Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - confidentiality, confusion and Australia's election

It continues to be an odd Australian election campaign. I am not sure that I believe the latest Herald/Nielsen poll; this shows the opposition with an apparently election winning lead, with Labor's primary vote down to 36 per cent. Regardless of the results of the election, you can expect it to be analysed to death afterwards!

While I don't want to comment on the detail of the campaign, I do want to make a few purely professional comments.

The Greens

Regardless of which side wins the overall election, it seems likely that the Australian Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. For that reason, The Green's policy positions become more important than they have been in the past. I, for one, do not know enough of those positions. They need to be subjected to the same type of forensic analysis that should be applied to the main parties.

Cabinet Confidentiality and Leaks

The leaks about the workings of the Rudd cabinet make me me very uncomfortable at several levels.

Each minister wears several hats in cabinet. Each has to take into account his/her portfolio interests; this includes making judgments about the impact on the portfolio if other expenditure proposals are approved. Each has to make judgements about both the overall national interest as they see it. Each has to take party and electoral considerations into account.

Once cabinet has reached a decision, once it becomes Government policy, then ministers are bound to defend it.

Ministers change their minds all the time, at least at the margin. They do so for both policy and party political reasons. They have to be free to do so. If not, cabinet becomes unworkable.

Part of the reason for cabinet confidentiality is to provide ministers with the freedom required for sensible discussion. Take this away, and you cut at the very heart of effective government. To my mind, whoever has been responsible is not just striking at the ALP, but at the system itself.

There is a broader issue here, that of the role of confidentiality itself. However, the issues here are beyond the scope of this post.

Policy confusion and post election: trouble for both sides

To my mind, the level of effective policy analysis in this election has been quite low, couched in generalities on one side, responses to specific announced initiatives on the other. In saying this, I am talking as much about the analysts and commentators (I include myself here) as the party leaderships. Let me try to illustrate.

A very high proportion of Government policies and programs are already locked in. Further, the existing government has already announced major changes that are partially underway.

Taking this into account, consider the opposition first. It's announcements combine three things:

  • Statements of general principles such as the Coalition Economic Principles. Now what do these actually mean in terms, for example, of regional development or the principles underlying the Australian Federation?
  • A range of specific proposed expenditure cuts, totaling in all almost $A24 billion. Many of these are small, some bigger. Some such as the proposed abolition of the National Broadband Network have been picked up, others not. But what do they actually mean? For example, do we really want to discontinue our campaign for a seat on the UN security Council?
  • A series of smaller new spending initiatives that have attracted some attention.

In all this, I actually have very little idea as to what an opposition win might mean for, as an example, the structure of health services.

None of this should be construed as an attack on the policies themselves, just a statement that I don't know.

Now look at the Government. Here we have a range of policies and programs already announced that will, presumably, continue. This includes major implementation challenges in areas such as the announced health reforms. Normally with a Government going to re-election, the past is taken for granted. However, in this case one could be forgiven for a degree of uncertainty. So how are present and past meant to fit together?  Again, I'm not sure.

Between now an the election, I will try for my own sake (I do have to vote!) to work out some of the implications on both sides. For the present, I am left with the feeling that both sides are likely to experience some discomfort when it comes to comes to forming a new Government.      


It was pointed out to me on the security council seat that the opposition had previously criticised this spend. Fair enough. But that was as opposition. I do remember it, now that I am reminded. I ask again, does the opposition as now the possible government, actually think that Australia should not seek that seat? If so, why not? More broadly, I don't think that either side has really spelt out any foreign policy vision.

On health, it was suggested that the Government already has a framework in place, that there is no need to spell things out. Sorry. As a mere mortal, I actually think I need to be told. After all, I am not absolutely sure which pieces of previous policy are still valid.

These comments may seem a bit sour. I am not at all sour about the suggestions. I am a little sour about the nature of the debate.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Drummond as NSW education minister

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been progressively posting my now somewhat ancient PhD thesis, a biography of David Drummond, on my New England's History blog.  I had been going to hold off any further comment here until the whole things was finished, but then I thought that Neil, Thomas, and Maximos62 might be interested.

I described Drummond's role as NSW education minister at the end of the 1920s in Drummond's life 5 - The Minister: 1927-1929. Now I have returned to this topic in Drummond's life 8 - Return to Education: the Minister 1932-1936. The next chapter will take the story through to 1941.

The reason that I mention this now is that is that many of the structural and policy frameworks that exist today and that current teachers know were, for better and worse, formed then.

Threads - death of Jon Cleary, higher education, the Gruen Nation, Will Owen

One of the newspaper sections that I find most interesting is the Sydney Morning Herald's obituary section. I suppose its partly because, as I get older, more people that I have known quite well die. However, I find them interesting too because of my interest in history. 

I see from the Herald that Australian writer Jon Cleary has died at the age of 92. During a very long writing career, Jon Cleary published no less than 55 books. Seven were turned into films, two into TV adaptations. I enjoyed most of his books, including the Scobie Malone detective series.

One of the reason that I liked him is that I found many of his books authentically Australian. He could also tell a pretty good yarn, something that I like. 

In Are the wheels starting to come off in Australian higher education?, I mused about future directions in Australian higher education at a time of great change. One element of that was constant change in Australian universities as they tried to adjust to their ever changing environment.

In passing, I mentioned that I was not quite sure how many reorganisations Sydney University has been through over recent years; I lost count at three. Now I see that a Sydney University draft white paper obtained by the Herald suggests that The University is considering cutting more than 6000 undergraduate places and instead recruiting more postgraduate and international students, in a radical overhaul of its operations. An earlier proposal for the 16 faculties to be reorganised into a college of arts and sciences and five professional schools has apparently been abandoned. Instead, there is a proposal to group the faculties into seven divisions, each presided over by a board whose chairman will be chosen by the vice-chancellor.

I don't want to comment on the reported detail of the proposal. My interest lies in the way the competitive interaction between the various universities is likely to affect future structures and the type of education on offer. This is by no means clear cut. For example, Sydney wants to increase its proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from the current 7 to more than 12 per cent. However, given the size of the projected cuts in undergraduate numbers, the actual numbers of disadvantaged students may or may not increase.

One of these days I must sit down and draw up a table of university strategies and then look at these in terms of student catchment areas. I think that the results would be interesting in telling us something about what is actually likely to happen on the ground.

On the election campaign, I see from the Australian that the the Gruen Nation on ABC TV attracted 1.6 million viewers. I mention this because, for the benefit of international readers, this is a clever satirical show about advertising and spin. It features a mix of clips and commentary from advertising experts. You can see it on-line (first episode here). However, if you are going to watch, please do so quickly. The episodes appear to be only on line for twelve days.     

  Finally and importantly, Will Owen is transferring Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American Eye to a new blog since his current platform is no longer being supported. The existing blog will remain, but all future posts will be on the new platform.   

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Communications, PR and spin

This post follows up Issues with spin. There I said in part:

The problem with things like spin and focus groups lies in the way they have inserted deep roots into the policy process. The rank top growth we can all see is really just that, the leaves of a much larger plant.

In this post, I want to tease this conclusion out a little for my own satisfaction.

The first difficulty with spin and the modern emphasis on communications - the two are linked - can be put this way: in previous years, you set policy and then worked out how to sell it; now you work out what will sell and set policy.

Like all flat statements, this one can be challenged.

Obviously, ministers and other parliamentarians took political issues into account in considering policy. We live in a democracy; that's part of their job. Further, any official worth his or her salt needed to be sensitive to political considerations. However, in developing policy and providing advice, political and PR issues were, in the first instance, a second order consideration.

