Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the horizontal slice

This post continues the discussion begun in Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the vertical slice.

If you accept the picture painted in my last post about Australia's current university sector as half way accurate, you have to ask how we got into this mess. How did we end up in a world where if Paul Frijters rough figures are correct, seventy per cent of each education dollar is actually consumed in running the total system?

Introducing the Dawkins Revolution

To understand this, we have to move right up the food chain to Canberra. Here our entry point is a well written piece by Dean Ashenden, Decline and fall?. The message in the piece is summarised in this way:

Twenty-five years ago, John Dawkins dramatically reshaped higher education. His critics still fail to distinguish the good from the bad in his reforms.

The piece is worth reading in full for its sets a context. I also happen to agree with a fair bit of what Dean says. But I would also argue that it suffers from a lack of context. It explains why many of the criticisms of Mr Dawkin's reforms are unfair, but doesn't help us a great deal in understanding the mess I described in my last post, nor does it help us in understanding what might be done to fix things.

Wikipedia describes the changes introduced by Mr Dawkins in higher education as the Dawkins Revolution.

That term is misleading, really coined by academics concerned with their own domain, by commenters interested in the sector. It was a revolution, but not in the way perceived by those focused on the higher education vertical slice. It was a revolution driven by the need for structural change in the Australian economy. It was revolution influenced by changes taking place in broader perceptions of public administration and public policy and by a multiplicity of competing policy objectives. It was a revolution twisted by previous official thought and by existing agendas. It was profoundly influential, but in the end it failed, giving us the complex vertical mess I described in my last post.

This post explores the horizontal mess, the reasons for failure. I accept that it is partial. Further, I just don't have time to document all this. I stand ready to be corrected. I accept that I am grossly simplifying.

Threads in Canberra Thought

In 1983 Australia faced a problem. Previous policies controlling imports through a mix of tariffs and import controls had created a dual economy, an inward looking manufacturing sector focused on a small domestic market place along with an export economy based on primary products including minerals. This was unsustainable, but how to change?

In the labour market, the award system that grew out of the original Deakenite social contract had, like the tariff system, proliferated into a crazy patchwork series of occupational activities defined in awards, each requiring its own trade tick. Again, this had to change.

The Dawkins revolution in education and training actually began with the economic need for change in the work place. Added to that was the growing perception that we must have more skilled people. Unions and workers trading off rights needed something in return. They needed greater opportunities, they needed more flexibility. They needed more training.

The form the revolution took was influenced by three further general streams in thought.

One was the desire for industrial development, for the development of new industries, At official level, there was general agreement about the need for structural change, including the need to do away with the crazy patchwork quilt of industry protection measures. There was disagreement about the approach that should be adopted, but all wanted to use the measures available to achieve their objectives.

A second stream was the emergence of new forms of management through centred on concepts such as measurement, standards, continuous improvement, quality improvement, input-output , performance measurement, efficiency and effectiveness  and, later, risk management. This stream centred on the simple concept that performance could be improved if activities were defined, grouped and measured against agreed standards or performance targets,

The third stream has been characterised as neo-classical economics. The role of the market was central to this stream.  However, it was more than that, for the ideas became overlaid with a set of very particular models whose genesis lay in the stagflation of the 1970s and which reached their full flowering in New Zealand with Roger Douglas.

While market focused, these models were actually independent of some of the neo-classical models. To illustrate, the question of the relative size of government is fundamentally different from the best way of delivering government services and of making them properly accountable. However, this stream gave us concepts such as purchaser-provider models and the use of market proxies.

These different streams came together in the development of policy towards Australia's higher education sector. Here they interacted with another variable, bureaucratic thought, the long trail of past decisions and processes that affect current decisions. These ensured that  the reforms would take a particular form.

To illustrate all this, I return to the history of higher education in Australia. 

Australian Higher Education on the Eve of Revolution

Constitutionally, education is a state responsibility. For the first half of the twentieth century, the education system was structured into:

  • primary and secondary schools, with a large public school system along with a smaller non-government sector dominated in student numbers by the large Catholic school system. The states funded public schools, while the non-government sector was funded through fees or other forms of private fund raising.  
  • technical education was provided by state funded technical colleges. There was a close nexus between the colleges, trade training and the industrial relations system.
  • teacher training was provided through state controlled and funded teachers colleges.
  • university education was provided by a relatively small number of public universities established under state acts. Their funding came in part from fees, in part from state grants, in part from benefactions. The universities did provide some vocational education in areas such as medicine, law, or teaching, but their core focus was discipline based.
  • professional education in areas such as accountancy, law or medical specialities was controlled by and to a varying degree delivered through professional bodies. In medicine, for example, the universities provided entry level qualifications, but training beyond that point was controlled by specialist colleges. In accountancy, training was completely controlled by the professional bodies.
  • Nurse education was on the job and provided via the public hospital system.
  • Finally, there were a raft of private providers in areas such as business studies or secretarial  providing training that while not officially credentialed was recognised by employers.

I recognise that this must seem a bit eye-glazing, but I wanted to illustrate the complexity of the education and training environment.

During the 1950s, the system came under great strain. Industrialisation during the Second World War increased the demand on technical education. The post war baby boom in combination with mass migration placed huge demands on the school system. State teacher's colleges struggled to provide the required number of teachers. More students were demanding entry to universities.

The Commonwealth had resisted any form of on-going support for education. However, the Menzie's Government  did move to provide financial support for universities. By 1957, Commonwealth grants were providing 29.2 per cent of university income, state grants 50.3 per cent.

In 1964-1965, the Martin Committee recommended the creation of a new type of tertiary college that would award qualifications at diploma level. The aim was to meet the need for vocational education, to bridge the gap between the technical education and university systems. The end result was the creation of Colleges of Advanced Education based on the existing teachers colleges and some of the autonomous technical colleges. In 1969, the new system was allowed to award a hierarchy of qualifications, from diplomas through to Bachelor degrees. In 1971, the Colleges were allowed to award Masters degrees.

The two sectors were administered very differently.

The university sector was funded via block grants. Universities were self-accrediting, defining their own offerings, making their own decisions on expenditure. By contrast, college offerings had first to be individually approved at state level before submission to Canberra for funding approval.

In July 1987, John Dawkins became Minister for Employment, Education and Training, the first time these various functions had been combined in a single department. By then, the good folk in the previous education department faced a number of problems that they had been trying to address for the best part of a decade.

To begin with, the decision of the Whitlam Government to abolish university fees from 1 January 1974 had made the higher education sector totally dependent on Government grants while increasing the cost to the budget. That position was unsustainable. Then there were problems with the management of a dual system of universities and colleges of advanced education funded in different ways.

The colleges were meant to be a separate vocational focused stream. By 1987, they were behaving more and more like universities. Lower level courses were being dropped in favour of higher level offerings, they were undertaking research, while staff and students were agitating for comparable treatment.

There were major cultural differences between the two sectors. The collapse in demand for teachers that had formed the bedrock of many CAEs, the need to compete for the funding of specific course offerings, created a far more entrepreneurial culture as colleges sought new offerings and new students.

