Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NBN and the Vertigan Report - economic modelling gone silly

Wednesday! Where has the first part of the week gone? Tonight, just the national Broadband Network.

Communications Minister Turnbull has released (part released; some of the content is redacted) his cost benefit study into the NBN. I haven’t had time to read it yet. I do want to comment, however, on some of the reporting.

As I write, my local area network connection shows a nominal download speed of 100 Mbps. As we all know, actual speeds are always lower than nominal speeds. I am on 100 MBps because I have my computer plugged directly into the wall socket. If I go though the modem, my nominal download speed drops to 50 mbps. That’s with one user.

I am on an ADSL connection over copper. Working via the modem, the connection speeds are sometimes so slow, not always, that I cannot watch a You Tube video, properly download some software. If I were to really set the house up in the way I want with the main computer in the front office plus wireless connectivity that would accommodate visiting friends  or another device of my own, my connection speeds are likely to drop to blazes.

I mention this now because the Vertigan report is based on some modelling by Communications Chambers. It is that modelling or more specifically some of the underlying conclusions that I want to address. Now before going on, I want to quote some of the reported conclusions from Communications Chambers (CC). I am quoting reports. I am happy to accept corrections.

Subject to that qualification, it seems that according to CC:

  • in ten years’ time, only 5% of Australian households will demand internet speeds of 43Mbps or more
  • The 2023 household median demand will be just 15 Mbps. CC reckons that this low demand needs to be seen in the context of the continuing benefits of video compression and the fact that 58% of households only contain one person
  • The growth in the number of households who use (the internet?, broadband?) had risen from 64% to 83% from 2007 to 2014, but this growth was driven by older single-person households who place significantly less demand on the networks than families.
  • At the busiest time of the evening, the average connection was used to just 1.7% of its capacity.

Sorry CC and Vertigan, you have really annoyed me. Let’s leave aside the question of what demand might be like if the bandwidth was there at the right price and just focus on me as a user, one who already has to pay a considerable price and cannot do all the things he wants when he wants at current connection speeds even though his nominal 

Now this single person older household demand driver is, just at the moment, writing this post. The email connection is on, one just arrived, but but my bandwidth usage is very low. Silly me, bringing down the average. Even when I post in a few minutes, my usage will be low. You see, what is relevant to me is not the average but the peak, and there I am already in a degree of trouble.

Our blogging friend AC has been in Poland. Poland has quite good bandwidth, apparently better than Australia in terms of top speeds, real connections over 100 Mbps. To save money, AC went for a 25 Mbps connection while she was there, then found that that 25Mbps did not work when it came to Skype video conference or even phone connections. The low bandwidth made for very poor quality, especially in reproduction.

This is 2013, not 2023. I am not getting value for money at the moment on my phone/broadband connection. I can’t upgrade the service to meet my peak needs because the pipes aren’t there, and I’m in a densely populated part of Sydney. Think what it’s like elsewhere.

None of this means that the NBN is the best solution. But economic modelling carried out to support a case does not help. That may be unfair. Perhaps the modelling is simply bad.

As I read this stuff, I thought what planet are these people on? The Vertigan report appears to give me a 2023 solution based on a 2103 reality that already makes me unhappy. Thoughts of tar, feathers, sharp poles with splinters came to mind! Not happy, Jan. 


A brief follow up now that I have had  chance to at least skim the underlying reports.

We are all influenced by our own experiences.

I am clearly not a typical internet user, nor are most people I know. I use the internet quite heavily for a mix of personal and professional reasons. So do they.

I am on a notional 50 Mbps download ASDSL broad band connection. That puts me already on Mr Turnbull’s notional target speed connection.

As of this morning, speed test shows a 6.34 Mbps actual down load speed, an 0.71  Mbps upload speed.  In a previous discussion, commenters explained the reason for the divergence between rated and actual speed. I won’t revisit that discussion at this point.

In broad terms, I generally don’t have a download problem, although this does get very slow from time to time. I do have a recurring and sometimes frustrating upload problem because I use photographs. Yes, I  can compress the photos, but sometimes I require high res and, in general, it’s just easier to use the photos as is.

The new things that I would like to do centre on upload. I wish to develop and upload new material. To do this, I have to learn new skills and will probably require new kit. However, once I have all this, it is nor clear to me that I can do what to do with my current upload speeds. I don’t think that I can.

Herein lies the rub with all these arguments. They rely on averages. They just don’t dig down deeply enough to find a Jim who already finds the 2023 projected usage patterns inadequate.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Essay – slogans, politics and the misuse of language

Following up on the discussion on Problems with Team Tony, this morning’s short Sunday Essay takes these words from Tony Blair as an entry point:

The way in which information is exchanged so quickly has forever changed the way in which people want to consume information.They demand that things be condensed into 20-second sound bites. With complex problems, this is exceedingly difficult, but to be an effective communicator and leader you need to be able to condense complex items down to the core and be able to do this quickly.” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.

I found Mr Blair’s words to be deeply condescending because they seem to imply that I need to be spoon-fed, to be given my information on a spoon in the way my mother gave me medicine as a child. The discussion that threw up this quote dealt in part with the need for simplification. Winton Bates even tried his hand at twitterising the Gettysburg address! 

There is no doubt that short phrases or sentences can be powerful. “Not happy, Jan” entered the Australian language from a TV ad because it so aptly captured that feeling of discontent that we all feel from time to time. In the newspaper press, the role of a good sub-editor is to create the headline that will both capture the essence of a story and persuade people to read it. This is a highly skilled craft form. It is also one in which the two objectives, capturing the essence while persuading people to read, can conflict. We have all seen dramatic headlines that do not properly reflect the content, We have also seen headlines that are influenced by a third factor as well, the campaigns or particular political stances that the paper happens to be pursuing at the time.

In politics, Mr Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” is effective because it both plays to prejudice and succinctly captures a Government objective. Interestingly, people were actually surprised at the fervour with which the Government pursued this objective to the exclusion of other considerations. It appears that many of us reacted as though it were just a slogan rather than a Government objective writ in stone that must be delivered no matter the cost.

