Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Light Horseman's Daughter

I sometime cannot resist those pop quizzes designed to test popular opinion. The two most recent ones I completed showed me (again!) as left of centre on one side, as a weak libertarian on a second. I can always tell where I am going to end up on these tests from the first questions.

I mention this for two reasons.

The first is that I have been trying to get my mind around the changing meaning of the labels right and left, the way this has varied over time and between countries.

When I look at the Obama administration, for example, I struggle to see how this can be described as left wing, let alone socialist. To my mind, Mr Obama is actually a conservative. When I look at the Tea Party Movement, I see a group that is best described as populist radical rather than right wing. These are an outsider's view, of course. I actually find it quite hard to get my mind around some streams of thought in the US.

The second reason is that having read about David Crooke's The Light Horseman's Daughter in John Ryan's Tales From New England, I then found the Google books preview. I still have to buy the book, of course, but the preview is sufficiently detailed in terns of chapters to give a feel.

The Light Horseman's Daughter is a romantic novel that sprawls across Southern Queensland, New England and down into Sydney during the years of the Great Depression. A review in the South Australian Police Association Journal described the plot in this way: 

The year is 1931. Australia is in the throes of the Great Depression. The McKenna family is being evicted from a property in drought-stricken Queensland, which the family has owned for three generations. The father, who has loyally served his country in Palestine during the First World War, resists eviction and is shot dead.

With a crippled mother and 12-year-old twin brothers to care for, young Emma is forced to work as a seamstress. A rich Sydney lawyer, Stephen Fairchild, falls passionately in love with her, but their very different social situations and Stephen’s foolish involvement with the paramilitary New Guard oblige him to enter a loveless marriage, abandoning Emma at her moment of greatest need. But Emma is not easily defeated.

The Light Horseman’s Daughter offers a panoramic view of Australia in the 1930s - the big landowners of the outback, the corrupt bankers who supported them, the wealthy elite of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the battlers of Redfern and the bush, and the idealists who joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Within this broad plot, David Crooke manages to fit in a variety of subplots: the twelve year old brothers are forced into a Roman Catholic orphanage outside Towoomba that seems to combine most of the worst features of farm homes and orphanages; a place for Emma's mother is found at a home in Armidale, where Emma becomes a seamstress making clothes for students at the local boarding schools; the paramilitary New Guard is combined with the New England New State Movement, the Country Party and right wing Sydney politics; while the treatment of the Aborigines features early, with Emma's mother turning out to be part Aboriginal.

The world that Crooke describes is, in fact, the world I so often write about, if from the other side of the fence. I say the other side of the fence because I come from the political stream - New England populism - that actually features as part of the baddies. Some of his baddies are my goodies!

So what do I think of the book so far? Well, it strikes me as a pretty good yarn. Certainly the bits I have read make we want to buy and read the whole book.

I was unable to find out any details of David's life from a web search. However, some of his knowledge of detail is pretty good. For example, the boarding house in Armidale where Emma stays takes Teacher's College students. This may sound a trivial thing, but it actually says a lot, because such boarding houses were carefully vetted.

Where the plot fails in historical terms, however, is in the nexus established between the New England political movements and the paramilitary New Guard. The Northern New England political leadership - I say Northern New England because the position in the Lower Hunter with its coal mining and industrial interests was different - was far too involved with constitutional forms to find the Sydney based sometimes quasi Fascist New Guard attractive.

For the benefit of international readers who lack background, at its peak the New Guard was reputed to have 50,000 members mainly in Sydney and possessed considerable military muscle.

The sheer flashiness of the New Guard means that it has attracted considerable attention. However, it was only part of a complicated political mosaic that included, among others, the more shadowy Old Guard. I say shadowy, because the more conservative Old Guard is only partially known.  

There are elements here that we will never know because so much was based on contact between people without formal record keeping.

What we can say, I think, is that there was one absolutely critical meeting of the New England leadership that, in retrospect, changed Australian history.

The question at issue was whether or not New England should formally secede from NSW.

While this issue has been treated by later historians almost as a side-show, political posturing, it was in fact very serious. The parliamentarians involved covered the majority of New England by area. The majority of newspapers were on-side, as were the town and rural elites over much of the area. Secession would have been a mass movement that would then have triggered other and potentially unknown actions by, among others, the New Guard.  

The majority view going into the meeting was clearly yes. David Drummond, Member for Armidale in the State Parliament, a senior Movement leader and former Minister, argued no: if we start this course, no man can see the outcome. His arguments carried the day. A compromise path was agreed upon.

In recording details of the meeting late in his life, Drummond clearly regarded his approach at this meeting as one of the important events in his life. It is clear that this was no political sideshow in his mind.

Whether you think that Drummond was right or wrong is a matter of perspective. Looking back at what we now know, it could well have triggered civil war. However, the resulting comprises would probably have given New England self-government.

When I look at David Crooke's book, what stands out to me is not the issue as to whether his interpretation of events was right or wrong. Wrong interpretations can be corrected. What, to my mind, is important is that his writing actually gives emotional content and context to events that might otherwise drop altogether from popular perceptions of Australia's past.          

New England populism

For those interested in finding out more about my perspective on New England populism see:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ryan, Niland, Keneally and the New England story

Sometimes there is just so much material around that I don't know where to begin.

I have been working my way through and cross-reading three books at the same time - High Lean Country, Tales from New England and A spirit of true learning. All three are recent or relatively recent publications, all three deal with aspects of New England. Two of the three are linked to the Heritage Futures Research Centre at the University of New England, a multidisciplinary group that I am now affiliated with.

  I will write more on this on the New England blogs. For the moment, I want to point to just a few features, following up on an earlier post here, Literature, locale and license.

The first is the question of identity. New England has an identity, but what is it? You see, there are multiple New Englands whose meaning and boundaries have changed. This leads to confusion unless terms are clearly specified.

The second is the way that identity is re-shaped, re-formed by presentation or the lack of it. Let me illustrate by example.

D'Arcy Niland is a well known Australian writer.  His book The Shiralee (1955), the story of a swagman or itinerant worker and his 4-year-old daughter, was made into a successful 1957 movie staring Peter Finch and then in 1987 into a very popular TV mini-series. All this is part of Australian cultural history and indeed the continued shaping of Australians' own sense of self-identity.

I saw the first movie and indeed the mini-series. However, at no stage did I connect either with New England, yet the book is a New England story. Does this matter? Well, no and yes.

At national level, perhaps not. At New England level, certainly, for D'Arcy Niland is part of New England's cultural and social history.

According to Bruce Moore's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry (link above), D'Arcy Niland was born on 20 October 1917 at Glen Innes, eldest of six children of native-born parents Francis Augustus Niland, a cooper who became a woolclasser, and his wife Barbara Lucy, née Egan. The family was of Irish-Catholic ancestry, a background which was to feed into much of Niland's writing. He was named after the boxer Les Darcy, but later spelt his Christian name 'D'Arcy'.

Now already in terms of New England social history we can place Niland in a particular social context, but there is more.

Niland was educated at the convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Glen Innes.

What the ADB entry does not say is that the Sisters of St Joseph, the order found by Mary McKillop, played a major role in the development of the Roman Catholic education system within New England. Many years later, the Sisters were to be one of my consulting clients, something that was invaluable in giving me a feel for the order, the emotional content and texture if you like. This has been very helpful in my writing in a general sense, for I come from a Protestant background.

The ADB entry also fails to mention that it was the Sisters, one in particular, who encouraged Niland's interest in writing. Again, this is important in the context of New England's social and cultural history.

I am not criticising Bruce Moore's ADB entry, by the way, in saying all this. By their nature, these entries are always summaries.        