This was aided by  credentialism, the increasing demand for longer and more formal qualifications for specific occupations. In teaching, the two year primary qualification was replaced by a three year degree. In nursing, training moved from on-the-job in hospitals to more formal degree training. As part of this,  the costs of training shifted from the states to the commonwealth. The  colleges were best equipped to gain from these changes. As they responded, they shrank the space previously occupied by other parts of the education system.

Faced with rising costs, Commonwealth officials in 1981 and 1982 had tried to force the amalgamation of smaller colleges of advanced education to capture perceived economies of scale. There were some mergers, but others were successfully resisted.

I have to declare a bias here.

In 1982 I had taken leave from the Commonwealth Public Service to work on my PhD thesis at the University of New England. While in Armidale, I combined with the Peter Monley to organise protest against the proposed forced merger of the Armidale College of Advanced Education and the University of New England. Peter was then a councillor from Dumaresq Shire, the shire surrounding Armidale. Peter worked the local government side, while I handled the university, strongly supported by the then VC. The result was a major demonstration that helped block the merger, if only for a time.

John Dawkins arrival created an opportunity for officials to bring about changes that they had wanted. However, the exact form of those changes would be influenced by the other forces described earlier.

The Dawkins Higher Education Reforms

There were two key elements to the Dawkins revolution.

The first was the replacement of what was known as the binary system - universities plus colleges of advanced education - by what was called the Unified National System. The second was effective re-introduction of university fees via HECS, the Higher Education Contributions Scheme.

Under the Unified National System, the distinction between universities and colleges was abolished. Institutions had to apply to join the unified national system. Those who did not would be funded on a contract basis for teaching purposes only. The approach adopted was actually quite prescriptive at a number of levels.

To begin with, benchmarks were established based on perceived economies of scale. A three tier system was created:

  • You needed to have a minimum of 2000 EFTSUs (Equivalent Full Time Student Units) to gain recognition. One third of colleges fell below this benchmark. They were advised to merge or form a working relationship with a larger institution.
  • The prerequisite from a funding perspective to support a broad teaching profile with some specialised research was a minimum sustainable load of 5000 EFTSUs.
  • For a relatively comprehensive in teaching and with the resources required to undertake research across a significant proportion of its educational profile, a minimum sustainable load of 8000 EFTSUs was required.

The problem with this approach lay in the lack of variety and flexibility. It was a one size fits all. A smaller institution may have higher measured administrative costs, but still offer a more flexible and successful student experience. We can see this in the later re-emergence of smaller providers offering university level qualifications. Again, I have to admit my biases, for it was my own university, the University of New England, that provided the most spectacular example of merger failure.  

Institutions were also required to enter into new funding arrangements centred on its educational profile. The profile had to identify roles and mission and set out what the institution intended to do. This would then be used as a base for a contract negotiated with the government that specified:

  • the level of funding available from the Commonwealth to achieve its chosen academic goals
  • the ability of the institution to meet the higher education needs of its community
  • and the institution's contribution to national priorities identified by the Commonwealth.

Within the bounds of the contact, universities had freedom to allocate funds. Further, they were not precluded from doing other things, but only if they could find the resources from non-Commonwealth sources.

This approach was, in fact, an example of the emerging purchaser-provider model. It imposed a reporting load on universities since they had to report on performance. Importantly, it made Commonwealth priorities central to future funding.

The year before, John Button's information Industry Statement had for the first time included tied funding for specific places in IT. The Education Department officials had resisted this because they thought that universities should be able to respond to student demand. Now Pandora's Box was opened, for university funding was becoming tied to very specific Commonwealth objectives.

The re-introduction of university fees via HECS created another set of dynamics. This wasn't really a fee system at all. The Commonwealth set the nominal fee level: part of this was then recovered by students via HECS, the balance paid by the Government. It was, in fact, a cost recovery measure that bore no relationship to any market dynamics. With Government resources constrained, there was constant downward pressure on real university funding.

Universities responded by greatly increasing staff-student ratios and through expansion of activities in areas where they could make money. This included extension of commercial training activities and especially expansion of marketing activities targeting overseas students where full fees could be charged. There were some disastrous failures, but the end result was a huge expansion in overseas student numbers.  

Changes in Vocational Education

The changes taking place in the university sector were linked to changes taking place in technical education. These changes were very important, for the ideas involved and the form they took in implementation created many complexities that affected the entire education sector.

Despite all the history, this is not a history piece. My aim is to paint a picture of the forces in play that created today's complex mess.

Earlier, I spoke of the need for workplace reform. Australia needed a more flexible workforce, and that required the break-down of the complex workplace system of awards that, among other things, linked particular activities to particular tickets regardless of actual skills or workplace circumstances. There were also concerns about the availability of skilled workers, concerns that had been highlighted during the previous mining boom by the presence of skills shortages. By the time the system responded via increased numbers, the boom was over. Now Australia had unemployed skilled workers.

The core concepts in the system that now evolved were simple enough. It was their application that was complicated!

There were six key concepts:

  • standards. A standard is simply a defined measure. 
  • competence or competencies.  Competence is the capacity to do. Each activity requires particular knowledge and skills. However, whether you are an electrician or a doctor, you don't use all your knowledge and skills in carrying out individual task, just those relevant to the task in question. Breaking skills up into smaller blocks relevant to the task in question opened the possibility of breaking down rigid occupational barriers, allowing people to do specific things even though they didn't have the broader qualification.
  • recognition. If people are going to carry out activities including those within broader professional or trades domains, you need a system for assessing and recognising their particular skill sets.
  • recognition of prior learning. People learn by doing. In the workplace, probably 90% of skills acquisition actually comes from on-the-job. In credential or standard ticket based systems, there may be no way of recognising this. But if a person can do, why shouldn't that be recognised?
  • articulation. If you group knowledge and skills by levels, if you create a qualifications standards based framework that people can access via any mechanism they choose and achieve recognition, then you break down divides and silos and open up multiple learning paths.         
  • quality assurance. If you are going to do all this, you need a system for checking. It's not important how people learn to do. The critical thing is that they can do.

All this was very exciting. It opened up the possibility of a far more flexible and effective education and training system that individuals could access in multiple ways. The reality was a little different.

To work, the new approach required:

  • governments to carefully distinguish between their roles as purchasers and regulators.
  • a focus on the assessment of outputs, not on inputs.
  • the lightest possible hand in regulating the system, recognising that the higher compliance costs were, the more difficult it would be to achieve real change.

None of this happened. Instead, we got the worst of all possible worlds. In crude terms, a system designed to increase flexibility became a new way of asserting control. Key weaknesses included:

  • a regulatory system targeting inputs as well as outputs.
  • an incredibly complex process for the assessment and recognition of competencies.
  • a growing failure to recognise the difference between education and training, with training models applied regardless.
  • maintenance of existing regulatory barriers, slowing structural adjustment.
  • misapplication of quality management and measurement based approaches, creating growing layers of measurement and reporting.

Markets in Higher Education

From a higher education perspective, one of the biggest failures of all lay in the failure to understand the complex market dynamics now being created. I will discuss this in my next post.     

