Friday, April 30, 2010

Milliken ruling on the power of Parliament

Hat tip to Christopher Moore on this one.

I have written before on the importance of Parliament. Here for a short example.

One of the central tensions in the Westminster system is the relationship between Parliament and executive government.

Modern executive government wants to govern, just as the English, Scottish and British kings and queens did before them when they were the executive government. However, in doing so, the principle has been established through blood that executive government is accountable first to Parliament and then beyond that to the people through the election process.

In governing, executive government seeks to control Parliament. This includes access to information. Executive government argues that Parliamentary access must be limited for reasons of state and in some cases this is undoubtedly true. Yet a fundamental tension remains.

In a Canadian case, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken has ruled that if the Commons insists, the government is obliged to deliver to it the unedited documents on Afghan prisoners that Parliament had requested. You will find a full copy of the ruling here.

In looking at Parliament's power, Mr Milliken looked not just at Canadian precedents, but also at New Zealand, Australian and New South Wales cases.

I think that the ruling is worth a read. It explores the issues in a very clear fashion.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Problems with measurement in education

Earlier this week Neil had an interesting post, The promised education post, looking in part at the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) test results for Australian schools. Then today the Sydney Morning Herald's education editor, Ann Patty discusses a report from the Centre for Independent Studies on indigenous disadvantage as measured by the NAPLAN test results. The common element in both is the use of standardised test results.

The problem with all these types of studies is to know exactly what you are measuring and in fact what it all means.

In the case of the ICT tests, they broadly show an overall improvement between 2005 and 2008 in test results, but with a widening gap between top and bottom. This was arguably inevitable in statistical terms.

As Neil notes, there will always be a proportion of students who simply lack the ability. However, if you assume that all students across the spectrum improve their performance by the same relative amount, say 10%, then the gap between top and bottom must rise.

Neil also quotes a Sydney Morning Herald, again by Anne Patty, on the city/country divide in computer literacy/ The story is headed City-rural divide hits computer literacy. Again, this type of result was arguably inevitable in statistical terms.

There is a known if complicated relationship between socio-economic status and school performance.

Many inland country areas have been losing people. Further, the economic restructuring that took place from the 1980s meant that those leaving included many middle class families - bank staff, managers in offices such as Telecom or local county councils, technicians. Their jobs either vanished entirely or were relocated to larger centres or the city.

In coastal areas that have experienced high population growth from retirees or those moving for lifestyle reasons, the new jobs associated with population growth have generally been lower level jobs in retail or services. Further, the proportion of people on welfare has risen. The New England/NSW Mid North Coast has now, I think, Australia's lowest per capita income.

Given these trends, you would expect a growing gap between city and country performance. However, and this is important, that gap does not mean that equivalent students in both city and country do not perform in the same way. Indeed, we know from experience over a number of years that country students can, and in fact often do, do better than equivalent city students.

The CIS study, full text here, by Professor Helen Hughes and Mark Hughes attempts to use the NAPLAN test data on numeracy and literacy to measure indigenous education disadvantage. This, they argue, remains very high. As part of their study, they rank Australia's schools on the test data; the majority of the 150 worst performing schools are totally or majority indigenous. In a NSW context, Anne Patty links this to the so-called "flight of the white", actions by white families in some country towns to move their children from public to non-Government schools, increasing the Aboriginal proportion in public schools.

As an aside, this links to another post of mine, Teaching in country NSW. Most, if not all, of the schools Thomas has put on his list have very significant proportions of Aboriginal students. According to the MySchool web site, for example, the proportion of Aboriginal students at the Boggabilla Central School is now  99%. By the way, have a look at the comments section of the post where Thomas and I are talking about the hoops that Thomas has to go through to actually get a teaching position. It's a remarkably complicated process!

My problem with the Hughes/Hughes paper is to actually work out what it all means. Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples are not a single whole. The paper provides information that hints at the variation in NAPLAN results across the country. However, it really focuses on and is driven by problems in indigenous education in certain communities in Northern Australia that it then uses to generalise. In so doing, it suffers from the same problems as current Australian Government policy.

My problem with the Hughes/Hughes paper illustrates a broader issue: the overall difficulty with data such as NAPLAN or the ICT test results is not just to understand what the data means, but what you do with it once you know that.

The ICT test itself is meant to be a measure of basic competence, the capacity to do. For example, the standard set for Year 10 states that students will be able to:     

“generate well targeted searches for electronic information sources and select relevant information from within sources to meet a specific purpose, create information products with simple linear structures and use software commands to edit and reformat information products in ways that demonstrate some consideration of audience and communicative purpose”.

If you find that the gap between the best and worst is widening, does this mean that you should redistribute resources to improve the performance of the worst? If the gap between city and country is widening, do you redistribute resources to improve country performance relative to city?

Resources are limited. The totality of targets set by Australian Governments already exceeds the resources available to deliver those targets. We actually have to make judgements as to what is possible. If community response is that resources must be found, then people must accept that other things will suffer.

We also need to recognise that single performance measures whether it be ICT or NAPLAN scores cannot be treated in isolation. There is only so much you can do to improve performance on a single measure.

Let me link this back to my point about changing economic and demographic structures in country NSW.

Social and economic deprivation in any area affects performance across a whole variety of indicators. You either address the causes of that deprivation or you move the people. Otherwise, no matter how much money you throw to improve performance on one indicator, you are doing to have a performance problems measured by that indicator.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Australian Government defers action on ETS

According to stories in the Australian media (here, here, here), the Australian Government has deferred any action on an ETS until the end of 2012. The story will be well covered; I just wanted to record it.

It left me wondering how former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull must feel. Pretty disheartened, I would guess. However, it also made me wonder whether or not it might lead him to reconsider his decision to quit Parliament.

Wednesday postscript:

I find myself with oddly mixed reactions on this one.

Having worked my way through the issues, I came to the view that action needed to be taken on climate change. My concern then lay in the nature of the action to be taken. Really, I wanted to understand more about the nature of the options, about the combination of things that might deliver the required results, rather than the the almost exclusive focus on one option.

Reports in the Australian media mention a newly released Lowy Institute study on changing Australian attitudes to climate change as an issue. As I write, the study does not yet appear to be on-line. Apparently, the study shows a weakening in support for action to address climate change, together with a strong reluctance to pay any costs for that action.

It was always going to be the case that action to address climate change would impose costs. One of my concerns lay in my inability to properly trace those costs through, to properly understand the dynamic aspects. I also thought that public discussion that suggested that that the real costs would be small, that we could somehow have our cake and eat it too, were dangerously misleading.

The problem has always been the difference between aggregate and distributional effects. Even if aggregate costs were to be small taking benefits and growth factors into account, distributional effects make for a pattern of individual winners and losers. Those losing may find little comfort in a general argument about small net costs. This difficulty has been compounded by the tendency to load so many other things onto climate change. 

The timing of the decision in NSW to raise electricity prices by such a significant amount did not help. The fact that this was due to previous under-investment in the electricity system was neither here nor there. Consumers faced a big price rise with the certainty of a further increase on top if the ETS came in. In combination, it was just too much.

In theory, the delay in the introduction of the ETS could provide time for further discussion and refinement, for testing options, for further public education through debate. I would like to think that this might happen. My concern is that the whole issue may actually be parked in political terms, leaving us no further advanced in two year's time.             

Australia's economic fragmentation

Back in the late 89s and early 90s the consulting team that I then led did a fair bit of economic, demographic and analysis looking at long term trends across Australia. Forecasting is a risky business. Really, our aim was simply to determine trends and possible outcomes. In doing so, we worked at state and regional level.

One thing that we pointed to was the likely fragmentation of Australia into a series of sub-economies performing in very different ways and with very different internal and external linkages. We linked this not just to different locations and resources bases, but also to the progressive winding back of the tariff barriers that had supported, forced, intra-Australian trade. In our view, this fragmentation was going make it increasingly difficult for Australian Governments to manage as though their jurisdictions were in fact single entities.

