Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A sense of déjà vu about Australian industry policy

The problems faced by Blue Scope Steel has re-opened the question of industry policy. You would think that I would be sympathetic to some of the arguments involved, and indeed I am to some. But my overwhelming feeling was a sense of déjà vu.

I decided that I should write a short post linking to some of my past writing and work. Then as I started to list this, I realised that the posts were a bit too fragmentary, especially for people outside Australia who lacked context.

But for the moment, have a look at Confessions of a Policy Adviser -1- Setting the Scene. Sound familiar? This was 1980. You can see the chaos associated with the need to provide a sudden response. I concluded the post this way:

Quite frankly, this was one of the least satisfying experiences of my professional life. A week end to try to provide sensible advice on this issue was bad enough. But we also lacked the policy framework and supporting analytical tools required to say anything new and useful. So in the end we provided statistics with some fairly superficial supporting analysis. I swore that I would never put myself in this position again.

Against this background, I thought that it might be interesting to explore the way in which policy is developed and implemented, in so doing looking at some of policy debates with a special focus on industry.

Following this post I did write a number of related posts. As I said, upon review they proved to be a bit too fragmentary. Still, upon reflection, I think that it's probably worth re-publishing them in a series with commentary to fill gaps.

I remain very proud of the work that the Belshaviks (to use Bob Quiggin's phrase) did. Part of our success lay in the way we worked from a different perspective. Our failure, and it was a big one, lay in my inability to make changes stick.

While I intend to finish my Greek series, I also feel the need to try to paint a story that will take the question of Australian industrial development (and survival) outside the current political, outside the short term, and put it into a clear historical and policy context.

I really think that we need to do this.   

Walking the walls of Rhodes

Greek Trip, Day 15, Saturday 2 October 2010, Rhodes continued

Continuing from Breakfast in Rhodes, after breakfast we moved off to find the entry to the walls, asking P1110161 as we went. We still had no idea just what we were doing, although we could see signs of fortifications everywhere.

Now at this stage, I need to introduce a little bit of history.

In 1095 AD (or CE depending upon your preference), the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos sent envoys to Pope Urban II seeking aid against continuing invasion of the Seljuqs (Turks) who had penetrated not far from Constantinople (now Istanbul). The result was the First Crusade, whose primary aim came to be to free the Holy Lands from Muslim (Fatimid) rule.

The North African based Fatimids were in fact divided from and in opposition to the Seljugs on political, dynastic and religious grounds. During uneasy periods of peace and war, the Fatimids had progressively extended their territory at the expense of the Byzantines.  

In July 1099, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders who instead of returning the territory to Byzantine rule established a series of independent principalities, most importantly the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Now I need to introduce a new player. Australians will know them as the Knights of St John, Maltese as the Knights of Malta.

From 600 there had been a hospital in Jerusalem to care for Christian pilgrims. in 1005 Caliph Al Hakim destroyed the hospital and three thousand other buildings in the city. However, the hospital was given approval to re-open in 1023. After the Crusaders took the city, those involved with the care of pilgrims evolved into religious military orders, the Knights Hospitaller.

P1110172 When the Kingdom of Jerusalem finally fell in 1291, the Knights took refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. from there, they decided to seek their own temporal domain, selecting Rhodes, then part of the Byzantine Empire. Still with me? I know that it's complicated, but that's the reality of Greek history.

After over two years of campaigning, the Island fell to the Knights 15 August 1309. Now named the Knights of Rhodes, they rebuilt the city into a model of the medieval ideal. The end result is that the world heritage listed old Rhodes is the largest still inhabited mediaeval centre in Europe.

I said earlier that Rhodes had a very different feel from the other Greek island centres that we had been too. This history is the reason why. If you look up this street, you will see the cobble stones, the medieval buildings.

This was a much tougher world. To hold their new territory, the Knights needed walls to hold of attack in an uncertain world. These were the walls we were going to walk along. Their size is simply unbelievable.  P1010833 

I tried to find a photo that would give you a feel. This one gives at least a feel for scale. 

I said that the world was an uncertain place.

In 1444 and then again in 1480, the Knights withstood attack. However, in December 1522 Rhodes fell to the huge invading  army of Suleiman the Magnificent. The Knights had ruled Rhodes for 213 years, not much less than the time since Governor Phillip first arrived at Botany Bay in 1788. Rhodes would now be part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 hundred years.

The few remaining nights moved first to the Kingdom of Sicily and then to Malta where they set up a new base. The Knights, now known as the Knights of Malta, would rule in Malta until 1798 when Napoleon occupied the Island.  Today the Knights remain with several orders and internationally recognised vestigial powers as a quasi national entity. 

As we walked along the wall in the bright sun, we looked down into the old city on the left, the new city on the right.  Looking now for photos that might best encapsulate the feel, I chose this one from Clare looking down on the old city. It's not the best shot, but it captures some things I want to talk about. Comments follow the photo. P1110202

In terms of the modern, you have the jet trails in the sky, the solar hot water systems. Because of the climate, solar hot water systems are quite noticeable. They are everywhere. Then you have the Greek Orthodox dome and behind it to the right, the mosque. Rhodes is an interesting mix of history and cultures.

The following is another shot. Again, you can see the huddle of buildings and the solar hot water systems. In this case you can also see part of one of the internal gardens that are a feature of Rhodes.P1010849

We walked on through the sun to the end of the wall. Now to find our hotel, But that's for the next post!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Breakfast in Rhodes

Greek Trip, Day 15, Saturday 2 October 2010, Rhodes

P1110129 Continuing the story from Paros & the ferry, we landed at Rhodes about 8am and dragged our bags through the already hot sun to wait for the hotel car. The photo will give you a feel for the size of the boat.

Located in the Dodecanes Islands 363 km (226 mi) east-south-east from the Greece mainland and only 18 km (11 mi) from the southern shore of Turkey, Rhodes (Rodos) is quite a large island: shaped like a spearhead, it is 79.7 km (49.5 mi) long, 38 km (24 mi) wide, with a total area of approximately 1,400 square kilometres (541 sq mi) and a coastline of approximately 220 km (137 mi). As we shall see, the Island's location and size is critical to it's history.

The city of Rhodes itself is located at the northern tip of the island. Having deposited our bags in the hotel car, we walked along the waterfront towards the town, entering another part of the complex mosaic that is Greek history, the world of the crusades.P1110139

I had read the guidebooks and knew a little of what to expect, However, I had no visual image, nor did the walk towards the town itself give me a real feel. There were signs of old buildings in the distance, but the road we were walking on was quite nondescript - a sort of Greek port modern!  The road curved round, straightened and we found a wall with an unsigned gate in it.  We walked through, and found ourselves in the old city.

At this stage we had a bit of a problem. We literally had no idea where we were, no idea of how to get to our hotel, no idea of what to expect. We were just at some point in an obviously old place!

What to do?  A few cafes were opening, so the group decided to sit down and have some breakfast and work out what to do.  

That was a strange meal. Billed as an English breakfast. it was a GP1110144reek tourist idea of same, a strange amalgam of different styles. Please note the glass shoe. Later I was to have a rather bad experience with same.  

Conscious of my budget, I declined breakfast on the grounds that I needed to stretch my legs and went for a quick walk.

I find in a new place where I have no sense of geography that I need to orient myself. Here I had only a rough idea of where north was, nor could I see many obvious landmarks.

The first thing I did was to walk back to where we had entered the old city so that I had that point firmly fixed in my mind. Then back to the face to stroll in the opposite direction. Here I stopped at a square, marked that in my mind and then strolled around that point.

One of the first things I noticed was a sign to the Jewish Quarter. Now that's quite unusual in terms of what I had seen elsewhere. So that was something I needed to follow up on.

The second thing I noticed was the completely different feel of the place after the other Greek Islands I had visited. The architecture was more massive, the smooth street stones had been replaced by rough cobble stones.

