Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mr Assange's ego

Many years ago I was in a position where I read all the cables coming into my then Department from Australia's overseas posts. These included some remarkably detailed and frank assessments on people and activities in particular countries. My security clearance also meant that I saw some secret and top secret material, including code word material. This material was distributed by hand. In some cases, our security bloke sat there while I read it.

Not all of the assessments were valid even then. They included gossip and ephemeral material that had relevance, if it had relevance, just at a point in time. However, some of it was pungent and to the point.

A substantial proportion of the workings of an Government depends upon the maintenance of a degree of confidentiality. I used to think that there was too much confidentiality. Now I am coming to think that the opposite holds true. Certainly as a former reasonably senior public servant, I would not have written to my minister in the open way I did if I had thought that my advice might be leaked.

I always knew that my advice would go onto the public record one day for anybody who might want to read it. My concern was simply effectiveness at the time, including the chance to put forward ideas that were not necessarily thought through, did not involve a decision, but were simply part of the process of generating new policy. Because I knew my minister and his sense of humour, sometimes I would put things in such a way as to get a laugh.

To a substantial degree, good public policy depends upon the combination of two things: the capacity to think things though within a confidential space, combined with a proper paper trail so that final accountability is there.

Apart from the immediate damage done by Wikileaks to a variety of people and national interests, the latest imbroglio is likely to continue the erosive process that has been underway for some time, the removal of things from the record.

The role of the Government archivist is in part to preserve critical records so that later generations, and not so much later as all that, can understand and critique Government actions. This is longer term accountability.

But what happens when stuff is no longer recorded or, if recorded, is so sanitised as to be unusable? What happens when material sent is consciously deleted, delete after reading?

As you know, I am a bit of a history nut. As an historian, I deal with official records all the time. As a consultant and contractor dealing with current issues, I actually work with current record systems in private as well as public sectors. I can tell you that many of those systems are a mess and getting worse. They will get worse still if critical stuff is deleted.

I will try to write a proper post on this point so that I just don't seem an old fashioned fuddy-duddy. I have in fact worked within the on-line environment for the best part of thirty years.

For the moment, I just wanted to record my view that Mr Assange has, to my mind, done great damage that works directly against the things that he claims to believe in. It is, I fear, a case of ego rampant.


I see from his twitter feed that my old friend Paul Barratt seems to disagree with my position. KVD, a regular commenter, has also taken me to task. I am cooking tea, so can't add more at the moment, but stand by my position.

I will add more, maybe tomorrow.

Postscript 2

I have added quite a long comment in response to KVD. I leave it to you to decide whether or not my concerns are justified.

In terms of the nature of the response, have a look at Assange could face prosecution and years in jail.

Postscript 3

In a comment on a skepticslawyers post, Wikileaks and the brave new world of freedom of information, KVD asked:

Jim Belshaw gave a very good summary in a comment on his blog about the ramifications of this from the perspective of governments who wish to retain necessary confidentiality. I hope he frontpages it for future reference.

David, your wish is my command! I wrote:

KDV, we need to disentangle a few issues.

I don't know just what the Guardian means when it says that this type of information is readily available in the normal course to about 3 million Americans.

The US is about twenty times Australia in population. The Australian equivalent would be something over 150,000. There could well be 150,000 Australians including the military who have a security clearance to at least confidential level and who could therefore have at least theoretical access to at least some of the material. However, the number who have actual access is far less because of need to know.

As I see it, there are a cascade of issues in this case.

We start with the question of the extent to which Governments are, or should be, entitled to keep information confidential.

Then, within this boundary, we have the issue of when an employee or someone else with access is entitled in an ethical sense to breach trust or indeed break the law.

Beyond this, there is the question of those who then publish the material. Normally here we are talking about the media who have a general duty to report.

Then we have wikileaks, an organisation whose sole business is the publication of leaked information.

The ethical issues involved with wikileaks are different from those facing the Guardian. I would have thought that once the Guardian was given the material knowing that others would publish it including wikileaks, Guardian publication in some form was inevitable on both practical business grounds and because non-publication could be seen as censorship by the paper.

Surrounding these cascading issues are other sets of issues linked to the impact of the leaks.

If you look at immediate responses here, the commentary is set by individual or organisation frames of reference.

Because I have been so obsessed with the ways that Government systems work or don't work and the reasons for that, my immediate reaction was to ask what it means for the working of Government, rather than either the ethical questions or the impact on foreign policy, individuals and state reputations and relations.

At a general level, I had formed the view that approaches to information were part of the reason why Government systems and policy making were becoming less effective. Again at a general level, since I started blogging I have charted some of the ways in which Government responses to problems including issues with information have compounded problems.

To my mind, the biggest danger created by wikileaks lies in the nature of likely Government responses. I expect these to, among other things, reduce access to information; to increase the risks and penalties for those who do speak out; and to increase the constipation in Government systems that has already reduced effectiveness.

No Government can ignore what has happened. In Australia we have a whole of Government task force addressing the implications of the leaks. The position in the US is more complicated and dangerous.

It is over twenty years since I had direct contact with the US system and especially the military/defence side. The thing I noticed then was the sheer focus on security, on controls, on risks and rules that seemed to me to verge on paranoia. It was just a bit of a shock.

Reading the US reactions, we have hurt national pride, we have fury, we have demands for responses. While it is difficult to predict how all this will play out, I think that the likely effects will include further controls, a diminution in individual freedoms. God help the next whistle blower.

At a purely practical level, we can expect changes in the way that information is stored, disseminated and managed. I don't expect these to be good, either.

Since I wrote this comment, I have learned some facts that affect the detail but not the thrust of the comment. That's a matter for another post.

Postscript 4

I added  a later post, Musings on blogging & the Assange case that's just a muse from a personal blogging perspective.  

Monday, November 29, 2010

Idle on Santorini

Greek Trip, Day 8, Saturday 25 September 2010, Santorini

P1100568 Just another shot of the ruins of Ancient Thera. As you can see they were quite something.

The day following our visit to Ancient Thera began hot and bright. 

Over breakfast, I kept on hearing this distant noise. Finally, I got up and wandered off to investigate.

I had forgotten that the AFL grand final was on, even though I had seen the signs the night before. Now I found myself in a taverna full of Australians and their somewhat bemused friends watching the last moments of a live broadcast.

There were in fact two tavernas in different parts of Fira broadcasting it live from 6.30 am. This was the first grand final, the one that ended in a draw, and it was indeed very exciting.

The group split up this day. Three decided to return to Kamari to go swimming, another wanted to go sightseeing. I didn't want to do either.

This is the beach at KamariP1010403; pebbles, hot pebbles.

I really didn't want to go sightseeing either.  Not only was I sightseen out, but I had also developed a bad cold and was feeling a bit miserable and sorry for myself.

I decided instead just to do a few domestic things, check my rapidly diminishing money, check emails and even do a little bit of blogging.

  I found a quite good internet cafe nearby, did what I had to, had a small picnic style lunch and a beer, and then a nap. By the time everyone gathered in the evening for a drink on a terrace and then dinner, I was feeling much better.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Greens, Country Party, Victoria and NSW

There is an old English saying, red sky at night, shepherd's delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning. I was reminded of that this morning, with a brilliant red sky highlighting the still high clouds. More rain is coming.

In Victoria, the elections coincided with more rain and some local flooding. Flows in the Murray-Darling Basin look set to stay high for the moment. Flows to South Australia are now the highest since December 2000.

The ripple effects of Wednesday's severe glitch in the NAB (National Australia Bank) computing system continue. Interesting how a single corrupted file can bring a whole information processing system to its knees.