Some things we got right, some wrong. For example, we underestimated immigration and hence population growth. This was especially important in the case of Sydney, for while that city's growth has been lower than the national average, it has still been faster than we projected. We also did not take into account Melbourne's capacity to re-invent itself as a life style city. Melbourne's growth has been significantly higher than projected.   

In all this, the overall fragmentation process has occurred broadly as projected. I mention this now because the on-going process has reached an absolutely fascinating stage.

At Federal level, we have the Rudd Government attempting to impose national consistency across an increasingly disparate country. In doing so, the Government is struggling to find an effective mechanism to bridge the gap between broad national approaches and regional variation. The methods so far used such as the ARIA remoteness classification simply do not work very well. 

State Governments face similar problems, although this is most pronounced in the geographically larger states, NSW, Queensland and Western Australia. The problems are most pronounced in NSW because the state is affected by the relative and changing drawing power of the Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra capital cities. NSW is the only state where the capital metro centre has to contend with rival metro centres on or close to its borders or, indeed, within its territory. 

Dropping below state or territory level to local or regional level, you find a sometimes crazy patchwork quilt of change.

There are some commonalities. For example, three to four hours is about the maximum that people will drive to get away for a weekend. If you draw a three to four hour driving time circle around each major centre, you get a feel for the areas directly affected by metropolitan growth. So Beechworth and the gold fields (Victoria), the Hunter Valley wineries (NSW) and the Stanthorpe Granite Belt and its wineries (Queensland) all reflect the impact of adjoining metropolitan centres.

Another pattern of development links to resource rich areas. The coal fields of the Hunter and of Queensland, the mines and gas fields of WA all display some common features. They are a cash cow for Governments, but their growth creates local pressures that can translate into anger. Just to quote one recent comment on a recent post.

Jim, the mood in Newcastle and the Hunter is one of anger and resentment. Whereas the Hunter was the stumbling block for New England in 1967, it could now be the springboard. It is the jewel in the New England crown that would guarantee the instant success of the new state.

I for one am looking for a new state movement to be reborn and would join it an support it with enthusiasm. We are overdue for it. Perhaps we could start with an unofficial referendum throughout the north with the next council elections. A strong YES vote would give us the platform to push for a new secession referendum.

A third pattern of development links to life style. The reinvention of Melbourne is the biggest example, but it is replicated elsewhere at both regional and local level. At regional level, we have the retirees on the New England/NSW Mid North Coast, at local level in the same region Bellingen as a counter-culture centre.

Within these commonalities, there are great differences that I love, for history and geography creates different patterns. Beachworth or Bright in Victoria feel totally different from Stanthorpe in Queensland.

Change takes time, and then the effects can be unexpected. At a time when housebuilding in Sydney is at its lowest ebb for many years, the WA Government has a development well underway that will ultimately add 13,000 people to Broome in the Kimberley Region of WA, doubling the population of the local LGA.

Now this might not sound a big number. However, it has to be set in context.

WA has always been marked by a very high population in Perth. At the 2001 census, Perth's population (statistical division) was 1,325,392 out of a total WA population of 1,832,008 (72.36%), in 2006 1,455,078 out of a total state population of 1,959,088 (73.76%). So Perth's dominance has increased. 

The low population in the rest of the state - 506,616 in 2001, 514,010 in 2006 - spread over such a vast area has always created service delivery problems. Further, the increasing centralisation of the state has progressively reduced the direct political influence of the rest of the state.

However, influence is affected not just be relative numbers, but also by absolute numbers. Quite simply, if Broome's population doubles from 13,000 to 26,000, then this has a variety of flow-on effects and not just in terms of local services. Among other things, it means a likely rise in the number of community activists.

Depending on the judgements that one makes about resource developments, one scenario could see development of a scale in the Kimberley that would make it a significant counter-balance to the previous dominance of the south-east in WA. That could have quite profound dynamic effects on WA life and politics.

I don't want to overstate this. It is simply an example of a change process.

Finishing by returning to NSW, a study by BIS Shrapnel for The Urban Taskforce, a Sydney based property development lobby group, suggests that the NSW economy has become something of a cot case, that Melbourne will regain its position as Australia's biggest city. At the same time, a survey by the NSW Business Chamber of Commerce suggests current poor performance by the NSW economy is essentially a Sydney problem.

Things change all the time. The difficulty, however, is that the concept of a "NSW economy" is really a statistical construct that really makes very little sense. If we really want to address questions of economic performance across NSW, then we have to break the state up into its constituent economies. Sydney's economic problems need to be addressed as Sydney's economic problems.                  

Monday, April 26, 2010

Comfort Food

Tonight we were watching MasterChef Australia. This is one of those rare shows - Dr Who is another - that the entire family can agree to watch.

Tonight's competition required contestants to cook their favourite family dish, one that carried memories of their childhood. One contestant mentioned comfort food, food that we like to eat when not well or feeling down.

All this got me wondering so I thought that I would throw the question open.

What was your favourite meal from childhood? Do you have comfort food that you like to eat when not well or down?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Teaching in country NSW

Back in March, Thomas said that he was working out where he might teach in NSW.

I have come to think, and will compile my first list with this frame of mind, in teaching rural. Very rural. At the moment, I’ve just organised schools by the TEPS benefits that are associated (yes, that is the primary factor regarding my school choice at the moment, with a real want to move out of home as soon as possible being my second factor), and am working from the top.

I had to look up just what TEPS was - the Teacher Employment Priority Scheme. NSW has long had a problem in getting teachers for more remote areas and especially in inland NSW. The TEPS ranking for individual schools is a measure of this. A range of special benefits are offered for certain schools in rural NSW to attract teachers. These can be quite substantial.

schools2 Now Thomas has refined his thinking and included this map of possible schools on his blog. With one exception, Emmaville, the schools all lie on the western slopes and plains.

A few years ago when we were doing some work for what was then called Country Week on regional employment opportunities, I had a fair bit of contact with teachers from the type of schools that Thomas is talking about. They came to the Expos to sell the story of country teaching.

The thing that really stood out in my mind was their sheer enthusiasm. They obviously wouldn't have been at the Expo otherwise, but the pattern was repeated over three years. They were enthusiastic about life in their communities and about the innovations in teaching that they had tried.

Teaching in this type of school is not for all. Some become completely absorbed. Others struggle with isolation, with life in a smaller community and with specific school problems linked in part to the way we have been progressively depopulating parts of inland NSW.

However, to do as Thomas is planning to do is to gain exposure to a different world, one that is becoming increasingly remote from the modern urbanised world of our metropolitan centres.

Cousin Jamie has taken some absolutely wonderful photos of this world. Based now in Wagga Wagga, Jamie roams with his camera when not cooking or relief teaching. Do browse the photos. You don't need to know the areas to appreciate them.      

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - a meander through past posts

In Saturday Morning Musings - Country Party lessons for the Greens I suggested that the Country Party's experience might offer some lessons for the Greens as they sought to use their balancing position. Geoff Robinson reached a similar conclusion.

Geoff is a political scientist and historian who lectures at the Geelong campus of Deakin University. Geoff consciously writes from a left perspective, yet we often come to similar conclusions because we share common historical interests.

Since we wrote, the Greens have accepted ministerial positions in Tasmania.   In an article in the Australian, Greens' joy may not last, Matthew Denholm explores the tensions that the decision has created within the Tasmanian Greens. I had not realised that a majority of Green voters would apparently have preferred an arrangement with the Liberal Party. Again there are some haunting similarities with the Country Party's past.

As part of my biography of my grandfather David Drummond, one of the major figures in the NSW Country Party, I explored in detail the tensions that arose in the NSW Progressive Party (the then name for the Country Party) over the the question of relations with the then Liberal party equivalent. It's actually quite a gripping story. I should publish excerpts.

   Over the last week or so I have written a number of posts on blogging and the internet - Rupert Murdoch and the future of blogging; Blogging, Facebook and Twitter; A conversation on blogging; and The Weaver case - climate change, defamation and the internet. I have blogged a fair bit in this area because it is of obvious professional interest. It really is time to pull the various posts together.

