Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The life of my grandfather part 4

Drummond's life 4 - Towards Centre Stage: Public life 1922-1927 continues my biography of David Drummond. It covers NSW politics, including the transformation of the Progressive Party to the Country Party, fights over railways and the Sydney Harbour Bridge Bill; along with continued new state agitation at state and national level, including the initially disastrous Cohen Royal Commission and the further articulation of the Movement's constitutional position.

It's interesting revisiting my writing after all this time. I haven't tried to edit. I think that it still stands up okay although there are some changes I would make now, especially if editing for publication.

The period is an interesting one for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Progressives had to deal with many of the same issues that now face the Greens. The constitutional arguments are also directly relevant to debate today, although one could wish in a sense that that were not true.

Somaliland votes

A story in Al Jazeera, Voting wraps up in Somaliland, caught my eye. I know far less than I should about African affairs,  but Somaliland was familiar as a name because of the days as a kid when I collected stamps and used to devour the various Stanley Gibbons' catalogues. Looking back, this gave me me a remarkably good knowledge of changing political geography!slsh005-a

Somaliland was familiar, but I looked it up to be sure. Yes, Somaliland used to be British Somaliland. More precisely, Somaliland claims, but does not control, the full territory that used to belong to British Somaliland.

British Somaliland was briefly independent in 1960 before becoming part of Somalia. In 1991, Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia. While still formally unrecognised, it has a functioning government and has slowly gained a measure of international recognition.

The presidential elections were held on 26 June, the date on which Somaliland independence was proclaimed. You will find the Government web site here.       

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A pause

It's cold but bright today. It's one of those days when I want to light a big fire in the back yard.

I am trying to finish a first draft of the paper I have to deliver in Armidale in three week's time on New England's Aboriginal languages. I am behind, but I at least want to get the core structure there.

Tikno, as requested, I started  a companion post linked to your last post, but after an hour or so I put it aside. I find the issues quite complicated.

I am not sure that I will be able to post here tomorrow. I really must catch up on other things, including the paper.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ms Gillard and the importance of population planning

I am leaving the current froth and bubble of Australian politics aside for the present until it all settles down. Instead, I have been trying to get my mind around just one thing, what Ms Gillard's rejection of a "big Australia" in population terms might actually mean.

As it happened, last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released Australian new population estimates, including population projections. So it seemed appropriate to look at the numbers. I am also featuring the issue in this week's Armidale Express column since it is a little while since I wrote on demography there.

As with a lot of these things, actually looking at the numbers is a good first start.

One of the the things that I have mentioned before that we all tend to forget is the large number of Australians who leave the country. We actually need immigrants just to keep the population stable. As an example, assume that we had wanted a zero increase in the Australian population in calendar 2009. To achieve this, we would still have needed a bit over 77,000 new overseas migrants. Had we wanted to limit the total population increase just to the natural increase, the number of new migrants rises to 230,000.

There are all sorts of leads and lags built into the migration statistics. However, the thought that we might still need significant migration just to stand still or even grow slowly is not a common one.

For someone like me interested in the economic entrails, one of the most interesting issues lies in the nature of the dynamic effects on population distribution and the pattern of economic activity across the country. Forget the overall macro-effects, the usual frame of debate, and instead focus on the impact on particular regions and cities.

At one blow, the adoption of a zero or low growth population target would invalidate the key assumptions on which a lot of current planning is based. Of all Australian cities, the effects would be most pronounced in Sydney and possibly also Adelaide. Depending on the target set and the assumptions used, both cities could experience an actual population decline. This comes about because, on current population dynamics, both are heavily dependant on overseas migration for new people.

To flesh this out a little, it seems likely but not certain that internal population dynamics, the movement of people within Australia, would retain current patterns because these are in part driven by shifts in economic activity. The faster growing areas would continue to grow. However, with lower overall population growth, their relative share of the Australian population would increase at a faster rate. Conversely, the relative shares of other parts of Australia would decline at a faster rate. 

These shifts would flow through in a whole variety of ways. They would affect infrastructure investment, building industries, housing prices and electoral boundaries. They would affect the size of the Australian workforce.

I am not saying that all this is necessarily bad. At a purely personal level, while I am a supporter of migration, I do struggle with the idea that our big metropolitan conurbations should take so many more people when other parts of the country need people. I would be more comfortable if planning actually took into account where we wanted people to go, rather than the simple application of trends.

You can see why I find all this fascinating? That said, I don't actually expect the changes to be as dramatic as might be suggested by my analysis. In practice, the most likely outcome is simply some cut in overall migration numbers sometime in the next few years. This is likely to happen anyway, given the changes that have been made to the treatment of overseas students.      

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Essay - Europe, China and the GFC

I am constantly surprised at how little I know. I was reminded of this because, with the G20 meeting underway in Canada, I did a quick tour of various economists' blogs. I am simply not as up to date as I should be!

Earlier in June in Economic clouds gather, I expressed a somewhat pessimistic view on the economic outlook. Storm clouds have continued to gather, with the current G20 meeting split down the middle on the need for fiscal consolidation vs continued expansionary activities. I was reminded of the 1970s when something of the same split occurred. Then, as now, one issue was the willingness of Germany to undertake economic expansion. German memories of the hyper-inflation after the First World War still run deep.

I presently lack the detailed understanding of the numbers to make really sensible comments. However, I would point to a few things that I think to be of importance.

The first is the continued debt overhang associated not so much with Government borrowings, but with total borrowings in the period leading up to the GFC. I am not sure of the real level of impairment in balance sheets, but it is probably substantial.

Here, I think, we need to make a distinction between firms in general, the finance sector and Government.

At least in Australia, ordinary company balance sheets have been significantly improved. In the absence of a total economic crash, there is not a general corporate debt problem. Firms have the capacity to increase debt to fund expansion. With the exception of China, I think that the same process has been happening elsewhere.

Where the impairment continues to be substantial is in the now interlocked finance-government sectors. As best I can understand it, the real problem with Greece from a global perspective lies not in the size of the Greek economy or even Greek debt in an absolute sense, but in the potential flow-on effects to a banking sector within Europe already weakened by the GFC. I am sure that I am putting this very simplistically, but I am trying to keep it simple for my own sake.

There is a lot of discussion at present about the possible end of the Euro and the damage done to the EU by the Greek crisis. The first is possible, the second certain. But what does all this mean in the type of time horizons we are talking about, say the next two years?

My best guess is that Europe will muddle through. However, this will come at the cost of very low economic growth.

In considering this, I think it helpful to remember that Europe already faced long term structural problems at the time the GFC hit from a combination of demographic change with domestic economic inflexibilities in areas such as the labour market. Current problems compound these difficulties. The practical effect of the GFC may be to force Europe to deal with some of its structural problems now rather than later.

Given this, what about the US? Again, I don't really know! Looking at a two year time horizon and taking account of US economic imbalances, my best guess would be very slow economic growth.

All this may sound very depressing, but I wonder about this. Keeping my simplistic Jim hat on, world resources at any point in time are limited. I am not talking in an environmental sense here, just an economics one.

If China, India etc are to grow faster than the world average, then they have to attract additional resources. Given constraints on absolute growth, faster growth in one area implies slower growth in another. Looking at things this way makes me wonder whether global policies designed to accelerate growth in all countries could ever achieve their desired effects at a time of fundamental economic change. Its a bit like all companies in a sector setting growth targets greater in aggregate than the sector's possible growth; it can't be done!  

What does this mean for Australia? I think that it means that we will see continued demand for our minerals underpinning growth, but without the type of absurd windfall prices that some have come to expect.

What do you think? Does all this make sense? What am I missing?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Death of John Martin

John Martin

I was distressed to learn of the death of John Martin. You will find  his obituary here.