It's not just the NAB's direct customers, but also other institutions using the NAB for processing. One side-effect is that this has been an almost entirely cash-free weekend in this household with a degree of uncertainty as to how long this will continue.

We won't starve, but I'm not quite sure how I am going to fund the bus-tickets tomorrow to get to work. There is petrol in the car, but then we can't pay for the parking. We will probably work something out.

Not being able to smoke just adds to the gloom. Now some in the "tough love" brigade might say that's a good thing. I fear that I am very cynical here and becoming more so.

Too many "tough love" exponents simply want to impose their values and views on others. They are happy because they are not in fact affected. There is very little tolerance or give or take in their views. They have become the modern Zwingli or Calvin, generally minus the religious content. They are supported by the special interest groups and single interest not-for-profits who, to my mind, have become an absolute blight on the landscape.        

Crikey, I am jaundiced. Let's put that aside.

The public opinion polls showing a late shift in support to the Victorian opposition were bourne out by the vote. At the moment, the most likely outcome from the election would appear to be either a hung lower house or a slim coalition majority. The opposition could also gain an unexpected majority in the Legislative Council.

Looking back at my coverage of the last Victorian poll, Victorian Election November 06 - Final Results, the thing that stands out is the degree of confusion as the final seats in the Legislative Council sorted themselves out.

In my Saturday musings, Saturday Morning Musings - the Greens, I meandered round the similarities between the Greens and the old Country Party.

This was a bad election for the Greens. They had a chance to break through in the Lower House, but seem to have failed. In the Legislative Council, and accepting the vagaries still to come in the counting, it may well be the anti-Green Country Alliance (the Victorian equivalent of the huntin, shootin and fishin party) rather than the Greens that end up with the balance of power.

Looking at the numbers, the Greens would have won three lower house seats had the Liberals preferenced them rather than Labor.  This would have been a critical break-through. But, and just like the anti-Labor elements in the old Country Party, the anti-Coalition elements in the Greens made it very hard for the Greens to do otherwise than be seen to back Labor. They were locked in.

Another outcome from the Victorian elections was the removal of the last independent from the Lower House. Again, I thought of my past Country Party experiences and especially the disaster we suffered in Eden Monaro in 1975. After nearly winning at the two previous elections, the CP vote collapsed.

The problem is that in a polarised electorate as Eden Monaro was in 1975, voters revert to the main stream as they see it.

Even though we had out-polled the Liberal Party at the two previous elections, many in the electorate still saw the Liberals as the main anti-Labor party in this electorate and now voted for them. In some other electorates where the local position was reversed, the Liberal Party vote collapsed. In combination, the electoral affect was a wipe out for Labor.

The Victorian independent suffered from this effect, but there are also some real lessons for NSW. Here I am going to chance my arm and make a series of assertions to provide a measure for later test:

  1. The NSW electorate is quite polarised into a diminishing number of Labor faithful and the rest. Labor is so on the nose, key Labor figures so identified with the Government, that it is very hard to break the cycle.
  2. On paper, the Greens could break through in certain inner city Sydney seats. However, their chances of getting an absolute majority are not good. They have to get Liberal Party preferences, and it is highly unlikely that they will. Chancing my arm, I don't believe that the Greens will break through.
  3. The independents in NSW are far more important than in Victoria. However, NSW is a misnomer here. While there are two independent MPs outside New England (Northern NSW), Northern NSW is the only place where the independents are in fact a political movement in their own right for reasons that relate to the very specific history of the North.
  4. In a polarised electorate, all independents are likely to suffer. I expect the New England independents to pay a special political price for putting the Gillard Government into power. To what extent this will lead to loss of seats is the question.

In all this, the lower Hunter is emerging as a key battlefield.

Opposition leader O'Farrell has launched a special campaign to steal seats in what is is described as Labor's Hunter Valley heartland. I despair a bit.

Just listening to Hunter people talk, Mr O'Farrell's first foray failed because no one had briefed him on the funding arrangements with the Tillegra dam. Now he has followed the Sydney centric approach of combining the Central Coast and the Hunter. They aren't the same, yet the Liberal approach as described mixes them together in what can only be thought of as a mess.

Maybe this doesn't matter. It does to me because of my particular regional biases, but that's quite a different issue from the real outcomes.

We shall see.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000

I am cross-posting this post on both my Personal Reflections and New England Australia blogs.

In earlier posts on both blogs (Meander, with a special focus on Ulrich Ellis, Blogging meander), I mentioned that my my focus in the New England history project had switched to social change in the period 1950-2000. As part of this, I have been bringing up relevant past posts and then repeating them with an introduction on the New England History blog.

Doing it this way, the posts do not constitute rigorous history. They also have a high personal component. Still, collectively they do build a picture. I have gone back and included the comments that the original posts attracted because they add to the picture.

Doing it this way also reveals gaps. There are elements that I have written on in glancing fashion only. I have to decide how to handle this.

The material that I am presenting may be partial but is, I think, unique and maybe even important. This may sound a large claim, so let me explain.

I think that the material is unique because I am trying to address a wide range of changes in an integrated way within a frame set by one broad and varied but linked area. In doing so, I am also trying to put those changes into an historical context. I am not sure, I stand to be corrected, that anyone else has attempted this.

I think that the material may be important because, in writing, I am trying to show how decisions made in government offices in Sydney or Canberra, in board rooms in Sydney, Melbourne, Dublin, Newcastle, Tamworth or Armidale, in Vatican City, can change lives for ever.

This is not a story of conspiracies, although some in New England may see or have seen it in that way. Helplessness in the face of sometimes diabolical change breeds conspiracy theories. Rather, it is the story of the way in which fundamental changes at different levels work themselves out on the ground.

It is also the story of the way in which ideas, abstractions, influence the way things work themselves: economic policy, industry policy, competition policy, free trade, protection, neoclassical economics, privatisation, the market, efficiency, effectiveness, outcomes, outputs etc, are all abstractions.

This is all dry stuff, but the BHP steelworks in Newcastle closes; councils are merged; colleges of advanced educations closed; county councils vanish; assets are sold; eras end so fast that nobody has time to notice.

As an historian writing on New England, I am not concerned with the rights and wrongs of particular ideas or policies, although I have views that I argue in other contexts. My job is to try to explain what happened from a New England perspective.

I recognise that my claims to possible uniqueness and Importance are substantial ones. I leave it up to you to make the decision. You will find the entry point for the on-going series here: Social change in New England 1950-2000 Introduction.

Saturday Morning Musings - the Greens

Today Victoria goes to the polls. I haven't commented on the Victorian elections because I really haven't had anything to say that was new.

The late polls suggest a decline in Labor support that appears to be strongest in Melbourne, with many tipping another hung Parliament. I really have no idea.

Like many, I am watching the Green vote with interest.

The decision by the Victorian opposition to preference Labor in front of the Greens makes it harder for the Greens to gain lower house seats because they need a higher primary vote. Then, as Geoff Robinson pointed out in Does the Sex Party threaten the Greens?, the decision of this very much minority party to preference Labor in front of the Greens in the Legislative Assembly further complicates matters.

I hadn't really focused on the Sex Party. Sure, I know what it is and where it comes from. But I have always thought of it as a pressure group rather than a party. Still, in a very tight election 2% of the vote can be important.

I grew up in a third party world: third party in political terms (my grandfather was a long serving Country Party Parliamentarian), but also third party in regional terms in that the region I came from stood somewhat outside the majority streams. I was going to say mainstream, but mainstream carries a different connotation to majority stream.

As a piece of historical trivia, I was interested to discover recently that Earl Page's office as leader of the Country Party as well as Treasurer and Deputy PM actually carried the title "Office of the Leader of the Third Party", a title going back to Alfred Deakin.

