through. The Telegraph's sister paper, The Australian, has more of the details.

Listening to this fresh faced kid talking, I thought just how proud she made us all feel and especially those in her home town of Cooma. It's not the winning, although that's important. It's the way she handled the whole thing in such a quintessentially Australian way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A night at the cinema

Cinema poster

Yesterday I loaded the photo software that came with my camera, only to have the computer crash. It took me quite a while to get it working again.

Thursday we did one of those very Sydney things, went to the St George Open Air Cinema. We did so almost by accident. Dee's sister had some tickets but could not go, so we went with some of Dee's work colleagues.

The Cinema itself is formed by blocking off part of the park area adjacent to Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens overlooking the city, opera house and bridge. It's quite a beautiful area.

The screen itself is built into the water on pylons and can then be raised once it gets dark.

This was the third time we have been, in fact once a year for the last three years. The first time we picnicked in the Botanic Gardens after we had handed in our tickets and put reserved notices on the seats. This is quite fun, sitting on the grass, eating chicken and drinking champagne watching the the dusk slowly fall across the city.

I may not be completely happy living in Sydney, I prefer to visit, but no one can deny that this is one of the Open air cinema world's most beautiful cities in visual terms.

The Cinema's popularity means that you need to get there early if you want the best seats, earlier still if you want to eat inside at a table.

The first time we went it was okay to get there just before the gates opened at 6:15. Most people still came later.

This is no longer true. We had decided to eat there. We arrived at 5.20. Even then, there were one hundred people in the queue in front of us. The photo shows part of the queue around 5.40.

As we went through the gates we split up. My job was to charge ahead to get a table in the restaurant area. Even with this organisation, the tables with the best water views had been taken by the time I got there. Still, we had a seat for dinner.

The food and wine aren't cheap. We had shared entrees first and then shared fish and chips and fruit, drinking a rather nice New Zealand white. This amounted to a pretty packet. Still, It was very nice.

Cruise ship Sydney harbour While eating I heard the sound of deep sirens. I rushed down and got this photo of a cruise ship leaving the harbour brightly lit by the setting sun. The boat on the left is one of the smaller pleasure craft plying Sydney Harbour.

As the sun finally set, the screen was raised and the film started.

Up in the Air stars George Clooney, Jason Bateman, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

The trailer states:

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert who spends most of his year flying from one city to another firing people on behalf of bosses who don’t have the strength to do so. Driven by the goal of reaching ten million frequent flyer miles, Bingham is cool and detached, and cherishes his life on the road. But when his itinerary is threatened by changing technology, he breaks all the rules by imagining a life with the frequent-traveller woman of his dreams.

I am not sure that I would have bothered to see the film based on this trailer, yet it is a good film. It is also a film that had an eery similarity to one stage in my life when I was travelling all the time and enjoying it. I do mean travel: I averaged five domestic flights a week. At the peak of craziness I arrived in Armidale on the evening flight, there my wife handed me baby Helen so she could leave on the same plane as it left, while Helen and I went home to put the girl to bed.

This was a cocooned world, a world of hotels, eating places and airport lounges eased by all those facilities supporting the very frequent traveller. Fast check-ins, working in the lounges between flights, no cooking or washing, everything organised.

It wasn't always fun. Arriving in London after spending a fortnight with multiple meetings in four countries, I was so tired that I could barely manage the coherence required to check-in for the connecting flight to Australia. Still, they did give me a free up-grade to first class!

As I boarded the plane to be greeted by Australian accents and sat down in the large armchair in the nose of the plane, I suddenly felt better. Kicking my shoes off and taking the glass of rather nice champagne while the steward fussed around, I knew that I had nothing to worry about for the next twenty four hours. Total relaxation. 

Those days are behind me now, just memories. However, I couldn't help feeling a degree of empathy with George Clooney's character.        

Friday, February 19, 2010

Australian election update

Here in Australia we are coming into an election round that will give all election tragics much to watch and discuss, with both Tasmania and South Australia to go to the polls on 20 March.