The ADB entry notes that Niland left school at the age of 14, hoping to become a writer. For two years he accompanied his father around the local shearing sheds and had first-hand experience of the effects of the Depression in rural areas. At 16 he gained the position of copy-boy at the Sydney Sun newspaper, a potential stepping-stone to a career as a journalist, but he was retrenched after a year. He returned to the country, taking up whatever work was available. By the late 1930s he was back in Sydney, earning his living as a railway porter. He was rejected for military service in World War II because of a cardiac condition. Under the orders of the Directorate of Manpower, he worked in the shearing sheds of north-west New South Wales.

This potted history is quite important for The Shiralee. In 1952, Niland was awarded £600 by the Commonwealth Literary Fund to write a novel. He again took to the road for research, leading to The Shiralee. Yet, and as I think John Ryan has proved quite conclusively, the picture of life in the novel is not in fact a picture of rural life in New England in the early 1950s, but an amalgam of far earlier experiences. 

Before going on, in 1942 Niland married married Ruth Park, a 23-year-old journalist from New Zealand. As I remember it, they had originally started corresponding while Niland was a student at St Joseph's. The couple decided to pursue professional writing careers with considerable success.

Kilmeny (and here), one of their twin daughters, also became a successful writer and illustrator. Kilmeny married Rafe Champion, among other things now a well known Australian blogger, in 1979. Later, Rafe would collaborate with Ruth Park using D'Arcy Niland's earlier extensive research to produce a biography of Les Darcy, Home Before Dark (Melbourne, 1995).      

I seem to have side-tracked a little.

D'Arcy Niland is clearly an important relevant to any history of New England. But is the New England experience relevant to broader Australian history? I would argue yes.

My failure to connect The Shiralee to my own experience and area is in part a reflection of the fact that I had not read the book. However, it also reflects that fact that there was nothing in my environment to tell me that it was relevant. This is what I mean when I say that identity is re-shaped, re-formed by presentation or the lack of it.

The Shiralee case is not an isolated example.

When I saw the 1977 Australian movie the Picture Show Man I thought that some of the scenes looked familiar. I had no idea until yesterday that the film was filmed in New England, nor that the story was based in part on the story of a Tamworth family.

Or take the case of the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. This film is part set in and part filmed in New England. It is, in fact, based on one of no less than three books by Australian writer Thomas Keneally set at least in part in New England and influenced by his time at the University of New England (1968-70) as well as the experiences of cousins there. Internationally, Keneally is best known for the book and film Schindler's List, but the New England experience and focus is still interesting.

Again, I had no idea of the depth of the Keneally connection.

The books that I am reading are important, I think, because their regional focus documents and presents the regional story, but in a frame that provides broader national context. They tell a story that is relevant to me as a New Englander, but also a story that is relevant to me as an Australian or, sometimes, a Kiwi!

They also provide a spur to my writing, for I am not alone, but part of a writing tradition.                 

Monday, March 29, 2010

Meaning of Australian English - such is life

I am still feeling bored with being serious! My last post, Meaning of Australian English - around the traps, garnered a comment from cousin Jamie that I have brought up in the main post simply because I liked it. I had forgotten what those rabbit traps were like!

Given my mood, I decided to continue with the meaning of Australian English.

One of the phrases I sometimes use is "such is life", usually accompanied by a shrug. For example, say that you have just lost a job or something else unexpected happens and you are telling friends: downplaying the whole thing, you say "such is life" and then shrug.

In an Australian context, the phrase was reportedly used by bush ranger Ned Kelly as he was about to be hung. Then Tom Collin (Joseph Furphy) used Such is Life for an 1897 book. Wikipedia  comments:

The book is full of mordant irony from start to finish, not least from the contrast between the narration and the action—the narrator at times employing extremely high blown language (and displaying Furphy's almost freakish degree of book-learning) in humorous contrast to the extremely low characters and mundane events he is describing.

I had thought that the phrase was uniquely Australian. Apparently, not so.

The Phrase Finder defines the phrase as meaning an acceptance of the unpredictable fortunes of existence, often spoken with an air of weary resignation. It also says:

The early uses of this phrase date from the mid 18th century. For example, Joseph Baretti's A Grammar of the Italian Language, 1762, translates "Cosi va'l mondo!" as "Such is life" and continues:

"Such is life, that whatever is proposed, it is much easier to find reasons for rejecting than embracing."

'Such is life', of course, mirrors the French 'C'est la vie', which equates to the English 'that's life', or 'life's like that'. Modern variants are 'that's the way it goes', 'that's the way the ball bounces', 'that's the way the cookie crumbles' etc.

Whether uniquely Australian or not, the phrase does capture the Australian sense of irony and sometimes understatement, as well as the desire to avoid emotion on an issue.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Meaning of Australian English - around the traps

I have my normal Sunday Essay largely completed, but I'm not really happy with it yet. In the meantime, Neil's Around the blogging traps… with its link through to a Wikipedia page on dated Australian English vocab caught my attention.

I actually use a fair number of Australianisms from various stages in my life because I find them so wonderfully evocative. One of them is around the traps. The Wikipedia article suggests that it means around one's usual haunts. That's actually not quite right.

I haven't checked the origins of the phrase, but I suspect that it may originally have come to Australian English from North America where trapping was so important. In Australia as in North America, trappers would set out traps around the bush to catch game. This became very important in Australia as the imported rabbit became a plague. During the Great Depression, rabbit and rabbit trapping was a major source of food and income for the unemployed. 

The phrase entered the Australian language to mean going out to your traps to see what you can find. This is not quite the same as usual haunts, because the phrase carries the connotation of going out to capture. It was and still is a country phase that then entered the political lexicon, especially in Labor and Country Parties.  

The phrase "around the traps" is generally associated with words like "heard" or "word": the word around traps is, heard around the traps, they tell me round the traps. Around the blogging traps implies that I or Neil have been out to see what we can capture: these are the results.

See why I like the phrase? It carries so much meaning.    


A comment from cousin Jamie that I thought I should bring up into the main post:

As a young man who augmented his pocket money by trapping rabbits, I associate with this phrase. I certainly went out to check my traps to see what I had caught.

As an eight or nine year old, I think I caught my aged aunt Helen off guard when I asked her to put her foot on a specific spot so as to release my finger which I had inadvertently caught in my own trap!

I digress.

When I checked my traps, they were always in my "usual haunts" and if I returned to Glenroy today, I could show go straight to the warrens of my childhood. Hopefully they are still not there!

As a side, I sold my rabbits each Saturday Morning to a Rabbito who lived in a two story freestanding terrace in Uralla, which, when my father was born in 1911, moonlighted as a Hospital. Each year as we pass it, I point it out to his Grand Daughters whom he predeceased by some 15 years.



So we do have usual haunts. However, it is still the action of going out to check that is central to the phrase or, alternatively, of receiving information while out there.

As townies, brother David and I did not go trapping. But I still remember the rusty rabbit traps hanging in bundles at places we visited. They were pretty lethal. I suspect that Jamie's caught finger really hurt.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - floods, NBN and Collective Wisdom

A follow up this morning on two issues.

The Big Floods

The big floods from Queensland continue to move south. From the formal start of the Darling River, the junction of the Culgoa and Barwon Rivers, it is 2,300 kilometres to the Murray mouth, with the land falling by a little more than 100 metres. That's flat, so the water spreads out and backs up; it will take three months for this water to reach the Murray mouth.

As with life today, the pattern of life in Aboriginal times adjusted itself to the cycle of flood and drought. The size of the pre-European inland Aboriginal population was strongly linked to the carrying capacity of country during dry periods. As the country dried out, people (and animals too) concentrated around rivers and other permanent water sources. Along the Murray, a very densely populated area, analysis of skeletal remains shows evidence of periodic malnutrition during hard times.