In an April post, Saturday Morning Musings - Country Party lessons for the Greens, I explained in a little detail why I thought that the Country Party and its history was relevant to the Greens as a third party. Since then, the dynamics have, I think, continued to work in a way consistent with the analysis I outlined.

I find the Greens quite fascinating to watch, although I am not a Green supporter. There are my friends and people that I meet on a daily basis. Then, within the small blogging community that I follow, Paul Barratt seems to have become a Green. Paul is more left of centre than I, but he comes from the same region, is a also a supporter of the old Country Party and of many of the same cause.

Another Green supporter is Peter Firminger. Peter was, I think, attracted to the Greens on environmental grounds. He campaigns on environmental issues, but also works as a community activist to build community, combining on-line with direct participation. He and I work together quite closely on common causes.

A third case is North Coast Voices.

This blog was founded over three years ago as a collective regional Northern Rivers left of centre blog. In this role, it is (I think) still unique in Australia. When it began, I thought of it as a Labor blog, and certainly it supports the ALP on certain issues. However, it also campaigns on Green and community issues.

There is an ideological hard edge to NCV. Regardless of whether or not it is a Green, ALP or left of centre independent blog, it does capture one stream in the Greens, one that locks the Greens in when it comes to considering political alliances. It's equivalent in the old Country Party is the conservative stream in the Graziers Association that placed defeat of Labor and the socialist menace as the central cause.

The community activist element in the Greens is both a matter of policy and a belief.

All parties use community activism and involvement as a device to gather support. When I was involved in re-establishing the Country Party in Eden Monaro, I quite consciously used identification with local issues as a device for building support. I wanted to get across the message, this is your party.

Now here a funny thing happened. Those local issues, those community causes, became very important to me in a personal sense. Now I had to balance community and party issues.

Let me give an example from the Labor side.

I had a work colleague whom I greatly like and respect. A strong Labor person, I suspect that she became involved in local government as a political career path. As a strong Labor person, she worked to try to maintain Labor control of her council. Yet, in her role as a local government person committed to her council and the broader regional grouping of councils, committed to addressing the needs of an area that she thought was being neglected, she had to attack elements of state government policy.

So what did she do? She spoke out out. Obviously she did not try to damage the ALP. Her words were tempered. Still, when push came to shove, she spoke out for the needs of her region.

Community including political activists tend to know each other across the various divides; after all, they are involved in similar activities. This builds a measure of common understanding. To take North Coast Voices as an example, I may disagree with some of their views, but I respect their position. On a quick blog link check, 9 out of 30 of the most recent links to NCV came from me.

There is one community activist type distrusted by most other community activists, the careerist. This is the type of person whose sole focus is on the use of community activism including especially local government as a device for advancing their political careers. This has become far more important with the increased role of party politics in local government and with the professionalisation of politics.

These people speak for party or for themselves, not for community. If they speak on behalf of the community, it is in a purely professional sense.

I may seem to have meandered, but this is my Saturday Morning Musings!

When the Country Party was first formed, it actually captured, and especially in Northern NSW, the concerns of a whole range of industry and community activists that had not been properly represented previously. The result was a period of considerable policy innovation.

I do wonder if the Greens can do the same.

In an odd but strangely satisfying way, the so-called new paradigm in Federal politics captures the New England tradition represented by the New England independents with the emerging Greens.

Do the Greens really have the political freedom to develop new positions, or will they become locked in as happened to the Country Party, an adjunct of one of the other parties?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Missing visitor 200,000

I used to follow my blog stats with the obsessive attention of a Roman priest studying the entrails. Then my attention moved elsewhere.

This morning, restless and frustrated at my inability to concentrate, I decide to waste time by checking my blog stats. To my surprise, I found that total visitor numbers across the whole suite had reached 215,423.

I had always had it in my mind to celebrate visitor 200,000. Now I found that I was 15,423 too late. Welcome visitor 200,000 whomever you may have been!

   Just for the record, the next milestones on my top three blogs are:

For the blogs as a whole, the obvious next celebration point is 250,000 visits.

Ancient Thera

Greek Trip, Day 7, Friday 24 September 2010, SantoriniP1010399

Continuing the story from Santorini afternoon, evening, on the Friday morning we gathered on the terrace for breakfast.

Actually, gathered is really the wrong word.  Straggled might be better, even isolationist. With internet access on the terrace, my family had a bad habit of catching up on their emails!

The breakfasts were huge here. Juice, Greek yogurt, fruit, muesli, bread and cakes all served individually.

Over the trip, I acquired a real taste for Greek style yogurt served every where. I also noticed that breakfasts were in part attuned to German tastes. By the end, I really wanted some decent crispy bacon!

After breakfast, we wandered up and then down to catch the bus to Kamari, one of the two starting points for the ruins of Ancient Thera.

By Australian standards, the bus services we found in Greece were remarkably good and quite reasonably priced. Santorini has a populatioP1010559n of something  over 13,000 spread over a small island of 184 square kilometres, 475 square miles. The combination of locals plus tourists supports a quite extensive bus network.

This photo shows the bus station at Fira. And yes, that is a gum tree in the background.

The bus ride to Kamari took us through a different part of the Island.

Again, I was struck by the scattered patches of grape vines planted apart from each other, trained in the shape  low-spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the winds. Santorini's grape varieties are apparently very old and also resistant to phylloxera.       

Along with Anafi, Santorini is one of only two places in Europe classified as having a hot desert climate. There is no rain during the summer dry season; the plants have to rely on the morning dew for water.

One thing that I noticed in Greece was the promotion of the local food and wine, centred on the things that were distinct to each island. This is clearly having an impact, including the recreation of activities that had vanished. Tourism promotion in NSW has been a bit of a mess for many yP1100503ears. I began to take notes for a possible tourism series.

Arriving in Kamari, we found the tour operator. This wasn't in fact a guided tour as we had thought, but a bus to the site plus a map. It was some time to the next bus, so we wandered off through the streets to have a look.

In an earlier post, Gum trees in Greece, I commented on the way Kamari's gum trees gave the place a superficially Australian feel.

There wasn't a lot of traffic, but you could clearly see the difference between the tourists and locals. It wasn't just that the tourists were on quad bikes and scooters as well as in cars. Local cars were generally older, dusty and often quite battered.

I found a book store and asked about a map or maps of classical Greece.

For plane reading, I had brought with me a copy of Thucydides' Peloponnesian Wars. I hadn't read this since school, and thought that a re-read would brush up my knowledge of some of the places we were visiting.

I was wrong. I found that I could not remember the location of all the places mentioned, nor could I work out where they were on a modern map. I was reminded that when I studied the Peloponnesian Wars for Ancient History Honours at school, I found the multiplicity of names very confusing and indeed quite boring. I just couldn't get a pattern in my mP1100520ind.

There were no maps of the type I wanted. Instead, I bought a book on Greek ruins, something that did prove useful.

The site of Ancient Thera is located on a barren rocky ridge high above the sea.

The location is not accidental. During the more turbulent periods in the history of the Greek Islands, such sites gave a measure of protection.

Getting there involves a bus trip up a narrow zig-zag road, and then quite a steep walk.

Looking down from the site, I wondered at just how goods including food and wine would have been carried up. Certainly, Thera's inhabitants must have been quite fit!

Initially, I found the site quite confusing. The buildings were constructed from the rock of the ridge. But what, then, was rock and what ruin?  It took me a while to get any form of pattern in my mind.P1100521

Earlier, I spoke of the volcanic eruption that destroyed Minoan settlement on Santorini and indeed rendered the Island uninhabitable for an extended period.