The ABC election web site for South Australia provides a detailed overview of past elections, current seats and contests. There doesn't appear to be an equivalent for Tasmania, but ABC election analyst Antony Green's blog provides a range of material including details of the electoral system and seat contests. As always, William Bowie's The Poll Bludger provides a range of interesting material for the election tragic. This is one blog where it pays to read the comments.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald's Phillip Coorey suggests that the Federal Government is setting up a double dissolution election, but with health as the trigger, not the environment.

In September, the Senate rejected the Government's proposal to means test private health insurance. Coorey suggests that the Government has made this bill its top priority for Senate debate. If, as seems likely, the Senate rejects the bill again, then Labor will have a double dissolution trigger that is likely to be more electorally palatable than the increasingly polarised discussion on an emissions trading scheme.

While it is hard to see the Rudd Government losing such an election, it still commands a major lead in the opinion polls, the now constant newspaper criticism on delivery problems is, I think, having an erosive effect. The Australian in particular is running almost constant negative stories.

For those who do not know Australia, the paper is one of two national dailies, the other being the Australian Financial Review. All the other major dailies are state based. Depending upon your starting perspective, the paper's overall tone can be variously described as centre, centre right or right.

The big risk for Labor in a double dissolution election lies in the Senate. The proportional representation whole state voting system used for the Senate makes it easier for minority parties to gain seats.

Normally, half the Senate is elected at each general election. In a double dissolution election, all Senate seats are up for grabs, reducing the quota required for election. With the national Green vote steady on 12%, well up from the last election, a double dissolution election may well give the Greens a clear balance of power in the Senate.

Interesting times.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Train reading resumes

As Neil referred to in Random, but age may be part of it, I mentioned on Facebook that I was reviewing my blog publishing program. This is in fact the second review in a short while driven by my own ill-discipline.

Now that I have passed 156,000 visits on the blog suite, a not inconsiderable number even if small by some standards, it is probably time to decide what I am doing! Mind you, the next fortnight is just experimentation before final decision.

Having reviewed blog publishing, I then turned to a review of the writing program.

Just at the moment I am working from home, and I am very out of practice after twelve months on site. It turns out that the train reading I used to do on those otherwise dead periods on train and bus - up to three hour per day - was very productive. Now I don't have that mandated framework, my reading has actually dropped. More precisely, its time has been taken by what I can only call undirected browsing.

So as part of my writing review, the first step is to resume train reading. Call it a ploy if you like, but I am going to force myself to devote the time that I did spend travelling under the exactly the same rules.

My first book is John Zubrzycki's the Last Nizam, an Indian Prince in the Australian outback. More later!     

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Where ignorance is bliss

I sometimes think that we get far too much information for our own good. Further, in trying to respond, we just make things worse.

Yesterday evening I was struck by one those sudden fits of depression so bad that it quickly led to a headache. The cause was simple enough: almost consecutive stories about stress among children, suggesting that young school kids in Australia today were the most stressed of any previous cohort; about ADHD and the way medicalisation of the condition had led to excessive drug taking; the tragic story of a thirteen year old who had stabbed and killed a twelve year old, leading to calls for enhanced security at schools. This death was apparently linked in some way to cyber bullying not connected in any way with the twelve year old.

The problem with all this information is to work out how to process it, what it all means, how to respond.

Youngest was once diagnosed with ADHD. We sought advice because her teachers were worried: she wasn't a problem at school; they were just concerned for her welfare. Teachers were also worried that her poor hand-eye coordination meant that she would not be able to write properly.

Medication was recommended to assist her.  We ignored that advice, although we did take her to a therapist for a period to try to improve her motor skills. As it turned out, her behaviour was just on one side of the normal range, while sport overcame the hand-eye problem. I admit that as her father I am quite one-eyed, but she has gelled down into a rather wonderful girl. Many of the the things that worried her teachers are simply expressions of exuberance and the underlying creativity that is such a feature of her personality. She has faults, but so do we all.

Cyber bullying is a real problem. Bullying has always been a problem in any social grouping, a nasty expression of one aspect of the human personality including the herd instinct. I was bullied at school, but could at least escape at home. Cyber bullying carries school problems into the personal and home space; there may be no escape.

Sometimes bullying is in fact un-thinking, simply a lack of empathy. Here people generally grow out of it as their emotional maturity improves. Sometimes the desire to wound, to hurt, carries through into later life. Anybody in the blogging world will know this: just look at the comment streams on some blogs!