As the country bloomed after the periodic floods, Aboriginal groups spread out to take advantage of the new riches. This was a time of travel and plenty.rain_national_lr

While the Darling may be flooding, the outlook for the bigger Murray is not so good.

The latest three month rainfall projections from the Bureau of Meteorology suggest that while the big wet might continue in New England and southern Queensland, chances of rainfall exceeding the median are 50% or less across much (not all) of the Murray catchment.

National Broadband Network

My post Broadband, Telstra and the future of Australia's telecoms drew an interesting comment from Kangaroo Valley David. It's a good comment that made me laugh, so I thought that I might repeat it here in full.

You quote the following points about the NBN:
It will provide “90 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband services with speeds up to 100 megabits per second”
It will provide “all other premises in Australia with next generation wireless and satellite technologies that will deliver broadband speeds of 12 megabits per second”
It will Cost “$43 billion over eight years”
- in a blog post of 9470 characters (including spaces) which took me a few minutes to read, and a bit more to absorb.
So, I am thinking that this new whizbang technology will enable me to access:
a) your post in x/1000ths of a second, but still take me 2-3 minutes to absorb;
b) an entire “I Love Lucy” episode in less than a minute which will take me 20 minutes to watch;
c) the entire contents on the National Library of Australia in a day or so which will then take me 20 years to read.
This is probably all good, except that in eight years’ time the standard comm. speed will be 100 gigabits, and the cost will have trebled, and “I Love Lucy” will still be the benchmark for entertainment, BUT I will still need 20 minutes to watch her.
Please let me know when fibre optic can deliver any one of:
bread, or water, or vegetables, or medicine – in my hand, ready to ‘consume’.
While the delivery and regulatory process might be fascinating, I just think that it is important not to lose sight of the proposed end result:
an already out of date means of delivering almost useless information to 98% of households in Australia for the present cost of a Cray computer in every hospital, university and school in Oz.
imho and I hope you have a lovely weekend.

In writing, I was actually fairly careful not to get too much into the question as to whether or not the proposal represents value for money. I actually don't know at this point.

David's point about the length of time taken to absorb information or entertainment once accessed is an important one because it sets a final constraint on value. In broad terms, the net benefits from the NBN will be determined by:

  • Savings in download and upload time, time that is then available for other things.
  • Capacity to do new things presently prevented or made difficult by transmission speeds or in some cases capacity constraints.
  • The cost of the service, not just to customers but also including any direct or indirect subsidies.
  • Any side-effects, including exclusion of alternative better/cheaper approaches.

KVD is right to raise concerns in these areas. However, we also shouldn't play down the potential benefits.

The Collective Wisdom example

Some years ago I was involved in what we called the Collective Wisdom Project. This was an attempt to create an electronic network to link all of Armidale's schools, colleges and universities. The rationale was that this would facilitate cooperative work and resource sharing within the network and beyond.

To show the value, in early 1996 we mounted a major display in the Armidale Town Hall in which a large number of kids from a number of Armidale schools including primary schools prepared web pages from material provided from outside. Other locations were meant to be able to watch the demonstration in real time. This was actually a pretty big deal for the period and only possible because one school, The Armidale School, already had highly developed computing and communications facilities that it was prepared to make available. This included provision of training in web creation to primary school students from Drummond Memorial Public School.

The project did not get very far at that point. The reasons were partly technical, partly institutional. As an example, during the demonstration itself, the outside lines failed at one point. We really were pushing the limits of the then technology.

I remain convinced that this type of educational cooperation offers very significant benefits, especially where distance is involved. Staying with the Armidale case, it could allow a small school hundreds (or, for that matter, thousands) of kilometres away to network with Armidale schools and colleges and to access Armidale resources. Interactive student information sessions from the University of New England could be beamed in to participating schools.

Many of these things have been tried. I attended a trial in 1995 where UNE students at several locations participated on an interactive lecture delivered from Armidale. Many are now in place. Yet problems of cost and bandwidth continue to limit potential in general and especially in specific cases.

If you look at this history, you can see why I was in fact so excited when West Armidale including UNE was selected as one of the initial NBN company test sites. Now, fourteen years after the Collective Wisdom demonstration, we may finally get the infrastructure needed to support the original dream.         

Friday, March 26, 2010

Broadband, Telstra and the future of Australia's telecoms

I haven't really commented to this point on the Australian Government's roll-out of the proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) intended to provide enhanced broadband access to the majority of Australian homes. However, I had an interesting query from a friend in the US.

There was dinner at which Telstra was to be one of four companies receiving an award for their diversity program. Apparently the MC announced that much as the Telstra CEO wished to be there, extraordinary circumstances prevented his attendance, the government was not allowing him or the Chairman to leave the country. This caused some astonishment, and my friend asked me what sort of totalitarian regime governed Australia

I am sure that this is a case of lost in translation. As I explained in my reply, Telstra and the Government are locked in tight negotiations just at present over details, among other things, of the relationship between the NBN and Telstra. Minister Conroy has been under a lot of pressure over delivery, the legislation providing for structural separation of Telstra's wholesale and retail arms is still locked up in the Senate, while there  are continuing doubts about the commercial viability of the NBN. It's all a bit of a pressure cooker, so I can imagine the Minister not reacting well to any suggestion that either of the key Telstra negotiators should leave the country to attend an award dinner.

The major reason I haven't commented to this point on the NBN lies in the sheer size and complexity of the project. I am simply not close enough to the details to offer really informed comment. However, at the risk of making errors, I thought that I should provide a few comments.

The original concept of a national high speed fibre to the node network was a Rudd Government election commitment.

On 7 December 2007, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator the Hon Stephen Conroy, announced that the Commonwealth Government was committed to building a national high-speed broadband fibre-to-the-node network, and that it would run an open and transparent process to determine who would build the network. A Request for Proposals was issued. However, none of the proposals met the Government's needs. You can find an excerpt from the evaluation report here.

The Australian Government then announced on 7 April 2009 it would establish a new company to invest up to $43 billion over eight years delivering superfast broadband to Australian homes and workplaces. The Ministerial press release stated:

This new super fast National Broadband Network, built in partnership with private sector, will be the single largest nation building infrastructure project in Australian history.

This new National Broadband Network will:

  • Connect 90 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband services with speeds up to 100 megabits per second100 times faster than those currently used by many households and businesses
  • Connect all other premises in Australia with next generation wireless and satellite technologies that will deliver broadband speeds of 12 megabits per second
  • Directly support up to 25,000 local jobs every year, on average, over the 8 year life of the project.

Under the Rudd Government's new national broadband network every house, school and business in Australia will get access to affordable fast broadband.

The Minister's release also stated that the proposal was also the biggest reform in telecommunications in two decades because it delivered separation between the infrastructure provider and retail service providers.

This page on the Department's web site provides further details, along with links to related material. The NBN company web site can be found here.

The complexity of the task the Government is undertaking is quite mind-boggling. We can summarise some of the key challenges in this way.

To begin with, it involves the establishment of a company that will ultimately have gross assets around $A43 billion. To put this in perspective, in 2009 Telstra (Australia's largest telco and a Fortune 500 company) had total book value assets of just under $A40 billion. So NBN will end up as a very large infrastructure company indeed.

The company will be majority Government owned initially, although this share will then be sold down. So there is a big task in defining funding and shareholder arrangements, including exit provisions.

