Monday, July 30, 2012

Those remarkably wealth Australians!

Canadian historian Christopher Moore's piece on 19 July, History of being richer than them, begins:

Canadian journalist Stephen Marche caught the US by the ears recently with an article noting that Canadians are now richer than Americans -- and crediting the difference to Canada's "hard-headed socialism."

Canadians obviously take a certain malicious pleasure in that after having been so looked down on by their US neighbours.  Washington Post journalist Dylan Matthews decided to investigate further. He found that if you took median rather than average wealth, Canada was even further ahead. But the graph included with the story had another remarkable feature, leading Christopher to remark:  "Canada ahead of the US, but how'd the Aussies get so rich?" median wealth 2011 by country

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Essay - "Eish babba": time, memory & vengeance

This poster came via a South African Ndarala colleague, Philip Van Zyl. It was pure accident that it made sense to me.

A week back, I happened to read a South African Broadcasting story on the failure of some South African schools to open because there were no text books. More precisely, the schools in question had no text books. If you don't have access to history books, then you don't have access to history. As the girl says, "Eish babba! Don't know this Verwoerd. I don't have a History text book yet...."

Just at the moment, my reading has taken me in the direction of time and our perceptions of time. Central to that is the process of forgetting.

Some of my somewhat older Australian Labor Party friends, essentially those in the fifty plus bracket, are sometimes distressed to find that the younger generations have no real recollection of the events surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. To them, the 1972 It's Time campaign that elected the Whitlam Government and subsequent events have achieved iconic status.

In fact, they are a little lucky, for those events are better remembered than many simply because they were important to people who wrote or filmed.

I have written before that three generations is about the maximum for any event to remain in living memory. That's true, but its also true that only major events or broad impressions remain alive. In practice, we only really remember events that happened after we were born because they are the only things that we have experienced. Our memory of earlier events is always second hand.

In the hunting and fishing or agrarian communities that between them constitute 99 per cent of the human experience, historical memory was largely passed from one generation to the next through personal contact, although written texts became more important in the most recent centuries.

In Aboriginal Australia, the young listened in the flickering light of fire beneath a vast dome of sky made brilliant by a million stars. Today, the sky is dimmed by bright city lights, while young people's busy lives leave them little time for verbal learning or even extended casual conversation outside immediate peer groups. "Eish babba, I don't have time to listen!" The experiences that all Australians once had of the broader natural or even human life are compressed into obligatory excursions.

To be human is to forget. The present always crowds out the past, even that past that we have ourselves experienced. There are good practical reasons for this. Among other things, our memories would become unbearably crowded if every single experience was retained in front memory.This hold especially true for bad memories. "Eish babba, I don't want to remember."

In a very strange way, current life gives us the worst of both worlds.

According to research, our positive memories do have a practical physiological effect. A remembered quite scene that we loved, the sound of water falling on a tin roof for example, slows our brain waves, Equally, a continued bad memory recreates the physical reactions we had at the time. Today, there is little quiet time for the good, while we reinforce the bad through constant publicity and obligatory counselling.

When Shakespeare wrote "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones" he wasn't far wrong. Any reading of history shows that the memories of the bad carried down through the generations reap awful subsequent results. Mind you, I would also argue that the good carries on. It's just that we forget the good, accept it, while vengeance stains the human record in a very visible way.

The King James version of the Bible states: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord". We live in a modern secular world in which many regard the very concept of a God as an arrant superstition, so let me phrase this another way.

If you seek vengeance as opposed to justice, if you make vengeance your personal responsibility, then you can be pretty sure that the evil you do will live after you. We remember Nelson Mandela because he put vengeance aside.  

"Eish babba, you have become far to serious." I think that's right. I really hadn't intended to turn this Sunday Essay into a sermon!  


In a way, this particular post has taken me in directions that I hadn't wanted to go, although the issues were on my mind because of my latest train reading, David Christian's Maps of Time: and introduction to big history (University of California Press, 2005), as well as subsequent developments linked to the Father F case (Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F).

At the time I wrote the post, I hadn't properly focused on a somewhat related piece by Winton Bates, Should punishment be about retribution or deterrence?. Winton has now added a postscript linked to this post.

I fear I have very confused views on some of these issues. I just can't see things in black and white terms, something that means that I am very out of touch  with, or at least at variance from, current attitudes. I also have severe problems with some of the more abstract discussions.

My end discussion on vengeance, on the sometimes advantages of forgetting, partly reflected but my own values. But it also reflected an empirical judgment based on my understanding of history that vengeance or revenge carried down through the generations wreaked havoc on those generations.  

If we look more broadly, all groups, all societies, have ways of punishing wrong doers defined as those who break that group or society's codes. This was true in Aboriginal Australia and is equally true today. In human terms, the idea of either justice or the rule of law is a relatively modern phenomenon linked to the rise of the state. In those ideas, an abstraction is created that exists independent of the individual or the group or even the state. This is an important ideal in limiting the growing coercive power of the state. Yet as soon as you scratch the surface, drop below, instant messes emerge.

The idea of deterrence, of the use of punishment to deter wrong doers, is a very old one. Yet it has also been a very limited concept, for the idea that punishment should deter is actually a purely empirical issue. Does it do so? If so, at what cost? It is also a complicated issue because it is inexplicably entwined in practice with the idea of retribution, of sanctioned revenge. Winton defined this in these terms: "Retributive justice is concerned primarily with giving criminals the punishment they deserve – the crucial variable is the degree of moral outrage the crime engenders." Now Winton qualified this a little later, but to my mind it is still sanctioned revenge.

Things get more complicated still because we need to add to the mix the ideas of contrition, rehabilitation and redemption. These are linked but different issues that actually sit oddly within the justice system.

Some years ago, a friend was found guilty of a significant white collar crime connected with the collapse of his company. I was interviewed as part of the pre-sentencing process. Did my friend display contrition for his crime? They didn't think so.

I really struggled with this. My friend had pleaded not guilty, and still believed that he had not committed a crime. So he wasn't contrite in that sense. However, he was certainly sorry for the losses inflicted and wondered what he might have done better to avoid the collapse. But this was not contrition as defined in the criminal justice game.

If you look at the history of the NSW child welfare system, you will find a constant tension between the weighting placed upon deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. You will also find a continuing tension between the child welfare system and the criminal justice system, between a system concerned with the welfare of children and that concerned with the punishment of children.

There are no right answers, just a constant balancing over time. Today, we regard the English criminal justice system that transported young petty criminals to Australia as inhumane. In practice, I am not sure that there is much difference between that and the Northern Territory's three strikes legislation. At least the convicts had a chance of a better life.        

Friday, July 27, 2012

Access Economics, Michael Pascoe & the end of The Australian Mining Boom

On 23 July the Australian media carried stories reporting on an Access Economics report that the Australian mining boom would end in two years. Peter Martin's Mining boom forecast to end in two years is an example. The following day, this led a very snooty piece from Michael Pascoe in the same paper: Accessing a headline opinion.  I quote from the start of story:

Well this is embarrassing. The future of the private economic forecasting industry is under threat. Some cruel spoil sports have been keeping note on prior forecasts that failed. So what will Deloitte Access Economics do for free publicity?

The Deloitte Access Economics brand was plastered across media yesterday thanks to its forecast that the resources boom is all over in two years and that the federal budget surplus is no more.

Trouble is, it seems Access has been forecasting the imminent demise of the aforementioned boom almost since it started. Who knows, maybe this time they will be right.

Not nice, Michael!

During the what is now called the GFC or global financial crisis, I almost went ballistic at what I saw as headline scare mongering by Access's Chris Richardson. On 28 January 2009 my Armidale Express column was headed Access Economics feeds the herd instinct.

I watched Australia just before Christmas. There is a spectacular stampede scene where cattle being driven to Darwin are deliberately spooked by the bad guys. Once started, all the cattle go with the herd in a blind panic.

The release of the latest report by Access Economics on the Australian economy made me quite angry because it played to the herd instinct. And we don’t have a little kid to stand in front and bring the mob to a halt.

I have a deal of respect for Access.

Sometimes known as the Treasury in exile, the firm was founded by former colleagues from the Australian Treasury. Their economic reports go into the board rooms of all the big firms in the country. Their reports also attract media attention, a great deal of media attention if, as appears to be the case here, they carefully craft their words to attract that attention.