Listening to the commentary on bullying, I was struck by the way in which it was treated as an almost medical condition. There needed to be new protocols, teachers required special training, there should be special activities in schools to persuade children not to bully.

Poor teachers. In addition to their primary role as teachers, they are meant to do things now that would bedevil Solomon.

I have known many teachers over my life: as a student, as a friend, as a parent. I have a very high opinion of them as a group, but also no unreal expectations. There are good teachers and bad teachers, those that worry and are concerned, those who have burnt out and have had to close down to some degree simply to protect themselves.

In all this, I do not expect teachers to be a front line defence in meeting social ills. They simply cannot do it. That is not their role. We set them up to fail.

Looking at my own experiences at school and then my children's, listening to parents talk at social and school functions, listening to kids talk not just about their own experiences, but also about their parents and their attitudes, I have been struck by a number of things.

The first is that things pass. To some degree at least, good times can follow bad. My very unhappy years at school were followed by some of the best times in my life. This seems to have happened to eldest as well. I did not know until much later just how unhappy she was at one point in school. While I do feel distressed that I did not pick this up, it may be just as well because I could not really have done anything about it. 

The second is that kids find their own coping behaviour. In my case, I became special friends with some of the others who did not fit in, while finding outlets outside the school. Youngest went a stage further: she melded a group of girls who were different into a recognised group with their own place in the pecking order, where a degree of eccentricity was recognised and indeed played too.

The third is just how protective parents have become.

This seems, and this is purely impressionistic, to have increased over the period my children were at school. I simply didn't know how to handle some of the conversations I had with other parents when I listened to their views on risk, risk avoidance, their expectations about their daughters and the school and what they wanted done. I also listened to parents who felt something was wrong, worried about their daughters, but simply didn't know what to do.

In saying all this, I am not saying that bullying is not a problem, nor am I discounting the distress that it can cause. Speaking personally, having one's genitals bootpolished is hardly pleasant. What I am saying, is that treating bullying as a universal without attention to context and case is not especially helpful.

Speaking only from my own experience, there are two circumstances where a degree of bullying moves from a normal human experience, part of learning to cope, to a severe problem that must be addressed.

The first is where bullying becomes endemic and entrenched in a particular school or indeed work environment.

My experience had been that bullying rises and falls with particular cohorts.

Normally, there are checks and balances in the working of a school as a society that act to correct the worse excesses. Kids, note I say kids not teachers, are not dumb. Over time, they tend to correct the worst excesses, sometimes in quite savage ways. However, bullying can become entrenched.

Endemic bullying has to be stamped out.

Two of the most classic and graphic accounts of bullying can be found in English school stories.

The first is Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, where Tom meets with Flashman. The roasting of Tom Brown against the fire remains a horror classic. The second is Rudyard Kipling's Stalky and Co where the detailed description of bullying techniques makes what happens in NSW schools look like a pussy cat. This is institutionalised bullying of the worse type.

Both books were based on the authors' experiences. In both, the bully meets a just end.

In the more moralistic Tom Brown's School Days, it is the combination of Tom's courage with Arnold as a new head that brings about  the end, captured in the words "Mr Flashman, you are expelled." 

In the case of Stalky and Co,the path is a little different.

There Stalky and his cohorts, I always identified with the egregious Beatle who was in fact Kipling himself, have established power in the school. However, they have stood aside from the problem of bullying, intent on their own concerns. The school chaplain, aware of the bullying and their potential power in the school, comes to have a chat to them. Sitting in their study smoking his pipe, he suggests in somewhat elliptical fashion that they might like to do something about the issue.

The boys receive the message and then respond in a way that today would seem quite wrong. They trap the bullies and then subject them to the same treatment they had accorded others. This is recounted in graphic detail. When discussion in the school staff room turns to the remarkable transformation in the behaviour of the bullies, the chaplain just smiles. 

As someone who was bullied and as a day boy in a predominantly boarding school, both stories had enormous resonance. Tom Brown's School Day's appealed first, but it was Stalky & Co that had the greatest impact. Indeed, it triggered actions that were part of the process that turned the worst days of my life into some of if not the happiest days of my life.