The archaeological evidence suggests that the settlement now known as Ancient Thera began around the ninth century BC, 700 hundred or so years after the great eruption  

Some 1,600 years later, in 726 AD, the jaws of the Santorini tiger finally closed on Thera. A relatively minor eruption covered the city in a layer of pumice, and it seems to have been abandoned.

The exact dates don't really matter. What does matter is the huge time span involved. During that time, Thera and its inhabitants lived through a vast range of changes. Is it any wonder that its history and that of the Greek Islands in general seems so complicated?  

The first recorded reference to Thera comes from the Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century BC. According to Herodotus, the Phoenicians first re-settled Santorini, naming the Island Callista. Then came a group of Dorian settlers from Sparta who recognised the strategic P1100527 value of the site.

Here both Herodotus and the later Greek historian  Pausanias give accounts of the mythical ruler, Theras, who ruled over Sparta and Laconia on behalf of his underage nephews. After they came of age, he founded a new settlement on Santorini. His name  became attached to both Island and settlement.

  I mentioned Santorini's arid climate. Water was very important. The ruins at ancient Thera contain cisterns and drains intended to collect, store and dispose of water. As KVD noted in a comment, Herodotus records that around 630 BC there was a seven year drought that forced the Therans to send colonists to found Cyrenaica in what is today Libya.

Despite the foundation of Cyrenaica, Ancient Thera does not seem to have been especially important in political terms. In the turmoils of the classical period, it sided with Sparta against Athens. The Athenians captured it once, then lost it again.

It became much more important in Hellenistic times.

In 334 BC Alexander of Macedon invaded the Persian Empire. Over the next ten years he established a military empire that stretched from the Adriatic to the Indus River. He also spread Greek influence and language, in part through settlements of his troops.

Poor Greece.

Modern Greece is quite a new creation, but lays historical claim to two great empires, those of Alexander and later of the Eastern Roman or Byzantium Empire.

This overshadowing of the present by the past continues today. The results have been human and political catastrophes that destroyed the very things that Greece hoped to achieve, reshaping the ethnic map of EuropeP1100532. Following the Greco-Turkish wars of 1919-1922, over one million Greeks who had lived in what was now Turkey for many millennia had to leave for Greece, hundreds of thousands of Greek Muslims for Turkey.

Alexander the Great died in 323 BC before he could fulfil his his ambition of uniting his known world into a single entity. His Empire broke into successor states ruled by his former generals.

One such state was Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Today Cleopatra is the best known and also the last member of that dynasty to rule.

In the second half of the 3rd century BC, the Ptolemaic Aegean fleet was stationed in Thera's harbour. Thera was rebuilt for the officers, replacing the former layout with a regular street grid. This forms the core of the ruins that survive today.

We had only a limited amount of time on site because we had to catch the bus back. Miss that, and would have to walk back. Still, by the end I was starting to get a feel for what the place might have looked like, how it might have worked.

 P1010383 Back in Kamira for a late lunch, my attention was caught by a stream of women dolled up to the nines. Along with partners, they all seemed to be loading onto a bus.

Curiosity caught, I established that it was a wedding, with the bus to take people to the reception. We waited for the bride but, sadly, had to leave before she arrived. By tradition, brides are always late!

Just a reminder, really, that life was going on around us.

Back in Fira we gathered on the terrace for dinner and then went out for dinner. We had hoped to go to a restaurant highly recommended by several guide books, but when arrived there was a line a mile long. We found another place, pleasant enough but nothing special.

After dinner we wandered the still crowded streets while the women did the inevitable window shopping. There I found a sign that I will leave you with without comment.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Santorini afternoon, evening

Greek Trip, Day 6, Thursday 23 September 2010, Santorini

  My last post, Journey to Santorini, finished with the bags dropped off at the hotel and us in search of lunch.

Before going on, I should say a little about our hotel, the Kavalari. This was the third time my mother-in-law had stayed there, the second time for my wife. 

P1010385 Originally a captain's house, it is partially built into the side of the cliff 300 metres above sea level, with a series of terraces all facing west over the caldera.  The view really is quite spectacular, although the terraces get quite hot in the late afternoon sun.

The photo shows our room (left with rounded roof) with the terraces. The room was pretty, but quite small. It really was a pocket handkerchief!

At the start of my last post I said that we were heading north into the jaws of the tiger that may have closed on the Minoan civilisation, bringing it to an end. Santorini is that tiger.

  A volcanic island, it is the most active volcanic centre in what is called the South Aegean Volcanic Arc.  We may call New Zealand the shaky isles, but Santorini rivals it.

Around 3,600 years ago, the Island exploded in one of the largest known eruptions of the more recent past. The eruption left a giant caldera. Around 61 cubic kilometres of magna and rock were expelled into the atmosphere, laying down a layer of volcanic ash up to sixty meters thick. A huge tsunami swept across the western Mediterranean.   

This eruption has become the stuff of legend, variously linked to the legend of Atlantis, the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Minoan civilisation.

Whether it did cause the last is in fact uncertain. However, it doesn't take much imagination to understand the devastating impact on the island civilisations of the time. It wasn't just the tsunami itself, but also the immediate loss of shipping and of the trade that was so important to individual communities. Santorini lay unoccupied for the rest of the Bronze Age, during which time the Mycenaeans gained control of Crete. 

There have been further eruptions and major earthquakes since then, most recently in 1956 when a devastating earthquake destroyed many of the buildings on the island. The volcano is largely dormant at the present time, but the jaws of the tiger are still there.

P1010336 Over lunch at nearby restaurant where I had some of the best sardines I have tasted, we looked at the guidebooks. We all wanted to see the remains of the buried Minoan city of Akrotiri, as well as Ancient Thera.

Now here I need to talk about names. Like many Greek places, Santorini has two names.

The name Santorini (Saint Irene)dates from the Venetian period. Prior to that, it was called Thera. Both names are in use today.

The guidebooks didn't give us enough information on either Akrotiri or Ancient Thera, so we went searching for more, thinking about a possible guided tour.

"No, No", we were told at the first place. "Akrotiri is closed, and there is not much to see at Ancient Thera. Come on our evening boat tour instead." We knew that the tour was popular, eldest went on it when she was staying on Santorini, but were left unconvinced on the other two. We continued investigating.

We found that the Akrotiri site was indeed closed. Here I quote from the Wikipedia entry on Akrotiri:

An ambitious modern roof structure, meant to protect the site, collapsed just prior to its completion in 2005, killing one visitor. No damages were recorded to the antiquities. As a result of this, the site is currently closed to visitors. It was announced in June 2008 that it could remain closed until 2010, at least.

While our friendly tour operator was clearly right on the first, we remained unconvinced with his argument P1010340 on the second. We decided to go by bus in the morning to Kamari to see if we could get a guided tour of Ancient Thera from there.

After the usual street wander to find a supermarket and buy supplies, we returned to the hotel to gather on one of the terraces for a late afternoon drink. Boy was it hot! 

I really hadn't comprehended just how popular a tourist destination Santorini was until then.

In Sydney, people get excited if two or three tour boats are in town at the one time. Santorini was coming to the end of the tourist season. Even so, up to four boats arrived every day. The pattern was always the same.

The boats would arrive late afternoon to catch the sunset and then sail the following morning. Alternatively, they would arrive in the morning and and then leave as the sun set, again allowing passengers to catch the sunset. In case you hadn't already gathered it, Santorini is famous for its sunsets!

There was considerable jockeying for the best place to park. I know park is the wrong word, but I can't use anchor since some of the ships didn't seem to anchor at all. 

