Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday Forum: marcellous on history

Marcellous made a long comment on History, history wars and the wonder of the on-line world that I thought was worth bringing up in full as a contribution to discussion. Think of it as a guest post! I haven't commented at this stage to prevent my own views interfering with reaction.

Marcellous wrote:

This is very rough, but I'd say "history" really exists on three levels.

The first is, broadly, cultural general knowledge. Necessary for a liberal education, also for consideration of political and economic questions where analogies or lessons are drawn from history. This carries with a the lesson, on numerous levels, that the past is a foreign country.

The second is a "civics" strand. It is an open question whether that is first or second. In a way that is a subset of the cultural general knowledge, but it is the bit where the state cares to get involved in its own interests.

You need some things for both. I was shocked recently in China when my language tutor, a young research student in a humanities subject, clearly had no idea when the Ming dynasty yielded to the Qing (not, incidentally, the Quing, as I recently heard Brendan Nelson call it at the National Press Club).

Arguments about the school syllabus, I think, mostly swirl around these two, especially when we are talking about the bit of the syllabus which will be compulsory. (History as an elective is in severe decline in high schools these days.)

The civics is the bit where either selection or the slant of analysis (explicit or implicit) becomes a political argument.

Of course there is an intersection between the two. If you teach the industrial revolution, what else do you want to say about unions, the combination acts, child labour laws, labour law generally,....oh no! the rise of the labour parties in the UK and Australia as the political advocates for the organised working class! Propaganda! (We could also do Madame Bovary and the money lending acts as well, I suppose; or the "English", "Glorious" and French revolutions.) Under the present Federal government such revolutionary talk should probably stop at 1830.)

Both of these over all tend to be, at least at first, a question of facts and conclusions. They can be populated by ripping yarns such as the version of the Punic Wars you give (though don't you think there is a bit of a subtext about the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana lurking beneath this?). Or it could be (as I remember learning in agonising detail) the history of the reform of the voting franchise in the UK in the nineteenth century up to universal adult suffrage.

The third aspect of history is probably the subject rather than the subject matter: a diachronic analysis (otherwise it is historical geography) of change over time - however analytically or narratively constructed, where the key intellectual disciplines are the use and marshalling of evidence to tell the story/give the analysis. This only really enters the picture in senior high school (to a point) and after.

Ancient history is more fun because even now the sources are more sparse so you can exercise more imagination joining the dots. I still remember a thrill in Medieval History studying (I think) Arnold of Brescia when I realised that I could read (albeit in translation and with less knowledge of the context) practically all of the source available to anyone. The closer you get to now, the more that freedom is circumscribed by how many more sources/facts/artefacts are available - not that I would say (as you do) that it makes things dogmatic."


I brought marcellous's comment up as a post because of the reflections it triggered.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between history and historiography, the writing of history. In a way, history just is, the story of the past waiting to be discovered. Historiography is very different, for what we chose to write about and the way we write about it is always based on and influenced by the present, including our own short pasts. What we think of as history is therefore always selective, changing.

We also need to distinguish between history and historical method. We may chose our topics, but how we approach those topics, the techniques we use to analyse the evidence, is a different matter. Here there is a a body of professional knowledge, of technique, that should be applied. The habit of some, especially French intellectuals such as  Michael Foucault and his disciples, of squeezing, forcing, history to support their models may sometimes have yielded insights, but I never though of it as history because it breached what I saw as the fundamental canons of historical method. I also found it quite indigestible, at times eye-glazingly so. 

A key feature of good history is that it must be refutable. I like and write what marcellous called a diachronic analysis of change over time, however analytically or narratively constructed, where the key intellectual disciplines are the use and marshalling of evidence to tell the story/give the analysis.

In writing, I am very conscious of my own selectivity. I select and present evidence in a way that makes sense, at least to me, that allows me to tell a story. However, that story is not what actually happened, but my own perception at a point as to what happened. I am creating patterns and relationships that feel right to me. However, I know from my own life experience just how messy and complex reality is.

Everything that I write and say, the simplifications that I make, is likely to be wrong to some degree. Part of my role as an historian is to make my sources and analytical processes transparent enough to allow proper challenge, Of course I don't do this all the time. In writing my weekly history column for the Armidale Express, for example, I want to interest and tell a story. I am not going to load that with all the paraphernalia that goes with more professional writing.

Marcellous referred to civics. This, he suggested, is the bit where either selection or the slant of analysis (explicit or implicit) becomes a political argument. I would broaden this to cover the broader formal curriculum.

In its way, history is deeply political. You can see this at present in the disputes over the Armenian genocide, the way that Byzantine history still affects modern Greece, the stories of the Balkan conflicts or the continued dispute between China, the  conflict between Japan and China over the rape of Nanking or Aboriginal re-interpretations of Australian history.  

The things that we chose to study, or are chosen for us to study, determine our memories and perceptions of the past. That which is excluded may still exist in history, but for practical purposes it dies from our memories; It takes time, but it happens. That is why there has been so much venom in the history debates, for here we have not just questions of selection, but also of rejection. What we study and indeed what we should think about it is dictated.

I think that the modern history that marcellous and I did at school was probably similar, based on his descriptions. You cannot study political or social history in Australia or England without addressing the question of the union movement and the rise of the Labor (Labour) parties. When I first studied modern history at school, these were one thread in the narrative, The same thread came through in the school economic texts in looking at institutional structures in Australia. That is why, I think, that I retain a view that unions have a legitimate role even when other aspects of my personal views might suggest the opposite.

I have chosen the union case quite deliberately, for several years ago I argued that the central problem facing the union movement lay in the way that changes in curriculum and the teaching of history had effectively amputated the union present from the union past in popular memory. This is not a comment on the Howard period, by the way. The changes happened earlier.

While I may disagree very strongly on particular manifestations of current unionism, I remain sympathetic to the broad role of the union movement because I know the historical context. I found and indeed find unionism to be a good thing in historical terms.

I am out of time this morning. I will conclude these reflections tonight. History text

Tonight stretched into two days! Seems to do that when there are other things on. The US Government shut down has begun; that and other economic news has been the focus of my attention!

In comments, Neil drew my attention to a 2008 post of his: Now, what did I learn half a century ago?. This book is from that post. It was one of the older texts. In comments, marcellous also corrected my interpretation that the history that he did at school was similar to that that I had studied, although I think that the topics marcellous highlighted were common.

Memory is an imperfect beast. I have lost count of the number of times that I have made errors on this blog when relying on memory alone. The question of what was studied in school or university history and when is an example. I have a broad pattern in my mind, but when it comes to detail at a point and especially key inflection points in content or approach, accuracy is lacking.

Course content is a reflection of what was considered important at the time; the way the subject was taught also reflects broader education and indeed social attitudes at the time; the two interact, further influenced by the technology available. All this said, I don't think that it affects my point that  in choosing what to study in history, we also choose what to forget. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Essay - the Turning

I didn't The Turning Know what to expect when I went to see The Turning. In that I wasn't disappointed!

Tim Winton is one of Australia's best known writers. The Turning is a book of seventeen short stories. Many of the stories interweave, creating a twisting central plot-line.

I hadn't read the book, although I will certainly do so now. My failure to read the book in advance proved to be a major error, for it would have added to my enjoyment of what is a quite complex movie. Complex? Each of the short stories has been turned into a short film under a different director who chose their own cast. Producer-director Robert Connolly provided overall coordination, directed one segment, but otherwise left it to each director to do their own thing within a broad framework. So we have what are in fact common characters at different stages played by different actors interpreted in different ways.

Seventeen short stories makes for a very long film, three hours. Even with an intermission, I was struggling a little at the end, wriggling uncomfortably in my seat, enjoying the film but wishing that it would end! With the normal movie, even a long one, the central plot provides coherence. Here you have to focus, responding to each segment, working out how the bits fit together. Despite that, this is likely to become a cult movie whose individual segments will be repeated again and again.