Again, not all officials today are driven first by political and PR considerations. However, I do think that  the saleability of policy has become increasingly central.

This links to a second difficulty, the rise of the PR machine.

When I first began working as a Commonwealth Public Servant, there were far fewer journalists on one side, far fewer press officers on the other. Even when I worked as a senior official during the first period of the Hawke Government, I was essentially dealing with just two people on the PR side. There was a single Departmental PR person, plus the Minister's press secretary. This made things pretty easy.

Since then, we have seen the rise of central communications units plus Departmental communications units. There is far more emphasis on branding, on communications strategies, on image. This distorts decision making, but also clogs it up. There are variations between jurisdictions and Governments, but I think that the general statement is still true.

The rise in concern links to and interfaces with another feature of modern agencies, the emergence of centralised command and control structures.       

To illustrate this, let me take a somewhat generalised example.

Assume that you want to get a new policy approach through that involves sensitive issues. During the time that I was working as an SES officer in the Commonwealth, I would first discuss the matter with my colleagues. Then I would prepare advice to the minister discussing the approach, including pointing to possible issues and problems. This would be vetted in the minister's office by his personal staff who were responsible for considering political issues. Depending on the issue, I might see the minister to brief him.

Subject to the minister's views, we might then proceed to prepare a draft cabinet submission. If the matter was really sensitive, the minister might write to the PM and discuss it with his colleagues. The draft submission would then be circulated for comment and finally lodged for cabinet consideration. During this process, a draft press release would be prepared and cleared with the minister's office. With a very important issue, the Minister might decide to hold a press conference.

Depending on the nature of the initiative, there might be what is now called stakeholder consultation during the process. The industry strategies that I was involved with actually involved very extensive consultation in advance of cabinet consideration. This was genuine consultation, for we were refining ideas. While this process was structured and involved some complex facilitation issues, it was also pretty straightforward.  

The biggest complexity in the entire process was actually internal, working through the issues and interfaces with other interested agencies including Finance and Treasury. What is now called "communications", while important, was generally relatively minor.

Things change. The broad process is still the same, but there are more hoops. Here I want to point to three in particular.

The first is the importance now placed on what are called "communications strategies". These are often mandated and must be prepared in advance. At one level, they mean no more than identifying who needs to be communicated with about the decision, what they need to be told, how they are to be told.

Who could object to this? However, in practice it puts the communications strategy central, not so much the policy. What will the whole thing be called, how will it be sold, what should the graphics look like? Combine this with the increasing tendency to tailor policy to immediate political considerations, and things can get messy. With limited time and resources, every hour spent on "communications" issues is an hour less for considering the detail of the policy.

The second is the rise of branding. This has become quite pervasive. All communications material must be consistent with the brands involved, both agency and cross-government. This brand vetting and associated approval processes comes on top of political vetting. Who can say, what they can say, how they can say it, when they can say it, are all bound by increasingly complex rules.

As a general statement, complexity rises exponentially with the number of decision steps involved. This brings me to the third hoop, the increased centralisation of decision making in agencies and within Government in general. Whereas I could make a decision at my level, now the equivalent decision may require multiple sign-offs. For example, you may have to go through formalised Divisional and Agency executive approval processes.

This interfaces with the growing weight placed upon communications material, for the importance now placed upon this means that the communications material itself may have to proceed through hierarchical decision processes. Something that once might have taken me say a week, now involves many more people and can take a very long time to finalise. 

One of Parkinson's Laws comes into effect here. He cites the case of the Board meeting discussing two topics. The first, a new nuclear power plant, goes straight through because nobody on the Board properly understands it. The second, a new bike shed, takes up hours of discussion because everybody has a view. Something similar happens with communications material. The complex details of a policy get ignored or given less consideration, while everybody wants to amend the communications material.

There is an insecurity issue here. The more insecure the agency, minister or government feels, the more centralised decision the processes become, the more the time spent on "communications". Officials who actually want to get things done get very frustrated as a consequence. In the end, it's often easier (and safer) to go with the flow.

One of the very big problems in the whole process is the way it trivialises policy. If every initiative has to have a "snappy" title, use the right buzz words and be presented in broadly the same way, it becomes much harder for people to distinguish between the important and the less so; in the end, everything gets tarred with the same brush.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are the wheels starting to come off in Australian higher education?

One of the difficulties that can arise with change lies in the fact that change can outrun the capacity of those involved to respond. We see this in reorganisations: change brings pain, but any gains come a little later. If the change is too big, or if another change comes on top of the first too quickly, the organisation can falter or even fail.

Failures in corporate re-organisations, as an example, are common. The CEO who restructures to improve the bottom line is often forced, or his or her successor is forced, to restructure again within a relatively short time period.

One of the reasons for this is that change of this type disrupts the way the organisation has worked. Organisations are about people as well as structures. Much of the workings of organisations depends upon the knowledge people have of each other and of the way that things are done. Disrupt that, and immediate efficiency drops.

The recent move to mega departments in the NSW Government is a recent example. There are arguments for and against the move itself. But the first effect was to slow down Government because all those involved had to work out how the new system might work.

I mention this because I get the strong impression that the wheels are starting to come off within Australia's higher education sector. This area has been prone to policy instability for many decades, tugged first one way and then another by changing Government policies driven in part by fashion. The effects at individual institution level have been quite profound.

Part of the difficulties faced by Australia's universities is that, like schools, they are affected by a range of policies in ways not always clear to policy makers.

The debates over immigration are a case in point. The tightening of visa requirements on overseas students were driven in part by emerging scandals in the vocational sector, but also reflected broader views and issues including domestic politics and changing views on immigration that had nothing to do with the international education sector as such. Increasingly, it looks as though the collateral damage done to Australia's international education exports will be very severe.

This may not matter to some. There was a problem that needed to be fixed. Fair enough, perhaps. However, it would appear to me that the results so far as international education is concerned were not properly recognised, nor thought through. Did the policy makers really intend to do long term damage to Australia's position in the international student marketplace? I doubt it.

Another challenge at the moment is the debate over regulation and quality control within the higher education sector. I find the details and implications quite confusing. Where, for example, does the idea of a university as a community of scholars fit in all this? Or is this no longer relevant?

I do know that all universities are creating increasingly complex internal structures to try to manage their myriad of relationships with Australian Governments and especially the Commonwealth Government. The costs involved are quite substantial. I haven't attempted to calculate the increase in central overhead costs, but each dollar spent in this way is a dollar not spent on education or research.

One particular difficulty that all universities face is that their revenue streams have become more unstable, bitsier, more uncertain. In the overseas student case, for example, some universities have gained up to a third of their revenue from this source. Clearly, they now face a major problem.

Competition for domestic students has increased sharply, partially as a result of problems with overseas students, more because of the foreshadowed changes to funding rules. University responses have varied. The University of New South Wales, for example, has gone for growth, over enrolling new students by a reported 17 per cent. By contrast, the University of New England which does not have access to the same student numbers in its immediate area, has decided to stay smaller and focus instead on the quality of education and of the university experience. UNE may have no real choice, but it does also reflect differences in views about university education.

Part of the reasons for the changes that have taken place link to ideas of the value of competition between universities and of diversity within the university sector. However, this is a very constrained form of competition since it takes place within an increasingly complex and controlled sector; the real competition is competition for funds; the education experience can take second place.

