Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Essay - national symbols in a pluralist society

National celebrations are tricky things because views and structures change. Both affect thinking.

Empire Day was established in Australia in 1905 and was a pretty big thing. By the 1950s it had turned into cracker night, still a big thing but for different reasons.

Older Australian still remember cracker night with nostalgia. Some, a smaller and fast diminishing number, remember Empire Day. Their children and grandchildren do not. Empire Day went as the sun set on what was once the world's largest empire. Cracker night vanished because of changing official attitudes towards fireworks in which safety came to override enjoyment.

This year marks 150 years since the start of the American Civil War. There were celebrations in the United States, but in many ways the anniversary passed without notice outside the US. It would not have done so fifty years ago.

In The problem of (American?) politically correct history, Nigel Davies looks at the way that the American Civil War has been simplified. Nigel's view is revisionist, addressing the way the US interprets its own history. The problem from my immediate perspective is that if the war is simplified to just slavery and nothing but slavery, then large slabs of the US population, those connected in some way to the south who still empathise with aspects of the southern cause, cannot participate.

We talk about Australia as a multicultural society, and indeed it is. However, we don't always realise that this requires us to shut up on certain matters, that you can enjoy celebrations and other views without necessarily agreeing with them, that even if you do not. you have to exercise politeness.

I grew up in a socially stratified and indeed divided society. I have written about this, about divides between town, gown and country, about sectarian divides. Each group believed that it's own views were right. To cross divides, I had to exercise discretion in what I said.

A little later, I came across divides elsewhere.

Take Malaya, now Malaysia as an example. My Aunt has served with the British Red Cross during the Emergency and had fallen in love with the country. I listened to her stories. I knew Chinese and Malayan Malaysians.

Personally I was a supporter of the Malay side. The concept of bumiputera  was coined by Tunku Abdul Rahman. I was strongly sympathetic to the idea that Malays were entitled to special treatment until they caught up. It was their country, after all. But then, I had Chinese friends who came to be adversely affected by the policy. So I listened.

I wasn't always as quiet as I should have been.

I knew a number of people who had come to Australia from the Federation of of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Then one of my house mates was from Southern Rhodesia. In 1965 Rhodesia had declare unilateral independence, leading to civil conflict. Personally I was opposed to the Smith regime, but was also worried about the nature of transition arrangements.

During this time I attended a dinner party in Canberra. A black Rhodesian woman was the main dinner guest. The conversation was virulently against the Smith regime. As I sometimes do, I attempted to present a counter view. Our guest of honour got upset, then angry and finally came close to tears as she talked about oppression.

I was mortified. My line of discussion was completely inappropriate. This was another time that I should have shut up and listened.

I could give many other examples. However, my point is that if people with different histories and views are to live together, then discretion is required.

Let me now link this back to my opening point.

I said that national celebrations are tricky things because views and structures change.

Empire Day is an example of a celebration that lost meaning because of changes in institutional structures (decline of Empire) that led to changes in views. Cracker night declined because of changing views on safety issues. The US Civil War celebrations struck some problems because of changing social attitudes, including stereotyping.

My point about mixing in a world of social and ethic divides was twofold. The greater the divisions, the harder it can become to select or promote specific national symbols. More importantly, diversity requires politeness, if not tolerance. This includes the capacity to join in or at least enjoy other's celebrations even if one has reservations about them. 

I am not saying anything especially profound in this essay. I just feel it important to make the points because of what I see as a growing intolerance, a growing certainty that our individual views are right, in Australian society.

If Australia is to be a truly multicultural society in the way that term is commonly used, then we have to understand cultural and religious differences and the historical divides that have made the relations between ethnic groups so bloody for much of human history.

Maintenance of links to the past is central to a multicultural society. This does not mean that we should not demand acceptance of at least the minimum commonalities required for this society to function, nor does it mean that we should not oppose practices that are against our evolving values. It does mean that we need acceptance of, or at least politeness about, difference even where we disagree.

This goes both ways, of course. It applies (or should apply) to both existing established groups and new arrivals. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - fall of the US dollar

The end of the month is always statistics time. This month has seen a continued trend decline in traffic. It's most pronounced on his blog, but shows up on all my main blogs.

The first reaction is to think that I have become too boring, but as best I can work out both the number of return visitors and  reader response (comments and emails) has remained about the same. The fall seems to be concentrated entirely in search engine traffic.

Just at present, the Australian dollar continues to power away, at one point passing $1.10US. That's good for Australia's international travellers, good for importers, but not so good for the rest of the Australian economy.

All sorts of factors are contributing to the present strength of the Aussie including an apparent increased willingness to hold the currency as part of official reserves.

For those interested in currency matters, on 24 July Stubborn Mule carriedCurrency Turnover League Table a fascinating post, Currencies punching above their weight.

The first chart shows global currencies ranked by turnover. You can see how the US dollar and, to a lesser extent the Euro and yen dominate currency trading. However, I think that many would be surprised to see the size of the Australian dollar trade.

If you look at the size of the US dollar and euro in trade, you get a simple visual feel for the reasons why the continued instability in those currencies creates such difficulties

Having looked at the absolute size of the global trade, Stubborn Mule then looked at the size of trade relative to the size of the economy.  The results are shown in the next chart.

I wasn't completely surprised at  the Swiss result. However, the next three and especially the New Zealand dollar did surprise me. Currency Turnover/GDP League Table

In all this,  note the absence (among others) of the Chinese and Indian currencies.

Trade in currencies does not properly reflect either patterns of global trade or relative economic size.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but I would have thought that it was something of a longer term issue.

I do not pretend to be a currency expert, but on the surface there are advantages in denominating transactions in the currency of one or other of the trading partners. If Australia is trading with China, then (other things being equal) denomination of the transaction in either aussie dollars or yuan limits exchange risk.

I am aware of all the counter arguments. All I am saying is that I feel that, in the longer term, traded currencies are likely to better reflect real patterns of economic activity. In the past, the reserve currencies (gold, sterling, the US dollar) facilitated global transactions by providing a measurable store of value in circumstances where other currencies were either not traded or were of uncertain value. The position today is different. Who can really say that the US dollar is a secure currency?    

The types of changes that I am talking about will take time. However, that time may be less than we all expect. Let me give a simple example.

Even thirty years ago, an Australian travelling internationally would get traveller's cheques, probably US dollar denominated. Who bothers now?  While there are still variations between countries, most people use a combination of credit cards, purchases in Australia of currency for key destination countries and Australian dollars themselves. With exceptions including visits to the US, the US dollar has vanished as a means of transaction.   

That's a pretty big change in quite a short time.

Consider another small example. In a way, the decision by Australia's Fortescue Metals to denominate certain contracts in yuan was largely symbolic, a gesture to China. However, it was also I think a sign of things to come.       

Friday, July 29, 2011

Socrates, questions, management & public policy

Winton Bates began his post Do Australian political leaders lack vision? with this paragraph:

I ended my last post asking why the major political parties in Australia seem to be finding it more difficult to promote sensible policies. One possible explanation I hear quite frequently is that our political leaders lack vision. The argument seems to be that the policies of the major parties are too easily blown around by powerful interest groups because the leaders are no longer anchored to a set of values that their parties stand for.

Winton argue, correctly to my mind, that both the current Australian PM and Opposition Leader had articulated values. However, he also suggested that there was a gap between those values and the way policy seemed to work. He concluded:

What are the incentives for politicians to adopt small target strategies? What role does the media play in this? Why don’t journalists do more to hold political leaders to account for lack of consistency between their high ideals and the policies they adopt? Is there anything that ordinary people can do to raise the level of political debate in this country?

In a comment, I said in part:

While accepting that both the PM and Opposition Leader do in fact have values and principles, I would also argue that there is a core policy and political problem that I would simply describe as lack of ideas.

Policy has become so mechanistic that we have lost sight of the role played by ideas in developing new approaches. We talk a lot about efficiency and effectiveness, but for what purpose? We talk about standards or competencies, but fail to recognise the limitations built into those concepts. We talk about statistics and use them to set key performance indicators, but fail to ask what the statistics actually mean.

Winton and other regular readers will know that this comment reflects arguments often put on this blog. In this post I want to discuss one failure as I see it, the failure to ask basic questions.