In the religious arena, “love thy neighbour as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are powerful phrases because they capture the essential message of Christianity.

Sadly, we live in a world where Mr Blair’s views have come to occupy the high ground. That is the way we are all treated. If I am to be fed on a diet of slogans and simplified messages, then I appear to have reached a position once defined by Adolf Hitler: All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach. I am in no way equating Adolf Hitler and Mr Blair, but Mr Blair’s views as quoted above would seem in many ways to carry something of the same message as expressed by Hitler those years before.

Things tend to correct themselves, although there is a price to be paid for that correction. We live in an age today where every initiative, every policy statement, every new business cost cutting measure  has to have a title attached to it, to be expressed in a particular visual form, to have its own communications strategy. As with so many things, communications strategies have become de rigueur because communications itself has become so poor that people have largely tuned out. The price we pay is to be served unadulterated pap. A further price is that things that are important can actually be concealed, can escape attention.

I, for one, would like to have less communications and more information, less communications and more analysis. I want to be given time to think about things, to understand.

Australian Treasury Secretary Parkinson talks about the increasing difficulty of bringing about “reform”, contrasting the present period with Bob Hawke’s time. I think that he is fundamentally wrong in one important respect. Presently, Australians (and others) live in a world of constant change, of constant calls for reform all constantly packaged and re-presented. How do Australians (and others) identify what is important when the goal posts and rules shift so often that nobody can understand just what game is actually being played?

That’s the nub of it. We don’t have a communications problem as such. We have an approach problem in which “communications” itself has become part of the problem. 

In addition to being the Sunday Essay, this post also acts as the Monday Forum post.    

Friday, August 22, 2014

The rise of the European trading company – imperial creation in the pursuit of profits

This post is a signpost, a post intended for later use. It’s creation was triggered by my reading of Emily Hahn’s Raffles of Singapore with its detailed descriptions of aspects of the operations of the British East India Company.

I had obviously been aware of the operations of the various trading companies such as the English later British East India Company (established 1600), the Dutch East India Company (1602) or the Hudson’s Bay Company (1670). There has always been a degree of romance and a sense of adventure associated with such companies,  one captured rather nicely by the original title of Dutch East India Company Ship Buildingthe Hudson’s Bay Company: The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay. How could one not be attracted by a title like that?

While I was aware of the companies, I don’t think that I was properly aware of just how early they began, how big some of them were, nor of the critical role they played in gathering capital, organising trade and laying the basis for the outward expansion of Western Europe.

The illustration shows the shipyards of the Dutch East India Company in 1726.

To get a feel for what I mean, and assuming that you have some spare time (do any of us today?!), this Wikipedia page lists some of the trading companies.

Take an hour some time and just click through on the links. You will quickly get a feel for just what I’m talking about.    

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Problems with Team Tony

I hate, I really hate, the way Mr Abbott is forcing me into a hole, forcing me to judgements I don’t want to make.

I am not a natural Labor Party supporter. I have never voted Green in my life. I am not Liberal either. After all, I describe my traditional party affiliations as Country Party! While I am opposed to the nanny state, Senator David Leyonhjelm and the Liberal Democrats leave me cold. Clive Palmer does entertain, I actually agree with some of the things he says, but some of his comments are just way too over the top. I guess that I don’t quite fit in in conventional terms.

Looking at the content rather than the message packaging, I don’t always disagree with Mr Abbott. For example, Australians fighting on various sides in the Middle East is a problem. But then, it gets packaged as Team Australia along with a waving finger that says we will withdraw social security benefits if you are naughty. It also gets packaged with new security and surveillance legislation that leaves me suspicious.

Looking at the feeds and comment streams, we have two streams that sit apart and attract like minds into into a gurgling rush to where? In packaging his message in the way he did, Mr Abbott fed one stream when, in fact, he wanted to reach out more broadly. I have no reason to doubt the PM on this point.

It seems that Mr Abbott cannot help himself He cannot resist wrapping whatever issue he is dealing with in sound-bite rhetoric intended to play to the fears and concerns of part of the Australian community and/or to provide some apparent national interest wrapping. 

Like Mr Rudd, this Government is trying to do too much. Like Mr Rudd, they are constantly responding to immediate events. Like Mr Rudd, the administrative underpinnings that the Government depends upon to deliver are starting to fall apart. I have no specific inside information on this point. My judgement is based on anecdotal evidence combined with the growing pile of matters that need to be actioned. The Senate is not an argument here. The Government could still be progressing discussion on matters in advance of final Senate consideration.

Like the Gillard Government, the Government seems to have lost control of its own agenda. With Ms Gillard, I used to argue that she needed to find that quite place in the midst of turmoil, that point of stability, that would allow her to regroup and then work out. That meant ignoring the noise and chaos, the pressure to respond. She never did. Perhaps it was impossible. But now, the Abbott Government finds itself in the same position.

A simple test here. Put aside very specific budget related issues such as the dispute over the GP co-payment. Put aside the politics of it all. Now list all the inquiries and major initiatives that have been announced or foreshadowed. Can you? I can’t and I’m reasonably knowledgeable.

This brings me to my final point. In all this, what are the Government’s main priorities? Can you work this out? I can’t, for they seem to shift on a daily basis.


First, an apology for my delayed posting this week.

The comment thread on this post focused in particular on the communications issue. Winton wrote:

I am coming to the view that sound-bites are good. Every political point worth making should be capable of being condensed to a sound-bite, tweet, headline or slogan. And listeners able to decide instantly whether a sound-bite strikes the right note for them.

kvd quoted Tony Blair:

The way in which information is exchanged so quickly has forever changed the way in which people want to consume information.They demand that things be condensed into 20-second sound bites. With complex problems, this is exceedingly difficult, but to be an effective communicator and leader you need to be able to condense complex items down to the core and be able to do this quickly.” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.