The single message that came through the media reporting was that the Australian economy was buggered. Access says so.

The previous September I had been in Shanghai as handbag at, of all things, an international conference of insolvency practitioners. As the crisis deepened, conference numbers dropped sharply as people went back to work. I left a confident Australia and came back to gloom and doom. But whichever way I cut the the numbers, I couldn't see that that gloom was justified in local terms. In January just before Access released its report, I wrote in part in Australian Business Solutions Magazine: 

While Australia could not hope to be immune from the global downturn, we remain a remarkably lucky country.

Although affected by the global financial crisis, our banking system remains stable. Australia has no net Government debt at national level, while the Howard Government built up consistent budget surpluses. Further, the decision by former Treasurer Keating to float the currency means that our exchange rate has depreciated at just the time we needed it to do so to provide a domestic buffer.

Influenced in part by this depreciation, our net trade position itself has turned around at just the time we needed it to do so.

In recent years, the balance on goods and services (what Australia sells internationally less what the country buys) has been negative. This has been funded by private overseas borrowings especially by our banking system, creating a channel down which the effects of the US sub-prime crisis first flowed.

The most recent trade statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a very important turn-around in this position. In simple trade terms, Australia moved from a net consumer to net saver at just the right time, thus cushioning the effect of the global financial crisis.

My conclusion was that things would be okay. I got some things wrong. I didn't see some elements of the fragility of the global economy, nor did I forecast the Euro crisis, but my view of the domestic economy was spot-on. So Access was wrong and I was right.

This time, and while I haven't read the Access report, I agree with Access. To understand this, you need to understand that Australia has experienced two related but very different mining booms.

The first is a demand side boom, the second a supply one.

On the demand side, the country has benefited from the best terms of trade for a very long time from high mineral prices. This is the boom targeted by things such as the resource rent tax. It is also a boom that started coming off the boil quite some time ago.

On the supply side, a demand boom leads to new investment. This is the second boom, a rapid expansion in investment in new supply. It is this second boom that still has a little while to run, that is presently helping hold up the economic numbers. Yet it has also been slowing down.

Big investment projects have long lead time. The investment now underway dates back some time. The new investment due to begin over the next few years has been choked off by a combination of reduced prices with a rapid escalation in Australian costs. Australian resource development is now, on all reports, the highest cost development in the world. So existing development projects will continue, but the pipeline is emptying.

This doesn't mean doom and gloom for the Australian economy. It does mean that there are some issues that we need to address. 


Two thoughtful related pieces from the Sydney Morning Herald.

In Resources boom not ending, but changing, Ian Verrender takes a positive view of Australia's economic outlook:

The first part of the boom - the construction investment frenzy - may have peaked. It may have just a few more years to run. But the ongoing part - the bit that involves decades of vastly increased mineral exports and export earnings - has yet to really kick in.

Central to his argument is the belief that while resource prices have come off the boil, Australia will still benefit from the extra production flowing from the resource construction boom.

In a related piece, Why the Reserve Bank governor is an optimist, Ross Gittins discusses the reasons why Australian Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens remains a positive glass half full person; there are problems, but Australia is well equipped to weather them.

Over on the ABC's The Drum, Alan Kohler takes a far more negative view. To his mind, deleveraging associated with high debt levels will continue to drag down global economic performance. I quote:

The point is that it (debt) hasn't come down one bit since the crisis of 2007-08. There has been a lot of talk of austerity, and passionate argument from economists like Paul Krugman that it shouldn't happen, but there hasn't been much of it yet, and certainly not enough to reduce debt.

I'm not suggesting there should have been - far from it - but if and when it does happen, watch out.

Maybe the world's savers will be prepared to forgive the debt, or do a debt for equity swap. No, they won't do that. Or maybe the debtors could print enough money to create inflation and reduce the value of the debt that way. That won't work either because the creditors would simply demand higher and higher interest rates via the bond market so that the debtors wouldn't be able to service the loans.

But cutting debt the old-fashioned way (spending less than you bring in for a while) risks setting up a feedback loop. The "paradox of thrift" applies, which, as John Maynard Keynes explained, states that if everyone tries to save then aggregate demand will fall, which will result in total savings actually falling because of lower consumption and economic growth.

I am in the somewhat funny position of broadly agreeing with all of them! Talk about a bob each way!

In commenting, let me start with a comment from Ian Verrender that I strongly disagree with:

No one, least of all those closest to the action at the big miners, saw the China slowdown coming. Until two months ago, the world's biggest miner and Australia's biggest company, BHP Billiton, had committed itself to the greatest capital expansion program in global history, $80 billion over three years. Now it is having second thoughts.

That first sentence is just not true. Michael Pettis, among others, saw a slow down coming. Even yours truly could see it. The second sentence may be correct, although my impression is that BHP has been signaling growing market weakness for some time.

Michael Pettis argues that the structural imbalances in the Chinese economy are such that pain does lie ahead. Pettis also takes a very negative view on Europe. His most recent post, The unacceptable behavior of the market, manages to combine a negative view of Europe and China. Whether he is right or not, the probability is that Chinese growth will continue for the present, even if at a slower rate. By contrast, Europe's leverage problems will continue as an economic drag.

The critical issue from an Australian perspective is just what all this will mean for the Australian economy. How can one plan in the face of so much uncertainty? What if the worst happens and we have that perfect economic storm in which Europe and China both crash, bringing the rest of the world down with them?

Nobody can plan against a perfect storm except by not going to see. Indeed, attempts to do so are likely to just make things worse. The most probable outcome is that Australia will continue its run of luck. Assume that Europe stays in recession, that Chinese growth does drop. Our export prices will drop, but production is still likely to grow because of growing capacity combined with our relatively low cost of production. We will simply increase market share. To the degree export receipts do drop, then the value of the Australian dollar will decline, cushioning the fall.

So the mining boom may be ending just as previous booms have ended, but it need not mean economic disaster. I suspect it won't. In fact, it might be quite a good thing, because presently severe adjustment pressures - the hollowing of other parts of the Australian economy - will ease.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The role of editor in an on-line world

Two week's ago, I reported (What do you want to know about e-publishing?) on my decision to enrol in an e-publishing course. While I haven't said anything since, the first two sessions have been as good as I hoped. Our tutor, David Henley, is good, while those enrolled are an interesting group including Dexter Dunphy who is interested in publishing his poetry on line. 

I will write something more on the things that I have learned a little later in the course just to help me consolidate my thoughts. For the moment, I mention that Neil Whitfield has put up his own post on e-publishing, E-books and editing–opportunity and hazard.

Over on Facebook, Helen Dale (skepticlawyer), wrote "Helen Dale had forgotten how difficult it is to edit to length for purposes of journalism. She is being reminded - with some force - why she hasn't done any opinion-editorial work since 2002." Helen is no mean writer, she won a Miles Franklin award in an earlier life; I feel for her!

In his post, Neil wonders (among other things) about the role of editing and the editor in an on-line world. All forms of publication, and e-publishing is just another form, have their own rules dictated by the structure of the medium. Because e-publishing is apparently so easy, it leads to real quality control problems. Neil gives one example.

To my mind, editing and the role of editors is just as important in the on-line environment as in print. The form of editing is changing, for the opportunities and constraints of on-line publishing affect the way words are presented and combined with other elements. Yet in a world that contains an ever growing volume of really bad crap, something that I referred to in a different context in Sunday Essay - is the internet drowning in it's own excreta?, a good editor can be vitally important in giving you that edge that allows your work to stand out.

Of course, these things are never clear cut. Some badly written pieces will sell because they appeal to to a particular market. Indeed, a good editor may even be a problem here! But I think that my comment is still true as a generalisation.

Some years ago, I read a biography of English writer Somerset Maugham. For the life of me, I cannot remember the title. That's a pity, because it was a very good book! I do remember, however, the descriptions of the sometimes complicated relations between Maugham and his editor. It was Maugham's work, but it gained from the editing.

As I write, youngest is using an editor to check her first book. It's not the first unpublished novel she wrote, just the first to be edited. Clare is a very good writer, different from her father, probably better than her father, but different. Despite her ear for dialogue, her grammar is so bad that it distracts from her writing.