In a comment on Belshaw's position on climate change, John Quiggin wrote:

It's impossible to make any sensible contribution on economic policy in the absence of a scientific basis for it. The choices are
(i) work with the (admittedly fallible, but better than any alternative) findings of mainstream science
(ii) set yourself up as a judge of whether mainstream science should be followed or not
(iii) maintain agnosticism and make policy at random.

John suggested that I belonged to group (ii). I responded that I could live with being parked in (ii), although I would want to qualify the wording much more tightly than John put it.

In a practical sense, the relationship between professionals (I am including scientists here) and managers, policy advisers or clients is a complicated and interesting one. I have written a little bit about this including in my still to be completed discipline of practice series. John's comment provides a stimulus to further tease issues, focusing especially on choice (ii).

I really do value my small number of commentors because they challenge my thinking. A conversation on blogging centred on comments from Kangaroo Valley David. David also inspired another almost completed post when he wrote:

You said:

“my colleagues and I spent a fair bit of time looking at the reasons for policy failure: these start from failure to properly define the problem to be addressed; continue with failure to establish a proper nexus between the problem and the proposed responses; are compounded by failure to properly define the proposed responses; and then collapse because of inadequate delivery”

So, were there any worthwhile resulting changes in approach you can report?

Who could resist such a challenge? Seriously, though, I am taking the industry policy and program work that I and my colleagues did in the mid 1980s as a detailed case study. I hope to bring this on-line next week.Belshaw 40th wedding Jan 1984

Dear it seems a long time ago. I tried to find a photo from the period, but all the direct shots have been put away.

This photo from cousin Jamie's collection was taken at my parents' 40th wedding anniversary in January 1984. It shows left to right Ron Vickers (Jamie's father),  Margaret Somerville (one of mum's sisters), David Toppin, Elaine Buzo (Alex's mum), Professor Roy Smith and then me.

I grew a beard while back at university in 1981 and 1982, so for much of the policy period we are talking about I was bearded and sometimes quite frenetic as we tried to force change through.

One of the reasons that I struggle with and am very critical of current management and administrative structures is that rigid structures, controls, performance requirements and reporting arrangements make it very hard to actually do new things. I don't think that the things we did or tried to do are possible any longer. Certainly you have to be far higher in the hierarchy than used to be the case to drive change, and even then the controls are tight.      

Maybe I am being too jaundiced. I leave it to you to judge when you see the post.   

Friday, April 23, 2010

Student union fees and the costs of ideology

Sometimes the cost of ideological purist positions distresses me.

We used to have compulsory fees at the University of New England for Union membership. There were also compulsory fees for the Students' Representative Council and the Sport's Union. External students had to pay fees, but at a much reduced rate given that they came to Armidale only for external schools.  

The Union itself was not just a student body, but open to all. It was a key hub of campus life. The Union provided services, various types of entertainment, meeting rooms and small subsidies to university student societies. The net result was a vibrant place.

Today it is a much diminished body to the point that it has become almost an embarrassment to the University. In saying this, I am not being critical of those in charge, simply commenting on the outcome.

There are a range of practical problems involved on delivering services such as food on a campus like UNE's.

The on-campus student body is not huge. Further, many of the students live in residence and have the option of eating elsewhere. During holidays, the campus goes very quiet, unless an external school is on. Then you get a demand peak.

Costs of delivering services have increased because of various regulatory imposed requirements. Then, too, customer requirements have changed. People expect more.

All this creates a difficult management problem. The Union used to have a stable cash flow from fees that allowed it to provide a core minimum level of service. During holiday periods, a loss was incurred. During very busy periods, service could be expanded from the base. It is now much more difficult.

I am not close enough now to be sure of all my facts, but the outcome appears to be something like this.

The more up-market dining area at nearby Bool for those who can pay is doing well because the campus is big enough to support it. The food and indeed general services at the main Union itself have declined. As they have, the incentive for people to go there has declined, reinforcing the problem.

I said that this had become almost an embarrassment to the University.

Students and especially external students are now complaining about poor service and lack of facilities. They are doing so privately and in letters to the local papers. These complaints are especially pronounced from students who have known the Union in the past, but are broader than that. The net effect is damage to the University.

I can see no easy solution in the absence of the re-introduction of compulsory student fees, The University's ability to find services from normal student tuition fees is severely limited.  

In terms of economics, we have an externalities and a free rider problem.

With compulsory membership, the payments made by one benefit all. An individual may not get a benefit directly linked to cash paid, but students as a whole benefit. In a voluntary environment, there is no incentive to pay since the student expects to get the core benefits anyway. However, once a sufficient number of students adopt this position, the benefits vanish.

I started this post by saying that sometimes the cost of ideological purist positions distresses me.

I really don't care about all the consumer choice and market arguments advanced to support the original Howard Government stance. I only care that a University that I love has been weakened as a consequence to the cost of its students.         

Nicholas Cowdery on crime and punishment

On Wednesday night I was listening to the soon to retire New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery QC, being interviewed by Tony Jones on the ABC's Lateline Program. It was a fascinating interview made annoying because we lost the program in the middle through some technical fault. Now the transcript is on-line.

For the benefit of those outside NSW, Mr Cowdery has been something of a stormy petrel determined to defend the independence of his office in a state where law and order issues can dominate campaigning and where events and activities in the Sydney goldfish bowl play out in the merciless glare of publicity.

The apparent trigger for the interview was the DPP's decision to drop the manslaughter charge against Mark Wilhelm over the death of Dianne Brimble. It is now some seven years since Mrs Brimble died on a cruise ship. From her death through the inquest and then the failed trial that followed, all those involved have been subjected to a relentless glare of publicity that stripped away any privacy and embedded every detail in the public mind.  In Mr Cowdery's words:

I think there's a lesson in there. I hope that there is a lesson in there for media in reporting matters of that kind in the future.

I don't want to go through the whole interview. I leave that to you. However, I do want to comment on a few points that will give you a feel for justice in NSW.

NICHOLAS COWDERY: The progressive removal of presumptions in favour of bail in particular circumstances is what I'm concerned about. When the Bail Act was brought in, it was very carefully constructed, a very measured and very moderate provision. And it was realistic.
But over time, in response to tabloid outbursts, the Attorney General, particularly the present Attorney General, has introduced legislation which has amended the act and made it much more difficult to get bail and therefore - and to have bail reviewed, and therefore has increased the remand population of the prisons enormously....

The problem is that if you whittle away presumptions in favour of bail, you do tend to interfere with the presumption of innocence and you get an increased number of people who are put into prison on remand, bail refused, who ultimately are acquitted or released or charges are not proceeded with. And we don't have a system in our jurisdiction of compensation for people in that position, as they do in some European countries.

This one pulled me up. While I disliked the constant tightening of bail provisions, I suppose that I hadn't really focused on the central issue: we are sending people to jail, sometimes for considerable periods given lags in the legal process, for crimes that they did not commit. We have made the act of being changed a crime, punishable by an undefined jail sentence.

TONY JONES: What is the impact of that kind of decision (in the Skaf case) and those kind of exemplary punishments? I mean, for example, I know that you were concerned that there'll be more murders in the cases of rape because the rapists would decide they've got more chance of getting away with it if they murdered the victim.

NICHOLAS COWDERY: Well, the danger is that if you increase the available penalties and the penalties that are being imposed unreasonably, then people who are going to commit these offences have nothing to lose by taking it the extra step.

In NSW something of a lock them up and throw away the key approach has developed.  In a rather nasty rape case, the brothers Bilal and Mohammed Skaf, ended up getting extraordinarily high terms - 55 and 32 years. This was over-turned on appeal. The NSW Government has also tried for legislative powers that will allow it to keep prisoners considered to be a continuing danger to society in jail after their term has finished.

The practical effect that Mr Cowdery is referring to is that if you blur the sentencing distinctions between different types of crimes then you blur the deterrent effect.

TONY JONES: It's certainly swelled the numbers of people in prison in New South Wales, and interestingly, I think the incarceration rates in New South Wales are almost double what they are in Victoria. Is that as a result of this kind of ad hoc changes?