While it is many years since we last had contact, John's death left me feeling quite upset. In this post I want to record why.

Towards the end of 1979 I was appointed Assistant Secretary Economic Analysis in the Department of Industry and Commerce.

The Minister, Sir Phillip Lynch, had been Treasurer. Part of our role was to give him the type of service he had previously got from Treasury, part to provide general economic and financial advice to the Department and to its outriders such as the Australian Manufacturing Council.

John was one of the Directors in my new branch in charge of the Finance Section. I wanted to start as AS in full control from the beginning, so in the weeks preceding my arrival John (he was acting A/S) arranged for me to get the pinks - copies of all written material (minutes, memos, letters) from the branch. I read these in detail and then rang John to ask questions. By the time I arrived, I felt pretty confident.

John himself was Director in charge of the Finance Section. This was responsible for advice on tax, business regulation and finance issues.

It was a busy section, for John was not only trying to push through tax changes that might assist industry, but was also advising on all the minutiae of proposed tax changes. Our job was to look at the industry implications. Remarkably often, we would find that the "purist" advice from Treasury or ATO was flawed because it ignored practical effects.

When I arrived, I found that the branch had serious staffing and morale problems. I had to focus on sorting these out, while still maintaining work flows. John's competence and calm demeanour was central to my ability to do this.

In writing John's obituary, David Humphries said:                  

John Martin was among the least flustered, most loyal, least judgmental, most generous men one could hope to call a friend. He brought these qualities, and abundant common sense and good intellect, to a lifetime of mostly public service, a role for which he was well fitted.

This is just the John I knew. He was one of those people that it was a joy to work with.

I know that those who worked for or with John will echo the sentiments. 

Saturday Morning Musings - is economics still relevant?

In the discussion on my post, The fall of economics, KVD asked whether economics as practiced was still relevant in the internet world. He mused:  

I understand your past-tense quote “Resources were limited, so economics was also the study of the application of scarce means to alternative ends”, but am wondering how this now can be rephrased/rejigged to cover areas of activity such as the Internet?

Here we basically seem to have an abundance of resource, provided by unknown vendors/sellers, to end consumers/purchasers with little or no direct cost for that consumption or even remote connection between the various parties.

KVD didn't know it, but he actually raised issues that have been a matter of considerable concern to I and others in the past. The short answer is yes, but analysis can require changes to the concepts and tool kits used.

At the time I first became involved with the electronics, aerospace and information industries in 1983, these were very important questions. I described our overall policy approach in Case studies in public administration. There I said in part:

Wide industry definition. We developed the widest definition for the electronics, aerospace and information industries that we could get away with, combining manufacturing and services all centred on the application of systems approaches. When Barry Jones became Minister for Science and Minster Assisting in 1974 following the Department's acquisition of science and technology responsibilities, we further extended reach into information policy.

All this meant that the service sectors including telecommunications actually dominated in terms of employment and value of production. I also said that we had to develop new analytical approaches. Central to these were the application of economics to enhance our understanding of both firm and industry performance. We actually experienced considerable problems here because we were in fact challenging some of the implicit assumptions built into conventional micro economic analysis. All this is best illustrated by example.

To begin, consider the concept of investment. This is traditionally measured in terms of physical capital - plant and equipment. This worked quite well in the past. However, how do you apply the concept in, say, professional services where physical capital is only a small component of the whole? Or information services, where the same issue applies?

I make this point because investment in the sense of investment of resources now for longer term paybacks has been central to the changes that have taken place across professional services over the last thirty or so years. Capital intensity has in fact risen sharply, a rise that is only partially reflected in a rise in investment as measured by physical assets. Measuring investment by those assets is dangerously misleading.

As a second example, consider telecommunications. At the time we started work, there was a firmly embedded view that telecommunications was a non-traded service provided by monopoly, generally Government owned, carriers whose relationships were regulated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). In fact, it was already clear that this traditional view was breaking down under the impact of new technology, new networks and new service types. It was also clear that falling real prices of telecommunications meant that previously non-traded activities were increasingly subject to competition, leading to what came to be called foot-loose industries, support activities migrating to lower wage cost countries. Convergence was also well underway, not just between computing and communications, but also between communications and the media.

It was quite hard to get this across. To do so, we used economic analysis to tease out industry and market relationships. A key aim was to demonstrate that dynamic processes were in train that would inevitably lead to fundamental industry and market restructuring.

In our analysis, we used concepts drawn from micro-economics. Now here we faced a problem. Concepts used in macro-economics including trade theory are very important in understanding how economies work at a general sense, but can be quite misleading when applied at industry level. The concept of comparative advantage is an example. Whatever the general arguments for comparative advantage, the blind application of that concept by Treasury created a mental block that made it very hard to develop new policy approaches.

One set of economic theories that became increasingly important can be summarised as network economics. It was, in fact, a little later before we consciously realised that we were involved with this area. Still, the industries that we were dealing with forced us willy-nilly to articulate similar ideas.

Network economics developed especially in the US to aid understanding of the dynamics of the utility industries. The difference between average and marginal cost is central to network economics. Once a network is established, the cost of adding an additional customer, the marginal cost, is effectively zero up to the point at which further investment is required. As customers are added, average cost falls until the new investment point, but then rises again, starting a new cycle.

A second feature of networks is that they draw a key part of their strength from universality. The classic example of this is the early development of the telecommunications industry. So long as their were few subscribers, use was limited. As subscribers were added, the value of the network to all increased rapidly. By the 1980s, directory services were big business for all telcos.

A significant feature of network economics is a tendency to oligopoly or even monopoly. Once dominance is established, new entrants find it increasingly difficult to break in. For that reason, Governments have particular regulatory interests in these areas.

Network economics is central to the internet. Within all the froth and bubble, the single most important feature is the rise of a few dominant players. Take Skype, for example. It displays classic network features. Once its network was established, it needed customers. As it added customers, then its value to all customers increased. Google is another example, Seek an Australian example.

In undertaking the type of analysis whether in the Department or later in consulting, it is very important to deal with the actual facts of the sector being studied. Application of standard models and generalised rules can, indeed is highly liking to be, misleading. The concept of comparative advantage, for example, was useful in breaking down the old tariff regime, but had only negatives when it came to doing anything beyond this.

This is a muse, not a highly structured economic essay, so I would like to finish with a few assertions.

First, back in the 1970s, there was a lot of interest in what was called the micro-foundations of macro-economics. That is, in the creation of a unified theoretical system that would integrate economics as a whole. It took me a little while to realise that this was conceptually impossible because the different fields of economics addressed different types of problems.

Secondly, the internet itself is just as amendable to economic analysis as any other form of economic activity. I have already discussed network economics. Let me take another example, cloud computing. The currently fashionable cloud computing is no more than the offsite storage and processing of data that we were talking about thirty years ago.

Finally, I want to return to the example I began with, the concept of investment. The confusions that KDV feels about economic terms, the question of the relevance of economics as currently practiced, is directly linked to the way that many economists still use old physical concepts. This says nothing about the real relevance of economics, more about the way economists can be victims of their own forms of thinking.

In 1966 I had no problem in applying economic concepts and analysis to traditional Aboriginal economic life in Northern NSW, a non-money using, non market society. Today, I have no problems in analysing the internet in the same way. I do have problems with the way economic concepts are rendered in limited, old fashioned terms.

In the early 2000's Ndarala, the network of which I was then CEO, organised with partners seminars on the application of the new global accounting rules. These transferred old economics concepts such as tangible assets into legal requirements. We tried to make the point that the "new" rules for the treatment of intangible assets meant instability in valuations and had to be consciously planned for.