That comment is not a criticism of her schooling. Clare works in bursts of enthusiasm and, when writing, just writes. It's very much part of her personality. Commenting on her preferred sporting role as hockey goalie, I once commented that the role suits her perfectly: long periods of nothing to do but gaze at the world, followed by intense bursts of excitement! So editing provides a check and a discipline.

Her father, too, could benefit from a good editor. Neil notes that much of what we regular bloggers write is actually first draft. Get it written, get it out. Sometimes that leads to painful results, but it's the reality of what we do.

The world changes if we want to turn our scribblings into something more. Now we have to consolidate, revise and edit. Now we could benefit from an editor, an external critic.

For the moment, the changes that have been taking place in publishing directly threaten the traditional role of editor. Editors are being retrenched as print publishers contract. My feeling is that this is just a transition, that the editor will re-emerge as an important element in the mix. The detail of the role will change, but the core elements will remain.

Postscript 24 July 2012

My friendly unpaid research assistant kvd drew my attention to these pieces by the Sydney Morning Herald's Judy Prisk. She occupies the apparently new position - at least new to me - of  Readers' Editor.

I'm writing while eating tea after my return from the latest session in the e-publishing course. Two things stand out in my mind.

The first is the need to flow chart the e-publishing process. I find that this helps me understand. I will do this over the next week or so, get it checked, and then post it here. I should warn you, it won't be flash. My graphic skills can best be described as miniscule!

The second is the limitations in the e-publishing world as compared to either print or the broader internet. There are many things that you either can't or shouldn't do because of the problems they create. Like tables! You must work to the limitations of the medium.

I won't be posting today beyond this postscript. I fear that I need to settle down with some estimates spreadsheets due tomorrow.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Are critics of The Shire just showing their age?

After watching the first episode of The Shire (What did you think of The Shire?), I was determined to watch the second. I lasted less than five minutes! Look, I accept that I am the wrong demographic, but even so. Watching the twitter feed, I think that best thing the show has going for it (apart from bits of the soundtrack that I rather like) is that so many people seem to be watching it so that they can bag it.

Mind you, looking at the tweets and also the media reaction such as this live blog of tonight's episode, I am not at all sure that the older members of Gen Y or the younger members of Gen X who appear to dominate the feeds are at all representative of Ten's target demographic. Maybe just too old! Ouch.

In the meantime, I leave the last word to @KelynnWolfe - "Australians I implore you. Don't watch #theShire anymore!! Even ironically. Let it die quietly!"

I think it time to return to a more fulfilling topic, the economy. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Essay - Keddies and the importance of values

Quite a bit of my professional work has involved advice to professional services[Shakespeare-420x0[8].jpg] firms on ways to improve professional and business performance. In that advice, the nature of billing practices has been one common theme. Firms have to capture value for time, yet time based billing can create a real incentive for overcharging.

Keddies was a major Australian law firm specialising in personal injury matters. Back in July 2008 (Corporatisation, Keddies and professional ethics) I reported briefly on growing allegations about overcharging by Keddies. In October 2008 (Keddies case threatens legal billing practices) I reported that Keddies had been forced to retrench staff, while the whole legal billing system in Australia was now under review. Then in November 2010 (Keddies, Slater & Gordon & the law.) I noted the sale of Keddies to Slater & Gordon for a very large sum. I wondered at the time about the wisdom of the purchase. 

Since then, the matter has dragged on and on through multiple court cases, leading to the actual or potential bankruptcy of former Keddies partners and a fairly unsavoury unveiling of the practices involved in what John Grisham wrote about as ambulance chasing.

Law firm under fire over billing practisesNow ABC Radio National's Background Briefing has provided a full update on the saga. You will find audio and transcript here.

I will write a fuller professional update on another blog. For the moment, I just want to make a brief personal comment.

In the ABC report, a former Keddies partner was quoted as saying, in effect, that you had to spend money to make money. Paraphrasing, you could charge x and get the client y. But if you invested more time and resources, you could get the client more. The problem was that the extra costs involved meant that the proportion of the additional payment going to the client fell. The client was still better off, in some cases significantly so, but the ratio between charges to the client and the final cash to the client looked bad.

I have some sympathy with that viewpoint. Keddies problem and now the problem for the whole profession is that the real examples of overcharging, and they do seem to have been very real, mean that you can't tell the difference between overcharging and the case where extra effort gets the client more, but at a price. The bills might look very similar.

A few years back I went to some staff functions put on by lawyers Turner Freeman. Turner Freeman has practices in related areas including especially dust diseases cases. In this case I was there in my handbag role. I may have been there as handbag, but it didn't stop me listening with my professional hat on.

Law is a competitive business. Lawyers like to win. To the extreme gunslingers, winning including charging for winning is the very stuff of life. You can see this in shows like Boston Legal. The thing that struck me at the Turner Freeman functions was the important role played by values in constraining what was done.

In talking about values, I am not talking about formal codes of conduct, but about values as felt operational realities that had meaning, that affected what was done. Essentially, we can't do that because....

In the Keddies case, the game seems to have become everything. Values fell away. Winning and charging for winning became central.

Values can't be imposed: they have to be created, learned and internalised; they have to be constantly refreshed. The single most important test of values is whether or not a person will be rewarded for acting consistent with them even when it is against the firm's immediate interests.

As a management consultant, this is remarkably easy to detect. You only have to listen to staff.         

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - just a flicker in time


Just at the moment I'm bogged down in a question of geology. Rod Holland kindly gave me access to a copy of this PhD thesis.

Sounds dry, doesn't it? Yet it gives me some basic information that I need on New England during the Pleistocene and Holocene periods. Mind you, to get that basic information I actually have to learn what some of the words mean! Then I have to write it up in ways that non-geological noddies like me can understand.

My main writing priority at the moment is to complete a first working draft on Aboriginal New England, that section of my history that deals with human occupation of the North up to 1788. It's not the first study that deals with this topic. I am writing a general history and could not do so without standing on other's shoulders. However, it will be, I think, the first attempt at a full synthesis of a pre-European history of a particular large region within Australia. That's quite exciting.

Humans are pattern animals. Just as New England's Aboriginal peoples sought for patterns in the world around them, so I am seeking the patterns in their lives over the millennia since they first arrived in what would become New England.

We just don't know when the first human being set foot on New England. My best guess at the moment is between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. That's a very long time. Our lives are short. It's only when we stand back and look over millennia, over generation after generation, that we get a real feel for transition and longevity.

The first families that entered the new territory never seen before by humans did not just enter a different world, although to them it was probably not so much different but a transition from an adjoining area, they entered a world that was very different from that we know today.

I say transition because human expansion across the globe was really a movement from one place to a neighbouring place. I say very different because the long period of human occupation of New England provides plenty of time for basic planetary forces to work their will. What we think of as the present coastline, a line that we try to defend, is just one dotted line on a map that has varied hugely during the human occupation of New England.

The certainties that modern humans have as to place and the appearance of the world around them are just a flicker in a process of eternal change.    

Friday, July 20, 2012

Conformity, simplicity & personal down sizing

This image came via Neil Whitfield. It is only loosely connected if connected to tonight's brief comments. Bit what the hell. It made me laugh!

Little Boxes was a hit in 1963. It attacked the conformity of middle class society, as does this cartoon in a way.

Despite my sometimes fulminations, I have a more positive view. Western middle class society has been a considerable success measured not just by the passage through life, we have been living in an age of unparalleled abundance in historic terms, but in terms of contribution to others.

My train reading has switched. I won't give you the book at this point, but it deals with time, history, intensification, entropy and the rise of complexity. In a way, it triggered my last post, Systemic complexity and the need for simplification. Technology has allowed us to manage complexity in a way never seen before. Yet the same technology embeds complexity into our systems that, arguably, makes revolution if not collapse inevitable.

I guess that's my point about simplification. We have to simplify to survive. While I have been a supporter of things like the slow food movement, I am not a supporter of the modern trend to clean out our possessions, to down size to smaller places. It's not just that I love my stuff - another modern word - too much. To my mind, all it actually does is clean up our home spaces so that we can do more outside home. In other words, it's an integral element of modern complexity. We alter to give us more personal space to go faster.

Our house ceases to be our home but, instead, becomes just another launch pad.   

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Systemic complexity and the need for simplification

I enjoyed this graphic that came from Donn Garrett via Lynne.