Returning to the group, we decided to do a tour of the old city walls since, by accident, they were open that day. It proved to be one of the best things that we had done. Here I will continue the story in my next post.     

Neil Whitfield, generations & the on-line world

I have been working on the next post in my Greek trip series, this one introducing Rhodes. I do hope to bring it up today. In the meantime, Neil Whitfield had a rather good post this morning, Wikis and weblogs and trolls, oh my!.

I will leave you to read the post, but there were two different interacting elements that interested me - generational change and the impact of new technology. I have written on both and mean to come back to them. In the meantime, I found Neil's post interesting. 

I also note that I have made a slight addition to An afternoon on Paros.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Personal confusions and the need to change the direction of Australia's political debate

Having brought up the next post in the Greek series, I now want to make a brief comment on my own personal confusion about the current state of Australian politics.

I must have been one of the first if not the first to apply the term New South Walesing to the Federal Government (Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed?, 22 June 2008, then Mr Rudd's continued New South Walesing, 18 January 2009, Saturday Morning Musings - the Walesing of Mr Rudd, 1 May 2010). The Government's recent troubles have further entrenched what is now a popular view.

  Why, then, am I confused? Surely I forecast the overall pattern?

My difficulty now lies simply in the way that the whole process seems to have spun out of control in ways that are reminiscent of the last days of NSW Labor, but which are also different in certain key respects.

Just to give you the tone of some of the discussion before going on, Professor John Quiggin wrote:

I’ve been planning for a while to write a post arguing that the one thing Julia Gillard can do to (at least, potentially) salvage her place in the history books is to secure passage of the carbon price package (and preferably the other outstanding items left over from the Rudd era, such as the mining tax legislation and health reform), then step aside, and let the Labor party choose a new leader. I was going to wait until the package was passed, but for various reasons, I’ve decided it’s time to speak up on this.

I deliberately chose John's views because of his position on the political spectrum. The comments of those on the right may differ in content (they may oppose the things John supports) and may be more savage, but you get a pattern.

Governments are there to govern

It seems to me that the role of Governments is to govern. One of the problems in NSW in the dying years of that  Labor Government is that that Government progressively lost the ability to actually govern. Administration continued, but there was no coherence or clarity in the Government's general approach to Government.

The Australian Government is not at this point yet, despite all the comments to the contrary. Forget statistics about the volume of legislation passed, and just look at policy discussions that continue beneath the headlines. I may disagree with policy approaches, but I don't think in all fairness that you can say the Government has ceased to govern.

One of the things that I find confusing in this area is the discussion about mandates. I suppose that the modern approach to what I have called supermarket politics - the expectation that each side will put up and be judged on specific shopping baskets - encourages this. However, it strikes me as rather silly at two levels.

In the Australian political system, we vote for MPs, with a Government then formed by those who can control a majority in the lower houses. Yes, our vote may be influenced by party considerations, although many of us will actually vote against party if we like a candidate. However, the idea that we collectively give a mandate to any party is a constitutional fiction.

Just as importantly, the emphasis placed on mandate conflicts with the real role of government to govern. It implies that governments should only do those things that we as the electorate have specifically endorsed. This is quite silly.  To take an extreme example to illustrate my point, the British Government did not have a "mandate" to declare war on Germany. Would anyone suggest that that decision should have been delayed until after an election?

Our system provides for a structured way of getting rid of governments that we don't want. In the meantime, most of us actually expect governments to govern.

Decline in civility

I have been around the Australian political scene for a long time. I have had plenty of exposure to blind loyalty, bigotry and prejudice on all sides. I have also been exposed to and indeed played a role in what we might call cause politics.

Like many of us now, I am concerned about the decline in the civility of political discourse. I find it unpleasant and indeed confusing, because as a person I struggle to understand just how it happened.

Just at present, comparisons are being made between the Whitlam period and the present Government. I remember the Whitlam period very clearly. I was both a Treasury official at the time and a participant in Country Party politics. I do know how deeply passions ran.

To my mind, there are several major differences between the Whitlam period and the present.

The first is the rise of the chattering heads. I mixed a lot with journalists at the time, some of whom were involved in writing detailed exposés of Whitlam Government incompetence. However, there was then no real equivalent of the modern chattering heads who appear to believe that their role as journalists gives them the right to express on a daily basis views about what the Government should or should not do to manage the political and policy process.

The minutiae of the political process has replaced broader thought.

The second linked difference lies in the importance of policy. While I was actually pleased for personal reasons that the Whitlam Government won in 1972, nobody who knew me could think of me as a supporter of that Government. Yet I would never deny that Mr Whitlam and his team had a genuine interest in policy, in improving Australia.

I might get angry at some of their proposals, I was concerned about the sheer administrative and policy chaos that marked the early Whitlam period, but I never denied that there were very real and fundamental policy moves underway.

Today, politics has become a policy free zone. It's not just that people confuse mechanical measures with policy. Rather, it's the very nature of the debate itself.

The importance of policy

As I write, fundamental decisions are being made that will determine the future of Australian society and the economy.

What's relevant here is not the high profile issues such as the carbon or mining tax, important though these may be, but the interactions of hundreds if not thousands of smaller individual decisions that between them will determine the future of this country.

I write a lot at the micro-level, the detail of policy. I do so because I am concerned about the way that things work out in practice in affecting the things that I am personally interested in. The things that I am interested in get lost in the short term static, yet they are arguably more important than the "big picture" items.  

Take the carbon tax. Assume that it passes. If you look at the lags involved, a future Australian Government will have plenty of time to modify or, if necessary, abolish. Now compare this with the type of changes that I talked about in Saturday Morning Musings - dynamic change in Australia's education industry.

By the time that the carbon tax wends its way through the system and is reviewed and modified in the light of experience and international developments, our entire higher education system will be locked into new directions. Which, do you think, is more important?

Obviously, I would argue the second and from a purely practical perspective.

One is a major and important macro issue linked to a major global challenge. The second is a more domestic issue. The first may be important, but what we do is only a small part of a broader picture. The second affects Australia in the short to medium term in a way that is far more direct.

Time to finish. What do you think?


Legal Eagle pointed me to this piece that came to her via Neil Whitfield. I thought that I would record it here for later use. 

Paros & the ferry

Greek Trip, Day 14, Friday 1 October 2010, Paros & the ferry

An afternoon on Paros finished with us wandering back to the waterfront to buy postcards and to look for somewhere to have dinner. P1010785

From the waterfront we turned left and followed the road into the newer tourist area. There we found a cafe and settled down to have some dinner and to catch up on a few domestic chores.

There were lots of specials. The owner explained that it was the end of the tourist season, that this would be the last night they opened until the next season, and they had to get rid of the last of the food.

I mentioned in the last post that I found very few people as I wandered the streets. That was partly because it was siesta time, more because most of the tourists had left. Unlike Mykonos, the smaller number of tourists coming to Paros makes for a shorter season.

Our owner came from Paros but lived in Athens. Each year he spent the tourist season in Paros, working in Athens for the remainder oP1010791f the year.

  It was quite beautiful sitting there watching the sun set over the water. We sat and ate and talked.

As it got darker, the cats came out in force, roaming the embankment looking for food. They assumed, correctly I fear, that the guests at the various cafes would be happy to feed them.

Youngest has always been a bit of a cat fanatic. Her photos from this and our previous Europe trip are full of cat photos. She fed them quite shamelessly despite protests from others. I was more discrete, dropping bits from underneath the table. It wasn't until the clamouring cat gathering reached a significant size that the others realised that I was a culprit as well!

Paros has become a large ferry hub. That was the reason why we were there. From our cafe, we had a very clear view of the ferries coming into port to pick up passengers. Now here there was a problem.

P1010794 Given short cash, it was only at the last moment that I had agreed to come. We had booked sleeper accommodation, but my booking was separate.