During that same time, I was trying to get professional services firms to adopt a wider definition of investment for practical management purposes even if this meant keeping two sets of books; one set met formal requirements, the second was meant to record and track the real investments on which long term performance depended. I really struggled to get this across.

Keynes wrote:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

I think that that's pretty right. So far as economics is concerned, the problem lies not in the discipline, but in those who practice it. They are victims of their own pasts. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Musings on Julia Gillard

Congratulations to both the Australian and New Zealand soccer teams on their world cup performances. Okay, we didn't make the next round, but the teams played well after Australia's dismal start against Germany.

Australian news yesterday was obviously dominated by events in Canberra. I found my own reactions interesting. I actually got quite angry at several points. While I have been very critical of Mr Rudd, I never doubted his sincerity. I reacted quite negatively to both the speed and ruthlessness of the execution, as well as the triumphalism of some Gillard supporters.

Part of Mr Rudd's problems can be seen in his comment that he was elected by the Australian people. We have a parliamentary, not presidential, system of government. This hold true despite the apparent presidentialising of Australian politics. Yes, in one sense the Australian people were voting on the question of Mr Rudd as PM, but a PM stays in power only so long as he/she controls a majority in the lower house. The people were in fact electing MPs, not a PM. A quote from an interview with Julia Gillard on the 7.30 report actually captures this quite well:

JULIA GILLARD: (Laughs) Kerry, I am in the business of being a member of the House of Representatives, a member of the Parliament. That means by definition every three years I seek preselection from my political party to have the honour and privilege of representing them in the elections in the electorate of Lalor. And every three years I ask around 100,000 people for their trust and support to be the member for Lalor.

So she is chosen first by her party and then by the electorate. That, I think, is a pretty accurate summary.

Well, what can we expect from Ms Gillard as PM? Here I thought that I would do as I did so long ago with Mr Rudd, try to stand back and look at her approach. The thoughts that follow are not profound, simply putting down ideas to provide a benchmark for later analysis.

She is quite clearly pragmatic, more consultative and knows how to work the Party. This should make for a somewhat more collegiate style of government. 

Her pragmatic, more consultative style was, I think, shown in the new industrial relations legislation. I only wrote a few posts on this one, pointing to some of the problems that had arisen during implementation. She seemed to manage these reasonably well by treading a careful path between conflicting interests. I have not attempted to properly assess this as policy; the critical thing at this point is that it did not blow up as it might have.

Her pragmatism was also shown by her prompt action in ditching the Government's approach to the resources super profits tax, thus lancing one boil. There will, of course, be a new tax, but for the present we can put a line through both the original proposal and, potentially, some of the spend items attached to it.

We can see pragmatism at work, too, in two other areas.

In his press conference the night before his termination when his first reaction was still to fight, Mr Rudd referred specifically to two policy measures. He would not, he said, be pushed to the right on the boat people issue. Then, on the emission trading scheme, he said that if he continued as PM he would introduce a firm time table. As I remember his words, he either stated or implied that in deferring action here he had taken advice from colleagues, something he clearly regretted.

If we know look at the 7.30 Report interview, you will see that Ms Gillard referred to both these issues. This exchange took place on the boat people:

You have said for instance on asylum seekers that you understand people's anxiety and this issue. But does that mean you are prepared to change Labor's policy to "Toughen it up"?

Will you do what Kevin Rudd swore he wouldn’t do on this issue, lurch to the Right? Kerry, I can absolutely rule out lurching anywhere. I won't be doing that.

I do understand the anxiety and indeed fears that Australians have when they see boats, they see boats intercepted. It does make people anxious. I can understand that, I really can. And I can understand that Australians therefore say to their government that they want to know what we are doing to manage our borders and what we are doing to manage asylum seeker flows. And I will be explaining as Prime Minister to the Australian people how we do that.

Of course, I obviously believe that as Prime Minister it is the role of the Government to do everything we can to best manage our borders.

While not "lurching anywhere", it would seem clear that we can probably expect some toughening of the Labor approach. On the emissions trading issue, she reaffirmed the Government's current policy position.

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism, with taking community opinion into account. However, when the need to stay in power becomes the central, dominating, concern to the exclusion of other things, we get NSW.

I am not suggesting that this must happen with Ms Gillard, simply that it is something to watch.

If we know turn to what we know about her policy positions and her approach to public administration, we have some case material we can draw from. We have to be a little careful in judging this because I, for one, do not know enough about Ms Gillard's views and values; these will emerge now that she has come out from Mr Rudd's shadow.

What we can say, I think, is that she has actually followed the same somewhat mechanistic approach that held elsewhere while Mr Rudd was PM.

Forget the problems with Building the Education Revolution. While many commentators and opposition will focus on these, the central problems with BER lay in its size and speed of roll-out. I don't think that this tells us anything at all about Ms Gillard's approach. Instead, we can look at her education initiatives. Here I want to focus on two that I have written about.

The first is the My School website. Without again canvassing all the issues involved, a central problem with that site is the way in which a narrow range of measurements are being used to assess school performance. Ms Gillard strongly promoted the approach in the first place and then defended it against criticism.

The second is her approach to university education. Again without canvassing all the issues involved, I have suggested that the approach is over-centralised and complicated. I have also doubted whether the approach can actually deliver even the narrow range of performance indicators used.

I accept that my analysis is partial, using that word in the sense of incomplete. My point is that, at this stage, it is hard to get too excited when Ms Gillard's approach to nuts and bolts public policy and administration seems a mirror image of that applying prior to her elevation.

Finally, a personal gripe. I know that it's of historic importance to have our first female PM, but some of the comments of the sisterhood have really been over the top. As Ms Gillard has noted, the fact that she is a woman or has red hair are neither here nor there. She is a person who is now PM; her gender is of interest, but has nothing to do with her performance. Some of the comments of the sisterhood have, bluntly, been sexist.    

End day postscript:

Quite a bit of the discussion today has centred on the impact of the change on Labor's election prospects. See Julia Gillard: day two as an example.

I really have no idea. The next election is quite close. Ms Gillard has said before the end of the year. Despite the marginal seat polling, I expected Labor to win, partly because some of the worst policy problems were behind them. On this basis, Labor should still win.

Leaving aside the joys of political navel gazing, something that I am as addicted to as anyone else, I think it important that we focus on the evolution of policy. But that's just me.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mr Rudd's final Walesing

The challenge by Julia Gillard for Mr Rudd's job actually came as a bit of surprise. My immediate feeling was that it marked the final New South Walesing of Mr Rudd; organisation by factional bosses to get rid of a leader perceived as unsuccessful.

As I write, the commonly accepted view is that Ms Gillard has the numbers. We will know this soon enough.

There is no doubt that Mr Rudd's style contributed to his problems. However, part of his problems also lay in the way that policy was rolled out. This is, I have argued, a systemic problem.

We can see this in NSW where leadership changes actually had little policy impact because the policy system itself was broken. The issue for Ms Gillard is whether or not she can fix things at a Federal level. I suspect that we will find this out quite quickly.

My family's reaction was interesting. Julia Gillard supporters, their first reaction was oh no, it's too soon. We will see.


Well, Ms Gillard is the new leader of the Party and hence PM once Mr Rudd hands his commission in. At a purely personal level, I feel great sympathy for Mr Rudd. I wanted him to improve his performance so that he could deliver.

Ms Gillard may well have a honeymoon period because she is the first female PM and well liked by many. However, because many ( I certainly do)  feel a sense of lost opportunity, the pressures on her will be great.            

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Internet censorship, Indian students, higher education and the Telstra deal

Just a round-up this morning on some of the things that I have been monitoring.