In visual terms, The Turning is quite stunning. While the budget is not public, it is reported to have been less than $A5 million; I found that hard to believe, given the production qualities. It has some of the most beautiful visuals I have ever seen. It also stars some of Australia's best acting talent, familiar faces whose qualities we know, as well as less known's. In drama terms, some of the individual segments are quite gripping. They hold you, but leave you dissatisfied because you want to know more.      

This is a very Australian movie. I went with a friend who grew up in another country. I found myself nodding at particular scenes, then trying to explain to her why so. I don't know Tim Winton, but he clearly has a country background. Guns, Aboriginal fishing parties on the beach, sand caves, sexual angst in smaller communities, country cops, shows, they were all there.

In commercial terms, this is an Australian first, movie as an event. Some of my favourite Australian movies made for equivalent money and targeting main stream release have vanished without trace. This movie (wisely) eschewed commercial release. It went the film festival, art deco cinema event, approach. It limited its release to a small number of cinemas, charged a premium price (tickets are $25), relied both on word of mouth and the cultural mafia. The film will get its basic cost back from limited release, and then make its money from after sales.

I doubt that It will be ever done again. This is a one-off. I don't know the commercial terms that were negotiated, but some of the actors who were involved in combination would have blown a limited budget in fees.

It actually made me very proud. Despite my sore bum, my restlessness, I would like to see it again. I would like to rewatch individual segments. I would like to soak myself in the film. We couldn't have done this even twenty years ago.

From a purely professional viewpoint, I kept thinking how do I turn  my writing into this? I would so love to showcase my own area, to simply tell the story.       

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - school sport in a professional measurement world

This post is a brief follow up to Sydney school sports' wars. The bigger post that I wanted to write is taking time. There is a very big story here about the evolving world of sporting and indeed academic competition among schools.

I stumbled across all this because my old school (TAS - The Armidale School) re-entered the GPS Rugby competition. I started going to the games. Then I stumbled across the Green & Gold Schoolboy Rugby Forum. one of a number of Rugby Forums. I go to see these games on my own, meaning I have no-one to share with. I have really enjoyed the games, but its actually quite lonely, For that reason, I started to post on the Green & Gold NSW GPS forums from a TAS and then broader country perspective.

It's been quite rewarding, although very distracting in time terms. Game time plus writing time takes away from my other priorities, but I like it from both a sharing viewpoint and because, perhaps, I provide a different perspective from those embedded in what is really a Sydney competition. Like all forums there are fire fights, strong views, but my fellow commenters have been very kind to me. I try to be balanced, to keep a focus on the fun side. to share. 

Before continuing these brief comments, here are two links. Number one is a story by Malcolm Knox in the Sydney Morning Herald, Schools learn lessons of sporting world. The second is a video celebrating Newington College's 2013 Rugby success. You don't have to watch the whole video, but do look at the first few minutes. Further comments follow the video.


Eldest daughter is fond of US school and college sporting underdog films. You know, new coach comes in in difficult and leads the team to triumph to the benefit of all. In a way, this video fall in that class with its focus on triumphalism. But that's not what I want you to focus on.

Look at the power and speed of those boys. Remember, this is school boy rugby. We live in a performance focused, measurement focused, competitive world. As the best get better, the gap between them and the pack widens. TAS is a rugby school, a centre for Australian Institute of Sport rugby development in Northern New South Wales. Its approach to rugby is as professional in coaching terms as that holding in Sydney, But it is half the size of the Sydney GPS schools. Our firsts played and won the Sydney GPS thirds competition, but would have been demolished in the firsts. 

The competition between schools is not limited to the GPS, nor too sport.  All the schools, state as well as private, try to compete within the limits set by budget and focus. They also adjust at the margin.

For example, as a selective High School and the only state school in the NSW GPS, Sydney High attracts the academically inclined kids and the driven parent kids, those driving and indeed sacrificing so that their kids can get the best professional start. This creates an imbalance problem in other areas like sport or indeed just the demographic and social balance in the school itself,  So Sydney High is changing its rules to give local kids a better chance to get in,

In sport, the problem is further complicated by the professionalisation in adult sport. All teams in all codes look to their feeders, the schools and junior competitions. They want first shot at the boys and increasingly girls who might give them that later edge. This gives rise to what is called warehousing, the paid placement of kids at schools by sports or sporting teams. Of course the schools like this, for they get the kid and cash, as well as the kid's contribution to school sporting success.There are no instant rights or wrongs in all this.

At present, I am working in an Aboriginal organisation.  Sport provides an opportunity for Aboriginal advancement. I talk proudly about TAS's role in this area. Two TAS boys are playing in the national indigenous team about to compete in the national under sixteen rugby competition. I am proud of the boys and of my school for giving them the chance. But where do I draw the line in terms of the broader debate?

My feeling is that we need a proper analysis of the complexities that we find ourselves in, not the simplistic focus of the recent SMH stories with their focus on economic and social inequality.Do we ban Aboriginal sporting scholarships? I would have thought no, but that may well be the outcome of the current debate.   

Friday, September 27, 2013

Stop the boats - Australian Government scores own goal

Last Saturday I wrote (Saturday Morning Musings - Abbott: ideas, structures and success):

What has surprised me a little coming from a PM who promised a calm and ordered approach to Government has been the initial speed of action. It may be ordered, but it's not calm. It's more ram through. However, it is consistent with Mr Abbott's pledge that the new Government will do what it says it is going to do. However, herein lies a potential problem.

Stop the Boats, Mr Abbott now prefers Operation Sovereign Borders, has already ruffled Indonesian feathers. The sillier aspects of the policy such as the boats buy-back or payments for Indonesian informers are probably not-doable unless the Indonesian Government chooses to cooperate. The broader aspects including turn back the boats may or may not have the desired effect. However, what I didn't quite understand was the way it was done.

Was it really necessary to ruffle Indonesian feathers in quite that way? In process terms, all the Government had to do was to announce immediate steps, noting an intention to discuss further steps with our neighbours.

In the early days of the Rudd Government we saw both haste and a lack of sensitivity in action especially on the international front that proved to be early signs of later problems. We also saw something that I struggled to describe at the time, but which I came to think of as a disconnect between party and people, indeed between party and reality.

Now the new Government's Stop the Boats 'appears to have broken into a full scale diplomatic spat with Indonesia, one not helped by former Howard Government Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's comments. Those comments display the sensitivity for which Mr Downer was once famous.

My point on Saturday focused not on what was done, but how it was done. In a response,DG wrote:  In relation to "insulting Indonesians", Joe Ludwig's ban on the live cattle trade, apart from kicking an 'own goal', surely takes the cake?  Too true. It was indeed a case where a purely domestic response had very significant effects that continue.

Australian Foreign Minister Bishop may have indicated, as the Indonesian Foreign Minister's statement apparently suggested, that Australia wants to work "behind the scenes" and "quietly" on the issue to prevent too much publicity. The approach followed seems to have had the opposite effect. It is, in fact, an own goal.

Mind you, I too am responding from within an Australian frame. The story leads the Australian airwaves this morning. However, as I write, neither the Jakarta Post nor Jakarta Globe on-line editions carry any reference to the spat. Stop the Boats may be a top Australian issue, but it is well down the rankings when it comes to Indonesian domestic concerns.

In concluding, my focus here is not the rights and wrongs of the Australian position, but on the way it was done.


It appears from today's reporting that the release of details of the meeting were all an error.

Postscript 2

I had missed this recent story until commenter DG pointed it out. I quote from the Australian:

 UP TO seven West Papuan independence activists are believed to have fled across the Torres Strait to northern Queensland in search of asylum after supporting Australian "Freedom Flotilla" members who sailed close to Indonesian waters earlier this month. ................

The flight of the West Papuans has the potential to cause a serious row with Jakarta, just when the Abbott government is already under fire from Indonesia over its controversial plan to turn back asylum-seeker boats.

Here is the Radio New Zealand report, here the NITV report. It will be interesting to see just how the Australian Government handles this one.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sydney school sports' wars

Here in Sydney, the issue of the professionalisation of sport in the GPS (Greater Public Schools) competition has finally broken into the open. This is an example of the coverage. I have been following this one for a while, watching it slowly boil over.