I accept that good communicators, Winston Churchill is an example, have the capacity to simplify, They also, generally, have a very good command over language. This includes knowing just what you intend to achieve from your language.

In a comment on the budget, Australian Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson conceded that the budget sales job was “unfortunate”. It focused debate on fairness and equity, not the problems that the budget was meant to address.

The Government chose the ground on which to fight. In the lead up to the budget, its messages focused on three things:

  • We must fix Labor’s budget mess
  • Present levels of Government spending are unsustainable
  • We have to get noses out of the public trough. This was encapsulated in lifters and leaners. The phrase lifters and leaners may have been drawn originally from Mr Menzies, but its use in this case was set in a neo-liberal context that Mr Menzies would not, I think, have supported.

Note that these are three very different messages.

Dr Parkinson’s comments focused on the second point. The Government chose to focus on the first and the third. This affected both their conditioning language in advance of the budget and the choices they made in the budget.

We can see this in the Commission of Audit. The Government chose the Commissioners and the terms of reference. They did so for their reasons. The resulting report presented by Tony Shepherd was a deeply flawed document. Leaving aside the ideological stances adopted, many of the detailed proposals were simply impractical because (among other things) they ignored systemic interactions and complexity. They could not be actioned.

Dr Parkinson worries that Australians will no longer accept short terms cost, that paralysis results. He misses a simple point. If you want to bring about change, you have to argue the case. You cannot do this by sound bites.

The question of the sustainability of Government spending begins with facts. It then goes to choices. This is where values and priorities come in. What do we mean by sustainability? What are the choices open to us? Are we prepared to accept higher levels of taxation? What are we prepared to cut and in what way?

It actually doesn’t matter whether people understand the detailed arguments. That’s not how people judge. Knowing that they cannot understand the detail, too busy to focus in a day to day sense, they form views over time based on what they perceive to be the quality and honesty of the arguments.

Slogans or sound bites don’t help here, although they may be important in determining winners at a point in the cycle. People form judgements over time. They do so based on accumulating evidence, including their own experiences with the effect of changes.

Looking back over Australia’s short history, I have a strong belief in the will and judgement of the people. Not their judgement at a point in time, there I may disagree strongly, but at the way in which excesses correct themselves as the failures and injustices become clear. Sometimes it takes a long time, but it happens.

It’s not as though people say that we were wrong, more that they find themselves asking how could we have thought that?  That’s silly or unfair. I guess that’s why I am philosophical on certain things, not all. I know that the wheel will turn.


One issue raised in the comment thread was the derivation of “lifters and leaners.” Neil Whitfield has a rather nice post, Poetastery and pollies, that traces the derivation back to American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Batavia, disease, death and drink

In  Train reading – the remarkable stories of Emily Hahn and C R Boxer, I mentioned that I was reading Emily Hahn’s Raffles of Singapore. The section of the book that I am reading now deals with life in Java in the period before and during Raffles’ period as Deputy-Governor.

Sometimes in reading, it’s best to suspend moral judgement, to read as a story. Emily Hahn writes well. She is also somewhat partisan, seeing the world through her subject’s eyes. This does not mean that she is blind, simply that she finds her subject to be a generally a good things set in the context of the time. 

As an historian, I do not know enough to judge the accuracy of her analysis. I do know that she brings the period alive. However, I can also imagine a modern Australian reader reading the book as history might have strong reactions to some of the descriptions. That same reader would not respond in the same way if they were reading the book as a novel, or if the descriptions of life were presented fictionally. He or she might not like the society so presented, but would simply take it as a given.

Of one hundred and fifty soldiers who arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) on the ship Morgenstern in 1770, only fifteen were alive four months later. In June 1775, C P Thurberg dined in Batavia on the eve of his departure for Japan. There were fifteen present including Thurburg. Upon his return at the the start of 1777, he found eleven had died. In 1792, Von Wollzagen found that all his friends had died within a period of sixteen months. Dysentery, typhus, typhoid and malaria were the main killers. Raffles’ own wife died of disease while he was in Java.

What drew the Dutch settlers, soldiers and officials to a world in which most must die? Money was obviously one key driver, a desire for adventure another, but then there was a sense of duty that combined with the possibility of preferment. Ah, duty. Without that, those empires would never have been established.

We also need to remember that understanding of disease was very limited. The British ships that came to Batavia to replenish supplies did so knowing that there was a risk of disease, that many of their crews might die. Had they understood the causes they might not have come, or at least would take precautions to reduce risk.

And how did people cope in a world where the risk of death was high, almost a certainty? They did so by creating a rules and status based society that at least provided an apparent sense of order, of certainty. And they drank. Boy, did they drink! Alcohol fuelled the rules and rituals of a stratified society, providing a short term outlet. Dropping stupefied into bed at night may not be have been good for one’s health, although alcohol was actually seen as a protective against disease, but it certainly made life a little more bearable.   

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Essay - simplification in an IT/Internet World

A conversation at work got me wondering. The conversation focused on the way that modern communications have become a burden for many, especially in a work environment. A little later, I was listening to a radio program on the proliferation of the app. The argument was that apps originally designed for convenience had proliferated under commercial pressure to the point that they, too, had become a burden.

I am old enough to have worked in high pressure jobs in a mobile lifepre mobile, email or internet world. I actually struggle to understand just how senior staff today get any work done at all! This is a photo from Moruya; it’s breakfast time; three staff members checking their mobiles for emails. 

It’s less than thirty years since mobile, email and internet came to dominate working life. In those now distant days, I could leave work at six knowing that I had left work. Yes, ministers or departmental heavies had access to my home phone number and could ring me if something was urgent, but this rarely happened. I was free once I left work. .

During my working day, I could focus on work: yes, there were many meetings; yes, there were multiple telephone calls; yes, everybody wanted a slice of my time. But no one could simply dash of an impulse email and expect me to respond. No one could actually expect me to impose instantly to the latest “it seemed like a good idea at the time” request.