While in port, passengers went ashore in clumps, all  wearing tags. It was a bit like watching sheep being herded, with the drover at the front carrying a stick with a number above his or her head while constantly monitoring the flock for strays.

We got to know those ships pretty wP1010464ell from our cliff top retreat.

The Ibero cruise ship in the front was one of the most tightly controlled I saw.

You got them out of the ship, up the cliff, round the town, down the cliff, back into the ship and then off. The poor sheep really didn't have time to do anything. All this meant that the streets crowded and then cleared and then crowded again.

What I hadn't expected was that we would see the same ships again and again. I don't know why I was surprised. After all, they were going to the same destinations that we were, but I was. So we saw the same patterns repeated.

On Rhodes, our hotel owner complained: "They crowd the streets for other visitors, but don't buy anything." I could see her point, but the cruises are still very important to the economies of the Greek Islands.

Dinner and then to bed. Tomorrow Kamari and Ancient Thera.       

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A personal memoir on Mel Ward

Dear memory is an imperfect beast. I saw from the Sydney Morning Herald that Mel Ward had died and wanted to write a short companion piece to the obituary by David Jellie with Les Kilmartin. To do this I really wanted some dates to provide a framework, but could not remember them properly. A web search provided some information, but not the critical dates I needed. Very frustrating.

I won't repeat the whole obituary, but I do need to give you a few facts from it to set a context.

melward-420x0 Melvyn Keith Ward was born on December 12, 1941, in Mackay, Queensland. A very bright man,he graduated from the University of Queensland in 1963 with a bachelor's degree in engineering with first-class honours and the University Medal in engineering.

In 1965 he joined the Telecom Research Labs, rising through the ranks to become Telecom's chief general manager In 1984 and then managing director. He left Telecom towards the end of 1991 to pursue board and community interests. This included board membership and then chair of the Australian ballet.

Mel's later period with Telecom was a period of fundamental change in the Australian telecommunications sector. I want to focus on this period.

My relationship with Mel was a professional one. I did not know him well in a personal sense, although I saw him quite often for a time. Balding, he was a very tall man with a slight stoop and a habit of leaning down slightly to listen. I found him very likeable, although he sometimes displayed impatience with views that he thought were silly. In my roles he was just pleasant to work with, very unlike some of the CEO bully types.

I first met Mel when I was Assistant Secretary, Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries in the Commonwealth Department of Industry and Commerce, later Industry, Technology and Commerce. From memory, I think that he had just become Telecom's GM.

In my role, I was responsible for advising on industry policy towards a very broad sector that included telecommunications equipment. We also had a focus on integrating equipment and services. To our mind, the old and rigid division between manufacturing and services had been invalidated by technological and structural change.

As part of our industry development approach, we had sent a series of references to the Industries Assistance Commission on the broader electronics industry, including telecommunications equipment. This brought me in contact with Mel, for the local telecommunications equipment industry was critical to Telecom in its delivery of services.

Operating in a remote country with a small domestic marketplace and a population distributed across a vast continent, first the old Post Master General's Department and then Telecom had effectively developed their own industry policy. They needed a local industry that would meet their needs.

As the sole purchaser, their approach determined the structure of the local telecommunications manufacturing sector. There were good and bad aspects to this.

On the good side, PMG/Telecom had an industry totally focused on meeting their needs, that could support them. On the bad side, Australia had a largely overseas owned industry whose total focus was on meeting the needs of a single domestic customer.

From my perspective, this had to change. If we were to grow the electronics, aerospace and information industries, then we had to have global focus and global growth.

The strategic importance of the telecommunications manufacturing sector to Telecom meant that our activities as policy advisers were of considerable interest to the organisation, leading to a steady stream of Telecom visitors, including Mel.

Two things quickly became clear.

The first was the engineering and technical competence of Mel and, more broadly, Telecom as a whole. As a simple example,  the work Mel did led  in part to the world's first computer-controlled digital telephone exchange, built in Melbourne in 1974.

One day I would like to see a proper history of the Telecom Research Labs. In a small population country, the work done by the big labs - CSIRO, DSTO, Telecom Research Laboratories, the AWA Labs - was critical. Telecom's technical competence was important not just in local service delivery, but in the disproportionate contribution Australia made to global technological advance and to action in areas such as standards and standardisation within telecommunications. 

The second was Mel's and Telecom's commitment to local industry. It wasn't just a matter of organisation need, but an emotional bond. Herein lay a problem from our perspective.

By global standards, Telecom was a leading edge customer. However, the Australian industry was dominated by foreign owned firms. Telecom supported local industry, but was focused on its own immediate needs. This meant that the technological advances flowing from Telecom's work did not lead to a growing local sector servicing international markets. Instead, they facilitated global multinational growth. L M Ericsson's global success in digital exchanges rested heavily on Australia, but did not benefit Australia beyond the gains coming from the equipment installed here.

What we tried to do in response, and failed, is beyond the scope of this memoir, although I will return to it in another post. For the moment, I just note that Mel was prepared to discuss issue rationally, to listen to alternative views. Further, Telecom itself was prepared to do things, to make changes. This became an important element in our plans.

The strategic position that Mel faced as Chief General Manager and then as Managing Director was complicated in the extreme.

He knew that Telecom as an organisation had to make changes - from his appointment to his departure Telecom reduced staff from 93,000 to 69,000. He had to deal with staff and unions in making those changes. He knew that Telstra was facing fundamental global change. He also had to deal with politicians and public servants in Canberra, many of whom knew nothing about telecoms, but applied generalised economic nostrums independent of market and industry realities. It wasn't an easy job!

In the middle of 1987, I moved to Armidale to set up a business providing consulting, training and information services to the electronics, aerospace and information industries. In essence, I was putting my money where my policy mouth had been. I had said that these industries had a future in Australia. If so, I should be able to grow a business supporting them.

Once we started, Telecom quickly became one of our two biggest customers. For the record, I should note that I did not leave the Commonwealth Public Service with Telstra as a base customer. It took some time and a lot of investment in industry research before we gained our first contract with Telecom.

At our peak, we were doing work for five different units within Telecom, supporting a team of six full time staff equivalents, probably the largest telecommunications research group in Australia at the time. Our first and lead customer was Terry Cutler, then head of Telecom Corporate Strategy.

While we did a range of projects for Terry, our biggest one was the development of a qualitative model of the global communications environment. This involved an analysis of the strategic focus and investment patterns of the top fifty global Telcos, looking for common elements and key trends, then matching this with our general industry and economic analysis. Our focus was on the implications of convergence.

We got some things wrong, but we did accurately predict key trends within telecoms over the following fifteen years.

I didn't have a lot of direct contact with Mel over this period. However, I certainly understood the challenges that he was facing.

My last direct formal meeting with Mel came a little before his resignation.

Because of the work that I had been doing, a number of units asked me to be key note speaker at unit meetings. Here in discussion I found common and constant concerns among staff about Telecom's direction. I knew that some of this was inevitable, but there were also common threads that could be addressed.

While I was not now in direct contact with Mel, I rang him and arranged to see him in Melbourne for a briefing.

It actually wasn't  a very good meeting because I was focused on providing information, whereas Mel was thinking of responses. Further, he was operating under constraints. However he was, as he had been at the beginning, unfailingly polite.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

No post today

I am not posting today because I need the time for other things. Will respond to any comments if I can.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Can New Zealand match Australian incomes?

Two weeks ago in Can New Zealand catch up to Australia?, Winton Bates looked at the discussion taking place in New Zealand on ways to bridge the economic gap between Australia and New Zealand. Winton summarised the background this way:

Incomes of New Zealanders have generally risen less rapidly than those of Australians over the last 40 years, resulting in a gap between average incomes of around 35 percent in recent years. After the 2008 election, the NZ government committed to closing this income gap by 2025.