The decision by the National Party's Federal Conference to vote against the Australian Government's ISP filtering policy was welcome. The decision is not binding on the Parliamentary Party, but does provide guidance on Party views.

My problem with the Minster's proposals lies not so much in the idea of censorship as such, although I am always cautious here. Rather, it lies in the creation of a mechanism capable of creeping misuse.

Back in January, I wrote of the death of Indian student Nitan Garg and the reaction inDehli mail cartoon today India (here, here). This cartoon from the Delhi Mail at the time summarises Indian reaction.

It seems clear from the arrest of two teenagers for the stabbing murder that Mr Garg was an unfortunate victim of Melbourne's knife culture; his Indian nationality appears to have had nothing to do with it. 

I have mentioned Australian Policy and History before. There is a very good article there by Eric Meadows, Australia’s Relations with India: Some of the History, that sets a historical context.

From an Australian perspective, dealing with India under Nehru was an absolute pain at any level. That is beside the point. What the article does show are the attitudes in India that set a context to the Indian reaction to Mr Garg's death. We need to be aware of them.

In the meantime, the mess created by Australian Government policy towards international education continues to deepen. I think it highly likely that it will take years for the sector to recover, if indeed it can.

Staying with Australian higher education, it appears that the Government's new approach to disadvantaged student will have the effect of benefiting metro universities as compared to those in non-metro areas. I quote:

  Regional universities such as Central Queensland University, the University of New England and James Cook University look to be among biggest losers from the new measure, RMIT University policy analyst Gavin Moodie said. In contrast the University of Western Sydney, Victoria University and the University of NSW will be among the big winners.

The reasons appear to come back to the way disadvantage is calculated relative to the current composition of the student body, as well as the catchment areas. I need to look at this in more detail, but it appears to be the same type of effect that already plagues the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. There, for example, the application of universal rules treats an Aboriginal person from the NSW town of Balranald the same as one from Darwin.

When the Australian Government first announced it's approach on disadvantaged students, I said that it was flawed because it did not address the real causes of non-attendance at University. I suggested that means tested scholarships were a better approach. I really need to look at this in more detail.

Back in March 2010 in Broadband, Telstra and the future of Australia's telecoms, I concluded:           

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.

The details of the $A11 billion deal announced between Telstra and the Government are still unclear and are also subject to various approvals. On the surface, this is just what Telstra has done.

The Government needed this deal, so it is worth examining in detail when details become clearer. I suspect that it's not a bad deal for Telstra, although at least one analyst disagrees. What will Telstra do with the cash? I suspect that most of it will be invested outside Australia.

Well, I'm out of time.


My interpretation in the last few paragraphs  is not completely correct, for Telstra will retain some infrastructure. The Government's press release is here.       

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The fall of economics

My colleague Noric Dilanchian kindly sent me link to a post by Troy Henderson, It's The Economists, Stupid, in newmatilda. The post begins:

They may have seemed far from the action, but economics academics are very much to blame for the GFC, and for the other economic crises to come, writes Troy Henderson.

Troy writes from a particular perspective, one that I do not necessarily share, although I would agree with a number of his subtexts, including the dominance of neo-classical economics, as well as the role of values.

In a comment on the post, Syd Walker quoted Keynes:

"the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

Walker suggests that Keynes' comment was truer then than today, because "today we are dealing with the increasing commercialisation / intellectual prostitution of academia and ‘expert opinion’. "Along with TV", Walker suggests, "we now have a professional punditocracy that is substantially funded by powerful and well organized vested interests. It is able to gatekeep who participates - and who does not - in public discourse, such as economic debate."

I have quoted Syd's comment at length because both he and Troy argue that economic's problem lies in part in the way it excludes alternative views.

My problem with modern economics is a little different. I don't know what it is any more. I am simply confused.

In a sense, I grew up with economics. My father was an academic economist, head of Department and then Professor of Economics at New England. His major interests were development economics and the history of economic thought.

The world of academe was much smaller then. As a child and then a student, I guess that I knew or knew of most Australian University economists. Then I worked as a Government economist for many years, before moving into the private sector as a consultant.

As a student, I saw economics in a number of different ways. It was first the study of economic activity and of the human institutions affecting that activity. In that sense it was part of what we now call the humanities, concerned with one slice of human life. Resources were limited, so economics was also the study of the application of scarce means to alternative ends.

Economics was both a theoretical and applied subject. It's application in policy or in particular fields such as agricultural economics was intended to guide decision making, as well as increasing understanding of what actually happened, the way things worked. Economics dealt with the now and the future. However, Economic History, a core part of the discipline, applied economics' techniques to enhance our understanding of past and present.

Economics was not value free. However, a clear distinction was made between the various theories, applications and constructs and their practical application. Policy advice, for example, inevitably involved values, not just in the way it was phrased, but also in the outcomes.

All honours students were required to do a full year history of economic thought course tracing the evolution of economic thinking. You cannot study something like the evolution of the concept of profit or interest (usury), without seeing the way that  human thinking defines central concepts.

Models were central to economics because complexity required abstraction and simplification. However, they were just that, models. Even then, there was something of a disconnect between the need to learn specific models (theories) so that you understood them and could be examined on them and real world activities.

The theory of the firm was an example. To my mind, there was a disconnect between the idea of profit maximisation and the way firms actually operated. However, the course did include alternative views, with the suggestion (for example) that firms did act to maximise profits, but in the longer term.  

Above all else, economics was a way of thinking, of analysing activities and problems in a rigorous way. I chose to do history rather than economics honours, with a final focus on prehistory. However, unable to escape my past, my honours thesis on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern NSW consciously applied economics thinking to Aboriginal life.

At the time there was a debate in anthropology between Karl Polanyi who argued that economics was only relevant to money using societies (really a models approach) and Cyril Belshaw who argued that economics concepts and thinking could be applied. I chose to follow my cousin and consciously attempted to apply economics concepts to traditional Aboriginal life.

This proved quite fruitful, if also a little artificial. The idea of capital formation, investment of time and resources now for future returns, led me to focus on  Aboriginal investment activities such as fish traps or standing nets. At the time, this aspect of Aboriginal life was ignored because it was largely seen as irrelevant to a nomadic hunter-gatherer society.

In similar vein, I focused on trade and ceremonial exchange cycles. Just because no "money" was involved, just because value in the mind of the receiver included ceremonial and religious aspects as compared to straight use value, did not invalidate the approach. If you want to take a modern example, consider the value of the brand!

After beginning work as a policy economist, I found all this very useful. I did further economics studies at postgraduate level, including econometrics. However, all this fitted into my perception of economics. Then, the wheels started to come off so far as economics as a discipline was concerned.

The dividing point in my mind came in the second half of the seventies. Roger Kilham (a Treasury colleague and friend) and I had been trying to reform the Treasury approach to recruitment. Treasury aimed to recruit good honours graduates, but was finding it harder. A new approach was required.

As part of our work, I rang every university economics department just to check on expected honours numbers. Pretty basic, I know, but if you are trying to recruit honours graduates, then you need to know just what your pool is. I found that the numbers in honours classes had collapsed to the point that the numbers that Treasury needed were no longer there. Part of our recommendations were that Treasury needed to broaden its recruitment approach.

I later found that honours numbers in all disciplines had declined, that while the decline in economics had its own features, it was part of a broader social trend. However, at the time it crystallised some things that I had been thinking about.

I saw economics as a way of thinking. I had also come back to economics after a very heavy dose of history. As a manager who depended on graduate recruits, I was also concerned at what appeared to be a decline in quality. That was part of the reason why Roger and I had begun our attempts to reform Treasury recruitment in the first place.

As I saw it then, a number of factors had combined to threaten the relevance and appeal of economics. I think that they are still relevant today.