The things that we do now to senior staff, the things that they do to themselves, are actually obscene. Worse, they are grossly inefficient.

By nature, I am a recording and documentation person. I used to track my work, the things that I had to do, all the time. I did so for my staff as well. I didn’t have externally imposed quarterly targets, nor did my staff. My focus was on the maximization of output in a world of change where short term priorities were subject to constant shift. To manage this, I constantly squeezed so that we could manage short term issues while maintaining longer term work, including blue sky work that fell outside current needs but was, to my mind, possibly important.

This work did not need short term paybacks, although that happened. This work did not have to be justified by results specified in advance. How could it? Often, I wasn’t sure whether it would have specific paybacks. How could I be? It was simply something that I thought might be important. Do this, and let’s see what it tells us.

I had reasonable expectations of my staff. They were human beings with different abilities and needs. It became in my mind a bit of a game. How to get the best results from people while recognizing their needs and making work fun?

There were rules of course, although they were simpler and less complex than those applying today. My job was not to manage the rules, but to manage while taking the rules into account. This included what we would now call rule bending, finding a way of ignoring or working around specific rules that wrongly affected individuals or the work. I did so carefully and with discretion. I could let someone have time off, but could not breach financial delegations, for example.

It has, of course, become harder to do what I did, although the principle is still followed in practice by many who just have to get the job done. With computer based systems where everything is recorded, where rules compliance can and is audited, the room for managerial discretion is greatly reduced.

I don’t have an answer to the best way of responding to the rise of systemic complexity. However, I do notice the way in which life simplification as become a popular response. It is also a response that focuses on the

The word simplification has a long history, dating to the French simplifier or Mediaeval Latin simplificāre, to make simple. The idea of a simple life has to a long history too. But the idea of life simplification, of opting out, is much more recent.

Today, the idea of getting rid of or at least controlling the impact new technology has become central.

In business, rules are being introduced to control the use of emails. This includes the introduction of email free days or, even, rules that say emails must only be used for urgent purposes. At personal level, people are reluctant to accept business provided mobiles. If I accept this, they say, I will be expected to be on 24 hour call.

The rebellion is still in its early stags, but it is coming. The thing that interests me most is just where the rebellion will stop. My feeling is that it will be more radical than we expect. This doesn’t mean that we will stop using the new technology. Rather, we are going to use it more selectively.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Train reading – the remarkable stories of Emily Hahn and C R Boxer

Restless this morning and feeling the need to read something new (my recent reading has been all very local). I grabbed Emily Hahn’s Raffles of Singapore of the shelves for my train reading. The book was first published in 1946. My copy is a University of Malaya Press reprint from 1968.

Now i picked the book up because Raffles overlaps with the early history of Australia. Raffles was 24 when he was sent as assistant secretary to the new Governor of Penang in 1805. Penang was then under the control of John Company, the British East India Company.

In 1811, he was made Lieutenant Governor of Java following its conquest by the British, again in the guise of the East India Company. Java had formally become French territory following Bonaparte's annexation of Holland. We forget how close the French actually were to what is now the Australian mainland, A little later, Java was returned to the control of the Dutch East India Company much to Raffle’s disgust as part of the Treaty of 1814. One does wonder a little what difference it might have made to Australian history if what is now Indonesia had remained a British colony.

Emily_Hahn writer

In 1819 Raffles took the action for which he is now best known, the establishment of Singapore.

Now I was interested in all this, but Emily Hahn’s writing style caught my attention. It is slightly gushy, but entertaining. My attention was also caught by the end of the introduction. I quote:

it should be stated here that Major C. R. Boxer was responsible for all of the translation and much of the selection of the Dutch material used. Naturally this responsibility does not extend to the writer’s interpretation of  the facts thus supplied. On a number of occasions Major Boxer’s views did not coincide with those of his wife, which is one of several reasons for his firm, consistent refusal to accept more credit for his help than is herewith given.

Mmm.  This got me curious, so I looked up Emily Hahn and C R Boxer, Here I found the stories of two remarkable driven people entwined in a love affair that began in China not long before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong.

AldenCharlesRBoxer2000 You will find the story of Emily Hahn here, C R Boxer here. If you dig round, you will find lots more.

In the end, it turns out too that there is always a New England connection.  Arasa, UNE’s Sinnappah Arasaratnam, had Boxer as a thesis adviser. I quote from Dr Michael Brook’s tribute to Professor Boxer:

Given the hundreds of scholarly works that Boxer produced during some seven decades as a historian, one might be tempted to conclude that his record as a teaching professor might be less than stellar; during his tenure at King’s College that saw Boxer sometimes published two books per year and as many as thirteen journal articles in a calendar year. However, students of Boxer generally described the professor as an excellent mentor, and he was legendary for always having an open door for visitors. Sinnappah Ararasaratnam, who had Boxer as his dissertation advisor, said that “Charles has been one of the formative influence of my life…and I owe what little I have achieved…to his initial encouragement and subsequent constant support.”

That’s not a bad tribute.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mr Hockey’s myopia, Robin Williams & Mr Forrest’s failures

I accept that Treasurer Hockey is a North Sydney Liberal and therefore, by definition, out of contact with the rest of the country. But really, this is too much. To suggest, as he seems to be, that the “poorest people either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases” and that, consequently, the increases in the petrol excise won’t hit them beggars belief.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m inclined to support the increase in the petrol excise, but I do so knowing the costs. In simple terms, country people have on average lower incomes and have no choice but to drive if they can.

The death of Robin Williams has affected us all. He had a magnificent comic humour. Our daughters loved Aladdin, really enjoyed Jumanji. Mr Williams suffered from depression. Personally, he seems to have be introverted, prey to self doubt and uncertainty. Then, as though with a click of a switch, he would become an apparent extrovert, bigger than life. I have always thought of its as the performer syndrome, something that i too suffer from, if not with his talent.

