Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Essay - the importance of the individual

Going into Saturday's Queensland elections, the opinion polls suggested that the ALP Government faced electoral disaster. Even so, the scale of the disaster still came as a surprise.

As I write, the latest electoral figures are:

  • Liberal National Party 49.7% with a predicted 78 seats
  • ALP 26.6% with a predicted 7 seats
  • Katter's Australian Party 11.6% with a predicted 2 seats
  • The Greens 7.6% with no predicted seats.

A defeat on this scale creates obvious difficulties for Labor in both being an effective opposition and in rebuilding. It also increases pressure on the ALP Federal Government.

Over on the Lowy Institute blog, Sam Roggeveen's Is there an Australian blogosphere? is, as the title says, a short muse on the existence or otherwise of an Australian blogosphere. The post begins: 

'Europeans can't blog', reads the headline from a newly created blog by the Brussel-based think tank Bruegel. One phrase in particular stuck out at me from this lament about the poor state of European blogging: 'Europe has bloggers, but no blogosphere'.

It seems to me this might be true of Australia also, at least in the political sphere in which this site operates. The distinction between blogs and the blogosphere is that, on its own, a blog is a platform to push out ideas, information and links to other sources. That's a powerful thing in and of itself, but it's when many blogs form a blogosphere that you get, in Bruegel's words, 'a living ecosystem to exchange and debate'.

We have some outstanding political blogs in this country, but from my observation, the 'ecosystem' is a bit barren.

For their own reasons, the Lowy Institute has a somewhat clunky comment system. You have to email your comment and then wait for it to be moderated. While I understand the reasons for this, it does work against interactivity. For that reason, I thought that I should reproduce my comment here: 

Hi Sam. I think it true to say that the Australian blogosphere is fragmented. It’s also true to say that Australian bloggers don’t cross-link as much as they might or indeed should. But it’s not quite as clear-cut as this.

Back in 2010, Dr Alex Bruns released some initial mapping results on the Australian blogosphere. I dealt with it in a post at the time -

If we look at political blogs, you find a clustering effect around main nodes. You also find outriders – the independents – who also link. The patterns change with time, but they are there.

One of the difficulties in the clustering is that, not unexpectedly, the major nodes attract people of common views. A second problem is that there is sometimes very little cross-linking on the major nodes. Yet that said, there are underlying currents that are not always apparent.

The very partisan blogs including those attached to some media outlets tend to attract only the like minded. However, there is a broader and different stream that, while sometimes still partisan, actually focuses on issues. Most of the bloggers in this group either know or know of each other. I call this the village. There are links and interlinks that are not always apparent on the surface.

I was trying to think of the best way of illustrating this. Perhaps one way is to say that I have some ten bloggers who are Facebook friends, another overlapping but different group who follow me on twitter. Then there are those who email me or come through in comments.

I am not an A list blogger, although I have reasonable traffic on my main blogs. My point is that there are a whole series of interactions that have a cumulative impact over time.

There are particular issues that attract major bogging attention. However, a lot of the real work is simply the on-going discussion.

Most mainstream bloggers don’t just blog. They reach out through a variety of channels. We do influence each other, but we also influence the broader debate. The effects here cannot be easily measured, but they seem to be significant over time.

I guess that’s my real point in this comment. Don’t focus on the headline, the grand impact on public discourse. Focus instead on the cumulative effect.  

Regular readers will know that the type of issue raised by Sam have been of interest to me for a long time. I blog a fair bit, so its only natural that I should be interested.

I do think that the Australian blogosphere has declined measured by interactivity and cross-fertilisation. I have suggested that this is in part due to Twitter. Twitter is an aid to interactivity, but it also distracts.

There is only so much time. Some of my fellow bloggers put so much time into tweeting that they greatly reduce the time available for other writing or, indeed, responding. Twitterdom has become a community or series of communities in its own right, but it is a very different community.

Turning to other matters, at his place Neil Whitfield's Trundling into the 21st century talks about a new ABC documentary series Country Town Rescue. The series is described in this way: 

Produced by Zapruder’s other films, Country Town Rescue is the compelling story of how ordinary Australians come together to save a small rural town whose falling population threatens its very existence.