The first was the rise of mathematics and model based approaches.

I remember in the mid seventies at a lunch in Canberra, Professor Eric Russell from Adelaide (Eric died of a heart attack in 1977) remarked to my father that universities were now training bad mathematicians and worse economists! There was some truth in that. The point was that the more time you spent on technique, the more you embedded things like maths, the less time there was for broader thought.

The focus on maths and model based approaches affected not just the content of courses, but also the journals (I stopped reading them around this time because I wasn't interested and they lacked relevance from my viewpoint) and economics' ability to attract students.

This was the time that political economy emerged as Sydney as a part response. Speaking personally and as a then recruiter, the problem with Sydney political economy was that it lacked rigour, was too ideological. The idea of a broader course was good, but vanished in the fights that followed.

The second factor was the emergence of combined courses and multiple course options. The practical effect of this was to water down economics content. I remember, for example, interviewing students who had done economics streams as part of broader courses such as international relations or business. They were pretty useless so far as economics was concerned, unable to hold an argument or to critically examine assumptions and issues.

The final factor was the growing dominance of finance and business. I was greatly interested in the emergence of new approaches in areas like corporate finance, but I did not really see this as economics.

When, in the late eighties, I was involved in the marketing of new financial products, we were completely dependant on the mathematicians to do the complex modelling involved. As an economist, I could define structures and relationships, test and critique ideas, but the actual modelling required high level mathematical skills.

This is an area where I part company with the suggestion that economists were to blame for the GFC and will be to blame for the crises to come. You see, I don't really see the complex market models as economics at all, rather as subsets of mathematics and corporate finance. Where economists failed as economists was in their inability to detect the risks involved.

In all this change, the first thing that really stands out is the decline of economics as a discipline. Just to illustrate with a personal example, in the public policy work I have done over the last few years I have seen very few economists even in areas where I would have expected them.

This is actually a huge problem from my perspective. The language and analytical techniques that I apply based on my studies and years of experience fall outside current bounds. I look at something and can say quickly that it probably won't work, point to things that need to be considered. Then I have to try to explain from first principles.

In one case I was dealing with, a sector restructuring exercise, there was not a single person involved at any level who had economics. Even the idea of looking at the sector as an industry, of asking basic questions about structure, conduct and performance, was alien. Of course those involved actually had to address these issues, but they lacked the framework to do so. I was left with the feeling that the concept of a broad based generalist economist was dead.

The second thing that stands out is the way the changes in economics interface with broader trends that I have tried to delineate over the last few years. For example, the rise of econometrics, the focus on maths, is part and parcel of the more general quantification trend.

This is bringing me into a broader area, so I will stop here with a bald statement.

Economics is a discipline. To my mind, the failures in economics have little to do with ideological wars, although these have had an influence. Rather, the failures in economics lie in the inability of economists to focus on what economics actually means. They are discipline failures.  


In a discussion in comments with KVD, I referred to an earlier post I had written around this topic. KVD suggested that I should include the link here -  Saturday Morning Musings - the rise and fall of economics.

At the time I wrote this post, I had actually forgotten the earlier one. It's not bad and does flesh out some of the issues I refer to here, drawing inspiration especially from Robert L Heilbroners' The Worldly Philosophers:The Lives, Times and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers (Touchstone, New York, revised seventh edition, 1999).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why you must see Lou, the movie

I have referred to Lou, the new Australian film several times on the New England Australia blog. The trailer follows.

Lou is attracting some quite lyrical reviews:

“A small film with a lovely heart” – David Stratton, At The Movies

“A notable Australian film which deserves the right kind of gentle applause” – Jake Wilson, The Age

“Nothing short of magic” – Jo Chichester, Vogue

"I just saw it in canberra. The cinema was almost full. It is such a exquisite movie. Oh my, it made me all teary. Thank you, everyone, for creating such beauty. I wish reviewers would stop calling it a small/little movie. It looked as large on the screen as any other and dealt with as many emotional/human issues as any ...bloated 3d billion dollar movie and did it in a gentle pointed brilliant way! My fave movie yet of this year" - Canberra film goer

"Exquisite" - Chris Kennedy, Canberra Times

"The film is never trite, lurid or sensational. Chayko has an eye for the detail of the real world. Her film moved and delighted me." - Evan Williiams, The Australian.

is very hard for an Australian film to break through. So far, Lou has really attracted only art house releases. You can find details of screenings here.

Really, the only way for most Australian movies to break through is to go viral, to force cinemas to show them. Many fail, because they simply don't have the pulling power.

You should see Lou not because it's an Australian film, but because it's simply a bloody good movie. If your cinema is not showing it, why not ask them when they will?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A funny mixed up day

Last night I watched Australia and Ghana play soccer. Very frustrating in the first part, and then very exciting as the team fought back. I found the reactions of the commentators fascinating, in part because they were saying things like this team is now playing with Australian spirit. So they had an idea in their mind as to what they thought the Australian character was and then applied it to the team.

All this was grist to the mill for someone like me, so I thought that I should write something next day.

It was very late before I got to bed, I slept in, and felt very jaded. Not only had I missed my early morning writing time, but I didn't feel like writing. Then I found out that I had missed an entire section from the biography of my grandfather that I am now posting on line. So I had to redo the entire post - Drummond's life 3 - The Progressive Party 192Edna, David Drummond Glen Innes c19220-1922.

This is the first time that I have actually published a complete 100,000 word book on-line, so I do want it to be right. Mind you, in the next chapter I have found a missing two pages. I am going to have to work around that.

Looking at the material again, I keep forgetting that David Drummond was very deaf. On 15 May 1921, one of his Parliamentary colleagues wrote to Earle Page:

Drummond has improved very much & is becoming possessed of a large fund of information. Unfortunately he is becoming more deaf & it is a bit trying to travel with him because he only speaks what is in his own mind irrespective of the current of conversation & not being able to hear others speaking he starts in the middle of a conversation some other subject. I am trying to persuade him to get an ear trumpet.

There is something very satisfying in now putting on-line the material I wrote on Drummond for my PhD after all the troubles I experienced with fights among the examiners. People can make up their own minds.

I spent some time in all this digging around for old photos. This one from Cousin Jamie's collection shows Mum with her father at Glen Innes around 1922.

Helen, my eldest, is very like Mum, Clare maybe more like me. I also spent some time digging around to find photos to show to point. I didn't have time but, just for the hell of it, hereSydney airport terminal University games 2009 is a photo of Helen taken a year or so back. She is on her way to the University Games in Melbourne. 

In the midst of all this, Clare asked me to take her to hockey. I spoke of Clare's hockey last Tuesday in NSW Women's State Hockey Championships.

Since she got her license a little while ago, she has been taking the car to the local games, so I haven't been watching. I was therefore happy to go.

The only problem in all this is that they had changed the draw. We left at 11 for a 12pm game, only to find that the game was now at 1:00! I had a copy of Jim Fletcher's Clean, Clad and Courteous, a history of Aboriginal education in NSW with me, so settled down to re-read that.

The game began with a rush. Clare let in two early goals, one of which she should have stopped. When I quizzed her after the match, she said that she simply wasn't paying enough attention to the way that Briars Hockey started their games! Still she settled down and made some spectacular saves. Just as well, given that UNSW lost 6-1 as it was.

One of Clare's old school hockey team mates is now playing in Clare's team. Chatting to her parents during the game, I learned that the University of NSW had sold its hockey field at Little Bay to realise extra cash to fund University expansion. I was a little shocked.

For the size of the population, Sydney does not have a lot of sporting fields. We parents learn to spend a lot of time travelling as a consequence. UNSW has something like nine senior teams, and they will soon be without a home ground.