The Forrest Report into indigenous jobs and training. You will find the report here. The Government is now seeking feedback. Despite Dick Smith’s enthusiastic support, I found it a deeply flawed document. For a number of years now, I have been writing of the need to recognise diversity in the Aboriginal condition, to avoid avoid universal prescriptions hat, by their nature, cannot work. Mr Forrest does recognise diversity to a degree, but then puts forward universal prescriptions based upon problems in particular communities in particular areas. Further, those prescriptions then generalise to the broader community. A specific problem then drives a generalised response.

I know NSW best. I lack the understanding of problems in North Queensland or the Northern Territory or parts of Western Australia required to make sensible comments about on-ground conditions there.

In NSW, there are communities that suffer from similar problems to those Mr Forrest identifies. However, NSW is also a state of great diversity, a state in which history and institutional responses  are simply very different from those holding elsewhere. It is also a state in which Governments of differing political persuasions have been trying new things that will assist Aboriginal communities to address the problems they face,

From time to time, I have been very critical of NSW policy. For example, the failure to distinguish properly between Aboriginal specific issues and broader issues affecting communities in which Aboriginal people happen to live. At the same time, I do recognise that NSW Governments have been searching for new policy approaches, although they still are a little too ghettoed for my taste. In that sense, they tend to reinforce difference.

I don’t have time this morning to point to differences between the NSW experience and Mr Forrest’s universalist prescriptions. However, just a few examples to illustrate.

NSW is the only state left with Aboriginal specific community housing organisations. With the progressive withdrawal of State services from many country areas, those organisations have become the biggest, in some cases the only, social housing providers left. How do we grow them so that they become viable community businesses capable of servicing not just the Aboriginal community?

The crazy patchwork of Aboriginal Welfare Board missions and reserves across NSW formed the base for the creation of Local Aboriginal Land Councils. The LALCS were created without proper thought or without adequate financial support  The NSW Aboriginal Land Council has been working to turn them into viable operations, imposing discipline, slowly cleaning past problems. How do we help this process?

The AWB houses on those missions and reserves were not especially well maintained. The new Land Councils inherited them without resources. Further, because of history there was an expectation among residents that those houses belonged to them but that responsibility for paying the costs of maintenance was not their problem.  You can imagine the results. Now with funding provided by the Federal Government under the National Partnership Agreement on remote Indigenous Housing, the properties are being upgraded. However,to get this funding, the Owning Organisation must headlease their properties to the Aboriginal Housing Office who then subleases them to an Aboriginal Community Housing Provider to provide professional tenancy and property management services.

It’s a huge, huge, social change with costs and risks. Some Managing Organisations have had to use guards to protect their staff during transition periods. And yet, and for the first time, houses are being maintained and services provided.

Change can be a slow and painful process. Progress can easily be destroyed by nostrums coming out of Canberra or indeed Macquarie Street. The Forrest Report point, correctly, to the importance of home ownership. Yet home ownership is not a simple thing.

To overcome problems flowing from social disadvantage, you need a continuum from social housing through affordable housing to home ownership. In NSW, Aboriginal people suffer from real problems in accessing the private rental marketplace. The choice can be social housing or the rive bank. If in social housing, the risks can be great.

A Local Aboriginal Land Council in a big NSW regional city explained their problem in this way. Lots of people are sent to our city. We don’t know that they are coming. They ring up wanting emergency housing. We generally can’t help them. If we get them into housing, then they struggle to move to to the private rental market. We run a broking service with agents to help, but the private market is very tight. If they want to buy their own place, we struggle to help them because we don’t have many of our own houses and lenders are reluctant.

What we would like to do, the LALC said, is to offer a total housing continuum all the way from emergency accommodation through to full rental and home ownership. We are too small to do this now. We own some properties, but we need help to grow.

You won’t find this type of challenge discussed in Mr Forrest’s report. There you have universalist welfare measures discussed without recognition of the variety and actual on-ground challenges across Australia. I find that a problem. Its actually a Hockey type problem.                 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Great Debate

Saturday morning I was due to fly out to Armidale at 8:30 for the NERAM Great Debate. I had made arrangements to meet  fellow debater David Curtis at the airport for an initial review.

One reason for leaving at that time was to allow me to watch TAS and Scots play in the GPS Rugby. This was a crucial match in the Thirds competition. If Scots won, they would go to a clear place at the top of the table. IF TAS and also Grammar won, there would be three teams equal at the top of the table.

In an earlier post (Sunday Essay – NSW GPS rugby: when excellence destroys) I talked about the problems at the top of the NSW GPS competition. The thirds competition is very even, involves all nine schools and some very good Rugby. I really, really, wanted to see some of the games.

In the way of the world, there was fog at Sydney airport. Our plane was coming from Dubbo, could not land in Sydney and then had to go to Canberra to refuel. We waited and waited. There was only so much that David and I could do. In the end, I just dozed.

We finally boarded sometime like 11:30. By now, it was cTAS V Scots 9 August 14lear that I would not get  to Armidale in time for any of the matches. It would be that evening before I found out the results. I quote from a description of the game:

TAS won 32-22 in a very exciting game.  TAS started very strongly through the forwards with Pierce Hayden a standout performance including 2 tries. The backs were great in defence and made the most of opportunities in attack. TAS lost 3 players to yellow cards in the second half due to repeated infringements but held on.

Three yellow cards, each one involving time in the sin-bin. TAS really must have defended ferociously in the second half to survive that. The photo of the game is from Paul Barratt. TAS is on the right. 

Turning now to to the main purpose of the trip, I fear that kvd was right, the art side did lose the Great Debate!

This is a shot of the teams. Adam Marshall MP as the adjudicator.

On the left from the left, myself third speaker, to my right Dr Jane KGreat Debateries (Executive Officer, Arts North West) second speaker and then ecologist Dr David Curtis, first speaker. The UNE team is to the right.

The debate was held at the TAS Hoskins Centre. This really is a fabulous venue that the School makes available for local events.