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the vertical slice

Over on Club Troppo, Paul Frijters has continued the discussion I referred to in my post Sunday Essay - Frijters on the need for university reform. Reading the comments, it is remarkable how many different issues were raised. In this post, I want to disentangle some of those a little. In doing so, I am taking something I wrote in a comment as an entry point:

Paul, very briefly because I have people coming for lunch. You have to start at the top of the food chain and work down., Unless the Government and its officials are prepared to change their approach, nothing else will change. And its very difficult to do this because the operating assumptions built into the approach are shared across the Government system at all levels. Our present systems of public administration are the horizontal slice. The complex higher education chain the vertical slice.

To help guide you as to the problems faced in bringing about change, I want to pose a simple question. Put aside issues about the role of universities, the varying quality of courses etc. If, as Paul suggested, the university coal face only gets 28 cents in the dollar for every dollar appropriated for higher education by the Australian parliament, how do you turn that around. Put very simply, how might you increase the coal face proportion by even ten cents in the dollar?

To consider this, let's begin with the vertical slice. The material that follows is generalised and should not be read as applying to any one institution. It is a collage.

Say that you are a lowly staff academic staff member, a tutor, lecturer or senior lecturer. Your traditional role is to teach while also doing some research. You are also an enthusiastic staff member who wants to promote interest in your discipline, spend time with students, build community links, create new initiatives that you hope will have longer term paybacks.

Sitting in front of the computer in your office, a constant series of email messages roll across your screen.

Many are round-robin notices, advising you of the latest changes to OH&S, a new approach to EEO, a planning session that you are expected to go to, an exciting new university initiative that will require redistribution of cash to support it. Other emails come from students who now seem to expect 24 hour responses. The University has just introduced a new computer system that doesn't quite work yet, You had to allocate time to go to training, you think that it will be a good thing, but meantime you stand by the photo copier printing 6oo marking sheets.

The head of department is pressing you for that statistical report required as part of Canberra's reporting requirements. You are meant to be preparing that grant application, you have just been told that if you cannot increase your citation score your contract may not be extended under the university's new reporting rules, but you don't have time.

And that small initiative, that centre that you got off the ground with a few of your dedicated colleagues? The school head was a apologetic. Yes, it helps the community, it brings students, it's good for the university's reputation in your area, but it's just too niche. We have to focus on the big picture, on those things that will deliver the greatest return to the university in dollar terms. We can't afford the resources that you need for the next stage. We all have to make sacrifices.      

Looking out your window, you wonder what all those university bureaucrats do. Looking up through the multiplicity of reporting layers to the distant world of Canberra, you wonder if they realise what they are doing.

The head of school is actually wondering the same thing. He didn't like having to say the things he did to you. The school is not sexy, but it offers courses that students want to do. He has just been to a presentation by the VC and Deputy VC (Strategy and Business Development) on the university's new marketing strategy.

They were excited: the new logo and marketing material were working well; their targeted marketing strategy selling into a particular area was increasing student numbers; and the new big centres that formed the base of the university's expansion plans was getting off the ground. They would need to cut some existing expenditure to fund all this. People in some existing areas would need to squeeze spend per student, to find new efficiencies. They had drawn up a priority list.

The head of school was upset. He had to tell people again to do more with less, that some of the things that they had underway would have to slow or even stop, that filling of certain positions would have to be delayed. He was also worried about student reactions.

"It's ludicrous, gross, disgusting", one student from another school had told him. "X", naming a tutor," hadn't prepared. "They are only interested in international students because of the money. They make things easy for them, but ignore us." The head of school worried about his own position and that of the university. So far the student satisfaction survey results were holding up for his school, but they were dropping elsewhere. He was also worried about rumours around the campus that suggested that there had been some form of corruption in marking to try to ensure student numbers.

He had a very personal gripe, too. Professor Y, the head of one of the new centres, was a superb marketer. He had built a large postgraduate school from industry contributions. Measured by patents, a new performance measure, Professor Y had done very well. Yet none of those patents had translated into useful results. The head of the university commercialisation company had actually complained about this. The head of school wondered how long Professor Y would be with them. It must be time for him to jumps soon.

The head of marketing was happy with the meeting the head of school had attended. He was delivering under his performance contract. He had carefully worked out a positioning strategy taking into account all the competitive groupings in higher education. His approach was working. He did wonder about the academics, however. He had come in from outside. Didn't staff realise that the university was a business, that they had to grow?

His happiness was not shared by the frustrated head of reporting in the Deputy VC's office. Getting academics to report was like herding cats. Every one left it to the last minute. Didn't they realise that they must report to Canberra, that their cash depended on it? They had to report and report. His days were filled with meetings on statistical collections, standards, dealing with public servants at state and federal level. 

The Deputy VC (Strategy and Business Development) wasn't happy either. The latest shifts at the margin in Canberra policy disadvantaged the university, working against initiatives based on previous policies. It was late and he should be home. Sighing, he picked up the phone to call his counterpart in another university that belonged to the same lobby group as his. Had they worked out an approach?

In Canberra, the officials were also discomforted. Presently over-worked because of the things they had to do, the range of new initiatives, they were also worried about the growing gap between the statistical data and the performance targets set.

The University sector was being difficult. Slow to report. It all took just so much time.

Then they were being lobbied by private providers, and had to deal with possible changes in the vocational education and training sector. After taking out those involved in statistics and administration of current arrangements, excluding more senior staff involved in constant strategy meetings, the number of people available to actually do development work was very small, Further, their time was constantly tied up in preparing briefings so that people could consider making decisions. Not that they did! And when they did it was so often high level stuff, remote from immediate concerns or needs.

I could go on almost ad-infinitum, but I am setting the scene. Looking at the vertical slice in higher education from the bottom up, we have a complex chain whose very complexity has stripped away many of the opportunities for real change. I know that what I am saying must sound absurd. Yet it's the reality. That is what's actually happening.

In my next post, I will look at the horizontal slice, with the Dawkins' reforms as my entry point.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Essay - Frijters on the need for university reform

Last Tuesday I mentioned Paul Frijters' post The university coalface gets 28 cents in the dollar. He has continued his discussion on university reform in University reform, part I: what are the options? and then University reforms, part II: the barriers, with more to come. The series is worth following.

I have written a fair bit on this topic myself. To my mind, the key need is simplification. Current measurement standards based approaches don't work, nor does the corporatist model. It's all just so 1980s! Most people know this, yet the standard answer (pun intentional) is more of the same.

At present, we have an approach that says that we will do this to achieve this outcome. We will then report on that outcome. It sounds so sensible!

No one asks an alternative question. What will happen if we don't do this or stop doing this?  In most cases the answer is diddly squat.

It would also be helpful if people had an understanding of systems based approaches. In simple terms, a system is a set of connected modules that interact. The more complex systems become, the greater the scope for systemic failure. In administrative terms, higher education has become an ever more complex system, one that just doesn't work very well.

In the military world, the three Cs are important - command, control and communication. In the messy world of the battle field, you simply cannot control what is happening. You cannot micro-manage. People have to make decisions on the spot. Yet you still need a system that will maintain coordination, lines of command, allow the total army to move. So there is a constant conflict between individual or unit responsibility and central needs.

The more tightly you try to control things, the less scope there is for individual autonomy. Yet change, success, depends upon individual action. That's true on the battle field. It's just as true in other areas.