With all the delays, it was 2:30 before we left to return home. I had to do some shopping on the way, so it was after 4:00 when I entered our front door. And then I had domestic duties including cooking. In all, a very messy day.

Still, with tea finished, I have at least finished a post here!           

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday Morning Netball

Saturday is a big netball day at our place. For those who don't know netball (and here), it is the biggest women's sport in Australia measured by number of players. It really began in England in the 1890's as a "genteel" substitute for basketball and then spread widely throughout the Empire and Commonwealth. It is now one of the few women's games that can make prime time TV. Genteel, however, it is not, or at least not at the top levels.   

Helen coaches two University of NSW teams and then plays herself for UNSW. The first game, her ten year old's, begins at 9.05. Then there is a second round beginning around 12.30 that starts with the second team that she coaches, followed by her own match. The games are played at Heffron, a large multipurpose park with some twenty five netball courts around ten minutes away by car fromHeffron, Helen's juniors 3, June 10 our house.

I am not sure just how many people are involved over the whole day, but at any one time there are probably 500 players including reserves, plus the usual gaggle of parents, coaches and other officials. It's actually pretty big stuff.

I usually take Helen to the first match and then stay to watch.

This morning the UNSW team was playing Marrickville All-Stars, a district club that Helen coached for one year. In the photo, UNSW is in the brown and gold.

UNSW were on a real winning streak, finally running out winners 19-1.

As I watched I thought how much the team had come on.

When I watched their first match earlier this year, they were all over the place. Not quite as bad as young kids playing soccer when they all chase the ball in a single clump, something that is quite funny to watch, but still not good. Now they look like netball players.the coach 6, Heffron 19 June 10

Helen really enjoys coaching and seems to be pretty good at it. You get varying personalities in all teams of all ages, but she manages them all well.

Helen is pretty competitive for herself and the team, but she seems to keep a balance. This morning I listened to the coach on the adjoining court actually yelling at her girls in an effort to try to get them to do better.

Watching the girls develop, I thought how lucky they were to get proper training at a young age. Some of them, one in particular, are really very good and do have the potential for a representative career should they so choose.

Another part of the coach's role can be best described as parent management.the coach 8, Heffron 19 June 10 

From my observation, Helen's parents seem pretty good. However, that is not always the case.

In all the years I played school sport, I cannot remember my parents coming to watch, although some parents and lots of old boys did come some of the school senior Rugby games I took part in. 

How things have changed. Now parents are far more involved in junior sport at school and outside. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing, just that it has some complications in that some parents become far too involved for their own and their children's good.

There have been some rather nasty cases in Sydney in recent years where parents have ended up abusing officials and other parents to the point of physical violence. Of course this is still a tiny minority, but I do know that I have actually felt embarrassed at some school games at the language used.  One result of this behaviour is that some sports have experienced difficulties in attracting the people they need to keep the sport going.

I was trying to pinpoint in my mind when this change occurred. My impression is that it's actually quite recent, something that dates from the nineties. It would be interesting to see if anyone has actually done some analysis on this. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Problems in health reform and the Australian Federation

It seems clear that the Commonwealth Government is struggling a little as it comes to grips with the sheer complexities involved in its proposed national health care changes. This is not a criticism as such; major changes in complex systems are always difficult.

Back in April in Unpacking the Rudd Government health care changes I attempted to summarise the proposals as I understood them. Rudd health care reforms - another note provided a little further discussion on some of the complexities involved.

I am not sure of the significance of the decision not to proceed with the proposed National Health and Hospitals Network Fund, but instead to rely on Commonwealth Treasury oversight. The fund would have provided a central point for Commonwealth funding, aiding transparency. The decision to abolish it means, as I see it, that the Commonwealth will now be relying on bilateral arrangements of the type already pioneered with the various National Partnership arrangements.

I do not think that these have worked very well. They suffer from two main problems. The first is that they have not been really cooperative, with the Commonwealth dictating details. The second is that the detail is not public. Their efficacy cannot be properly judged because the detail of implementation plans is not on the public record.

Beyond the decision not to proceed with the Fund, the Commonwealth and States minus WA are now enmeshed in the detail, including the definition of the boundaries of the proposed local hospital networks. This one was always going to be a little problematic. Quite simply, it is always complicated trying to translate a new structure into on-ground realities.

Consider this. You have to establish the viability along different dimensions of 170 or so new entities. In doing so, you are dealing with a jigsaw puzzle where each boundary shift affects other proposed entities. It is complicated enough with electoral boundaries where the number of variables is small, more so when a variety of factors must be taken into account.

No doubt the Commonwealth will want to approve detail. It usually does. This requires a heavy people investment. Just how many people are required? I'm not sure, because it depends upon both time horizons and the approach adopted. Still, it remains complex and resource intensive if it is to be done properly.

The WA Government is still standing out for reasons that I can understand. At this point, I doubt that the Commonwealth can make the changes required in GST allocations to bring WA in. Further, the Resource Super Profits Tax complicates things in that its effects on WA are considerable. 

The thing that I am watching closely at the moment is the impact of current policy proposals on the dynamics of the Australian Federation. I am not talking party politics here such as the impact on public opinion polls. Rather, I just have a feeling that the combination of the centralisation policies of Messrs Howard and Rudd has set in train dynamic processes that will affect the very structure of the Federation itself.

At this point, my gut judgement is that the Commonwealth has over-reached itself and that, consequently, there is likely to be a significant reaction. However, the form that this might take is still very unclear.

I have been trying to think my way through this. But that's a matter for another post.    

Thursday, June 17, 2010

An era ends; Brierley steps down

There really has been a lot of interesting stuff around in Australia over the last day or so.

The announcement that Ron Brierley's CPG (Guiness Peat Group) is to spin-out its Australian operations and that, as part of this, Ron Brieley will relinquish part of his executive responsibilities to Gary Weiss marks the end of an era.

Chatting to someone the other day, I mentioned Industrial Equity Limited. They did not know what I was talking about. I realised that for those under thirty, perhaps under forty, IEL had vanished into the past. After all, it is now twenty three years since the great stock market crash of 1987.

Black Monday 19 October began with a fall on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that then spread round the world. By the end of the New York trading day, the Dow Jones Industrial Index was down more than 22 per cent. By the end of October, the Australian index was down 41.8 per cent from its peak, New Zealand a wacking 60 per cent.

The years leading up to Black Monday had been somewhat crazy years as corporate raiders stalked the boardrooms, aiming to unlock value for themselves. 

In March 1961 Ron Brierley had formed R. A. Brierley Investments, later known as BIL. By 1984 BIL was the largest company in New Zealand by market capitalization, and in 1987 had 160,000 shareholders, with a stake in over 300 companies, including Paris department store Galleries Lafayette and Air New Zealand.

In 1964 BIL purchased a share in Australian company Industrial Equity Ltd, with IEL becoming the Australian investment vehicle. Throughout the eighties IEL stalked Australian companies, using various raiding techniques.

IEL was not alone. Alan Bond, Robert Holmes a'Court, Christopher Skase and John Spalvins (among others) all built huge empires.

The Black Friday crash did not, of itself, bring the process to an end. It continued for a period in Australia and overseas. In the US, for example, RJR Nabisco was bought out in 1988 by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. in the largest leveraged buyout at the time, a takeover later featured in the best selling book Barbarians at the Gate.  In Australia, IEL itself acquired Woolworths in 1989, making it a wholly owned subsidiary.

While the crash did not bring the process to an end immediately, it did create pressures that would bring it down once the economy shifted; despite the crash, the Australian economy continued to grow for another two years.

After the crash, BIL itself shifted its focus to a narrower range of investments. As part of this, in November 1989 BIL sold IEL including Woolworths to a new investment vehicle controlled by John Spalvin's Adelaide Steamship Group.