I am not sure just how many attended the debate, something over one hundred. It began with champagne and rather nice nibbles, then the debate, followed by drinks and further nibbles.

This was a funding raising even for the NERAM Foundation, so in addition to the ticket price, donation boxes marked art and science were circulated to encourage people to vote by donation. I’m not sure how much was raised in the end, something over $8,000 I think. The money goes to a permanent fund, with only the interest paid to the New England Regional Art Museum. 

Great debate 2 This is another shot from the debate. I had just been paper planed. Audience interaction was encouraged!

It was an interesting experience. I think that we on the Art side stuck a little too closely to debating rules. This was, after all, a Great Debate  in which just about anything goes. 

Professor Ian Young, the third speaker  on the Science side, drifted somewhat from the rules (!), but he was very funny indeed. And that’s the point when you want people to pay.

It had been quite some time since I debated, I did quite a bit of it as an undergraduate in Oxford Union style debates, something I really enjoyed. My side was impressed that I spoke without notes or indeed mike, but it’s just technique, something that I need to brush up if I’m going to do this again.

Importantly, while in Armidale I was finally given a copy of Came to New England, the book written to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Armidale Teachers’ College, the 75th anniversary of the New England University College. I have two chapters in the book, one long, and had been waiting to see it for months.

I don’t know about you, but as I grow older I count my successes less and less by whatever career successes I may have had, more and more by things like the debate or the book, things that mark a contribution now.

I am about three quarters of the way through the book. I imagine I will write something on it in due course. 

Friday, August 08, 2014

Camels, sheep and current Abbott Government problems

In comment on yesterday’s post An opening muse on just what is Australian food, kvd wrote:

Jim, all this cogitating about "native food" and "Australian food": are you sure this is not just your sublimating that nasty streak of New England populist nationalism? In other words, it may be code for something more sinister.

Finding it improper (within your better self) to talk of keeping out foreigners, and (possibly) rejecting multiculturalism, are you instead seeking a sort of "safety valve" in a discussion of plants - maintaining purity against invasive species, exhorting the virtues of native plants, etc.? A sort of anti-multi-horticulturalism creeping in to your continuing search for a defining New England identity?

Well I say get a grip, before you are fully lost to us. Relax and have a camel pie.

The comment, which made me smile, maintained a line that kvd has been following in responding to my recent food posts. Apart from sooling my feral olives onto kvd, this time I thought: what would a camel pie taste like? Here is the end of one description:

Camel pie is good. I like strong flavoured pies and the camel meat has a gamey flavour without being overpowering. It is meant to be low in fat, but it had a fatty taste to it (not a bad thing). Was it worth the wait? Yes, although it wasn’t as good as the kangaroo and emu pie. I would certainly like to try the sausages, or some other cut of camel if it becomes available. And it might make an interesting burger.

Staying with camels, they are reputed to be bad tempered animals that spit. A bit like the world around the Australian Government just at present.

We begin with Senator Eric Abetz's comments on abortion and breast cancer. According to the PM, Senator Abezt is now feeling “a little sheepish.” Baaa!  Then both the Prime Minister and Attorney General Senator George Brandis ran into a degree of trouble over the definition of metadata, requiring the security agencies to come to the defence.  Oops or perhaps baaa? ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) chief David Irvine wondered what the fuss was all about?

Well, at the very least its about lack of clarity. This holds for the industry itself as much as anyone else. I quote from the Financial Review:

Optus has warned the government’s plan to make phone companies retain metadata is enormously complex and could cost it more than $200 million to implement, while the government admitted it announced the decision before devising the details.

Meantime, a story written by Phillip  Coorey an Jacob Greber in today’s Financial Review (its behind the firewall) is headed “Hockey a whinger, say Liberal insiders”, referring to Treasurer Hockey’s complaints about the treatment of the budget including the failure of the business community to mount an open and wholehearted defence.

The unexpectedly large deterioration in the labour market stats for July released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday was due in part to methodological changes. However, there was also a real deterioration especially among young people. Meantime, the Australian Reserve Bank has downgraded its economic forecasts. All this is not make Mr Hockey’s job in selling the budget including the changes to the NewStart Allowance any easier

Returning to the camel theme, one wonders what might cause the surrounding camels to spit next?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

An opening muse on just what is Australian food

Today’s post is really an aide memoire to myself, triggered in part by Monday’s post Monday Morning Forum – Australian native food (and other things).

I am not a natural foodie. While I enjoy cooking when I am doing it for others, I am fairly hopeless at just cooking for myself. I also struggle a little with those who salivate over particular dishes. Sometimes, I just don’t get it.  I struggle a lot, too, with what is called modern Australian cuisine. Too often, it can best be described as a fusion mess. Shows like Masterchef don’t help because they lack any unifying element.

The Wikipedia entry on Australian cuisine is fairly non-descript. It’s useful, but pedestrian. An outside reader would be forgiven at the end for failing to grasp just what Australian cuisine is.

I really enjoyed my visit to the Uralla Food and Wine Fair, Tastes of New England - A day at the Uralla Food and Wine Fair, but I would also ask what was distinctive there. What distinguished it apart from the fact that it was all local produce? If you go to any local or regional food or wine fair you will find a broadly similar product mix.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. It is driven by popular tastes and the availability of local ingredients. Yet, to my mind, the sameness is a problem. Mind you, perhaps that sameness is itself an answer to the conundrum that is exercising my mind. Does the sameness indicate what Australian cuisine truly is? If so, then we can say that it involves olives, wine and beer and various type of pates, cheeses and dips. These seem to be common elements at all the food and wine shows.

I said that this post was really an aide memoire to myself.  I am just laying the base for an idea at the back of my mind.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Medals, manipulation & national security

I have you ever had one of those nights when you can’t sleep properly and you mind goes round and round? I have had a bad cold that has left me with various aches and pains. Last night I went to bed very early clutching a hot water bottle.  I fell asleep quickly enough but then woke up two hours later, then back to sleep for a period, woke up and so on through the night.