Questioning, I used to call it the Socratic approach, will not make you popular. By their nature, most Australians are pragmatic, interested in acting or doing. They do not take kindly to approaches that force them to stop, to question. Why are you wasting our time?

Sometimes they are right to react in this way. We all know of people who exercise a negative pall, whose questions are designed to resist, detract, stop. However, questioning designed to amplify issues, to test, is central to the generation of new ideas. We don't do enough of that.

Let me illustrate with a few very basic examples.

Microeconomic reform, improvement in the way the economy operates, has been one of the key policy drivers over the last three decades. It is also one that I support, although my questions have led me to adopt different approaches to some of those currently espoused.

The first question to be asked of microeconomic reform is why it's important. If you ask that question, you will get an answer that generally combines two things: it increases national wealth and is also necessary for the country to survive in an increasingly competitive global environment. Now focus on the first.

Why do we want to increase national wealth? What do we mean by national wealth?

The answer to the first generally runs along the lines that it gives Australians a better standard of living, that it allows the country to do new things. The answer to the first question thus generally answers the second.

So far so good. There are obviously a number of questions that can be asked now. For example, what do we mean by a better standard of living? However, I want to focus on just one.

Accepting that Australia's national wealth has increased, who benefits from that?  It is a legitimate question, because we all know that the structural changes creates a pattern of winners and losers.

The usual answer is that all Australians benefit if differentially because the extra wealth (more jobs, better schools, better health care etc) flow throughout the economy. Okay, has this in fact happened? This is a purely factual question, one that is capable of measurement.

There is some evidence to suggest that the wealth gains have been concentrated in a small proportion of the population, that we have created a pattern in which a few have gained largely, others have suffered significant and permanent losses. Taxation, the normal redistributive measure, has been lowered as part of the reform process. 

If I summarise the discussion to this point, microeconomic reform raises two very different sets of issues: will it increase national national wealth however measured and how will those gains be distributed? You cannot blame large groups in the Australian population for being resistant to change if they know that they have or might lose from the change.

If you want an historical example, the last phase of the Byzantine Empire saw considerable growth in personal wealth concentrated in a few hands. At the same time, the state on which those individuals and families was atrophying because of lack of cash.

To extend the argument, consider another policy given, the need to increase productivity. Again, this is one that I support. But what do we mean by productivity?

In simple terms, productivity is a measure of output from a production process per unit of input. When we talk about improved productivity at an industry or national level, we mean that we can produce more with less. However, there are problems. 

Pretty obviously, the same type of questions come up as the broader microeconomic reform case because improved productivity is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.

A further problem lies in the way we measure productivity. Increased working hours, for example, may improve certain productivity measures. But is this a real measure of increased productivity? Do Australians actually want to work extra hours?  Another way of phrasing this is what, if any, are the costs that must be paid for increased productivity?

A further linked problem can be put this way: are the apparent productivity gains sustainable?  There is pretty clear evidence that some apparent productivity gains are in fact short to at best medium term.

In all this discussion on microeconomic reform and productivity, a further set of questions can be asked linked to a central question: why do you think that measures proposed will in fact deliver the desired outcomes? How will this in fact occur? Is there a better way of achieving the desired result?

I am sure that you can already see why people find this approach pretty boring and indeed there is a real difficulty in a purely professional sense in that people don't like it. They get locked into their way of thinking. Challenge makes them uncomfortable. Still, its actually quite powerful, nor does it necessarily take a lot of time.

To illustrate this, take two policy topics that I have written on, the Australian Government's bridging the gap approach in Aboriginal policy and its higher education participation targets. In both cases, I posed common questions:

  • Did I think that the broad policy objective was worthwhile? In the Aboriginal case, my answer was yes, in the higher education case probably not.
  • Were the targets actually achievable in statistical terms? My answer in both cases was probably not.
  • Ignoring the statistical problems, could the policy measures as proposed actually deliver the desired results? My answer was probably not.

My approach (and questions) then diverged.

In the Aboriginal disadvantage case, my focus has been on alternative ways of achieving the broad objective. In the higher education participation case I have gone a different route, using this as an example in a wider set of basic questions concerned with the total approach to education in general and higher education in particular.   

All for now.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Comfort reading - to serve them all my days

Regular commenter KVD has been after me to resume my Greek odyssey. I will do so!

Have you heard the phrase comfort reading? I think that it's more common among women than men. Simply, it means books that strengthen the soul, that reassure when things are hard. 

I first came across R E Delderfield’s To Serve Them all My Days when I came back to Armidale.

I had been away if with regular visits for some fourteen years. Now I came back to stay at home again in my old room while I completed my PhD. I am very glad that I did because within three years both my parents had died.

My parents and I watched the BBC mini-series based on the book. I loved it so much that I then bought the book and have read it many times since.

For those who haven’t read the book, it is the story of David Powlett-Jones who comes from a shellshock ward in 1918 to teach at Bamfylde School, a fictional public school in North Devon in the south-west of England. Set against the backdrop of the changes taking place in England and beyond, the story follows the hero through from a junior master to school head, ending in the early days of the Second World War.

I suppose that I identified with the book in part because some aspects of the school were a little like my own, more because I found it found it positive and good.

Positive and good; such wishy washy words, yet they capture the essence. To my mind, there is just too much of the opposite around at present for my own comfort.

It’s not my all time favourite, but it does pass a key favourite list test. Each time I read, I actually stop at key paragraphs.

I have been thinking for a little while that I might take some of those paragraphs from this and my other comfort favourites and use them as the base for posts. You see, they provide a base for challenging some of our current automatic assumptions as to what is good and right.

I actually find that helpful. Maybe you would too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Time Team & the joy of archaeology

The ABC is presently running the British Time Team show every night at 6pm.

I began watching by accident. We normally watch SBS News at 6.30 and I rarely watch TV before that. However, one night I was on my own, cooking, and so switched Time Team on for background noise.

Time_Team My first reaction was negative. I thought that the program might be actually dangerous in encouraging people to go out and dig up the countryside. Then I became fascinated and finally addicted.

Time Team is reality TV applied to archaeology.

The basic concept is simple enough. Start with an archaeological/historical problem such as a story that there was once a roman house or a castle at a place. The team then has three days to resolve the problem using the latest archeological techniques.

It was the three days constraint that initially made me feel that the show might be dangerous, risking sloppy work. However, I then became fascinated in the techniques and unfolding stories, aided by the almost breathless enthusiasm of both the presenter Tony Robinson and the professional team.

Human occupation of Britain has a long history. Further, the phases in that occupation lap and overlap across the landscape. All this means that you can never be sure just what you might find. -

The program must have been very expensive to produce. The resources, people and technical, available to the team would make the normal archaeologist drool. The three day constraint is obviously artificial, but it is important in creating suspense. Will  the team solve their problem in the time?

The team also uses multimedia very well to present evolving pictures. This is what we thought the building looked like, this is what it actually looks like.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects lies in the background history whether it be the fall of Rome, warfare on the Welsh Marches or a the industrial evolution and a railway construction site.

My knowledge of British history adds to my enjoyment, but you don't need to know this to enjoy the program.

I really do recommend the program. The British web site provides a lot more information about it. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

School sport, carbon taxes & the internet

This morning just an update on past posts.

TAS 2011 Rugby Union Games has attracted a steady stream of hits. I have therefore updated the posts to include what results I have, results kindly provided by a commenter. I emailed Donna at the school to see if I could get official results. She has kindly agreed to put them up on Facebook.  I will provide details here once they are up.

Craig Foster at TAS TAS doesn't just play Rugby, by the way.

This photo from SBS commentator Craig Foster's Facebook page has the following comment: 

Coaching at TAS, The Armidale School, last Friday. Fantastic afternoon spent with 1st XI team plus a few younger talents. Good boys, very eager to learn, picked up principles very quickly. Coach Richard Newton is promoting football at the school and doing a great job with the kids. Junior and senior school now growing strongly in football numbers. Wonderful to see. Fozz

My post on Sport shooting in schools beat the ABC's NSW Stateline program by twenty four hours! The story is now on-line. It shows the NEGS and TAS shooting teams that I was talking about shooting at the GPS competition at Hornsby. The heads of both schools were interviewed, as was a Greens MP. I have updated the original post to include the Stateline link.