A central principle of good government or management is that responsibility should be pushed to the lowest possible level. Australia's present system of higher education breaches that principle. It has become command and control focused to the point that there is no individual autonomy. More and more time has to be spent navigating the system, less and less time is available for real delivery.

We are all influenced by our personal experiences. At a purely personal level, the sometimes venom in my attacks comes from my experiences and those of people I know.

Leaving aside grand visions, it has become harder and harder to actually do things, to achieve the small. And yet, final results for the whole system actually depend on the small.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sweet chili tomatoes

Take fresh tomatoes from the garden. Cut them in slices. Pepper and salt to taste. A drizzle of olive oil and then sweet chili sauce. Cook in the oven. Remarkably good!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Snippets - Slater & Gordon, asylum insanity with a dash of Northern coal

A lot of interesting stuff around at present. My problem is to find the time to write about it!

Julia Gillard's Slater & Gordon troubles continue. Regular commenter kvd expressed the view some time ago that this case was the biggest threat the PM faced. Now that she has cleared the deck on other things, he may well be right. Certainly the opposition seems to think so!

I haven't commented on the latest race to the bottom on Australian refugee policy. Back in May 2011, I supported the proposed "Malaysian solution" (When perfection's not possible: Gillard & refugees) as a possible path. Now Opposition, Greens and Government between them have delivered the worst possible outcome.

I know from conversations just how polarising this issue has become. My friend and fellow New Englander Paul Barratt has been blogging on the broader issue. The insanity of Australia excluding itself from its own migration zone makes me wish for Monty Python.

Nathan Tinkler's mining empire continues to implode, while the NSW ICAC (Independent Commission against Corruption) inquiry into possible corruption involving former NSW Minister Ian Macdonald continues. The link between the two is geography, the gold offered by New England coal. The difference is that whatever his business faults, Mr Tinkler actually created something.

Finally, Indian blogging friend Ramana who knows my interests sent me a link to this piece - A Tilt Toward China? Australia Reconsiders Its American Ties. Thanks, Ramana.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A pork chop and salad

No post here yesterday. What is the world coming too?

I haven't been totally idle! Yesterday's main post was UNE's trimesters hit Armidale economy. This was is important to me in a personal sense, but it's not without broader significance. Here have a look at Dean Ashenden's Decline and fall?. I hope to write more on this tomorrow. Then early this morning I had to write my Express column.

My pork chop is on. My salad comes entirely from the garden. Over-sighted by kvd and Legal Eagle's chairs, I picked beans, lettuce leaves, spring onions and tomatoes. To give an Asian feel, I have some chili marinating in fish sauce. And no, pedant, I didn't grow the fish sauce!  

Since you are still being pedantic, apple sauce doesn't go with chili! Or maybe it does?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Art, pop music & a dash of fracking

A brief tour this morning.

From time to time I have referred to Will Owen's blog, Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American Eye. In American Eyes on Aboriginal Art, Will reports on an exhibition at the Hood Museum on contemporary Aboriginal art. It includes a video of Will introducing the exhibition, as well as other visual material. Will's talk is quite long, but very good.

On the Lowy Institute blog, Monday linkage: Black Swans, Gangnam Style, drones, manufacturing and more includes video clip of Korean pop star PSY (Gangnam Style) talking to the Oxford Union.

Over on Club Troppo, Paul Frijters makes some back of envelope estimates about the proportion of Federal Government money that gets into teaching or research. The post title provides the answer: The university coalface gets 28 cents in the dollar! The dreadful thing is that he could well be right.

Here in Australia, shale oil or gas and the associated process of fracking are highly controversial, especially along the coal belt in Northern NSW and Southern/Central Queensland. That in combination with mining launched the Lock the Gate Movement. The US film Gasland was widely toured across the affected areas.

One of the things that I have been reading about with interest but haven't commented on is the industrial transformation that appears to have been taking place in the US as a consequence of the rise of the shale oil and gas industry. I have been suspicious of some of the analysis I've seen, but it does seem that an industrial revolution has been taking place.  The latest International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook comments that the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the United States will mean a sea-change in global energy flows. Australia's BHP has a significant stake in the US industry.

Meantime, Demography Matters On the Albertan advantage over the United States, provides an interesting insight into the Canadian experience.

The geo-political implications of all this are interesting in general and from an Australian perspective. The growing prospect of US self-sufficiency in oil and gas changes Middle East dynamics, while Australia's now very high costs of capital investment and production means that the country shouldn't count on too many golden eggs.


In a very short post on another of my blogs (Australia in the Pacific century), I wondered about the implications of the US's growing engagement with Asia. It's interesting because Australian thinking looks to the north in a strait Asian line. Where does this country fit in if the US engagement with Asia leads to a Pacific rather than Asian century? 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Train reading - Kevin Gilbert's Living Black

One of the more difficult things that I have to do as both a sometimes historian and social commentator is to read and write things about things when I really don't want to do either.

Take the history of New England in the second half of the twentieth century. From my perspective, this seemed a period of defeat, of decline, for many of the things I loved. I had to write about it, but I dodged for as long as I could! Finally, I nominated for a seminar paper on the topic social change in the period, in so doing filling the last major gap in my book project. Of course many gaps remained, as well as the plain hard yakka of writing.

Oops! Hard yakka is an Australianism meaning hard work. It is, apparently, an Aboriginal world. But the, that's appropriate in terms of this post.

My train reading at present is Kevin Gilbert's Living Black (Penguin, 1978). The book presents a series of interviews with Aboriginal people conducted between 1976-1978. I bought the book while on my recent Armidale trip to add to my ever-growing New England collection. While Mr Gilbert was not a New Englander, he did have Kamilaroi connections. More importantly, a number of the interviews were with Aboriginal people from Northern NSW. That was why I bought it, for the interviews provided raw material, oral history, that might help me flesh out the variegated and changing pattern of New England history.

In looking at the book, I focused first on the New England slices, but also looked at the NSW material because of my present professional interest in that area. The rest I tended to browse.

I found the book profoundly depressing at a number of levels.

Had I bought the book in 1978, I would have recognised the impact of stereotyping on Aboriginal perceptions of themselves. I first learned of this from Oceania when I was doing my honours thesis. I would also have been interested in a general sense. Still, it would have been a more academic interest. Outside Armidale's main Aboriginal families, outside some of the more prominent Aboriginal leaders such as Charles Perkins, I knew, or knew of, few Aboriginal people.

Things are a little different now.

  My interest in Aboriginal policy and history was aroused again by my renewed interest in New England history and in the long history of Aboriginal occupation of this continent, I started writing again on Aboriginal history and policy, trying to disentangle the issues. Later, I found myself working in an Aboriginal focused organisation. Some of my longer term readers and friends will have worked out which one by now. I will not give the name here. Later, when my current assignment is finished, I may be more explicit.

My point is that when I read the book today, not only did I know every NSW location mentioned in it, not only did I actually know something of the history. I knew people with family connections to that area; I know something of the politics; I know a lot more of the detail of the needs.

Before explaining my depression, I need to provide a positive. By far the biggest single change between 1978 and the present, one that is transforming the structure of Aboriginal life, is the explosion in education. This is something that Joe Lane writes about partly in honour of his wife. It is a profound change.