I expressed some reservations about the discussion and promised to write a response. Time limitations have stopped me doing the investigation I wanted including properly reading the NZ material, but I thought that I should make a comment now to provide some base for further thought.

I have expressed reservation before about the value of policies based on national averages. An Australian example is bridging the gap, the attempt to bring Australia's indigenous peoples up the national average on certain key indicators. This seems bound to fail.

The reason for this is that the indicators are averages that conceal variation. Many of Australia's Aboriginal people live in regional areas that have lower incomes and fewer services than other parts of the country for the population as a whole. Even if you bring Aboriginal people up to the average holding in the areas in which they live, there will still be a statistical gap in terms of the national average.

The point of this example is that you have to drill down below the statistical average to understand just what it means before you can draw sensible conclusions. I haven't had time to check the statistics, but let me give you two impressions to illustrate my point.

First, it is not clear to me that all New Zealanders are worse off in real terms as compared to all Australians. Visiting the country over the years, I have often felt that the New Zealand standard of living was higher than that of Australia so far as the ordinary New Zealander was concerned, comparing like with like.

Secondly and linked, if you compare New Zealand not with the Australian national average, but with the big regional economies in Australia, you will get a different impression again. I write a lot on regional economic and development issues because it is personally important to me. If you compare New Zealand not with the Australian average but with, say, Northern NSW, New Zealand has out-performed the North in economic terms.

So we need to be careful in making comparisons.

I also think that it is helpful to adopt a longer time perspective.

Back in November 2006 in Changes in Public Administration - the New Zealand Model, I talked about the challenges New Zealand faced in economic terms in the 1980s.

New Zealand exports of primary products especially to a protected British marketplace had provided a solid international income stream. This allowed New Zealand Governments to follow a domestic protectionist policy. This imposed costs on the export sector, but also provided a range of domestic jobs, especially in manufacturing. To the degree that New Zealand did export manufactures, they went to an Australian market where the country enjoyed preferential access.

All this collapsed like a house of cards as a consequence of a sharp decline in demand for New Zealand's primary exports. The end result was Rogernomics and a savage restructuring of the New Zealand economy, along with equally savage cuts in Government services. By 1989, many New Zealanders were in a state of despair, yet the economy was already starting to turn round.

I make this point because I think that New Zealand has actually not done badly in economic terms when you compare the position in 1989 and that holding today. I haven't compared the New Zealand and Australian averages for 1989 and today, but certainly in 1989 all the measures I saw suggested that there had been a sharp increase in the economic gap between New Zealand and Australia.

In 1991 what was called the Porter Project reported. This project was named after the US management writer Michael Porter who had become well known for his writing on competitive advantage, including his influential 1990 book on the Competitive Advantage of Nations. Porter himself was a part author of the report.

The project attempted to report on what needed to be done to turn New Zealand's economic position around. It provided an incisive analysis on the causes of New Zealand's economic problems. However, its suggestions as to solutions were noticeably weak. It is very hard to define a pro-active development role for Government when your starting premise has ruled such a role out!

The political costs of Rogernomics proved too high, and successive Governments have wound elements of the New Zealand model back. Whether or not this was a good thing is open to debate. However, it did leave something of a policy vacuum.

In many ways, Australia and New Zealand followed very similar policies over the first seven decades of the twentieth century.

Both countries followed a policy that combined a globally traded sector on one side with a protected domestic industrial base on the other. Both countries did some very silly things in policy terms.

Starting with an Australian example, when I first joined the Australian Treasury I was involved in the enforcement of what, in retrospect, must be one of the dumbest policies ever introduced. The economic argument went this way.

Australia is short of capital to fund domestic development. We must conserve what capital we have. To this end, we won't allow the export of capital by Australian businesses. Further, we will restrict foreign owned firms borrowing in the Australian marketplace, forcing them to import more capital.

The practical effect was that we blocked Australian firms investing overseas at just the time that industry was starting to globalise. In 1968 as a young official, one of the cases that crossed my desk was the 1968 acquisition by Rupert Murdoch of London's News of the World. As I remember it, the only reason why this one got through is that Rupert Murdoch managed to arrange overseas borrowings so that there was no net exchange outflow. On such small things do business empires depend!

New Zealand policy was, if anything, a little sillier. In 1970 I was visiting Auckland and ended up at an anti Spiro Agnew party; the American VP was in town to much protest. There a New Zealand parliamentarian who later became a Labour Party  minister, carefully explained to me that New Zealand must maintain import quotas and exchange control because otherwise people might choose to buy cars instead of funding hospitals. I was gob smacked. I had never heard anything sillier in my life.         

If both countries followed similar and sometimes very silly policies, there was one difference between them that gave Australia a greater measure of protection, one that is relevant today. Australia simply had a larger and more diversified economic base.

Like New Zealand, Australia's exports of key agricultural products declined. Like New Zealand, Australia was moving away from a closed to a more open economy. However, unlike New Zealand, Australia had other exports and especially mineral products that gave it a greater buffer.

As the New Zealand economy entered the intensive care unit for radical surgery, Australian was experiencing significant economic growth. This allowed the Australian Government to proceed with fundamental economic change in a more controlled way. This was not necessarily better policy, although there was some of that. Most of all, it was just economic luck!

Today, Australia retains a more diversified economy, although there has been some hollowing out because of the mining boom. That gives this country an advantage. However, here I want to introduce another variable, head office jobs.

By head office jobs, I simply mean positions at organisational headquarters. These tend to be better paid and have more power. Further, higher paid service jobs clump around head office locations. 

It is not clear to me that New Zealand has fewer head office positions than Australia relative to the size of the population. What is, I think, clear is that those positions are less well paid simply because New Zealand organisations are smaller; there is a clear correlations between pay for equivalent positions and organisational size. There is an equally clear correlation between professional fees and the size of clients. Less certainly, I think New Zealand has fewer wealthy private business people relative to its size.

In combination, this means that the top of the New Zealand income pyramid is lower than the Australian equivalent. This affects average incomes.   

Statistical Interlude

In a comment, Winton kindly pointed to some stats.

The following table derived from the ABS shows gross household income per capita for the current Australian states and territories in 2009-2010 ranked by size. There is a 66% variation between top and bottom. Even if the ACT is excluded as a special case, there is still a variation of 19% between top and bottom. 

State/Territory $ Variance against average %
ACT 76,815 +57.49
WA 53,899 +10.15
NT 50,303 +3.13
NSW 49,648 +1.79
Australia 48,774 0.00
Victoria 47,028 -1.73
Queensland 45,308 -7.11
South Australia 45,208 -7.31
Tasmania 44,306 -9.16

The ABS suggests that a better measure is gross household disposable income per capita. The following tables shows the numbers here. This shifts rankings around at the bottom. However, the difference between the variance against the average at top and bottom has actually increased. If the ACT is again excluded, it is about the same as before. 

State/Territory $ Variance against average %
ACT 63,783 +69.12
WA 42,014 +11.40
NT 41,777 +10.77
NSW 37,847 +0.35
Australia 37,714 0.00
Victoria 36,975 -1.96
Tasmania 36,102 -4.27
South Australia 35,480 -5,92
Queensland 34,949 -7.33

My aim in providing this information is simply to re-emphasise the dangers of using averages for planning purposes or to set targets. You need to know what the averages mean, to drill down to the reasons for difference.