Both the TAS Rugby and Sport Shooting posts are interesting from a traffic viewpoint.  Both and especially the Rugby post are special interest posts. They don't attract big traffic as compared to some of the broader posts, but they do attract enough traffic to be clearly visible in the stats. Some of the most active responses I get come from these types of posts.

In a passing comment on the sport shooting post, KVD wrote:

I used to go with my older brother; shoot to eat sort of stuff. Best fun ever round Lithgow, in all weathers, with a dog and nobody else around. He shot, and we all ate - at least three main meals a week were so provided.

In terms of self sufficiency I've always thought that the inventor of cling wrap has a lot to answer for. I say this after a four day period last week when my valley was without power.

I understood the first paragraph, but found the second a bit obscure, so I sought clarification. KVD responded: 

Sorry about 'cling wrap' reference. Should have been 'Glad Wrap'.

Family shorthand term for the point at which we stopped either growing our own or purchasing same direct from grower (complete with dirt attached) to simply lining up in the local store to buy stuff - all of which seemed to be wrapped in Glad Wrap.

This got me thinking, for that's not a bad description of a fundamental social change. It made me search the internet to try to discover the history of Glad Wrap. I can feel another post coming on!

UNSW netball team uni games 2011 In another post, New England unis & the university games, I mentioned that eldest had played for UNSW in the mixed netball in the Eastern University Games held in Canberra. That's actually a sign of Australia's size, for UNE played in the Northern Games held in Armidale.

This is a photo of the UNSW team. I leave it to you to spot Helen. Oddly, perhaps not given the small world factor, the team includes the son of old friends of ours. Neither he nor Helen realised the connection!

The remarkable success of Cadel Evans in the Tour de France means that every part of Australia with even some remote connection wants to claim ownership. We are no different! The Armidale Express records that Cadel went to Newling Public School and then Duval High. Helen was quite chuffed to learn that she had gone to the same primary school! 

I have now written a number of posts on Australia's carbon tax debate. In A final word on the carbon tax debate, I provided some gratuitous advice to Julia Gillard on the approach she might follow. It seems to me that, with invaluable assistance from Messrs Abbott and Turnbull, the debate has actually gone along the lines I suggested! For the first time in a long while, the public opinion polls show a pick up in support for the Government.

Over twelve months ago I suggested that the economic hype about Australian economic growth was just that, hype. I won't bore you with the posts, but my conclusions weren't based on detailed analysis of the data. Rather, they were based on an assessment of what might go wrong, along with doubts about analysis based on general statistics that ignored (or seemed to ignore) the actual structure of the Australian economy. Now the economic commentators are coming around to the view I put forward.

I was right when I put forward a contrarian view during the global financial crisis, so that's two ticks. Does this mean that I know what will happen now? No, because the position is so clouded that I do not have a formed view. Indeed, I find it all very confusing. I simply don't know enough about the imbalances in the global economy that underlay current developments. I really hate not knowing things.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why discussions on Greece mix together issues over the fate of the euro with the possible flow on effects of Greek default. Of course there are links, but they are very different issues. The world won't end if Greece or, for that matter the US defaults. But that's another story.

Issues associated with structural change on the internet are much on my mind at present.

Over the last month, or so I have written a number of posts continuing my analysis of the internet. As always, my interest has been driven by my own concerns; both The joy of history in an internet world and Academic journals, the shuttle & the internet reflected my history interests.

During the week, I received my first invitation to join someone's network on Google+. I ignored it!

I have a part completed post trying to pull together some of the analysis I have done on the changing internet. Again, I am just seeking to understand. I really do think that some of the present analysis is wrong-headed.

Google+ will carve out a niche, perhaps a very big one, and will certainly affect Facebook. But so what? Is this really important, a quantum social or technological change? To my mind, it's just another change at the margin.

Enough, I think. I have other things to do! 

Details of the Malaysia-Australia refugee deal

The Australian and Malaysian Governments have now released details of the arrangements between the two countries on refugees.

Rather than commenting, I thought that the most useful thing that I could do for those who are interested is to provide links to the source documents:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Problems with sex crazed vampires

Stories about sex crazed vampires are not my normal reading. However, sometimes duty calls!

Z Clare  Agrappina Belshaw has decided to change her hair style, her Facebook photo and her immediate plans.

Clare Jul11 She asked me what I thought about the hair style. I ask you, how does a Dad respond to such a fundamental change. Answer? With a gulp and a pause.

It does suit her, it's a bit like her mum's, but I had to get used to it.

Clare's views about university have changed as well. She has decided to defer completion of her degree for a semester, get a job, and focus on her drawing and writing. That makes two of us at the one time. That's a bit unsustainable! 

Now Clare's writing tastes are a little different from mine. While I labour away often stretching the patience of my few dedicated readers, Clare trips a light fantastic across obscure (to me!) sub-genres from very bad comics to sex crazed vampires and computer games.

As part of this, she has revived her blogging with A good whine. Her latest post, Vampire Porn, a Guilty Pleasure - Spoilers, begins:

Vampire porn really should be it's own sub-genre, there's vampire teen porn such as Twilight (Check the link bellow for an amazing blog that trashes it completely) or more respected works such as Vampire Academy which I haven't read. Then there is adult vampire porn, things such as True Blood or my personal favorite and the topic of this blog Anita Blake Vampire Hunter.

Already I fear that Z Clare (and, no, I won't explain the Z: I'm not sure that I fully understand it myself!) is displaying some of the signs of addiction that affect (infect?) her father. Why, she said, I have already had 260 page views! Those stats are dangerous things.

   So do make Clare's day by visiting and adding to the stats.

And, Clare, when you find this post as you probably will if you check your stats, just a reminder. You still owe me some drawings to liven up this blog! 


It took Clare just one hour after getting up to spot this post. She checked her stats as I thought she might, and found a visitor from this blog.

Postscript 2

I am pleased to report that as of this morning (27 July), Clare had received twelve click-throughs from this story. Not a lot by global standards. Still, as Clare, said, "not too shabby!" 

UNE passings - death of Alan Treloar

Jack Arnold advised in an email:

It is my melancholy duty to advise that Mr Alan Treloar, former UNE Reader in Classics, passed away on 220711.

Dick Passey advises that the notices was in the SMH on Saturday 230711.

Funeral arrangements are by Piddingtons Armidale telephone +61 2 6772 2288.

A grave side service will be held in the Anglican section of Armidale Cemetry at 1000 hours 29 July 2011.

Would you circulate to all relevant persons in your network.

I know that many Wright College men and the University community more broadly will have fond memories of Alan. It is another passing from  what many think of as UNE's golden age. I am sure that there will be full obituaries in due course. I will link to these in a post on my New England blog.


I am getting a fair number of hits on this post, and still haven't seen am obituary for Alan. In the meantime, I have found this career summary on the Carey Grammar web site. 

Alan Treloar, T. D., M. A. (Oxon & Melb.), D. Litt. (U.N.E.)

Dr Alan Treloar is one of Australia's greatest living philologists and classical scholars. He has established an enviable universal reputation as an academic who combines the qualities of meticulous and exhaustive research with a profound understanding of the formal principles of language. He is in international demand for expert advice on a vast number of ancient languages - Hittite, Sanskrit, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic, Eblaite and many others - and his interests extend to modern languages as well. He is too modest to put an exact figure on the languages with which he is familiar, but he admits to a 'nodding acquaintance' with approximately eighty. He has published and lectured in many countries and is regarded with esteem and respect by scholars world-wide.

Alan Treloar attended Carey from February, 1929 until December, 1936. He was Dux of School in both 1935 and 1936. He then studied classics at the University of Melbourne and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to New College, Oxford, in 1940. The outbreak of World War II prevented his taking up the scholarship immediately. He saw distinguished service in the Middle East and was awarded the Territorial Distinction in 1957, subsequently confirmed by two clasps, in 1963 and 1969.