Initial roll-out has begun:

  • NBN Tasmania Limited was formed to build and operate the NBN in Tasmania—construction of the rollout has commenced, while the first 10 Tasmanian communities to receive superfast broadband were announced. Most recently, iiNet, Internode and Primus were unveiled as the TNBN Co’s first wholesale customers at an event in Mornington, Tasmania where Communications Minister Stephen Conroy opened a proof-of-concept test centre. The test centre will provide retail service providers with a live environment to test their services as part of the roll out of the NBN in Tasmania.
  • Nextgen Networks was engaged to rollout almost 6000 km of new fibre optic backbone links as part of the Government’s $250m investment in the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program to connect over 100 regional locations along the routes to the six priority areas of Geraldton, Darwin, Emerald and Longreach, Broken Hill, Victor Harbor and South West Gippsland.
  • NBN has just announced five first release test sites intended to test and document design and construction in a range of situations. One of those sites includes part of West Armidale, with 2,900 premises, including the University of New England.

The selection of West Armidale as a test site is obviously pleasing from my viewpoint given my continuing linkages with town and university, as well as my involvement in previous attempts to gain improved telecoms for the city.

The technical and commercial risks associated with company formation and associated network roll-out can be summarised this way:

  • what services will NBN offer, and will they be sufficient to ensure financial viability? The primary intent is to offer wholesale carriage services, although in the context of the stand-off between Telstra and the Government, Minister Conroy indicated at one point that NBN might be allowed to provide certain retail services.
  • what will be the relationship between NBN and existing carriers as funders (including possible transfer of assets) and NBN customers? This includes especially the complex relationship with Telstra; I will discuss this separately.
  • how will NBN in its planning and operations balance the need to maximise its own service revenues to ensure financial viability and the Government's requirements for it to meet national delivery objectives, including especially services to rural areas? What does this mean for existing community service obligations?
  • can the new company acquire the financial, technical and engineering expertise required to manage such a big project in the time scales involved?
  • how will the network be constructed to ensure interoperability with existing and future networks and services taking technological and market change into account?

The relationships with Telstra are especially complicated because Telstra controls the existing customer access network. While this is heavily copper and is also facing problems as fixed line usage declines, it remains important. Simply, Telstra controls the pipes.

Key issues in the Telstra relationship can be summarised in this way:

  • The previous Government started selling its shares in Telstra on an as-is basis. With more than a million Telstra shareholders who have already suffered loss in value, actions that reduce the value of Telstra raise political and equity issues.
  • The Government's desire to enforce structural separation of Telstra's retail and wholesale arms is both a competition issue and one central to the proposed operations of the NBN. How do you stop Telstra obtaining monopoly returns, thus reducing NBN's viability? Alternatively, what happens if Telstra decides that the returns are insufficient and starts reducing its support for activities on which the NBN depends?
  • If NBN is to absorb Telstra assets, what price should be attached to those assets?

A special problem, I think, lies in transition and flow on effects that may not be clear at the time.

Recently Minister Conroy announced that as from 1 July all new housing developments must incorporate fibre. As a consequence, Telstra announced termination of its current arrangements with developers regarding installation of copper. This caused considerable distress to developers.

The problem is that network economics means that Telstra has had an incentive to provide network services to new dwellings. That incentive no longer exists. In the absence of alternative arrangements, customers will now need to pay the full costs of service connection, and fibre is more expensive. This will affect house prices and housing supply. 

I have no idea how all this will work out, but you can see the complexity.

My best guess, and it is a guess, is that so long as the price is right, Telstra may actually exit the traditional infrastructure business, leaving NBN not just with fibre but also copper cable.

In all this, you can see why I find the whole thing so fascinating. We are dealing with what is, I think, the biggest commercial game play in Australia's history! 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Subsidiarity, the banks and Australian public policy

Ken Farrell had a rather interesting post on Club Troppo, Deconstructing Rudd’s health plan. There he used the word subsidiarity, a word that I have not seen used for many years in Australian context. So, at the risk of being a bit dry, I thought I would comment.

The word itself is simple enough.The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. As such, subsidiarity is an organising principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

This may sound simple enough. The difficulty is that the principle conflicts with the desire for central control. This problem has become more acute with the rise of modern communications and communications technologies since these both facilitate control and hold out the possibility of cost savings through centralised service delivery and the achievement of economies of scale.

We can see the tensions that can arise here by looking at the history of the Australian banking sector over the last thirty years.

During the 1980s and 1990s, all the major Australian financial institutions restructured. Service delivery was centralised, the power of managers was reduced, while branches were closed. The new financial institutions that emerged including the regional banks were acquired and then merged, losing their identity in the desire to capture economies and cost savings.

The problem is that the new strategic approach did not, in fact, work very well, although the effects were concealed for a time.

In the case of big NSW insurer GIO, for example, the previous corporate strategy that had focused on localisation, the sale of product through local branches that featured their local identity, was replaced by a centralised approach centred on cost efficiency. In many areas, the previously dominant GIO market position simply collapsed.

As a second example, in 1990 the ANZ Bank acquired the National Royal Mutual Bank.

The Royal had made a feature of its smallness and its difference from the big banks and had acquired a loyal customer base. I remember standing in a Canberra branch of the Royal listening to the local manager explaining to an older and very distressed customer that she could not help him because the ANZ Bank rules meant that she no longer had the delegation to do so. In the end she broke the rules by authorising the payment, telling the customer that she could not do so again.

By the early 2000s all the major banks were heavily on the nose. Survey after survey was commissioned to measure this, to find out why. A raft of new financial institutions emerged to fill the market gap left by the major banks. St George and Bendigo in particular grew by pointing to the fact that they were different.

Now track forward to today. The major banks are attempting to rebuild their branch networks. We are appointing 650 new branch managers, trumpets Westpac, just to look after you, the customer. The global financial crisis opened acquisition opportunities for the major banks. However, this time the newly acquired operations are (at least for the present) retaining their identity. Bank West (Commonwealth Bank) and St George (Westpac) still emphasise their customer responsiveness compared to the majors.

Whether this attempt to combine the virtues of subsidiarity with the gains from the continued centralisation of certain functions will work is still open to question, but it does at least make strategic sense. That cannot be said for the current Rudd Government approach to public policy.

An information point before proceeding further. The Council of Australian Governments is the formal structure governing cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth and states. Its web site provides copies of various Commonwealth-State agreements. Some of these are mind-glazingly dull, yet they are important because they set out the policy and public administrative structures that determine service delivery for all Australians. Sadly, the implementation plans attached to some of those agreements are not included. Were they included, then policy failures would become more apparent and more quickly.

If you look at those agreements as a whole, they contain certain common features:

  • there is an emphasis on a consistent national approach.
  • they contain a range of indicators against which performance is to be measured. These are both national and state based.
  • many agreements and especially the National Partnership Agreements contain a requirement for detailed implementation plans that the Commonwealth must approve.
  • They include detailed reporting procedures.

I am sure that this sounds very reasonable. However, there are a few problems:

  • the approach is quite dictatorial. You will agree or else. Sadly, and this goes to the heart of Ken Farrell's material on the realities of Commonwealth-State financial arrangements, the states are so keen to get money that they feel that they cannot say no even when they should.
  • the use of national and state based indicators ignores the real variety across Australia. Further, the indicators are complicated, sometimes contradictory, sometimes ignore underlying factors.
  • the approach breaches the fundamental principle of delegation, that authority and responsibility must be linked. The states are responsible for delivery, but are so constrained that they actually have very little authority. Without going into details, this gets to the point that Federal public servants actually have the final say on what house will be built in which town.  
  • the administrative overhead is high and rising. Just to take a hypothetical example. Say you want to build or buy a few hundred houses. For every person you need to handle the actual work, you need another person to handle the reporting requirements!