My wife explained that the others were together, that I was going to be sharing with people, but she had no idea what it would be like.

It all began to sound quite unpleasant when mixed in with stories about travelling on ferries. Yes, I know that I shouldn't mind, after all, I have stayed in youth hostels, but I had now been told all this a number of times over several days. Given that we were not boarding until 11pm and that I was now quite tired, it had become something of an issue.

After dinner we walked back to the ferry port. There we found that the ferry was running late, so we sat down and had a glass of wine and some coffee. The ferry finally arrived and we queued to board. My family waved me good bye, leaving me to work out where I should go. Finally I asked a steward.

He looked at my ticket and said please follow me Sir. I was taken to the reception area on the top deck,  given a key and taken to my room. This proved to be a large motel style room with two beds, a sitting area, my own TV and coffee making facilities, plus a separate bathroom with a full size bath.

I was so relieved that I settled down with a cup of coffee to watch some TV and then to bed. I didn't try to find my family. I had absolutely no idP1010816ea where they were.

It was only next day when my wife knocked on the door to find me that I realised just how lucky I had been. The others in the party were in two small share rooms with minimal facilities on the deck below. 

By contrast and indeed by accident, I had one of the two best cabins on the ship at the corner of the top deck. This gave me not just a large cabin with all facilities, but also large portholes looking over the front and sides of the boat.  Now if my family hadn't been so quick to leave me, either my wife or daughter could have shared the magnificence!

My wife's reaction as she gazed around was something to behold.  This was not what she expected either!

The ship docked in Rhodes quite late, again making me glad for my cabin the night before. I know that this gloating is quite unseemly, but it was a highlight.   

In my next post I will begin the story of Rhodes. Again, Rhodes has a different history from other parts of the Greek islands.

Did you know, for example, that Rhodes first became part of Greece as recently as 1947?  Or that at its peak in the 1920s, the Jewish community totaled nearly a third of the population of Rhodes?

I did not. However, more on this will have to wait.           

Sunday, August 28, 2011

An afternoon on Paros

Greek Trip, Day 14, Friday 1 October 2010, Mykonos to Paros

Continuing the story from  Mykonos meander, our last day on Mykonos dawned warm and bright.  We were to leave for Rhodes at 3: first by our now familiar jet cat for Paros, and then by overnight ferry from Paros to Rhodes.

P1110058 We packed our gear, and then walked around Mykonos for the last time, having an early picnic lunch in a shaded square.

The old lady from the little hair salon nearby was not impressed: she kept coming out to stand there and just look at us!

While the others finished their lunch, I strolled around. Lunch finished, we carefully picked everything up and then walked down to the waterfront where the girls had coffee. Then back to to the hotel to collect luggage and down to the ferry station.

As we sat waiting in the sun, I wondered whether I would return to Mykonos. Probably not, except to re-visit nearby Delos. However, this is very much an age thing. Youngest would go back, as would eldest. Helen wasn't with us on this trip, but visited Mykonos some months later. Like Clare, she liked the social life; Mykonos's bars and parties are very much geared to to the young.

Paros, our first stop after Mykonos, lies a short ferry ride to the south west.

Like Mykonos, it is part of the Cyclades Island group and shares their common history. It was variously (among other things) an independent city state, then part of the Delian league, later subject to the Ptolemaic Hellenic dynasty that ruled Egypt following the death of Alexander the Great, then part of the Roman and Byzantium Empires, then came under Venetian rule before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire and then the newly established Greek state.

With the exception of the two volcanic Islands of Milos and Santorini, the 220 or so islands in the Cyclades  are all peaks of submerged mountains. Soils are poor. Paros is no different. However, it's wealth was based on marble, a product greatly in demand. Again, you see the same pattern that I have referred to before, the way in which the sea and trade allowed the accumulation of wealth.

Our first impression of Paros was it's small size, but also the similarities with other islands. Compare this street scene with the one above from Mykonos. SimilP1110087ar, aren't they?

On landing in Parikia, the port and main town, we found a place to store our bags and then went for a walk. The girls found a place for coffee and a snack, while I wandered on.

This was partly a matter of choice, but also of budget. In the months prior to the trip I had chosen to focus on writing, so I really had very little cash. By Paros I was well over my daily budget, I simply didn't want to spend money.

There is an issue here that all groups need to address. With things like meals, we tended to take the bill and simply divide it equally among the group. That's fine, but doesn't work very well when people are on different budgets. I like wine with my meals, so would choose a single cheap meal plus a house wine. Nearly always, my average meal cost including wine was below the group average. Then I had to pay more. At times, it was simply easier to avoid group meals or snacks.

P1010769 While the girls snacked I wandered. I suppose the first thing that struck me was just how vacant the streets were after Mykonos. Shops were shut, with nobody about.

In my wandering I found this sign.

The first thing I noticed was the reference to the Frankish castle. Frankish? Surely Venetian. Weren't the Franks French?

This is in fact an example of one of the things that I talk about a fair bit, the use of labels in history. The Venetians weren't Franks, but the label Franks was applied more broadly to all those coming from the west.

The sign refers to the use of building materials from ancient buildings. It wasn't kidding.

P1010770 The next photo shows the walls of the castle. You can clearly see how things such as classical columns have been incorporated into the walls.

My walk finished, I rejoined the girls as we went in search of a famous Greek church, Paros's main attraction.

I am not sure why I should struggle with arcane theological differences. After all, I write a lot on current Australian politics!

Still, I do know that one of my less successful university courses was on the English reformation. There I really struggled to see the significance especially of fine distinctions within the Protestant stream.

This may seem a distraction, but if you look at the history of the Greek Orthodox Church during the Byzantine period and the relationships between the Eastern and Western Churches you will see that apparently minor theological differences can have very practical and indeed damaging results.

It took me a while to learn that you have to come to grips with two very different things: the logical structures involved and then the meanings, the beliefs attached to those structures. It doesn't matter what you as the observer think. You have to break though to understand those that you are observing.

The Orthodox Church was one of the two pillars of the Eastern Roman Empire, the state and its supporting structures the second. Later, the Greek Orthodox Church played a critical role in the maintenance of a sense of Greek identity and indeed language.

While writing this post, I had to pop out to get some fooP1110094d. In doing so, I drove past the Greek Orthodox Church in Kingsford just down the road. This reminded me of the important role that the Australian Church has played in Australia in maintaining a sense of Greek identity.

 Panagia Ekatontapyliani (also known as the Church of 100 Doors) was built in 326AD during the Byzantine period. It is in fact several churches, each with its own features. There is also a museum.

Walking though the entrance way into the courtyard that marks the start of the complex, my first feeling was one of relief after the heat. It was actually nice to just sit down under a tree and rest!

My family laughs at me a bit because of my habit of sitting and thinking. However, I find that this helps me absorb. It's also just plain refreshing when your legs are sore!

The complex contains a variety of different styles, including archeological remains. The next photo by Clare captures this rather nicely.P1110095

You can see the earlier remains popped up, the older church building using stone and mortar construction fairly typical of many of the buildings on the Greek Islands, and then the more "modern" building combining straight lines and curves.

To modern Australian eyes, the Greek orthodox tradition is very ornate, even cluttered This is true of the church decorations and of the vestments that the priests wore.

Another apparent aside. I walked outside for a break from this post and found an entire Greek family - three generations - walking back from Church, speaking mainly Greek but with an admixture of English. I was struck by the contrast between their formal black clothing and the Church colour that I have been talking about.

I have been looking for photos that might illustrate the points I have been making and have selected two.

The following photo is an interior shot of the main church. It gives an indication of age, as well as church detail. P1110102

Then the next shot moves to the right and shows the ornate flavour more clearly.P1110107

From the Church, we waked the short distance back to the waterfront to buy postcards and to find somewhere to eat dinner.  However, the continuing story will have to wait until my next post. 