Alan had a distinguished career at Oxford and returned to Australia to lecture in classics in the University of Melbourne, in which position he remained from 1945 until 1948. Then followed Assistant Lecturer in Ancient History in the University of Nottingham (1949-50), Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Humanity, University of Glasgow (1950-59), Warden of Hytten Hall and Reader in Classics, University of Tasmania (1959-60), Master of Wright College (1960-66), Reader in Comparative Philology, University of New England (1966-84). Though officially 'retired', Alan still takes students and advises on a host of academic matters as well as maintaining his reading and research.

The catholicity of his cultural tastes can be gauged from his major publications: Horace the minstrel (1969), The importance of music (1967), An Anzac diary (1993), Electronic antiquity (1993) and Lyra (1994). He married Bronnie (dec. 1991), herself a distinguished academic, in 1945, and they had three daughters, Ann, Megan (dec.) and Jean.

Alan Treloar has made an outstanding contribution to the academic and military life of our country.


Trevor Evan's obit of Alan has now appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

History & personal papers - a story of personal stupidity

I am still tidying up and disposing of stuff. I doing so, I got very angry with myself. Let me explain why.

In 1980 I was Assistant Secretary Economic Analysis Branch in the Department of Industry and Commerce.  From 1983 to mid 1987, I was the key Commonwealth policy adviser providing advice on the development of Australia's electronics, aerospace and information industries. Our particular approach involved us in every aspect of Government policy that affected those industries.

In mid 1987 I put my personal money where my policy mouth had been and set up  a consulting, training and information services consultancy specialising in the high technology sector. The business grew very rapidly only to crash in the slump of the early 1990s. To this day, I regret that we did not have access to the professional advice that might have saved it. Nobody then knew - the internet was still some years ahead - that the things that we were doing would form the core of global information services businesses. I knew what we had, but simply couldn't get the message across.

As part of our work, we had a very large Government relations practice. Our clients included Telecom, Westpac, AWA, Rolls Royce, United Technologies, AWA, IBM and Toshiba as well as industry associations and  overseas Governments. We provide policy advice to more than a dozen Government departments or agencies in Australia.

When the business went down, Ferrier Hodgson as first administrators and then liquidators proposed to send all the company records to the tip. I hardly thought that our clients would like that, and personally moved thousands of files to our garage, Then I had to make decisions about what to do with those files and my own papers since we were leaving Armidale for Sydney.

I am a meticulous record keeper. I had to decide what to do. I looked at putting the collections into an archive protected by an embargo period, but with cut backs everywhere no one was interested. This is the record series and what happened to it:

  • I had drop copies of every piece of paper that I had written as an official. Minutes to the minister, letters, memos etc. Shredded.
  • There were copies of every policy release or official report relevant to my interests from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Recycled.
  • Every contact my company had had (we had seventeen staff) with clients, officials, researchers, whatever, was meticulously recorded, along with our internal analysis. We practiced what we called triangulation, checking facts by asking contacts not about their what they thought, but about what others' thought. We also had a practice that we called penetration in depth, With one agency, I would deal at the higher levels, but my research officers and industry analysts would deal with people at their level. In some agencies we knew the views of people from secretaries down to class sevens or even lower. This material was shredded.
  • We had thousands of our reports looking at every aspect of official policy, industry performance, firm performance. To give an indication of scale here, we had the annual reports, the official filings, of more than two hundred global telcos over multiple years, along with consolidated analysis on various performance aspects. All this was shredded or recycled.

By the time the company went down we had what was, in retrospect, a remarkable resource. I should add that we did not record personal details. Our focus was on policy issues and debate. We wanted to know what was likely to happen and why.

We were helped here by our detailed understanding of official process. We knew every stage in the policy process, allowing us to forecast just what might happen and in what time table.

Even today working alone in a home office with so many things changed, I can make pretty accurate judgements about likely outcomes.

I don't care how good the analyst or historian is, they will never be able to replicate the material or knowledge we once had.

Today when I want to write about some of these matters, I really miss my access to past material. Why didn't I save this stuff? That is why I say it is a story of personal stupidity. I really should have found a way to save the material.  


I responded in comments to a comment from regular commenter KVD. He responded: "I think you should postscript your comment into your main post - because it provides an eloquent reasoning as to why your loss is important, significant." I said:

David, we need more books and analysis showing how decisions are made. Some of my commentors wonder about the process.

You see, we have lots of people doing their job. In all the material we collected, there was no evidence of improper conduct. There was just the way things worked.

There were heros and villains, but the villains were those who allowed immediate objectives, to override other things. For their part, many of the heroes are unknown, many in industry and the unions.

I saw union leaders who knew that change was inevitable prepared to take positions against the short term interests of their members in the hope of longer term gains. I saw industry leaders adopt similar positions. And I saw both destroyed by positions taken by others on political and ideological grounds.

There have been some very good US books on decision processes. I would argue that we need more such in Australia to overcome the superficiality of current analysis. It's actually exciting stuff if well written.

The problem I have with the material I destroyed is that it would have allowed a detailed analysis to be written of a slice of decision making. This includes the aspirations and dreams involved.

I thank KVD for the suggestion for my comment does amplify the reasons why I consider the example to be important. It's not just self-indulgence on my part.

Policy development is an interaction over time among many players with very varied interests. Much of the material that has been written, and some very good, has a political focus. It starts and ends there, when the reality is far more complex.     

Saturday, July 23, 2011

No post today

While I had a part completed post in my Saturday Morning Musings series, I an not going to be able to complete it. It's suddenly become imperative to get the study into order; we are still only part unpacked from the move in March!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Academic journals, the shuttle & the internet

My post yesterday on my New England History blog was Can academic journals survive?. Last night was the last landing of an American space shuttle. Two apparently quite disconnected things.

In my history post I argued that the current restrictions on-line access to the various academic journals had created the somewhat odd situation that entire fields of research are effectively broken into two, the formal academic and the ever growing rest. I wondered how long can the journals themselves could survive outside very specialised areas once they ceased to have relevance to the broader discourse on a topic.

When I woke this morning, I decided in honour of the ending of the space era to reflect in this morning's post on that brief past period when I was head of Australia's re-emerging space activities and on the excitement and romance that space once held. Our efforts to do new things finally foundered on lack of imagination among our leaders in combination with opposition from the hard headed officials of Treasury and Finance who had little interest in what ifs or in things that could not be precisely measured. I understand their hesitations about the use of externalities in argument, but those externalities have in fact been central to new advances.

All I wanted to do in order to write my brief post was to find a few on-line references that I had found in the past. I knew the search terms that I had used last time. I knew just what the references were. I could not find them.

One problem is the sheer explosion in the size of the internet itself. I was an early internet user. If you searched on Belshaw then you got just 650 references. Today, the number is 1,060,000! A search on "jim belshaw" yields 47,000 results.

A second problem is the search algorithms. If you think about it, the very fact that we have those algorithms, that we can search, is something of a miracle. But by their nature, those algorithms will generate different results for the same search over time. Further, each time the algorithms change, so do the search results.

The third problem is simply the ephemeral nature of so much material on the internet. The problem of dead links is an issue for anyone who is active on the net.

I know that I have written about some of these things before and about the nature of responses. To a degree it qualifies the conclusions I reached in Can Academic journals survive? It may be that the  problems in the net that I am referring too will actually prevent the net reaching its full potential.

I am a very heavy internet use. Further, the way I use the net extends well beyond transactions or the discovery of immediate current information. To the ordinary user, the problems that I experience may be of limited relevance. Yet I think that they are quite important.

My thinking to this point has really focused on my own responses, essentially taking the net as a given. I am now wondering just how the net has to change if it is really to meet the needs of that minority group, Belshaw and his ilk.

A lot of the technologists and net enthusiasts I know are not much help. I have been meaning to write on this one for a while. The difficulty from my perspective is that I am expected to fit into their solutions and enthusiasms, whereas I want them to fit into mine! I am, after all, the user!

But all this has to be a post for another day.   


In a comment, KVD kindly pointed me to this link: Copyright or copywrong? How journals control access to research. I thought iy worth including to extend the discussion. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sport shooting in schools

My main post today is a professional one on another blog, Ships, knowledge & management short term ism.

You will see that it deals with issues that I have dealt with many times on this blog. I do get frustrated at what I see as the short term ism of so many modern management approaches. Often very simple things that can be done to improve performance are ignored because they are seen as unimportant.