I have only browsed the latest New Zealand Task Force report. For that reason, I must be cautious in my analysis.2025tf-summary-nov10-01

This  chart forms the centre piece of the latest report and shows movement in Australian and New Zealand per capita incomes relative to the OECD average.

You can see the precipitate decline from the early eighties associated not just with international conditions, but also the pain of restructuring before a return kicked in. Drawing from this graphic, the Task Force states:

There are two reasons why closing the income gap with Australia matters. First, our real incomes affect our material standard of living. People in Australia and most other advanced countries can afford better houses, better healthcare, higher levels of funding for education and more expensive investments in environmental protection.

Second, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for our people to realise their potential in New Zealand. The income gap will encourage more New Zealanders to join the hundreds of thousands who have already emigrated, mostly to Australia. Based on current projections of the income gap and its impact on emigration, a net 412,000 New Zealanders could leave New Zealand over the next 15 years. That is almost one in every ten people living in New Zealand today, and equivalent to the entire population of the Wellington region. The skills and enterprise of these emigrants would be a huge loss to the New Zealand economy, especially given that taxpayers would have spent perhaps $30 billion educating and providing medical care for them. Immigrants may reduce the impact, but they are not a perfect substitute for the rapid loss of so many people born and raised in New Zealand.

To catch Australia over the next 15 years, New Zealand's income is likely to need to grow at slightly more than two percent per capita faster than Australia on average. That is a formidable challenge, which requires policies that are much superior to those in Australia in their focus on growth.

The report then proposes a series of initiatives that essentially centre on conventional micro-economic reform.

In responding to Winton's discussion, my first point focused on the dangers of using raw averages, on the need to drill down to understand variance, what it all meant. In doing so, I pointed to some of the reasons that I thought underlay the average income gap, including the smaller number of head office jobs. I also made the point that the use of averages concealed the fact that many Australians were worse of than their New Zealand equivalents.

As a person who thinks of himself sometimes as a Kiwi, I have absolutely no problems with the aim of increasing New Zealand incomes. However, I also think that a simple structural analysis shows that the target of matching Australian average incomes in real terms will be hard to achieve. There is also no analysis of the costs involved. By this, I mean simply things like higher rents, a greater dispersion in income between top and bottom.

Will the proposals in the Task Force Report achieve the goal? I doubt it.

Good governance, micro-economic reform, is a necessary but not sufficient condition. They will improve New Zealand's competitive position relative to Australia, but are unlikely to overcome problems associated with location and resource base.

I suspect that to do this, New Zealand needs to move outside the frame set by current thinking. However, I am going to reserve this for another post. 


In a comment, Randy wrote

Huh. Is it true that, as this source suggestions, New Zealand has a higher Gini index (i.e. more inequality) than Australia?

Winton Bates also raised the Gini issue. I responded to Randy that intuitively it was quite possible given the size of the Pacific Island and Maori communities.

However, the reason why I am including Randy's comment is that the link he provides is quite fun. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Journey to Santorini

Greek Trip, Day 6, Thursday 23 September 2010, Crete to Santorini

The morning after the dinner I described in Last night in Rethymno - Myrogdies we were up very early for we had to dive to Iraklion to catch the ferry. We left our friendly Hotel Leo and our little alley way and dragged our bags back to the car. It was very early.

Aegean_Sea_with_island_groups_labeled I was  a little sad to leave Rethymno and Crete, but we were heading to the Cyclades and into the jaws of the tiger.

In some ways, human occupation of the Greek Islands is a bit like a Greek tragedy. Generations live in peace, but always with the knowledge  that human or natural disaster may happen at any time. It's like living in the jaws of a tiger, jaws that may close at any time.

In our case, we were going to the jaws that may have closed on the Minoan civilisation, bringing it to an end.

You can see from the map of the Aegean that the Cyclades lie north of Crete.

All Greek islands have long and complicated histories. The Cyclades are no exception. If anything, their history is especially complicated because their strategic location in the Aegean gave them wealth, but also made them vulnerable to attack. As a matter of idle curiosity, I tried to count up the various entities that had ruled the Cyclades in whole or part at one time or another, but gave up when I reached twenty.

I was now getting to understand something that had always puzzled me a little in an Australian context, the reason why those from various Greek islands identified so strongly with their island. Certainly they were Greek, but they were island first. "Don't say too much about the Kythirans,"  I was warned in the context of a piece I had written a year back, "they think that they own the world!"

Each Greek island has its own history. The chain migration that took place in the twentieth century and that almost depopulated many of the islands, concentrated people from each island in particular places in particular countries. There they clung to their identity, mixing with others from their island and indeed from their village, as a way of providing security in a new world. Ties of locality and family bound them together.

As they established themselves in their new lands, they sent money back. Old family homes were rebuilt, with people returning for holidays or even to live. In many ways, the re-birth of the Greek Islands was funded by money from Australia or Canada or the US. The nature of chain migration means that individual islands are closely identified with particular external countries.

Right at the end of the trip on the flight from Athens to Dubai, I sat beside an Australian woman married to a Kythiran. "We come back every year," she said. "This year my niece was getting married and wanted to be married on Kythira. We had seventeen people from Australia staying at our house."

We chatted about the Greeks in Australia and about the cafes and businesses they had owned in Canberra, Armidale and Sydney. As I mentioned particular names, she told me where they were from, how indeed the names had evolved. I was too drained to take notes, something that I now regret, for it was a real education.        

P1010298 Our first task on arriving in Iraklion was just to find the ferry, a super cat. This was actually harder than it seemed. Inter-island ferries are a big business, and there were dozens of ferries in port.

"You can't miss it," we were told. "It's red and has a big vodafone ad". We kept walking, and indeed there it was.

We found our comfortable aircraft style seats upstairs in the business class section. We had decided to pay the extra because of the crowds. We were at the end of the tourist season, but there were still lots of people. This proved to be a wise decision.

Dumping my bags, I went back down to the back of the boat for a last look at Iraklion and Crete.  As always, the passing parade kept me entertained. I sympathised with the increasingly desperate man waiting for the rest of his party. I had a strong feeling that there had been a party the previous night, and people had slept in. Finally, he left the boat.

The jet cats are driven by twP1010312o powerful jet engines, one on each side at the back of the boat.

I looked for a shot to give you a feeling for the power involved This one may give you something of a feel.

With such engines, the jet cats are fast. They are also  normally quite smooth.

Not so today. There was a real chop on the water. Instead of gliding, the boat went bump, pause, bump. There was also a distinct sideways movement.   

The first person threw up within minutes of leaving the harbour. Seasickness is clearly contagious. Within half an hour, people were throwing up everywhere. Part of the problem was that the boat was sealed in a sense, with no access to the outside and to fresh air.

I wondered about myself, but the motion was no worse than rides I had experienced elsewhere. I also found that when I got up - something that I had to do a fair bit to take the barf bags down to the disposal unit because one of our party was sick - the motion eased.

Quite unfairly, I started to enjoy myself. It was actually fun balancing against the pitch and roll, reeling from seat to seat on my regular visits to the disposal unit. To add insult to injury, I bought a beer and a snack, and settled down to enjoy the experience!

P1010307  It was hot and dry when we decamped in Santorini at Athinos, the Island's main port.

We didn't rush to catch the bus to Fira, the little capital where we were staying. Instead, everybody just wanted to sit down on solid ground and have a drink.

While we waited, I watched the buses crawl up the side of the caldera (Santorini is a volcanic island) from Athinos to Fira.

Santorini is one of Greece's premier tourist destinations. My wife and mother-in-law had already been there, as had eldest, now studying at home in Australia. Clare and I had not.