What is normal indeed! mention this now because it links to my last post, Has true innovation in Australian education declined?. There in a comment I wrote in part:

Current administrative systems are incredibly dense and complex. If you want to get a feel for this, try mapping them using Microsoft Project building in steps, decision points and estimated lags. It's actually surprising that anything gets done. It's not surprising that a lot of time is involved.

Then experimentation depends upon space to experiment in, resources to experiment with. The idea that systemic rigidities can impede new things is not knew. The term skunk works widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. See

The problem in education is that scope for experimentation has narrowed, while its harder to find resources. There is no educational equivalent of a skunk works.

I suppose that I have always been a reformer. Here one of my weaknesses in a professional sense lies in the struggles I have had to ensure that my advice or my actions are set within the bounds of the current normal when I know that there is a better way.

There is very little point in saying to a client, a manager or a board or council that they could do things in a better way that falls outside the iron jaws set by normal processes and procedures, unless you can actually show them a path to get round those jaws. It's not helpful. It just adds to the frustration often experienced by people who know that things could be done better, but can't do anything about it. Rarely, and these have been the greatest satisfactions of my life, happenstance means that new things are possible. Then the dam breaks and real change occurs.

The forces of entropy are strong. Big organisations require rules - policies and procedures - to make them work, to allow the whole to hang together. This can conflict with a simple administrative rule, the need to push decisions down to the lowest practical level. The actual act of doing is best managed by those who have to do. The problem is that this creates mess, untidiness, lack of uniformity that can be difficult to accept or manage. How do you control something when the real act of doing is out of sight or indeed measurement? What happens when things go wrong?

One of the very simply messages that I have tried to get across in my writing is that complexity rises, action slows, with every additional step in decision processes. That was the point of my Microsoft project example. If you actually chart the various decision points and the interactions between them, you get a very complex web.

Take a simple decision to build a house in a particular area to meet a social need. That simple decision may need to go through more than sixteen major decision points and in so doing comply with a similar number of laws, rules and protocols. Once the contract is let, the physical act of building may not take time. But the time involved in getting to actually let that contract may exceed the building time by a factor of four or five or even ten fold.

My message is simple. If you want real improvement, forget in-principle arguments, although these are important; just chart what actually happens at a detailed process level. Then simplify. This will help you break free from the trap of the normal, to pose more fundamental questions.          

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Has true innovation in Australian education declined?

I was at my e-publishing course tonight (What do you want to know about e-publishing? ) and time is limited.

In tonight's short post, I want to pick up just one important point from my last post. There I wrote:

Winton's Can democracies adapt? actually deals with a pretty fundamental problem. If you can't make mistakes, how can you advance? And how can you do things if everything has to be evaluated first in terms of risk?

In extending the argument, I want to make two points:

  1. Experimentation is important in testing new things in a controlled way.
  2. Experimentation has become more difficult, at least in the public sector.

If you look at the history of education in Australia, you will find that innovations that had long term impact often came from particular individuals who had ideas and who, by happenstance, found themselves in a position to test their ideas. You will also find constant find constant borrowings between jurisdictions as experiments that  seem to have worked in one jurisdiction were tested in another.

If you look at the history of education in Australia over the last twenty years, the period since the Dawkins reforms, you will find the opposite. The Dawkins reforms themselves were truly revolutionary, although their implementation was not. Since then, we find an emphasis on:

  1. National standardisation that has greatly reduced the capacity of individual jurisdictions to experiment.
  2. Command and control management systems including an emphasis on particular types of measurement that have greatly reduced freedom to experiment. People can do new things, but only if they fit within the existing rules.
  3. A rise in administrative overheads associated with compliance that increase costs and reduces resources available to actually do new things.
  4. The use of officially mandated pilots - controlled experiments - to test, but which must occur within narrowing bounds and whose primary purpose is actually to justify and refine previously made decisions.

Am I unfair? Maybe, but I would like to see a counter argument.   

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tennis, Father F, The Shire with a dash of other things

tennis 2

I was going to continue my new ways of working series tonight, but I played tennis with my girls instead!

The photo shows Clare and Helen at the Eastcourts courts. We try to play tennis every Tuesday, but the combination of bad weather and other commitments has made this hard recently. So tonight, just a short meander on personal and other issues before I go to bed.

I don't know about you, but while I know that I need more exercise, I find it hard to do. I'm not good at exercising alone. So tonight I made arrangements at the courts to add Friday social tennis to the often missed Tuesdays with the girls. That way I also get to meet new people, and I like that!

  The matter of Father F that I covered in Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F drags on and on. That post is by far the highest traffic post of all my recent posts.

In case you hadn't worked it out, I know Father F and indeed was in email contact with him and even had dinner with him in Armidale two years ago. Ken Parish had a very honest personal piece on Club Troppo, Me and the Catholic Church: A Roger and two Franks. I promised in a comment to write a companion piece, but I find it all very complicated and not just because of my own experiences.

Bob Brown who was a primary school friend and in the same class at Armidale Demonstration School  suffered a very bad experience there. We had two teachers in the period Bob was there. One was one of the greatest teachers of my life, the other I disliked. I don't actually want to find out who the bad teacher was.

On  a happier note, this is a photo of youngest, Clare, at a recent function. She has arranged for someone to edit one of her manuscript novels.

It's a terrible thing to be in rivalry with one's daughter! In this case, the question is who will get the first book out. And how. This is where What do you want to know about e-publishing? comes in. I want to set up my publishing systems!

My post on the latest Ten TV show, What did you think of The Shire?, drew some tart comments from kvd and Neil. This has been another high traffic post, although still some distance behind Father F. The acerbic comments that I picked up on Twitter were reflected in today's main stream media coverage. The initial ratings for Ten were not bad but not brilliant. Still, the channel has got the coverage it wants. 

The next graphic comes from Young Writers via Clare. I think that it's pretty right. If you want to be a writer, you have to write.

It's getting late and I really need to go to bed.  So just a few final comments.

Winton's Can democracies adapt? actually deals with a pretty fundamental problem. If you can't make mistakes, how can you advance? And how can you do things if everything has to be evaluated first in terms of risk?

And, finally, Lorenzo in Debt, doom and despair has some pretty interesting graphs. Mind you, I think that I disagree with his conclusions on the Australian debt graph. But that's another issue.

Monday, July 16, 2012

What did you think of The Shire?

I watched The Shire tonight. I kind of felt that I should. Then perhaps I shouldn't haveI

Eldest has a predilection for certain popular US TV shows, so I have actually watched more of this type of show than you might expect. Many more, in fact.

The official web site describes the program in this way:

Set against the backdrop of the Southern Sydney region that commands the loyalty of its residents like no other, TEN’s brand new ‘dramality show’ The Shire is the latest daring addition to its schedule.

Screening Mondays at 8.00, The Shire isn’t another contrived piece of TV faux-fact; it’s true unscripted Shire life-through-a-lens. The entertaining cast of characters may seem larger than life, but they’re every bit as real as the relationships they share.

From Mitch, the ‘Peter Pan’ surfer boy who never wants to grow up, to Nikee, the glamour model who wants nothing more than to settle down, seeing what makes The Shire’s personalities tick and what ticks them off is certain to make compulsive viewing.

Some you’ll love, some you may loathe, but you’ll all be talking about them when The Shire hits your screens. Are you ready to meet them? Find out who's who on The Shire!

Mmm! The show begins like a tourist promo, then switches into the "story". I can only manage so much shopping in Dubai with Daddy's credit card, and I probably learned more about botox that I cared to. Now on the US shows I have learned about the Housewives, even the real housewives, of Orange County. I have seen the most amazing manipulation of parents by seventeen year old girls spending enough on their birthday party to retire half the Greek debt. But I wasn't bored. And here I was, except for rare flashes. 

Now accepting that I am not in Ten's target demographic(!), accepting too that Twitter is not a good guide given those I tend to follow, I did what any sensible person would do, I went to the official Facebook page. Wow, some of the negative comments there would make Tony Abbott look like the Gillard Government's greatest promoter.  Angie wrote: "Thank you 'The Shire' for reigniting my will to hang myself."

So I went to the official Shire Twitter hash tag. Oops!  According to Chris: "BREAKING: RTA says Tom Ugly's Bridge bumper-to-bumper northbound. Residents fleeing. More detail in Late News". Peter thought that the show was making Being Lara Bingle look like Q&A.