NICHOLAS COWDERY: It's contributing to it, yes. It's one of the enduring mysteries why Victoria has a much smaller prison population per head and why it has shorter sentences per head, but not a burgeoning crime rate.

They must be doing something right in Victoria; if only we could learn and apply the lessons here.

In fact, it appears that NSW locks up in jail four times as many young people relative to population size than Victoria. Seventy per cent of these re-offend within twelve months. In July 2009, the NSW Government commissioned a study to find out why the State jails so many.

I don't think that it requires rocket science to understand why. It is a natural outcome of the current NSW approach to criminal justice rules intended to get tough on crime. In addition, another reason lies (I think) in the increased numbers of people spending time in jail for non-payment of fines. This is another aspect of the NSW Government's overall approach to compliance issues.

I find in conversation that while people might be prepared to accept in a general sense that there are problems in current NSW approaches, conversation soon moves to specific cases or examples. As it does, attitudes toughen. It is these attitudes that NSW politicians play too, in so doing reinforcing them so that the cycle goes on. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Weaver case - climate change, defamation and the internet

Hat tip to Neil Whitfield's Google Reader for this one.

In Richard Littlemore reports, Climate Scientist Sues National Post, on a defamation case brought by Canadian climate scientist Dr Andrew Weaver against the National Post newspaper and its publisher, editors and three writer: Terence Corcoran, Peter Foster and Kevin Libin. The report includes a link to the statement of claim lodged by Dr Weaver.

Just to summarise a few key points as I understand them:
  1. The National Post appears to be published in Ontario. The case was lodged in British Columbia where Dr Weaver lives on the basis that the on-line material was available in BC.
  2. Dr Weaver alleges that the National Post, its writers and intenet commentators defamed him over his views on climate change. 
  3. In addition to damages, Dr Weaver is asking for a Court order requiring the newspaper to help track down and remove defamatory material. Part of his argument here is that the paper via things such as Digg and its article email facility created a channel that allowed the viral spread of the defamatory material.
Do read the statement of claim. Certainly some of the material would appear to fall in the playing the man rather than ball class, while other material would be classified in Australia as fair comment within the rough and tumble of debate. However, the overall pattern will be familiar to any one with exposure to the internet.

A few comments on the case:
  1. As I think has now been established in Australian law, just because you are domiciled in one location does not prevent action being taken against you in a different jurisdiction if you are using what is in effect a global platform.
  2. If one of your commentators defames someone, then you may be responsible.
  3. If, and this is I think the really new element raised by the case, you consciously create channels to facilitate the distribution of your material, then you may be liable for that distribution.
In a practical sense, most regular bloggers are pretty conscious of the need for care. It's not really a question of law, but of equity, manners and common sense. I am not sure, however, that the same can be said of some of the intrusions into the on-line world by the main stream media where what we call in Australia the shock jock component is more obvious.

I must say that I would be interested in informed comment on the case from some of our legal blogging friends such as marcellous or skepticslaywer.


A helpful comment from Mark Francis led me to another Canadian case, the link libel case.

A former Green Party Campaign Manager Wayne Crooks argued that when a Canadian website posted links to two US websites that featured defamatory statements it was the same as publishing defamatory material itself.

In 2008, a British Columbia judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying the links were like a footnote or a reference to a website in a newsletter. Now Mr Crooks has been given leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Another interesting case to watch.

Rudd health care reforms - another note

I didn't realise until this morning that I managed to post the same post twice yesterday. Now corrected.

I have listened to some of the discussion on the Rudd Government health care changes with interest, if sometimes with a degree of bemusement. One of the reasons that I wrote Unpacking the Rudd Government health care changes was to get some understanding of the structures and principles involved. Without this, it is very hard to get a feel for issues likely to arise in application.

Power of the States

One thing that bemused me in the discussion was the suggestion that the states had somehow retained a degree of real control over health. I can't see that beyond the short term.

The care with which Mr Rudd keeps stating that the Commonwealth will have full control over primary health care and aged services provides part of the clue here. A second clue lies in his emphasis on standards, transparency and accountability. When you look at the detail, the states are going to be so tied up as to have very little discretion indeed.

I do stand to be corrected here. One of the hot issues is mental health. Listening to discussion, it wasn't clear to me whether we were dealing with a current or structural issue. By current, I mean immediate funding and arrangements. By structural, whether the area was in or out in the long term.

As I interpret Mr Rudd's wording, mental health as it relates to primary health care is now a Commonwealth responsibility.  

Systemic Complexity and associated Delivery Problems

The Rudd Government is paying a price for its implementation failures in other areas: as I write, there are newspaper reports that the home insulation scheme is finally to be axed; the school building program is being audited; the university sector is expressing concerns about the difficulties and complexities involved with the Government's approach to funding and regulation there. I had to laugh. One academic commented that the Government was trying to do to health what it had done to universities.

All this means that commentary is focusing on the question of systemic complexity and associated delivery issues. I am not sure that any of this matters at this point. What it does mean is that there is going to be far greater scrutiny of and less tolerance for the inevitable implementation problems.

Local Hospital Networks

One of the differences between the Rudd Government proposals and those put forward by earlier by Mr Abbott lies in governance and structure arrangements: local hospital networks vs individual hospital boards. Some commentators have suggested that the networks might end up looking like a smaller versions of the current NSW Area Health Services.

A post on my New England, Australia blog, Implications for New England from health reforms, looked at on-ground issues from the perspective of Bellingen Hospital. We simply don't know enough yet to make any real judgements as to how these things will pan out. What we can be sure is that the changes will play out at local and regional level across Australia.


On of the big issues that has yet to receive much attention in discussion lies in integration, integration within the health system, integration between the health system and other policy areas.

Medical training is an example of the need for integration within the health system. This depends heavily upon hospitals.

One of the reasons why I think that Mr Rudd was right in saying that the COAG Agreement was in fact an improvement on his previous proposals lies in the higher involvement of the states. In practical terms, this will aid integration.

Integration between health and other sectors has so far, to my knowledge, not been discussed at all.

Take mental health or aged care as examples. Housing is central here.

Take the HASI (Housing and Accommodation Support Inititiative) as an example. HASI  is a partnership program funded by the New South Wales Government that ensures stable housing linked to specialist support for people with mental illness.

By all accounts, this program has been a considerable success, although a friend involved in the area bewailed the fact that it is just too small given the scale of need. Where does HASI now belong?

If I interpret the new arrangements correctly, the current position will continue for the present. However, in the longer term, and assuming that my structural interpretation is correct, the Commonwealth will need to accept a degree of responsibility for the mental health side.

Similar issues arise with aged care services.


I think that I have gone as far as I can in analysing the new arrangements. I will continue to watch with interest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unpacking the Rudd Government health care changes

I wondered whether or not to attempt any analysis of yesterday's Australian Council of Australian Government's (COAG) agreement on health care. However, the COA communiqué on the meeting went on-line last night, so I thought that I might have an initial look at it for my own interest.

While the money involved plus the theatre have grabbed headlines, I am especially interested in the machinery and structures involved. What might all this actually mean for service delivery on the ground?

The analysis will obviously be partial. The devil with these things always lies in the detail and subsequent implementation.

Western Australian Position

The agreement presently involves the Commonwealth and all states and territories with the exception of West Australia. One thing that I had not sufficiently realised is that WA has a very particular present problem with the distribution of GST revenues. In addition, there is a deeply held view in WA that the Commonwealth and eastern states do not understand WA's special needs. 

Mr Rudd seemed confident that he could resolve the WA position one way or another, so that it can be put aside for the present.


The agreement provides that:

  • the Commonwealth will have funding and policy responsibility for GP and primary health care services, and aged care services.
  • the Commonwealth will become the majority funder of Australian public hospitals, by funding 60 per cent of the efficient price of all public hospital services delivered to public patients.