The problem is not unique to the Sydney GPS competition. I have been collecting material to write an interpretive piece, but will wait until the dust settles. It's actually a rather interesting case study of the way that management and measurement systems affect institutions in a competitive environment.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

History, management, age and the search for relevancy

On yesterday's post, History, history wars and the wonder of the on-line world, I brought up the video that youngest (Clare) told me about introducing the Punic Wars. This is the second video in the series:

Love it. You see, one of the problems in sharing history is to provide the context. With videos like these, you can provide an easy overview and then start adding detail and texture.

Last night youngest and I chatted over dinner about our mutual plans. She is editing the fantasy novel that she wrote at school, greatly shortening and tightening it. We spoke of my plans, including my need to learn more about videos and podcasts. It's actually quite hard as you get older to stay current.

My next short term writing target is to capture some of my management writing in an e-book. Talking to a friend, AC, about my plans, she commented on my focus. I am very focused, driven even, but I also struggle with priorities and deadlines given that a large slab of my time has to be devoted to earning an income to support my writing addictions.

Here, by the way, I thank kvd and Scott for their contributions to the Keep Belshaw Writing program. I was especially touched by Scott.This was Scott's message by PayPal:

Our country needs keen minds to keep bringing their ideas to the public. Your work compares favourably to equivalent journalists and should be supported.

Scott is making his way in the world and doesn't have a lot of money, so I was especially grateful.

Anyway, Clare and i were talking about the way i might use podcasts and videos to support my better management messages. She is going to follow up with some of her friends re gaining me support.

Today at work, I talked about some of these issues with colleagues.None of my writing occurs in abstract. It is always influenced by current experiences. That, I think, is why I am so concerned about getting older. I need relevancy. I have to stay in touch.

How else can I apply my experience to current events?  How else do i get my messages across?

With some of my management material, I need to take actual workers and incorporate them in some way. That is why I am interested in video. We shall see what emerges.       

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

History, history wars and the wonder of the on-line world

In a piece on the ABC's the Drum, Only one side is fighting the curriculum wars, Tony Taylor has revived the spectre of the history wars. The introduction to the piece reads:

Behind the false assertion that the national curriculum is left-wing lies the hope that an Abbott Government will instead expose children to the corrective propaganda of the Right, writes Tony Taylor.

According to the short bio on the Drum, Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University. In 1999-2000 he led the federally-funded national inquiry into the teaching learning of history in schools. From 2001-2007 he was director of the Commonwealth National Centre for History Education and from 2008-2012 he was a member of the ACARA's history advisory committee.

At one level, Dr Taylor's piece can be read as a defence of his work on the national curriculum in face of attacks from, among others, the IPA, a right wing think tank. At a second level, it's actually a contribution to the so-called history wars in its own right. I leave it to you to read the piece and the comments it attracted. For the moment, I want to make a few observations based on my own experience.

By it's nature, the study of history involves selection, selection of field, topics within fields and the questions we ask of the evidence. In many ways, the study of history centres on what we chose to remember about about the past. Those items not chosen slowly disappear from shared memory.That is why the question of school curriculum attracts so much angst, for here we have centrally directed choices as to what will be remembered.

I note that this selectivity is not limited to formal curricula. I have written before about the way that cultural gatekeepers affect what is on offer in history. I have also noted the influence of popular taste, including the way in which military history came to dominate the history shelves in book shops. Another example can be seen at school level in Australia in the rise of the popularity of ancient history compared to modern. Students simply find it more interesting. I don't blame them.

There have been enormous advances in historical knowledge and techniques since I first studied history. We know far more about the past, pulling the veil back on lost aspects of history in a way that I would have found inconceivable as a school boy. You can see this in popular forensic history programs such as Time Team or the Australian show First Footprints. There is also far more interest in history as such. Here the internet has been a huge help in providing easier access to basic information. The history I write through my columns and on-line would not have been possible even ten years ago.

The reason ancient history is more popular than modern lies in two things. One is the advancement of knowledge, enriching the material students can draw from. The second is interest; my impression is that students like the relative freedom of ancient history as compared to the more rigid and doctrinaire modern. I emphasise that this is an impression. No doubt my school teacher colleagues can correct any errors.

Looking now at the teaching of modern history, one of the things that I have noted is the progressive loss of historical context; students at school and university see history in chunks, disconnected from broader patterns. This is where selection comes in. The context that I learned at school with its emphasis on European and especially English history, its focus on Empire and Commonwealth, is no longer acceptable. Indeed, it was biased. But it did provide a context that allowed me to see patterns and then, later, to challenge my own views in light of evidence and my evolving thinking.

I think that we have lost that unifying context, for there is no agreement on a general framework. The themes that do exist are partial, fragmented. Outside the new field of Big History, students do not appear to be given a general overview. When I first studied history at university, we began with a full year general course that aimed to provide a full introduction from pre-historic times, setting at least a partial frame for later studies. I am not saying that we should go back to that, but it did help.   

Some years ago, I was greatly worried by what I perceived to be the biases in the teaching of history and the consequent loss of focus on what I considered to be important, the loss of my own history as fashions changed. I am no longer worried about that. As part of this, I no longer worry (or at least not to the same extent) about the bias in the school curriculum. Why? The answer lies in the internet.

As a "popular" historian, I put the word in italics to indicate not that I am popular but that I write for a general audience, it is up to me to use the platforms that I have been given. Say I feel that that the historical topics that I am interested in are being ignored? Then it's my job to write about them, to try to attract interest. Say I think that discussion on a particular topic is biased? Then write about it. Say I believe that a new context is required, or at least an altered context, then write about it.   

I can do all this. Each week, my history writings have a potential reach of thousands through print and on-line. Most just skim, but some respond. To my mind, that's a very democratic thing. It gives me freedom to write, to think, to communicate in ways never possible before. I have access to source material in a way that's never been possible before. 

All this is rather wonderful, something that I have tried to explain from time to time. For the moment, I just remind myself to enjoy the experience. 


kvd reminded me that Denis Wright has some rather good posts that in some ways linked to my theme. In order, they are:

Look how much historical information Denis packs in and in such a simple style.

And here's a link to an introduction to the Punic Wars sent to me by youngest. Made by game makers, it's actually a very good introduction to a complicated topic.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A little more on the need for a US shock

A brief follow up comment on yesterday's post, Budgets, debt ceilings and the need for a US shock. I generally try to avoid posts that are expressions of opinion without any real analysis. But as I watched the Republicans who had passed the bill line up for a photo shot and the obligatory expressions of triumph, I was struck by the apparent disconnect between their domestic triumphalism and some of the flow-on effects of their actions.

Here in Australia have complained about what I see as the growing tendency of Australian Governments to take actions and express views driven by domestic concerns oblivious to the flow-on effects beyond Australia's borders. Refugee policy is a case in point, with yet another aspect of that policy apparently causing disquiet in Djakarta.

Past Australian Governments have generally been sensitive to the realities of this country's size and international position, avoiding or at least limiting domestic political myopia. The US is so much bigger and so much more powerful, increasing the importance of the narrow domestic view.

The day after the last Australian elections had I had to complete the economics column I write for Business Solutions Magazine. This is always slightly complicated, for I am writing on current economic conditions with a print lag that can run to weeks. This creates a real risk that new developments may invalidate my analysis even before the column appears in print. So far so good, but its a bit nerve-wracking.

US developments are obviously important to my analysis and herein lies a problem. While I am generally comfortable with my overall analytical framework and try to avoid specific forecasts (my knowledge of the immediate tea leaves is no better than anybody else's), US policy and politics introduces a remarkably random element into the whole analysis. It's not just the vagaries of quantitative easing, I understand those, but the way that the US game of fiscal chicken can have direct impacts on the real economy that flow on.

If you think about it, its quite remarkable. Here in Australia we complain about budget vagaries. We criticise Treasury's inability to get its budget forecasts right.  But we do have a budget that provides a starting point for analysis. The US, the largest economy in the world, does not. The US doesn't have a coherent economic policy, it limps by. That is why I wrote;

I know that this is a bit like welcoming the equivalent of an economic H bomb, but I kind of hope that the US Congress fails to avoid either a Government shut down or a lift in the debt ceiling. The US system is important globally on many levels, but I just don't think that it's working in political or policy terms.