Filmed over twelve months, this series follows five families who ‘up sticks’ with their kids and move to Trundle, a small town in central western NSW. They are welcomed by a passionate group of locals determined to see the small town not only P1000131survive but prosper.

Now in what will seem like an unrelated segue, this photo shows the old mining settlement of Silverton outside Broken Hill.

Once much bigger than Broken Hill, Silverton now is a scattering of picturesque buildings in the middle of the desert.

At school, I was fascinated by Nevil Shute's book A Town Like Alice. This tells the story of Jean Paget,  spanning her experiences as young Englishwoman and prisoner of war in Malaya during World War II, then in London and finally in outback Australia. There she sets out to turn a small outback community into a town like Alice.

It wasn't so much the first part of the book that interested me, but the last part, the re-birth of the community. It created an interest in community regeneration that has stayed with me until today.

A Town Like Alice was very popular, generating a film and a TV mini-series. The second was part filmed in Silverton, hence the photo. A Town like Alice

The interest created in my mind by the book has really had a profound impact on my life.

Decentralisation and community development was one of the planks I ran on when seeking Country Party pre-selection. It influenced my approach as a policy adviser. It was a factor in the creation of Aymever as a national business headquartered in regional Australia. It influences me today in my writing and in some of my professional work.

I guess that one of my continuing personal frustrations lies in my inability to make some of my ideas stick in a practical sense. I have put my heart, my time and indeed my personal cash into community redevelopment at local and regional level and beyond. There have been successes, but there have been far more failures.

One of the things that I have tried to do in my writing is to get across the importance of the individual. When I look at my own work or the results of my historical research, what comes through time and time again is the importance of individual effort.

If you look at national level, individuals start to blur in the face of broad trends, of the need to summarise and to consolidate. As you drill down, localise, individuals start to stand out. Broad based history, indeed everything that happens, actually comes back to the combination of generally unseen individual effort.

In Queensland, the ALP won't be rebuilt by Party wide election studies, by national or state efforts, although these are necessary. Rebirth will come from the electoral workers who hold the faith and provide the base required to mount future efforts. Individually, each has miniscule impact. Collectively, they are the future. Lose them, and the Party is lost.

I spent a fairly large slab of my life campaigning against the ALP. Yet I never lost sight of the value, indeed the necessity, of those ALP people that I saw on the booths. Often, I had more in common with them than I had with my own party machine. You see, we disagreed but we also cared. As we shared tea and cake and talked, we talked about things that jointly mattered.       

In blogging, I talk about the village. It's the same thing.

Sam Roggeveen is concerned with what we might call macro failure, the big picture stuff. My perspective makes me focus on the small, the cumulative. Real change, the best change, generally happens there. It happens because people strive, hold the faith, even though things sometimes seem hopeless.

I went to Parkes (Musings on a visit to inland NSW) for a workshop. There I talked to an Aboriginal woman who had spent much of the last seven years working to improve housing for her community. She was tired as indeed I am tired, yet she kept on going.

As I listened to her, I thought how marvelous she was. Her impact is not easily measurable on the grand scale, nor in our obsession with macro performance indicators. However, to the families that have better housing as a result of her efforts she is far more important than all the big picture stuff. I think that's kind of important.     


Miss Eagle said...

Dear Jim, I think I fit the demographic you have listed as following your blog and your tweeting. I am on the other side of the political fence, as you no doubt know.

Knowing your conservative political interest, I didn't like the title of your post. Corporatism relies too heavily on individualism and the splintering of community and communities. However, as I read on, I found my own thoughts lining up side by side with yours based on my own years of community work, community experience at voluntary, professional, and academic levels.

And so I say yes, it does depend on the hard work of individuals .. but I think there is little success when the individual is acting in isolation or isolated by others who cannot or will not understand. The hard work of individuals will only ever bring change if it is done in collaboration and co-operation with others who care as much and work as hard.