Many years ago when doing my Masters at ANU, we had two full units on public administration. One of these dealt at length with the theory and practice of Federalism. As part of this, we looked at the principle of subsidiarity. I was fascinated because this gave me a new analytical structure. I do wonder how far we have come since,

In the case of the banks, customer reaction provided a discipline that forced change. Our problem is that there is no equivalent discipline in the case of the public sector.             

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Internet censorship and freedom of the press

The Australian Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Senator Stephen Conroy has released "public submissions on improved transparency and accountability measures in relation to the Government’s ISP-level filtering policy". You can find the Minister's statement here. This includes a link through to the submissions.

Such apparently innocent words, "the Government's ISP-level filtering policy", yet they practically mean censorship. I haven't read the submissions themselves. However, according to the Sydney Morning Herald Google said in its submission, among other things, that the model advocated by the government would enable future governments to use it for political censorship.

I can see Google's point. The company could hardly argue otherwise, given its current dispute with the Chinese Government on just this issue. Part of the problem is that once a mechanism is established, Governments of all persuasions will be inclined to use it in ways that we cannot foresee.

There was, by the way, a rather nice obituary in the Tenterfield Star for journalist Lisa Finnerty. Tenterfield is a small town in New England just before the Queensland border.

The paper's editor was on the local council. Unable to take notes in meetings for the paper because of the need to participate in debates, he asked the newly appointed Lisa to report meetings from the press desk in the council chambers. I quote:

On more than one occasion I found myself vehemently speaking my mind, only to hear someone feverishly taking notes of every word I had said.

Mentally I made a note of “me and my big mouth” and “I must remember to speak with Lisa later”.

No Way! “That is what you said - I wrote it down at the time to make sure you were reported accurately - no other councillor has the luxury of vetting my reports before they are published.” She stuck to her guns - and I had to admit she was right. She reported without fear or favour - even willing to put her job on the line.

We ended up making a working agreement that as editor I could check all her stories, but the articles from the council meeting went to press untouched.

It's a nice story because it so clearly illustrates the importance of journalistic ethics. The more Governments can control, the more important a free press becomes in guarding our liberties. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rudd vs Abbott on health care - a non debate?

I only watched the second half of the just finished debate between the PM and opposition leader. At the end of the section I watched, the only new thing that I learned was that the Government would combine case mix funding with some system of block grants for smaller rural hospitals. That's important.

From the portion I watched, I felt the PM had the better of the debate. But I do wish that there had been more substance on both sides. Am I wrong? What did you think? 

Literature, locale and license

Back from Armidale Sunday. It was too difficult to post while I was away. Then yesterday a fair bit of wheel spinning and catching up.

I really enjoyed the trip. However, as is so often the case with research, I ended up with more questions than answers!

One difficulty of trying to write a general history of an area, in my case the broader New England, lies in the decision as to what to include, exclude. Here I complicated my life by spending some time with John Ryan.

John came to the English Department at the University of New England in 1959, and is still teaching on a part time basis. That's a very long time. It's a bit frightening to think that I have known John since 1963.

Actively involved in university extension, John has also written extensively on things Northern. Here he defines just one of his interests as New England Heritage matters, especially the writings, customs, legends and other  folk materials relating to the Northern third of New South Wales.

There were two main areas in my discussion with John that drew out my own lack of knowledge.

The first was the role of the University extension offices. These were established in Lismore, Grafton, Port Macquarie and Tamworth, providing University outreach at a time when far fewer options were available. Of course I knew the story in a general sense, but I had not realised some of the local impacts.

I knew of the role that the central campus had played in Aboriginal studies, for example, but did not know of the role played at local level by people such as the Lismore based R M (Max) Praed. In early 1974, for example, the Lismore and Grafton offices combined with Federal funding to run a four day workshop     

in human relations and community organization ... open to Aboriginal people who wish to improve their leadership skills and develop an understanding of the changes taking place in Aboriginal society.

Unlike previous workshops where most participants had been men and women involved in voluntary organizations or in full-time positions in government and private agencies concerned with Aboriginal Affairs, this one made specific provision for inclusion of Aboriginal young people.

Of itself, not such a big deal perhaps. However, if you look at the planning committee you get a feel for the spread of interests:  

  • Ted Fields, Aboriginal Field Officer, Credit
    Union League.
  • Ray Kelly, Aboriginal Research Officer, National
    Parks and Wildlife Service.
  • Bob Walford, Field Officer, Aboriginal Tutorial
    Scheme, Armidale and President Armidale
    Aboriginal Association.
  • Terry Widders, Secretary, Commission on
    Aboriginal Development, Australian Council of
  • Lilla Watson, University Student, Brisbane.
  • Frank Wigham (Workshop Director), Department
    of University Extension, University of New
    England, Grafton.
  • Dr Ned Iceton, U.N.E. Department of University
    Extension, Armidale.
  • Max Praed, U.N.E. Department of University
    Extension, Armidale.

There are two major sub-texts here: one is Aboriginal advancement, the second a broader one linked to the introduction of University education to people who had had no previous direct contact with tertiary education.

The second area where discussions with John revealed my own lack of knowledge lay in the field of writing itself. I have often commented on the number of writers with New England connections, but did not realise that I had barely scratched the surface. John pointed me towards North Coast writers and literary traditions that I was simply unaware of.

A little later I acquired a copy of His Tales From New England (2008), a series of essays on various writers with New England and especially Tablelands connections. Some I knew, some I did not. Even for those I did know, I learned new things. There is almost an embarrassment of riches.

In 1974, the publication of Death of An Old Goat in the British Collins Crime Club format launched Robert Barnard's international crime writing career. The plot deals with the attempts by a young English lecturer Bob Bascomb to assist police in solving the apparently motiveless murder of a recently arrived visitor to the Department of English at the University of Drummondale.

Drummondale is, of course, Armidale, while Bascombe is based in part on Barnard himself. Barnard arrived in Armidale early in 1961 as an English lecturer, leaving at the end of 1965 to take a post at the University of Bergen in Norway. While in Armidale, he married local girl Mary Tabor, a graduate librarian with a degree in French and English.

The book is a sometimes very funny, satirical and a somewhat cruel picture of life in Armidale and at the university in the 1960s. It is especially funny in places to those who know Armidale because of the tendency to play spot the person.

Clearly Barnard's book provides one picture of life, but it was only a partial picture and needs to be balanced with other accounts. This was, for example, the period of university out reach that I described earlier. 

I have at least read Death of an Old Goat. However, the same cannot be said for all the others discussed by John Ryan. He discusses ten writers in all, in some cases with multiple books with New England connections. In some cases I have not read the books at all, in other cases not for a long while.

As you might expect, there are links and cross-links. I will explore these properly later on my New England blogs. What I would like to show is how literature, locale and sometimes license interact with history; it is a story of writers, but also of relations between writers and their environment.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Snippets on Australian education

As the water from the first Queensland floods passes down the Murray, now the water from the big Queensland floods has begun to enter NSW on its long journey to the Darling. Even for an Australian, there is something magical about this slow but majestic progress.

There have been a number of developments in the education arena that are worth noting.

The release of the draft national curricula on English, History, Maths and Science has been followed by release of a report from a group of Australian universities:

A groundbreaking review of the mathematics and statistics disciplines at school and university by the Go8 found "the state of the mathematical sciences and related quantitative disciplines in Australia has deteriorated to a dangerous level, and continues to deteriorate."

The universities suggest that new and expensive enabling courses at university level may be required to bridge the gap. A later story suggests that only 25 universities will offer a major in maths this year and just 15 will offer a major in statistics, according to a survey of university maths departments. I am not competent to make a judgement here, but on the surface it suggests that one key judgment about the new maths curricula is the extent to which it will encourage maths education.

