Monday, February 28, 2011

Break in posting

Interesting take by Australia economist and Reserve Bank of Australia board member Warwick McKibbin - the headline Bigger bubble is building captures the message.

I haven't had time to go back and look at the things I wrote at the time of the global financial crisis, but one of the things that I talked about then was the nature of the lags associated with the various global responses to the crisis. McKibbin's point that the bubble in global commodity prices and property markets in Asia threatened to dwarf the US housing market bubble that led to the GFC in 2008 is directly linked to this; the world is awash with liquidity.

I am still packing to move, but when I do get through that dreadful process, I want to come back to Professor McKibbin's point. It bears upon another point I have been making, the possible lessons for the present from the 1979-81 period.

In the midst of the packing I have been constantly distracted by books. Books that I haven't read, haven't read for a long while, or just old favourites. I have a new reading list!

I have also been distracted by the sheer scale of the task. I have been trying to keep focused by chunking things into small bits, cleaning as I go along, but the sheer scale of it all is overwhelming.

I have tried to keep posting up, but that has really become very difficult. So I am going off-line here until the whole moving process has been completed.       

Sunday, February 27, 2011

O'Farrell, carbon taxes & the NSW election

Here in New South Wales we have an election campaign well underway. Nationally, Prime Minister Gillard has announced that the Commonwealth Government will introduce a carbon tax. NSW opposition leader Barry O'Farrell has responded by calling on NSW voters to make the tax a central issue in the NSW election campaign.

On the surface, Mr O'Farrell's position seems politically sensible. The tax is deeply unpopular with some sections of the electorate. Certain of the talk back hosts on commercial radio are running hot against it. The PM appears to have broken a promise. Liberal Party testing with voters on the Central Coast suggested that opposition to the tax was a vote winner. Yet I find Mr O'Farrell's position puzzling and a bit disturbing.

In NSW the Labor Government is on the nose with voters to the point that the ALP's primary vote at 22-23% measured by the opinion polls is so low that it it is hard to see it going any lower. Labor is in disarray to the point that the Party has been struggling to find candidates and money. It faces electoral disaster. The carbon tax adds to its problems.

Why, then, do I find Mr O'Farrell's apparent desire to make the make the carbon tax the central issue of the campaign puzzling? Well, my first reaction was that if he was successful in doing that it might actually increase the Labor vote!

There are two reasons for this. First, it takes attention away from the key question of the performance of the NSW Government. Secondly and more importantly, the proportion of the electorate that actually supports a carbon tax is, I think, significantly above the present ALP vote in NSW. So if Mr O'Farrell were to get his way, any votes that the opposition might gain from the low ALP base might be more than offset elsewhere.

In practice, the issue is going to be just one among many. Still, I continue to find the way Mr O'Farrell has defined his precise position a little puzzling.

I said earlier that I also found it a little disturbing. Why? Well, he has really done something of a Kristina:

  • He is attempting to take advantage of a Federal issue based on polls and, no doubt, the dreaded focus groups.
  • Some of his rhetoric such as his demand that NSW residents be fully compensated for any tax is just not sensible and falls in the same class as Kristina's suggestion that NSW should in some ways be exempt from the proposed flood levy because Sydney's cost of living was higher.
  • The use of a somewhat extraneous issue to attract attention away from more substantive issues is something that NSW Labor has done for years. 

These are personal opinions and not important in an election that Mr O'Farrell cannot lose. However, I am interested in what they tell us about the way a coalition Government might work. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

WWII day by day

For those interested, World War II Day-By-Day provides a daily diary of the Second World War. It is up to Day 545 February 26, 1941. It brings out the sheer scale of the war.

On scale, have a look at Nigel Davies post Statistical confusion – whose troops actually did the fighting in World War Two. Nigel's blog is well entitled Rethinking History.

I mean at some point to write something on this one. For a number of reasons that I won't bore you with now,  I suspect that modern Australian perceptions of WWII have become a tad twisted. In the meantime, Nigel's post provides a useful view.

Courage, cooperation & Christchurch

A busy day packing and cleaning lies ahead. We move next week. I find the prospect depressing. Writing a post is one way of avoiding it all!

One of my frustrations with the on-line media is the way stories vanish. This is not a criticism of the press, nor of the search engines. It's simply a reflection of the story volume. I see a story that I want to refer to, put the matter aside and then can't find it. I know I should book mark them, but my temporary bookmarks have become uncontrollable.

In this case, the story that vanished was the scale of the Australian relief effort in Christchurch - 320 police, 300 search and rescue specialists, a full field hospital. On the not-so-pleasant side, Australian looters and confidence tricksters pretending to be police or relief workers.

I have written a bit on this blog about the need for cooperation between countries in the face of natural disasters. Here there was a very good story in the Australian by Nicolas Perpitch, Global 'family' of rescuers ready at a moment's notice, that provides background on existing cooperative efforts.

105132-ctv-building It is hard to say anything positive in the face of such a disaster, one that affected so many people. You can see a Japanese perspective from Asahi Shimbun  here and here.

The photo montage from the Australian, I can't give a precise link, shows the Canterbury TV building before and after the quake. This was the building in which the Japanese students died and which is covered in the two Japanese reports linked above.  

One thing that does come through is the raw courage as well as the terror generated by the moment. There are many disasters that go only partially reported because the media isn't there. We shouldn't forget that when we look at the coverage. That said, when the media coverage is there, the stories come through.

There have been so many examples. Just two here.

In Reduced to rubble, scarred by grief, Andrew Holden describes not just the quake, but the efforts to keep the presses rolling.  

Everything we've collected so far has gone straight to the web, but a paper gives people solidity, a touch of normality amid chaos. We don't realise it then, but with power out to most of the city, few people can watch television, or read the internet when their batteries run out. Communications will become increasingly tough over the next two days. Even those with home phones that need power are out of touch when their mobile dies. The old media stalwarts - print and radio - are all they have.

wedding Emma Howard Chrs Greenslade The second story is on the front pages across much of Australia today. This coverage is drawn from the Sydney Morning Herald. 

The photo shows Emma Howard and Chris Greenslade on their wedding.

On the day of the quake, Emma was working in the PGC (Pyne Gould Corporation) building. When the quake struck, she was thrown from her chair and trapped in the rubble where she spent the next six and a half hours. There she texted her fiance, fellow accountant Chris Greenslade, who raced to the building from his nearby workplace.

"He just ran to me, expecting to find me standing on the street, ready to take me home," she said.

Mr Greenslade dug among the remains, pulling out other people as he searched for his bride-to-be. He was photographed carrying an injured woman to safety in one of the first images that emerged of rescue efforts after the quake.

The couple decided to proceed with their already planned wedding on the due date, a celebration of life and hope in the midst of disaster.

A second thing that the quake has done, and this is a local perspective, is to remind Australians of the importance of the NZ relationship. The response to the quake in this country was quite emotional. New Zealand is family.

Taiwanese rescurers The last photo is from The Press in Christchurch. It shows Taiwanese rescue workers.

People who work together to save others build bonds. Bonds with each other and bonds with those they help.