Mind you, even as I wrote the last two paragraphs eighty new tweets came in. They included this one: "If you missed #TheShireTV tonight, this image basically sums it up. " Ouch!

Mind you, and as one twitterer noted, its seems just so bad that everybody is likely to switch in next time just to see what the fuss is all about. Now Ten may want that, be seeking it, for if the next episode is better then people may stay. Better? I don't mean high drama, just something that fleshes everybody out in a more interesting way.

Still, what do I know? I will put this post up on Facebook to see what reaction I get. But then I'm not sure that most Easties actually talk to anyone from The Shire. In the meantime, Channel Ten can send me a cheque for promotion!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

New ways of working - the building blocks 1

Looking back over my posts and the comments they attracted, I decided to make this a purely professional post. This is not a criticism of the comments. I enjoyed most of them. It reflects other things.

On this blog I tend to ramble a bit and why not? It's a purely personal blog. However, this can make it hard to see the line of argument. Further, I have been writing on aspects of this topic for years, so I am in fact taking my previous writing largely as a given. Yet most readers won't have knowledge of that previous writing.

Thinking about this, I thought that I would fill in some of the building blocks underlying my position.

To begin with a reminder of my focus in this series. When I speak of new ways of working I am especially concerned with the world of work. Of course, you cannot separate this from other economic and social changes, but the focus is on work. I am also focusing on four things in particular:

  1. Changes to the structure of work
  2. The impact this has on the relationships between people and those that employ them
  3. The way that these changing relationships affect attitudes and behaviours that then feed back into the world of work
  4. What should be done in a practical sense by organisations and especially individuals to manage the changes.

The material I write is affected by my training and my own experiences. This affects both the questions I ask and the form my analysis takes. However, the analysis itself should be judged not on my motives or perceptions in writing, but on the way it all stacks up as analysis.

A lot of it will seem self-evident. What is, I think, less self evident is the way that the bits interact with each other. 

Externalities and Free Riders

Economists use the term externalities to describe positive or negative effects of actions not received or paid by the actor. Say I make something and then dump the pollutants in a nearby stream. In this case I make the profit, but there are costs bourne by others. That's a negative externality.

Education and training is often cited as an example of a sector where externalities are important. The evidence suggests that improvements in education have played a major role in increased living standards over the twentieth century. The evidence also shows that education contributes to longer term income, Those with better education earn more money. The state extracts part of that extra income through higher taxation of higher income earners. Increasingly, too, the state is looking to extract part of the education income premium by making students benefit. You benefit, you pay.

In all this, there is a problem. There appears to be a a general benefit from education that cannot be calculated by simply adding up all the income premiums attached to varying education, That gap is the external benefit flowing to all, one not captured in individual income returns. If you charge people too much for education and therefore reduce demand, you may end up by under investing in education.

I now want to introduce the related free rider problem.

Take training. A firm invests in training because it expects to benefit from improved productivity. However, that improved productivity will flow to the firm only so long as the worker is there. Once the worker leaves, the benefit will flow to the new employer and to the economy beyond. In a perfect world, all firms would invest to the optimum level because the loss of one worker would be offset by the acquisition of another trained to the same level whose training costs had been paid by someone else.

But why should a firm invest in training if it can acquire workers trained by others? Surely it's best just to free ride, to do no training at all other than that absolutely necessary to meet immediate needs? That's true for one firm, but if all firms try to free ride there will not be enough training to meet needs and all will suffer.

Both externalities and free riders are central to my arguments on new ways of working.

Incremental Changes in the World of Work

In a day to day sense, the world of work seems stable enough to most of us. We expect today to be much like yesterday. The particular activities we do day to day may vary, but ignoring major events, the structures and patterns of work seem stable.

In fact, the world of work is in a constant state of flux: people change, structures change, systems change. Many of these changes are small, incremental, but they have considerable impact over time .

Recently, work took me back to a particular organisation after a two year gap. Two years is not a long time. However, over that two year period there had been two major structural changes, while two thirds of the previous staff had left the organisation. Even where formal structures and processes remained the same, there had been a variety of often subtle shifts in the way that things were done.

Knowledge Domains in the World of Work

We can think of the world of work in terms of three knowledge domains:

  • There are generic knowledge and skills that are broadly applicable. I am an economist, you are a bricklayer or an accountant or a small business person. Even what is called unskilled labour contains generic knowledge and skills.
  • There is what we might think of as sector or industry specific knowledge. A sales person or marketer who works in the aged care sector does not sell in the same way as one selling telecommunications systems or management consulting services. There may be some common generic skills, but the language and approach is different.
  • Finally, there is organisation specific knowledge, essentially the way we do things around here.

Of these three knowledge domains, my experience has been that that the second, sector or industry specific knowledge, is the most important.

The labour market is made up of a number of often very small slices that have quite distinct features. With the rise of professionalisation and credentialism, the domain of generic knowledge and skills has become increasingly fragmented. Broad based skills have become less important, tickets more important. Increasingly, employers have focused on the second domain because sector or industry knowledge provides a measure of comfort that the person can do.

The Half Life

The half life concept is well known. Essentially, it takes a starting value that declines with time and asks how long it will take to reach half that value.

In my first post in this series, I suggested that our personal knowledge, skills and networks actually have a half life of about eighteen months. To illustrate my point, I took the case of a person who left his or her job and decided to go consulting. Initial income would be determined by what he or she had at the start point. Cut off from the previous replenishment, his or her capacity to make money two years out would be determined what he or she had done since.

Consulting is an interesting case because in selling professional management services you obviously have to go with what the client wants, and this is affected not just be economic conditions but also by changing fads and fashions. In independent consulting in particular, the big shops are different, having saleable knowledge and skills now does not guarantee that they will be saleable in two years time. You have to constantly reinvent yourself.

While consulting is a special case, the half life concept is very important those who drop out of the workforce to greater or lesser extent for other reasons such as job loss or having or looking after children. The value of your previous experience declines quite rapidly.

Learning on the Job

This is a linked point. Well over 85% of our skills, knowledge and supporting networks are acquired on the job, by working. That is why, in my professional writing, I have so emphasised the need to structure work to maximise gains in skills and knowledge through work.

There are some hard lessons here. It explains why retraining nearly always involves a drop in income and work status. It explains why the long term un-employed face such a problem. It amplifies the challenge faced by those who, for whatever reason, drop out of work. And it explains why part time work is not as good as full time work in career terms.

I am out of time today. I will continue the building blocks tomorrow, starting with the economics of work.                    

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Australian Story - Letters to the editor

This story made me cry, not in a bad way, because it struck at the heart of my own emotions. I quote from the program web site:

It's a time of unprecedented crisis in the newspaper industry. But this week's Australian Story is about a former big city journalist who's bucking the trend.

James Clark had been living the dream in Paris when he decided to put his future, his relationship and the family sheep station on the line to chase his dream of running a little local newspaper in outback Cunnamulla.

The paper is called the Warrego Watchman and it has even developed a fan following in the big smoke where Kevin Rudd is a regular reader.

Clark ruffles many feathers. His take no prisoners tabloid reporting style gets the locals offside. Even his own father is moved to write a scolding 'letter to the editor'.

And his brother is worrying that the family's 60,000 acre sheep property 'Pabra' is being neglected.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, the love of Clark's life, actor Josephine Birch is deciding whether to throw it all in and join Clark in his remote corner of the Outback...

I don't know how long it will be on-line. For the present, you can watch it via the above web link. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What do you want to know about e-publishing?

A very short post today because I wanted to let What would you nominate as the most asinine slogan? run, while also doing an update.

My old friend Noric has been after me for some time to upgrade my knowledge on the latest developments in e-publishing. Finally, and as I said in If you want loyalty, hire a dog, I enrolled in a short course at UTS - to e or not to e - here in Sydney. By the way, I do intend to finish my musings on new ways of working. However, it will be Saturday or Sunday before I do so.

Last night was the first night of the course. I really enjoyed myself. My fellow students were a varied group, each with something to offer. Our tutor, David Henley, is an expert in his field. So for someone like me, all this was heaven.

All this led me to a somewhat random thought. To help me and to encourage group discussion, what do you want to know about e-publishing? I promise to ask and then follow up with a post. Maybe we can get another discussion thread running!


Winton, Evan, email from David Henley to confirm that he will be covering these things. Winton, on the surface that link you referred to - How to self-publish an ebook - is a very useful summary.