While the two books are very different, both are written from the viewpoint of the students, both deal with endemic and entrenched bullying. Endemic bullying must be addressed, but the application of general, universal approaches does not always help. Action must be people and school specific and must start local. It also helps if those being bullied have access, as I did, to material that helps us see that we are not alone.

The second area where action is required is far more difficult.

Some kids just don't fit in with particular systems and are particularly vulnerable because they are different. Some of us like youngest, turn difference into a strength. Others, I have two very specific cases in mind, have their whole life damaged.

I don't actually have a solution here beyond moving the child from the school in question because normally it's not just a question of bullying in the conventional sense. Bullying becomes an issue because certain other kids target difference, but its also the response from the kids in general. Kids, like their parents in fact, are suspicious of difference.

I seem to have come a long way from  my opening heading that ignorance is bliss. I suppose that sometimes it is better not to know if you cannot do anything about it or where the solution may in fact be worse than the original problem.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Drought eases but ...

This morning's Erik Jensen Sydney Morning Herald story, Lake George almost lives up to its name, includes a photo of the lake with the first water since 2002. The lake is a familiar sight to anybody driving between Sydney and Canberra because the road skirts its edge at one point.

Despite the rains, Jamie made a comment on my post The slowly breaking drought that is worth quoting in full:

James, I think that your map (The Bureau of Meteorology water deficiency map) gives a less than honest view of the current situation with regards to drought, especially in NSW. The position has eased but at present more than 50% of NSW is still drought declared and will probably remain so throughout the winter until winter rainfall patterns are determined. Perhaps publish a Drought Declaration map for NSW.

Over Christmas at Mt Hotham there was a fair bit of discussion on just how bad the drought had become in parts of southern and central NSW. Jamie knows the area very well.drt-area-2010-02

As requested, the map shows the drought position across NSW prior to the most recent rains. You can indeed see Jamie's point about the scale of the country still in drought.

The recent rains may have eased the position further, but the big drought is not yet over.

For the benefit of international readers, the country in the north east that is marginal to satisfactory is affected by both the northern and southern weather systems.

Further south, winter rains dominate, hence Jamie's comment that the area will probably remain in drought until winter rainfall patterns are known. Should the rains fail or even be patchy, severe drought conditions will quickly reappear.         

Monday, February 15, 2010

Death of Dick Francis



My thanks to PD_Smith via Neil on this one.

The English thriller writer Dick Francis has dies at the age of 89. The English Daily Telegraph has the story.

I will really miss him because I have been reading him for so many years and have, I think, all his novels.

After his wife died I thought that there would be no more, but there was at least one.

In some ways his books were always very stylised, but they were always a good read. As I said, I will miss him. 

The slowly breaking drought

It's been raining quite heavily and persistently in Sydney over the last few days. The recent wet spell has somewhat eroded the steep fronting lawn. The grass here died to some degree in the absence of watering, exposing the slope to erosion.

With the recent rain, I wondered just how the long drought that had afflicted the southern portion of the continent was going. Indeed, had it gone?  The following map from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology shows rainfall deficiencies across the country for the last twelve months.

Two years back, the map was covered with reds and pinks concentrated in the south.Now the rainfall deficiency areas have shrunk to a isolated patches. water deficiences 1 Feb o9 to 31 Jan 09

This doesn't mean that the long drought has ended. During the drought, soils dried, creeks dried up and dams emptied. It takes quite some time to overcome this. Most of the major water storages across inland NSW are still very low, in some cases lower than they were at this time last year.

  The Murray Darling Basin Authority report for the week ending 10 February 2010 shows some of these effects in operation.

During that week, much of the basin received more than 100 mm of rain with the exception of Western Victoria and South Australia where falls ranged from 5 to 25 mm. Despite this, hot temperatures over the preceding weeks meant that the upper Murray and its tributaries - average rainfalls there ranged from 30-60 mm - meant that there was little stream flow response. The rain was simply absorbed.

Meantime, in the Darling basin where totals were higher in the northern section, the best stream flow response was in Queensland at Charleville on the Warrego River where stream flow peaked at 43,000 M/L per day on 5 February. However, only a small proportion of this water is expected to reach the Darling River itself, with much of the water spreading out across the complex anabranches of the Warrego's flood plain to be absorbed by the ground and vegetation or lost through evaporation.