Driving eldest to work, I mentioned this series and our varying reactions to Mykonos. I hope that you didn't imply, said H., that I only liked Mykonos because of its parties! So, for the record, she especially liked Mykonos because of its beauty! 

However, having reviewed some photos, I couldn't resist one:


  I wish I was still H's age!     

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - dynamic change in Australia's education industry

One of the difficulties of being a reformer lies in the unexpected outcomes, outcomes that you might not have wanted.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s my then Armidale based research group (Aymever) did some work on education as an industry. At the time, education in Australia was regarded as a Government service. We argued that education was moving towards a traded service, that looking at education as an industry with the important elements of structure, conduct and performance could yield important insights.

We also argued in favour of greater competition as a way of improving service delivery. This was, we suggested, inevitable in any case, but would also improve performance. We also suggested that education would move increasingly towards on-line delivery. 

Now I look at some of our earlier work with a certain wry amusement. You see, much of what we suggested has happened, but in a way that we might not have wanted. Bear with me in this short muse if I look at some elements of this. I just want to get the patterns down.   

One of the central elements in market theory is that businesses rise and fall to the extent that they meet market demand. If a university operates in a competitive market place and is treated in the same way, then it logically follows that some universities will rise and fall. But what happens if it is your university that falls?

A second central element in market theory is that market forces will redistribute resources so as to achieve best returns. But what then happens if it is your area that is disadvantaged? 

The concept of perfect competition is deeply embedded in market theory. In fact, we all know that markets are not perfect. However, the ideal of perfect competition remains strong. So what then happens if there are market impediments that lead to distorted results? That is certainly the case in education services.

Finally, what happens if there are externalities not properly captured by the market? Again, this appears to be the case in education services for education serves community as well as individual needs.

I said that I looked at our earlier work with a certain wry amusement. You see, many of my current concerns with education in general and higher education in particular centre on just those questions that I have listed above, the unexpected results.

You can look at what is happening in Australian education in many different ways. Much policy analysis focuses on desired results as defined by policy makers. That analysis centres on the question of what policy makers want, how do they achieve it. Much of the analysis actually ignores the dynamic interactions created by the policies and regulations themselves. To use economic jargon, it's a case of comparative statics.

Just as we first argued back in 1988, to really understand what is happening in education, you need to look at education as an industry independent of Government policy. Government policy is central to industry dynamics, but from an industry perspective it is an external factor. Government is a funder, a purchaser, a regulator, but it still sits external to education as an industry.

Even today, there is remarkably little analysis of education as an industry. If you look at most discussions about future directions within the Australian education industry, it all comes back to aspirations and targets. The techniques developed in industry or market economics are rarely applied. As a consequence, the economic dynamics within the industry are poorly understood. Everything is changing, and the likely outcomes are poorly understood.

In a strange way, the Australian education sector is a bit like Australian manufacturing in the 1960s. Highly regulated and protected, it is now subject to fundamental structural change processes whose results are quite uncertain.

I would go so far as to say that much of current policy discussion on education is fundamentally flawed because it is built on shifting sand. We have no idea what our education sector will look like in five years, let alone ten years. Governments are making decisions all the time in isolation from each other and from industry trends.

I have been watching and to a degree writing about the process with fascination, but also with a sense of frustration.

Let me illustrate with a very simple example.

Education exports have been the only real success story on the service industries side. Those exports have allowed cross-subsidisation of domestic education. Yet policy decisions made for domestic reasons  have badly damaged export activity. By contrast, New Zealand has been taking deliberate action to make it easier for overseas students to study in that country.

We discount New Zealand because of its size. Yet relative to the size of that country, it has actually done far better than Australia in the education export market. Further, its international sector is growing at a time when ours has stalled.

To put this in perspective, New Zealand is under a quarter of Australia's size in population terms. As best I can work out, its international education sector is a bit under half of Australia's.

I said that this would be a short muse. I guess that you can expect me to return to the issue because I am seeking to understand what the dynamics mean not just for the sector as a whole, but for the areas and institutions in which I have a particular interest.    

Friday, August 26, 2011

Why so much policy analysis on Australia's Aborigines is meaningless

One of the difficulties in restricting posting here to allow me to catch up on other things is that things happen that I would like to record because they link to themes in my writing.

One advantage, sometimes disadvantage, of writing over an extended period lies in the way that the writing becomes a record not just of my own thoughts, but of developments in areas where I have particular interests. If I let things go without record or comment, it then creates a gap.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of one of Australia's best known current affairs programs, the ABC's Four Corners' program. The ABC has created a special web site to mark the anniversary, including excerpts from past programs.

The first political march I ever organised, I was probably nineteen at the time, was to provide colour for a Four Corners' program. Sadly, that is not one of the included excerpts. As I remember, the clip that included the demo was very short, but it does show me leading the march!

Box Ridge 1961 The new site may not include that excerpt, but it does include a 9 September 1961 excerpt where Bob Raymond and Michael Charlton take Four Corners' cameras to an area that few white Australians have ever seen - Box Ridge Aboriginal reserve near Casino in the Northern Rivers area of Northern NSW, part of the broader New England I write about.

As I write, the Australian media is reporting the latest Productivity Commission Report on Bridging the Gap, the attempt to bring Aboriginal people up to the level of the broader Australian community along a number of selected key indicators. An example of the reporting is here, while you will find the full Productivity Commission report here.

The Four Corners program was of interest to me because of my research into the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples. In my recent paper (not yet on line) on social change in New England 1950-2000, I made changing attitudes and policies towards the Aborigines one of my main themes.

From the perspective of 2011, some of the attitudes expressed in the Four Corners program would make people cringe. It's not quite as clear cut as that.

By 1961, a fundamental change process was well underway. If you cut through the way things were expressed, you will see that:

  • A number of Aboriginal families were living in Casino, while Box Ridge children were going to Casino schools
  • There were statements by European and Aboriginal locals that there was no segregation in Casino itself, no general local racial prejudice, although some people were prejudiced. The limited research that I have done suggests that this was broadly true.
  • The identified problems linked to housing, health and economic opportunity.

Now track forward fifty years. As in 1961, Aboriginal people are being singled out as a group with special problems requiring special treatment. As in 1961, there is a paternalistic element in policy and approach towards Aboriginal people. As in 1961, the key problems identified include health, housing and economic opportunity. If you exclude precise forms of wording, the arguments really haven't changed.

Back in November 2008 in Bridging the gap between indigenous Australia and the broader community - a methodological note I pointed to the problems involved in using statistical averages in setting policy. There I said in part: 

Our indigenous population is presently especially concentrated in regional, rural and and remote areas, along with some of the poorer suburbs in our capital cities.

As I have discussed before, general health services in parts of regional Australia have been in decline for some time. There are indications of a growing gap between health indicators for the whole population in these areas and those living in metro areas.

Within metro areas, the poorer suburbs have also been experiencing problems in health service delivery. Again, and for a variety of reasons, health indicators for the general population in these areas are below the national average.

So what does it actually mean to say that we will close the gap between indigenous health outcomes and the Australian average?

Are we implying that we can achieve better Aboriginal health outcomes than those applying to equivalent groups in the broader community? Alternatively, do we mean that we plan to reduce broader health disparities? Then again, are we proposing that the combination of broader social and economic advancement for our indigenous peoples in combination with physical re-location will get the required results? Or some combination of all the above?

My point is that we need to exercise great care in using statistical averages in setting aspirations and as performance benchmarks.

If you look at the Productivity Commission report, and putting aside the broad question of the significance of the selected indicators, you will see that the condition of Australia's Aboriginal people as measured by the statistics has improved along a number of dimensions, but improvements for the Australian people as a whole has improved as fast, so that the gap hasn't narrowed.

In a way, this illustrates the statistical point I was making. It also illustrates what we can think of as the glass half full problem. There has been improvement (good), but it doesn't meet target (bad). What do you focus on?