Perhaps the most annoying thing is that in my dozing, semi-dream state, I formed the view that I had discovered something very important about life, the universe and all that. It must have been important, for it kept recurring in my mind as I dozed. Then, annoyingly, when I went to sleep for the last time it was all gone when I woke up. Such is life.

Given my current state, I’m not sure about my ability to maintain a really coherent line of argument so instead some snippets.

Almost in passing, I commented on Australia’s relatively poor medal performance at these Commonwealth Games. What I hadn’t realised, is that the Australian Sports Commission had actually set medal targets for different sports and that, consequently, financial heads were likely to roll so to speak. I have actually find this business of setting sporting targets to justify funding mildly obscene.  Perhaps I’m just old fashioned.

These games as in previous games those who regard the Commonwealth Games as passé, this time the ABC’'s Waleed Aly comes to mind, struggle to understand why people are interested. The games may not have the same drawing power as the Olympics, but they are still an interesting sporting spectacular. This time, they did deliver a badly needed ratings boost to Channel Ten. I think that that could have been a lot higher if Ten had had a half way decent Games web site.

Julie Bishop The Government’s decision to drop proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act  was not welcomed by commentator Andrew Bolt. In announcing the decision, PM Abbott put it in the context of proposed changes to anti-terrorism laws and funding. If I interpret it all correctly,  the concern was that divisions created by the proposed changes to the Racal Discrimination Laws would make it more difficult to get consensus on the need for changes to terrorism laws.

According to Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, preventing Australian citizens from becoming foreign fighters is now one of Australia’s highest national security priorities.

My difficulty in all this is that, increasingly, Australia is acquiring all the mechanical trappings of a police state. Here in Sydney, the NSW Government is introducing the Opal card, a new mass transit ticketing system. This allows the Government to track the use of the public transport system by individuals, something welcomed by the NSW Police Force as another aid to fighting crime.

I was chatting with youngest about this at the time. She saw it as another mechanism that the Government could use to enforce its will. I have to agree.

The problem I find when I discuss these types of changes with people is that creates responses such as only the guilty have something to hide or, alternatively, we have to protect society. That’s fine if you can rely on Governments not to abuse either the information or the broader powers. The evidence in Australia is that you cannot. Governments in the name of the national or public interest will use whatever powers they have.

Changing direction, Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs had an interesting piece (Abbott needs to hit the reset button) on the Australian Government’s budget problems. I guess that the Government is finding the hard way that it is one thing to propose, a second to do when you don’t have the numbers. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Monday Morning Forum – Australian native food (and other things)

I hadn’t actually thought of wattle seeds as food until I heard this piece. I did know that Australia had become a major supplier of Wagyu beef, although I still struggle with the idea of paying $1,060 per kilo for a Black truffle piece of beef!

I also knew that after a slow start, Australia seemed to be becoming a major producer of truffles. So one local food that I did not know, two overseas sourced foods that I did. 

Back in 2006, I became interested in Australian Native foods. I also became interested in imported food that had become acclimatised to Australian conditions and especially olives. Indeed, with the olive it has become so pervasive that you will find it everywhere.

The general interest in Australian native foods continues  as evidenced by the Australian Bush Food Facebook page. However, with the exception of the macadamia nut and to a lesser extent kangaroo meat, Australian native foods just do not seem to cut the mustard, so to speak.

So for his Monday Forum, have you eaten any of the Australian native foods? Why haven't they become part of the diet of modern Australians?

As always, in responding go in whatever direction you like.


Evan was concerned that there were no non-meat recipes involving Australian native foods. Here are a few:

In a totally different direction, Sue pointed to this piece by Dean Frenkel: The great Australian speech impediment. Are thing as as bad as all this?

Postscript 2

If you look at the comments, you will see that kvd was far from impressed with Australian native foods.  However, he did point me to this web site setting describing a number of them.

Postscript 3

Interesting piece on Bush Telegraph about the practical difficulties involved in the commercial cultivation of  the Australian  bush tomato.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sunday essay – musings on the Australian Aborigines and times past

Over on Skepticslawyer, Lorenzo’s Unhelpful dichotomies caught my attention with its reference to Karl Polanyi and it’s focus on the application of economics and economic models to past communities. There was, in fact, an element of nostalgia there in my reading.Belshaw dig

All those years ago, I was a member of Isabel McBryde’s pioneering Australian prehistory class at the University of New England, the first such class in Australia.

This photo is taken on one of the digs, I think at Graman not far from Inverell. I am not sure why I was trying to climb that tree. It seemed like a good idea  at the time!

When I came to do chose a topic for my honours thesis, I selected the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales. This was an ethnohistorical study, looking at what the written records especially from first contact could reveal.

I chose the economic focus in part because I had maintained a major in economics by doing an extra third year subject and was still interested. I was also influenced by the debate between Polanyi and cousin Cyril Belshaw on the relevance of economics to pre-historic non-money using societies. I took Cyril’s side.

You can get an idea of my focus from some of the topics I addressed: specialisation and exchange, capital formation, property rights, farming, In essence, I was using the analytical tools I had learned from economics to ask new questions.

 Seelands 65 or 66_thumb[4] Unlike some later debate, I wasn’t especially interested in economic models.  This was well before the fierce model based debates. The only model I was concerned to discredit was that of primitive communism so beloved by some of those on the left including Russell Ward.

To my mind, the interesting question was the extent to which concepts and questions drawn from economics could inform my analysis of the past. This next photo is break-time at a dig at Seelands in the Clarence Valley.

My thesis wasn’t especially well received, pulling down my overall mark to a two-two. I don’t think that I could have got a first in any case. My extra-curricular life was just too active.

In any event, the result changed my life. Had I got a two-one I would probably have gone straight on to do a PHD in history and prehistory. Instead, I found myself in Canberra and became an economist. The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back at that 1966 honours thesis, it has survived remarkably well. I was coming to the evidence without pre-conceptions and with no specific thesis beyond a belief that the tools of economics were relevant and could provide insights. As a consequence, I was able to pinpoint issues such as capital formation or fire and farming techniques that would later become very important.     