And yet, if you read Mr Gilbert's book and compare it with Noel Pearson's views, you could conclude that nothing has changed at all. Here, I don't won't to write a detailed analysis tonight, but I do want to pick up three points from my earlier writing. In doing so, I will also use quotes from things that have been said to me.

"We know our culture has to change, but we want too control that change." 

This comment came from my Aboriginal mentee, of whom I am very proud. Proud not because I helped her although I hope that I did, proud because of what she has done.

We were standing outside an office building in Sydney having a smoke. I stood there listening to the conversation among the mentees, talking about the problems they faced in their own communities. Her and their point was that they knew that change was inevitable, but they wanted to control the process, not have it imposed upon them regardless of their views.

Thank you for introducing me to the language.

This was a recent comment. It was ill-deserved, coming about simply because I told her that a dictionary in her people's tongue had recently been published.

in Mr Gilbert's book, the desire of Aboriginal people to know about their own history come through. Not history seen through the prism of past ills, not history seen through the prism of non-Aboriginal guilt nor Aboriginal-White relations, just the personal history relevant to them

Things have improved a little since 1978, but not all that much.

I write about the history of one area remote from current historiography. But it is also the territory of nine main Aboriginal language groups. I am interested in their history, not generalisations based upon European created constitutional entities whose structures are largely relevant to main themes such as education. Those broader structures do dictate much of what has happened, but they don't tell the full story of what has happened on the ground. There you have to dig down.

We want respect.

Aboriginal people are not blind. Mr Gilbert wasn't blind in 1978, nor are Aboriginal activists today. They know the problems in their own communities. Many have fought hard for change. Many continue to do so in circumstances beyond the conception of those in the broader community. 

They are no different here from those in the broader community. They just want to be listened too. to have their views respected. Here they are no different from those who attended my recent talk to the Armidale North Rotary Club.

I guess that I will finish here, Avenger is trying to sit on the keyboard! I would be interested in your comments.       

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Indian Mutiny 3 - the Company

Fortuitously, current discussion that began with Rum, money & power - NSW history repeats itself allows me to combine NSW in the days of the Rum Corps with my earlier series on the Indian Mutiny, thus keeping a foot in both camps. But that is so very NSW Corps anyway! What's more, I can add a dash of Canada!

The Seven Years War was a truly global conflict, one whose influence continues into this day. In the blue corner, we have Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, with allies. In the green corner, France, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden with allies. The map gives an indication of scale.


In Europe, the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) had seen King Frederick II of Prussia, Frederick the Great, seize Silesia from the Austrian Empire. In North America, the French and British were contending for control of the North American continent. Faced with King Frederick's aggression,  in 1756, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria formed an alliance combining traditional enemies Russia, Austria and France in an alliance against Prussia. Britain had previously formed an alliance with Prussia.

In April 1756, the French attacked and ultimately seized the British controlled island of Minorca. The war that followed was critical in establishing British power. For our immediate purposes, two battles were critical.

On 13 September 1759, General James Wolfe defeated the French at Quebec. This would ultimately deliver control, if briefly, of the North American continent to the British Empire.

Two years earlier in India, A British East India Company force under Robert Clive had defeated the last Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey (23 June 1757). The Nawab had been supported by the French East India Company. This made the British East India Company the dominant political  power on the Indian subcontinent.

The painting is entitled Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762). Mir Jafa had supported the British.

By the Battle of Plassey, the East India Company was 159 years old. Founded in 1600 by Royal Charter from Elizabeth I as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies, the company had been given an exclusive license to trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Initially, the company struggled to achieve success in the East Indies spice trade against the rival Dutch East India company.

In 1620, the Company established a factory (trading post) at Surat. Later in 1690, the Company acquired three villages in Bengal. This became Calcutta, the heart of British power in India and until 1911 the capital of the Indian Empire established after the Indian Mutiny (1857).

While the Company was very successful, it's fortunes fluctuated. In 1770, a great famine in Bengal in which an estimated third of the population died  placed great strain on the Company's finances and attracted considerable concern in Britain. In 1773, the British parliament passed the Tea Act. This gave the Company greater autonomy in running its trade in the American colonies, and allowed it an exemption from tea import duties which its colonial competitors were reqFile:Boston Tea Party Currier colored.jpguired to pay.

One outcome was a rather famous "tea party" held in Boston on 16 December 1773.

You see how history lingers on. Who would have thought that an act of the British Parliament passed because of a famine in Bengal in 1770 would provide the basis for a modern American political movement in the twenty first century?  

In 1788, the new colony in what would become Sydney was included in the East India Company monopoly trading territory. Captain Arthur Phillip was specifically instructed to prevent private individuals from trading with India, China and the colonies of any European nation. To this end, the local building of any craft capable of such trading was expressly forbidden. In the days of the Asian century, it's perhaps useful to remember that in the early days of NSW the great trading partners after England were India and then China, a reflection of the power of the Company. And, of course, those pesky US merchants and whalers who kept bringing goods in.   

There was no way that the freebooters of the NSW Corps and their allies would accept the restrictions on trade. As early as 1792, a consortium lead by a certain  Lieutenant John Macarthur, aided by a complaisant Lieutenant Governor Major Francis Grose, privately chartered the British supply ship and whaler Britannia to bring goods in from the Cape of Good Hope in breach of the monopoly. Tsk!

In many ways,the East India Company became the model of a modern global organisation. It was well run, with merit based selection for positions, something later adopted by the British and Indian civil services. It was vertically integrated, including ship building and docks. It maintained its own schools and training programs to ensure a supply of skilled staff. Yet it also suffered from quite modern problems.

On the eve of mutiny, the Company had actually become an arm of the British Government. In 1833, an act of the British parliament removed the Company's trading functions. That act was quite a modern one. It provided, among other things, that no Indian subject of the Company would be debarred from holding any office under the Company by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent or colour.

Things didn't quite work that way.

In 1857, the East India Company in India was organised into three great presidencies, Madras, Bombay and Bengal.  The old more free-wheeling system that had actually emphasised identification with, understanding of, India's languages and cultures, had been replaced with more professional and remote administrative systems that carried in English prejudices with less understanding of the great variation in local conditions.

The ground was set for mutiny.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bills of exchange & British imperial power

Consider this problem. You are running a global trading empire. It is long before the days of telegraph or telephone. You have ships, naval and merchant, dotted across the globe. You have colonies and trading posts across the globe, including a recently established penal colony at Port Jackson.

The ships and isolated outposts have to be re-supplied. Ships have to be fixed, lost mariners returned to home ports. In a dispersed global operation, you can't control everything from Whitehall. You can't just send money. Enter the bill of exchange, a central weapon of imperial power.

British officials around the world including consuls, ship's captains and governors in remote NSW had delegated power to issue bills on the home government. These pieces issued by one person to a second person stated that a third person, the Government in London, would pay the second person so much money. A simple idea originally invented in China that greased the wheels of empire.

You are a ship's captain or governor needing supplies. You buy them by issuing a bill that the supplier can present to officials in London and get paid. These bills are accepted because they were paid.