No doubt they will muddle through as they have done in the past. This problem has been around for a long time, long enough to feature in an economic chicken episode in West Wing. This made compelling viewing as drama, but was also depressing from an economic policy perspective. If the US were to hit the fiscal and debt cliff there would be pain. But just maybe, the various players and satrapies that dominate the US system might then be given a reality check.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Budgets, debt ceilings and the need for a US shock

I have just been watching ABC America on the House of Representatives vote on the House budget bill.

Blowed if I know. I suspect that very few Australians (I don't) understand either the venom of the debate on Obamacare or a Governmental system that prevents you passing a national budget for two and half years. I know that this is a bit like welcoming the equivalent of an economic H bomb, but I kind of hope that the US Congress fails to avoid either a Government shut down or a lift in the debt ceiling. The US system is important globally on many levels, but I just don't think that it's working in political or policy terms.

From an outside viewpoint, the domestic agendas that so drive US politics occupy a bubble that has disconnected from events elsewhere or even from US core US concerns. Perhaps a cold shower will help. You really cannot have a functioning system that somehow relies on what appears to be three month rolling compromises. 

If, as I have begun to hope, both Republicans and Democrats dig in, if the US system starts to collapse, then perhaps the results might drive a lesson home to all sides on Capitol Hill. Really, I think that's the only way to restore sense to the US debate.          

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - Abbott: ideas, structures and success

The first signs of the Abbott Government's style are now emerging, although it will be some time before we get a real feel. 

The simplification of ministerial and departmental titles was greeted with a degree of outrage, but to my mind makes broad sense. I have long been concerned about the proliferation of multi-barrel titles that of themselves mean very little. Further, all Governments change structures to fit their policy and political needs. If you want to get a feel for what fits where, you need to look at the Administrative Arrangements.

The decision by the Government to sack three Departmental heads - Agriculture's Andrew Metcalfe, Industry's Don Russell and Resources' Blair Comley - came as a surprise more because of its speed than anything else. It is certainly less draconian that Mr Howard's six. However, Mr Abbott's reassuring noises to a Commonwealth Public Service facing significant cuts are are unlikely to allay concerns. Tim Colebatch's conclusion in the Age, Reshuffle shows public servants who's in charge, would seem to be closer to the truth. Mind you, Commonwealth public servants are well aware of whose in charge!

The immediate abolition of the Climate Commission came as no surprise, nor did the foreshadowed abolition of the Climate Change Authority since action in these areas had been foreshadowed.  in similar vein, the initial steps on Stop the Boats reflected previous commitments, as did the foreshadowed legislation to abolish the carbon tax.

What has surprised me a little coming from a PM who promised a calm and ordered approach to Government has been the initial speed of action. It may be ordered, but it's not calm. It's more ram through. However, it is consistent with Mr Abbott's pledge that the new Government will do what it says it is going to do. However, herein lies a potential problem.

Stop the Boats, Mr Abbott now prefers Operation Sovereign Borders, has already ruffled Indonesian feathers. The sillier aspects of the policy such as the boats buy-back or payments for Indonesian informers are probably not-doable unless the Indonesian Government chooses to cooperate. The broader aspects including turn back the boats may or may not have the desired effect. However, what I didn't quite understand was the way it was done.

Was it really necessary to ruffle Indonesian feathers in quite that way? In process terms, all the Government had to do was to announce immediate steps, noting an intention to discuss further steps with our neighbours.

In the early days of the Rudd Government we saw both haste and a lack of sensitivity in action especially on the international front that proved to be early signs of later problems. We also saw something that I struggled to describe at the time, but which I came to think of as a disconnect between party and people, indeed between party and reality.

Our election campaigns are gladiatorial. This creates a lock in-effect in that while positions are refined during a campaign, they are also locked in though the selling and defending process. This is especially pronounced when you have such a long campaign, Each party has its own culture. Those who come up through the party machinery and are actively involved with the party become acculturated. They are partisan towards the party and indeed within the party; they tend to talk to and interact most with people who share their own views. They live within a party world. This can mislead.

At the last election, around 55.4% of voters in the House of Representatives did not vote for the Coalition at their first choice; 11.5% of voters rejected all the main parties including the Greens. The Coalition was not elected by a majority of voters, but by a combination of those who put the Coalition as their first choice plus those who put it as their second choice. The Coalition may have a mandate, but it is a very qualified mandate. There were a lot of voters out there that rejected the Coalition or chose it as, at best, second best.

If we now look at policies and programs, not all the Labor policies including those opposed by the Coalition were necessarily bad. Conversely, not all those proposed by the Coalition are necessarily good. In a lot of cases, there is a mixture of good and bad elements. The same applies to our systems of public administration.

A change in Government provides an opportunity for change, for re-alignment. Many are distressed by the new Government's actions on climate change, many welcome them. In a way, both positions are neither here nor there. The validity of the positions will be tested by actual events over the next three to six years, as well as the responses to those events. Government, opposition and voters will respond according to what happens on the ground.  

A change in Government also provides an opportunity to select the best of the old, to reject the worst of the new, including those policies carried to the election. It is in this area that the lock-in and acculturation effects have a huge impact, for they exclude good choices, the capacity to select. It is in this area that I suspect the Abbott Government to be weak, more akin to the Rudd Government than the first Hawke Government.

The first Hawke Government came to power with a mandate for change, but without the rigidities that now exist in terms of very rigid policy positions. In doing so, it actually captured those within the system who wanted change and now had the opportunity to put new ideas forward. My views are coloured here, because I was one of those captured. The window for really new approaches actually closed quite quickly as systemic rigidities kicked in, but it was fun while it lasted!

I seem to have drifted from my main theme, nostalgia does that, so let me pull things together. Based on what I have seen so far, I find the new Government to be fairly rigid, stuck in its election mode. I don't expect it to be very imaginative, although it may be more radical than people expect.

I am now very out of touch with Canberra, but I doubt that it has captured the hearts and minds of those who have to implement and advise, who have to balance all the practical issues in actually doing. Here i want to go back to  the header for Tim Colebatch's piece, Reshuffle shows public servants who's in charge.

As I said earlier,the Commonwealth Public Service knows full well who is in charge. They will do their job. But if Mr Abbott really wants to make a difference, he will capture their hearts as well as their minds, he will give them freedom to advise and, most importantly, he will tap not just the top views but also access the more broadly based group who oversight the actual policy creation and doing. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Australian life - the rodeo

1953. Alan Wood on the great bucking mare, Curio

At the moment, I'm part way through Alwyn Torebeek with David Gilchrist, Life in the Saddle: Adventures of the Legendary horseman the Kokotunga Kid, Michael Joseph, Melbourne 2011). It was given to me by youngest as a Father's Day present. I chose it as my current train reading and have been thoroughly enjoying it. The  photo shows Alan Wood on the great bucking mare, Curio, in 1953.

I didn't go to a lot of rodeos as a kid. Rodeos tend to be strongest in cattle country; I lived in sheep country and was, in case, a townie if with country connections.

Alwyn Torebeek's main geographic focus to this point in the book was Queensland, although he did travel widely. I enjoyed the descriptions not just of the rodeo, but of droving and country lie.

Queensland is different. Yes, you say, you knew that! But its a very big state in which the metro influence is less.

Oh, and always happens, I found a New England connection. Formed at Maitland on 28 March 1946, the Northern (N.S.W.) Bushmen's Carnival Association formed the core of one of the two national rodeo bodies, the Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft & Rodeo Association (ABCRA).

Now this is quite helpful. It means I have the core of another History Revisited column for the Armidale Express. Its actually quite hard writing a weekly local history column and still keep it varied and interesting. It also helps fill in another small thread in my ever expanding history of New England to go with all the other leisure threads that I have written about.         

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The onset of the Great Depression

Armidale Teachers' College

A short  piece I was writing on the building of the Armidale Teachers' College for inclusion in a book to be published in November, caused me to look back at a much earlier piece of writing I did on the start of the Great Depression in Australia.