The focus in discussion has been on the public hospital system. However, acceptance that the Commonwealth has policy responsibility for GP and primary health care and aged services is quite important. This includes the transfer except for Victoria of responsibility for home and community care activities. The communiqué explains the changes in this way:

COAG, with the exception of Western Australia, agreed the Commonwealth will have full funding and policy responsibility for GP and primary health care, as defined in the National Health and Hospitals Network Agreement, including community health centres, primary mental health care, immunisation, and cancer screening programs. The Commonwealth will build on its responsibility for general practice and primary health care with the introduction of primary health care organisations. These bodies will be responsible for improving integration of services and reducing access gaps so that their local community can access care that meets local needs. Existing service delivery arrangements will be maintained for a period of five years unless otherwise agreed by governments.

COAG, with the exception of Western Australia, further agreed the Commonwealth will have full funding and policy responsibility for aged care. These reforms include a transfer to the Commonwealth of current resourcing for aged care services from the Home and Community Care (HACC) program (except in Victoria). In aged care, these reforms will support the development of a nationally consistent aged care system, covering basic home care through to nursing homes. Transition to the new aged care arrangements will occur in a way that ensures there is no disruption to the current recipients of these services, including younger people with disabilities who are currently receiving care in aged care services.

All States, with the exception of Western Australia, will work with the Commonwealth on system-wide primary health care policy, including where coordination is required to improve system integration or service planning.

Having one level of government responsible for the majority of hospital funding and all of primary health care and aged care will create strong incentives to support a healthier community and reduce pressure on hospitals. This will also help reduce cost-shifting and blame-shifting.

The role of the new primary health care organisations is not defined, nor are exact arrangements for aged care services.

If I read the arrangements correctly, agitation for improved services at local or regional level will now need to address the Commonwealth. One interesting side-effect of all this is that Commonwealth MPs are now going to have the joy of handling all the minutiae of electoral matters in these areas previously the preserve of their state colleagues!

Public Hospitals

The proposed arrangements in this area involve a standard's based funder-purchaser-provider model. I find the changes a little complicated.

The overall change is summarised in this way:

 COAG, with the exception of Western Australia, agreed that the Commonwealth will fund 60 per cent of the national efficient price of public hospital services delivered to public patients. The national efficient price is an independent and objectively determined calculation of the cost of providing public hospital services. The Commonwealth will also fund 60 per cent of capital, research and training in public hospitals, and over time move to fund 100 per cent of the national efficient price of ‘primary care equivalent’ outpatient services.

Now when we break the changes down, I think that we find the following:

Local Hospital Networks will be:

the direct managers of single or small groups of public hospital services and their budgets through a professional Governing Council, in order to devolve operational management for public hospitals and accountability for delivery to the local level. They will be held directly accountable for hospital performance. Local Hospital Networks will engage with the local community and local clinicians to incorporate their views into the day-to-day operation of hospitals, especially regarding the quality and safety of patient care. Local Hospital Networks will work with new primary health care organisations to support more integrated care and help ensure patients experience smooth transitions between sectors of the health system.

   Present health delivery structures vary between the states. In the NSW case, the present area health services will have to be broken up or at least heavily restructured to create 18-25 local hospital networks. This has a range of implications for things such as current doctor training arrangements that will need to be worked through in detail.

Activity based funding will be used to fund the new networks based on a " nationally efficient price" for each service provided to a public patient. Provision will be made for block funding to smaller local or regional hospitals that might otherwise be severely disadvantaged by the new arrangements. The networks will be responsible for funding minor capital works.

A new Independent Hospital Pricing Authority will be established to determine the "nationally efficient price". This will also be responsible for determining the Commonwealth’s payments for block funding and will be empowered to make binding determinations about cost-shifting and cross border issues in the health and hospital system.

Quality and Reporting Issues

COAG agreed:

to transparent performance reporting against high national standards and other performance indicators to provide Australians with more information than ever before about the performance of their health and hospital services.

To this end:

  1. There will be Hospital Performance Reports and Healthy Community Reports (on primary health care performance)
  2. A new independent National Performance Authority will be responsible for local level performance reporting. The Hospital Performance Reports prepared by the Authority will show how Local Hospital Networks, the hospitals within them, and private hospitals perform against new national standards, and other performance indicators
  3. New clinical safety and quality standards will be developed by a permanent Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. The independent National Performance Authority will be responsible for reporting on performance against these standards, across both primary care and public hospitals.

Funding Arrangements

The funding arrangements in all this are quite complicated and actually a bit difficult to work out just based on material to this point. The key elements appear to be:

  1. The Commonwealth's contribution to health funding will be paid into a new National Health and Hospitals Network Fund
  2. In each state or territory, joint intergovernmental authorities will be established. These will be tri-partite bodies made up of a jointly selected independent chair plus one Commonwealth and one State nominee.
  3. Each authority will receive Commonwealth funding from the new National Health and Hospital Networks Fund plus the State's GST share and will then pay the money to the local hospital networks. The exact mechanics have still to be defined.
  4. The National Health and Hospitals Network Fund will also direct payments to States for the Commonwealth’s contribution to 60 per cent of the cost of research and training undertaken in public hospitals, large-scale capital investment, and block funding for agreed functions and services and community service obligations required to support small regional and rural public hospitals. The National Health and Hospitals Fund will also provide a stream of funding to States for the continued delivery of GP and primary health care services for which full funding and policy responsibility is being transferred to the Commonwealth. Criteria and mechanics have still to be defined.

State Roles

If  we ignore transition arrangements, the future role of the states in health care appears to be limited to that of systems manager as defined by the Commonwealth from time to time. In return, they have gained a present cap on health care costs that might otherwise have totally destroyed their limited remaining financial flexibility.


The changed arrangements agreed to at COAG are going to take years to implement. In political terms, the gain from extra funding and the drama of the changes themselves will, I think, certainly aid the Government at the next election. All the detail and the problems flowing from the detail will emerge in the subsequent term.

I literally don't know how the new system will perform. We can make some guesses, but that needs to matter for further posts. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mr Rudd, health and the Australian constitution.

I continue to watch the debate in Australia about health funding with interest. It remains political theatre. However, I do wonder what it means for the Australian Federation.

By way of background, a post by SamuelJ on Catallaxy Files, The GST – a rough guide, provides a brief history of the GST (Goods and Services) tax. Another earlier post by Ken Parish on Club Troppo, Deconstructing Rudd’s health plan, discusses constitutional issues. This led to a companion post from me, Subsidiarity, the banks and Australian public policy, that discusses in part the way the Commonwealth has used Commonwealth-State agreements to tie the states up.

The problem of fiscal imbalance within the Federation has been a growing one for many years now. Part of the justification for the GST lay in giving the states access to a growth tax. Part of the price extracted from the states was the cessation of a number of state taxes that were seen, correctly, as inefficient from an economic viewpoint.

As the analysis quoted by Ken Parish makes clear, the net effect of the introduction of the GST was to leave the states dependent, as before, on Commonwealth funding. This held notwithstanding rhetoric from the Commonwealth Government to the effect that the states now had access to funds. The existence of the GST became a vehicle that could be used by the Commonwealth as required to argue against the provision of extra funds for particular purposes.

The general approach adopted by the Rudd Government since its election has accelerated centralisation. Mr Rudd believes in measurement and control. The various Commonwealth-State agreements negotiated since the Rudd Government Government came to power have generally been far more prescriptive, the approach more dictatorial; in some cases, the Commonwealth has not only dictated the performance indicators to be met, but has also mandated that it must approve the detailed implementation plans. This leaves the individual states or territories with formal public responsibility, but with little real authority.   

In some ways, Mr Rudd's actions on health have torn the veil away. Mr Rudd made it clear that the Commonwealth must be in control. The states have been told to take it or leave it. The proposed transfer of 30% of GST revenue - the purported state growth tax - to Commonwealth control is intended to ensure Commonwealth control.

The Rudd health care proposals themselves may or may not be good public policy. That is open to debate. What is clear is that Mr Rudd is attempting to bring about a further shift in the balance between Commonwealth and states.

The states are in a difficult position.

The health system needs extra money that they cannot provide. However, if they agree to Mr Rudd's proposals they give effective control away, while confirming the principle that the GST is in fact just another Commonwealth tax. Their problems are further compounded by their experience with previous Rudd Government Partnership arrangements. There is distrust at both official and political level. The states know that they may end up wearing problems not of their making.