In the meantime, the big floods from the Christmas period along the Northern Darling system are slowly working their way south and have passed Bourke and Louth, with the peak reaching Wilcannia with a flow of about 28,000 ML per day.

The rain across parts of the Murray-Darling basin since then will have added further to flows, but you can see why it takes such a long time for droughts to break in this country.

The three month rainfall outlook map released by the Bureau of Meteorology on 19 January suggested probable above average rainfalls in a big sweep across the country from the far north-west to the south east, with possible below average rainfalls further north. These reports are issued monthly, with the next one due shortly.

Touch wood, the drought will continue to ease.

It is now some time since there was a really big flood in the Murray Darling system. These occur especially when country has absorbed maximum water, so that high rainfall goes straight to run-off.

The big floods can cause enormous damage to property and stock - at Gunnedah on the Namoi River, the 1955 flood peaked at 9.6m with huge damage to the town and surrounds. However, they also play a role in river health. I wonder when the next really big one will be? Are we closer than we think?            

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A frightening experience

Towards the end of last week there was one of those episodes that would worry all parents.

I have mentioned the girls'  South East Asian trip and the fun that they have been having. Well, Dee had a phone call from one of our daughters, I didn't know which one. Watching my wife's face, I thought that one of the girls must have been killed. It wasn't as bad as that, but they were in the middle of a quite frightening experience.

The group had been on a tour of Halong Bay booked through their hotel which they had expected to be a highlight of the Vietnamese trip. They weren't satisfied with the tour and complained to the hotel. Failing to get satisfaction, they decided to leave the hotel where they had booked to stay for the next two nights. This led to a confrontation during which the party was physically assaulted - the details here are still unclear - and threatened with death. Terrified, they paid for the boat trip, the two nights booked accommodation and fled.

At the time Helen rang us, they had gone to a brightly lit five star hotel to try to regroup and to decide what to do. The staff there, as we later discovered, were helpful and kind and the kids spent an hour discussing their options, apparently sitting in the business centre. They were very frightened and just wanted to get out of Vietnam.

You can imagine how we felt. While we waited for further news, Dee rang the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs hot line, while I went to check Facebook. Facebook is in fact banned in Vietnam, but with the usual ingenuity of the modern young, the group had worked out out how to access it despite the ban.   

Dee had wanted the kids to go the police, a very Australian reaction.  Foreign Affairs advice to her and apparently to one of the group who had rung about the same time was that such a complaint would require them to stay in Vietnam and hire a lawyer. In the meantime, they advise them to stay in well populated areas. I have to say that the Foreign Affairs' 24 hour hotline people were very good.  

  The group apparently spent an hour discussing their options. Some felt so threatened that that they did not want to stay in Vietnam and wanted to leave for Thailand a day and a half early.

They decided to leave for the airport. No flights were available that evening, but they just wanted to get away from Hanoi city centre. They also hoped to book a flight for tomorrow.

Catching a taxi to the airport, they found that there were no flights available. It was 10pm Vietnamese time by now, so they told themselves  that they needed to eat and find some accommodation. They ate at the airport restaurant and then pondered their finance since they were out of dong. The night got worse for them when the only accommodation they could find near to the airport was a 2-star place that they knew nothing about. They ultimately booked in, afraid to go back into Hanoi city.

During this period we largely lost contact, although we knew from one sms message that they were probably okay. As it turned out, the staff at their new hotel seemed to have been remarkably kind.

I can't comment on the original affray because I don't yet know all the details and won't find out until the girls get back. It was obviously a terrifying experience for them as well as a worry for their parents.

I am very grateful to the staff at both the five star hotel and the airport hotel for their kindness.  

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cogito Ergo Est - I think therefore it is

The repercussions of the problems experienced by Australia's national home insulation scheme continue to rumble around the nation.

Chris Uhlmann had a biting piece on the ABC's The Drum , Insulation fiasco: actions speak louder than words. I had to laugh.

In describing the Rudd Government's overall policy approach, Uhlmann turned Descartes' phrase - Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am - on its head: cogito ergo est, I think therefore it is. Ouch. Its really quite a clever description. I wish I had thought of it myself.