Turning now to the significance of the selected indicators, I have no idea what they actually mean. I really don't. When I look at the Aboriginal groups that I know best, I find:

  • A reduction in prejudice and formal barriers to advancement (good)
  • A massive expansion in the number of Aboriginal people with educational qualifications (good)
  • A large growth in the number of middle class Aboriginal people (good)
  • The emergence over the last fifty years of entrenched inter-generational deprivation among some groups of a type not seen before (bad)

I also find that that the growth of entrenched inter-generational deprivation actually reflects changes in the broader Australian community along two main dimensions:

  • Growing social disparity. Australia as a whole has seen a rise in entrenched social deprivation.
  • The relative decline in non-metro Australia.

These two dimensions have affected Aboriginal people in particular:

  • Aboriginal people were poorer and less well educated and hence less able to cope with the fundamental economic restructuring that has taken place in Australia since the 1970s.
  • Aboriginal people were concentrated in just those geographic areas most adversely affected by the process of structural change.

Bluntly, and I include the Productivity Commission report in this broadside, I just don't think that all the statistical analysis and policy reports matter a damn because they ignore the underlying social and geographical distribution among Australia's Aboriginal peoples.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

UNE's HINQ101 The Historian

I am still largely off-line. Yesterday I consolidated the material I had written on boxing, today I want to consolidate some of the material I have written on the study of history.

Part of the reason for the last is that I am now involved with a UNE history course in my role as an adjunct and a member of the Heritage Futures Research Centre. The course, HINQ101 The Historian, is summarised in this way:

Before you study the history, study the historian' (E H Carr) is a fundamental maxim of historical inquiry. This unit looks at the most important and influential historians from the time of Herodotus down to the present day. The unit emphasises the importance of the individual writer of history as a creator of knowledge about the past, and how the role of 'historian' has changed over time. The way in which an individual historian imagines and articulates the past is necessarily flavoured by their personal background and perspectives. The historian is also prejudiced by his/her political and cultural context, and the purposes for which a history is written. Students will analyse and compare the work of at least two historians in detail.

I am not teaching in the course, nor do I have a formal position. I am there as a resource and a practicing non-academic historian who is available to answer queries and participate in discussion with students via UNE's Moodle system.

It's actually slightly nerve wracking. I haven't used Moodle before, while I am also remote at this point from the detail of the student's direct experience in the course. I am conscious of the need to be helpful, not a distraction, given that I have quite evolved ideas developed outside the normal academic environment.

To my knowledge, the idea of involving adjuncts (I am not the only one) outside normal staff to try to enrich the student experience is somewhat novel. It's actually a very good one, I think, because it gives students access not just to a wider range of ideas and practical tips, but also to the broader university and professional community.

Moodle makes this possible because all those involved can post their own concerns and ideas. This is especially helpful for external students remote from campus and actually goes back to a core idea in UNE's original approach in pioneering this form of education - education as interaction between staff and students no matter where they may be physically located.

I had been intending to consolidate some of my writing on the writing of history, but I now have an additional reason for some of this may actually be useful!     

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Going off-line

For reasons that I explained here, Brief pause in posting to allow for research, and then in more background detail here Report on Belshaw historical research and writing, I am  going off-line for a period.

I really need to complete some more research and writing. I will respond to comments and post some links to other work, but I must get some research done. 

Rise of Turkey

One of the things that I have been watching with interest recently is the rise in prominence of Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been playing a a far more activist foreign policy role, including most recently a surprise visit to Somalia. I do not sufficiently understand the dynamics of Turkish foreign policy beyond the purely superficial to pretend informed comment. However, it does seem clear that the more active role is underpinned by Turkey's significant economic growth.

The raw numbers are impressive, with the most recent quarter GDP growth up 11% from twelve months before. However, that growth would also seem to be vulnerable because of the size of the current account deficit, above 8% of GDP and rising rapidly.

I know that many of my fellow bloggers will understand far more about Turkey than I do. I mention the country now because I feel that the changes taking place are strategically significant.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - boxing & the power of blogging in history

Yesterday's post here, Boxing, history & social change, was one of three linked posts. The others were A visit to a Cessnock boxing tent and Classical Greek, boxing & New England history.  I do this from time to time when a single post, in this case the first, takes a lot of time. The other two on my New England blogs linked to the first and added some comments tailored to the interests of those specific blogs.

Two of the posts drew substantive comments that allowed me to extend the posts. This is one feature  of blogging that I really love, the way in which reader feedback tests and extends thought.

I said in the main post that the post was triggered by some reading that I had been doing linked to my New England history project. While I hoped that the post would be of general interest, it was also placing boxing in an historical context that I could then use as a framework for my specifically New England writing.

The responses I got far exceeded my expectations.

The original post that I wrote, Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium, drew a range of comments from people with direct family connections to boxing and the troupe. That also led me to find links to some photos. This time, the comments extended the New England story. From my viewpoint as an historian, this stuff is gold.

  In a comment on the original Sharman post, Jason Kells referred to his father: "my dad fought for him under the name Curly Ryan before sparing for Dave Sands until Dave's unfortunate death." I did find some material for Jason, but requests on the blog for more information and especially photos of the Sharman troupe in the 1940s and 1950s drew a blank.

In a comment this time, Greg reminded me again of Dave Sands. Sands, an example of the Aboriginal fighters that I was talking about, came from Burnt Bridge near Kempsey and later lived in Stockton; there is a memorial to him there. From a compositional viewpoint, if I can use that term in a history context, the earlier work that I have been trying to do on the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples should set a context for the Dave Sands' story. 

As an aside, and so often happens, the check search I did to update material on Burnt Bridge almost totally side-tracked this post today. I found a lot more material on line than previously, including a strange piece about Armidale. I disciplined myself, and just created temporary bookmarks!

In my post I mentioned the The Tent, by Wayne McLennan, a remarkably good short piece on a visit of a boxing tent to Cessnock. kvd kindly dug down and found that Wayne had actually fought for Bells and that Bells still existed, so I added some material here as a postcript. He also found that Wayne had been admitted to the Cessnock Hall of Fame and was now a writer, thus adding a new writer to my New England writer list.

Meantime, Greg had reminded me that boxer Les Darcy came from near Maitland,and had added some additional historical material on boxing Newcastle. Boxing really was strong in the lower Hunter.

I am sure that you see what I mean by the richness of all this because we now have interconnected and interesting threads: we have boxing as a sport and entertainment whose changing role reflects broader social change; we have the concentration of boxing among two groups, Aborigines and the working class people of the lower Hunter; and we have interesting descriptive material about sport and lifestyle.

My main post took a long time to research and write, but the payback has been enormous.

Boxing is necessarily a small element within my main history, but it's still interesting. I absolutely love the juxtaposition between the world we are talking about now and that presented in 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside. As I said in the post on my history blog:         

There is a huge difference between the hot, dusty and sweaty world of the boxing tent and the desire to establish Armidale as a national centre for classical Greek studies. Yet boxing was also a school sport at TAS. I used the school gloves many years later when boxing had already dropped from the frame.

One of the joys of history to my mind remains the contrasts, the way that very different things coexist at the same time. We do ourselves and history no justice when we try to jam things into acceptable frames, ignoring the comparisons and conflicts inherent in any historical period.

Becoming more practical, less lyrical, my next step is simply to consolidate all the leads I have been given into a summary post on the New England history blog.

Isn't blogging fun?! I am trying to tempt more of my history colleagues into this space. I may have something to report here a little later. For the moment, my thanks to all my research assistants (honoris causa)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Boxing, history & social change

I said yesterday (Armidale vs Canada in Rugby 1960) that I had intended to write a short post on a completely different matter, boxing in fact, but became distracted. Why boxing?

Back in July 2009 I did a short nostalgia piece, Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium, on the boxing shows that used to be such a feature of the Australian country show circuit. Then, earlier this week, I was browsing some of the articles in Aboriginal History and came across an article on the role of Aboriginal boxers in the boxing tents. If you look at the photo included in my original post, you will see the Aboriginal presence.