It was a funny crazy period, one that I should write something about at some point. I was on the periphery, but also had some contact with some of the players because of the work I did in Government and then as a consultant. Maybe one day!  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Drummond's life 3: the Progressive Party

Continuing the story of my grandfather's life: Drummond's life 3 - The Progressive Party 1920-1922.

Sport, cultural change and problems in Aboriginal research

I have got quite behind in my reading over the last week, including material by my fellow bloggers. This morning I devoted a little time to just catching up, reading papers and blogs.

I was in Bathurst when Australia played Germany in the world cup, and actually got up to watch. This became sufficiently depressing to send me back to bed. I felt that we were out-played, that the Germans were just so much faster on the field. It was actually quite a bit like some of the hockey I had been watching.

The reaction here to the loss has been a bit over the top. Unsporting might I say? New Zealand this time is where Australia was last time, just glad to be there. New Zealand's opening 1-1 draw with Slovakia rubbed salt into Australian wounds because of the sibling rivalry between the two countries. Australians were both glad and sorry!   

Back in May I used examples from New England to discuss the pattern of social change in Australia with a focus on the 1970s (here then here). The first post led to a conversation with Winton Bates about the room visiting imbroglio at the University of New England, something featured in Matthew Jordan's history of the University as a change marker. Winton has now read the book and responded in Does history give undue prominence to scribblers?. 

In his post, Winton included a quote from an editorial he wrote:

‘Perhaps the concept of freedom in a university needs further explanation. It is not a freedom to do what you want to, full stop; nor is it a relentless search after personal happiness. The college regulations in the “free” university would be framed by members of college with a view to restricting violation of the rights of others.

Surely this is an ideal worth working for. ...’

It seems hard to believe today just how much emphasis there was then on the role of universities. Not universities as training the vocational cannon fodder necessary for economic efficiency, not universities as economic entities, just universities as universities in an intellectual and cultural sense. 

Don Arthur had two interesting posts on Club Troppo - What the unemployment rate doesn’t show and Eat it and smile — Why unskilled men reject service work - dealing with the changing role of men in work. This is another aspect of the social change process, the way that economic restructuring combined with changes in social attitudes has had significant gender and specific human effects. 

Australia is in the midst of a growing election fever just at present. As always, I find The Poll Bludger interesting for its detail on the entrails. I generally steer clear of detailed analysis on electoral matters, although like most people I have a sort of morbid fascination with just how bad things are for Labor in NSW. This weekend sees the by-election in the NSW state seat of Penrith. The only issue seems to be just how much Labor's vote can fall. 

I have continued to monitor Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American Eye, although my heart isn't in it. Not that this is a criticism of Will, simply that I feel reluctant to write on Aboriginal issues. In a post last October, A fit of depression, I concluded:

As a writer, historian and sometimes policy adviser, I simply cannot deal with all the sensitivities and complexities involved in any form of research and writing about Australian Aboriginal issues. The most that I can do is to try to research and write in a professional manner following my own interests.

This issue is still very much on my mind.

In my last post I mentioned that I took a PhD thesis to Bathurst to read in gaps.

James Knight's 2003 UNE PhD is entitled Testing Tindale's Tribes: A re-assessment of Tindale's work on the Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, with reference to the written records of the south-east of South Australia. I know that this must sound very dry, and indeed much of the detail would be to the non-specialist. However, to my mind it is actually an important piece of original work along a number of dimensions.

Norman Tindale (1900-1993) was a pioneering Australian archaeologist and anthropologist who, among other things, attempted to map the distribution of Aboriginal "tribes" across Australia.

Tindale's "tribal" map has been very influential. Knight shows how it has affected other mapping efforts and had practical and very important effects on the approach to public policy at a conceptual and structural level, especially since the Land Right Acts. The only problem is that Tindale's "tribes" did not in fact exist. Indeed, there were no such things as tribes.

I will spell the argument out here in more detail in a later post, probably on the New England history blog. For the moment, the key point is that the structure of traditional Aboriginal life involved over-lapping sets of relationships between people and land such that many different and overlapping boundaries were possible. Further, those boundaries were often shaded and changed with time as relationships changed.

By imposing one set of geographically defined boundaries that then became built into thinking, Tindale's work effectively excluded other options. The use of Tindale boundaries in Government structures and in Land Rights cases, the Land Right Acts themselves have European style boundaries built in, created a straight jacket that in turn affected structures and relationships in Aboriginal communities.

From my perspective, one of the most difficult and problematic issues in Knight's work lies in his perception of the relationship between the researcher and Aboriginal peoples and communities. Again, this deserves a full post in its own right, for it lies at the heart of my discomfort in my own work.

We can think of this along two dimensions.

The first dimension is the way in which the results of any research work can become a player in current events and relationships. If I present evidence that group x, however defined, had different boundaries or relationships from those commonly accepted or argued, then this may flow on to have practical and current impacts.

In normal circumstances, a researcher might argue that he/she is concerned with evidence. However, this brings us to a second dimension.

Knight saw his work as a relationship, an interaction, between he and current Aboriginal groups. This transcended the research. Knight negotiated the scope of work (his phrase) as he went along with his teachers (again Knight's phrase). Implicit in his approach is the assumption that Aboriginal people own all aspects of their culture and that, consequently, those researching any aspect of that culture from whatever data source must have appropriate approvals.

I really struggle with this. I am presently researching New England's Aboriginal languages and hope to present a paper on this in Armidale in July. If I accept Knight's position, then I should not be writing on this without the explicit approval of the custodians of those languages, assuming that we can find who they are.

I really can't accept this. Yet I know that I might be challenged. You see why it takes some of the fun, the joy of discovery, out of the work?

Enough, for the moment. I have other things that I need to do. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NSW Women's State Hockey Championships

Well, back from Bathurst where I watched Clare (youngest) play in her first representative matches as goalie for Eastern Districts 2 in the NSW Women's State League/State Championships.

The competition was organised into three levels: State League, the State Championships Division 1 and State Championships Division 2. Sydney Eastern Districts 1 played in the State League, while ED2 played in the State Championships Division 1.

We drove down Friday west out of Sydney, across the Blue Mountains and then down the Tablelands to Bathurst. Traffic was heavy and I found the road and constant speed limit changes something of a challenge; a little more on that later.

Clare was staying with the team, so dropped her off and then found my motel. This was in the centre of town and pretty convenient. So with a glass of wine, I settled down to read a PhD thesis that I had brought with me. This was huge in size and very detailed, but I quickly became involved because of its sheer interest. I managed to finish it over the weekend, and will certainly write something on it because of its relevance to many of the things that I write about.

Saturday morning the girls first game was against Manning Valley.Clare Bathurst vs Manning Valley June 10 For those who don't know Australia, Manning Valley is the next major valley north of the Hunter on Australia's East Coast; Taree is the major town.

I had wondered how Clare would go as goalie. This was her first rep competition and she was playing well above her normal level.

  Manning Valley were pretty good and quickly put ED2 under pressure. The first photo shows Manning Valley on the attack.

Clare made two early and spectacular saves, but the pressure kept on coming as Manning Valley pressed home. There is only so much a goalie can do. The final result was ED2 one, Manning Valley three.

The next game was against Orange.

Orange, orange in the photo, were a pretty slick lot. Their field positioning was very good, and they quickly established dominance. The net resulClare vs Orange 3 Bathurst 2010t was a five zero win to Orange.

I wondered about their standard, for it seemed clearly a step above anything I had seen.

Over dinner, some of the parents travelling with the team explained that the State competition involved a relegation system. Orange had been playing in the State League, but had come last in the previous year and had consequently been relegated to the State Championship Division 1.