Reading Lorenzo’s piece, and it is a good piece, I am glad that I came into the area without the need to prove or demonstrate the relevance of what I studied to broader issues beyond the simple application of analytical techniques drawn from economics. This holds in my work today. I am interested in the Aborigines as Aborigines, as peoples living in and responding to a changing environment. There is a lot to be said for simple curiosity, the need to understand, as compared to the desire to prove something. It’s liberating.       

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – another ramble

This morning’s muse looks in a random way at the events of the last week.

Interesting piece by Guy Rundle, The deal with Clive Palmer, in today’s Saturday Paper. As was the case with the New England independents in the previous Australian Parliament, both reporters and commenters struggle when people don’t quite fit in with conventional models.

Paul Barratt has returned to Armidale to live. This is the view from his front steps. It is a five acre block. No town water, but big tanks, a bore and a gray water system.  You can see how dry it is. The New England Tablelands are back in drought.  

Paul's front yard

Argentina is now technically in default on its debts. This is a case where my sympathies lie with Argentina. I have no objection to vulture funds buying distressed Government debt and then trying to make a profit out of it. That’s business. However, you cannot expect a Government to simply bow down in the circumstances the Argentine Government found itself in. The national stakes are simply too high. No doubt a compromise will be reached that will give the vulture funds some extra cash, Meantime, The Great debatethere is a lesson in all this for all countries. Be careful about holding too many assets in the US. 

Returning to the local connection, I am off to Armidale next weekend for the Great Debate. This is the promo poster. I am third, rebuttal, speaker on the Art side.

Tomorrow is my target preparation day. As you might expect, I am behind.

A friend, Stuart Allardice, wrote on Facebook:

Off to Sydney and Melbourne this week. Catching up with some old Qantas mates. What happened to dinner parties that finished at 2am? Now we have lunch and go to venues with no steps.

Now hang off at that old bit and no steps!

I do miss the old dinner parties. It’s not possible anymore. Part of that is overall social change, but part links to laws and the increasingly urbanised and fragmented society we live in.

I am well aware of the arguments for and against the drink driving laws. However, it remains a fact that multiple social activities especially in country Australia simply collapsed after their introduction and rigid enforcement.

I mentioned the proposed changes to the rules for the Newstart Allowance (dole) in An economic & political miscellany. I didn’t think that they were very sensible. Now Job Services Australia general manager Moya Drayton has advised the Senate estimates committee that no modelling was done on the job aspects of the changes, while National’s MP Andrew Broad has slammed the idea that jobseekers should be forced to apply for 40 jobs a month. That element will go because it just doesn’t make sense, but broader problems remain.

Finally, from the media coverage Australians could be forgiven for thinking that the country has swept the Commonwealth games medal count. The reality is a little different. As I write, England has 165 medals (56 gold) compared to Australia’s 132 medals (45 gold).

But wait, it gets worse. The Commonwealth Games are one sporting event where the nations that make up the United Kingdom compete in their own right rather than as a combined team. Are you ready for this? The UK as a whole has 265 medals, 81 gold! 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Gypsies, horse power and the industrial revolution

gypsy waggon Australian style

As kid, I liked the Dr Dolittle books.  One of them featured a caravan. For the life of me I cannot remember the details. I have read the summaries of the books on Wikipedia including the one with caravan in it’s title, but I’m still not sure!

Anyway, following my last post (Train reading – introducing H R Carter’s The Upper Mooki Valley) I was doing some research on horse drawn vehicles when I came across this. Now that’s a Gypsy caravan! Well, actually no, but its certainly my idea of a caravan.

Well, no again. This caravan is designed for a family with five berths including a double bed. I would like a slightly different design.  Still, it does look like fun. 

My interest in horses and horse drawn vehicles was sparked again by Mr Carter’s book and some of the descriptions of various horse drawn vehicles. You will find a description of some of them in this Wikipedia entry.

The next shot from the family photo collection is subtitled A Squatter Goes to Town. It shows my grandfather as a young man in what was called, I think, a spyder sulky. And yes, it does look like a racing sulky. If I’m right, this would be the sulky that my grandfather placed my grandmother in after the wedding to take her on the 117 km drive back to Maxwelton, the place he was managing on on a share farm basis near Inverell.

A squatter goes to town Today we think of horses and horse drawn vehicles as a thing of the past. The motor car has shrunk them to insignificance, Yet you cannot understand history if you do not understand transport, for transport formed life and the way people thought.

We also think of horse drawn and other forms of animal drawn transport as just so old fashioPearl Forglenned. 

This is a picture of my grandmother on a horse taken at Forglen, my grandfather’s property, many years after the first shot.

While I had country connections, I grew up as a townie/gownie. I have just one shot of me on a horse, perched there with three other children at Forglen.

My grandfather decided to sell the property when I was very young. It would be many years before I got on a horse again. Then the country boys I was with assumed that I could ride. I couldn’t and was plain frightened for no-one told me what to do. It seemed a very long way down.   How did you steer the bloody thing? I was too embarrassed to ask. I feel silly to this day.

I think that we think of horse drawn vehicles as a static thing, an old fashioned thing replaced by the car. Again, it distorts our view of history.

The simple invention of the horse shoe was, in it’s way, as important as the invention of the computer. It was critical to warfare and to transport. It also encouraged the spread of blacksmiths, a group whose metal working skills would be of great importance to the industrial revolution.

I said that we tend to think of horse or other animal drawn transport as static, unchanging. We forget that the technological fervour of the industrial revolution affected every aspect of horse drawn transport, It led to new saddles, new vehicles, new ways of doing things,

Steam power transformed transport on land and sea. Outside the sea lanes or railways, it was animal drawn transport that carried the goods across the land, that supported communication between people. It was improvements there that allowed higher volumes of goods to be carried in shorter time.  We need to remember that.