As I write, negotiations are proceeding. I really have no idea as to outcome.

I have made my own personal constitutional position clear before.

I would like to see more states than we have at the present time because I think that present state structures, NSW in particular, have become unworkable. However, I think that those states need constitutionally entrenched positions because experience to date with local, regional and territorial governments is that the powers granted to them will simply be over-ridden by the granting body as political exigencies dictate. I also think that there needs to be a degree of flexibility over time in the allocation of powers since needs change.

Regardless of my own views, I think that so far as health itself is concerned, we need clarity as to who is responsible for what. If Mr Rudd is determined to assert the Commonwealth's power and position as seems to be the case, then it would seem sensible to alter the constitution to make the position clear.

It may be true, as Mr Abbott argues, that the Commonwealth already has the power in this area. However, a formal constitutional change would put the matter beyond doubt. It would also make the Commonwealth responsible for and accountable for its own actions. It presently is not.  

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pakistan's Jamaat-ud-Dawa

Last night I watched an Australian SBS Dateline program on Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its links to Lashkar-e-Taiba. You can find the transcript here, as well as a link to the video.

The world of Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a self contained world with its own realities.

I looked at the program from several different levels. In particular, I tried to look below the reporting to see what I could see in terms of culture and structure.

In watching, I tried to understand how those involved in Jamaat-ud-Dawa thought.  As I watched, I thought just how difficult it all was. I also came to a greater understanding of the practical problems faced by the Pakistan Government.

One of the reasons why the study of history is so dangerous is that, properly done, it gives people an understanding of different viewpoints.

This doesn't mean that you come to agree with those viewpoints. Far from it. However, it does force changes in your own perspectives.

This is why so many Governments attempt to control the teaching of history. In totalitarian regimes, they effectively specify what won't be taught. In democratic regimes, they specify what will be taught, linking this to learning objectives.

In practice, the effects can be the same. Sad, really.   

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A conversation on blogging

KVD, Kangaroo Valley David, is one of my regular readers. His comments have generated a number of posts. This is one more.

In response to Rupert Murdoch and the future of blogging, KVD made some thoughtful observations on blogging. I decided to respond as in a conversation or interview.

KVD: What I really wanted to say was that blogs such as yours, to me, seem to differ in at least three practical ways when compared to mass circulation media:
1) the lack of editorial overview/review and direction
2) the reduced size of the potential audience
3) the “self-feeding” inherent within what seem to be fairly small circles of bloggers.

JB: There are several issues here.

Obviously, blogs like this one are not subject to external editorial oversight. However, this does not mean that bloggers do not exercise their own editorial oversight. In fact, writing on most blogs tends to fall into patterns determined by the blogger's interests. Neil, for example, has a strong focus on climate change, Marcellous on music and law. Both add the personal, as I do too.

However, I must admit to a lack of personal discipline when it comes to this blog. While I, too, write within themes, I end up all over the place. Because I write a lot, I have a blog writing plan, but rarely stick to it.

I am sure that this affects audience. In fact, I know that it does.

Around 75% of the traffic comes from search engines, 20% from return readers, 5% from referrals. When I first started blogging, I focused on building search engine traffic, then on interacting with fellow bloggers. From time to time, I would also consciously write to attract traffic spikes based around current events. Over time, this built up a fair traffic. It was still my personal blog, but my writing was more controlled.

More recently, while return traffic has remained relatively constant, both search engine and referral traffic has declined from the peak levels achieved in 2008. Overall traffic is now stable, but without real growth.

Compare this to New England, Australia. This blog plus New England's History necessarily have a more defined specialist focus. Initially traffic was very low - all search engine. More recently, they have acquired a life of their own measured by return readers, comments and referrals. There is some reader overlap with this blog, but the readership is different. The key here seems to be recognition of my role as an informed commentator on issues New England. So there is a lesson there.

I would agree with you that there is a measure of self-feeding among fairly small circles of bloggers. Previously I have spoken of the village, the way in which small overlapping circles combined to create a sense of broader community.

I see this as a good thing. However, I have a feel to some degree that the community is breaking down a little. I am not sure why.                

KVD: These are not criticisms, just observations – and they are directed towards “personal” blogs, such as yours and Mr Barratt’s, rather than blogs attached to the Crikeys and Huffington Posts of the world. I think there will always be a place for both the mass market and the personal reflections approaches. And I deliberately do not quote your blog title.

I would distinguish blogs such as yours and Mr Barratt’s and Ramana’s from the clipping services provided by some other bloggers which seem to me more to be designed as meeting places for already committed/decided readers to express their already known views via the comments.

The distinguishing feature to me is unfiltered original thought. And for that I politely salute you and both of them. One “problem” is the lack of circulation. But that is only a problem if wider circulation is what you seek, as opposed to personal satisfaction, understanding, fulfillment etc.

JB: We all like to be read!

The blogging world has become more complicated.

From the beginning you had the A list bloggers, those who wrote on particular topics with the intent of attracting traffic and then using this as a base to create revenue. At the other end of the spectrum were the purely personal diaries. In the middle came a variety of subject related blogs and of some of the more serious personal blogs such as the ones we are talking about now.

Group blogs - multi-author - emerged quite early. Then, more recently, the newspapers added blogs. You also had the emergence of syndicated blogs such as the Crikey group formed by grouping existing blogs under one banner to support an on-line publication. A second variant of this I think of as the blog publishers: a central point for multiple blogs and bloggers who actually pay for content. This is usually a pittance. Then you have the clipping services. Meantime, the pure diary type blogs have been in decline, cut off at the base by the new social networking sites.

Another development has been the addition of comment provisions on specific news stories as distinct from the media blogs themselves.

In all this, the role of the true independent blogger has become somewhat diminished. The burn-out rate for all individual blogs is quite high. I know this from my own blog list. It takes a certain degree of insanity to just keep writing! Further, we all have limited reading time, so the more "blogging" style outlets provided by the conventional media, the less time for other sources.

I agree in general with your remark on the comment streams. However, there are some blogs where the comment streams themselves are almost the real content in that they provide information and draw out ideas.

Finally, the Australian blogging world is quite small, despite the apparently large number of blogs. Those who write on particular topics for long enough tend to know or at least know of each other. This can give rise to a degree of in-breeding!

What is missing is something like the now defunct Club Troppo missing link, something that reports on individual Australian blogs and blog posts, thus exposing new or less recognised blogs to a broader audience.         

KVD: I started writing this before your post about Facebook and Twitter. These don’t personally interest me as tools for expression simply because I see them as “closed loops” – i.e groups of like-thinking friends who mainly reinforce (cheer on?) each other’s endeavours. Again – absolutely not a criticism, just an observation.

JB: There is some truth in this. However, and as noted in the post, they (Facebook and Twitter) do serve different purposes. From my perspective as a blogger, a key question remains the best way of using them to support my blogging activities! 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - Country Party lessons for the Greens

In Tasmania's constitutional wrangle, I made a passing comparison between the Greens and the Country Party.

In many ways, the political party that is closest to the Greens in electoral position is the Country or National Party. Like the old Country Party, the Greens are in a minority position. Like the old Country Party, they have to decide how to use their balancing position. And like the old Country Party, their voter base seems to strongly favour one major party over the other, thus constraining their freedom. Will they, for example, stand out or finally enter a defacto coalition with Labor?

Since I wrote, it seems that the Greens have decided to opt for what we can think of as the South Australian model: acceptance of a cabinet position by the Green leader, but on a personal basis without binding agreement of a coalition type between the parties themselves.

To maintain the principle of cabinet solidarity, the minority minister or ministers is bound to support the Government on those cabinet discussions that they have participated in, but may absent themselves from cabinet discussions. Should they do so, then they need no longer be bound by the general principle of cabinet solidarity on that issues.

Also since I wrote, Possum Comitatus has produced some very interesting analysis, Class, voting and broad left demography, looking at the relationship between occupation and voting. This morning I thought that I might use this analysis as an entry point to extend my comparison between the Greens and Country Party. For the sake of international readers, I have added in some basic explanation of names and geography as I go along.