I actually started with a prejudice against the place. I like pretty views, but the rave reviews from the family seemed to me to be too touristy, too enthusiastic. I generally like what I see as meatier stuff! I was to change my mind, but I am still not convinced about the sunsets, one of the standard tourist raves about Santorini.

Finally everybody was settled, so we caught the bus for Fira.

P1010329 My first impression on reaching the top was not positive.

To my Australian eyes this was dry, even semi-arid country, with few trees to break the monotony. The generally white soils looked poor, lacking in humus, while the scattered white houses baked in the sun.

Santorini does, in fact, have a semi-desert climate. With an increased population especially in the tourist season, it relies on a desalination plant. The resulting water is not suitable for drinking, but is critical in meeting needs for washing and sewerage.

As we travelled, I kept seeing what I thought were grape vines sitting on bare ground without any fencing, but  the shapes were strange. In fact, Santorini's grape vines, the Island's wine is well known, do not run in neat rows such as those we are used to in, say, the Hunter. Rather, each vine is trained to grow in a circle, huddling to the ground. The green bushes at the front of the photo are grape vines.

It was really on Santorini that I came to realise the importance of water to Greek history, something not mentioned at any time when I was studying the subject. I had known this in a sense, but not really recognised it.

Many of the Greek Islands have no or limited permanent water. Human settlement depended on the collection and storage of rain water, placing an upper limit on population. Australians are used to droughts. I wondered what happened here when the rains failed. I don't think I have ever seen a discussion on drought in Greek history.

P1010335 Finally, we arrived in Fira and followed the usual process, dragging our bags along the cobble stones towards our hotel.

I think that heavy bags are a girl thing. It's not just that women have more clobber, but they also shop more. I could barely lift some of the bags.

To my mind, the simple invention of wheels to go on bags is central to modern tourism. Without it, places lacking door to door transport would become unreachable!

We arrived at our hotel, dropped the bags with a sense of relief, and went out to find a late lunch. The Santorini leg of our adventure had begun.         

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Last night in Rethymno - Myrogdies

Greek Trip, Day 5, Wednesday 22 September 2010, Rethymno Evening

P1010273 On the evening of our Last day in Rethymno, we went out to dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hotel, the Myrogdies. We had actually tried to find it a night or so before, but got lost.

I said in my last post that I was not overly impressed with Greek food. So unimpressed, in fact, that I gave up on keeping any notes.

Take Kleftiko also known as Bandit's lamb as an example. I must have tried variants of this dish half a dozen times and really didn't like it. It was sometimes nice enough, but it just didn't appeal.

It was only later that I realised that expecting me to like dishes like this, or at least to think of them as something new, was an impossible ask. You see, I grew up in sheep country. I ate lamb or mutton all the time.

This phRon Vickers Glenroy 1950soto shows a sheep being killed for meat at Aunt Kay and Uncle Ron's place, Glenroy.

The meat sheep, usually older ewes, provided nearly all the household meat. When staying at Glenroy, we ate mutton, mutton and mutton. Kay cooked it in many different ways, but it was still mutton.

It didn't end there. We ate sheep meats at home, and then later there were the school meals!

Perhaps not surprisingly, and with the exception of legs of lamb, I am sheeped out. Today when I look at lamb cutlets in the supermarket at $A33 per kilo, I wonder what the world is coming too!   

Still, in all this my failure to take notes in Greece on food is now a problem. I can't generally describe the detail of what we ate.

Our first impression of Myrogdies left us wondering. We walked down a crowded street, then the crowds vanished, and there was the restaurant almost empty. We wondered if we had made the wrong decision. P1010271

In fact we had not. The food was very nice indeed, the service good.

I decided to write a positive review because I thought that it might help the restaurant.

I need not have worried. A web search shows that  Myrogdies appears well known and well regarded.

Still, I can now add our recommendation as well! We all really enjoyed ourselves.

For those visiting Rethymno, you will find the restaurant at 12 Vernadou Street, phone 697 264 9170.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fair crack of the whip

Fair crack of the whip is an Australian phrase meaning give everybody a fair go. If used in a particular tone, it means that the other person has not done this.

I had thought that fair crack of the whip was just an Australian phrase. Searching around, I could not find out when it was first used, but it does seem to have been British as well, if not first.

I mention all this because the other night I learned something about the actual crack of a whip that I had not known.

The Australian stock whip is made up of a handle with a long leather tail split at the end.

The tail could be pretty long. A bullock driver, for example, needed a long whip to reach the front bullocks. Experts could crack the whip so that the split at the end reached an exact spot on the leading bullocks.

The term crack came from the sound, a cracking noise.

My brother and I were townies, town dwellers. Still, the whips were around and we tried them.

It's actually very hard to make the whip crack. You are likely to get it tangled around yourself or anything else in the neighbourhood. Still, I did get it right sometimes.

I was fascinated to learn the other night from a British TV show that the actual crack is, apparently, a mini-sonic boom brought about by the speed of the split end.

I am not sure about this because you can get something of the same effect by cracking a beach towel. This can be quite painful properly applied! I very much doubt the towel gets to the required speed. Still, it's interesting.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Coping with New England's decline

I mentioned yesterday that my next focus in the New England history project was an examination of social change in New England during the second half of the twentieth century.

My main post today, Social Change in New England 1950-2000 2: Don Aitkin's What was it all for?, is on the history blog. This post is a consolidation and slight extension of two earlier posts on this blog where I reviewed the book, an examination of social change in Australia through the prism set by the Armidale High School Class Leaving Certificate class of 1953. From my viewpoint, the book has been something of a godsend because it deals with broader trends while retaining a New England flavour.

I realised as I was writing, that I really need to do some broad brush stuff on the patterns of structural change in Australia. I have actually written quite a bit on this topic for other reasons, but haven't consolidated the material.

New England is quite an interesting case study because its major industries in 1950 - agriculture, manufacturing, forestry and mining - were all affected in different ways. The closure of the BHP steel works in 1997, for example, signposted the end of an Australian era. The BHP as it was known in Newcastle had cast a very long shadow.

New England proved to be especially vulnerable to structural change because it had old industries and lacked head office jobs. In 1950, new state New England was larger in both population and economic terms than Tasmania, South Australia and West Australia, and was not far behind Queensland. Over the next fifty years, its position slipped inexorably.

Its relative economic decline was greater than its decline in the population rankings because of the rush to the coast, another part of the pattern of social change. The rise in the coastal population created jobs in areas such as hospitality, retailing and health services, but these were generally lower paid jobs. By 2000, coastal New England contained some of the poorest areas in Australia measured by average incomes.

As a commentator, I rail against these changes. As an historian, I have to track the changes independent of my personal views. I may not like it, but what was is what was.

I still find this hard. I don't like writing about failure where I am emotionally involved. I constantly want to move from analysis to comment.

A little of this is not a bad thing. When I finish, I want a readable book. Giving some emotional content to New England can help here, even if it's a sad story.

In a way, the poet and writer Judith Wright is a microcosm of the changes that took place and at many different levels.

She was born in 1915 into the then stratified world of New England's pastoral dynasties.  She died on 26 June 2000, right at the end of my period.

Her relationship with her father, a significant figure in New England's history, and with the land itself, forms a key theme in her life, letters and writing. Her views on issues shifted over her life, but the land remained constant. As a woman, she could not inherit in a world where properties generally went to the oldest son. Her distress at the end of her life when the main station was lost was quite palpable.

I cannot pretend to be totally objective. While I did not know Judith, I did know her father, brothers and nephews. I grew up at the end of the stratified world she was born into. There were elements in that I did not like, yet I cannot help but find it, overall, a good thing. I, too, share her sense of loss.

I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish this book. It's just such a big task.