My objective was to set  the economic back-story, the context, for the story of the building itself.

The contract for the building was let in March 1929, with construction beginning the following month. By the time the new College’s foundation stone was laid on 29 November 1929, Australia was in the grip of recession, although the scale was still not clear. By early 1930, the expected NSW State deficit for 1929-30 had risen to over three million pounds. Despite that, construction was pushed ahead. 

I thought that I might repeat that earlier writing here, for it still has a certain resonance. 

"The causes, and course, of the Depression are complex, but are so inter-related to the political events of the period that it is necessary to have some command of them if we are to understand the political maelstrom that now caught up David Drummond.[i] The changes in Australia's economic structure that we have discussed before continued throughout the twenties; reflecting this, in 1925-26 manufacturing employment exceeded rural for the first time. Industrialisation was associated with, and assisted by, heavy expenditure on public works such as railways, electricity, roads and sewerage. The pattern of industrialisation and public works led to further growth in the metropolitan cities. Between 1921 and 1933 the population of the Australian capital cities rose by 32.9 per cent.[ii] Metropolitan population growth became self-generating, for the need to house rising city populations added thousands more jobs in building and construction.

Economic change was reflected in political change. Just as country interests had organised to try and protect their position, so manufacturing interests also organised.[iii] Through bodies such as the Australian Industries Protection League (established in 1919) they forged links with the Nationalist and Labor parties, pressing for higher tariffs and preaching the message that made in Australia was good for Australia. The manufacturers' drive for higher tariffs was fuelled by their continued vulnerability to import competition. During the twenties productivity within Australian manufacturing grew slowly if at all, so that local manufacturers found their costs rising at a time when import prices were falling. Manufacturers were able to force a series of tariff increases, but import competition continued to increase. Industry responded by trying to control or even cut wages, which in turn led to continuing industrial trouble.

Although some rural interests did support protection, the Country Party had begun as a low tariff party. However, it quickly realized that it could do little in the face of combined Nationalist/Labor support for tariffs.[iv] Page therefore advised primary producers to 'get into the vicious circle themselves by seeking Government support for their activities'.[v] This advice may have been sound politically, but it was a crucial defeat, for tariff protection was a major cause of the shift from country to city that the Party was trying to stop. As the decade passed, rising tariff levels, associated with relative stagnation in rural incomes, led to a resurgence of anti-tariff feeling in country areas. David Drummond shared this feeling, for in May 1927 he wrote to Page suggesting that continuation of high tariffs must lead to disaster via over-capitalisation of secondary industry associated with destruction of primary industry.[vi]

Despite growing public recognition of the longer term economic problems and choices facing Australia, few realised just how vulnerable the Australian economy had become by 1929 to any international downturn. Import competition within the domestic market was increasing. Government public works programs had been funded by heavy overseas borrowings - fifty-two million pounds in 1928 alone[vii] - which meant that a rising proportion of export income had to be used to pay interest and dividends to overseas investors; by 1927-28 such payments had reached 28 per cent of export income.[viii] However, the great bulk of that income still came from a very limited range of primary products.[ix] This mix was a recipe for balance of payments disaster: should overseas borrowing stop, or export prices fall sharply, then the balance of payments was likely to plunge quickly into deficit. External vulnerability was associated with internal weakness. Manufacturing employment depended on domestic incomes which depended on rural incomes and on building and construction. Rural incomes in turn depended on overseas prices, while building and construction depended on overseas funded public works programs.

In 1929 the worst possible combination of events happened. Export prices fell, while overseas borrowings stopped as a consequence of the effective closure of the London capital market to Australia. The balance of payments plunged into a deficit that threatened to exhaust the country's overseas reserves and led the Federal Government into a desperate search for international solvency. Within the domestic economy rural incomes fell while public works programs ground to a halt. Unemployment rose and rose again: the percentage of trade union members unemployed rose from 9.3 per cent at the start of 1929 to 13.1 per cent by the end of the year and then to 23.4 per cent by the end of 1930.[x] Australia's economic problems would have been intractable in any case, but the country was then particularly ill-equipped to deal with them. The sources of professional advice were still very limited, the available economic statistics were so inadequate that it was extremely difficult to discover what was happening within the economy, while the Federal Government had little economic expertise. In these circumstances it is not surprising that governments were slow to appreciate the real extent of the problem. As late as July 1929 the Commonwealth Bank's half-yearly report, while recognising that business activity was below normal, could summarise conditions as 'continued stability.'[xi]

The New South Wales Government was the first to react to the growing economic troubles, for New South Wales proved to be particularly vulnerable. As a major industrial state, it was already affected by growing import competition, while the growth in its metropolitan population, and hence the numbers in building, construction and public services, had been particularly marked; between 1921 and 1933 Sydney contributed some 28 per cent of Australia's total population growth. The State's funding methods added to its vulnerability. All states used London overdraft finance to fund public works expenditure while raising long-term loans. However, New South Wales' dependence on overdraft finance was greater than that of other states. This saved interest payments, but meant that the State's financial position would quickly become critical should the collapse in the London market for long term funds continue for any length of time. In March and April 1929, the State's London overdraft rose to three to four million pounds, but at that stage the Government was not worried, as the closure of the London market was expected to be only temporary. By June the State was in a financial vice which tightened as the year proceeded: not only could New South Wales not raise long-term loans, but the State's bankers were resisting any further increase in overdraft levels. Equally importantly, the State now faced declining income tax collections, rising losses on railway and transport services, and rising welfare costs. By early 1930, the expected State deficit for 1929-30 had risen to over three million pounds."

[i]The economic analysis of this chapter draws heavily from: C.B. Schedvin, Australian and the Great Depression. A Study of Economic Development and Policy in the 1920s and 1930s, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1970. Supplementary material is drawn from: W.A. Sinclair, The Process of Economic Development in Australia, Cheshire Publishing, Melbourne, 1976; L.F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank. The Development of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia 1924-1945, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1951; E.O.G. Shann and D.B. Copland, The Crisis in Australian Finance 1929 to 1931, Angus & Robertson Limited, Sydney, 1931; D. Copland, Australian in the World Crisis 1929-1933, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1934; E.O.G. Shann and D.B. Copland, The Battle of the Plans. Documents Relating to the Premiers' Conference, May 25th to June 11th, 1931, Angus & Robertson Limited, Sydney, 1931.

[ii]Population figures have been calculated from the figures given in Appendix VII, R. Ward, A Nation For a Continent. The History of Australia 1901-1975, Heinemann Educational, Richmond, 1977, pp.446-447.

[iii]See R. White, Inventing Australia. Images and Identity 1688-1980, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1981, Chapter 9, p.140ff. The history of the League is summarised in: 'AIDA - The History', Australian Industries Development Association Bulletin No 341., June 1982, pp.7-9.

[iv]For a description of Country Party (and country) attitudes towards the tariff see: U.R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, Melbourne, University Press, Parkville, 1963, particularly Chapter 9, p.114ff; B.D. Graham, The Formulation of the Australian Country Parties, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1966, p.118, 229-231, 245-247.

[v]Cited Ellis, The Australian Country Party, p.115.

[vi]Copy in FP.

[vii]Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank, p.63.

[viii]Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression, p.73.

[ix]In the last two years of the twenties, 88 per cent of export income came from wool, hides and skins, wheat and flour, dairy produce, meats and metals. D. Clark, 'A Closed Book? The debate on causes', in J. Mackinolty (ed), The Wasted Years? Australia's Great Depression., George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981, pp.10-26, p.23.

[x]These figures are taken from the table in L.J. Louis and I. Turner (eds), The Depression of the 1930s., Cassell Australia, Melbourne, 1968, p.89.

[xi]Cited Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank, p.64.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Indi grass roots

Interesting piece on the Indi grassroots campaign by Barrie Cassidy,The story of how Cathy McGowan stormed Indi. There were a couple of points in the story where I disagreed with his analysis, I might pick them up later, but it's well worth a read as as a case study in grass roots politics. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday snippets - crisis response to the GFC, the Australian party system with a dash of rising sea levels

Quite a gripping piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Elizabeth Knight, 'They came with suitcases for cash': Westpac chief. The introduction follows. Its worth a browse. 