The changes that have taken place flow down within universities, affecting structure and staffing. Its not just the increase in overhead cost. People costs are the largest cost within universities. The more unstable funding, the greater the flexibility required in staffing. The recent strike at the University of NSW linked directly to the desire of management to have contractual arrangements with staff that would give the University flexibility in staffing arrangements. More broadly, the use of part time or casual staff to provide tutorials or marking has on reports become something of a scandal in some institutions.

In addition to changed staffing arrangements, all the universities display increasing instability at course level and in structural terms. I am not quite sure how many reorganisations Sydney University has been through, for example, over recent years. I lost count at three.

Looking up from the base, from the perspective of the ordinary staff member, people live in a world of instability in which changes in leadership or in policies or programs flow through to constant changes on the ground that people have to respond to. Longer term planning at course or unit level is very difficult in these circumstances.

In all this, the constant mantra is about the need for reform. Reform itself is a slippery word, because it just means to change, but also carries the connotation of to improve. It is far from clear to me just what, if any, improvements are likely to flow from current policy settings and associated programs. It is all far too complicated for any mere mortal to understand.

What, I think, we can be sure of is that the multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives and expectations along with policy rigidities risks creating a very real mess.  

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Issues with spin

I spent my normal writing hours this morning tidying up my blog list. There are too many on the list, many of which have not been updated for some time. Given this, I decided today just to point to a few of the posts I noticed in passing.

A little while ago in The art of slow reading, Neil quoted a Guardian piece on the decline in our ability  to read and contemplate. The piece said in part:

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.

I have to agree. It has always been the case that an on-line page needs to contain less content to be comprehensible than the equivalent printed page. However, it's not just the impact of on-line, but also and especially the rise of powerpoint. This has affected authors as much as readers.

I have noticed the change in part because I use writing as a way of extending my own understanding of ideas. People are less able to understand the nuances that are central to proper debate. They require things to be far more packaged.

In The Worm, Legal Eagle expresses her disillusionment with the current political process. As always, the post is well written.   I dealt with related issues in Gillard's a blowin in the wind.

Those brave enough to read this blog on a regular basis will know that I often focus and at length on the way things are done. I do so because of my experience not just as a former public servant, but also as a management consultant. You have to understand how things work if you are to make sensible suggestions for improvement.

The problem with things like spin and focus groups lies in the way they have inserted deep roots into the policy process. The rank top growth we can all see is really just that, the leaves of a much larger plant.

Following my Gillard post, my old friend and colleague Noric Dilanchian sent me an email linking to an earlier article he had written on spin.

Both Noric and I are framework people. Working together, we have developed a number of integrated structures designed to facilitate explanation of complex processes. Both of us have had to learn, however, that explanations of those structures have to be limited on a need to know basis.

Our private sector and increasingly public sector clients need stuff tailored to their immediate problems. That's fine, but what do you do when the client actually needs to understand the broader context if they are to get full value from the advice?

Let me use a legal example. Noric is an expert on contracts. His central theme in this area is that if the lawyer does not understand the business problem involved, then the resulting contract is likely to be ineffective. The starting problem is a business, not legal one. The contract then becomes the legal wrapping.

Lawyers aren't cheap. Their fees are very visible. Clients just want their contract and are reluctant to pay for the time required to properly understand the problem, even though this will save them money in the longer term.

This is not an academic argument. I saw a case a year or so back where the client failure to properly identify the business problem actually doubled the legal fees. We are not talking small change here. The extra cost was equivalent to the annual salaries of the client's staff involved.

I may seem to have come a long way from the question of spin, focus groups and the influence of public opinion. I have not.

In the case of spin, the community is the client, the pollies and their advisers the lawyers. Unless we as a community are prepared to invest the time to understand what is happening, then our responses will do no more than lop of a few of the ranker leaves. The costs will continue.     

Monday, July 26, 2010

What people read

Google has just introduced its own stats package for blogs. It seems to have come into effect from the start of June. I have stats packages already, but the Google package provides certain additional information.

I find that by far the most popular post during the period since with 220 page views was Sunday Essay - the importance of quiet time in a crowded world. I knew that this one was popular, but the next post on 126 views was a surprise: Report of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, year ended 30 June 1940. Then on 65 page views came  Masterchef meets the CWA.

Last night was the last episode of this year's Australian Masterchef, and we all watched it after the leader's election debate. By the way, I was struck by the behaviour of the worm during the debate, because of the way it highlighted different audience reactions between men and women to the two leaders. We knew this from the public opinion polls, but it was interesting to watch.

I was not surprised that Masterchef meets the CWA scored so well. The popular success of Masterchef has been quite astonishing. 

After the Masterchef post came The Importance of Family History on 59 page views. Again, this one was not a surprise. Then on 40 page views came Sunday Essay - Facebook, freedom of speech and the rights of others. This was a post I wrote as a companion to one of Tikno's posts. I see from Tikno's most recent post, Someone has stolen my article - plagiarism, that he has suffered a straight post pinch without attribution. I really sympathise.

The next five posts were:

Beyond my own personal curiosity, I suspect that the new stats will give me some helpful hints in time to guide my writing. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Essay - scoping Mr Abbott's immigration targets

Congratulations to Pakistan on winning the cricket and to the Wallabies for their victory over South Africa.

The rush to try to stay in the middle ground continues in Australia's Federal election with Opposition Leader Abbott announcing that the coalition would limit immigration to 170,000 and the Australian population growth to 1.4%. By this he means, I think, net immigration. Well, what might this mean?

The following table shows Australia's population increase in the year ended December 2009.

Natural Increase   154,900
Add new migrants 508,000  
Less Australians leaving 230,300  
Net overseas migration   277,700
Total population increase   432,600

If I interpret Mr Abbott correctly and had the cap been in place in 2009, the numbers would have looked like this:

Natural Increase   154,900
Add new migrants 400,300  
Less Australians leaving 230,300  
Net overseas migration   170,000
Total population increase   324,900

If you compare the two tables, the target set by Mr Abbott would have involved a reduction in net migration of 107,700, bringing migration down to 61.22% of its previous level. You can also see just how difficult it is to achieve a precise numeric outcome. Not only do many factors contribute to new immigration, but  the level of Australian emigration is now so high that it has a very powerful influence on the net migration number.

Leads and lags are important in all this. I have used 2009 numbers because these are the latest figures. In fact, the Government has already put in place greater controls on immigration, including changes to student visa arrangements, that are already bringing down the number of new migrants. It seems quite likely that these will of themselves bring net migration levels down below 170,000 to perhaps as low as 140,000 or even 100,000. In this event, you can probably expect the debate to reverse itself.

But what would have happened at state and territory level in 2009 had the cap been in place?

The following table shows increases in state or territory populations before and after the cap on the assumption that net migration fell by the same proportion in each jurisdiction. Assuming that I have made no silly mathematical errors, the single most important change is that Queensland would have moved from third to first in the growth rankings, with NSW falling from first to third. This result reflects the continued importance of net internal migration from NSW to Queensland.  

State Population change 2009 Net migration actual Net migration capped Population change capped
NSW 115,798 78,787 48,233 85,244
Victoria 114,580 77,502 47,447 84,525
Queensland 106,560 53,265 32,609 85,904
WA 58,668 38,078 23,311 35,357
SA 21,228 17,349 10,621 14,500
ACT 6,386 3,775 2,311 4,922
NT 4,932 1,909 1,169 4,192
Tasmania 4,442 2,046 1,253 3,649

There is nothing very profound in this analysis. I am just using a few simple numbers to scope one element of the debate over population and immigration. It helps when you consider the screaming headlines Abbott to slash immigration.     