Debbie Kearns pointed me to this Facebook page - Australian eBook Publisher. My thanks, Debbie.

Postscript 2

In comments, Noric Dilanchian gave me these useful links -  Twitter: @lizcastro, Web:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What would you nominate as the most asinine slogan?

Note to readers: I am letting this stand as the front post for the moment, adding stuff from comments as we go along. Feel free to join in - there is still time.

A comment by Winton Bates on Winton Bates, kvd & monitory democracy got me thinking. Winton wrote:

You have nearly persuaded me that ‘monitory’ might be a good term to use to describe modern democracy, but kvd had almost persuaded me to the opposite viewpoint. I’m not sure that monitory captures the asinine aspect of modern politics – particularly use of focus groups to find meaningless words that have an appealing ring to them and using those words as a substitute for policies. For example: ‘moving forward with plans to build a sustainable Australia’.

Winton's example really made me laugh, for I have long complained about current "policy" statements with their pastel colours, obligatory if usually meaningless photos plus catch phrases devoid of content.

I thought, therefore, that I would issue a challenge to readers to nominate meaningless slogans. They can be actual examples, Working Australia comes to mind, or parodies. Mind you, they could be both! Again Working Australia comes to mind!

I am not sure that I can offer a prize, but surely between us we can come up with a list that might be a prize in itself? 

Just an immediate addition from Neil Whitfield:  

More later.

Quite a bit later

I think that we have to start with this one. kvd wrote:

For anyone interested, go to this page - - to see the complete collection of Liberal Party policy PDFs. Click on any link, and what you get is an error page which says There appears to be a problem.

Wait, why am I here?

Says it all, really.

I thought kvd must be joking and went to check. At least at the time I write, that is exactly the message that comes up.

Katz nominated John Howard, January 1987: INCENTIVATION. No, I don't know what it means either.

Winton Bates wrote:

I have taken up kvd’s suggestion of trying to think up some new political slogans. However, I found it quite difficult to come up with phrases that were as meaningless as those which have already been used by professional politicians.
Here are some suggestions for the focus group to consider:
1. Building highways to happiness.
2. Health care we can live with.
3. Re-building the education revolution.
4. Working schools.
5. Launching islands of innovation.
6. Building a bigger Australia.
7. Empowering national ecology.
8. Moving people together. (That might require some explanation. It is a potential policy for solving the peak hour public transport problem in Sydney.)
At that point I lost the plot and starting thinking about how it might be possible to sell a stronger emphasis on defence spending without mentioning defence:
9. Diplomacy of the future.
10. Stepping up national sustainability.
Then, when the time comes to declare war:
11. Building bridges to peace.

Evan was forced to bow to Winton's Orwellian expertise, as was kvd. But kvd, that almost rusted on conservative warrior struck back

It's absolutely pointless competing against Winton's years of obfuscation - sorry, that should be experienced cynicism - but anyway:

For the Liberal Party:
We don’t stand for what they do.
We won’t stand for anything!
Sensible government: a new concept
Time to believe in something.
Putting the ‘great’ back into expectations.
We have a plan.
We’re in this together
A plan to move on but in another direction.
Free scratchies for every vote.

More of the same, only less so. Sorry.

And whoever concocted "moving forward" is a genius. Most probably Winton's nephew, I expect.

Mmm. Time to move forward, I think!

Meantime, over on Twitter, Paul Barratt was moving forward in a maritime direction:

Paul Barratt@phbarratt

@JimBelshaw Stop the boats. Moving forward. Embracing a new future. A great big new tax on everything. #assinineslogans

If we move forward embracing a new future by stopping the boats we could well need a great new tax!

Keep it coming all!

A final postscript

Additions to those previously listed.

Ramana's Indian addition was divine benevolence. Winton and kvd have decided to cross-licence from each other 'We don't stand for what they do'" and "Launching Islands of Innovation" respectively. I could actually do something in real policy terms with launching islands of innovation!  And a final word from Paul Barratt:

Paul Barratt@phbarratt

@JimBelshaw Must be room in there somewhere for comment that Afghan asylum seekers are behaving in an un-Christian manner#asinineslogans


It's interesting. When I began this post I was thinking of actual slogans that got attached to policy and could actually have no real meaning. They are rather different from political slogans that may not, of themselves, have real meaning but which act as hooks on which to hang a series of attitudes. The worst political slogans can be those that do have meaning.

Take Stop the Boats or a Great Big Tax as examples.

A Great Big Tax may not be factually correct, although that is arguable. In any event, it is a device for putting across a simple message. Apart from its impact on voter perception, the slogan carries no call for action beyond, perhaps, the repeal of certain pieces of legislation.

Stop the Boats is different. That slogan combines a call for direct action with a very specific hook designed to attract certain sets of views. That makes it very different from a Great Big Tax. Taken to its logical extreme, it could be achieved by the handy application of gun fire - or a torpedo or a missile, actions then justified by the slogan itself. We had to Stop the Boats.

You see what I mean?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Winton Bates, kvd & monitory democracy

Before reading this post, please have a look at Michael Pascoe's opinion piece, Timid governments bow to populism. I actually disagree quite strongly with some aspects of the Pascoe argument, but it sets a context for this post.

In a comment on Saturday Morning Musings - things European via Higgs Boson, Indonesia & other matters, Winton Bates asked regular commenter kvd what he thought of monitory democracy. kvd responded:

Hi Winton - I would have to think long and hard about that.

I'm presently quite depressed by what I see being reported as to the crumbling of what I've always regarded as the bedrock of democracy: integrity, prudential management, a fine civil service, and an honourable judicial, press and banking system.

Now I see parliament foregoing its legislative responsibility, a press (the traditional press) being dishonoured by its current practitioners, our High Court decisions analysed as to personalities rather than judicial reasoning, etc. etc.

Possibly it was always a mixture of the good and not so good, but now our view is informed constantly by many new sources and opinion makers - some of them too loud, too partisan. The mechanics are more transparent but with that has gone a measure of our respect for the institutions and placeholders.

I think open monitoring and questioning is ok - except it can lead to always performing, never planning - but I dread the thought of our current democracy going down the path towards participatory democracy, for instance such as Getup! claims to be. Sometimes you need a government prepared to make and hold to tough decisions, and I don't think the constant daily questioning and second-guessing assists in that.

I hadn't heard of the concept of monitory democracy before.

Winton explains it in What implications does 'monitory democracy' have for the survival of democratic institutions?. The idea comes from Australian political scientist Professor John Keane. Keane argues that from the middle of the 20th Century representative democracy began to transform into monitory democracy – a new historical form described by ‘the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms’. He looks at the matter from its impact on public policy. He also discusses what me might call loosely the imperfections and imbalances in the scrutinising mechanisms. Monitory democracy is of itself imperfect.

Michael Pascoe does not use the same term as Professor Keane, but the examples he provides fit the Keane model. I said that I objected to aspects of the Pascoe piece. It's really his emphasis on the adverse effects of populism, his equation of it with mindless bending to public opinion, that annoyed me. I am a populist in political tradition, but that is not the same as blind majoritarianism.

Like Professor Keane, Michael Pascoe looks at it in terms of the relationship between state and people, at the impact on the way Government works. I have a similar focus, but come perhaps to a different position.

To my mind, the effect of monitory democracy is ever greater monitoring and control by the state over individual action in the name of risk avoidance. The state becomes the monitor over individual and collective behaviour setting controls dictated by the ever shifting perception of majority popular opinion. It doesn't matter whether those controls work or not, it doesn't matter what the costs might be, the key thing is to be seen to be doing something.

I am not a libertarian. Total freedom doesn't work. Yet the end result of what we do now is a mess. 

I really like the phrase monitory democracy because it captures what is happening, monitoring by the state in response to our monitoring of the state.      


I always acknowledge when I have been trumped! In this case, both Winton and I in fact! Our long standing blogging colleague Neil Whitfield drew my attention to two posts he wrote over two years ago on Professor Keane's views. They are:

Podcast - Social Change in New England 1950-2000

Because of the topic, this is a cross-post on three blogs.

In April of last year, I delivered seminar paper in Armidale on Social Change in New England 1950-2000. While I knew that it was being recorded, I didn't know until last week that it was on line as a podcast.  I had a cold plus too much material, but still it's a record of some of my work.