Anyway, I wanted to make a brief comment today on shooting in schools. Not massacres, but shooting as a sport.

My old school TAS (The Armidale School) has just won the NSW GPS shooting convincingly after taking out all three competitions, despite cold, wet and windy conditions at the Hornsby Rifle Range. Our sister school NEGS (New England Girls School) sent an eight member team to Sydney for the Fiona Reynolds All Schools Shooting competition. The girls then shot with the boys at the GPS competition, although their scores could not be counted since the GPS is a boys competition.Shooting

The photo is an earlier one of the NEGS girls in training a few years ago.

I had not realised that the NEGS team was the only girls' school sport shooting team in Australia, nor had I realised that gun control regulations effectively prevented most schools from offering shooting as a sport.

I discovered the last because of newspaper stories (I cannot give a link) that in NSW the Government under pressure from the Hunters and Fishers Party is considering easing restrictions to allow more schools to offer shooting as a sport.

I grew up in a world in which shooting was common. This was also a world in which there were shooting accidents, but no massacres or indeed much violence of any type involving firearms. That came later. Hand guns were tightly controlled, but rifles were common. As a small school, shooting was one competitive sport area where TAS could match the bigger Sydney schools. Most of the country kids could shoot.

Looking at the responses to the proposed changes to NSW regulations made me realise yet once more how out of touch I am. While I have done some hunting many years ago, I don't actually like it at a personal level. I don't like killing things for sport. However, I don't object to others doing it, especially where feral animals are involved.

I really can't understand the almost pathological objection to the private use of firearms. I guess its another area where I'm out of touch with the dominant urban middle class group.

We live in a world where, I stand to be corrected on this, the police actually shoot more people now than are killed in shooting accidents. We live in a world where we are constantly demanding more police, tougher regulation, new controls, in the name of community protection. This is also a world in which police stations have become the biggest buildings in some communities. As a mark of change, in NSW in 1924 there was just one CID officer outside of Sydney.

Yet in all this, many of us object to changes to regulations that will allow more schools to offer shooting as a sport. I find this confusing.


This post beat the ABC's NSW Stateline program by twenty four hours. The story is now on-line. It shows the NEGS and TAS shooting teams that I was talking about shooting at the GPS competition at Hornsby. The heads of both schools were interviewed, as was a Greens MP.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Belshaw's other blog posts to cob 15 July 11

This morning just a list of my posts on my other blogs from my last update to cob last Friday:

Have a browse and (hopefully) enjoy.

Murdoch, parliamentary inquiries & freedom of the press

I stayed glued to the TV last night watching the two UK parliamentary hearings. Finally I got too tired and went to bed after the foam incident. This morning I started to look at some of the press coverage then stopped because it was starting to twist my own interpretation. I thought that I would record some points now while things were still fresh in my mind.

We saw two committees in operation. The first grilled the metropolitan police witnesses, the second the Murdochs and then Ms Brooks. The two were as different as chalk and cheese.

The questioning in the first committee was intense, almost forensic. There were some pretty obvious lines of questioning that weren't going to work, but generally I was struck by the rigour. I was also interested in the revealed relationship between the Met and the press, all the press, not just the Murdoch press. The police use the press, while the press tries to use the police. I would think that this is likely to become a key issue in the inquiries ahead.

By contrast, the second committee was far shallower, more political. I found some of the initial lines of questioning down-right embarrassing.

Two very different worlds had met. One, the global corporation in which the News of the World was just one per cent of the business, the second the intensely local political world in which the Murdoch papers were central players. Obviously the two overlapped, but it's still two very different world views.  

In both hearings, the question of delegation and reporting in the large organisation were central, as were linked questions of final responsibility. In both hearings, the committee members actually struggled to come to grips with this.

In the first hearing, Sir Paul Stephenson was grilled over what he knew or didn't know about the appointment of Neil Wallis as a consultant. Sir Paul essentially said that the issue was not relevant to his work or scope of responsibility. It was just a consulting assignment. Committee members couldn't really understand this; they actually lacked the knowledge of the workings of big organisations to focus their questions properly.

In the second hearing, both Murdochs were grilled over their knowledge of particular events. As in the first hearing, both Murdochs and especially Rupert pointed to the nature of delegation in big organisations. Committee members again struggled with this one. They simply couldn't understand how certain payments could be made without them being kicked up the line for approval. Again, they lacked the knowledge of the workings of big organisations to focus their questions properly.

There were some very interesting exchanges here, exchanges that revealed the gap between the top and the bottom in News Corporation, differences in perspective between Rupert and James, between the original press man and the modern media business man.

Several things stood out to me in regard to James's answers. To begin with, he clearly doesn't have his father's understanding of the detailed working of a newspaper. He is a modern media businessman, focused on electronic and new media. He is obviously good in this area, but struggled to answer simple questions about actual newspaper operations. He also displayed a lack of knowledge of delegations and reporting lines that I actually found unexpected.

The issue here was again the payment question. While it was clear that the size of payments was below the threshold required for high level authorisation, James struggled with the detail of decision processes. By contrast, his father was far more incisive and straight forward, intervening twice. Individual journalists had to account for all payments. Certain payments could not be authorised by managing editors, but had to go to the next level. Mr Murdoch Snr did not go into details, but that is clearly a matter that the various inquiries will address.

You are going to read a fair bit about Rupert Murdoch's performance, much of it couched in negative even gleeful terms. At the start of the hearing, I wondered in fact if he had his wits about him at all. It quickly became clear that he was deaf, something that I had not known. He was struggling to even hear some questions. There were very long pauses in his answers, sometimes painfully so. Yet it also became clear that he was deliberately taking his time. Whereas James tended to over-answer, Rupert was far more incisive. A simple yes or no, sometimes followed by a brief amplification.

Where Rupert became somewhat garrulous were on personal issues relating to his history or father. The whole affair has driven to the heart of the man's perception of himself and his legacy. 

One thing that made me acutely uncomfortable in the whole discussion was the question of whether or not the media can or should break the law in pursuit of a story. The discussion here was presented in black and white terms.

Clearly the parliamentarians thought that the media must comply with the law. For his part, James Murdoch took a similar position. I had a wry grin here, for James Murdoch's answer was very much part of that modern management style that I have talked about.

The Murdoch group operated in many countries and must comply with the laws of those countries. The company had a code of conduct on this expressed in a brochure supplied to all staff. Various legal counsel within the group provided training to staff on that code of conduct. All very modern, and a bit like the Met.

Why did this all this make me uncomfortable? Well, it was all so black and white. Here people need to be careful about getting the things that they ask for. The Murdoch group has previously been criticised, for example, for its willingness to comply with Chinese Government requirements. Does this mean that the press operating in Libya or Zimbabwe should comply with the laws as laid down in those countries? And what about the use in Australia and elsewhere of Government or other information provided by whistle blowers?

My point is that these things are not clear cut. Again, Rupert Murdoch as the old press man was the only one to point in any way to the ambiguities. Phone hacking was beyond the pale, but use of a private investigator in certain circumstances could be justified.

Mr Murdoch is clearly a bit of a troglodyte who actually understands something about the search for a story, the truth, in a competitive environment. By contrast, his son and indeed the committee operate in a far more black and white world.

And what will happen in all this?

The position of the Murdochs as controllers of the empire has clearly been damaged, perhaps irreparably. There may or may not be legal consequences for News. However, listening very carefully to what James Murdoch said, if his interpretation of events is correct on the facts, then the company's handling of subsequent events is likely to stand up to scrutiny.

My real concern remains that set out earlier, the possible damage done to real freedom of the press as a consequence of New of the World excesses.     

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The joy of history in an internet world

I got up early this morning to write my weekly column for the Armidale Express. I really didn't feel like writing anything too serious, so decided to return to a history theme, this time introducing the German connection in New England's history. The trigger here was emails received from two people with New England German connections researching their family history.

I get enormous pleasure from my historical research and writing.

This is partly due to the simple joy of finding things out that I didn't know before. My insatiable curiosity constantly takes me in new directions, sometimes to my own detriment when I should really be doing other things. It's also due to the feedback I get on individual posts through comments and emails.