Westpac boss Gail Kelly has described scenes of customers arriving at bank branches with suitcases looking to withdraw their cash as the global financial crisis hit its nadir five years ago.

On the fifth anniversary of the collapse of US investment banking giant Lehman Brothers, Ms Kelly reveals the depth of Westpac's concerns, its crisis management and the extent of collaboration between the big four bank chiefs, government and the Reserve Bank.

I was in China that September as handbag at, of all things, an international conference of insolvency practitioners where my wife was a delegate. As the situation worsened, those attending started to leave, called back to their various home bases. Crises are good for the insolvency business.

I remember being surprised when I got back to Australia at the depth of local concern. It was that that really drew me back into writing on economics and the economy. Elizabeth's piece shows just how close Australia came to a real bank run. It also shows the strength of the Australian system.

Moving to current times, Don Aitkin has run two pieces (Is Labor the true dynamo of Australian politics? and Is Labor the true dynamo of Australian politics?) looking at the Australian party system over time. Like me, Don's formative roots actually lie in the country, the world of the Country Party. Like me, he grew to early adulthood in New England; by accident of alphabet, Don was the first student enrolled at the newly autonomous University of New England.

Although I disagreed with him on certain points, more as I came to know more, Don had a big impact on my thinking. In the seventies there was a flowering of books on the Australian country and country movements. This was work written from a non or even anti metro perspective, an exploration of ideas and politics outside the bounds set by Australia's big metro centres that generally, dominate Australian thought and politics.

I do wonder about Don's typology though, especially when it comes to the definition of conservative. It seems to me that that's shifted, that the old classifications may no longer be relevant.

Changing directions, over on Northern River geology, Rod Holland had a short piece on fluctuating sea levels on the North Coast, A history of unstable North Coast sea levels?. We saw a little of the importance of changing climate and sea levels in the ABC First Footprints series. Looking at layers in the coastal dunes revealed by erosion, Rod wondered about higher sea levels during the Holocene period:

According to Baker et al (2001a & 2001b) the last time the sea level was 1 metre higher than present was around 2400-1800 years ago. Maybe, the layer is a preserved berm from a beach that existed at the time of the Roman Empire (sometimes referred to as the Roman Warm Period). I don’t know for sure, but to my thinking it seems quite plausible.

I have a professional if still poorly informed interest in this type of thing because it affects the first part of the major history that I am trying to write. However, one doesn't have to be a believe or a sceptic in human induced climate change to understand that sea levels can vary. A return to the sea levels holding 2,000 years would indeed have quite a dramatic impact on the Australian coast line!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Equality vs equality of opportunity - a past debate

Tonight a very short muse flowing from Indi, Mirabella & the decline of the welfare state. There I said in part:

The underlying idea of the growth of the welfare state is quite popular. However, I think that it's also wrong. The welfare state as envisaged at the end of the Second World war died during the 1970s. We actually live in a post-welfare state world in which the fight is no longer over the concept of cradle to the grave security, that's dead, nor even over the idea of a proper safety net for the poorest; that's dead too.

In 2006, I explored some of these issues in a series of post on changing approaches to public administration since the Second World War. I didn't have time this morning to go back and check that earlier writing. I will do so later. I think that it's helpful to put some of these discussions in an historical context. Sophie Mirabella is actually a good example of the nature of the ideological changes that have taken place.

Some of my past writing that I looked at I find to be very good; useful explorations of the changing patterns of ideas.S ome I find confused.

One confusion, and it has a certain relevance today, lies in the conflation of ideas about the welfare state with ideas about the role of Government. In that past thinking, I mixed together under the welfare state rubric ideas from the left about things such as government ownership or the broad role of Government in the economy with very different ideas connected with welfare.

The meaning to be attached to the words welfare state is not the same as big government, nor an activist role for government in the broad sense. You can accept the idea of a welfare state without supporting either, although welfare state certainly implies a bigger government than would otherwise be the case.

In reflecting on train and bus, I was drawn back to intellectual and political debates of the first half of the 1970s, to the distinction between equality and opportunity. We were Country Party radicals wishing to reform the Party.In doing so, we drew a distinction between equality, a Labor View, and equality of opportunity, a Country Party position. In bias terms, I didn't see the Liberals as supporting equality of opportunity. How could they?, for in practical terms the outcome of their positions was the protection of privilege, of the majority, the advantaging of those who at that point were big and had an edge.

But what was equality of opportunity? What did it actually mean in terms of policy stances?

This is a debate that's largely dead, that's gone. We do talk, for example, about bridging the gap where a particular group has become really disadvantaged. But we don't talk about equality of opportunity and what it means, of the role of government in bringing it about. That belongs to a past age.

I think that its time to bring it back.


In a tweet, NSW National MP Jenny Gardiner wrote:

@JimBelshaw Indeed. Maybe what John Anderson did re Maths skills for country kids & Piccoli's agenda hark back to equality of opportunity?


Wikipedia defines welfare state in these terms:

A welfare state is a "concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. The general term may cover a variety of forms of economic and social organization.

The difficulty I have with this definition, the cause of what I see as the confusion in my earlier writing, lies in the way it mixes different things together; protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens; equality of opportunity and equitable distribution of wealth (equality); and the minimal provisions for a good life (safety net). I have bolded the ands to draw out very different threads that can conflict.   

Postscript 2Please-climb-that-tree1

In a comment, anon drew my attention to this cartoon that, he suggested, provided a conservative view of equality of opportunity. I have saved it primarily as an example illustration to use in some of my management writing.

Now this cartoon actually says nothing about equality, rather that different people have different skills.      

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Indi, Mirabella & the decline of the welfare state

Here down under, vote counting continues. In the Victorian seat of Indi, Liberal front bencher and right ideological warrior Sophie Mirabella is struggling to catch independent Cathy McGowan. If the latest comments on William Bowe's Indi post are correct, and he has some very well informed commenters, it would appear that Ms Mirabella still has a chance of catching up. It must be hot in the room, though, with various party scrutineers outnumbering those counting three to one!

Mr Abbott has apparently delayed the finalisation of his ministry until the results in Indi are known. However, even if Ms Mirabella is returned and joins the ministry, she is going to have to devote time to her seat and probably tone down her rhetoric. In a piece in The Age, Tony Wright commented:

The Liberals' Sophie Mirabella, having clean forgotten, or having never quite learnt, that country people tend to like their conservatives to be local and non-combustible rather than imported firebrands, now sits nervously, Indi just beyond her grasp.

There is some truth in that, but it also arguably misses a key point. Yes, on the ABC's Vote Compass, Indi does sit somewhat to the right on the political spectrum, although there are more right leaning seats in both city and country. However, on my measure Ms Mirabella is not a conservative in the old fashioned sense, but something of a hardline right radical. I suspect that both her views and the trenchant way she expresses sit somewhat uncomfortably with local perceptions.

On other election matters, in How much will the change of government change Australia? Winton Bates follows up on a post of mine, What can we expect of a new Coalition Government?. Winton is just back from a month in Britain and Ireland, lucky so and so, so missed the actual election campaign. Winton's main conclusion is summarised in this quote:

The main change the Abbott government seems likely to bring about is a return to more orderly government processes. In that respect, the contribution of the new government could be quite similar to that of the Fraser government in the 1970s, which brought to an end the chaos of the Whitlam years. In fact, the more I think about it the more I think that, with the exception of policies toward asylum seekers, the Abbott government could end up looking quite similar to the Fraser government. There will be plenty of talk about tough decisions, but I don’t think there is likely to be much action.

I have some sympathy with this view, although in governance terms I don't think that the Rudd-Gillard government was anywhere near the chaos of the Whitlam period in either a policy or day to day operational sense. The instability was in the Labor party itself. However, Winton also commented in passing:

Perhaps the government will move on tax reform in its second term of office. But the most likely outcome will be a higher rate of GST to raise more revenue. If we continue to drift toward a European style welfare state, we will need a European style tax system to fund it!