While NSW Chief Scientist Mary O'Kane, herself a distinguished academic educator, argues that universities can bridge the gap through innovative courses and that NSW itself scores well on national numeracy tests. Now it may be as Mary suggests that:

NSW has a rigorous mathematics curriculum. For 15 years it has embedded numeracy in all key learning areas. Numeracy concepts therefore may be taught in context of a science or history lesson.

Still, it would appear to me that no matter how rigorous the curriculum, it fails if at the end of the day we don't have enough mathematicians. Could this be another case where we are in fact measuring the wrong thing? 

The release of the Baird Report into overseas students has attracted a fair bit of coverage. I have been following this one because of my feeling that the interlinked combination of problems in Australia's international education sector with changes to the skilled migration rules was likely to have significant economic impacts. I haven't had time yet to review the Baird report; it remains on my to do list.

The impasse between Government and Opposition of changes to the Youth Allowance Scheme - this has become the main means for funding university students - has been resolved. The Opposition's charge was that the proposed changes would disadvantage rural students. The resolution reached appears to be that the old approach would continue to apply in very remote, remote and outer regional areas. However, this has introduced a new problem.

In Saturday Morning Musings - Byzantium, ARIA and Australian public policy, I spoke of the problems created by the use and misuse of the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA). I followed this up with a second post, Problems with language and definition in public policy.

The central problem with ARIA is that the use of a mechanistic definition of remoteness that actually ignores geography leads to perverse results. This is already appearing in the changes to the Youth Allowance, with arguments that country students who are in fact in identical circumstances in all other respects - income, the need to move from home, travel time etc - now receive different treatment. I suspect that there was no way around it in this case, but it does illustrate the continuing problems with mechanistic management approaches.

Finishing on Youth Allowance, we recently experienced a practical example of the way in which YA rules create disincentives.

Eldest is on YA, but also works part time. When her earnings in any period pass a certain figure, her YA drops to zero. That's not a problem. She knows this and has been punctilious in reporting her weekly earnings. However, we recently hit a problem.

Helen decided to go overseas. To finance this, she increased her working hours for several months, knowing that this would take YA to zero. So she traded off her YA for extra work income, thus benefiting the tax payer. When her work income dropped below the cut-off, the YA would come back. However, there was something that she had not realised.

If your earnings exceed the YA cut-off for six consecutive fortnights, you actually lose not just the YA income, but YA itself. The assumption is, I think, that you are now working full time, not studying. So expected YA payments did not appear. Further, to apply for reinstatement of YA, Helen had to be back in the country.

From our viewpoint, the annoying thing is that had we known the rules, I accept that we should have known, Helen could simply have reduced her working hours by a small amount in the last fortnight. She actually traded off a small working gross for a much larger YA payment.

This simple example goes to the heart of a much bigger problem, the way in which the structure of benefits actually creates a disincentive to work. But that's another story.            

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rudd Government's proposals to expand doctor training

The announcement by the Australian Government of additional funding to increase the number of GPs and specialists (here, here, here) with a stated particular focus on regional Australia is an interesting one. Australia has had a shortage of doctors at all levels for some time. This is especially pronounced in regional areas, as well as some of the outer suburbs of the major metropolitan centres.

The questions asked of PM Rudd and Health Minister Roxon at their Queanbeyan door stop on the proposals were fairly shallow. I thought therefore that I should make some brief comments, recognising that my own knowledge is a little dated. 

As I understand it, the critical issues in expanding basic basic medical training all centre on availability and access: availability of people to supply the necessary education and training, availability of supporting facilities, access to hospitals for necessary clinical time.

Similar issues arise in subsequent specialist training. The absolute critical issues here are the availability of registrar (training) positions in hospitals with both a suitable case load and availability of specialists to undertake the necessary supervision. The hospitals themselves must also be available to provide necessary support and back-up to the specialists in training.

You can think of the whole thing as a chain with various critical choke points along it. Simply increasing entry numbers at start does not, of itself, guarantee an increase in numbers down the chain. Further, down stream decisions taken for other reasons can affect supply.

Registrar positions, for example, are generally funded by State Governments and are both training positions and a critical part of service delivery within the public hospital system. Changes to that system affect both the supply and location of registrar positions. In NSW, decisions about location of emergency departments - a general system decision - reduced the number of registrar positions, leading to a reduction in the number of certain types of physicians in training.

Regional areas face particular problems. The lengthening of specialist training, together with the predominantly metropolitan location of that training, created a significant barrier to subsequent movement to regional areas because of, among other things, partner and family relationships formed during training.

A further problem in regional areas lies in the increased technical complexity of medical training. This makes it more difficult to train people at smaller hospitals, public or private. A chicken and egg problem emerges. 

Governments have been searching for ways to overcome the bias against regional areas, while also increasing supply.

In NSW, for example, the NSW Institute of Medical Education and Training (IMET) has formed training networks linking regional and metropolitan hospitals to give specialist trainees regional experience. In similar vein, there is a Rural Preferential Recruitment Program for internships following completion of basic medical training that guarantees applicants places. Eleven hospitals are classified as home hospitals, of which five (Albury, Dubbo, Orange, Wagga Wagga and Tamworth) are in inland NSW.

A very important development in recent years has been the slow broadening of health related training including medical training at non-metro universities. This is important not just because those people are more likely to stay in regional areas, but also because it is actually building (in some cases re-building) the human and physical infrastructure in these areas.

The University of New England, for example, had sought to establish medical training for many decades but without success. Then the growing emphasis on the rural doctor shortage led to the establishment of a tripartite arrangement between the Universities of New England and Newcastle and the Hunter New England Area Health Service that saw the establishment of a joint School of Rural Medicine. The facilities now established in Armidale provide a base for further expansion, while also improving regional medical services.

In similar vein, the teaching of dentistry in NSW was localised in Sydney. As with the UNE case, attempts to establish teaching in dentistry outside Sydney were opposed on grounds of economics. Now Charles Sturt University is in the process of establishing a dental school at Wagga Wagga. As with UNE, once established, the new school will have a variety of spin-off benefits.

These are slow processes.

The interesting thing about the new Rudd Government plans lies in the complexities that will need to be resolved if it is to meet the Government's targets.

There are, I think, inherent tensions within the proposals. For example, they focus on increasing specialist availability in regional Australia and on a greater role for private hospitals in specialist training. Leaving aside the problems associated with an increased role for private hospitals, I am not sure that there are that many suitable private hospitals in regional Australia. So there is going to be a need for a a differential approach if both objectives are to be approved.

I also wonder, and I have not seen this issue addressed, just what the proposals mean for specialist training in New Zealand. The majority of the specialist medical colleges are Australian and New Zealand colleges. Their training programs have always been complicated because they involved delivery across multiple jurisdictions. These complexities have increased as all Governments became more involved in, and prescriptive about, medical education.

The New Zealand issue will seem a second order question to most Australians. Yet a core objective for both Australia and New Zealand over time has been the achievement of greater integration between the two countries in key areas. Australia plus New Zealand is greater than Australia and New Zealand.

I have only just scratched the surface on issues here. This is a Rudd Government proposal that I would dearly like to see work. A lot of work is going to be required to make it happen.     

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Snippets - a blogging meander

Down in Victoria in Memory and history, the Resident Judge is worried by her inability to re-find a key reference for her thesis. I empathized at once. Looking at what she does already to record and manage material left me standing in awe!

You no full-feedee? Me no subscribee!, a post on Gordon Smith's personal blog, part answered some questions that have been interesting me, the impact on blogging and blogging statistics of the use of feeds and other aggregation devices such as Google Reader. Among other things, it means that individual site statistics become a less reliable indicator of actual readership patterns.