Not only were they used to playing at a higher standard, but they had something to prove. Prove it they did, coming a clear first. Orange will be back in State League next year! Well done, girls.

Clare's third match was against Campbelltown 2. This was a 1-1 draw.

State Championship Division 1 involved two pools. To calculate positions, goals for and against were totaled. This put Clare's team into a play-off against Grafton on the Monday to determine who would be fifth, who sixth.

Over dinner on the Sunday night I learned more about the organisation of women's hockey in NSW. 

Like many women's sports, women's hockey suffers as compared to the men in attracting sponsorship support.

I asked about PA announcements that I had heard at the grounds asking people who were unclear about eligibility for selection for NSW country to talk to the director on duty. This revealed something that I was aware of, but hadn't focused on in a hockey context.

Many country areas have been losing young people seeking work elsewhere. A further problem is created by young who have to leave for study purposes. With one young person in four attending university, and the proportion set to rise, country areas without a local nearby university lose a large slab of their young at a critical hockey playing age.

This creates difficulties for local competitions and for representative teams. A player from, say, Young may end up playing for a team elsewhere, thus rendering them ineligible to play for Young at rep level. Hockey NSW has therefore come up with a sensible solution. A player from Young playing elsewhere may now chose to play for Young in rep games.

Another issue that came up over dinner was frost. Because Clare had been playing later in the day, I had not been aware that frost on the ground had forced the rescheduling of games on the Sunday. Now frost is a common feature in Bathurst, and the parents' thought that this should have been taken into account in planning. I had to agree.

As it happened, on the Monday morning the frost was again bad. As a consequence, all games other than the State League itself were cancelled so that the fields were available for the top level. This meant that Grafton and ED2 lost the chance to play their final match, me to watch. Final positions were therefore determined on goal differences, leaving Grafton in fifth spot, ED2 in sixth.

I have to agree that scheduling should take frost into account. Still, the girls enjoyed themselves! The photo shows the ED2 teams, Clare in goalie gear at front.   Eastern Districts 2 State Comp Bathurst 10

The only plus with the cancelled game was that we could head back to Sydney early before the worst of the long weekend traffic.       

I mentioned the road. What a mess. The Great Western Highway across the Blue Mountains follows a narrow strip of flatter land. This is also the strip on which the various picturesque townships' nestle.  

The road has become a chaotic scar on the landscape that left me wondering about planning issues.

Will Clare play again? I don't know. At this level, rep opportunities are now limited to the annual event. I think that that's a pity. Clare's team gained in strength and cohesion over the games. This would be much enhanced if there were more opportunities. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Going off-line

In a few minutes I am heading for Bathurst where youngest is playing hockey in the NSW state competition. I will be back on line Tuesday.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Decline of Asian languages in Australia

The parlous state of Asian languages in Australian schools was well covered yesterday; see the 7.30 report, Bernard Lane in the Australia, while the Asia Education Web site carries the language reports that started the discussion.

The decline in the study of Asian languages in Australian schools has been an issue for some time. During the election campaign Mr Rudd made it an issue. Then, in 2008 the Government launched the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program.The target was that by 2020 at least 12 per of students would leave Year 12 "fluent enough in Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese or Korean to engage in trade and commerce in Asia or university study".

The difficulty now is that fewer than 6% of students complete Asian languages in Year 12. So absolute numbers have to more than double over the next ten years if the target is to be met. Whether the narrow focus on year 12 numbers is the best way of achieving Mr Rudd's recently restated vision, "My vision is for Australia to be the most Asia-literate nation in the collective West", is open to question. In this post, I want to look just at school language studies drawing on my recent experience as a parent with daughters in the NSW school system.

As with all these things, a number of interacting factors are involved.

The first is one that I have pointed to before, a decline in interest in Asia, an increase in interest in Europe. Many Australian young have simply fallen in love with Europe. I am not sure why this has happened, but can point to a few things.

Australian interest in Asia grew rapidly in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This was the period of first discovery among the Australian young of a new and then different world. There was a romance about Asia. Very few Australians spoke Asian languages. There was a catch-up effect, including intensive Asian language training among diplomats and defence personnel. This flowed through into the schools and universities, reinforced by trade ties and especially with Japan.

It is easy today when Japan has been overtaken by China in economic terms, to underestimate just how strong the interest in Japan was and indeed Asia in general. By the mid 1980s, interest in traditional languages such as French or German seemed in terminal decline, with the future lying in Asian languages. In the Northern Territory, for instance, the then Government saw the Territory's long tem future in terms of growing economic integration with Indonesia. By 1987, there were probably more students studying Indonesian in NT schools than the total number of Indonesian language students in Australia today.

  One of the paradoxical effects of the big increase in Asian migration is that it actually reduced interest in and incentive to study Asian languages. It was much easier for employers who needed access to language skills to employ a native speaker. There was no longer any real career advantage in a native English speaker learning another language. Further, there was a crowding out effect in the schools.

Entry to university is a competitive business. If you do a foreign language and are competing in exams against a native speaker also doing that language, you are likely to be disadvantaged. Increasingly, language streams have become dominated by those who already speak the language or at least have direct access to it at home.

This problem was compounded by the overcrowded and bitsy nature of the curriculum. My daughters did Bahasa at one point, but never got enough of the language to give them any incentive to continue. It was really cultural training. Even at senior secondary, the 500 hours (I think that it's 500 hours) allowed is actually not enough for most students to get to real fluency.

To put this into context, the intensive official language training provided to officials to get them to basic fluency involved twelve weeks full immersion in the language. Now that roughly equates to 500 hours, but it was continuous and was reinforced by after hours conversation.

I mentioned the growing love of Europe among the young. I can pinpoint this a little at a personal level.

The enormously popular movie Under the Tuscan Sun was made in 2003. By then, the love affair with Europe was well entrenched. Just how did this happen?

If my memory serves me correctly, SBS TV began broadcasting in 1985. SBS was intended to be a multicultural voice, a refection of the replacement of the previous anglo-celtic dominance by a more diverse community. This coincided with a variety of government activities intended to reinforce multi-culturalism. However, by their very nature, these activities were European focused simply because the majority of new migrants over the previous forty years had come from Europe. This was reinforced by other factors.

In 1965, the majority of travel between Australia and Europe was UK focused. By 1985, the pattern of travel was far more diverse. Further, the rise of the EU meant that Europe itself had a stronger profile in Australia. Higher Australian living standards, cheaper fares, higher European visibility, a more diverse set of European connections, all combined to increase familiarity with Europe.

This was reinforced by something that I can only call a cultural love affair. I chose Under the Tuscan Sun because it typifies the trend. Australians now know more about Tuscany than they do about New England!

These trends had a rolling impact at school level. Interest in European languages began to rise. Enrolments at European language schools increased, as did enrolments in European language classes at school. School interchanges and exchanges increased. All this was reinforced by increasing travel.

If I look just at my daughters' school cohorts, some of the Asian kids are the only one with an Asian language or indeed real Asian focus. Everywhere else, Europe has become dominant. The previously dominant British and Empire focus has been replaced by a Euro focus. Oddly, this is in fact narrower simply because the old Empire was far more diverse than modern Europe.

I support Mr Rudd's focus on Asian languages. We do need to be moving towards a new meld. However, whatever Government may propose, the community ultimately disposes.

I don't think that we are going to achieve Mr Rudd's vision "for Australia to be the most Asia-literate nation in the collective West" on present policies. We need a further national conversation, and one couched in specifics.

Take my previous arguments on Indonesia. We know that greater integration between Australia and Indonesia is inevitable. The only question to be addressed is the form of that integration. Language is important here.