It's a simple thing, but one that is quite important. These bonds build and can have profound effects. It is hard to hate or even distrust someone when you have worked together in the midst of fear, dust, sweat.

Australian aid to Indonesia during the tsunami transformed the relationships between the two countries. A simple thing really and very Asian where the prevailing cultural ethos is more collective than in many western countries. If you are there for me when I need help, then I have an obligation to respond.

I am not overstating this. However, I do think it worth remembering.

In the meantime, and as the media coverage of the Christchurch earthquake begins to dim, spare a thought for those in Christchurch who have a long and hard grind in front of them.

In disaster, the first reaction is courage and cooperation in the midst of despair. Then comes tiredness and a sense of despair. It becomes harder to cope. After that, comes the long and slow process of rebuilding. This is when things really get hard.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Should people be allowed to live in sheds?

The following is a story from ABC news:

The long-running campaign by an independent politician to allow people to legally live in their sheds is gaining momentum in the Northern Territory.

The Member for Nelson Gerry Wood, who holds the balance of power in Parliament, says people should have the right to shelter at an affordable price in the rural area.

"I cannot see one good reason why people should not be able to live in their shed," he said.

"If there is a reason, it can be overcome."

Minister for Lands and Planning Gerry McCarthy says the building code demands a home has fire protection, cyclone coding and complies with requirements in flood prone areas.

But he says the Government will consider changes "provided there is no relaxation of the standards that would impact on health and safety provisions".

However, he says he does not want to see uncontrolled development in Darwin's rural area.

There is quite a big back text on this one.

Prior to the tightening of council regulations, it wasn't unusual for people to live in camps, in shanties or in sheds. Quite a lot of houses built in the period immediately after the Second World war, for example, were build by owner builders who actually camped on their land while they were building. Many country people lived in sheds or shanties while they were developing their blocks. During the depression, we saw camps of homeless people on crown land. New England Story - Stockton Beach includes an example of one such camp.

Standards change. As part of this, we have become a very regulated society. You can see this if you look at the NT's Minister's response. This has all sorts of side effects.

One example is the rain tanks that used to be common in Australia. Councils mounted campaigns to get rid of them on health grounds. Now we are trying to bring them back. A second example is the composting toilets. It took years of campaigning to get regulations changed to allow them. A third example is the rise of rural homelessness, something that would have been inconceivable sixty years ago.

It used to be the case in rural areas with lots of land that there was a wide range of accommodation available. People could usually find some shelter, from camp though shed to shack and beyond. That is no longer the case. Conditions may not have been very pleasant, but people had some form of shelter. That is far more difficult now.

Another problem in country areas is the absence of serviced land. Mind you, that's not just a country problem.

Council and State Government rules now make it expensive to develop a block. No longer can you just buy a block without services and live there. Blocks must have services, developers must pay for these plus various charges and levies. Block prices have to reflect this. This is a problem in Sydney, but its a bigger problem in low population areas where demand means that block prices are just too low to recover all the costs. The practical effect is that there is lots of land, but none of it can be used for housing.

As a nation, I do wonder if we have got to the point where we can no longer afford the costs. We now have housing that many can really no longer afford. We have decided that we can't afford the costs of adequate social housing. We have introduced rental subsidies, Commonwealth Rent Assistance, but the costs of this are rising quite fast and are likely to become unsustainable over the next ten years. Further, they are in effect a subsidy to landlords to persuade them to accept lower income families.

Now what I have tried to argue on this blog is that we need to move away from current approaches, including the ever growing mandating of universal rules and standards. That remains my position.

The difficulty, of course, is that as soon as I move from the general to the particular in my arguments I strike problems.

Take the Northern Territory as an example. After the damage done by Cyclone Tracy, new standards were introduced for buildings in cyclone prone areas. I think that's generally a good thing, yet it adds to the problem I am talking about.

One way of handling this is to make a clear distinction between standards and rules. At present, the terms are used almost interchangeably. You can see this in the Minister's comments. When he talks about standards, he actually means rules. You see something of the same issue generally when people talk about enforcing standards. They actually mean enforcing compliance with the standard.   

This gives rise to a semantic trap. Standards are seen as a good thing. Ensuring that they are met must therefore be prima facie good. If you use the term rules, a different set of reactions comes in, because people are suspicious about rules.

If we now consider the NT case, the first question is whether or not the all standards themselves are reasonable. That's not necessarily clear cut, because standards and standards setting is itself a confused area.

The second question is the degree to which the standards should be enforced and, if so, how. Here I am with Gerry Wood. As a general statement, I think that people should be allowed to live in a shed on their own property. If that then creates real problems, let's deal with the problems.

The difference in approach I am talking about can be summarised this way.

At present, if you want to live in a shed you face a problem because an exception has to be made to a rules or series of rules, and that's always difficult. If you start from the premise that it's okay for people to live in sheds on their own property, you turn the issue upside down. Now you have to justify why any person should be prevented from so-doing. You may still end at the same position, but the line of thought is very different.   

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Welcome Visitor 100,000

Visitor 100,000 arrived on this blog this morning. That visitor came from Melbourne to visit Christchurch earthquake. Welcome.

I began this blog on 19 March 2006 with a test post. Visitor 50,000 arrived three years later, on 7 March 2009. I thought that was a pretty big number. Now in a bit under two years, I have added another 50,000 visits. 

The numbers aren't big by the standards of some blogs. Still, by my standards as an independent it's a pretty amazing number.

Over 80% of my visitors come via search engines, look very quickly and move on. The ones that give me greatest pleasure are my regulars plus those search engine visitors who actually spend a little time and look at a couple of pages.   

Belshaw's weekly posts w/e 23 Feb 2011

A weekly post round up.

On this blog my posts have been:

On New England Australia my posts have been:

On my other blogs I posted:

Problems with credit rating agencies

Back at the height of the Global Financial Crisis I mused about the role of the credit ratings agencies in the crisis in accentuating the upswing and downswing. I wondered if they could survive the fiasco.

I was wrong, of course. I was reminded of this by a somewhat wry post by Stephen Grenville, The perverse logic of rating agencies, in the Lowy Institute blog. Stephen is a former Deputy Governor of Australia's Reserve Bank.

When the the agencies first became important I thought that they played a useful role. Instead, they have become a market distortion in their own right.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Christchurch earthquake

ChCh Cathedral

A Monday post, It all suxs, will give you a feel for the close relations between Australia and New Zealand. Australians as well as New Zealanders feel a sense of shock at the latest Christchurch earthquake.

The damage done to Christchurch and surrounds by the earthquake is quite profound. This photo shows the historic Anglican Cathedral in the centre of the city.

For those who don't know Christchurch, it is New Zealand's second largest city by population after Auckland, with a population of  339,000. I actually thought that it was third after Wellington.

The city lies at the edge of the Canterbury Plains on the eastern side of New Zealand's South Island. The plains stretch away to the spectacular New Zealand Alps in the distance.

In 1906, my paternal grandparents emigrated to Canterbury from Lancashire in England.

After working in various jobs, Grandfather Belshaw became a Primitive Methodist Home Missionary in Christchurch. My father, the youngest, was born in Canterbury. All three kids went to school in Christchurch.