Still on blogging as well as the increasing use of on-line material in research, Don Arthur's Down the memory hole (or how I went from man to mouse) provides an interesting discussion on the problems that can arise as a consequence of the sometimes ephemeral nature of the on-line world, as well as the increasing concentration of on-line resources in a small number of sites.

I actually worry about this at a personal level. For example, when should I include include an on-line reference in a footnote? What do I do with a personally interesting block of material that I find? If I just include a link, then that may simply disappear. If I replicate it on-line, and ignoring copy right issues, how long will my own site survive?

These issues are not new, of course, but they have got worse. As an earlier example, the decision to move records to microfilm caused major problems because, while it saved space, the short life of those records and the cost involved in preserving and replicating them quickly became a major issue.

Really, the best chance of longer term survival still lies in paper.

Neil's Google Reader led me to Vast majority of published research claims may be false. The issue that it deals with, the validity of the statistical techniques used in modern research, is an important one.

I struggle a little with this one. I have written a fair bit about evidence based approaches, here for example, because they are so important today. While I do support them, I am always conscious of the ways in which they can mislead. I have a very particular personal problem in that my knowledge of the theoretical basis of statistics as a discipline is so imperfect. In some ways today we have just too much information, too little knowledge.

Sheep are dumb. Now there's a categorical statement! I was reminded of this by a post on Ochre Archives, Drenching Sheep and Weaning Lambs. Now as I have said before, I am a townie, not a farm kid. As a kid helping on the property, those merino ewes were pretty large relative to my then size. You would grab them, push, and nothing would happen!

Mind you, sheep are a bit like people. You have to give them time!     

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - the importance of the small

When I first studied history, it was generally all big picture stuff: wars, revolutions, movements, causes and effects.

I also did an awful lot of history. At school, I did six full year courses in modern history plus Australian history honours, three full year courses in ancient history, again plus honours. Then at university there were five full year units plus a full honours year. As I said, that's a lot of history. By the end it also spanned a long time period, from prehistory to the present day, if with a bias towards the history of Britain and Empire, Australia,  Europe and the Mediterranean.

This bias wasn't universal. Asian history, for example, was included, if mainly with a twentieth century focus. In addition, my geography honours course at school was solely on Asia, with a strong focus on economic and human geography and on what would now be called development studies.

I think that my biggest problem at school and then at university was simply getting my mind round what people thought and felt in the various periods I was looking at. I was also puzzled by the how of things. I could write a decent essay on the causes of the First World War, for example, but struggled to understand how those involved could actually let things come to such a pass. This was, of course, a case of wisdom in hindsight, since I knew what was to happen.

One of the things that I found most helpful in giving emotional content to what otherwise might have been cardboard cut-outs were historical novels. Because I was a bookish somewhat introspective child, I read a lot:  Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and the White Company gave me a feel for the Feudal period; Rafael Sabatini's various books (real favourites of mine) brought in the complicated world of the Italian Peninsula as well as the French Revolution; while Catherine Gaskin's immensely popular popular 1954 novel Sarah Dane helped introduce me to convict Sydney.

The picture that I acquired may have been partial in both senses of the word, but it did bring people and periods alive.

Leaving Armidale for Canberra, I left history for economics. By the time I returned to history, I had run for politics, been actively involved in party and community development development activities and had experience as an economist and policy advisor at reasonably senior levels. The different ideas and experiences gained affected my approach to history in quite profound ways. In particular, it meant that I now looked at historical processes, activities and events from the perspective of a sometimes player. I now knew something about the how.

In this last part of this muse, I want to look at just two elements here: the importance of event chains and what I have come to call the importance of the small.

If you look at the conflagration of the First World War, it was not inevitable. It came about because of a series of decisions made by individuals over time that determined both what it would happen and the form that it would take. Those decisions took place within institutional contexts and were affected by personalities and by previous events.

When we talk about the causes of the First World War, we look at key patterns and call them causes. Naval rivalries between Britain and Germany is one often cited cause, and indeed at one level it was. However, those rivalries in turn depended upon a whole series of interacting previous decisions. The War itself came about because of a whole series of interacting decision trains.

In similar vein, the settlement by the British at Botany Bay and then Port Jackson was not inevitable, although it arguably was inevitable that the continent would have been colonised by one or indeed more of the European powers, most probably Britain since she was the dominant sea power. When we talk about the causes of British settlement in 1788, we tend to talk about and combine two very different things: one are the general forces that led to a decision to colonise; the second, those things that led to the particular decision at a point in time.

The second thing that I want to talk about, the importance of the small, is linked to the first.

At a personal level, we all know that small individual decisions can have important longer term outcomes that are unclear, indeed unforeseeable, at the time. Since history is the aggregation of individual decisions and actions, it should not be surprising that history displays the same pattern.

I first really became aware of this one in my studies of local and regional history.

David Drummond is sometimes called the founder of the University of New England. At one sense that's true. Yet, to my mind, the single most important event that allowed for the later establishment of the New England University College in 1938 was the earlier decision of certain grazing families in the 1890s to help fund the establishment of the Armidale School and the New England Girls' School. This consolidated the educational base that later supported the establishment of the Armidale Teachers' College in 1928 and then the University College ten years later.

To take another very local example, Armidale today is a beautiful city marked by its trees. This reinforces the city's place. Yet in 1938 Armidale had very few trees. The decision of local accountant Alwyn Jones to make Armidale beautification his cause in the 1950s played a very important role in the city that we have today.

These are purely local examples, yet I find them replicated time and time again. At a time when there is so much complexity and indeed negativity, I find find it rather inspirational that history shows the importance of individual endeavour for good as well as bad.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Generation One, Andrew Forrest and Aboriginal jobs

Back in August 2008 I reported on a campaign by WA mining mandate Andrew Forrest to create 50,000 new indigenous jobs. The plan was launched just before the start of the global financial crisis, a crisis that at one stage appeared to threaten the very survival of Mr Forrest's business. I have therefore been wondering just what had happened to the original plan.

On 16 February this year, Tony Koch reported that the Australian Employment Covenant was closing in on the half way target, with the Queensland Government committing to 2,800 positions to add to the 17,000 promised by the private sector. Now in today's Australian, Drew Warne-Smith reports on the filming of a new national advertising campaign, GenerationOne, to reinforce the campaign.

Funded by Andrew Forrest, James Packer and Kerry Stokes to the tune of reported $A2 million each with support from other business leaders, the campaign aims to motivate the public to take practical action in helping to end indigenous disparity. The advertisement feature Aboriginal young people and are directed Warwick Thornton, whose debut feature film Samson & Delilah won the Camera d'Or for best first film in Cannes last year.

To be launched by the Prime Minister, the campaign will include an interactive website and a 23-stop national roadshow. The TV commercial itself will go to air on March 20 and is, according to the Drew Warne-Smith report, a stark, pared-back recitation of the facts of indigenous existence in this country.

In considering Mr Forrest's campaign, I think it helpful to remember that Australia's indigenous people occupy a spectrum from successful professionals and business people on one side through to people suffering extreme social deprivation at the other end. As Joe Lane constantly and correctly points out, success in Aboriginal education means that the proportion of Aboriginal with trade and university education is rising all the time.

I make this point because the campaign from Mr Forrest and his colleagues especially targets the most socially disadvantaged group: young people with limited education, limited or no work experience and few opportunities. In social terms, this is critical because it aims to break the recurring cycle of disadvantage. However, this is also the area where the difficulties are greatest.