The idea of comparing the Country Party (now National Party) and the Greens will seem like anathema to some. The Country Party is seen as sitting on the right of politics, the Greens on the left. I suspect that many Greens in particular may find the comparison deeply odious. However, my thesis is that while there may be differences in policies, the nature of the electoral support for the two parties creates similar electoral and political dynamics.

Overview history of the Australian Greens

The Australian Greens web site provides a history of the party. Just to quote a few key points:

The Australian Greens is a confederation of eight state and territory parties which grew out of Australian environment movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The campaign to save Lake Pedder led to the formation of the United Tasmania Group in 1972. This was the first 'green party' in the world.

The 1990s began with serious efforts to form a national Green political party. By the end of 1992, both the Australian Greens and a Victorian Greens party were established.  

In 2004, the Greens increased their Senate representation to four when Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle were joined by Christine Milne from Tasmania and Rachel Siewert from Western Australia.

At the 2007 Federal election, more than a million Australians voted Green. Bob Brown was resoundingly re-elected, but Kerry Nettle was not, despite an increase in her vote. Sarah Hanson-Young (SA) and Scott Ludlam (WA) joined Bob, Christine and Rachel in the Senate in July 2008.

At state level, the Greens have 21 elected members of parliament: four in Tasmania, four in New South Wales, four in the ACT, three in Victoria, five in Western Australia, and one in South Australia. More than 80 Greens have been elected to local councils around the country.

At state wide or national level, and like the Australian Democrats before them, the Greens attract enough general votes to obtain seats in those houses of parliament where voting is proportional. This includes the Tasmanian Lower House with its multi-member electorates. However, in a system dominated by two major parties, the Greens struggle to get enough votes to win single member lower house seats under preferential or optional preferential systems.

To win here, they have to get in front of one of the major parties and then collect enough preferences from that party to win. In practice, the left orientation of the Greens means that they have to get in front of the Labor Party; Liberal preferences are far less likely to flow to the Greens.   

The Green vote is geographically concentrated. While this was true to some degree for the Australian Democrats, the Green vote in certain limited areas is far higher than the Democrat vote was, high enough to give the Party some chance of election in preferential single member seat contests. In general, these are inner city Labor leaning seats. I would not be surprised, for example, to see the Greens win perhaps two such seats at the next NSW election.

Overview history of the Australian Country Parties

The Australian Country Parties emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century. Like the Greens, their emergence coincided with similar movements in other countries. Like the Greens, the Parties' votes were geographically concentrated. Like the Greens, there were very considerable differences between State Parties, leading to the adoption of a confederation of State Parties model. For much of its history, the Australian Country Party at federal level was a parliamentary party with a very weak national administrative structure.

Like the Greens, the Parties gained a balancing role and had to decide how to use, taking the views of their voter base into account. They also had to choose between maintenance of a specialist role and the desire to broaden the base and seek for Government in their own right. In practical terms, this has been most pronounced in Queensland, although in Victoria a minority Country Party Government was kept in power for a period by Labor support.

Occupational Bases

This historical analysis is necessarily superficial. However, I hope that it sets a context. In saying this, I am also conscious of the need not to over-state the similarities. My interest lies in the tactical and strategic similarities faced by the two Parties.

The votes of all the Australian political parties have been strongly influenced by their varying appeal to different occupational groupings. Australian political scientist and fellow blogger Geoff Robinson would put this in class terms and indeed this has been important. However, it is also simpler and easier to look at occupational groupings, then add in other elements.

Traditionally, the Australian Labor Party has appealed especially strongly to manual workers. If you look at Northern NSW (New England), the area I know best, the strength of the Labor vote has traditionally been linked to the relative strength of the manual workforce. This holds in general and when you drill down to specific localities. However, it is not just the size of the manual workforce, but also the degree of organisation (unionisation) of that work force.

One of the interesting things about Possum's analysis of occupation and voting patterns is that it suggests that the nexus between Labor and the much declined manual workforce is no longer statistically significant.

So far as the Greens are concerned, Possums's analysis suggests that there is a very powerful correlation between the Green vote and three occupational categories - Arts & Recreation Services, Information Media & Telecommunications and Education. The varying Green vote is directly and powerfully related to the varying proportions of those groups in the workforce.

If we compare this to the Country Party, we have the varying strength of the farmer vote. I say farmer, because the rural work force such as farm labourers or shearers has often voted Labor. The early Australian Country Party spanned all states; the first Parliamentary leader in fact came from Tasmania. However, in those states where the rural vote was a relatively small proportion of the total  such as Tasmania and South Australia, the Party largely vanished.

Broadening the Base

To get elected, you have to attract support. You can aim, as the Democrats largely did, to work as a broad party across areas hoping to attract enough aggregate votes to get your people into upper houses. However, if you are to get people into single member lower houses, you have to attract votes to build your core base and also add people beyond your core base.

Both the Greens and the early Country Parties are/were populist parties. Indeed, the structure of the rhetoric if not the exact content is remarkably similar. Both had central causes, both defined enemies, both presented themselves as outside of and as reformers of existing systems.

The problem the early Country Parties faced lay in the need to attract other country support, for even then the farm vote as such was not sufficient to ensure overall continued electoral success. In particular, town support was required. However, the exact form of response varied considerably.

In Queensland where the majority of the population lay outside the capital city, the party that controlled the non-metro vote could actually control the state with a bit of help from Brisbane. This created a unique set of dynamics: Labor, the Liberal equivalent and the Country Party could all compete for full power. This actually muted the distinct Country Party message. At times, the Party vanished, at other times it was in Government.

Victoria was very different.

In Australia we have traditionally made a distinction between farmers and graziers or pastoralists. Farmers have generally been the radical end of the rural spectrum. At the time the Country Parties emerged, some of the farm groups were populist radicals. By contrast, the wealthier grazing interests were far more conservative. 

In Victoria, the Country Party was dominated by radical small farm interests. Grazing interests were effectively captured by the Melbourne establishment. This made it difficult for the Country party to broaden its base. It remained a farm party, with its core electoral strength in regions where farming was central.

NSW and especially Northern NSW was different again. Indeed, you cannot understand elements of NSW politics without understanding the history of Northern NSW.

In NSW, Sydney sat in population terms between Brisbane and Melbourne. Northern NSW was big enough and remote enough to have its own political dynamics.

As in Victoria, the more radical farm interests played a leading role in the formation of the Progressive, now Country Party. As in Tasmania today, the introduction of a Hare Clarke system with multi-member electorates elected by proportional representation provided an opening for a new political group. Unlike Victoria, however, the newly emerging Country Party/Progressive Party also captured the wealthier grazing interests.

There was another factor as well. In Northern NSW, the emergence after the First World War of an active separation movement seeking self-government for the North supported Country Party growth. The new separation movement was non-party political. It was also strongly influenced by and supported by town interests.

While non-party political, the separation movement could most easily be supported by a party that did not rely on Sydney for its votes. This allowed to the Northern NSW Country Party to combine farm, grazing and town interests, in so doing becoming the dominant political force across Northern NSW outside the lower Hunter. Elsewhere in NSW, the Country Party was far more unstable and insecure. It was its Northern NSW geographic base that guaranteed continuity.

This may seem a long way from the Greens. The point is that to really grow, the Greens have to reach outside their traditional geographic bases and to form new alliances. In so doing, they will face exactly the same problems as the Country Party.

Problems with power and coalition

It is not easy for a special interest minority party to capture power or to exercise influence. At present, Tasmania is the only state in which the Greens might hope to have a chance of power in their own right. This means that in most cases they have to use their influence, their balancing position, to obtain results. In doing so, they also are bound by the views of their core constituency.

In December 1920, the still new NSW Progressive Party split down the middle over the question of coalition with the then Liberal Party equivalent. The "True Blues", the predominantly country members who were to become the NSW Country Party, refused to participate. Their argument in part was that they could not represent country people if they were bound in coalition with one of the old city based parties.