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - a melange

This post is simply a melange of things I have noticed that struck me in some way as relevant to my current thinking.

In Somaliland votes I reported on the elections in this portion of Somalia, a de facto independent state for a number of years. The opposition won the election, leading to a peaceful transition of power. In an opinion piece on Al Jazeera, Professor Afyare Abdi Elmi suggests that this significant event brings into focus two contradictory approaches to the future of the region: (1) recognising Somaliland as a new state or (2) establishing the Somali state from Somaliland. He opts for the second.

The discussion brings into focus a broader issue, the struggles many nations have and do face in maintaining territorial integrity in the face of internal division.

In the ruling by the International Court on Kosovo, Court President Hisashi Owada said in part: "The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition on declarations of independence." While this may give heart to separatist movements everywhere, the path from de facto to full de jure remains a long and difficult one.

Political entities respond to internal tensions in different ways. Their responses take place within a global environment marked by the rise of bigger entities on one side with an increased desire for closer local, group or regional identification on the other. As life becomes more complex, many seek simplified identities.

This month's Anthropology Carnival introduced me to a new concept, WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic = ‘WEIRD’. I quote:

‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ establishes that most behavioural science theory is built on research that examines only a very narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates; more specifically, those in psychology classes) -- who are, in a word, WEIRD.

Equally distorting, research published in the top journals in six sub-disciplines of psychology relied on 68% of subjects from the US and fully 96% from ‘Western’ industrialized nations (European, North American, Australian or Israeli). Unsurprisingly, this skews our understanding of the empirical foundation for claims being made, either explicitly or implicitly, about human nature.

weird-cartoon2 Now the point in all this is that WEIRD subjects tend, it is suggested,  to be outliers in global terms on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits.

This conclusion links to another issue I have talked about, our tendency to assume that our own views are in some way the norm when in fact they probably (almost certainly) are not. I have also suggested that this is becoming an increasing problem because of the way that globalisation is jamming us all together willy-nilly.

The continuing US reactions to the release last year by the Scottish Government of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds raises some interesting issues.

Under the new definition of a devolved United Kingdom as a country of nations and regions, it seems to me that the Scottish Government was within its rights to release al-Megrahi. Whether the British Government as the central government should have intervened, indeed just how it might have intervened, is a different issue.

I wonder whether readers of this column have read any of Tom Clancy's books? I make this point because whether or not one likes Tom Clancy, I have found his books to be a remarkably good representation of one stream of US thought. One central element in those books is a belief in the centrality of US power. They are very US focused.

It is an odd feeling from my viewpoint that in my short life I have seen the final decline of one great Empire, the British, and the middle to end stages of another, the US. The point about Imperial entities is not their form of Government, but that they are big enough to consider not just that their views are central, but also that they have an implicit right to impose those views. This centrality of view continues into the decline phase even as the capacity to enforce it diminishes.

The assumption by the US Congress that it if it requests senior officials or Ministers of another state to attend a hearing then they should attend is an example.

This is not an anti-US comment. I am not anti-US, far from it. Rather, I am talking about mind-sets.

You actually see the same thing in Australia at both popular and official levels. At popular level, there is a belief that if there is an external problem, something that breaches local views, then the Government can and must do something about it. At official level, you see it in official arrogance and insensitivity in handling relations in those areas where Australia's power and influence is greatest. 

If this is bad in the US, it's far worse in Australia because our real power is so limited.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gillard's a blowin in the wind

Where the wind blows

I haven't commented to this point on Australia's election campaign.

When the election was first announced, my reaction was that Ms Gillard had gone too soon, reinforcing the belief that both her election as PM and the poll decision fell in the grab it while you can class.

I am not sure that this matters in any practical way. I am not close enough to the great variety in attitudes across Australia to be able to make independent judgements as to seat outcomes, even though I do read quite widely. I can only go by the polls and, with one exception, these suggest a Labor win.

What passes for a policy debate in the election leaves me feeling quite cold. It is very much the current approach of simple slogans tailored through polling and focus groups to try to measure and match the shifting currents of public opinion. At a personal level, I really don't want to vote for either side.

I have been meaning for a while to write a column on spin and will do so at some point because I think it important. As part of this, I have been trying to think how to best demonstrate that the effects are quite pernicious. Perhaps one way of doing this would be to take two or three practical examples at different points in time.

As I write, what passes for policy debate is shifting from sustainable population to climate change.

The sustainable population debate was simplistic beyond belief. I have written a fair bit in this area over time. In one of my recent Armidale Express columns, Belshaw's World - comings, goings and the end of big Australia, I looked at some basic numbers.

In simple terms, slowing Australia's population growth does not mean stopping immigration. In 2009, over 203,000 Australians left the country. Had we had a zero growth target, we would still have needed 75,000 migrants to keep the population stable. So when we talk about migration, we need to focus on net migration.

This is actually the number people use in discussion, but they don't realise this, nor do they necessarily realise that changes in the number of Australians emigrating has such a major impact. A little simple maths would better inform the debate.

The debate about a bigger Australia has bought back into focus questions about the distribution of people across the continent. Again, I get very tired here of arguing against simple and mechanistic responses.

The flag ship Gillard policy is called Building Better Regional Cities. Who could argue with this? The introduction states: 

The Gillard Labor Government will invest $200 million to help build up to 15,000 more affordable homes in regional cities over three years and relieve pressure on our major capital cities, so that Australia can grow sustainably.

This is classic spin, attaching a nice title to a minor measure. What the Government has done is to slow down spending on national affordable housing to allow the allocation of $200 million (not a large sum) to building housing in regional cities.

But what cities? Well, to set an initial target list, all they did was to set an arbitrary cut off point of 30,000 for all non-capital city LGAs and then put all those over 30,000 on a list from which a final group is to be chosen. That group will get up to $15 million to spend on housing and associated infrastructure.

This may make a useful contribution in specific areas, but does nothing to address core problems. In fact, it will simply reinforce past trends.

Turning to climate change, it appears that the core element in Ms Gillard's proposals is some form of citizen's assembly to build community consensus on the topic. It also appears that her climate plan will have three components: building consensus, boosting clean energy and the development of community-based solutions.

On the surface, this is classic current policy. Of course we need to build a common community view on climate change. Of course, clean energy is (subject to the detail) probably a good thing, as are community solutions. However, this is not a government leading, but instead reacting.

Still, you can be sure that there will be a few key slogans and some nice if conventional visual packaging.

I called Mr Rudd the head because of the way we were all his recalcitrant students. Following Moir's cartoon, does this make Ms Gillard the weather-cock?  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Return to country

Back yesterday mid afternoon from delivering my paper last night in Armidale on An Exploration of New England's Aboriginal languages. I was as nervous as a kitten because of the likely audience, including members of the local Aboriginal community and linguists.

By accident, Jen (my Aboriginal mentee) was in Armidale on business, her first trip there, so we were able to have a review session over lunch and then I showed her a little of the city. She was actually surprised by the size of the visible Aboriginal presence in Armidale. Jen wanted to come to the evening session, so that guaranteed me one friendly face.

One of the distinctive things about Armidale lies in location; within a few days walk of the present city can be found no less than six distinct Aboriginal language groups.