You will find the podcast here.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - things European via Higgs Boson, Indonesia & other matters

Today's Saturday Morning Musings starts with The Conversation. For the benefit of international readers, The Conversation is, in its own words, an independent source of analysis, commentary and news from the Australian university and research sector viewed by 350,000 readers each month.

In The 30-year cycle: Indigenous policy and the tide of public opinion, Mark Moran suggests that there is a thirty year pendulum in public policy towards Australia's indigenous peoples. He summarises it in this way:   

First is the reformist government that brings in the change (Whitlam and Howard). Then there is the consolidating government which tinkers but keeps the main policy thrust (Fraser and Rudd/Gillard). This is followed by the return of the implementing government which deepens and then is perceived to overreach to the next tipping point (Hawke/Keating and perhaps Abbott?). And around the 30 year anniversary, there is a shift in public opinion which heralds in a new policy era.


My point is that Indigenous affairs policy reform is strongly influenced by a pendulum of public opinion, on an approximate 30-year metronome. A potent policy driver to disadvantage in remote Aboriginal communities is what other Australians think of that disadvantage. The residents of these communities are not sufficient in number or political alignment to constitute a significant political force at the ballot box.

Similar in a way to asylum seekers, their plight captures the attention of the public, which politicians are beholden to. The clients of Indigenous affairs policy include other Australians, and 30 years is about the limit of their memory.

Just at present, we are at the midpoint in the age of mainstreaming, what Patrick Sullivan suggested should be called "normalisation,"in which previous Aboriginal specific policies and service delivery are absorbed into broader institutions.

Reading the short piece, I realised that it has been quite some time since I wrote something on policy towards Australia's Aboriginal people. I both agree and disagree with Mark. My feeling is that we are at a time of fundamental change, a tipping point.

Staying with The Conversation, Martin White's CERN discovers a Higgs-like particle: let the party (and head-scratching) begin covers the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson. It's an easy read, and has links to other material. As a sometimes science fiction addict, I really liked an earlier piece by Dean Rickles, Is the Large Hadron Collider a time machine?.

The graphic comes from Fake Science.

The visit to Darwin by Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for bilateral discussions was well covered in the Australian media.

Greg Sheridan's piece in The Australian, Indonesia relations in a mess, provides a remarkably acerbic view of the visit in terms of the performance of the Gillard Government. There is no doubt that the live cattle export affair was a mess in which Australian domestic political considerations created longer term economic and political damage. But I would have thought that Mr Abbott was, putting Mr Sheridan's puffery aside, equally prone to that habit. Refugee policy is an example.

Because of other preoccupations, I didn't have time at the time to check the Indonesian press reaction as I would normally try to do. However, if this story in the Jakarta Post is in any guide, In Darwin, SBY offers olive branch, Indonesian reporting of the whole thing was positive.   

The slow changes in Indonesian-Australian relations that have been working their way through have been just that, slow. The integration between the Australian and Indonesian economies was low simply because the economies were so different. It takes a long time to build links, but the process can then compound quite quickly.

If you look at the statistics on short term visitor arrivals, a proxy for the degree of connection, you will see that over the first months of 1991 arrivals from Indonesia were a miniscule 2,900 per month. Today they are averaging around 11,000 to 12,000 per month. Indonesia still doesn't rank in the top visitor source group, but that's only a matter of time.

Australians, by contrast, have clearly discovered Indonesia. In May, Indonesia was the second most popular destination for short term resident departures ranking just behind the US, with just over 73,000 Australians leaving for Indonesia. These are actual, not trend or seasonally adjusted numbers. In both trend and seasonally adjusted terms, Indonesia ranked second behind New Zealand.

I was looking around for something pleasant to finish this post, so turned to Sophie Masson's A la mode frangourou. There I learned in Introducing a great new French-Australian magazine that Australia did indeed have a new French-Australian magazine for the Francophiles among us.

I have written before on the current Australian love affair with things European. It's quite remarkable and strongly aided by the strength of the Australian dollar. At work, half a dozen people have been to Europe in the last six months. One is about to leave on her second trip!

I don't write as much as I should on life style issues, at least those that appeal to me. Sophie's Hearty winter delights 2: monastery fish reminded me of that. Why shouldn't I cook it?

While I loved the earlier episodes of Masterchef, the program lost me in the end because it was food without context. To my mind, food and for that matter wine is best savoured where other things add. Australia is a remarkably lucky country in its varied people and experiences. food for thought, so to say!  


Regular commenter kvd really acts as my research assistant. He drew my attention to this story on links between the Indonesian and Australian military at the people level. Do have a look at the video. It's rather fun.     

Friday, July 06, 2012

Firestorm & the Father F case

There will be no post today. I had to respond to comments on Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F and then I updated the post. I'm out of time.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Retreating into history

Tonight I'm retreating into history, the writing thereof. It seems easier, somehow.

As I write this short post, the printer beside me is spitting out the present 44 page draft on New England in Aboriginal Times. That is, up to 1788. Doesn't that sound grand? Not really, it's a very rough first draft. All that I have been doing is going through past material, pasting it, then editing and re-ordering so that I have a rough working draft.

This section of the book will be around 20,000 words. Its on 18,000 at the moment, with a lot of material to be added. But then, I'm cutting too as I go along. Looking back as past posts in particular, one of the constant themes is the need to give Aboriginal people access to their own story. That idea remains firmly fixed in my mind. I try to keep the Aboriginal people I know from New England firmly fixed in my mind and write for them.

On a related matter, I think that one of the reasons I was so depressed at the story of Father F (Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F) is that I know that he shared my love of giving people access to their past. As I said in response to a commenter on the post, I had no idea of the back story. When I last had dinner with Father F some two years ago on one of my now rare Armidale visits, we talked about our shared historical interests.

My printing is finished. I will do the next rough edit on bus and train tomorrow. Mind you, I keep getting distracted on the train. The people around me are just so interesting!


I had just finished this when I was alerted to tonight's ABC 7.30 report on the matter. You will find the transcript and video here, at least for the moment.  

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F

This one made me very angry. Consider the following. Was I wrong to be angry?

On Monday night, ABC Four Corners ran the following story -  Unholy Silence. You will find the transcript and video here. I was interested if depressed because this was a very local story from my home area. On Wednesday, 4 July, the Armidale Express carried this story by Janene Carey Disgraced priest lives comfortably among us. The story began:

A SHOCKING exposé aired by the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday night dropped a prominent Armidale resident into the spotlight of allegations about a child sexual abuse cover-up within the Catholic Church.

The man, a former priest who was defrocked in 2005, was called “Father F” throughout the program due to a court order from 1987 that prevents the media from revealing his name, and was shown on the streets of Armidale with his face pixelated.

Although allegations have been repeatedly raised that Father F molested altar boys in Moree and Parramatta during the 1980s, he has never been formally convicted.

It ended with this statement:

Ms Mary Ann Jolley
ABC 4 Corners

Dear Mary Ann,

Your email of the 14th June mentions the tragic case of Mr Damian Jurd. Whilst I have only recently become Bishop of the Diocese, I have been made aware of his plight. I offer my deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

As far as I can ascertain, the Diocesan Authorities became aware of alleged incidents of abuse by (‘Father F’) on the 13th August 1987 when he was arrested. He was immediately stood down from all public ministry. The Church paid for his legal fees since every person accused of a crime is entitled to a defence.

(‘Father F’) was later permitted to undertake ministry in the Parramatta Diocese since the charges against him were dismissed and since a Clinical Psychologist’s 1998 report indicated that he did not present any problem to children.

I have no knowledge of any sessions between (‘Father F’) and Rex Brown as you mention.

(‘Father F’) last worked as a priest in 1992 when on the 1st of July his priestly faculties were removed by the then Bishop of Armidale and he was forbidden from any undertaking any public ministry. The diocese took this course of action because, although the charges against him were dismissed, there were continued rumours about him. Subsequently the Church’s Special Issues Resource Group (forerunner to Towards Healing) formed the opinion that he should not undertake public ministry due to these continued rumours.

(‘Father F’) was formally laicised on the 18th November 2005 and no longer has any priestly status in the Church.