I didn't record the details of the article at this point for I was literally skimming, speed reading ten years of the journal just to get a feel for what was there. However, the descriptions of life on the circuit were interesting in a general sense as well as from an Aboriginal history perspective.

I see no reason why history should be dull. I therefore decided that I might include some of this material in my history of New England to add texture and as one theme in Aboriginal life.

I actually know very little about the history of boxing, beyond snippets picked up from books or at school. By the time I entered secondary school, boxing was no longer a school sport. However, the school gym was still equipped for boxing with punching bags and gloves, while boxing as a sport was in living memory. I used to spar sometimes.

Historical Overview

The Wikipedia article on boxing points to its long history.

Wikipedia notes that early fighting in England had no written rules; there were no weight divisions or round limits, and no referee. In general, it was extremely chaotic and could lead to death.

The first boxing rules - the Broughton's rules - were introduced by heavyweight champion Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters. In 1838, the London Prize Rules were introduced and then revised in 1853. followed by the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in 1867. This set the form for modern boxing, including the use of gloves. 

By the early 1800s boxing in England had become popular and quite fashionable. You can see this in some of the books set during this period. However, it was still illegal in England and, I think, the Australian colonies would remain so for some time. I am not sure of dates here.

According to the Australian Boxing web site, it is believed that the first recorded fight in Australia was on the 7 January 1814. It is thought that Charles Lifton was one of the fighters. The venue would have been the Sydney Racecourse (Hyde Park).

The site suggests that the first Australian born fighter to become popular was known as Kable or “Young Kable” from Windsor NSW. In 1824 Kable knocked out Sam Clark an English boxer.

The favorite boxing grounds in the 1830s were Parramatta, Windsor, Surry Hills and Como. Notable boxers from the 1830s included Young Bailey, Ned Chalker, Young Kable and George Hough.

Notable boxers from the 1840s included Bill Sparkes, Tom Sparkes (aka Sprig of Myrtle), lzaac Gorrick (aka "Bungaree"). Gorrick was the very first Australian boxer to fight in England in 1842. Bill Sparkes also fought in England in 1847 and went 67 rounds against the undefeated Nat Langham. Sparkes broke his right arm in the 62nd round of this fight.

The London Prize Rules were introduced into Australia. According to the Australian Boxing web site, under these rules opponents were often thrown to the ground and fights were fought to the finish, the bouts sometimes lasted for hours. The boxing would only stop if the opponent was knocked out or the police were called in to break it up. Sometimes the crowd would get involved and the fight would be stopped.

The site notes that the longest recorded bare knuckle bout lasted an amazing 6 hours and 15 minutes. The fight took place on the 3rd of December 1855 at Fiery Creek (near Daylesford) Victoria. An Irishman by the name of James Kelly defeated the English soldier Jonathan Smith. The prize money was £400 and the bare knuckle bout went 17 long rounds.

The Marquis of Queensberry Rules mandated the use of gloves. Wikipedia records that in 1882 the English case of R v. Coney found that a bare-knuckle fight was an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, despite the consent of the participants. This marked the end of widespread public bare-knuckle contests in England.

The Australian Boxing web site suggests the use of boxing gloves was introduced into the Australian colonies in 1884, ushering in the Queensberry rules. Apparently Australia at that time was in the lime light, breaking new ground in boxing innovation. The boxing trainer Billy Palmer (a former boxer) was starting to teach new defensive techniques to boxers in Australia that were recognised worldwide. Peter Jackson, a West Indian who fought James Corbett in 1891, travelled to Australia to learn these new techniques. Bob Fitzsimmons an English boxer who took the 1897, title also travelled to Australia to sharpen his boxing technique.

The first world heavyweight champion under the Queensberry Rules was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, who defeated John L. Sullivan in 1892 at the Pelican Athletic Club in New Orleans. In Sydney on December 26 1908, a fighter by the name of Jack Johnson took Tommy Burns to the 14th round before knocking him out, becoming the first black heavyweight champion.


Looking at this brief history, a few things stand out.

The first is the nature of transformation of boxing and the relationship to broader social change.

In 1800 the first rules may have had been introduced, but prize fighting was still illegal. One of the best pictures of the status of boxing at the time is actually provided by Georgette Heyer's regency romances. Heyer was punctilious in recording and repeating the detail of life in Regency England. Her references to boxing are incidental, but show a world in which prize fighting is popular if not quite respectable and in which her aristocratic heroes are known themselves to participate.

By 1900, boxing had been formalised and had moved from the shadow world into the mainstream. To check this, I looked at the history of boxing in the Olympics. Boxing was introduced in 1904 and has been in every games since with the exception of the 1912 Stockholm games since the sport was still banned in Sweden at the time. In another sign of social change, the next games will include female boxing for the first time.

This transformation is part of and linked to the broader Victorian transformation within the Empire, what we might call the growth of respectability. While professional boxing continued, you also had the rise of amateur boxing. Here the Wikipedia article on amateur boxing observes:

Amateur boxing emerged as a sport during the mid-to-late 19th century, partly as a result of the moral controversies surrounding professional prize-fighting. Originally lampooned as an effort by upper and middle-class gentlemen to co-opt a traditionally working class sport, the safer, "scientific" style of boxing found favor in schools, universities and in the armed forces, although the champions still usually came from among the urban poor.

In England, the Amateur Boxing Association was formed in 1888, and held its first championships the following year. So again, you can see the pattern of change.

Jimmy Sharman Senior formed his first boxing tent at Ardlethan (NSW) in 1911, growing to a travelling show with 50 to 60 towns on the circuit. His was not the only troupe. The boxing tents appealed to the locals, but boxing was also a way for a poorer person with limited skills to earn cash. For that reason, Aboriginal boxers were strongly represented. As today, sport provided an opportunity for advancement not otherwise open.

In searching, I found this remarkably good piece from Quadrant, May 2002, The Tent by Wayne McLennan.  Set in Cessnock and therefore within the geographic area covered by my study, it provides a flavour of the atmosphere surrounding the tents. The piece begins:

I COULD HEAR THE CALLER throwing out challenges to "any mug brave enough to step into the ring with my fighters" and promising ten dollars if he could last three rounds. I could feel the drum they pounded to get your attention - "Boom, boom, boom" - long before I reached the tent, long before I saw the fighters standing on a raised platform stripped to the waist, arms folded, glaring down at the audience. Behind the boxers, stretching the length of the tent, hung a two-metre-high canvas mural painted with hard, strong colours. Dave Sands, Les Darcy, Ron Richards, George Barnes, Vic Patrick, Jimmy Carruthers, all the greats of Australian boxing, stared down at you smiling, arms raised in victory or with gloved hands shaped up, ready to fight.

By the time the events described in Wayne's piece were taking place, further change was well underway.

  The first Police Citizens Boys Club was formed in NSW in 1937. Now called the Police Citizens Youth Clubs, the clubs grew to be a national movement. While it does not seem to be mentioned now, I think that boxing was a key feature of the early clubs because it provided an outlet for the groups that the new organisation was trying to reach. Outside the show boxing tents, the first boxing match I went to was at the Armidale Club.

In 1937, boxing was still well established. In 1969 or 1971 (the stated dates seem to vary), the Sharman troupe closed, the boxing tents that once featured at the shows gone. The final death blow was delivered by Government regulations limiting fights by an individual boxer to one a week. This change was part of broader changes in attitudes that took place in the post war period.

An era had ended. However, the desire for direct physical individual combat continues, with a proliferation of direct contact sports extending beyond boxing into a variety of martial arts. With changing social attitudes, women have come to play an increasing role in this spread. Women now box and kick box in a way that would have seemed inconceivable even twenty years ago.    


As he so often does, regular commenter kvd used this post to do a further internet search. There he found Roy Bell's Boxing tent, a survivor of the previous genre.