However, the difficulty can be in finding those with whom to collaborate and co-operate. In my experience, the difficulties are down to a lack of understanding of what collaboration and co-operation can achieve; the triumph of individual ego over commununity aspirations; difficulties in organising in more complex communities i.e. major urban areas.

And, BTW, I also like to have a lot of fun and friendship in my community work as well as the achievement when a goal comes to fruition and success.

Legal Eagle said...

Jim, you are so right that people from different strands of politics don't talk to each other. In the big political blogs, it's mainly people from the same strands commenting.

In terms of the loss in Qld, I think it's partly a time thing - they'd been in for so long, and people decide that they'd like a change. Perhaps it was also a reaction against the Federal Government.

Personally, I've never really liked the internecine struggles involved with being a member of a political party. When I was involved in political activist groups at uni, I did not like them either. They are very tribal. You have to believe a list of things, and if you don't believe all those things, you're no true party member. However, in the workplaces I have worked in, I have found that individual and collective action can change things substantially for the better. I agree with Miss Eagle: it's a combination of individual and collective action which changes things for the better.

The Labor party would be well advised to connect with the electorate, and have less of the career politicians, more of the people who have lived as the other half live. I know a bunch of good people who have lost patience with the Labor Party and have dropped out. And maybe they should talk to people who think entirely differently to them rather than just writing off those people as misguided or bigoted. No doubt some are misguided or bigoted, but also no doubt that some people have genuine concerns which deserve to be listened to.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, have you come across the Heart Politics people? They are based around caring (hence the name) though come from the greenie end of the spectrum. I think you might like them a lot.

I do think twitter has altered the blogosphere - in my view overall probably slightly for the worse.

I do think politics in Oz is horribly polarised. And the blogs reflect this. In my view this is a consequence of the professionalisation of politics - and so the lack of broad involvement in it. If people were more involved the debate could be far more nuanced.

I am enough of a conservative to think institutions get their value from serving people rather than vice versa. I also think there are issues of scale - especially around representation and decision making. Poor organisation can destroy the excellent efforts of remarkable individuals.

Anonymous said...

It's funny Miss Eagle that you say you didn't like the title of this post. I had the same feeling about your own phrase - "corporatism relies too heavily upon individualism" - because it is pretty far from my understanding of the meaning of that term, which I'd express as the joining together of people in pursuit of a common interest.

But I am mostly in agreement with your further words, where you indicate the benefit of corporatisation of individual efforts - which I'm guessing you'd prefer to term 'collective effort'.

Maybe one person's corporation [=bad] is another's collective [=good]?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Miss E and thanks, thanks too for the plug on Twitter. I would suggest, gently, that you have to be careful about tagging. I am not sure that my political interests are in fact conservative in the way that term is usually defined!

Any of us who have been actively involved in community activities have, almost by definition, a more collectivist ethos. There is, I think, survey data that shows that the more individualist tend to have a lower degree of social activism.

Your success comment is an interesting one. You are absolutely right, I think, about cooperation. One of the interesting things about the various country movements that I have studied lies in the way they translate from individual to collective action. Modern technology can speed the process, but the process remains the same.

The fun point is well taken and something I have written on.

Jim Belshaw said...

LE, I almost cited your collective blog in this post! Varied views, attracting especially those who are independent.Interesting that you agree with Miss E as do I.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, I hadn't heard of the heart politics people. I did a google search. This brought up the NZ group. Do you know much about them?

Winton Bates said...

I am interested in the idea that blogging and social media more generally could be akin to participation in village life.

There seems to be a real yearning by many people for a return to something like village life in the midst of big cities. I visited CERES in Melbourne a couple of days ago and was really impressed with the atmosphere of the place. Investors who are establing new shopping plazas should consider borrowing some of their ideas. It might even be profitable to give people more of a village atmosphere.

Jim Belshaw said...

I had to look CERES up, Winton. It's not a bad story. Actually, some developers are starting to at least try to do that. It's part of a broader social trend.

I think that the idea of village life, while sometimes romantised, is coming back.