Even though I am an adjunct of the University of New England and a member of UNE's Heritage Futures Research Centre, I am not a professional historian nor do I work within a university environment. Rather, I am better thought of as a historical populariser, even an internet historian.

In the once traditional model, those interested in writing history broke into three main groups: there were the professional historians operating within a university environment; there were those interested in local or family history but who were not historians as such; and there was a very small group who worked as historians on a full or part time basis outside academe. Some were professional writers, some wrote history as a by-blow to other interests, some were simply enthusiastic amateurs.

All three groups used similar resources, primary sources such as original records and then secondary sources, the writings of others on topics of interest. Professional historians followed the canons of the discipline in documenting their work, something that is critical if others are to follow up. Many of the local or family historians did not, to the sometimes frustration of those wishing to use their work.

The last decades of the twentieth century saw fundamental changes in historical research and writing.

Within Australian academe, the research and writing of history fragmented into themes - social life, women's history, colonialism, class, black-white relations. There was also an increasing focus on theoretical models drawn especially from left thinkers. General or chronological history declined.

Outside academe, historical research at the local and especially family level exploded. I am only guessing, but I would estimate that by 2000 there were at least thirty amateur historians for every professional.

During this same period, there were fundamental changes in the nature of history books published. This was due partly to earlier changes in academic research that affected what was coming through the long historical research pipeline, partly to changes in popular interests, partly to the commercial models developed by publishers that led them to focus on those things that would maximise sales at points in time. Both the number of individual titles and the range of topics covered declined. Immediately this maximised sales in terms of dollars of shelf space, but it did reduce overall sales of history books and especially Australian history books.

If we take my own case as an example, my total spend on history books is down a little in real terms because of limited shelf space. However, what I buy has totally changed. I spend very little on new Australian history books because there is so little that I am interested in. I do buy some of the increasing quantity of good books on the history of other countries because that fills gaps in my knowledge, while some of them are remarkably well written. And for every dollar I spend on new books, I now spend three on second hand Australian history books that are out of print trying to fill gaps while the books are still available.

I now want to introduce the internet, starting with the negatives.

One difficulty as I see it lies in the way that the internet and all the new computing and communications technologies have created a degree of confusion between application and content. The new technologies may be good for presentation, for information gathering or for teaching, but they are a means to an end. In the final count, it's content that counts. Good applications plus bad or limited content still equals bad history.

A second, linked, difficulty lies in the way that the internet can actually limit or bias access to content. At the simplest level, people come to limit themselves to what they can access via the internet, and that's a relatively narrow slice. The selection of material on the internet tends to be biased towards the mass, the popular and can also be of very uncertain standard.

Accepting these limitations, why did I talk about the joy of history in an internet world in the heading to this post, why did I say that I am even an internet historian?

Well, to begin with, the internet gives the ordinary person access to information that was once only available to the professional or dedicated enthusiast. That's a big advance in itself.

Then, too, the internet short circuits the information gathering process.

My still to be completed Greek trip series of posts (I will complete it soon!) contained a lot of historical material. A challenge from Debbie about the sources of information led me to write Greece, history & the on-line world. If you look at this post, you will see that I combined various sources, that I used my general knowledge to check and interpret material, but that fast access to on-line information was also central.

Finally and most importantly, the internet gives people a degree of power over research and writing into their own history.

I have often written about problems of perception, selection and bias in history. Central to those problems is the role of gatekeepers in determining what will be studied, what published. For the first time, the internet allows people with specific individual historical interests outside the dominant main stream to connect and combine. It allows everybody to present their views. I think that's fun. I also think that it's important.

In researching and writing history I draw from enthusiasts of all types - cars, planes, trains, food, family, local and school. The list goes on and on. I am a synthesiser, always looking for patterns, to fill gaps that reflect my particular interests.

Since I started blogging, I must have written the best part of a thousand posts that were in some way historical posts. Many other posts have some historical content, for I like putting things in context. In total, I find that the content grows and grows.

In doing all this, I try to promote the writing of others. Then I get the feedback. My blogs are moderately high traffic blogs, but not huge by a-list standards. Still, I must have had over a thousand comments or emails linked in some way to my historical posts. This forms and reforms what I write. Sometimes it just fills a gap. At other times, it starts me in a new direction.

I get frustrated at times because of my inability to respond properly. I have an ever growing list of things that I should follow up. I am conscious that I sometimes disappoint. Yet always I am conscious that without my writing, the minority historical areas that I am interested in would be the poorer. And that's the joy.

The post I wrote on the Armidale Dem School year 5 class of 1955 ended with six people coming back to Armidale for the school's 150 year celebration.  My discussion of Kenneth Dempsey's Conflict and Decline: Ministers and laymen in an Australian country town (Methuen Australia, North Ryde, 1983) drew a somewhat surprised (surprised because of the passage of time since 1983) comment from the author that I had summarised his book very well. My passing reference to Wilhelm Kirchner in a post drew a comment from his granddaughter that, among other things, confirmed that Johan Sommerlad had been brought to Australia through Kirchner's migration scheme, '

Now I bet that you have never heard of Wilhelm Kirchner nor of Johan Sommerlad. Well, Wilhelm Kirchner played a major role in the initial larger scale migration of German people to Australia, while Johan (John) Sommerlad's son Ernest founded one of New England's family press dynasties.

This brings me back to the opening point about my next Express column introducing my readers to the German connection in New England's history. Needless to say, this includes references to both Kirchner and Sommerlad.

Through the wonders of the internet, those like me can interest, and indeed connect, people through elements of history that would otherwise be neglected. I think that's pretty wonderful!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A final word on the carbon tax debate

To say that the most recent Neilsen poll was bad news for Australia's Gillard Government would be something of an understatement.  It's also been interesting reading comments from the left of centre side of politics struggling to understand just what has happened. That's not a shot, by the way, just an observation.

Part of the Government's present problems lie in the way it has chosen to fuse two very different issues. The first is global warming and the need for a response, the second the nature of the best response.

I don't think that the Government can win on the first because it cannot significantly affect attitudes. People have made up their minds. Nor, to my mind, does it need to win since the Opposition's official position on global warming appears to be similar to the Governments; acceptance that it is actually happening. A simple statement of the reasons why the Government considers this to be an important issue requiring a response is really all that needs to be said.

The second issue, the nature of the response is (or was) arguably winnable in political terms. Since both the Opposition and Government apparently agree that action needs to be taken on climate change, the Government needs to describe the Opposition's proposed response and explain why it is inadequate. Then explain the Government's response and say why it is better. This may sound simplistic, but it really was the best bet, one that has been lost sight of.

In choosing to turn the issue into an Abbott/Gillard gladiatorial test, the Government made another mistake. The burn the shoe leather approach, to use the PM's words, placed a not especially popular PM in direct confrontation with an adept populist, completely overshadowing the issues themselves. Ms Gillard would have been better staying a little above the conflict, leaving her ministers to do more of the heavy lifting. After all, this is what Mr Howard did with the GST.

I do not fully understand the almost visceral dislike of the PM displayed by some. I do know that when she was in opposition I did not like her. I also recognised at the time that my dislike was irrational, based on voice and approach. My personal views changed after she became Deputy PM. I was actually impressed. Now it seems that the dislike factor is back.

I don't want to go into all the reasons for this in this post. However, I think that it needs to be recognised.

I should mention that I am not a Labor supporter, while I have also been very critical of aspects of Ms Gillard's own policy performance. However, I have no reason to doubt the PM's genuine commitment or intellect. In this case, I think that that commitment has led her into errors of judgement. She is PM, she has a variety of matters to deal with. It should not be her role to conduct a mini-election campaign in mid term based on a single issue.

In a radio interview this morning, retailer Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman (Hardly Normal in the way Australians alter words) said that he was bored with the carbon tax debate. And so say most of us!

I don't intend to write on the carbon tax issue again unless there is something substantive and useful that I can say. I would prefer to focus my limited time on other matters where discussion is likely to be of longer term importance. Much of what is going on at the moment really doesn't matter. It's just chatter! 