Today we would shudder at the risks involved. Risks to those accepting, more risks to the government. How do you budget, how do you prevent fraud, corruption, when thousands of officials and military officials spread across the globe have the individual authority on their own account to issue what we can think of as official cheques (a cheque is a bill of exchange) on the public purse? How do you audit? Surely you must need tens of thousands of officials checking and auditing?

Well, no. It was a different world. There were systems in place that allowed transactions to be checked. However, the divide between public and private was more elastic then. A certain amount of what today we would call corruption was allowed. The division between private and public was more elastic, there was more gray space.

The key thing is that the system worked. In practical terms, it kept the empire going. Taken to excess, corruption could have destroyed the empire or reduced its efficiency. That didn't happen in the case of the British Empire. Part of the reason for this lies in values, part administrative checks that did take place, part the commercial nature of that empire that made for a practical approach.

The bill system was central to the evolution of the early colony in NSW. As we say today, follow the money!    

Friday, November 16, 2012

Rum, money & power - NSW history repeats itself

I haven't commented on it, but in Sydney the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has been holding an inquiry into double dealing over the last years of the previous Labor Administration. This quote from a Sydney Morning Herald story will give you a feel.

THE family of the Labor power broker Eddie Obeid received $30 million and stood to make a further $70 million using inside information on coal exploration licences provided by the disgraced former mining minister Ian Macdonald.

Not only is this ''the most important investigation ever undertaken'' by the Independent Commission Against Corruption but ''it is corruption on a scale probably unexceeded since the days of the Rum Corps,'' counsel assisting the inquiry, Geoffrey Watson, SC, said in his opening address on Monday.

There has been some quite fascinating stuff, but what struck me was the reference to the Rum Corps, officially known as the New South Wales Corps. Formed in England in 1789 to replace the marines who had accompanied the First Fleet, it has acquired a very particular place in Australian history and mythology.

Things aren't always what they seem. The overthrow of Governor Bligh, the Rum Rebellion, actually had very little to do with rum at all. But it certainly had a lot to do with land, money and power, including control of the official purse. In that sense, not much has changed!   

There is another present historical connection.

Canada has been celebrating the War of 1812, a war that began with a US invasion of what is now Canada. Recalled to England and renamed the 102nd Regiment of Foot, the Rum Corp served in that war. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A simple tale - the story of Berardino Forlano

I am still waiting on some material to complete Neucleus days - Part One. Bernardino Forlano.In the meantime, I hate not posting. Yet my personal petrol tank is also running very low because of projects and deadlines. Given this, I thought that I would simply share with you in a series of micro-posts a few of the things I have noticed.

This is the photo of Italian Berardino Forlano taken just before his emigration to Australia in 1956. It is from his obituary, written by daughter Lina. You will find the obituary here.

It's a simple nice tale of an ordinary man, not ordinary to his family of course, but one that captures one of the many complex threads that make up modern Australia.

When you read the story, think of the turmoil of the Second World War. Think of those in Europe who went through that turmoil. Then, in Berardino's case, he went to work in the mines in Belgium.

From there, and luckily, to Australia. There he worked, married and raised  a family.

I have known many Italian migrants and children of Italian migrants.  I thought that Lina's story of her dad captured it all rather nicely. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

A post deferral to investigate

I am holding up the follow up post on Neucleus days - Part One until tomorrow. I need to check facts.

As so often happens, I have ended up with an expectedly interesting story!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Neucleus days - Part One

I do get easily sidetracked! In yesterday's post on the New England Australia blog, Diary of my Armidale trip, I said in part:

From Boo Books I went up to the Express to meet my new editor, Lydia Roberts. I am always interested in seeing production facilities. It seems a very long time since fellow blogger Winton  Bates and I were co-editors of the now defunct Neucleus, the UNE student newspaper, and indeed it is. But it does mean that I have been in at least part charge of the production of a newspaper in the pre-computer age. So I watched with interest as my column was set up for print. Then we used scissors and paste to set up pages. Now its so very different!Neucleus Office

That reminded me that the Wikipedia entry on Neucleus was still just a stub and at one stage I said that should do something about fixing that up. Reminded, I did some digging and ended up on something of a nostalgia trip that I thought I might share with you, in part because it also says something about Australian social history.

Just to set the scene, the photo shows the old sub-lodge on the UNE campus. The building dates from the time when Booloominbah was the headquarters of one of the White family pastoral empires. Paul Barratt's Booloominbah tells the story of those early days.

This was the Neucleus office when Winton and I worked for the paper. As I commented before, it was a wonderful spot for parties! The dark room was on the left, the room on the right was the main staff office and workroom. The building is now the Overseas Students Association office. As we shall see in a moment, that's kind of appropriate.

In my search, the first person I wanted to find was Soo Khoo, who was editor when Winton and I first joined the paper in 1963 as young first years, became co-editors when SoSoo Koo Hay setting Neucleuso Khoo stood down. I struggled to find much until I realised that I should be searching on Khoo Soo. Then, bingo. 

The first photo is from the National Archives. The year is 1960. The caption reads: Malayan student, Khoo Soo-Hay, of Penang, has no accommodation worries in Australia. He is attending Australia's only fully residential university, the University of New England in Armidale, NSW. Editor of the student newspaper, Ross Pengelley, and Khoo Soo-Hay do the layout of the next edition in the printing room of the Armidale Express.

I really loved this photo because it captures the old now vanished newspaper world, illustrating the differences I referred to in my opening quote between page setting then and now. In Ross, we can now add another person to the editor list. I tried to find out more about him via web search, but drew a blank.

Digging further, I found another 1960 photo of Soo Khoo from the National Archives, this one illustratingOverseas students UNE 1960 Overseas Week another aspect of UNE life at the the time, the importance and visibility of the overseas student community.  

The caption on the photo reads: Overseas students at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia, recently organised an 'Overseas Week', during which they presented something of the cultures and customs of their own countries to Australian students. Overseas students arranged an arts and craft exhibition for 'Overseas Week'. From left: I Made Nitis, Teluk Padang, Miss Heng Poh Saing, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Nguyen Huu Bong, Khoo Soo-Hay, and Neoh Choo Lin.

I am not sure when Soo Khoo became editor, 1962?, but I would be pretty sure that he was the first overseas student to edit an Australian student newspaper. He was not the only overseas student on the Neucleus team. Our cartoonist, Adhi Hendranto, came from Indonesia.

When Winton and I first joined the paper, he was I think on the reporting and editorial side, while I became (of all things) business manager! My primary role here was to sell advertising space to local stores. I also had to collect the advertising copy for insertion in the paper.  I am not sure that I was very good at it, but it actually wasn't a very hard job because most of the stores advertisErecting community kindergarten hall 1963ed regularly.

For 1963, I found another set of photos from National Archives including Soo Khoo that illustrate further aspects of UNE life.  The caption on this photo reads: During the long summer vacation students from India, Borneo, Sarawak and many other South-East Asia countries studying in Australia, held a work camp organized by NUAUS [National Union of Australian University Students] in Armidale, northern New South Wales and helped erected a community kindergarten hall for Aboriginal children. Donations towards expenses were received from the Australian Department of External Affairs, local graziers and shop keepers while the Department of Education supplied the building - tea break (foreground) Will Dennis, camp Director with Ting Wei Ling (centre) from Sarawak and Khoo Soo Hay (right) from Malaya.