Anaiwan or Nganyaywana was the local language. To the north, Anaiwan merged into the other main Tableland language group, the Ngarabal. To the east, the big coastal languages Gumbainggir (from the Clarence River down to and including the Nambucca Valley) and Dainggati (Macleay River Valley) came close to Armidale. In the far south, the Biripi or Gadhang (Hastings and Manning Valleys) adjoined Anaiwan. Then on the west, the very big Kamilaroi or Gamillaraay language group  ran the entire length of Anaiwan and then beyond.

The relationships between local Anaiwan speakers and the other groups was affected by just where you lived. While very little Anaiwan has survived, I think it clear that the dialects within Anaiwan were affected by the exact relationships with adjoining language groups. Armidale's modern Aboriginal community includes people who can trace their ancestry to all the main adjoining language groups; this can create some interesting tensions!

Welcome to Country was given by Steve Widders (Anaiwan) in part in Anaiwan. I am not sure that the wording was exactly the same, but this is an example from a Welcome to Country given by Steve at the University of New England.   

Yugga danya Ngawanya
(I am a Man of the Anaiwan people.)
Roonyahra tanya tampida Ngawanya
(This is the ancestral land of the Ngawanya.)
Ootila tanya yoonyarah
(I welcome you to this land.)

In his welcome, Steve recognised the other groups. Among those attending were Hazel Green who is, I think, the grand daughter of Frank Archibald (Gumbainggir), who was a leading Aboriginal elder in Armidale. Hazel had a magazine article on her family that I did not have time to read. However, you will find a little about Frank in this edition of Dawn.

Frank was born in 1885 and knew his grandfather who was born around 1808, significantly before the Europeans arrived. I think that he married a Dainggati woman from Walcha, so if I have the family tree right Hazel has ancestry from both.

Another who attended was Tom Briggs (Gumbainggir). Tom is the councillor for Northern NSW on the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and is the NSWALC Deputy Chair. He had been to a language course and had his course material with him, although again I did not have the time (I was also to nervous) to look.

Dianne Roberts, OAM, (Dainggati), the former Director and Principal Minimbah Aboriginal Pre- and Primary School also attended. When I was showing Jen a little of Armidale, we drove past the new school. It has around 67 pupils at present, a bit over 90% Aboriginal, but also with 5% international students. You will find a little of Dianne's remarkable life here.    

   Among the non-Aboriginal audience was Margaret Sharpe who, among other things, is a linguist who has written on Bundjalung, another of the Northern languages.

You can see why I was nervous, for as a non-linguist I was presenting on the story of Aboriginal languages across the broad New England to an audience including both linguists and and Aboriginal people with their own histories and family knowledge. In fact, both were kind. Indeed, Margaret has offered to help me with my pronunciation!

As I was researching the paper, I thought what a remarkable role the University of New England and its staff and students has played in researching, presenting and preserving the Aboriginal history and culture of Northern NSW. Writing in 1978 in the Introduction to Records of times past. Ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978, p3).

Much of this historical material (settler records etc) is known only a the local level; its very preservation is a tribute to the devotion of local historians. Very little of it has been published. Searching out this elusive source material has been vital for the knowledge of this particular region. The detailed ethnohistorical  sources in Australia tend to belong to the periods and places of first contact ... Northern NSW was settled to late to share this historical record of detail, yet too early to be able to benefit from the beginnings of serious anthropological at the end of the century. The region was largely neglected in the anthropological literature of the late nineteenth century ... due partly to the complete, rapid, and early disintegration of Aboriginal culture after settlement in the region, partly perhaps to its isolation and its sense of separate identity from the intellectual life of the state's capital.

Had the University of New England not been founded, it seems likely that large slabs of the history of New England and especially that of the history and culture of its Aboriginal peoples including language would have been lost. The fact that we know so much now is one of the University's enduring legacies.  

I was eighteen when I went on my first archeological survey with Isabel McBryde. I was twenty-one when I wrote my honours thesis as part of Isabel's first prehistory honours group. I was thirty three when Records of Times Past was published, including a chapter based on my honours work. Now, many years later, there is a sense of enduring satisfaction that I am not only carrying the legacy forward, but also in so doing recording the work done by others.

There is also a sense of satisfaction that in so doing I am at least trying to give New England's Aboriginal peoples' greater access to their own past.

I suppose the thing that stands out to me here is not so much how much has been lost, but actually how much has been saved.

New England's Aboriginal history now stalks across my mind not as a series of abstracts, not as a series of disconnected facts, but as a flow, an increasingly connected story. While I am conscious of how little I know, I see the story as a flow of life against a landscape.

As a person and historian, I work at a personal level.

Back in January 2007, Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines attracted interesting comments from a commenter who variously described herself as lefty or just c. I met c. in Armidale, she actually gave the vote of thanks!

In conversation, Caroline explained how she had put a Dainggati-English dictionary into her school library. The school has a lot of Dainggati kids. One boy commented that it was the best thing he had found in the library because it had words that he used!

I think that one of the best things that we can do for Aboriginal kids is to give them back their history. Not the generalised history you often see, but the actual specific local, regional and language group history.         

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pause in posting

I am running behind in finalising a paper I have to give in Armidale Tuesday next week. For that reason, and taking travel time into account, I will not be posting here until next Thursday. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Urban legends

I am not sure when I first heard the phrase "urban legends". Thinking back, I first really remember it from the 1990s. Getting curious, I did a search.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase dates from at least 1968 and was popularised by Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English at the University of Utah, in a series of popular books published beginning in 1981.

Now I thought that that there was something specifically urban about urban lengend, but checking around it actually looks as though an urban legend is really quite close to what Australians would simply call a yarn. I quote one definition:

Question: What is an urban legend?
Most people have heard the story, usually imparted as a thing that "really happened to a friend of a friend," of the dotty grandma who tried to dry her damp poodle in the microwave. The dog exploded, sad to say, and Grandma has never been quite the same since. The story isn't true, of course; it's an urban legend circulating since the 1970s. It describes a mishap that could have happened, but we have no evidence, nor any good reason to believe, that it ever really did. And there's a moral: newfangled technologies, albeit a boon to humanity, can also be dangerous when misused. It's a horror story with a point!

Answer: An urban legend is an apocryphal, secondhand story, told as true and just plausible enough to be believed, about some horrific, embarrassing, ironic or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person. As in the example above, it's likely to be framed as a cautionary tale.

Whether factual or not, an urban legend is meant to be believed. In lieu of evidence, however, the teller of an urban legend is apt to rely on skillful storytelling and reference to putatively trustworthy sources — e.g., "it really happened to my hairdresser's brother's best friend" — to convince hearers of its veracity.
Actually, all this is mildly disappointing. The real significance of urban legends lies in the use of the word urban. The tales themselves aren't new, only the specific use of the word urban to describe them, a sign of the growth of the cities.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A bridge too far for WA?

I have wondered previously about the growing strains on our federal structure, pointing most recently to tensions revealed by Mr Rudd's health proposals as well as the mining rent tax. In Does Australia face a constitutional crisis? I concluded:

Even if some form of compromise can be found, it will still leave the general problem. At some point, the growing problems in Commonwealth-state financial problems will simply make the whole system unworkable.

I am left wondering whether the current position with WA might not prove to be a bridge too far. As I understand it, WA is still refusing to participate in the health proposals even at the cost of foregoing Commonwealth support, while a report from the WA Treasury is highly critical of the tax. I quote from the Australian:

The hard-hitting Treasury report released yesterday calls for the proposed mineral resources rent tax to be scrapped before it can be implemented in 2012.

It estimates the tax would increase WA's net contribution to the commonwealth by about $3 billion in 2013-14.