Oddly, perhaps not, it appears that Opposition Leader Abbott has panned his own carbon target. I quote from Phillip Coorey's Herald story:

TONY ABBOTT has ridiculed as ''crazy'' the emissions reduction goal of his own climate change policy as the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, assured worried Labor MPs she could fight her way through horror poll results and lead the government to the next election.

Mr Abbott questioned the logic of his own commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 as he was taking aim at Labor's carbon tax, which shares the same goal.

''The other crazy thing about this is that at the same time that our country is proposing to reduce its emissions by 5 per cent, just 5 per cent, the Chinese are proposing to increase their emissions by 500 per cent,'' he told a group of pensioners.

Both sides of politics agree on the 5 per cent target but argue over how to best get there.

Labor advocates pricing carbon while the Coalition supports direct action, in which polluters would be paid directly from the federal budget to reduce emissions.

I have quoted the story because it is relevant to the discussion in this post.

Postscript two

It appears that Mr Abbott is back-peddling quite fast on his apparent rejection of the Opposition 5 per cent target. Now he is saying that it's all about the best way of getting there. And that was one of my points in this post. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The end of Harry Potter

Last night we saw the last Harry Potter movie. We went, as we had done with the previous movies, as a family. Eldest sat with some of her school friends who wanted to mark the end together. We sat with one of youngest's old friends and her parents.

The girls were twelve and fourteen when the first movie came out in 2001. They came to the books a little later than some of their friends, but became addicted and (as so often happened) introduced their parents to the books.

The Wikipedia entry on the books points to some of the varying views held about them as literature. It really doesn't matter; the books and then films were a cultural phenomenon that established a special place in the life of children and parents alike. As eldest said last night, she felt that this last movie in some way marked the end of her childhood, the ending of an era.

When that first film came out, Aunt Kay was still alive. After Mum's death, she really became a replacement mum to me and grandparent to the girls.

We left Armidale for Sydney early in 1996 when Dee took a job as CEO of a firm of patent attorneys. In the following years we returned to Armidale many times to to stay with Kay. We must have been in Armidale for Christmas in 2001, for the movie was still on and the girls insisted that Kay see it. She enjoyed it, but was a trifle bemused by all the fuss!

As I watched the movie and then talked to people afterwards, I couldn't help feeling a little nostalgic.

After we came down to Sydney I took on the main child care role, something that I have written about before. I felt it as the girls moved from school to university because it changed my world.

Like most of us, I tend to go with the flow of life. On a day to day basis, the rhythms of life seem fixed, unchanging. It's only when they do suddenly change that you realise that the apparent stability was an illusion, just another phase in passage. You also realise that you had forgotten to record things, to note things, that you should have done so to record the passage.

Well, Harry and friends, I am going to miss you as you, too, fade into the past. You have given us all a lot of pleasure. For that I thank you.


I couldn't resist this one from eldest's Facebook page:‎

7 Books, 8 Films and 14 years of my life. In essense, my childhood.

Kind of says it all!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - Tony Abbott & Australia's political fault lines

In a postscript on my last post, Carbon pricing & Mr Abbott's end game, I said in part:

Like Peter (Brent), I struggled to make sense of Mr Abbott's position. However, as I wrote the above post, I found my ideas changing a little. It wasn't that Mr Abbott's statement on double dissolution itself became any more practical. Rather, in looking at the whole carbon tax question as part of a broader pattern, I formed a view on Mr Abbott's tactics that was a little different from my previous view.

Mr Abbott's game plan may, as Peter suggests, be short term poll driven. My feeling is that it's more complicated than that, something that I alluded to in my conclusion. Mr Abbott is playing a high stakes game centred on fissures in Australian views. He is actually attempting to create a new majority coalition of interests while continuing to do his best to destabilise the Government. He may well succeed. 

This morning's muse is an attempt to explain my conclusion.

The Fracturing of Australian Politics

  To say that Australian politics has become quite fractious would seem self-evident to many Australians. Many struggle to understand why this should be so. Yet it's actually not hard to understand.

Many Australians feel quite insecure. Many other Australians don't understand why. After all, we got through the Global Financial Crisis, we have had a growing economy, things are pretty good. And so they are for many. If you are in a stable job, if you own your own home, then low inflation and low interest rates make for a pretty good life style.

Many Australians are not in that position. Even if their incomes are presently good, and that is not true for many, they feel insecure. You just have to look at the demographics to understand why. The proportion of Australians working in casual or short term contract work is at record levels. Add to this the growing number of Australians facing retirement with insufficient funds, the number of parents worried about their kids getting jobs, and you suddenly have a majority of the Australian population in the worry zone.

Many Australians are also worried about the cost of living. Other Australians struggle to understand why. After all, the stats suggest that inflation is low. Yet the reality is that many Australians are experiencing very considerable cost of living pressures because of the distribution of price changes. Things like utility prices, rents, food prices, school fees are all placing pressures on many families.

Over the last five years, one of the marked changes noticed by welfare agencies is what we can call the emergence of middle class poverty. Simply put, these are previously middle class families who suddenly find that they cannot pay their bills or even buy food. Beyond the immediate pressures experienced by these families is the sheer humiliation of defeated expectations.

These factors are compounded by continuing economic change. We have moved from an Australian economy to a two speed economy to a patchwork economy. One difficulty with change is that those who lose the jobs are generally not the same as those who gain the new jobs. I am not saying anything profound, just that the change process creates a differential pattern of winners and losers and adds to insecurity.

The Rise of Issues Based Politics

If you look at my writing, I obviously have concerns about the rise of issues and special interest based politics. However, here I want to make a different point.

Regardless of the arguments for or against any issue, most Government actions create patterns of winners and losers. From local government through to the national government, official decisions have affected people in ever expanding circles. Those on the winning side of a particular issue are happy, those on the losing side the opposite.

It was ever thus. However, as the range of interventions has expanded, so has the quantum of losers. This has created the new types of political movements that I have spoken about before. The pattern is complicated and conflicting, but it is there.

Measurement and Mechanistic Policy

The rise of issues based politics links to another trend, one that I have called mechanistic measurement. Crudely, this looks at absolutes that can be measured.

It has always been the case that Governments at all levels will interfere with the level below if it suits their interests, interventions justified on national or state interest grounds. It has also been the case that those of us who want to achieve particular things that we consider to be important will use whatever mechanisms are available to us to do so.

Today, the rising level of Government interventions driven by special arguments translates into simplistic actions and measures that then flow down the line. 

I can already see readers bristling, so let me make what is (I think) an objective statement.

Issues based politics focuses on particular causes. Government policy approaches then translates that into simple measures and measurements. Meantime, those disadvantaged simmer away.

Differential Affects & Mr Abbott's strategy

Political and economic change has differential effects across the nation. Policy measures, too, have differential effects.

Mr Abbott is a highly intelligent man. He is also a populist, gut level politician. In the most simple terms, he is attempting to put together a new majority coalition (I am not talking in party political terms) that actually combines all those who are fearful or disadvantaged by current approaches.

What might this look like?

In my previous post I said:

In geographic terms, the mining and carbon taxes have somewhat similar distributional effects. As, in fact, do the poker machine proposals. I haven't attempted to map this, but it might be interesting to try at some point.

Here I was referring both to geography and socio-economic factors.

Let me take the poker machine case. Club members are especially concentrated in lower income groups. They are also geographically concentrated, with clubs especially important in the country.

Now turn to the mining tax. This is most strongly opposed in mining areas and in sectors dependent on mining. Again, we have geographic and socio-economic concentration.

Somewhat similar arguments apply to the carbon tax.

Mr Abbott's target coalition combines geographic specificity (country, mining areas, outer metropolitan areas) with specific socio-economic groups (poorer, threatened). Together, these represent a majority of votes.

To meld his coalition, Mr Abbott needs to keep the Government destabilised and reactive. He needs common enemies that will meld people together (Greens, excessive Government). He also needs a bit of luck.

Will he be successful? I begin to suspect he might. He is actually defining new ground rules that most commentators don't understand because, while it appeals to many in the electorate, its actually too far outside the commonly accepted world view.

Ridicule is not an effective weapon because it appeals to the diminishing number of the previously converted.        