This photo manages to combine a remarkable number of elements relevant to Australian social history.

One was the role of the National Union of Australian University Students. Formed in 1937, NUAUS was quite important to UNE students. The UNE campus wasn't especially active in political terms. It was noted as an especially religious campus, and was indeed the only University campus in the country where the Country Party commanded a voting majority to the sometimes despair of Labor leaning staff members! The social changes and ideological divides that would become important during the 1970's and which would ultimately polarise and then destroy much of the effectiveness of NUAS still lay ahead.

UNE students may not have been especially active in party political or ideological terms, but it was still a very active student body measured by participation in student activities, far more active than would later be the case. University societies of all types proliferated. By the standards of the time and indeed today, the prevailing student ethos can best be described as small l liberal. Students therefore participated actively in NUAS activities including fund raising for WUS (World Universities Services) Week and Abschol.

UNE staff and students were early and actively committed to causes associated with Aboriginal advancement. Both the University and the Armidale Teachers College were already playing pioneering roles in Aboriginal studies. This kindergarten was one of the first if not the first constructed for Aboriginal children in NSW. The needs were coUNE buying food NAUAS campnsiderable; the hut on the right of the photo indicates then living conditions.

The last photo of Soo Khoo with fellow Arts student Barbara Wilkins, again from the National Archives, shows them buying food for the camp.        

I have included the photo because it shows a domestic scene with the food available at the time. UNE's overseas students started changing the availability of food in Armidale long before such changes really happened elsewhere. The changes were slow, but 1963 you could actually buy some Asian food in Armidale because the market was just large enough.

And what happened to Soo Khoo and indeed Adhi Hendranto?

Soo Khoo, I probably should say Khoo Soo Hay, returned to Malaysia. There, among other things, he became a poet while pursuing a career in management. This is the start of a poem written in September 1999 on the death of Brother Ulrick Currie, a (and I quote) "well beloved Christian Brother Teachers of St. Xavier's Institution, Penang, who died on 17th September 1999. ...who used to teach English. He became blind for many years before he passed away".

When the sun sets on my life,
When I can no longer feel
The rain drops on my head,
Nor see the stars at night,
Then shall I feel no more
The cool breeze from the sea,
Nor hear the lapping waves at the shore,
On the beach at Batu Ferringhi.

In a further note on his writing, the UNE recorded in 2009:

Khoo Soo Hay, UNE alumnus, joined other distinguished poets, such as the National Literature Laureate Prof Muhammad Salleh, at recent celebrations of UNESCO's World Poetry Day at Wawasan Open University (WOU) in Malaysia. His poems, published in an anthology titled “In Ancient Ayuthia”, touch on environmental, social, political, religious issues, and romance, satire, and whimsical pieces. Some of this writing was completed while a student at UNE in the 1960s when Khoo Soo Hay was resident in Wright College.

And Ahdi? This one is more difficult. I last had news of him on an official trip to Indonesia in the 1980s. But unless I am very much mistaken, you will find a translation of Ahdi's LinkedIn page here.

I will complete this post tomorrow, talking (among other things) of Winton as the old thunderer! 


In a comment, kvd correctly spotted that in the last line in the quote from Soo Khoo, "On the beach at Batu Ferringhi", the Ferringhi is another variant of the word I referred to in Franks, Firinghi & Farangs. The Wikipedia entry on Batu Ferringhi says that the name means Foreigner's Rock.

Winton has also come up with additional detail that suggests that my memory is imperfect. The present issue in question is the role of Hugh Spencer as editor. Winton remembers Hugh as editor when he joined, but I don't when I joined.

Hugh's bio suggests that he came to UNE from Maitland High in 1960 on a TC scholarship then, and I quote, "got involved in student politics (silly naive bugger) - left with tail between legs to complete degree at ANU." Hugh started work in 1965 at Monash University. Depending on the exact date, my feeling is that Hugh's last year at UNE was 1963.

I know that all this must sound very arcane, but this post and the next now in preparation are in part history pieces. I  am confident that I am capturing the feel of the time, but as history pieces I really want the facts to be accurate.     

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Christmas club gambling syndicate

There is an old saying in this country that Australians would bet on two flies crawling up a world. There is some truth to it. After all, two up is a legendary Australian game.

I came across an interesting example, one with a twist. It is also an example that shows why I am not a naturally good gambler.

Eldest is a member of what I can only describe as a Christmas club gambling syndicate. It works like this.

Each member of the syndicate puts a fixed amount of money into a pool each week. Half that money is placed in a high yield savings account. The other half is gambled. Each member takes it in turn to gamble that amount.

They can bet on whatever they like, and you can bet on just about anything in Australia. The results if any are then banked in the savings account. Some weeks nothing, other weeks part of the stake, sometimes significant gains. They all have some fun, knowing that at the end of the year there will be a significant minimum amount of cash available to each for  Christmas presents.

I said that the example shows why I am not a naturally good gambler.

A week back, it was eldest's turn and she decided to bet on the result's of the Reserve Bank's deliberations on interest rates. She emailed me for advice. I thought that the chances were 50/50, so go for a cut. It was only a little later that I thought how dumb!

If the odds are 50/50, go for the side of the equation offering the best odds. It wouldn't affect the chances of winning, but would increase the amount won if successful. See what I mean about dumb?   

Friday, November 09, 2012

Wrestling with confirmation bias

In a comment on Somewhat depressing threads, Winton Bates wrote in part:

I suspect confirmation bias in the pattern you observe, but that doesn't mean you are wrong.

The pattern I see is about the consequences of growth of government. It displaces civil society, it makes people dependent, it responds to every problem with more regulation. It invites disrespect.

But that is a pattern I see everywhere!

I had to laugh. As Winton notes, I may be guilty of it, but in his dry way he is also accusing himself!

Confirmation bias, the tendency to selectively interpret material so that it reinforces our own views, is pretty common. We saw it in some of the reactions to Julia Gillard's now famous speech. We saw it, too, in the US Republican reactions to the polls and polling results casting doubt on their candidates chances. It actually became a circular dance as one news channel or commenter quoted another in support of their views.

We see this all the time on the modern internet as people drift towards sites that support and reinforce their own views. Arguably, this has become one source of deepening polarisation.

I claim to be a social analyst. How, then, do I avoid confirmation bias, something that I get accused of directly or indirectly from time to time?

At one level, life is just too short to bother. I have a bad habit at dinner parties or social functions of trying to explain, of being too objective. Bad Jim! Wrong place, wrong time. Just listen. Your social analyst hat is just inappropriate If people are having a lot of fun piling opinion on opinion.

At other times in similar circumstances if the mood takes me, I will deliberately throw in an alternative view, something that I know will be a red flag item. Done with discretion, this can be fun, but discretion is advisable. You must be able to stand back and not actually become personally involved in the issues.

Then, at other times, I may just want a chance to talk and express my opinions without having to worry about just what I say. Here confirmation bias can be a fine thing!