In February of last year, Mr Forrest complained that the training places weren't available to support young people in the jobs already promised. I quote:  

In his letter, Mr Forrest said Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations officials were not planning to provide training tailored to employers' specifications, as agreed under the covenant.

DEEWR had failed to make any changes to its training methods and was attempting to dilute the AEC to nothing more than a "job finder", he said.

That led to initial action, including $A2.2million in federal funding for James Packer's Crown Limited to train and employ 300 Aborigines at its Melbourne and Perth casinos. Now Mr Forrest has been addressing a new concern, the need for mentoring.

One of the difficulties that employers face is that the socially disadvantaged young, non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal, can lack the types of skills, knowledge and work disciplines taken for granted in the broader community. This leads to higher staff turnover and lower returns to the employer. Accepting that some measure of failure is inevitable, individual support such as mentoring can increase the chances of success.

In a comment on my original post, Stephen wrote:

Frankly, given the state of some of the area, even 100 jobs would be good. 10,000 would make a very substantial difference to the areas.

I have to agree with Stephen. Practical help that does at least achieve some results is good. This is the same type of issue that I dealt  with in a January 2007 post,  New England's Aborigines - Moree Success Story describing the work of Dick Estens in Aboriginal job creation.

In another comment on my original post, Aboriginal peoples researcher wrote:

I think the idea may have some merit, but it is still based in a colonial philosophy that aims to train and teach aboriginal peoples a different way of life. To some extent it is another assimilation policy aimed at acculturating the aboriginal people to the point where they will no longer have to be dealt with as a sovereign people.

I responded to this comment as best I could at the time. However, since then my views have shifted.

I had no idea until last year about the pressures that could be placed upon the Aboriginal young (and not so young) as they attempted to improve their position, pressures that rose with success. I have to phrase this very carefully, in part because I am still working all this through in my own mind. Further, my experience is NSW focused. 

Central to these pressures is the need to find a balance between the individual and the community. At one level, this is simply the desire to retain connection to group and locality. At a second, the conflict between contributing to the community and the achievement of personal success.

Most non Aboriginal people think first of career, going where chances of success will be best. An Aboriginal person is more conflicted: do I serve my people first, even though this reduces my career chances? Further, as personal progress is made, the demands of a more collectivist society come into play: how do I tell my people or extended family that to help them conflicts with my personal and professional obligations?

These are not easy issues. I do not have answers. However, I do know that the work of people like Dick Estens or Andrew Forrest is important in giving the Aboriginal young new choices. 


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Indonesia, Australia and the importance of personal links

Indonesian President's Australian triumph recorded my immediate personal reaction after listening to President Yudhoyono's speech to the Australian Parliament yesterday.

As you might expect, the visit and speech get a fair bit of coverage in this morning's Australian media. Paul Kelly's piece in the Australian Let's be friends and equal says SBY, is one example, Phillip Coorey and Hamish McDonald's Sydney Morning Herald piece, Time for new spirit of trust, a second.

In his piece, Paul Kelly says in part:

Rudd, like John Howard, feels he can do business with Yudhoyono. He's right. But Australia must appreciate the limits on the President's options that flow from Indonesian public opinion and its democracy.

It is impossible to imagine a more pro-Australian Indonesian president. Sadly, he will be appreciated more after his departure from office. Yudhoyono brings the torch of friendship to an Australia still deeply equivocal about the equation of democracy, Islam and nationalism that constitutes our great neighbour.

The first point is, I think, very important and one that I am not sure is fully appreciated by Australians. Indonesia is a large and complex country. Indonesian public opinion on issues is not the same as Australian, nor are Indonesian needs the same as Australian needs. This, of itself, will lead to differences between the two countries. Australians want to see Indonesian democracy develop, but they have to accept that one outcome may be differences in views and responses.

Paul Kelly's  second point is a little more problematic from my viewpoint. It's not that its wrong - The Indonesian President himself quoting survey results from the Lowy Institute said:  "There are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country or a military dictatorship or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power". You can find the Lowy Institute Indonesia-Australia position paper on their web site. However, while Paul Kelly's point is not wrong, I think that it can mislead.

Over the last sixty years, the Australian people have shown a quite remarkable capacity to adjust their views.

In 1950, Australia was in the early stages of a mass migration program that, while European focused, still represented a dramatic shift in the ethnic composition of this country. In that same year, Australia played a major role in the launch of the Colombo Plan that was to bring many tens of thousands of non-European students to study in a country still officially committed to a White Australia policy. In turn, this laid the base for the progressive abolition from 1957 of the White Australia Policy and its replacement by an open policy independent of race or ethnicity.

Very few Australians, less outside the country, know that the White Australia Policy effectively ended in March 1966 when, after a review of the non-European policy, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced that applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia. So it took just sixteen years to move from a point where the White Australia Policy was an article of faith to its effective end.

Of course there was still prejudice. When I ran for Country Party pre-selection in 1972, I had to very carefully explain at some branch meetings that the Policy had to end, that the country had no choice. The sensitivities were still there.

It is one thing to formally end a policy, a second to move towards a migration policy that effectively replaced European mass migration with a large scale migration policy increasingly dominated by non-European groups, leading to a second and continuing ethnic transformation in the composition of the Australian people. Again there were and are sensitivities, yet there has been remarkably little social trouble.

One of the reasons for this, I think, is that the Australian people have the capacity to distinguish between individuals and groups. I don't like the Chinese because <insert words>. Chen's Chinese, but he is different, he's a good bloke. However, once you know and accept Chen, then inevitably you become more accepting of Chinese in general. This is actually what the Colombo Plan, did by exposing so many Australians to overseas students.

Now here I want to move to two general points based on my analysis to this point.

The first is that Australians will accept change if the reasons are explained. To my knowledge, I lost no votes during the Eden-Monaro campaign for my support of the ending of the White Australia policy. I was respectful of the alternative view, focusing on the practical reasons why we had to change. That was accepted, even though the people I was talking to still retained their personal views. The lesson here to my mind is that we constantly need to emphasise the importance of the Indonesia-Australia relationship and the implications that flow from this. 

The second is that effective change over time on an issue connected with prejudice and belief depends upon personal contact.

In preparing this post, I looked back at all the posts I have written connected in some way with Indonesia. I have listed them below. In the first post in November 2006 I pointed to the future importance of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. Yet, despite this, it was almost two years before my next post on the subject. From that point, you get bursts of posts.

One of the key reasons why I started writing more on Indonesia lay in my initial contact with two younger Indonesian bloggers, Tikno and Niar. They turned Indonesia from a country into human faces that I then kept in mind when writing. I hope that we all gained as a consequence; certainly, I did.

Now here, I think, that we have a problem. The personal links between Australia and Indonesia have not grown in the way that I expected. The Lowy Institute paper points to some dimensions of this, such as the actual decline in the study of Bahasa in Australia. This, to my mind, is the area that we need to focus on. What is the best way to build personal contacts on depth?

There are some complicated issues here that we need to resolve. For example, I have argued for some time now that we need to build the links between Indonesian and Australian universities and their students. But how do we do this when travel advisories warn against travel to Indonesia?

This is not a trivial issue. Under Australian law, an Australian university encouraging Australian student participation in Indonesia in the face of those warnings risks potentially severe legal consequences should something go wrong. Students and their parents also become very sensitive about consequences. Yet, looking at statistics, the actual risk seems lower than those faced by backpackers at Australia's Bondi Beach!

It seems to me that if President Yudhoyono's vision of a closer relationship is to be achieved, then we in Australia need to look closely now at ways of building personal links, recognising that the pay back will come years into the future.                      

The Indonesian Posts


While I was finishing this post, Neil brought up a post about the President's speech. He mentioned West Papua. I will write on this one, but not just now.