Provincial Council Building Christchurch is a beautiful city whose central district was planned on similar lines to Adelaide.

The next photo from the New Zealand Herald shows the remains of the historic Canterbury Provincial Council building.

Originally the New Zealand provinces had their own parliaments. This was the Canterbury Parliament. It's not a large building, but was an attractive one popular with tourist. The building featured as the site of the inquiry in Desmond Bagley's 1975 avalanche disaster thriller, the Snow Tiger.

Christchurch is a popular tourist destination in its own right and as a stepping off point for those visiting the South Island; the city has an international airport. It is also a major conference centre. I have been there many times as a tourist, on marketing trips or to attend conferences.

New Zealand draws backpackers from around the world.Hotel Stonehurst

The next photo, also from the New Zealand Herald, shows the remains of the Hotel Stonehurst, popular with backpackers.

Measured by the Richter scale, this was a smaller earthquake than the one that occurred last September. However, it was closer to the surface, increasing the destructive power on buildings already weakened from the previous quake.

This quake also occurred in the middle of the day when central Christchurch was packed with shoppers, workers and visitors. More buildings were brought down including a modern office block, while falling rubble hit buses, cars and pedestrians.

Casualty figures are still unknown, but could be as high as 200.

The final photo from the New Zealand Herald shows the Catholic Cathedral. The scenes are reminiscent of World War II bombing damage.ChCh Catholic Cathedral

New Zealand is a well organised country, but it is also a small country, stretching resources. Australia is relatively close and can therefore respond quickly.  The country has also had experience in responding quickly to disasters such as the Padang quake.

ABC news reports that the first 40 specialists, along with rescue equipment and supplies, left last night from the RAAF base at Richmond, in Sydney's north-west, aboard a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. In all, 148 Urban Search and Rescue specialists are now being sent.

"These rescue teams are experts at recovering people who are trapped or affected by structural collapse and consist of highly-trained emergency services workers, doctors, engineers and search dogs," Mr McClelland said.

"They have expert search, rescue, medical, engineering and support capabilities."

The impact on the people of Christchurch of the quake has been severe, more so because it came on top of the previous quake and all the subsequent aftershocks.

As so often happens, there have been remarkable stories of people responding on the ground with immediate action to help others despite the shock. I do find the human spirit a remarkable thing.  


On Skepticslaywers, DeusExMacintosh in Christchurch Earthquake: Please Give Generously provided information for Kiwis who wished to donate. In Australia, I know that at least the Red Cross has an appeal underway.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ayn Rand, selfishness and reciprocity

In Atlas Shrugged the Movie, I said in part

II have deliberately not looked at any of the arguments around the film, although again I can guess, nor have I sought to read the book again. I internalised it a long time ago, and I don't want current arguments or even my current thought to distort my perceptions before I can put them down.

That sounds fine. However, I have a bad habit of wanting to check basic facts such as when the book was written. So I went on line to do that. Inevitably, this drew me into the arguments around Ayn Rand, about the things she argued, about certain ways of thinking. I now wanted to respond to those arguments.

I may decide to do this. However, having seen the arguments and also looked at the comments from Neil and Ramana on my original post, I want to make a short and limited comment.

At the time I first read the book I was heavily into fiction of all types including science fiction where Heinlein was a particular favourite. I had not heard of the Austrian School, Hayek was a writer whose books rested unread on my father's shelves, Milton Friedman was unknown, I had never heard of neoclassical economics nor of the free market. I was reading for my personal pleasure, fascinated by pictures of different societies, absorbing ideas.

The concept of wreckers and parasites is central to Atlas Shrugged. The big train crash in the book occurs because money required for maintenance and proper support was plundered to meet immediate individual needs, self-gratification. Sound familiar?

Rand juxtaposes this with the concept of selfishness. However, this is not selfishness as the word is normally used. Rather, she argues that personal relations, the contribution made by one individual to another, has to be earned. When it comes to personal relations, no-one has rights. There is only contribution, reciprocity. By implication, this extends to the corporate sphere.

Forget all the free market wrapping she put around the book. Rand herself saw this as central, but it is secondary. It leaves open a question that Rand herself never really addressed in the book: what happens if the market is used by the wreckers?

I said that Rand had had an enduring influence on my thinking in all sorts of ways. Take my own thinking on management and especially people management.

I have, I think, had a pretty good track record at getting good results from people. I have sometimes seemed to be a soft manager, but I am actually quite hard. Rand is central to this.

in modern management, expectations are set by targets, key performance indicators. These are set from above. The whole language associated with productivity, with improved performance, is one way. What can I get from you, how do we get the best results from what we have?

In some ways this is wrecker language because there is rarely reference to what should be provided in return. It is all one way.

Rand's concept of selfishness, reciprocity, is personal; modern economics and management language is not. People have been removed from the equation

As a manager, I want good results - above average results - from my staff. To achieve this, management has to be personal, reciprocal.

The staff are paid money. They provide labour in return for cash. That is one element. But what can reasonably be expected for that cash? If you constantly ramp up pressure on staff seeking to get more for the same money without offering any gain to the staff, by increasing pressure on the staff, you risk becoming a Rand wrecker. You become the person who caused the train crash.

if you want above average returns from people, you have to offer above average returns. You have the basic equation of what you can expect from people for the money you pay. Then, to go beyond this, you have to give something back. This need not be money. Motivation, a sense of self-value, recognising people's needs, flexibility, all come into play. It is all personal.

What do you do if someone does not deliver? Well, you have to be fair. You have to understand the basic equation. You have to work with the person. You need to know the why. Finally, if someone is not delivering on the basic equation, then they may have to go. In the end, it's all a question of personal judgement. There may be formalised rules, but in the end it's about equity and reciprocity.

This is why I say that my approach to people management is in some ways perceived as soft while in fact being hard. I have been perceived as soft because I try to accommodate people, because I will fight for my people. Yet the reality is I that I generally get far better returns. Further, and unlike a lot of managers, I won't tolerate long term under performance because it's easier. I try to solve it. Most times I can.

And who are Ayn Rand's wreckers today? Well, consider this.

What about the advisers, financiers, CEO's and managers who focus on and have contracts expressed in terms of their immediate financial rewards, who bend everything to achieve their pay and bonuses regardless of the impact on others, who play corporate games, accept no concept of reciprocity beyond that which suits their immediate needs?  

I accept that my interpretation of Atlas Shrugged is personal. It is also a very long time since I read the book. There are many other aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy. I have spoken of just one element, I think the central element, that came to be important to me

In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart fights to save the railroad. Later she joins with Henry Rearden. It was these fights that I found the most satisfying part of the book. By contrast, I found the ending unsatisfactory. But that's another story.  


In a comment, Winton Bates drew my attention to two posts he wrote on the selfishness issue. I am writing from a memory a long time ago. Winton has read Rand more recently. The posts are:

Monday, February 21, 2011

It all suxs

Never let it be said that I won't pinch material from a fellow blogger when it suits me!

Saturday Morning Musings - New Zealand, Australia & multiculturalism was triggered by DeusExMacintosh's post Australia Sux (New Zealand, Seven). Now the comment stream on DeM's post really made me laugh, so I am going to pinch part of it.