Yet when trying to write as a social analyst, I am concerned with what is, what it might mean. Sometimes I go beyond this, for I try to provide solutions, responses, to the problems as I have defined them. They are my solutions, I own them, I want to argue for them.

But when writing in a professional way, I use three different techniques to try to control my natural tendency to confirmation bias.

The first is by consciously reading, and its a real effort some time, opposing views. In political terms, this takes me to the blogs and commentariat of left and right.  I tune out the things that are standard opinions beyond noting patterns. Instead, I look for the kernels that might challenge or enhance my own views.

The second thing I do is what I call point and counterpoint. I start with the particular then test with the general and then back to the particular.

The thing that  I do is to try to test by evidence. In the US election this time, everybody started talking about the impact of demographic change. This one has been obvious to Blind Freddy for some time. If you look at my own writing on change in Australia, you will see that I have often quoted demographic or other forms of statistics.

Some of my writing is not easily amenable to statistical test without special surveys. I argue, for example, that changes in management styles in public and private sectors have increased overhead and slowed decision making.

I can show through simple arithmetic that decision times slow and decision costs increase as the number of decision points rises. I can show by logical analysis the way in which the obsession with KPIs and with the measurable can twist decision processes. I can use simple mud map analysis to show how decisions such as those made by the NSW Government on the length of time required to get a driver's license have imposed costs and had a range of adverse outcomes.

What I cannot do is provide an analysis that measures the overall costs of all these things in a way that would grab attention and test my case. The data presently isn't there. I have to rely on point and counterpoint, generalising and then testing with specific examples. But it remains qualitative analysis.

Having said this, I wonder if there is more that I could do to test. But that is a matter for a later discussion. I really need to cook tea, not chat to you!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Somewhat depressing threads

Today's post is just a somewhat random report on recent conversations. The integrating element is social change.

The Ageing of the volunteer workforce

Monday night I gave a presentation on New England history to the Armidale North Rotary Club. The membership is nearly all older. I was told that three service clubs, in this case all female, have shut in Armidale in the last twelve months. Across service organisations, the membership is aging. People wonder how long they can continue.

I asked why this was happening. The view taken was that people didn't like the requirement for constant ordered participation. It didn't fit with modern individualism, or the structures of current life.

Why I shouldn't pay my taxes

I was waiting for a shop to open, and got chatting with someone also waiting, She was quite impatient. I said hullo, and she responded with a comment that could be interpreted as the country is going to the dogs. I asked why.

"I came to this country thirty seven years ago", she said. "I used to tell people that this  was a wonderful country.That's not true anymore. The politicians just squeeze us, They can't be trusted. They only look after the wealthy. I used to pay everything that was demanded, Now I pay as little as I can."

It's not an unusual view.

The Pedestrian Crossing

The NSW Government has recently changed the law to make it an offence for a pedestrian to walk against a don't walk sign. Central Railway Station is Sydney's main railway station. Just outside is a man pedestrian crossing. Those who know the crossing know that when the traffic lights turn red, there is a time gap before the pedestrian sign turns green. If the road is clear, they start walking.

The day of the change, a woman was rushing up down saying that you are breaking the law. She was right, of course. In the space of a few minutes, I counted over one hundred lawbreakers.  The police could have booked the lot. They weren't there. The law has become something that you observe selectively, only when it makes sense or when you have too.

Mega Departments

Smoking in the outside smoker's ghetto, I chatted to someone in the corporate services area. "It's stupid", he said, speaking of a new centralised arrangement. "I told them it wasn't going to work. They should trial it first.  When I asked why they had done it, start roll-out, they said they had no choice. They would fix the problems later."

A little earlier, I was speaking to another person in the same area. "I just spend all my time responding to central requests", she said. "I don't have time to do my job."

The University lecturer

Speaking of a new system, the lecturer said that students hate it. "They are not dumb. They know that they are getting lower grade teaching." He went on: "I wonder why I ever became a university lecturer. We have to do more with less. I can't do research. I have no time. It's just not fun any more." 

I asked about a development project we had been working on. "It's all stalled", he said. "No one has time. it's not measured."

The project is important to me in a personal sense. When I asked what would happen with it, he said nothing. Without higher level support, it was really dead.

Disability Services

At the Armidale presentation,I was asked about disability services. "How", the questioner asked, "can we get support at local level when everything is centralised"? 

I didn't have an answer. I spoke of the Facebook campaign launched by the save Bellingen Hospital Movement. But really, in a world of universals, it is very difficult to make an individual case. You either fit in or you don't.

If you do fit in and get your support, you cannot be sure how long it will last. Government is unreliable. At national or state level, the rules change all the time. No one can be sure. The only lesson is take what  you can, but assume nothing.


Looking at these brief reports, they must seem very negative. That wasn't my intent when I started the post. But they are, I think, all symptoms of an underlying malaise. I think that three things are central to that malaise:

  • the desire to control things that cannot be controlled
  • a focus on efficiency and effectiveness to the exclusion of the underlying purpose of measures
  • an abrogation of personal responsibility in circumstances where personal space, the ability of individuals to contribute in work or society, has become more limited.  

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Going off-line

I fear that I am going off-line here for a few days. I am travelling, but had intended to post regardless. I don't think that will be possible now. Talk to you later.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Introducing the meaning (or otherwise) of the term picking winners

I have always struggled with the use and abuse of the term "picking winners" in economic and industry policy. It is one of a suite of terms used in policy discussion that carry connotations. They are in fact shorthand, code if you like, for a set of linked arguments and opinions.

To illustrate this, consider the most common us of the term, "Government's mustn't pick winners". Or, alternatively, "Governments should pick winners".

Now at the most general level, the use of the term in either way is pretty meaningless. All Government activities create a pattern of winners and losers. If we drill down further, we find that the term is generally used for the provision of direct support by Government for certain firms, sectors or activities expected to yield longer term economic gains. Again, the term is too broad. When Governments invest in infrastructure they obviously do so in the expectation of  longer term gains. Further, in choosing how much to spend, where to spend and how to finance that spend, they advantage some and disadvantage others. I don't think that most would deny that Governments should invest in infrastructure, so we have another definitional problem.

If we drill down further still, we find that the term is most commonly used in Australia to describe Government support for activities where the combination of the private sector with market forces might otherwise be expected to yield the best results. Those who use the term pejoratively argue  that Governments are bad at second guessing markets. Those who use the term in a positive way argue that market failure or market short termism leads to bad results so far as the country is concerned. In both cases, you can be reasonably certain of what those arguing are likely to argue in other economic or policy contexts.

Now before going on, to further illustrate the confusion the term creates, have a look at this short US example.

But why am I rattling on in this way? Well, it's partly because of my experience in trying to get new Government initiatives through that became partly mired in a pick winners debate. It also reflects my own review of my past thinking in the context of Australia's economic future, including assumptions about the role of services built into current discussions on Australia in the Asian Century. Finally Evan, one of my regular commenters, specifically asked my views about picking winners in the context  of my discussion on the international future of the Australian services sector. 

In my next post, I will try to explain my cynicism about the language and concepts surround the picking winners discussion and also outline the conceptual basis I use myself in discussion. 

Note to readers:

This post is part of an irregular series that began with Economic threads & the need for a new view. I am listing all the posts there.