I noticed that today's Australian has three stories on the national home insulation scheme plus an on-line poll on whether or not Environment Minister Garrett should keep his job. At the moment with 8,362 votes lodged, the no vote at 71.85% is way ahead.

Ninemsn has a similar on-line poll: there voters are asked should Mr Garrett resign? It's closer here than the Australian, although the results are the same. With 110,590 votes to this point, 53.4% support Mr Garret's resignation.

Beyond this, the Sydney Morning Herald has two stories linked to the home insulation scheme's problem, while the ABC has one.

You will see what I mean when I say the problems with the scheme continue to rumble round the nation.

  The headline on one of the SMH stories, Jacob Saulwick's Spend, mend, and defend, rather neatly captures the Australian Goverment's present position on the big economic stimulus package.

Jacob Saulwick points to some of the issues that have arisen across NSW in the roll-out in the social housing and schools arena.

NSW will deliver on time and budget in the social housing area. However, with a tight cash average spend limit of $300,000 plus very tight deadlines, Housing NSW has adopted a centralised approach focused on investment ready or near to ready medium density developments.

The Department has tried to avoid big developments that will lead to heavy social concentrations, thus replicating past social problems with housing estates. Still, the constraints mean that significant developments have been plonked down everywhere. This has led to local protests across NSW from local residents and councils concerned about a range of impacts from lack of car parking (cash constraints limit things such as this) to conflict with visual appearance and the existing built environment.

To ensure effective delivery on time and budget, the NSW Government took planning approvals away from local government and instead delegated them to Housing NSW subject to certain constraints. This has added to local protests.

I had been wondering when this one might start breaking into public view. Because of my work and writing, I monitor some twenty local newspapers, so I have watched this one emerge over the last six months as work got underway. The cumulative effect has now reached something of a critical mass point so far as broader reporting is concerned.

Another issue that has emerged in delivery terms is shortage of trades people. In my early reporting on the stimulus package I suggested that it would have differential effects across the country. I tested this by looking at some specific areas.

Ten million dollars of development work in a major city is neither here nor there. The same amount spent in a regional area with limited trades people is a very different matter, leading to local building booms and associated trades shortages. This is one of the reasons why the roll-out of the schools' program has been delayed.

None of this should be construed as a criticism, although individual elements can be criticised. Rather, I am painting a picture to suggest why the Rudd Government suddenly finds itself entering a dog days period politically.

The early responses to the Rudd Government focused on broader picture items. If you look at the early media coverage in the Government's early days it was generally positive, supportive of Mr Rudd's stated aspirations. Very few focused on delivery issues, fewer pointed to the problems inherent in some of the Government's proposals. Then all reporting was overwhelmed by the Global Financial Crisis.

With problems now surfacing across a number of Federal Government initiatives at the one time, the media spot light has turned to delivery delays and failures.

The sheer size and ambitious nature of the Government's initial program along with its stated timing and plethora of performance objectives combined with the scale and timing of the Global Financial Crisis to concentrate delivery problems in a short space. The overwhelming media coverage has moved from generally positive reporting to a litany of problem and delivery failure stories.     

In another piece, this time in the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Glover turned a satirical eye on the Government's My School web site. The piece begins: 

Jocasta is a big fan of the new My Home website, a government initiative that allows people to measure how they compare with statistically similar households nationwide. Jocasta believes it contains all the information she needs to drive some real change.

I leave it to you to read the rest.

Satire is extremely difficult to manage in political terms. There was satire in the some of the early reporting on the Rudd Government, but it was generally sympathetic, focused especially on Mr Rudd's personal idiosyncrasies. Now responses to things such as Mr Rudd's performance on Q&A have a far harsher edge.

All this must make it very difficult for the Government to maintain focus. Its capacity to do so while also modifying and, if necessary, walking away from specific policies and programs that clearly won't work will determine its longevity.