And it questions the federal government's estimates that the MRRT would raise $10.5 billion in its first two years, noting its own budget estimate that iron ore prices are set to fall by 30 per cent between 2011 and 2014.

Setting the scene for a potentially bitter clash over states' rights, the DTF report said the commonwealth's "apparent intention" to replace state royalties on iron ore, coal and petroleum would be strongly opposed by any West Australian government.

It said the move would further erode WA's sovereignty over its finances. In a veiled warning of a High Court challenge, the report said state royalties had "historical and constitutional primacy" over any federal mining tax.

There were media reports that some form of deal might be in the making on the health care side, but a story in The West Australian suggests that the two sides are as far apart as ever. I quote:  

Colin Barnett has flatly denied that Julia Gillard offered him any special health deal when the pair met in Perth on Friday.

And public comments yesterday from the Prime Minister, Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon and her WA counterpart, Kim Hames, suggested zero progress has been made towards ending the impasse.

The Premier and Dr Hames again restated the State Government's absolute refusal to relinquish control of WA's GST revenue to pay for an activity based funding model for health care.

I am not concerned in this post with the arguments for or against or indeed the constitutional issues involved; that's a matter for another post. I am simply interested as an observer in the dynamics and what it might mean for the future.

I have no idea how all this will play out. However, I think that we can be sure that there is likely to be a reasonable degree of hard-ball from both sides.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Random jottings

Entertaining post on the ABC's The Drum by Mark Tamhane on the German reaction to the departure of Mr Rudd. I missed it at the time. It's worth a browse.

I felt for Deutsche Welle's Australian representative, Esther Blank: "This always happens!," she is quoted as saying. "Every time I leave Australia a major story breaks." Esther is the mother of one of youngest's close friends and indeed it does seem to happen.

For those who don't know it, The Drum is the ABC's on-line opinion segment, using a blog format. It has developed its own written style.

One of my complaints about both the Howard and Rudd Governments was a tendency to insensitivity in dealing with Australia's neighbours. The Gillard Government's approach to Timor-Leste on the refugee issue seems to fall into the same class. Maybe its a cultural thing?

I was taken-aback by Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith's response to the rejection by the Timor-Leste parliament of the concept of the processing centre. I quote:    

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith says the rejection should not be over-interpreted and discussions between the two countries are continuing.

"Unlike the Australian Parliament, East Timorese ministers do not sit in East Timorese parliament so this is a reflection on those members of the East Timorese parliament at the time and not the government's response," he said.

"The government of East Timor's response remains as it has been over the last few days."

Coming from the Australian tradition, I suppose that I had assumed the centrality of parliament. For those who are interested, you will find a copy of the Timor-Leste constitution here. Parliament is central, but the way powers are divided is very different from that holding in Westminster systems.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Blogging reflections

First, welcome to visitor 80,000 who came from Sydney searching on Aboriginal populationtraffic June 10 2 distribution.

The graphic shows traffic stats on this blog. Yellow is visits, yellow plus red page views.

While it's not clear from the graphic, I find that traffic bounces around a bit depending on topicality but also interest. Topicality affects Google search, interest regular readers.

While the number of return visits is reasonably stable, I know when I am getting too boring because numbers do drop!

A common feature of the Google search patterns is their wide spread. It is rare for any page to stand out, although there have been times when particular stories have run hard.   

I was reminded of this by a comment I received on a story from September 2007, APEC Security in Action, dealing with the  arrest of Greg McLeay. I leave comments open on past posts because it sometimes attracts interesting responses.

In this case, the commenter wondered what the outcome of the court case had been. I have a recollection, but wasn't sure. Like the commenter, I did a web search, but was not able to find anything.

Reading APEC Security in Action and the follow up story, APEC Washup - a failure in manners leads to a lost opportunity, reminded me of just how strongly feelings were running at the time. There was, as I saw it, a nastiness, an inhumanity, that had crept into the Australian body politic.

I wrote my first test post on this blog in March 2006. Over four years and 1,447 posts later, the posts have to a degree reflected changing events and attitudes, as well as changes in my own perceptions. It's been an interesting ride.  

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Essay - a diminishing Australia?

Yesterday afternoon I took my wife and mother-in-law to the airport to meet a niece who was flying in from Noumea. She had been there on a school French language excursion. Having picked her up at the international terminal, we went across to one of the domestic terminals so that she and her grandmother could catch the plane to Brisbane. Her family has just relocated from Sydney to Brisbane.

Last night I completed a short piece that will come up later today on New England Australia on the Walcha painter Julia Griffin.

This morning I saw on What's On Sydney  that the Boy from Oz was being produced in Blacktown. This is a very popular musical, with productions also running in Gosford and Newcastle.  The Blacktown production is described in this way:

The Boy From Oz will take you on a musical journey through the Peter’s highs and low’s from his humble beginnings in a small pub in the Australian outback ('When I Get My Name In Lights'), through his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli (I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love'), his love affair with long time companion Greg Connell ('I Honestly Love You') to his final performance in Sydney ('I Still Call Australia Home') plus many many more popular songs including the Oscar winning Arthur’s theme 'Best That You Can Do.

Three apparently disconnected things somehow connected in my mind. Rain on the Uralla Road Julia Griffin

This painting by Julia Griffin is simply called Rain on the Uralla Road. This is very familiar country for me. The road runs from Walcha through Uralla to Armidale, the university city in which I grew up.

This is high country by Australian standards, part of the self-contained world of the New England Tablelands, Australia's largest tablelands' area. The painting successfully captures the light and feel of this part of the Tablelands.

At the start of the description from the Boy from Oz, the small pub in the Australian outback is in fact the New England Hotel - the Newie - in Armidale. So I guess on this basis, Julia's painting could could be sub-titled "Outback Scene".

Modern Australian middle class young like my niece have many opportunities. They know cities and airports in many countries; they may have skied in Canada; toured the Tuscan countryside; studied French in Noumea or Paris; holidayed in Bali. Yet they also seem to live in a greatly shrunken country.

Armidale was a small city in population terms when Peter Allen lived there, a city by grace of its bishoprics. However, neither the New England Tablelands not Armidale can properly be described as the Australian outback. The Musical Society in Sydney's Blacktown can be excused their mistake, but it was not one that would have happened fifty years ago.

We all live with mental mud-maps made up, among other things, of boundaries, points and lines.

When I was growing up, the phrase "Back of Bourke" was used to describe the outback. Since then, the dotted mental line that people have in their mind to describe the outback has progressively shifted towards the coast. By the time my daughters were going to school in Sydney, the area selected by one group of their classmates for study in the Year of the Outback was, in fact, the Blue Mountains. For those who don't know Australia, these are the ranges just to the west of Sydney.

These types of mental shifts occur all the time. In Sydney, for example, the boundary of the "Eastern Suburbs"  in real estate terms has moved progressively south. The area described by my daughters as the Eastern Suburbs is not that same as the term I used when I was their age.

Geography and transport play key roles in these types of mental shifts. You can actually construct maps that look a bit like the stylised transport route maps. If you do, you will find that modern transport and communications has greatly increased the geographic scale, but also reduced the detail. Combine this with population shifts and suddenly large areas of Australia have progressively diminished in popular perception. They are now below the flight path.

There is another factor as well.

If you look at current Australian young, they like many of the same things. To some degree, there are still regional variations in things like clothing because of climate. But in pursuit of the great gods of shopping and fashion, they actually look at and buy the same type of things whether it be in Sydney, Brisbane or, for that matter, Noumea. There is a common urban life style.