My excuse is that it deserves a wider audience (hem, special pleading), but it does say something about the NZA (or ANZ) relationship. When I am wearing my New Zealand hat, I always put the NZ part first! After all, I am only a first generation Australian on Dad's (NZ) side. This puts me in the 44% of Australians so often quoted as being born overseas or having at least one Australian parent born overseas.

Some might argue that we need a multicultural policy to assist Australians and New Zealanders to understand each other, to assist the rest of the world to make any sense of Australians and New Zealanders. In the interests of international accord, I have added a glossary at the end.  

KVD wrote:

Good for them – sticking to their principles. Perhaps we should invade them as the only country in the world with proven, true Weapons of Mass Destruction: The All Blacks.

Legal Eagle wrote:

My mother-in-law is a Kiwi originally. My father-in-law was telling me a funny story last night about when they went to the Bledisloe Cup. My mother-in-law left NZ at 18 and has been a naturalised Australian for 20 years. But…who do you think she was shouting for 20 minutes in, despite her resolution to support Australia??? The All Blacks, of course.

Dave Bath wrote:

Can Julia beehive herself?

Angry Exile wrote:

At the risk of being kicked out of the country, Aussie and Kiwis sound the same to me. And now if you’ll excuse me I just need to hide from my wife for the next thirty tears

Dave Bath wrote:

Patrick@7: From Geelong, I’m happy enough for Oz triumphalism to be quietened with losses in the Bloodyslow Cup – and maybe more of the heathens north of the Murray will turn to the one true religion.

Mind you, I’ve seen REALLY scary hakas – from types that later kidnapped and beat up a girlfriend up so badly I had to give her cash to get out of town after she escaped and I patched her up – too scared to hang around and lay charges. Apart from the few crazy-scary, the rest of the kiwis are crazy-hilarious. But they are all crazy I reckon.

kvd wrote:

P@7 I don’t hate the New Zealanders – I reckon they are great; it’s just the full on ferocity which is unsettling. But if you really want scary, watch the All Blacks’ personal trainers in action. I think they call themselves the Silver Ferns.

Now this must be one of the most incomprehensible comment streams ever recorded. To assist you, the following table provides a glossary.

Term Meaning
All Blacks New Zealand religious order that seeks to find salvation through bodily penance, body building, extreme training and stylised mayhem. The order is named after the black uniform worn. Because of the need to remain relevant in a changing modern society, the uniform has been redesigned to emphasise key features relevant to many in the congregation - abs and pects. See also Bledisloe Cup, New Zealand national religion, rugby and haka. 
Australia Small continent occupied by country. Originally settled by convicts, most of the population huddles within a few kilometres of the coast line looking seawards, perhaps looking for the ship that might take them away, even to New Zealand. See also New Zealand. Technically Australia as a country includes islands beyond the continent of which Tasmania is the largest. However, Tasmania keeps on getting dropped off the map and can be ignored for practical purposes.  
Beehive Name given to the New Zealand Parliament Building. While the name is based on the building's shape, it provides ample scope for local jokes.
Bledisloe Cup Religious symbol awarded following gladiatorial rugby contest between Australia and New Zealand. See also All Blacks, Australia, New Zealand, New Zealand national religion, rugby and Wallabies
Haka A religious ceremony performed by New Zealand men at the start of each sporting event. Originally a Maori war chant  meaning bring it on, it provides an excuse for adults to stick their tongues out at others. 
Netball Religious ceremony technically played as a game in which seven people on each side wearing bibs use a ceremonial ball to undertake a variety of very stylised activities including attacking, shooting, passing and jumping but not stepping or contacting. Originally a British game based on basketball but with rules modified to suit the more genteel ladies of the Victorian era, modern netball compares to its past as modern warfare compares to village cricket. From its Imperial heartland, netball has spread to remote locations including Copenhagen where eldest daughter is able to practice the required ceremonies. See also Silver Ferns. 
New Zealand Island country separated from Australia by language, intense rivalry and the ditch (dutch), the local name given to the Tasman Sea. Also known as the Shaky Isles and famous for its mountains, sheep and Lord of the Rings. Object of many bad Australian jokes usually involving men and sheep, a necessary solace to frequent losses in annual religious ceremonies. See also Australia, New Zealand national religion, All Blacks, Silver Ferns and Bledisloe Cup.    
New Zealand national religion In theory, New Zealand is a modern secular democracy. In practice, sport is a national religion involving complex rituals and religious artifacts. Any sport is okay if it involves beating Australia, but the main denominations attracting greatest fervour are rugby and netball. See also New Zealand, Australia, rugby, Bledisloe Cup, All Blacks, netball and Silver Ferns.    
Rugby Short for Rugby Union. Religious ceremony technically played as a game in which fifteen people on each side use a ceremonial ball to undertake activities including rucking, mauling, jumping, throwing, tackling, passing and kicking. A break-away sect strong in North England and certain Australian States known as Rugby League denies Rugby's use of the word rugby. See also All Blacks, Wallabies, haka and New Zealand national religion
Silver Ferns New Zealand women's religious order that seeks to find salvation through bodily penance, body building, extreme training and stylised mayhem. The order is named after the silver fern imprinted on the black uniform worn. Because of the need to remain relevant in a changing modern society, the uniform has been redesigned to emphasise key features relevant to many in the congregation and especially men. Known for their ferocity especially when playing Australia, they provide support to their male equivalents, the All Blacks. See also All Blacks, New Zealand, and New Zealand national religion. 
Wallabies Minority Australian religious order that seeks to find salvation through bodily penance, body building, extreme training and stylised mayhem. The order is named after the wallaby, a smallish inoffensive grass eating Australian macropod, and had to be adopted because a rival sect had stolen the name Kangaroo. Membership involves an annual penance, the Bledisloe Cup, which often resembles a Roo Drive in which the hunters (the All Blacks) drive the hapless Wallabies in whichever direction required. See also Australia, New Zealand, All Blacks and Bledisloe Cup.     

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Atlas Shrugged the Movie

I see that part one of Atlas Shrugged, the Movie, is due out soon. I am looking forward to it. The trailer follows.

I read Atlas Shrugged first at secondary school. I knew nothing about it, it was just on the shelf, so I read it as a novel. I found it a but turgid in spots, but got involved in the story. I then read it again a number of times while at school and at university because I had become interested in the ideas.

I suspect that many of the book's later proponents and indeed Ayn Rand herself might be surprised at the conclusions I drew from her ideas. I read the book in complete isolation from any US threads of thought. I also read it in the context of my Christian beliefs, family traditions and the political and intellectual tradition that I came from. It remains one of the most influential books that I have read, influencing everything from my political views to my approach to public policy and to management.

I have deliberately not looked at any of the arguments around the film, although again I can guess, nor have I sought to read the book again. I internalised it a long time ago, and I don't want current arguments or even my current thought to distort my perceptions before I can put them down 

Mykonos meander

Greek Trip, Day 13, Thursday 30 September, Mykonos

This morning as a break from serious stuff, I decided to continue the story of our Greek adventure from Greek trip days 11-12 - Mykonos.P1010635

Thursday morning, our last full day on Mykonos, again dawned hot and bright. Denise and Judith had decided that another ceremonial dip in the Mediterranean was required. I decided to go for a walk  and left them to their plans.