At the time that the Rudd Government was elected and in the months immediately following, I argued that there were basic weaknesses in approach that if not addressed would bring about major problems. As examples see The Rudd Approach - Efficiency Dividends  Axe Wielding and Razor Gangs (22 November 2007), Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu (22 April 2008), Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu - Managerialism and systemic failure (29 April 2008)  Mr Rudd's problems - trouble in the school yard (28 May 2008),  Slow down Mr Rudd, for all our sakes, slow down (30 May 2008). You will see that I focused especially on management and delivery issues. 

I take no special pleasure in the feeling that I was right. My comments were simply based on experience. 

If you look at two of my recent posts -  Congratulations to PM Rudd on Q&A and  Insulation, pressure cookers and Minister Garrett - you will see that I have switched position a little. Now that the media and political focus has switched to delivery problems, I am concerned that we will get another set of problems. Forlorn hope that it is, I think that the Government needs to be given a little space in which to work through current problems.   


Interesting radio discussion while I was out on one of those home improvement shows about insulation. Now I just about as much about home insulation as I do about quantum physics. That is to say, not a great deal. So I learned a lot.

Part of the discussion and radio call-in dealt with problems that have always existed in the home insulation sector. This is one of the things about which I had no idea, the degree to which problems and failures might have been expected, some unavoidable (you cannot legislate shoddy workmanship out of existence), some avoidable.   

Friday, February 12, 2010

Insulation, pressure cookers and Minister Garrett

Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett has been facing a real political firestorm over the national insulation plan announced in early February as part of the Government's economic stimulus package. This provided for the installation of ceiling insulation in 2.7 million Australian homes at a projected cost of $A2.7 billion over three years. The insulation plan combined environmental with economic stimulus objectives.

In analysing the stimulus package I put this one in the medium term stimulus class, three plus months before it would start to have an effect. I thought that there would be administrative delays. More importantly, I simply didn't  know how long it would take existing suppliers to gear up. One installer interviewed on radio at the time commented that this would take time. 

I didn't look at this one in any detail. However, it is clear from my comment that I didn't properly understand the market impact of making up to $A1,600 cash subsidy available. My thinking was set within the frame of existing suppliers, ignoring new entrants.

The attraction of the cash subsidy was such that an entire sub-industry was created over night as people rushed to sell the service to home owners. Faced with an explosion in spend, the Government was forced to cut the maximum subsidy to $A1,200. This led to a rush of claims. In November, 235,869 properties were allegedly insulated, 75,000 more than in October.

  The rapid expansion of activity meant that roof insulation was now being provided by people with no or limited skills. Further, shortage of pink batts meant that suppliers turned to foil insulation. While this had been in use especially in Queensland for a long time, its potential electrical conductivity limited its use and  required that it be installed particular ways in circumstances where electrical wring was present.

The end result of all this were deaths from electrocution, the electrification of some ceilings and the creation of fire risks in an unknown number of houses. The issue now is when the Minister and his Department became aware of the problems and the adequacy of their responses. There has clearly been a failure in public administration of the type that I have talked about before, one that may yet cost Minister Garrett his job.

In this case, I actually have a degree of sympathy for Minister and officials. To understand why, you need to think back to what now in the light of subsequent events seems a remarkably remote past.

The initiative was announced on 3 February 2009 and seems to have been conceived quite quickly as part of the overall response to the global financial crisis.

There was a feeling among many at the time that Australia faced a potential economic Armageddon. Weeks before the announcement Access Economics, Australia's most respected economic forecaster, stated that the Australian economy was buggered, something that made me very angry at the time. So we have a an initiative conceived and rolled-out in a pressure cooker. The focus was on getting something done and done quickly at a time when administrative systems across the nation were already stretched.

Now I argued at the time that there needed to be more reflection on actions. That's fine. The reality is that the particular circumstances of Canberra at the time allowed for very little of this. Ministers and officials were under pressure to make things happen.

I haven't checked back through posts to check at what point it really became clear beyond all debate that Australia had dodged the GFC economic bullet. By then, the insulation train had well and truly left the station.

Obviously we need to understand what went wrong, how it might be corrected, what we have learned for the future. However, I feel in this case we need to cut some slack for Minister Garrett and his officials, recognising the circumstances of the time and the pressures they were under.


Listening to the radio discussion this morning, I know that I am not going to win this one. To fully support my argument I would have to take a multiplicity of issues and show how they fitted together. Ah well!