Friday, July 15, 2011

Carbon pricing & Mr Abbott's end game

Despite my best endeavours, it is actually quite hard to avoid getting caught to some degree in the on-going debate in this country on carbon pricing. So looking back at the points I made in Things to watch as the Australian carbon tax debate unfolds, what new things have emerged? It's only a few days since that post, but as people pick over the entrails in the Roman temple that Australian politics has become, new things do emerge. At least, they are new to me!

To start with something that's not new, political controversies of this type generate their own momentum. They acquire a life of their own, a shadow play that drags people along independent of the world around them. Sooner or later we have to leave the theatre, but it's very real while it lasts.

Adversarial Politics

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Phillip Coorey quotes Tony Abbott as follows:

TONY ABBOTT says he will call a double dissolution election if he wins power and Labor and the Greens combine in the Senate to stop him from repealing the carbon tax.

The Opposition Leader, who is sitting on a massive election-winning lead in the polls, issued the edict in front of a community forum in Brisbane last night.

He said if the government was ''walloped'' at the next election over the carbon tax, it would be unthinkable that a humiliated Labor would not allow an Abbott government to rescind it.

Mr Abbott said he would have a mandate to rescind the tax which would be equal to that of Labor when it repealed Work Choices after its 2007 victory.

''It's just not political commonsense,'' he said.

On the face of it, that's quite a remarkable statement.

I haven't done the maths properly, but it runs something like this. Assuming that no existing MP dies or resigns, it's a bit over two years to the next election. Then the repeal legislation has to be put to Parliament, rejected and then put again followed by an election. The practical effect is some three years of uncertainty.

Leaving aside the policy effects of Mr Abbott's position, so long as business regards the end price point as uncertain they will be reluctant to invest, three years is a very long time in political terms. A lot can happen.

Meanwhile in the short term, Mr Turnbull apparently continues to twitter along about Mr Abbott. Not happy, Jan, to use a phrase added to Australian English by an earlier advertisement. I do wonder how long Mr Turnbull can survive.

As an aside, politicians who fall in love with social media place themselves in a very dangerous position. Really, technophiles are their own worst enemies. But that's a story for another post.

Global Changes

In an opinion piece in the Australian, Henry Ergas points to the apparent dependence of Australian Treasury modelling on global changes. The cartoon is from that piece. Large web and ipad version of

My old blogging friend Neil Whitfield's Google Reader carries a lot of pro climate change material. I tend not to read a lot of this stuff, it's all too adversarial for my liking, but looking at it there are two separate if linked issues.

One is the further evidence on the science itself. Over the next three years more evidence will accumulate. I, for one, hope that the sceptics are right, but we cannot assume that. The second is the nature of accumulating global effort on climate change, accumulating effort that creates its own momentum.

It seems to me that both Professor Ergas and especially Mr Abbott are in fact making some very courageous assumptions about both the science and the probable outcomes of the weight of accumulating current global efforts.

Mind you, the increasing risk of a perfect global economic storm could actually invalidate everything by stopping all action However, that strikes me as a lower probability outcome.

Differential Impacts & Price Effects

As you might expect, the continuing discussion is starting to draw out both the likely differential impacts of the proposals, as well as the likely price impacts. One of the Government's problems here is the existence of other price variables that affect the analysis such as the large existing rises in electricity prices.

Australians like their policy analysis simple, expressed in black and white terms. The world is not like that.

As a simple example, look at the this story Rooftop panels penalise poor by Dennis Shanahan in the Australian. Yes, I know that that paper has been running a very particular campaign, but Shanahan does make some valid points in terms of the differential impacts of apparently good ideas.

In fact, one of the biggest problems the Government faces in selling its ideas is that so much has been justified previously on climate change rhetoric that there is a now a deep distrust in the electorate.

Now here I want to introduce another story, again from the Australian, Michael Owen's piece Coal-fired power plants will be closed 'regardless of cost'. Leave aside the language used and look at the content. Look, first, at the time lines involved. Then look at the role of the Australian Energy Market Operator. Here I quote:

Under Labor's carbon tax, the Australian Energy Market Operator must sign off on any closure of power plants to ensure the security of electricity supplies.

But AEMO is limited to ensuring the timeframes for closure are "realistic" and "give enough time for replacement capacity to be built". AEMO executive general manager David Swift said the central brief was a "smooth transition to secure energy supplies" and not the cost to consumers.

"I shouldn't say this, but it's no secret the price of energy is going to go up out of all this," he told The Australian. "The new technology is more expensive and it's cheaper to run the coal-fired power stations.

"Do I have to take into consideration the impact of all this on prices for consumers?

"I'll get in trouble answering a question like that but, to be honest, the decision to approve closures are limited to whether the new technology works and is able to maintain the security of supply.

"There would be no consideration of what it would do to prices for consumers."

In NSW, country electricity prices have just risen by a bit over 17 per cent, city prices a little less so. Part of the rise is due to previous network under investment, the Government in Sydney used the electricity system as something of a cash cow, but a not inconsiderable part is also due to a miss designed solar electricity program.

Yes, I know that the previous government had a tendency to opt for "progressive" causes for easy immediate political gains, but the costs now make people very cautious about new things.

Murphy's Law

Murphy's law is already hitting the Government.

Australian department store David Jones has been forced to announce a significant profit downgrade because of collapsing retail sales. In radio interviews, I don't have a link, CEO Paul Zahra attributed the fall to a combination of the flood levy with the proposed carbon tax.       

David Jones is not alone.

All sorts of things have contributed to the fall in retail sales including fundamental structural change in retailing, something that I want to return to in a later post. However, it is adding to the growing sense of unease fed by current partisan politics.


In all this, I have no real idea as to how things will work out. Given that I work alone much of the time, and out of curiosity, I asked eldest what she thought.

As you might expect given her family background, she is generally in favour of a carbon tax. However, she also commented that the patrons at the pub where she works are generally anti to the point that it has become a no-go conversation area.

I think in terms of my own thinking I keep coming back to the time question. It will be months before the legislation is finalised, while the tax itself will not come into effect until July next year. That allows plenty of time for people to work issues through. It also allows lots of time for other things to happen. Here the difficulty for the Government is that it has other contentious legislation to come, including the mining tax.

Tactically, I think that Mr Abbott probably wants to keep this one on the boil until he has a new issue and especially the mining tax to add to his armoury. Yes, I know that the mining tax has been bubbling away, but he really needs the legislation to go into full attack mode.

In geographic terms, the mining and carbon taxes have somewhat similar distributional effects. As, in fact, do the poker machine proposals. I haven't attempted to map this, but it might be interesting to try at some point.

This muse is starting to take me in new directions. I need to pause here, for I am well over the time I allowed for this post.


Thomas pointed me to a useful post by ABC election analyst Antony Green, What Chance a Double Dissolution in the Next Three Years?, explaining the mechanics involved in a double dissolution election. It reinforces the point I was making about time.

In a post in the Australian's Mumble blog (Abbott’s long and short games) Peter Brent struggles to understand Opposition Leader Abbott's tactics. He says in part:

If the carbon package is brought in in twelve months time, and the next election is held in 2013, it is very difficult to imagine the Coalition taking a promise to totally undo it to that election.

It is even less likely that they would threaten a double dissolution if they formed government but didn’t get their way on the package.

Yes this is what the opposition leader is saying he will do.

Abbott’s game plan is probably short term. His leadership of the Liberal Party is dependent on the opinion polls. He needs to keep those walloping voting intention leads rolling in because they keep him secure in his job and prime minister Julia Gillard insecure.

While the government remains toxic there is a chance, however small, that its one seat House of Representatives majority will vanish. In some way or other. You never know your luck.

Like Peter, I struggled to make sense of Mr Abbott's position. However, as I wrote the above post, I found my ideas changing a little. It wasn't that Mr Abbott's statement on double dissolution itself became any more practical. Rather, in looking at the whole carbon tax question as part of a broader pattern, I formed a view on Mr Abbott's tactics that was a little different from my previous view.

Mr Abbott's game plan may, as Peter suggests, be short term poll driven. My feeling is that it's more complicated than that, something that I alluded to in my conclusion. Mr Abbott is playing a high stakes game centred on fissures in Australian views. He is actually attempting to create a new majority coalition of interests while continuing to do his best to destabilise the Government. He may well succeed.