Yours faithfully,

Most Reverend Michael Kennedy
Bishop of Armidale

On Wednesday evening, the Armidale Express issued the following statement on its Facebook page headed Clarification:

"The Armidale Express would like to make it clear that the person identified as ‘Father F’ in the story "Disgraced priest lives comfortably among us", published on Wednesday July 4, has never been employed as a journalist or in any other capacity by this newspaper, its sister paper, The Armidale Extra, or by our parent company, Fairfax Media.

In the past, Father F has occasionally contributed unpaid articles to the Armidale Express, however, the paper’s management decided to cease accepting Father F's copy in April 2012 after being informed about his background.

Although the ABC Four Corner's program about Father F showed our office and stated that he was a "regular contributor to local newspapers and employed to enter family homes gathering information for a survey funded by the Federal Government", in fact he is a regular columnist for another Armidale newspaper.

Father F's contributions to us were ad-hoc and dealt with historical subjects, and at no time was he ever requested by us to enter people's homes to gather information.

The Armidale Express, The Armidale Extra and Fairfax Media have no on-going relationship with Father F in any capacity."

I saw the clarification as it was posted and responded with an angry comment. Let me explain why.

The question of Father F's guilt or innocence nor the crimes he allegedly committed were not the reason for my response. Rather, it was anger at the Express itself.

Leaving aside the way the clarification identified Father F, to my mind it was disingenuous even hypocritical. I quote: "Father F has occasionally contributed unpaid articles the the Armidale Express."  If Father F is the person that seems to be implied by all the comments, the Express welcomed his contributions and ran them every week. And why not? To my knowledge, the then editor knew nothing of the matters revealed on the Four Corners story, nor did others connected with the paper including myself. I was a weekly columnist on the Express for a number of years. Father F wrote quite well on historical topics of local interest.

Continuing, and again I quote: "In fact he is a regular correspondent for another Armidale newspaper." I wonder what the fact that Father F wrote a column for the Armidale Independent  - a fierce competitor - has to do with anything except to demonstrate a holier than thou attitude.

The reference to "unpaid articles" made me smile. It adds to the vision of a local scribbler carried in the paper as an act of grace and favour. In fact, the Express paid none of its regular contributors including yours truly, and I contributed over 150 weekly columns!

To quote further:  "the paper’s management decided to cease accepting Father F's copy in April 2012 after being informed about his background." Really? So in April Armidale's main media outlet took the allegations about Father F sufficiently seriously to stop accepting his contributions.

I fully accept that local newspapers can face difficult choices when it comes to dealing with allegations about locals. Yet surely it is a little odd that a newspaper should wish to claim in its defence that they stopped dealing with a contributor having been informed of his background two months before the story broke nationally? And then the focus of their coverage is on, and I quote: "A SHOCKING exposé aired by the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday night dropped a prominent Armidale resident into the spotlight of allegations about a child sexual abuse cover-up within the Catholic Church."

In my response on Facebook, I described the Express clarification as mealy mouthed. It struck me as back-protection that would have made any of our politicians proud Was I wrong? I'm still cranky.


Just in case I was being unbalanced, I watched the whole Four Corners program again. It's not pleasant viewing. The paper's concern is something I hadn't actually noticed the first time, the juxtaposition of a piece of commentary with a picture of the Express window. I think that I stand by my comments.

Postscript two

Tonight's ABC 7.30 Report has just reported on the matter. You will find the transcript and video here, at least for the moment.  It made me really uncomfortable because we are now dealing by trial by media. You will get a more balance picture if you look at the comments on this on both side.

Armidale is a small gold fish bowl. This matter has to go to a full police investigation for the sakes of all those involved.

Postscript three:

In a comment tonight on the discussion thread on this post, I wrote:

"First of all, a heartfelt thanks to all of you for your courtesy in discussing this difficult topic. You have educated me.

After coming home tonight, I did some more web searches triggered by comments including that relating to the Broken Rights, Janene's latest story and kvd's comments. For reasons that I will explain properly in a postscript on the main story, I am withdrawing from coverage of this matter for the present. However, I will leave the comment thread open.

I am not quite sure how to number all the anons! However, one informed anon commented, and I quote, "Jim, if you read the witness statements, court transcripts, spoke to families involved, etc, I don't think you would remain so impartial." I did not read this as a criticism, rather an objective observation.

I am not opposed to use this blog for campaigning purposes, but when reporting or examining issues of principle, my value add lies in impartiality, in my ability to delineate issues. This holds even when I am angry as I was with the Express. I asked readers for their judgments as a consequence.

As a part time blogger in a fast moving case like this one, I am not equipped to report in a conventional sense. I am not a newspaper. Further, some of the reporting that I might do even just providing links to past stories, is likely to threaten the chances of a fair trial.

As was noted, there is a difference between revenge and justice. If justice cannot be obtained by any other means, then there is a case for the use of direct action or the media to redress the balance. But there is also a question of balance.

Consider kvd's report on Mr Hadley. Does anybody believe that this (Mr Hadley's actions) will aid justice? To my mind, it is far more likely to have the opposite effect by impeding the chances of a fair trial, indeed even increasing the chances of a dismissal of any charges.

As I said, I will try to outline my views in a little more detail in a postscript on the main post."

I meant very sincerely what I said about my commenters. I stuck my head above the parapet on a sensitive issue, and the whole thing could have collapsed in a flame fight of type that we have seen too often before in the blogosphere. It did not. Instead, I gained a greater understanding.

I have grouped the comments that follow under headings to make it easier to understand the differing issues as I see them.

The Catholic Church

The Armidale Diocese has announced an inquiry into the matter and rightly so. Leave aside broader issues including legal questions, we appear to be dealing with a failure in due process in the previous investigation. This demanded impartial investigation as well as natural justice on both sides. I may be wrong, but an objective inquiry is required to determine the facts. This includes natural justice for Father F.

Failures in Legal Process

I am very careful in this area because I lack facts and do not have time to do the proper analysis. Have there been failures in general legal process in handling this matter?

Use of the Media to seek Justice

Are people entitled to use the media to seek justice denied through the courts or other systems? I would have thought clearly yes. That right is central to a free society. Note I said justice. More on that in a moment.

Role of Armidale's newspapers

This was actually my entry point, my anger at the Express clarification. Based on my commenters, I haven't validated the claims, the facts appear to be these:

  • The allegations about Father F including some evidentiary material, were supplied to Damian Jurd and Daniel Powell when Christian Knight was Express editor. Armidale Independent Editor Joanna Harrison was informed at least twelve months ago. The allegations were also supplied to Matt Taylor, the Express editor who replaced Christian Knight.
  • The papers continued to run material from Father F for a period, although according to the Express clarification, the paper dropped Father F when the paper was informed of the allegations in April. By contrast, the Independent continued to use his material. Neither paper launched any form of news investigation.

Subject to one qualification that I will come to in a moment, my sympathies are with the papers on this one. It's very hard being a local paper in a gold fish bowl. All sorts of allegations cross your desk about locals. That's the nature of local life. Further, the presumption of innocence has to hold, while journalist resources are limited. So you make judgements.

My qualification is the Express.

The clarification said, and this was one of the things that got me angry, "the paper’s management decided to cease accepting Father F's copy in April 2012 after being informed about his background." It seems to me, and maybe I am being too simplistic, that if the Express took the allegations sufficiently seriously to stop publishing Father F because they had been informed of his background, then they actually did have a duty to investigate them from a journalistic viewpoint.

A Question of Justice

Once the story broke, once it became clear that investigations were underway, the whole game changed. At least it did if you are interested in justice rather than revenge.

Whatever the results of any investigations or court cases, this whole thing has destroyed Father F in that one area in which he has rebuilt his life, his role as a local historian in the community that he loves and identifies with, that is central to his sense of self. Now maybe that's fair, although fairness in that sense is arguably linked to revenge rather than justice. Consider only justice. That's two edged, justice to both sides.

The media feeding frenzy since the Four Corners story has gravely damaged Father F's chances of getting any form of fair trial should a trial result. Let me quote from a comment by kvd:  

Just to note that driving around today, flicking radio stations, I listened to 2GB's Ray Hadley read - in full - that record of meeting which was published yesterday. He'd apparently had legal advice, so instead of "Father F" he was using (repeatedly) the name of the fellow.

He completed his recitation with the note that he was not at liberty to take either calls, or emails/texts on the subject - but the name was mentioned probably a dozen times.

Just mentioning it for the record.

Now with that type of coverage, how does Father F get a fair trial?