This day I decided to go in new directions. The photo shows part of the view from our hotel, looking over a small children's playground to a basketball court and the town beyond. You can just see one of the cruise ships in the background. All the ships that had been following us around since Santorini were now in port.

That morning I was curious about the green trees on the left of the photo. I like trees, and there aren't a lot of them in the Greek Islands. I was also curious about the noise of the children that drifted up from quite early in the morning. So I decided to work my way down to the basketball court and then do a left into the trees.P1010729

  At the end of the basketball court I found - gum trees, again!

This was a working street, somewhat nondescript and a bit untidy, part of non-tourist Mykonos. It also proved to be a very useful street, a short cut to other parts of town.

I was walking at random, just exploring. At the end of the street I turned right towards the old town, then left, left and right.

As I plunged through the rabbit warren streets I did get a bit worried that I might get lost. Still, I now knew the layout of the town reasonably well, so should always be able to get back to a known point. Finally, I found myself on higher ground overlooking the town.

Like other parts of the Cyclades as well as Crete, something that I have written on before, Mykonos was once controlled by the Venetians. This photo shows the Venetian part of Mykonos.P1010679

The styles are unmistakable.

With Denise and Judith going swimming, I knew that Dee's computer would be free. This meant that I should be able to check emails and blog posts. I therefore turned back towards the hotel.

Just as well I did. By random chance, I found the pair trying to find the bus station! Now familiar with this part of town, I took them up the hill though the backpacker quarter towards the station. It is always useful to know where backpackers go, since you will normally find things like internet cafes there.

  Now back to the hotel via my little street for some peaceful internet work. On the way I again passed the local school, and paused to watch.

It has become extremely difficult to photograph children without coming under suspicion of foul intent. This was one time I really wanted to take a photograph because it was such an interesting scene.

This photo taken the next day shows tP1010730he school gate. Note the cord locking the gate.

It seems clear that access to the school is tightly controlled. This morning the gate was crowded with parents talking to their children through the bars.

At a smaller gate just down the road, a busy trade in contraband sweets and other goodies was going on, with children passing money through the bars to local store keepers in return for goods. You can see why I found it a fascinating scene, one that I would love to have photographed.

Great frustration back at the hotel. Dee had been practicing Greek and had the computer set to Greek script. I couldn't work out how to alter this. Damn! I really needed to check bank balances among other things, so decided to go back up my little street and theP1010680n to the backpacker area to find an internet cafe.

This area of town is not especially attractive. However, it does bring you to the windmills overlooking the town.

The windmills have become the iconic image of Mykonos. Curious, I searched for some information, but it's actually somewhat fragmentary.

Construction began in the 16th century under, yes you guessed it, the Venetians! The older windmills therefore link directly to the Venetian section of Mykonos town. While best known on Mykonos, they were also built on other islands in the Cyclades. They ground grain, primarily wheat, that was then exported. Again, notice the importance of the sea and trade.

While the majority of windmills were built in Venetian times, construction and use continued into the middle of the twentieth century. Now they are somewhat decrepit signs of the past.

Internet work completed, I returned to the hotel and then, once everybody had showed, out to dinner. My diary notes simply record: "didn't eat much: a bit sick of Greek food". 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - New Zealand, Australia & multiculturalism

This illustration is from DeusExMacintosh's post Australia Sux (New Zealand, Seven). New Zealand PM John Key on the left, Australian PM Gillard on the right. As it happened, Ms Gillard did become the first foreign leader to address the New Zealand Parliament, but I had to laugh.Gillard NZ Parliament

The relationship between Australia and New Zealand is a complicated one that is probably unique in global terms, something I explored back in November 2008 in Sunday Essay - the strange case of Australia and New Zealand.

In some ways, the two countries see themselves as one, yet remain very distinct.

In her speech to the NZ Parliament, the Australian PM re-emphasised the importance of the relationship. That's important, because the bigger Australia (the population ratio between the two countries is roughly equivalent to that between Canada and the US) sometimes ignores its smaller sibling, adding venom to the NZ desire to beat Australia on the sporting field.

On-going moves to build closer economic integration between the two countries, something that featured  on the Australian PM's trip, have a long history. A New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed on 31 August 1965 and came into force on 1 January 1966. In 1983 this was replaced the by the Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement (ANZCERTA), more commonly known as Closer Economic Relations (CER).

One of the differences between the two countries lies in NZ's greater Pacific orientation, something that I explored back in August 2007 in Pacific Perspective - Pasifika and New Zealand's Future. This links to the current Australian discussions on multiculturalism, discussions that I reviewed in Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life. If you look at those discussions, you will see a total absence of references to New Zealand or indeed to the broader Pacific. That's a mistake, an example of Australian myopia.

There is free movement of residents between Australia and New Zealand. Despite the population scale differences between the two countries, this means that changes in the composition of the New Zealand population do affect the composition of the Australian population.

At the last Australian census, 389,465 Australian residents were born in New Zealand. The number of Australian residents with one or more parents born in New Zealand is far higher. In December 2009, an article in the New Zealand Herald reported estimates that 126,000 of the 765,000 people in the world with Maori ancestry, one in six, now lived in Australia. This proportion is increasing.

Like Australia, the composition of the New Zealand population is changing. If we take the forecasts that I reported in Pasifika and New Zealand's Future, forecasts for 2016 suggest that Pakeha children will be just 38 per cent of 0- to 14-year-olds in Auckland. Pacific and Asian groups will each have 23 per cent - with Maori at 16 per cent.  As I said at the time, that's a change that makes Sydney look like a pussy cat.

If we track further forward, we can expect to see a very significant rise in Australia's Pacific Islander population coming direct and via New Zealand. This reflects existing trends, but is likely to be accentuated by political developments within the Pacific including broader moves for closer economic relations. 

Some of my posts are, in fact, arguments with myself as I try to clarify issues.   This was true of Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life as it was with my earlier reporting on the On-line Opinion advertising controversy; see especially ANZ, IBM & freedom of speech. I accept that this can make for pretty turgid stuff, but it does help my thinking. This is aided by my commenters and especially KVD.

Standing back from my own emotional responses to the use of the word multiculturalism, I have two key problems with the debate. The first is that I don't actually know what it all means. The second is the apparent disconnect between the generalised principles and what is happening or might happen on the ground.

Australia is a very varied country with a great variety of experiences, including migrant experiences. Our discussions seem to polarise around, to centre on, a small number of not especially representative examples -boat people, troubles with particular groups in particular places. In doing so, we risk confusing the general and the particular. We also ignore other things; the New Zealand case is an example.

In discussions on the Australian Government's new multicultural policy, I came to realise that that I was locking myself into discussion within a particular frame, a set way of thinking. I also realised that I actually had no idea what I was talking about. Let me explain.

Start with a very basic question: what is the policy problem that the Australian Government is trying to address? It seems to be a concern that Australia needs to be prepared to accept a wide variety of peoples, that our willingness to do so has declined, that we therefore need to re-affirm our commitment to a multicultural Australia.