The underlying idea of the growth of the welfare state is quite popular. However, I think that it's also wrong. The welfare state as envisaged at the end of the Second World war died during the 1970s. We actually live in a post-welfare state world in which the fight is no longer over the concept of cradle to the grave security, that's dead, nor even over the idea of a proper safety net for the poorest; that's dead too.

In 2006, I explored some of these issues in a series of post on changing approaches to public administration since the Second World War. I didn't have time this morning to go back and check that earlier writing. I will do so later. I think that it's helpful to put some of these discussions in an historical context. Sophie Mirabella is actually a good example of the nature of the ideological changes that have taken place. 


The discovery of a packet of missing votes in Indi seems to have swung the battle there to Cathy McGowan. From my experience as a scrutineer,  the Australian counting process is absolutely meticulous, with an internal number checking process designed to prevent or reveal just this type of error. Lot of commentary and some surprise at the way some local Nationals appear to have supported Ms McGowan. It shouldn't surprise. Many Nationals still feel that the Libs stole this seat.

On the welfare state, I will try to bring this up Friday (I have another book chapter to try to complete before then), I should note my approach. The question of whether or not the welfare state died during the 1970s or, perhaps, simply changed its form is a factual one that stands independent of a second question, whether the changes are a good or bad thing. My focus is on the first, although the second comes in as well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Australian election 2013 - welcoming minority sucess

I took a certain pleasure from the Australian election results, although the final outcome is still uncertain. Obviously the Coalition has won government, but it's the final mix of results in both houses that's still unclear.

I am not close enough now to the detail of counting to comment as anything approaching an expert. However, the thing that i notice in the House of Representative seats is the large number of votes still to be counted. Consider the seat of Fairfax where Mr Palmer is presently leading on a two party preferred basis. There appear to be between 6 and 7,000 votes still to be counted. In the Victorian seat of Indi where the Australian Electoral Commission figures show independent Cathy McGowan leading Liberal Sophie Mirabella on a two party preferred basis, there are also an unknown number of postal and pre-poll votes.

The position in the Senate is still more complex, with the vote at a much earlier stage. I actually have no idea what the final Senate mix will be. As we have seen in previous elections, results are likely to vary quite a bit as the voting proceeds. Anthony Green's Senate calculator may be fun, but it can also mislead. And as an aside, am I alone in thinking that the post-poll coverage of the actual results of the voting has been very poor?  At least in the on-line main stream media, there has been damn all coverage that i can find of progressive voting in safe seats. We are forced back to inimitable blooger William Bowe for at least some detail.

So far, this has been an outcome that has dissatisfied most in some way, satisfied most in other ways. The main reaction from Labor supporters seems to be an overwhelming sense of relief that things weren't worse. Labor post vote parties became celebrations as total rout was avoided. There was also a feeling among many that the vote provided an opportunity to put the dysfunctional instability of the Rudd-Gillard era aside.

The Liberals are obviously pleased to be in Government, if disappointed with aspects of the vote and especially the likely Senate outcomes. Both Liberal and Labor suffer from the political equivalent of the divine right of kings; I have a mandate (whatever that may be) Mr Abbott tried to tell the yet to be finalised Senate, so get out of my way. Things don't work like that. We have a mandate from our voters, replied Labor and the Greens. 

In aggregate voting terms, the Greens did quite poorly. However, they went into this election fearing the loss of their one lower house seat plus senators. The Green vote may have gone down, but they consolidated their parliamentary position. Melbourne now looks like a safe Green seat. That's quite a remarkable achievement, by the way. The Nationals take pleasure in recovering their Northern New South Wales heartland, yet the Party failed in WA and also has to accept that the Northern New South Wales seat of Richmond has become a safe Labor seat with a very strong Green tinge.

One of the reasons why change of Government is so important from time to time lies in the way it allows alternative positions their place in the sun. This year, the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Vote Compass provided a remarkably good if high level picture of the geographic dispersion of views across Australia. The views held in Sydney seats such as Wentworth, Kingsford Smith and especially Grayndler (the most left leaning seat in the country) are not representative of the national position. Further, just because a majority of views support one position (action on climate change, support for gay marriage for example) doesn't make it so. The intensity of support or opposition is also important.

Politics is all about accommodation of differing views, an accommodation that takes place against slowly shifting shifting perceptions in the broader electorate. Different things are tried. Some fail on practical grounds, some on political grounds.

Labor didn't deserve to win this time. Labor minister Tanya Plibersek put it this way. We could govern the country, we couldn't govern ourselves. The new Coalition Government will bring new approaches. Some (Stop the Boats) I disagree with as expressed on value grounds. Some (direct action on climate change) I object to on practical grounds. Some, indigenous recognition in the constitution, I agree with. Regardless of my views for or against, things will work themselves out in practice.

On the voting so far, the big and somewhat unexpected winners were the Liberal Democrats, a libertarian party. Their success was less than the Palmer United Party, but they didn't have lots of money. Media responses here have treated the Liberal Democrats as another new fringe group. They are fringe, but not new for as a party they have been around since 2001 with an intellectual tradition dating long before this. They are also more prominent in the bloggosphere than in the rest of the world. Think skepticlawyer or Catallaxy.

I welcome the possible presence in the Senate of the Liberal Democrats, or indeed other minor parties including the Palmer United Party even though I might disagree with their views. Why?

in institutional terms, we live in an increasingly rigid and indeed sclerotic system in which the need for order and consistency presses heavily on our capacity to bring about any form of change. I have tried to argue against this in rational terms, presenting evidence as best I can. This doesn't work very well. Maybe the change in electoral mix and the need for the political system to adjust will help.

I may disagree with the results of all this. But then, in our system I have a chance to present an alternative view. And that's our strength.                

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Saturday at the football - and TAS wins the NSW GPS thirds

A hot day yesterday in Sydney for the football and election. I wandered off to see TAS (The Armidale School) play Newington in the last game of the NSW GPS (Greater Public Schools) thirds competition. The game was held at Newington which was celebrating its 150th anniversary. It was a pleasant crowd sitting on the banks overlooking the main oval. TAS Score 1 TAS vs Newington 7 &eptember 2013 8

I wandered around in the bright sun eating a sausage and onion roll watching the various games. Eldest had promised to come with me to this last TAS game of the season, but had to pull out at the last moment because she was unwell. 

In the first part of the Thirds game, the TA First Fifteen was clearly better than Newington Thirds, although Newington were holding them. The following photo show's TAS's first try. I fear that this round my photos were not as good as usual, but you will get the picture' TAS Score 1 TAS vs Newington 7 &eptember 2013   Walking away from the game along the raised mound beside the field I saws a great celebration in the distance. This photo, not mine, captures it. The boys had just learned that in another game Saint Ignatius had defeated St Joseph's and that, consequently, they had won the first GPS third division competition. This was TAS's first win since they entered the GPS in 1897. For much of that time. It's just been too hard for an Armidale team to play in remote Sydney.      TA War cry Newington, premiership

I still had to vote, so I left the gathering. It's been a fun year. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

An Australian election overview - with apologies to cricket

It is Friday evening here in Australia. Tomorrow are important events such as TAS playing Newington in the NSW GPS Rugby Thirds. My eldest daughter is coming with me to watch. That's good. Australia is also playing South Africa in the Rugby. We need a win. There is also an election on.

In this post I thought that I would try to explain the mysteries of Australian politics as clearly and as simply as I can for the benefit of international readers. Mind you, you may need a little sporting knowledge to understand.

To start with, we have two main teams. The team that is in is trying to stay in to avoid going out, the team that is out wishes to go in. To achieve this, they have to bowl the batting team out.They are playing on the main oval, the House of Representatives. However, there is a game on another oval as well, the Senate. We will come back to that in a little while.

On the main field, there are three groups. The Liberal Party used to stand on the right of the political fence and talk about the evils of the workers. The Labor Party stood on the left of the fence and talked about the evils of the workers. The Country Party now National Party sat on the fence and talked about the high cost of fencing.

The world changes. Both Liberal and Labor are worried about the working families of Australia, both are worried about the inability of the other to balance the family budget. By contrast, the National Party is worried about the high cost of combine harvesters.