It is actually hard now looking back to capture the genuine sense of idealism. They had gone to their electors with a set of beliefs and on a platform that did not allow them to compromise. The newly formed Government lasted just seven hours.

In the longer term, practical political realities including demands from the NSW Graziers Association, a major donor, made some form of coalition inevitable. However, a hard edge remained that forced a degree of political balance in the relationship between the smaller Country party and the bigger non-Labor party. There was always the risk that, if necessary, the Country Party would move to the cross-benches. It is only in the last thirty years that the Country now National Party has come to be seen as a somewhat subservient rural rump.

Today, the Greens are where the Country Party was all those years ago. Their political base will not allow them to consider coalition with or support for non-Labor forces, yet without this their actual power to achieve will be limited. This need not matter if they are playing a limited if important Democrat style role in respective upper houses. It does matter if they want to do more than this.


I was going to finish this post by looking at some specific electoral campaign matters, again using the Country Party as a comparison.

Just as the emerging Country Parties had to adopt different electoral techniques to win, so (I think) is true of the Greens. The policies adopted by Liberal and Labor including especially the marginal seats strategy do not work well when you are trying to break in. You have to overcome the other parties' strategies. Again, I think that the grass roots Country Party approach provides lessons.

Given time, I fear that this must wait until another post.                          

Friday, April 16, 2010

Problems with historical labels: Germany

A funny thing happened yesterday. I was doing some research on Germans in New England with a special focus on the role of Wilhelm Kirchner.

Karl Ludwig Wilhelm Kirchner is something of an unknown figure in Australian history unless you are of German ancestry. Then you may well know of him

Wilhelm Kirchner was born in Frankfurt in 1814.

His father was a wealthy burger. Wilhelm received a good education and then, at age eighteen, went to Manchester to stay with friends. There he met two Sydney merchants. Attracted by the idea of the new colony, he left for Sydney on the Mary arriving on 20 July 1839. Achieving commercial success, he became consul for Hamburg in 1846 and then persuaded the NSW Government to appoint him to bring German migrants to Sydney on a bounty basis, with the first 600 arriving in 1849. In the end, thousands of German migrants came to the colony over the next decade.

You can see why so many Australians of German ancestry know the name Wilhelm Kirchner. However, there is a problem.

In writing up the material I inserted a paragraph about the definition of "German". I did so because I knew that this was a confused one. The German Empire, the first German Reich, was not formed until 1871. Further, a huge number of Germans in the sense of those speaking German or one of its dialects lived outside the Empire, while the Empire contained many non-German speakers. As Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: Nazi rule in occupied Europe (Penguin Books, London 2009) makes clear, the desire to gather all Germans into one state was one of the drivers of Hitler's policies.

Okay, I knew all this. So what was the funny thing that happened?

I decided to re-check German history. This reminded me of how much I had forgotten. It also showed me just how difficult it was even to speak of Germans in the context of Australian colonial history: how to use the term in a way that made sense, that did not simply impose modern constructs on the past.

I think very few Australians know just how recent the concept of the nation state is, how some of the countries we take for granted just did not exist in 1788 when the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay.

We know about the new countries that emerged in the post-colonial period after the Second World War. We do not know that what we think of as old countries are new, that our systems of Government are in fact older than theirs.

To set a context here, in 1843 the NSW Legislative Council was enlarged to 36 members, 24 of whom were elected at the first elections ever to take place in Australia. Then in 1855, NSW was given full representative Government. All of this took place within an evolving British constitutional system that already had a long history.

Now consider Germany.       

The Napoleonic Wars raged between 1803 and 1815. In many ways this was the first modern war in which the resources of the state were marshaled for the purposes of armed conflict. Had Napoleon won this war, it is quite possible that the French Empire would today be the dominant power in Europe, that the European colonial expansion would have been dominated by the French. Instead, the British Empire became the dominant global power.

Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the territory that is now Germany formed part of what was called The Holy Roman Empire, or from 1512 The Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation. The map shows the empire around 1300.

The Empire was always a somewhat ramshackle affair, caught in constant tensions between the centre and the competing parts. By the start of the Napoleonic Wars it was a crazy patchwork quilt of states, principalities, religious territories and free cities. Further, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 gave the constituent parts virtual independence, the ruling Habsburg concentrated on building their personal domains in Austria and elsewhere.

The Empire was formally dissolved in 1806 following military defeat by Napoleon. When Napoleon in turn was defeated, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 established the German Confederation as a loose confederation of 39 states and free cities. This is why Wilhelm Kirchner could become consul for Hamburg, for Hamburg was effectively an independent state.

Riven with internal conflicts and especially rivalry between Austria and Prussia, the Confederation collapsed in 1866 following war between Prussia and Austria. The photo from Wikipedia shows a meeting of German monarchs at Frankfurt in 1863. In 1871, the Prussian controlled German Empire was formed.

Now if you look at this brief chronology, you get just a hint of the complexity in central European politics. This had direct flow-on effects in Australia as to who came and why. It shows, I think, why you have to be careful in attaching modern labels to the past. It also illustrates my point about the relative longevity of Australia's institutions.

By the time the German Empire was formed, the colony of NSW was eighty three years old and had full representative government for sixteen years. The German Empire itself survived just forty eight years.

Of course modern Germany can claim a long heritage. However, it is still true that many things we take for granted in terms of structures are quite recent. I have to keep reminding myself of this, of the need to check rather than just assume. This is remarkably hard to do!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Belshaw's position on climate change

Yesterday Pat Lightfoot, one of the readers of my Armidale Express column, asked why I had not written on climate change. I have, of course, but not in the Express. Coincidentally, Marcellous asked a question on an earlier post of mine, End of Historic Toorale Station, on my method of calculating the real costs of the acquisition of Toorale.

I need to think a bit about M's comment/question because he has raised a technical issue that I need to think through. Pat's comment led me to go back through past posts linked in some way to climate change.

We all write from our our own perspectives. I often write from a country Australia and/or New England perspective. I am especially concerned at the way in which some of the proposed responses associated with climate change ignore regional impacts. To that degree I can be accused of being parochial. But then, most of us are in one way or another. I also try to write from a public policy perspective. What are the policy options, what do they mean, how might they work?

In checking past posts, I only looked at this blog since the majority of posts on climate change are here. As is so often the case, the posts are all in a sense work in progress. I am seeking to understand. I think that the position I have now reached in my own thinking can be summarised in this way:

  1. On the balance I accept the majority scientific position that human induced climate change is a problem that need to be dealt with now. To wait until the science is proved right is a high risk strategy.
  2. To the degree that there are identifiable changes such as changes in sea levels, then we need to consider our responses to them. This holds regardless of the causes of those changes: we need to respond to the what, rather than the why. I say this because my study of history and pre-history shows that, regardless of current current climate change arguments, there have been considerable natural variations that have actually occurred quite quickly. Nature is not static. 
  3. I have been concerned for some time that group think in the scientific community and beyond has, to some extent, crowded out alternative views and that this has dangers. Scientific group think tends to be self-correcting over time because of the nature of scientific method. However, broader group think is less subject to correction.
  4. Linked to three, I have been concerned at the way climate change arguments have become linked to so many disconnected issues. These arguments take the form if a (climate change) then b (add in whatever you like), when a and b are in fact disconnected or at best loosely connected. The tendency to link specific current events like the recent drought in southern Australia to climate change does not help. All this actually acts to discredit the core case.
  5. Again linked to three, I have been concerned at what I see as the failure in discussion to adequately explore alternative policy responses to climate change. It may be that a market based response such as an emissions trading scheme is the best response (I suspect that either an ETS or carbon tax will be necessary), but I would feel much more comfortable if there had been more public discussion of alternatives. Among other things, this would give us a much better feel for practical implications of an ETS and for supporting measures that may be needed, as well as reducing the risk of simply dumb policy responses.

I am not sure I would go beyond this at this point in terms of conclusions, beyond adding that at a purely personal level I do not find much of the current discussion between believers and non-believers especially helpful in understanding how we might respond.                 

Selected Past Posts