Now look at the migration statistics. They show that we are admitting very large numbers of migrants from a multiplicity of countries. The actual number of arrivals is far higher than appears at first sight because the usually quoted figures are net figures, new arrivals less a large and increasing number of Australian residents leaving on a long term basis.

Is there any evidence that the new arrivals as a whole aren't fitting in however we define that? I am not aware of any. There are all sorts of frictions, I have written of some of them, but I think that the general statement remains true. So if things are okay in a general sense, what's the problem?

If you now look at the detail of what ministers have said and at the responses including comments on all forms of media, you find that the focus is on particular groups (those of the Muslim faith, those from certain countries). These groups are only a small proportion of our overall migrant intake or indeed of people living in this country. However, they and reactions to them have gained an importance far beyond their relative size.

Take Lebanese Muslim spokesman Keysar Trad as an example. Mr Trad represents a slice of an insignificant slice of the Australian population measured by numbers. Yet, for a period, he featured day after day in the Australian media. This is not a criticism of Mr Trad; I am talking about responses to him. He became important because he was perceived to be important, because many Australians and the Government had become concerned about certain issues in the context of the War on Terror, because the media reflected and fed the discussion. The issues discussed had very little to do with migration as such.

At the end of 2006, a national controversy broke out over the treatment by Sudanese refugees by Tamworth Regional Council, a controversy that went global. I was in South West Rocks on holidays at the time. Knowing Tamworth and some of the people, I did some digging. For those who are interested, Tamworth and Refugees - follow up note will provide an entry point to the posts I wrote.

Initial media reporting, the reporting that was picked up globally, presented this issue as a matter of simple racism, of blind community opposition to a new migrant group. The reality was totally different.

You had a local group concerned about refugees who wanted to bring a Sudanese group to Tamworth. So we already have part of the Tamworth community proactively working for what we could call a multicultural Australia.

The Tamworth Regional Council, a body that needed to support the program if it were to gain official approval, had reservations. This included questions about the capacity of the refugees to fit in. Importantly, it also included reservations about the capacity of the Immigration Department to actually provide support that the refugees needed. Council needed comfort on the question of Departmental support. Those supporting the Sudanese refugee intake reacted angrily.

From this point, the whole thing blew up into a media storm. Council and all the various local protagonists had to work through the issues under the un-relenting glare of national and international media coverage. In all this, those who wanted to see migration restricted attempted but failed to take advantage of the situation. Later, when the glare had gone away, it became clear that an over-stretched Immigration Department was indeed struggling to provide the required support. 

The first point about the Tamworth case is that it shows just how sensitive and divisive migration issues can become.

Accepting that it became a cause célèbre because of the initial stance adopted by the national media, it still showed some of the sensitivities within the Australian community. To the degree that the Government has formed a view that those sensitivities are now of sufficient level to warrant action, then a general reaffirmation of principles may be required even though it remains clear that there is not a problem so far as the mass of the migrant intake is concerned.

The second point about the Tamworth case is that it demonstrates the need to consider the relationship, the nexus, between general statements and particular cases. If migrants as a whole do not seem to be experiencing particular problems, this is not the case for Sudanese refugees where problems of war trauma and limited education are significant. 

Earlier I said in the context of the discussion on the new multicultural policy, I realised that I actually had no idea what I was talking about. The point is that I was talking at a general level. It was only after I dropped to look at detail that I realised just how difficult generalised statements were. In fact, we have a generalised policy statement that actually appears to be trying to address very specific concerns. Further, if the Tamworth case is any guide, we may well not have in place the very specific targeted measures required to make the policy really effective.

I would argue that we need a lot more thought not on the generalities of multicultural or multiculturalism, but on the specific underpinnings required to make it work now and in the future.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Borders, Angus & Robertson, Whitcoulls hit wall

While I had no intended to post again today, I did want to formally record an event of historic significance although it has been recorded elsewhere.

Yesterday  it was reported that REDgroup had called in administrators. The group owns Borders in Australia, Angus & Robertson, whose corporate history in Australia dates back to 1886 when David Angus and George Robertson opened a bookshop in Sydney and New Zealand-based Whitcoulls. Whitcoulls is of even older vintage: it was originally named Whitcombe & Tombs after its founders joined their businesses in 1882.

I will write a proper post later. I don't buy books on line. Even so, my book purchases had more than halved because the stores in question stopped carrying books that I was interested in in their focus on mass sales.

I accept that there is a commercial conflict between a smaller, high turnover stock and a broader slower turnover range, some of which may never sell. Even so, my feeling is that there is a fundamental flaw in the commercial model being followed by so many book stores.

More on that later.  

No post today

I am not posting today. The time I had available was chewed up in writing a postscript on Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life. If you look at the postscript, you can see the personal conflicts the debate has created in my own thinking.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Multiculturalism, migration & Australian life

With Neil offline until 18 February, I thought that I should pick up one of his interests. Yesterday the Australian Government launched a new multicultural policy. You will find the policy here, The People of Australia – Australia's Multicultural Policy; the Government has also released The Response to the Recommendations of the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council in The People of Australia.

Both are very much your current Australian Governments style policy documents. The first has a big title and is 16 pages long, but most of it is photos. The second lists all the things the Government is doing to implement particular recommendations and is replete with words such as partnerships; the detail can become a bit eye glazing. 

The Minister's speech announcing the policy appears to have contained more interpretive material, but I haven't been able to find it on line. 

The Policy

The policy begins by setting out principles: 

  • Principle 1: The Australian Government
    celebrates and values the benefits of cultural
    diversity for all Australians, within the broader
    aims of national unity, community harmony and
    maintenance of our democratic values.
  • Principle 2: The Australian Government is
    committed to a just, inclusive and socially
    cohesive society where everyone can
    participate in the opportunities that Australia
    offers and where government services
    are responsive to the needs of Australians
    from culturally and linguistically diverse
  • Principle 3: The Australian Government
    welcomes the economic, trade and
    investment benefits which arise from our
    successful multicultural nation.
  • Principle 4: The Australian Government
    will act to promote understanding and
    acceptance while responding to expressions
    of intolerance and discrimination with
    strength, and where necessary, with the
    force of the law.
  • The Government will establish a new
    independent body, the Australian Multicultural
    Council (AMC), to replace the current Australian
    Multicultural Advisory Council (AMAC).

It then outlines actions:

  • In response to AMAC’s cultural diversity statement
    recommendation three, the Government
    will implement a new National Anti-Racism
    Partnership and Strategy
  • To ensure that government programs and services
    are responsive to Australians from culturally and
    linguistically diverse backgrounds, the Australian
    Government will strengthen the access and equity
  • The Australian Government will reprioritise
    the existing scope of the Diversity and Social
    Cohesion Program to include funding
    for multicultural arts and festivals small
  • the Australian Government will establish a Multicultural
    Youth Sports Partnership Program.


As a general comment, I could wish that the Government had not reintroduced the word multiculturalism into the debate. The problem with the word is that it has so many attachments now that it risks twisting discussion. Discussion ends by centring on the words "multicultural" and "multiculturalism" rather than the underlying principles.