Just outside the fence around the oval are a number of players trying to get into the game. The Greens have one player, although its not quite clear whether or not he is on or off the field. In any event, most of the Greens are up the trees around the oval trying to defend them from the bulldozers; the grounds need to be reshaped say some; the Greens do not agree.

Stretching around the oval on both sides of the Greens is a raggle taggle lot of would be players. One rather big group, the Palmer United Party, surrounds a plump and excitable mining magnate who has fallen in love with cricket, although he is still not very clear on the rules. By borrowing friends and staff, he has been able to put together a full scratch team. His corporate jet is parked nearby. It has brought in the advertising bill boards that ring the oval, as well as the bulldozers Mr Palmer wants to use to redefine the grounds. The Greens look on suspiciously. They know about bulldozers, if not combine harvesters.

Just to the right (or is it to left?) of the PUP crowd, a disconsolate figure wearing a big hat stands among a much smaller crowd of hatted followers. This is Bob Katter and the Katter United Party. It's really not fair, he thinks. Mr Palmer was going to join him at one point, but then decided to form his own team. He consoles himself with the thought that he and Clive have still been able to form an entertaining song and dance act that has attracted crowd attention.

Things are tense out in the oval. The game has been briefly suspended while Liberal captain Abbott argues with the the umpires, It's an arcane dispute over the rules of cricket. Mr Abbott has said he would only play if he could win the main game without bringing in players from other teams. He wouldn't play without a full team. The Umpire has noted that Mr Abbott's team appears to be a combination of two teams and therefore in breach of the rules that Mr Abbott has laid down.

Supported by his ever loyal deputy, National Party leader Warren Truss, Mr Abbott argues that we are all one team, there is no difference between us. This is an Abbott team. Mr Truss nods wisely and murmurs just so. This view does not appear to be shared by all the players. The National Party members have gathered in the gully to talk about soil erosion. Some Liberal members can be heard murmuring that the Nationals don't quite understand the rules of they game, that they don't play by Liberal rules. One Liberal looking at National candidate Barnaby Joyce is heard to remark, who does he think he is? Shane Warne?       

At the batter's end, Labor leader Kevin Rudd stirs nervously. He has just come back to the captaincy after a changing room coup. He has come in to bat in the fading light with his team down, and is trying to achieve at least a draw. He pokes the wicket with his bat, and looks at the stands. Many of his team have given up, gone to the showers without waiting the results. Angry, he waves his bat at the crowd and does a little dance, trying to gather crowd support.

Meantime, over at oval two, the Senate, chaos reigns. Under the rules of Australian cricket, players on oval two can reject or amend the results of the games on oval one. The rules of team selection vary too, allowing all sorts of people to become players that would simply not be allowed in the main game. To become a player on oval one, you must win the vote in a single electorate after distribution of preferences. On oval two, each state is a single electorate with multiple members elected by a proportional preferential system.

The crowds gather around the oval fence, waiting for the signal. It's a much more varied crowd. Ex fish and chip shop owners jostle with country singers and ex-Rugby League players. All the smaller teams are there. Greens' leader Christine Milne has her prospective players and supporters out of the trees and ready to charge. Bob Katter and Clive Palmer are there too. The big parties are there, but so too are a myriad of smaller teams from Smokers Rights to Libertarians to Hunters and Fishers. The teams mingle, trying to strike preference deals before the rush for the wicket.

The bell sounds. The unruly crowd charges. The rush is on. Meantime, back on the main oval the game has been called off pending an entire new team selection process. Now we wait.  


I missed a remarkable number of typos; now corrected! In a comment, JCW drew attention to this poem. She modified it slightly, but looking at the last public opinion polls this morning, I thought that I would repeat the first two verses in unmodified form. I know that it's so very Imperial and old school, but it somehow seems appropriate.  It's really about all Labor can do.

Vitai Lampada
THERE'S a breathless hush in the Close to-night -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red, -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Henry Newbolt

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

What can we expect of a new Coalition Government?

This is the first election in my experience in which, at the end, I don't have a real feel for the policy outcomes from the likely result. I am forced back to guesses and first principles. Still, I thought that I should put some ideas down so that you can judge their accuracy later.

Politically, the most likely outcome is a very large Coalition majority in the House of Representatives, so large that the Liberals may have a majority in their own right. The Nationals have been sidelined to some degree in this election. I don't think that they liked it very much. There has also been sniping against the Nationals on the Liberal side. Again, the Nationals didn't like that very much.

The Coalition will continue, but in my experience the closest working relations come (WA has been an interesting apparent exception) come when the Liberals cannot ignore their National brethren. Expect some tensions that will grow over the life of the next Parliament.

In the Senate, the most likely outcome is a Coalition minority. The exact effect here will depend on the final mix. However, the ability of the new Government to do what it likes will be constrained.

The budget position is reasonably difficult. The Coalition hasn't locked itself into silly surplus promises in the way Mr Swan did, but they are still locked in by their pervading rhetoric. They have very little room to move on either the tax or expenditure side. In the medium term, I expect the Australian economy to improve, with consequent improvements in the fiscal position, but that won't help in the short term.

Their position is further complicated by the myriad of  foreshadowed expenditure cuts. We may not know the full details, they still haven't been released, but we know enough to know that there will be a lot. Those cuts involve pain for some, while many will require legislative change. It's also complicated by their commitments to Gonski, to NDIS and paid parental leave.

The Government also face an action/decision backlog, especially in the Commonwealth-State arena where decision making under existing agreements has been stalled for several months.This is apart from any actions required to bring their new initiatives into affect.

If you now look at the Coalition's six key priorities as defined in the little pamphlet we received through the mail or at shopping centres.

First, we have a stronger 5-Pillar economy = manufacturing innovation, advanced services, agriculture, education and research and mining exports. This will come with lower taxes, boosted productivity and more 21st century infrastructure. A Coalition Government could certainly do something about improving productivity. It could do something about improved infrastructure if it was prepared to borrow, but that's difficult. Lower taxes depend on overcoming budget constraints.

Second, the Coalition will deliver stronger borders' aka stop the boats. Leaving aside value issues or our international reputation, this one is mainly potentially costly atmospherics that stand at the left edge of key national priorities. An Abbott Government must move, but there are going to be stumbles; its been useful in campaign terms, but its actually a distraction that may have other costs.

Third, end the waste and debt. This conjoins two very different things. There is always some waste that can be cut, although its not as much as people think. Debt is very different. because that depends on revenue as much as expenditure. The main effect of this pillar will be to constrain other things that the Government might do.

Fourth, the carbon tax will be abolished. This one is a soft underbelly because it actually depends on two legs, the Government's ability to abolish the tax on one side, problems with its direction action alternative on the other. It is far from clear that the Government can abolish the tax. It is far from clear that the direct action program will work. While Mr Abbott is talking about a double dissolution if abolition of the tax is rejected, Senate obstruction may actually be a blessing in disguise for Mr Abbott in allowing him via negotiation to exit from some of the sillier aspects of his current position.

Then in fifth and sixth we have better roads and services and two million new jobs. mmm!

So what might actually happen? Assuming that the Coalition doesn't get sidetracked by its own rhetoric and by the sheer load of coming back to Government, we can expect the following:

  • The new Government will focus as best it can on cost cutting, recognising that it needs to buy space for its own programs and that it needs to do that while its election is fresh. It will then move to patch up the sillier results of its actions. Take a bow, Mr Costello.
  • Second. it will try to lag expenditure commitments or modify them at the margin. Parental leave will go through because the numbers are there, but beyond that? 
  • Third, it will focus in those area where it can get results, and that means a focus on productivity improvement.  

Let's see how close I am.


kvd found this link to an IPA document that gives the line by line Coalition costings. Have a look and see what you think. This tweet from H G Nelson made me laugh.                

‏"@hg_nelson12m Have I got this right? They can starve but we will get new tunnels and freeways going nowhere that will be clogged by boat people".

Seriously, do have a look at the costings. The way this election has been run, this is what we are voting for.

Meanwhile, Michael Pascoe from the Sydney Morning Herald is not impressed