Here you find some photos. The following is a YouTube video, Comments follow the video.   

The video shows many of the aspects of the boxing tents in operation. Part of the boxing tents was always showmanship, something that I had intended to write about in another post. You can actually see that in this video. You don't want to kill the locals, but you also don't want to be demolished by them! So, how to balance?

I leave it to you to spot! And I hereby declare kvd my official research assistant - unpaid!

Postscript 2

In a comment, Sharon pointed to this post of hers - Jimmy Semmens - Australian Bantamweight Champion - about a fighter with and Armidale family connection. Sharon asked if anyone had more information on Jimmy Semmens.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Armidale vs Canada in Rugby 1960

I became completely distracted this morning. I had intended to write a short post on a completely different matter, boxing in fact. I went searching for a photo to illustrate and found the following. Comments follow after the photo.

1950s Canada vs Armidale - neutral

The year is, I think, 1960. A Canadian school was visiting Armidale and, unusually, played a combined Armidale schools team in Rugby. This is the only time I can remember a combined Armidale team.

As I remember it, the TAS (The Armidale School) First XV was away. This gave us lesser minions a chance to play. It was quite fun. Playing for combined Armidale Schools was good in itself, but so was the chance to play in a big match.

I think that we won, but I can't remember the score. I do remember the long grid iron passes the Canadian back line used. It's a bit like the kids from Aussie Rules playing areas who ended up playing Rugby at school or university in Armidale. Their kicking was very good because they carried skills across.

Last year I went in search of the Canadian school plus any record of the visit. It was just one of those sidetracks that we are all prone too. After hours, I could find nothing. Now, by accident, I find a single photo posted to the TAS photo archive


I said that I was distracted. A related nostalgia (history) piece - Armidale school life, 1890s.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Visitor 120,000, structural change and QANTAS

Visitor 120,000 to this blog arrived last night from Melbourne via Google. They spent some time reading Manners and Society in Modern Australia, a July 2007 post musing on changes in manners and society in Australia.

It's always interesting if sometimes uncomfortable looking at past posts. I don't think that I would vary anything that I said then.

As I write, change continues to ripple across this country.

Yesterday QANTAS CEO Joyce announced further changes to that airline group intended to strengthen its position in Asia; the transcript of his speech is here, examples of local media coverage here, here, here, here. While Mr Joyce focuses on the positives, a new Spirit of Australia, it is clear that a shift in business focus away from Australia is central.

The QANTAS case is an interesting one because of the way it combines and reflects many of the changes taking place in Australia. For that reason, I thought that I might look briefly at certain elements in the announcement, linking this to broader change patterns.

QANTAS mainstream international services have been losing money. One telling statistic provided by Mr Joyce is that those services are now carrying only 18 per cent of people flying out of Australia. Such a percentage would have been inconceivable even fifteen years ago.

In explaining this, the CEO focused on the changing economics of airline operations. That's true, and I will come back to it in a moment. However, there is another factor as well, brand destruction, something that I have written on before in a general sense.

On QANTAS specifically, I began my 27 January 2010 Armidale Express column (The importance of a Gin and Tonic) with these words:
Several years ago flying to Armidale on Qantas, I asked for a gin and tonic only to be told that they no longer served alcohol. I have avoided Qantas as much as possible since.
This may sound an extreme reaction. Surely the man can go for an hour without a drink! However, in my mind it marked the final end of an era, a sad full stop on part of our history.
My focus in the column was on New England. However, in a broader sense, the problem was that the events described were the last straw in the progressive destruction of my own loyalty to QANTAS.
Even twenty years ago, certainly thirty years, I thought of QANTAS as my airline. It was safe, it was Australian, it was mine.

I remember getting onto a QANTAS flight in London in the mid eighties. I was exhausted, for I had been flying constantly for several weeks. As I sat down on the QANTAS flight, as I was given a drink and listened to the crew, I suddenly relaxed. I actually felt that I was home.

That brand loyalty translated into a willingness to pay a premium for QANTAS. I generally didn't think about it. I just booked QANTAS. Where cash was very important, I would look at other options (I ruled a lot of airlines out on safety grounds), but I still flew QANTAS where I could.

It took QANTAS a number of years and a lot of hard work to destroy that loyalty. In no particular order:
  • Code sharing. In flying QANTAS I wanted to fly QANTAS. With code sharing, I would find myself flying with airlines that I really didn't want to fly with.
  • Constant chops and changes to the rules governing things like QANTAS Club and Frequent Flier, creating a commodity merchandise feel. More generally, a decline in my perception of the standard of service and of comfort. 
  • Erosion in my faith in QANTAS safety standards in the face of constant cost cutting and an increasing number of near misses.
  • Improved standards on other carriers that challenged QANTAS in terms of safety and service. Singapore Airlines was the first, but but by no means the only one.
I still have vestigial loyalties to QANTAS, but it's much eroded. Now here I want to attach a rough number.
Looking across the family including my wife's side, QANTAS' share of international travel is down to about 10 per cent. Just an extended family, but one that has made over fifty international flights in the last few years.
I started with the brand loyalty point because that is critical in allowing QANTAS to extract some price premium in a competitive market. And QANTAS needs that because of its changing market place.

Australia has three features that dictate QANTAS behaviour
The first is the country's small size in population and economic terms. While Australians travel extensively, it remains true that Australian is something of a minnow in global terms. QANTAS' natural market place is quite small by global standards, as it is for most other local businesses.

The second is Australia's location. Australians talk about the relative shift in the country's geographical position with the rise in Asia. Forget that. The country remains, as it was, on the periphery. A Singapore or Dubai is surrounded by traffic routes. Australia is not. We are not, and never can be, a natural hub. For that reason, it makes perfect sense for QANTAS to look for way of locating business closer to natural hubs in high growth markets.
The third is Australia's cost structures. We are simply a high cost country. This is accentuated by the mining boom and consequent changes in things like the exchange rate. An airline like QANTAS has to adjust to survive. I would argue that QANTAS has stuffed things up by failing to protect its base, but that doesn't affect the overall economics.
Now here I want to finish this post with a comment that I have made before.

The changes at QANTAS are simply a microcosm of the changes rippling across this country. In considering those changes, we focus on domestic issues. We almost completely ignore broader issues and especially Australia's real place in the world.

We just aren't important beyond our role as a quarry. If we want to be more, if we want to change our place, we have to change our thinking. At the moment, I can't see that happening.     

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The ghost towns of China

In a comment on one of my Express columns, Belshaw's World - euphoria to ill-informed economic future, Greg pointed to this article - The ghost towns of China: Amazing satellite images show cities meant to be home to millions lying deserted.

Have a look. It's quite fascinating.

Beards, mud & a bit of community

Helen Wagga Wagga 1997

in retaliation to eldest for her comment on my hair and bald spot (A bearded Belshaw) this photo from cousin Jamie shows H. (far right) at Wagga Wagga in 1997.

I don't think that H has quite adjusted to the mud of inland swimming. Mind you, they all went into the deepest mud they could find.

In a comment on a bearded Belshaw, Neil pointed to the body fitting shirt. Indeed, that does date me! It's all very different from the clean cut picture that graces my blog.

Just finished my weekly Express column. This one is a follow up from a post I did on my New England Australia blog, Bob Neville & Tingha Community Regeneration win new award. At a time when there is just so much negativity around, it is nice to do a positive story.

Community regeneration has been an interest of mine for a very long time. Bob's story is quite inspirational, so you can expect more from time to time.

In case you hadn't worked it out already, my references to our blogging village are a dead give away, I really am a community person. It's one of my problems in Sydney that I don't have that feeling of connect with the people around me. The village isn't there.

Much of my historical writing is connected with community. I just like it, but I also think that it's important.

You see, at a time when so many think that they are powerless, much of my work shows the power of individuals. Not power in the grand sense, but power in the way that individual acts have long term effects beyond the imagination and knowledge of those involved.