Each country is different and responds to the challenge of accepting different people in different ways. At the end of the Second World War with a largely culturally homogeneous population over 90% locally born, Australia chose to begin a mass migration program. Later, Australia chose to make that policy non discriminatory on grounds of race or religion.

One can debate the meaning of the word chose. but they were choices and did have consequences Today, 44% of Australians are born overseas or have a parent born overseas. The country is home to an increasingly diverse mix of people whether classified in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality or religious beliefs.

This spread is important. While individual groups have grown in numbers and as a proportion of the Australian population, no single national or ethnic group outside the originally dominant Anglo-Celtic stock has grown sufficiently as a proportion of the population to constitute a significant threat or problem - perceived or real - to underlying national unity or indeed to political power. Australia is a country of multiple groups - there is no real equivalent to the Negro or Hispanics of the US experience.

Since the Second World War, Australia has had official policies towards the integration of its new arrivals into the community. These have gone by various names and are much debated in this country. In all cases, a central issue has been to find the right balance between absorption into the broader community and the retention of the culture, religion, history and values from home that remain important to all migrant groups. So far, the country seems to have managed this pretty well.

One thing that has aided the acceptance and absorption process has been the willingness of ordinary Australians and of specific communities to accept new arrivals. I gave an example of this back in back in October 2008 in Sunday Essay - for Ramana: India and Australia:

Woolgoolga was Australia's first truly integrated multi-race town.

The first Sikh settlers came to Woolgoolga in the 1940s. Initially they worked as labourers on the banana plantations, but later acquired leasehold and freehold banana plantations. Sikh migrants from other parts of Australia were attracted to this area once they were aware of an established Sikh community.

The establishment of the Sikh community was made possible by the welcome of the host community. There are anecdotes of locals assisting the Sikh migrants in business, financial affairs, correspondence and encouragement to maintain their culture and religion. There were three members of the host community on the committee which built the First Sikh Temple of Australia in Woolgoolga.

Today over 95% of Woolgoolga's banana industry and 10% of that in Coffs Harbour is owned and operated by Australians of Sikh ancestry.There are 2,500 Sikhs in the Coffs Harbour City Council area and 450 students enrolled at Woolgoolga Public School of whom 21% are Sikhs. Of Woolgoolga High School's 877 students, 12% are Sikhs.

This mixing of host and new arrivals means that most Australians cross ethnic and cultural divides in one way or another. We all mix with and generally marry within our own groups. That's normal. But the divisions between groups are shaded, overlapping, not hard lines. Further, the generally open nature of Australian society has allowed social mobility, while the mainstream culture has absorbed enough elements over time from other cultures to add to the feeling of comfort for new arrivals.

The most fanatical Aussies are often migrants or their children. This actually makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes because I don't like some aspects of current Australian nationalism. However, it's also just as well given that migrants and their kids are now close to half the Australian population.   

If Australia has done pretty well why, then, does the Government feel the need to reinstate a multicultural policy, one whose wording risks re-opening a previous domestic debate?  Indeed, the cry of political correctness resurgent has already appeared.

I have to be very careful with what I say here. I am not interested in becoming re-involved in certain domestic debates. However, I think I can make two objective points.

The first is that there has been some erosion in support for an open immigration policy, as well as some loss of tolerance in the Australian community. The reasons for this are complicated, but have not been helped by the political leadership on either side. The second is that demographic realities dictate that Australia will remain a migrant country. I don't think that we have any real choice. We thus have something of a divergence now between attitudes to migration and the country's needs.

Quite a bit of the debate at present is actually code-worded and links to changing attitudes to the Muslim faith that have arisen especially since 9/11 and the War on Terror. Even where code words are used, people know that this is the case. The Minister made it clear in his speech, while the issue is explicit in a number of stories in today's Australian media. I quote from just one piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald.     

THE opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about ''Muslim immigration'', "Muslims in Australia" and the "inability" of Muslim migrants to integrate.

Mr Morrison's suggestion was made at a meeting in December at which ministers were asked to bring three ideas for issues on which the Coalition should concentrate its political attack during this parliamentary term.

The Herald has learnt several colleagues, including the deputy leader, Julie Bishop, and the former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, strongly disagreed with the suggestion, pointing out that the Coalition had long supported a non-discriminatory immigration policy and saying it was not an issue that should be pursued.

I have no idea whether or not  Lenore Taylor's report is correct. However, it makes my point.

Again, I have to be very careful in what I write. No-one doubts that Muslim extremism is an issue. There is plenty of evidence from other countries such as India and Pakistan that religious divides can ignite tensions and terrors. However, it's the relevance to Australia that is the issue.

The problem of the potential importation with migrants of ideas and attitudes that are in some way antipathetic, or risk being antipathetic, to their new country is not new. Australia has had plenty of experience with this. Just taking a few post war examples, the Hilton Hotel bombing appears to have been linked to Hindu extremism; tensions between Christian and Muslim Lebanese did appear in this country during the Lebanese civil war; during the Tito period in Yugoslavia a Croation training camp was discovered on the NSW South Coast; Australians fought on all sides of the Balkan conflicts; inter-ethnic tensions led to soccer riots; Armenians and Turks disagree on the genocide; Tibet protests lead the Chinese Embassy in Australia to help orchestrate protests by Chinese students; and so it goes on.

The challenge for any country is to find a way of managing such tensions, of in some ways quarantining potential adverse effects while still allowing freedom of speech and indeed protest. Generally this is handled in one or more of three ways: in selection of migrants; in social expectations in the host country as to what behaviour is acceptable; and in the use of laws as appropriate to regulate behaviour.

The exact form and mix adopted varies from country to country. In the Australian case we do use security screening, something that has its own problems. Beyond that, our central expectation is that immigrants will observe our law and, in a broad and generally non prescriptive sense, attempt to fit in. If there are actual or perceived failures in behaviour whether by home born or immigrants.

Our approach has become more prescriptive over the last forty years. The old term New Australians, a term that applied to all migrants, has been replaced by a focus on citizenship. We actually have no term now to describe residents who are not yet citizens and, indeed, may not become citizens. I find it mildly ironic that our focus on citizenship has increased at just the time that the concept itself has become more attenuated in a mobile world of multiple citizenships.

It remains the case that to be Australian is actually an emotional commitment, not a piece of paper. That is why citizenship is actually so important to many migrants. It is a formal recognition of an emotional commitment already made. 

I may seem to have come a long way from my main argument. Leaving political point scoring aside, the real reason that the Government has reinstated a multicultural policy lies, I think, in the erosion of support that has taken place for an open and non-discriminatory migration policy. The policy seeks to reaffirm core principles and, if necessary, lay the basis for formal action should people breach those principles.

Will it work? Well, I think it depends on what you mean by work. In the short term, it could well have some negative effects by reviving debates over words that should really be either very carefully defined or even put aside. However, I also think it important that key principles should be affirmed and defended. The issue, to my mind, lies in the extent to which the Government and its principle spokespeople will actually defend and implement those principles in cases where the immediate apparent political interest dictates otherwise.