It may sound strange to say this in an Australia marked by greater ethnic diversity, by apparently increased knowledge of different cultures, but I have the strong impression that actual interest in and knowledge of difference has declined.

I don't want to overstate this, and indeed I am struggling a little to capture the idea properly. It may just be that some things have been added in, others dropped out. However, I do think that there is more to it than this.

Change is inevitable. My problem is that the areas I am most interested in at a personal level are among those that have dropped below the flight path. They still exist, but are much dimished and still diminishing in Australian perception and recognition.

I find that this affects my writing and thought.

As an analyst and commentator, I try to look at what we might think of as broader issues, although my analysis is still affected by my own geographic interests. However, to the degree that I am a writer, I have become a regional writer in a way that I did not expect. The topics I select, the way I write, the people I write about, are all firmly embedded in that geographic space that I still think of as home.


The post I mentioned is now up - The paintings of Julia Griffin.  

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Introducing Emperor Menelik

I mentioned this one in passing on Round the history blogs 5 - the emperor's electric chair. Just to set the scene, David Wallechinsky et al, The Book of Lists (London: Corgi, 1977) p.463 states:

On August 6, 1890, the first electric chair in history was put into use in the death chamber of Auburn Prison in New York. In distant Abyssinia – now called Ethiopia – Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) heard about it and decided that this new method of execution should become part of his modernisation plan for his country. Immediately, he put in an order for three electric chairs from the American manufacturer. When the chairs arrived and were unpacked, the emperor was mortified to learn that they wouldn’t work – Abyssinia had no electricity. Determined that his investment would not be completely wasted, Emperor Menelik adopted one of the electric chairs for his imperial throne.

But is it true? In A Fortean in the Archives, Mike Dash shows why not, in so doing introducing to a little of the history of Abyssinia and the Emperor Menelik, one of its most able rulers.

Do read the post and enjoy, as well as the Wikipedia article.   

Friday, July 09, 2010

Minerals, politics and economic change

In a post yesterday, Is Australia's trade position as good as it seems?, I wondered about the real strength of the Australian trade position. I may be right, but in the meantime growth continues.

The employment figures released yesterday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics were remarkably strong.Employment June 10 The graph from the ABS gives a good visual picture of the trend.

David Uren in the Australian has a useful analysis of the numbers. Just to quote one part:

Western Australia generated half the new jobs last month and is regaining the role it had from 2005 to 2007 as the leading economic performer, with unemployment in that state now down to 4 per cent, a full percentage point drop since February.

Over the past three months, Western Australia and Queensland have led the employment growth, with more than 30,000 jobs created in each state, against just over 20,000 in NSW and Victoria.

Ultimately, jobs created are reflected in population numbers. Given the relative size of the state populations, an increase of 30,000 jobs in WA (population 2,270,276) as compared to 20,000 in NSW (population 7,191,500) and Victoria (population 5,496,408) is striking.

It takes time for economic shifts of this type to be fully reflected in population shifts. Initial increases in one type of employment are followed by other types. In legal services, for example, Perth lagged for some time because work stayed with the big eastern state firms. However, by August 2007, increases in remuneration in Perth were leading the nation. Actual amounts paid were still behind Sydney and Melbourne, but the gap was closing.

Another example is skilled employment in supporting activities. As mining expands, so do engineering activities required to maintain the mines. With time, this creates a series of often small engineering firms making parts and servicing equipment. This leads to a further increase in activities required to service those firms themselves.

I am not saying anything profound here. I am just interested in patterns, something I discussed a little most recently in Australia's economic fragmentation.

In the WA case, we have job increases leading to population increases feeding further job increases. This puts WA in a very different class from some parts of NSW.

In the case of the NSW (New England) North Coast, the rapid growth in population from the start of the eighties was linked to life style - retirement, tourism, coastal living in general. Jobs followed this increase, but they were generally lower paid service jobs. The North Coast now has some of the poorest areas in Australia measured by average incomes, with some of the highest areas of welfare dependence in the country. The population is also older.

Within NSW, only the coal mining areas of the Hunter and Liverpool display anything approaching the WA pattern and for the same reasons. However, here the higher level jobs remain in Sydney, as indeed they do in Perth in the WA case.

Shifts in economic power are inevitably associated with shifts in political power. This was one of the things that made the debate over the resources super profits tax so interesting. The intent of the tax was to capture a greater share of mining company profits and then redistribute them to parts of the country not benefiting directly from the growth in mining. I am not sure that it was ever quite put that way, but that was the practical effect.

This is not the first time that this has happened in Australian history. Federation itself and the associated imposition of the tariff barriers that was part of the price of Federation redistributed incomes from the export sectors to import competing sectors.

If you look at the responses to the tax, WA as a state was most directly affected and responded most strongly. It wasn't just the mining tax, but also other financial issues including the treatment of GST.

Queensland, too, was directly affected, but here the state response was more muted and lagged. Unlike WA, Queensland has large population areas not directly associated with mining who could be expected to support the original proposals. It wasn't until on-ground protests from mining areas gathered strength that the Premier came out in somewhat belated opposition.

The position in NSW was different again. Here the population in the resource rich areas constitutes a very small part of the total state population. At no stage so, far as I am aware, did the NSW Premier express serious concerns, despite the implications for state revenues from mining royalties.The on-ground concerns were there, but had much less impact on this debate. However, they did help fuel the re-emergence of new state support.

None of this should be construed as a comment on the tax itself, simply an analysis of the responses.

One of the interesting things about the spread of economic literacy in Australia is that people are far more aware of the flow-on effects.

If you look at official Australian material over the first decades of the 20th century such as the year books, you will find lots of comment, of concern, about the rise of metro populations. You will also find recognition that this was associated with industrialisation and the tariff. However the various linkages weren't fully understood. It would be many years before the theory of customs unions would provide a solid theoretical framework to analyse the differential impact of Federation.

The fact that people now have more knowledge is a good thing, although it does complicate life for governments! Still, the on-ground effects of change do remain clouded. I will continue to watch developments with interest.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Northern meander

I was struck by a story in the Northern Territory News that Alice Spring's rents increase by 32.6 per cent in the past 12 months, bringing the average cost of a three-bedroom house to $572 a week and a two-bed unit to $361. By contrast, the higher vacancy rate in Darwin has dropped the median rent for a three-bedroom home in Darwin to $498 a week, and a two-bed unit to $388.

Trivia, I know, but I am always interested in real estate prices and rents across the country because of what it says about regional variation and trend. Population in the Darwin Statistical Division grew by 3,733 or 3.08 per cent in 2009. Presumably building has been catching up.

After being hit by the global financial downturn, NT businesses are reported to be now actively seeking new staff. The NT Government has set up an on-line data base to facilitate recruitment and job matching. 

The News also carries regular stories on crocodiles, in this case a fisherman who fell into croc infested waters. I hadn't seen crocodiles until a few year's back when we went to North Queensland for a holiday. They are fearsome beasts. 

Growth in population in Northern Australia has brought more people into contact and especially fisherman. Last week in Cairns a fisherman had a lucky escape when a 2.4 metre croc lunged at him. The warning signs Cairns-WebUsual-CP08JUL10P100-C0040669-PRECINCT you see are not to be ignored.

Staying in Cairns, it appears that the Federal Government has given Cairns $40 million to fund the building of a performing arts centre to act as the heart of a new cultural precinct. I always admire the way that architect's drawings can make things seem so grand.

Cairn's LGA (local government area) population was a bit over 127,000 at the 2006 census, up from 122,057 in 2001. Australians know that this is a big country, but because of modern communications we sometimes forget just how big. If you were to drive from Sydney to Cairns, you are looking at a 2,400k trip that will take you 30 hours driving time plus time for breaks.

Camels near Broome On the other side of the continent, torrential rain has disrupted the peak tourism season in the Kimberley region.

Broome also appears to be having problems with camels, more precisely with camel operators (here, here, here). Apparently, two camel companies have been involved in a bitter dispute that has resulted in two criminal trials and a civil action in the Supreme Court.

I always thought that camels were cantankerous animals. Maybe this has rubbed off on the operators. Or am I being unfair to the camels?

All for now.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Fluidity in higher education

In June I mused about the decline in economics in Australia (here then here). In this context there was an interesting article in the Australian by Professor Tor Hundloe who has analysed Queensland university course offerings.  I quote:

Of the 130 full degree programs I identified, offered by 13 institutions, only 6 per cent were full economics or combined economics degrees. And only three universities warranted this discipline worthy of study.

Professor Hundloe also referred to the proliferation of course options and combinations.

Meanwhile, Andrew Trounson reports that the Australian Qualifications Framework Council has rejected the efforts of Melbourne University to badge certain of its new master level professional courses as doctorates, apparently along the lines of the Juris Doctor in law. Originally a US concept, a number of Australian universities have introduced JDs in recent years.

The AQC argues that Melbourne University's proposals may create confusion and risks downgrading the concept of a doctorate. Melbourne argues that it's approach is consistent with evolving international practice.

I find all this a bit problematic. However, it's also interesting because these changes are symptoms of broader change processes. These include the continuing trend towards "professionalisation", the impact of globalisation on the professions, the rise of the vocational, the growth of universities as businesses competing for market share, as well as the continuing impact of mass higher education. 

All this is really just a note to myself to say that I should re-visit some of these questions.  

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Blogs of interest - Australian politics with a dash of history

This morning there was little that I wanted to write about. Instead, I spent some time blog browsing.

In On the trail of Jock McDiarmid, Paul Barratt continues his investigation of the remarkable SAS war time experiences of our old school sergeant. Paul also continues to be underwhelmed by some of the goings on at Federal level. Rudd was no “bureaucrat” attacks the commonly held notion that Mr Rudd was a consummate bureaucrat. An earlier post, Reflections on the leadership change, contains some interesting reflections on Mr Rudd's downfall.

Reflecting our different experiences, both Paul and I talk a fair bit about process. In this context, Paul wrote:  

Among the many things that Kevin Rudd did not understand was the value of an effective Cabinet process.  Clear evidence of how central the Cabinet process is to a Westminster system of government is the fact that it has endured for centuries, without ever being mentioned in legislation or, in Australia’s case, the constitution.  The central principal of Cabinet government in our system is that, while Ministers are each commissioned by the Governor-General to administer certain enactments as defined in the Administrative Arrangements Order, there are some things that an individual Minister could do that would have the potential to bring the Government down.  Accordingly, for these strategic issues, it is a matter of basic survival to ensure that these strategically significant issues are discussed by the whole leadership team, with a collective decision being made as to whether any given proposal is or is not a good idea.

Beyond that core issue, there is the question of ensuring, in relation to any idea that the Government wishes to proceed with, that all of the downsides and risk factors have been considered, and the requirements for successful implementation have been thought through.  The standard model for achieving that in Australian Federal Cabinet practice is to require any Minister seeking significant policy change to place a submission before Cabinet.  Cabinet submissions are required to be succinct (usually not more than seven pages), with clear recommendations, and costings agreed by the Department of Finance.  The proposing Minister’s department is required, in the course of drafting a submission, to consult all other departments upon whose responsibilities the proposal could have an impact, and to include in the submission a succinct statement of each department’s “coordination comments”. The submissions are then supposed to be lodged with the Cabinet Secretariat in time to be circulated to all members of Cabinet ten clear business days ahead of the meeting at which they are to be considered.

It doesn’t always work like that (I have known times when the ten day rule has been more honoured in the breach than the observance) but at least this standard model provides for the orderly conduct of government business, and for Ministers to take informed decisions based on thorough briefing from all relevant departments and agencies.

I have quoted this at length because it's a quite succinct description of practice at a Federal level. One of the things that I found interesting looking at NSW, and one of the reasons I think that there have been so many problems there, is that there is actually no real equivalent to the structured Federal process.

In Is Julia Gillard the new Maurice Iemma? political scientist and historian Geoff Robinson takes a severe look at our new PM.

Julia Gillard may be the most insubstantial leader of a major Australian political party since Andrew Peacock. She is a person created by circumstances. She incarnates the accommodation of Australian social democracy with the contemporary social movements of globalised capitalism, and the struggle for gender equality, secularism and multiculturalism.

I often find Geoff's views interesting. He consciously writes from a left of centre perspective, but we sometimes end up at the same point because both of us are interested in history and look at the same topics.

Enough Australian politics, I think.

As usual, Ramana's Musings has had some very good posts. See, as an example,The Lungi. Like this post, many posts provide an interesting entry point to aspects of Indian life, past and present.  Guest Post – Defilements provides a picture of life in a Braham family.

I guess that it wouldn't be a post without some reference to history.

Very few Australians know much, I suspect, about the East India Company even though it is part of Australian as well as Indian and British history. Founded in 1600, the company dominated the India trade and came to rule large parts of that country. The North American equivalent was the Hudson's Bay Company, founded in 1670 and by far the oldest corporate entity in North America.

I had not known until I read Ramana's The East India Company that an Indian entrepreneur had acquired the rights to the name and crest and had re-launched the company. I can understand Ramana's personal satisfaction at this Indianisation. 

I have said before that it is a pity that Australians learn so little about the British Empire. It's not just that the Empire was the world global power of the 19th century, but the way we do learn it now as subsets of other things such as decolonisation means that the things that are taught lack context.

Australia is much younger country than either India or Canada. Perhaps the oldest Australian comparisons are the Australian Agricultural Company formed by an act of the British Parliament in 1827 and the Van Dieman's Land Company created by Royal Charter in 1825. Both companies still exist today. The AAco is especially important from my perspective because of its impact on New England history.

Staying with companies and history, in Sucrogen and White Australia, Geoff provides his perspective on the sale of its sugar interests by CSR to the Singapore based Wilmar International, after an unsuccessful bid for the division by the Chinese Bright Foods.

CSR stands for the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. Founded in Sydney in 1855, CSR played a major role in the development of the Australian sugar industry, growing to be Australia's second largest company. In his post, Geoff focuses on the inter-relationship between CSR and the white Australia policy, concluding that the sale was a mark of the transformation that had occurred in Australia.

Both points are correct. They also link to the discussion in my previous posts about Indian attitudes towards Australia.

Part of the difficulties that Australia presently faces with Indian prejudices about this country goes back to the white Australia policy. But it's not just the policy. Those attitudes were also formed because of the tri-partite interaction between the Australian colonies, India and Empire. I don't think that it's a coincidence that the most deeply entrenched attitudes about Australians as racists are to be found in Commonwealth countries. In a sense, they saw us as we were more directly because of the family connection.

Beyond the white Australia policy, the Sucrogen takeover marks another end. At a purely local level, CSR played a major role in the development of the New England sugar industry. More broadly, CSR was part of the Australian push into the Pacific, something that I talked about a little in Pacific Perspective - Australia in the Pacific. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (Fiji) had a significant impact on that country's history.

Well, time to do some other things.