History is in part the story of accidents and incidents. Say you introduce two friends and they marry. Then all subsequent generations actually owe their existence to you! That may be an incident, it may seem trivial, but you have put your own small mark on the future, and on the history that is the future in retrospect.

I think that that's kind of nice! 

Monday, August 15, 2011

A bearded Belshaw

A bearded Belshaw

Cousin Jamie has been posting some new photos from Aunt Kay's collection.

Oh dear. I showed this one to eldest, who rudely remarked at the way my hair was swept to conceal my bald spot!

That's true, but I focused more on the beard and hair length. Oh for so much hair, and it's black!

I can't spot where the photo was taken, I just don't recognise the furniture.

We all go through phases in our life. I miss my bearded phase. It was a time when I was breaking out.

I was confident enough not to worry what others thought about the beard. That was when I started buying Australian old books and paintings, when I wanted to write, started keeping a writer's diary.


Maps & myopia

This post is a follow up to yesterday's post, GeoCurrents' Demic atlas project.

I said in that post that I had been aware for a long time of the way our own thought constructs - what I have called mental mud maps - affects our thinking. As best I can, I have tried to break out of this. Yet it's very hard, for it affects us in ways that are hard to recognise.

I also said that we were all bound by maps and structures, noting that there were two features to most modern maps that are most binding and blinding so far as patterns of thought are concerned.

The first is the nature of boundaries. We think of them as hard lines. On one side is x, on the other side y.

The second feature is the nature of the institutional structures on which most maps are based. They centre on political and institutional boundaries. Sure, you will get maps that show, for example, distribution of climate, landform or species over broader territories, but generally  maps reflect institutional structures. Data collections, one of the key underpinnings of maps, also reflect those structures.

I would now add to these two a third, labels, the words we attach to maps or on which maps are based.

This post looks at the distortions that can arise, using examples from my own experience and writing. In some cases, I am giving links so that those interested can can read further if they want. My aim is to educate, for I find the distortions hard to eradicate even from my own thinking.

Eric Woolmington and the Marchland Case

All copies of Eric Woolmington's PhD thesis were destroyed in the 1958 fire that consumed the Belshaw Block before they could be marked. He had to start again, this time looking at the geographic basis of support for the New England new state movement.

Eric looked first at geographic models that measured the effective centre of economic gravity between big centres. This suggested that the boundary of influence between Sydney and Brisbane should lie well south of the current state line. He then used various quantitative measures such as newspaper sales to try to assess the varying actual penetration of Sydney and Brisbane influences, as well as the relative strength of local as compared to capital city influences. He found that the effect of the state boundary was to push the actual centre of economic gravity north.

Support for the New England New State cause was greatest in what he called the marchland, the area of contest between the relative influences of Sydney and Brisbane. This was also the area where local and regional influences were strongest relative to the metro centres.

Eric has had a significant influence on my own thinking. Political boundaries and the labels attached to them - NSW, Queensland, Australia - flow over into many aspects of thought.

When I did my original honours thesis on the structure of traditional Aboriginal economic life in Northern NSW, I largely stopped data gathering and analysis at the state line. That was an error, for that border was not relevant to the Aborigines. I was suffering from what I came to call border myopia, the way in which a line on the map blocks thought and indeed action.

Woolmington's work and the recognition of my own border myopia has led me to directly challenge and test label nostrums such as the NSW or Australian economy, areas where data collection and analysis is based on formal political and institutional structures. I am interested in what is happening below the label, taking time into account.

Sample posts:

Aboriginal "tribes", history and land rights

In July last year I delivered a paper in Armidale called An Exploration of New England’s Aboriginal Languages.  In that paper I said:

I read James Knight’s thesis a month ago. Painfully, it caused me to put a line through much of the writing I had done for this paper. Given this, what can I now usefully say about the mapping of New England’s Aboriginal languages?

I used the word painfully advisedly. It caused me to put a line through one third of a major paper just one month before delivery. So what happened?

I have written a fair bit on Australia's Aborigines. As part of this, I looked at maps of tribal distribution across this country. Now I knew that the very idea of "tribes" was misleading, a concept imported into Australia from North America. Like many writers, I actually conflated tribes with a different concept, language groups. Tribes didn't exist, but language groups did. So, to my mind, I was mapping language distribution.

All the maps you will see on either language or tribal distribution have hard lines. The problem has been to determine boundaries from ethnographic and archaeological data. This is of considerable current importance.

Land rights legislation is based on the concept of defined property rights delineated by boundaries. Things such as welcome to country, the structure and wording of all official policies and delivery structures, centre on the same things.

James' thesis ( James Robert Knight, Testing Tindale Tribes: A re-assessment of Tindale’s work on the Aboriginal Tribes of Australia with reference to the written records of the South East of South Australia, PhD thesis, two vols, University of New England, December 2003) put a bullet through the entire structure, as well as some of my own work.

In simple terms, he showed that our thinking based on defined boundaries expressed in maps bore little relationship to the real pattern of Aboriginal life. Borders were shaded, while property relationships were complex and overlapping; there were a multiplicity of rights that lapped and overlapped. He also showed how official policies had created new entities that he called Tindale Tribes, new constructs that had not existed before but now had a life of their own.

James' thesis is not an attack on land rights, nor on recognition of Aboriginal customary ownership. Rather, it is a fundamental critique of the way we presently think.

One of the reasons that I was so cranky with myself is that I knew all this. After all, a lot of my writing on Aboriginal policy and history has centred on the need to recognise diversity! But I was still trapped in past thinking.

I am revising my Armidale paper for publication. I will bring up supporting material later.

What do we mean by Sydney?

This one is a very simple example of another Belshaw failing.

I write a fair bit about the relationship between Sydney and other parts of the country, especially my own New England. This includes looking at shifts in population distribution. But what is Sydney?  

Like New England itself, Sydney doesn't exist in a formal sense. However, we all know what it is. Or do we?

I was working off ABS statistical data on Sydney. Then something, the reference to the Sydney Statistical District, cause me to check definitions. I found that so far as ABS was concerned, Sydney included the Blue Mountains and Central Coast. However, this is not Sydney as normally known, nor is it the metro area on which past stats are based. So my data and the analysis on which that data was based had a fundamental flaw.

I was mortified. I should have known. However, this is a subset of a broader issue, the way in which changing official boundaries affect analysis and the way we see the world.

Problems with ARIA

Have you ever heard of ARIA?    

ARIA, the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia, was developed by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care and the National Key Centre for Social Applications of GIS. ARIA measures remoteness based on the physical road distance between a settlement and four classes of service centre. In 1999 a further revision of ARIA called ARIA+ was developed that incorporated more information on the location of service centres.

While ARIA was a simple geographic descriptor intended to measure remoteness from services, its widespread use by the Commonwealth Government for statistical purposes and to guide service delivery affected the use of words. In 1950, the Australian states still retained a substantial degree of independence. By 2000, the Australian Government was involved in every aspect of policy once the preserve of the states. To the officials in Canberra seeking mechanisms to allow for national uniformity in service delivery while also taking geography into account, the ARIA classifications seemed a useful device; very remote, remote, outer regional, inner regional and major city were now firmly added to the semantic mix.

Now the difficulty in all this is that ARIA actually has no meaning beyond its original limited scope. It can be mapped and measured, but when applied in policy terms it gives some very odd results. For example, because Balranald and Darwin are the same ARIA classification, they can get the same service delivery. This is just plain crazy!

Sample posts


I have run out of time today. Let me finish with another simple and personal example of the influence of maps and labels.

I was running a national consulting business. We were marketing into Adelaide. We suddenly realised that we were not touching New Zealand even though it was a bigger market and it was cheaper to get there. Why? It was another country.

That was when we coined the phrase border myopia to describe the way lines on a map affected thinking.