At the end of the day, none of this may matter. While those of us who chatter, and I do classify myself as a member of the chattering classes although many of my views may seem opposed to the standard definition, talk around things, the dynamics of Australian life and especially popular culture are very powerful.

Listening to the young, how they talk and what they say, Australian is everywhere. I talked about this once in the context of a train trip to Parramatta. Visually, the train was full of apparently different school kids from a dozen obviously different ethnic groups. Shutting my eyes and listening, the differences vanished. It wasn't just accent or words, the ubiquitous like is an example, but commonality of topic and idea. 

There are going to be some problems where different appearance or religion attach to groups divided on other matters because this reinforces difference.  The ethnic gangs of Western Sydney are a current example. There are also going to be continuing inter-generational problems. However, my feeling is that the dynamics of Australian life and culture will, over time, simply over-ride this.

I had been going to talk about some of the detail, of real problems that I think have not yet been properly addressed such as the aging of previous migrant communities and the problems this creates. However, this post has already become one of my very long essays. Maybe later. 


I mentioned that the press had been running hot on this one. Because I know from Concerts, comments and content management that at least some visitors value my links, links to media reports on this topic follows:

If you want to see why this is a complicated issue for the Government see Immigration minister stands ground on return of boat disaster orphan to Christmas Island, Human rights bid to block orphan's return to detention, That's not guts. That's not an apology.

I was going to give you more, but links disappear very fast. It then takes a lot of time to find the, time I don't have!

I find this quite often. For someone who is interested in the pattern of reporting, it's quite frustrating!

Postscript 2

This one is really running hot on the Australian media today. I will try to do an update tonight. The Government's problem, and its a problem for the opposition too, is that the release of the policy coincided with the sending back to Christmas Island of those attending funerals in Sydney for those killed in the recent boat disaster. This included an orphaned boy.

Nobody can win on this one except, perhaps, Australia. The opposition is split down the middle with those wishing to play the migration card essentially corralled by others. The Minister for Immigration is struggling to reconcile his policy statement with refugee treatment. Who can argue against an orphan boy?

Based on comments, the public is split with the usual range of arguments on both sides.

Postscript 3

This discussion did continue hot. I almost didn't add anything, because I found aspects so depressing. I will explain why in a moment. First, some of the media coverage:

I haven't attempted to scan all outlets, but it will give you a feel. I also haven't looked at the international coverage of the debate.

I said that I found it depressing: in going back to talk about multicultural as an ism, old wounds have been re-opened. I find that I can't be rational on this one. I find that I respond emotionally because of the previous imposition of that ism in a way I resented, that prevented sensible discussion on issues. That is a personal view. I am simply explaining how I feel. I hope that it's clear that I do support a pluralist Australia.

In arguing for a pluralist Australia, I have tried to avoid the use of code words. Instead, I have tried to mount arguments based on evidence. When I write I have people like me in my mind, Australians and especially older Australians whose emotional resentments to certain attitudes and events from the 1990s colours their thinking.

I also have some of my daughters' friends in mind, of the attitudes and views that come through on Facebook, of some of the resentments that I know are around. I know that I won't reach this group directly - they don't read blogs! - but they are still there in my thinking.

I do not know whether the Government wanted to wedge the opposition on this issue. If so, they have succeeded. However, this has come at a cost. Instead of building a consensus, instead of helping Australians think about issues, we have gone back to an old and not especially helpful debate.

Last night on the ABC's 7.30 report, I think that the last two links above refer, the Minister for immigration stated that one of the reasons for the Government's actions was the international debate on multiculturalism, the argument mounted by the French President among others, that it had failed. As I remember it, the Minster wanted to make the point that Australia was different.

That may be true. However, it missed the point. The last thing we needed to was to get dragged into a discussion on the success or failure of an ism. It has derailed the discussion.

I have been involved in debate on some of these issues for more time than I care to remember going right back to the days when I had to defend the abolition of the White Australia Policy at country political meetings. I have found that people break into a number of groups:

  • The die hards who won't and can't listen. You just have to put up with them.
  • The strongly committed who retain their views, but who are prepared to listen and who will respect your views and even vote for you. The late Peter Andren, the independent member for Calare in the Australian House of Representatives, is a fascinating case study here. Representing a socially conservative electorate, Mr Andren took positions on certain issues that would have been political suicide for others. It can't have been easy for him. But his electorate respected the fact that he was straight; they voted for him in large numbers on the totality of his views and on his track record.
  • Those who are prepared to listen, to modify their views.

In considering the maintenance of social cohesion at a time of change, you can largely ignore the die hards on either side. They chat to each other when they agree, past each other when they disagree. Essentially, they reinforce each other's positions. They have the capacity to derail, that has to be watched, but beyond that they cancel each other out.

It is the second and third groups that have to be reached. Here I have found that time is required; people have to be able to think things through. You can't just tell them.

At a purely personal level, I don't want to talk about multiculturalism. However, I do want to talk about the underlying issues as I see them. It's a difficult challenge!   

Postscript 4

Dear oh dear, I do feel strongly on this one.  Having just written that I didn't want to talk about multiculturalism I found myself thinking of a new series of posts called multiculturalism twists.

Let me take an example. I have previously expressed reservations about the three themes that are meant to unify the proposed new national curriculum. Now the material released by the Government links those themes to multiculturalism.

No curriculum is value free. Further, the content is effectively controlled by the cultural gatekeepers. With content necessarily limited, in choosing one area, those gatekeepers necessarily drop out others. The problem is that the gatekeepers have dropped things that I consider to be important, added others that I have reservations about.

In modern society, the school system is a major transmitter of culture and of attitudes.

As we have seen in communist societies, attempts to inculcate particular attitudes and beliefs are problematic. What is more subtle and insidious is the way in which exclusion of fields of information affects later thought. If people have no access to information on particular things - if their thought is subtly conditioned by words, by inclusions and exclusions - then thought changes. Things die. 

I am very conscious of this because things that I value, consider to be important, have been written out of the school curriculum. In their place has come many things that I disagree with. I can handle the disagreement, I find it hard to handle the exclusion. It's very hard to argue a case for something that has been important when the entire information base has been removed, when people have no idea of the factual base involved.

If I were to use my knowledge, my writing skills, my understanding of the internet, my passion on certain things, to mount a wholesale attack on multiculturalism, I suspect that I might have an impact. I know the hot buttons, the code words that will energise. I have lots of examples that I can use. Yet in trying to destroy multiculturalism I would risk igniting the very things that I also detest.

There is no way I can win in this.

I recognise that some of the things I say, the very assertion that I might have an impact, may sound egotistical. One of my commenters on a public policy post where I was talking about the need for change said stop being so turgid, get over it. I recognise that things need to change, that the views I have on certain issues may be old fashioned, past it.

Yet I reserve the right to attack, to try to forensically analyse specific measures and ideas. I may be an old troglodyte, a gargoyle on a building worn by time, but I also care. I don't have the certainty I had when I was younger, age brings a more nuanced approach, but we still have to try.  

Postscript 5

Since I am reporting reactions as well as my own views, here are a few blog reactions: