Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Train Reading - Introducing C R Fay's Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century

Traditionally, my train reading has focused on books that I haven't read before selected almost at random from my shelves. It's a way of breaking out of immediate thought patterns, forcing me to look at something old (many of my books are quite old) but still new to me.

In recent months, my focus has narrowed to immediate preoccupations. One morning, dissatisfied, I grabbed C R Fay's Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century Life, being the substance of lectures delivered at Cambridge University in the year 1919 to students of economics, among whom were officers of the Royal Navy and students from the Army of the United States, (Cambridge University Press, 1920).

The book is, as the title suggests, based on a series of lectures. It reads that way. It's more a series of essays. Its also a somewhat pedantic, even fussy, book. Or perhaps its Professor Fay who was a little fussy and pedantic. Certainly he seems to have had a somewhat difficult personality.

You get a good feel for this from Professor Doug Munro's well written review of Hugh Gault's 2011 biography of Fay, The Quirky Dr Fay: A Remarkable Life. The photo of Fay comes from the much later period when he was invited to give a series of lectures by the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Munro's review begins:
Old historians, like old soldiers, don’t die; they simply fade away. A paradox of the historical profession is the widespread disregard shown towards ancestors. We all aspire to write groundbreaking work that will pass the test of time, but the sad truth is a given monograph will have a short shelf life and quickly join what G. M. Trevelyan called ‘the great unread’
To support this view, one that I agree with, he quotes Neil Jumonville::
History is really, ironically, the least grateful of disciplines … it’s difficult for a historian to be remembered for his history. Historians tend to after 20 or 30 years, after a book is published, to throw it on the proverbial dust bin. And we don’t read our old historians like those in literature read their old greats. I mean in the field of history, we’re far more embarrassed by our past than we should be. You know, we don’t look back to our Melvilles or to our Emersons like those in literature do. And so really ironically, history is one of the least historical of the humanities in that respect.
I think that there is a simple reason for this great forgetting. History is written in and of the present.The topics we select and the questions we ask are determined by present concerns and attitudes. Old things are put aside, rejected as no longer relevant, outdated, even embarrassing.  In that way, history is indeed the most a-historical of the disciplines.  

In a way, I struggle with this every day as I try to break free from the bounds set by current thought patterns. Of course, this is not true just of history. It holds equally true for public policy, for example, something I often rail about. The present acts as a deep drag on new thought. However, it is especially true of the writing of history.

In researching and writing, I often find myself saying I don't want to write about that. People expect me to do so because the topic or question is seen as relevant, important, to current concerns, whereas my reaction is that its just not important to what I want to say. If  don't mention it I will be criticised, my views may simply be rejected out of hand. But if I do focus on it, my story will be distorted.

I didn't start reading the older histories such as Fay's with conscious intent. I just decided that I had a lot of older unread books that had belonged to my father or grandfather. Many I had thrown out or lost in multiple moves, something I now deeply regret. With those remaining, I decided to train read them to force myself to look at something new (old).

This proved to be one of the better decisions of my life. From history books through memoirs to polemical and biased travel books, I have found myself wending my way along paths that I would never have found. I accept that this is very much a minority sport; you have to have a strange mind to go this path, to read and try to understand something that now seems so dated.

In all, its been remarkably liberating. Fay's book is a case in point. The questions he asked, the views he took for granted as self-evident at the time, are different from those holding now. However, they proved to be still relevant today, perhaps more relevant because so much has been dropped out. 

Consider a very small point. Today we talk about the importance of evidence based public policy. It is, it seems, a very new thing, something that we have recently learned to do, if not always very well. Well, blow me down, Fay talks specifically about the importance of evidence based public policy. Indeed, his whole book is, in a way, focused on just that topic. An economic historian, he looks at change over the nineteenth century through a lens set in part by the interaction between trends in thought and official inquiries. 

Well, time to move on. I haven't finished with C R Fay, but that's all I have time for this morning.   



Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Forum - on plays and playwrights

Last week Neil posted on the death of Australian playwright, Alan Seymour, playwright: 1927-2015. In addition to the links in Neil's post, this is another obituary. It got me thinking: who do you think are the best Australian playwrights? Are there Australian playwrights who have occupied a particular place in your memory?

This is, I suppose, too Australian focused. So for those outside Australia, feel free to select one or more from your own country.

Meantime, Judi Crane fresh from the triumph of Canberra Rep's The Importance of Being Earnest pointed me in the direction of this piece, Phil Willmott: The 21 deadly sins of theatre production. Some I would reject, while I might add others. In this context, what would you add or subtract?

It's some years since I went to the theatre on a regular basis. I'm sure that's a fault, but there was a period in which everything got so overlaid with angst and deep and meaningful that I kind of gave up. 

As always, don't feel constrained to stick to the topic. Jazz hands welcome.  


Good conversation this forum. In passing, kvd referred to a site that I had actually forgotten, Leann Richards' History of Australian Theatre. He was particularly struck by the story of Minnie Everett.I can see why.  .

Friday, March 27, 2015


Friday! I wonder where the week went? Just two pieces of writing so far this outside purely work stuff, although comments on the Monday Forum post continue.

I think most of us have read/watched the evolving story Germanwings flight 9525 with increasing horror. Those last minutes with the pilot beating on the cockpit door trying to get back in and then the screams. I have to say that it really shook me.

Tomorrow is the NSW election. I was wrong about Queensland, I didn't see the preference spray, but I will chance my hand again. The Coalition to be returned, with the Nationals and then the Greens as the big losers. Labor may lose, but it will recover. The Nats may be back in Coalition Government again, but face the probable loss of three seats.

But why the Greens? My feeling is that the Greens will fail to win any Legislative Assembly seats, although they may pick up a little in the Legislative Council vote. Anybody disagree with me?

 For myself, I more or less know how I want to vote in the Upper House although I have a little more research to do, but my choice in the Lower House is very unpalatable. I am prepared to give one of the major parties my second preference, but only after voting for someone else first. Just a little protest there. But can I actually vote for the choices I have?

And, finally, something via Facebook.


The NSW results were interesting. The Nats did a little better than I expected, the Greens more so.

I based my assessment of the likely Green position on two seat polls. The Green vote was higher than that indicated by the polls.  .

The Greens are clearly getting better at targeting their efforts. The overall Green vote did not increase, a disappointing result for them at that level. However, it did increase where it counted most.

As I write, the Greens have held Balmain and won Newtown. Both seats are inner Sydney. They have won Ballina and may win Lismore, adjoining Northern Rivers seats. Lismore is still somewhat uncertain. Two variables are in play: there are still a fair number of votes to be counted, while in an optional preferential system we don't know how many Labor voters actually preferenced the Greens.

Regardless of the final result, the Greens have consolidated their hold in inner Sydney and established an electoral beach head in the Northern Rivers. This is important for several reasons. So long as the local members perform well as local grass root members, the Greens have the chance to extend their reach into adjoining seats with related demographics. They also have a base from which to attack the Federal seats covering the state seats. This threatens Labor in the inner city, Labor and Nationals in the Northern Rivers.

So far as the Nats are concerned, they held Monaro, Tamworth and Upper Hunter.

Barwon, Upper Hunter and Tamworth were all seats affected by mining and cold seam gas.

Barwon was always going to be retained, although the Nats suffered a 25% swing. Tamworth was a different case, with former independent member Peter Draper running again. I had put Tamworth in the very uncertain basket, but in the end National member Kevin Anderson slightly increased his vote with a clear majority.

Upper Hunter was different again. As in Ballina (Geoff Page), a long serving National member (George Souris) was standing down.

On a purely personal level, their departure marked a break with my own past, a sign, I guess, of aging! Geoff and I were involved many years ago in attempts to revitalise the Country Party, while I knew George from school. Both have been good local members and contributors to National Party survival.

There was a swing of almost 15% against the Nationals in Upper Hunter, but they held the seat. There is an important subtext issue here.In holding the inland mining/coal seam gas seats, the Nats have actually headed off an extremely dangerous threat.

Monaro is different again. I really thought that the National's John Barilaro would lose to former member Steve Whan. In fact, John achieved a swing to him of 1.5%. Again, there is a personal factor at play here. It gives me a certain pleasure that my efforts all those years ago in working to re-establish  the Country Part in Monaro still have a degree of relevance. I really like Queanbeyan, but it was a battle trying to break Labor entrenchment.As best I can work out without detailed addition, Labor still won Queanbeyan this time, but only just.

 In this election, Labor re-established its hold in the Lower Hunter. Mired in electoral corruption scandals, the Libs sank without trace. There is now not a single Liberal member left in Northern NSW. It's all National/Labor/Green.

Well, that ends my electoral coverage here for the moment. Time to move on to other issues.

Update 2

Well, the votes in  Ballina and Lismore have been fluctuating, with late counting favouring the Nationals. The most likely outcome now appears to be Ballina Green, with the Nationals holding Lismore.         . .       .  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday Forum - another go where you will

I am handing this Monday Forum over to you. Feel free to go to go in whichever way you want.

Since this Forum is solely devoted to your views, I am happy to reflect them back to a broader audience by bringing comments and links up into the main post where they give more information or encourage discussion.

Postscript One

This morning I blinked when I looked at this blog's site stats. There was a sudden explosion in traffic to 2,932 page views over a one hour period and then a sharp drop back to normal. All of the additional traffic came from Germany. I suspect, I don't know, that there must have been some form of apparently unsuccessful attack.

Quite a variety in initial comments.

kvd had an explosion of whimsy.

"ephemera: things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time - Guinness World Records Show
peripheral: relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something. - submarine cable mapAnd I see the Peoples Republic of Cork has a thread devoted to replacing 'f' with 'ph'. I hope that meets with fenomenal succeff :)"

Mmm. I suppose that you if you are going to replace f with ph you can replace ph with f, but re-introducing the old f for s? A bridge too far.

Wisely, I think, kvd had a change of heart on one aspect of his comment: "pharkit. Can I plz change the first link to this"  Personally, I thought that a video best subtitled I can blow bubbles was a significant improvement on the Guinness World Record show. When I was a kid, the Guinness Book of World Records was full of interesting if strange things. Now its just dominated by the strange!

Then our old blogging friend Rod from Northern Rivers Geology came in with a personal comment. I give the comment in full. My own comments follow:

"I went to a fund raiser for disabled children on Sunday 'The Board Meeting'... I don't know anything about surfing but these guys are a great bunch. For KVD's benefit, there were some good fotos - https://www.facebook.com/theboardmeetingnorthernrivers?fref=nf

Here are my wife's thoughts on it - http://myfaithinmyadventure.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/confession-i-never-realised-id-cry.html:"

  The photo comes from the event Rod is referring too. I hadn't realised that Rod and Becky's daughter Faith had such serious difficulties, although I was aware from some past comments that Rod made in passing that she wasn't well. 

Just at the moment I am involved in some work on aspects of the system architecture of the NDIS, the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It's remarkably complex. This SMH piece by El Gibbs
illustrates some of the complexities. 

When I read Rod's comment and followed up on the links, I thought of the love we have for our children, of the role that community groups play in supporting those in difficulty. This is becoming more important as Governments become more unreliable. 

 This is not a comment on the NDIS itself. That would be inappropriate given my current work, although I might write something later on as a case study. Rather, it is an observation on the process of constant change that makes it very difficult at at personal and family level to place any form of reliance on the detail of specific Government activities, policies and programs. 

Finally, and changing direction, 2 tanners observed "How do you stop people with a penchant for foot-in-mouth disease?" I blinked a bit, but he was referring to this story about the way the NSW Premier appears to have quarantined Prime Minister Abbott.

I am going to leave the Monday Forum post as the lead post for the moment to give you all a chance for further comments.

Postscript Two

In a comment, Becky Holland wrote:
Thanks for sharing Jim. :-) I have so many concerns regarding the NDIS. I have written to the SMH several times about how it is already affecting us and my concerns regarding it, but as they receive many letters had no luck in being able to share my views on it. I look forward to hearing what you have to share at a later stage.
Becky, if you email me one of the letters I will run it for you as a guest post. 

Becky's comment is an example of the uncertainty effect that I referred to. The NDIS involves big changes, creating real difficulties for those receiving existing services in understanding what it all means. Often, change starts washing through before the nature of replacement arrangements are understood or even defined.

kvd and Evan frequently disagree. However, they appear to be in furious agreement on this comment by kvd:
A key finding of the wide-ranging inquiry, which chairman David Murray handed to government for their consideration in December, was that people should no longer be given access to their superannuation savings as a lump sum at the end of their working life.
Instead, when people retire their superannuation savings would automatically be transferred to a default fund designed to manage it in the paydown phase and provide a stream of retirement income. - http://www.smh.com.au/business/banking-and-finance/lump-sum-superannuation-payments-for-retirees-could-end-20150324-1m6nou.html
Which is why, for 30+ years I have thought that anyone who committed more than the bare legal minimum of their hard earned was a fool, and that the single most despicable thing Hawke and Keating did for their constituency was to shackle them to compulsory super, in place of wage rises.
Again, you have an example of the impact of prospective changes. Does this mean that changes should not be made? Of course not. Some elements of the existing scheme do need change. But you have to be aware of the impact of change, including breach of implicit contractual arrangements entered into a long time before. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Essay - short reflections on the death of Malcolm Fraser

Today's post combines my usual Saturday and Sunday posts.

Listening to or reading the coverage of Malcolm Fraser's death was another reminder of the way that time changes our perceptions of people.

During the Fraser period, I was promoted to Chief Finance Officer (section head) in the Commonwealth Treasury's Foreign Investment Division and then to Assistant Secretary in charge of the Economic Analysis Branch in the Department of Industry and Commerce. Towards the end of the Fraser times I spent two years in Armidale trying to complete my PhD, returning to Canberra for the last months of the Fraser Government. My first task on return was working with Noel Benjamin on a Bureau of Industry Economics Research paper commissioned by Doug Anthony examining the possible economic benefits of a Pacific Free Trade Agreement.

Our views of people are formed by our own values and our responses to things considered to be important. I was still a Country Party activist at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. For obvious reasons I didn't share the angst of those on the Labor side who saw the dismissal as a betrayal; the Whitlam period had been chaotic and the final ending was great political theater that delivered the right results.

While I had opposed Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, I had registered as a conscientious objector, I regarded Mr Whitlam's refusal to help those South Vietnamese who had worked with Australia as a betrayal. For that reason, I strongly supported Mr Fraser's willingness to admit Vietnamese refugees and indeed took pride in it.

As a policy adviser working in an economic sphere, I saw Mr Fraser as a sometimes authoritarian and indeed inconsistent decision maker. I didn't see the Government as necessarily bad in economic policy terms, simply lacking consistent direction. I gave one brief example in Confessions of a Policy Adviser -1- Setting the Scene.

I was in back in Armidale at UNE when the report of the Lynch Razor gang was released. I couldn't believe it. How could a Government manage to alienate so many groups via a series of small and often inconsequential spending cuts? It was screwy, a case of maximising pain without achieving overall gain. Mmm, Joe Hockey?

I said that time changes perspectives. At the time, I didn't see Mr Fraser's decisions on Vietnamese boat people as politically brave. I don't think that it was, although today the equivalent would, I suspect, be seen as political suicide if, indeed, it was even considered.

I think, however, that what stands out now is the way Mr Fraser seems to have had a consistent moral compass that guided certain of his actions over a very long period. It was that compass that guided some of his actions during his ministry, actions that I wasn't necessarily aware of at the time or did not regard as important, that are now seen as considerable achievements.

We have seen the same process with Mr Whitlam. Time has expunged some, not all, of his failings, allowing successes to be more clearly seen. I said some. There is a common feature here with both men. They were interesting people; some of their failures will survive on the historical record just for that fact alone.

 Time presses on. As it does, individual achievement becomes more compressed; perceptions of what is important shift and shift again as the world changes; events such as the dismissal become paragraphs or even just footnotes. With Mr Fraser, I suspect that it will be those decisions and arguments based on his perceptions of what is just that will be his most enduring memorial.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Australian's loss of faith in an age of ennui

Yesterday at tennis, youngest commented that she and most of her generation had given up on the idea of home ownership. I argued against that view, saying that at the other end of life, home ownership was the difference between security and constant insecurity. She accepted that, but still argued that home ownership was no longer an achievable dream for young people.

I mention this because some interesting polling by Essential Research showed some clear age related differences between responses on particular issues. Take the demand for older workers to work longer. Mr Hockey doesn't need to convince older Australian workers. The poll showed that 52% of those in the 55+ age bracket think that it would be good for Australia to have more older people staying in the workforce. By contrast, only 29% of those aged between 18 and 34 thought that this would be good for Australia. You can see their viewpoint.

There is one question, however, on which a majority of voters appear to agree. Australians will be worse off over the next forty years as compared to today. Retirees in particular are expected to be worse off.

I have a few problems with the way Essential presented their question, as well as a frustration that they did not provide a generational perspective to the answers. That said, the results fit with my impressions just based on continuing chats with different age groups.

I would like to see some really detailed polling exploring the inter-generational similarities and differences in views, as well the drivers of those views. I can surmise, but I would like to know.

It's quite important. If, for example, a clear majority of Australians think that we are all going to be worse off regardless, then it becomes extremely hard to persuade voters to accept changes intended to improve positions in particular areas on the grounds of pain now for later gains..At the extreme, why should I accept the pain when it doesn't matter anyway, when we are all going to be worse off anyway?

I grew up in an age that believed in progress, in the possibility of improvement, in the likelihood of advance. We appear to have lost that. I think that's a problem.


Winton Bates has brought up a companion post, Have Australians become highly pessimistic about prospects for future generations?. I will comment on Winton's material later.

In commenting, Cecilia has also added a link to a fascinating piece on the demographic changes happening in Japan, Hidden Behind Tokyo: Japan’s Rural Periphery. Oh, and Cecilia's blog is worth a read too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

That Australian life - rural snippets

At the moment, I'm largely stuck in Sydney. It's remarkably difficult to get away and I'm missing the country, so today's post focuses on Australian rural stories.

Communities battling blackberry in Victoria are trying to convince government to restart research into a plant-killing disease. Research into purple blotch disease has stalled for the last two years due to lack of funding.

Ah, blackberries. I so remember picking them, but that's not the reason I'm starting with this story.

This is the picture ABC news ran with the story. The caption on the original photo reads blackberries close up. I suppose it's possible, but it doesn't look like a blackberry to me!

Christmas Island only became part of Australia in 1957. Presently most famous for its role in refugee detention, the Island has a colorful history. Like many remote communities, the Island suffers from distance when it comes to food. All imported, it's very expensive.Now work has begun on a new farm development. I just wondered why it hadn't happened before.

Down at the Riverina city of Wagga Wagga, foreign students are completing Diplomas in Agriculture as a way of gaining Australian permanent residency. The photo shows Dutch student Marina Van Aken and Estonian student Lina Koppel.

Good on them. With large parts of the economic and civil infrastructure in inland Australia rotting away, we need all the help we can get. If the people in the increasingly remote metropolitan islands that now dominate Australian life want to stay there, the rest of us have to look after ourselves. Pacific Islander seasonal workers, foreign doctors, refugees to work in abattoirs, Dutch agriculture students, we need you.

On most of the measures, country people are more conservative than the Australian average. Interestingly, this does not apply to foreign workers at least outside the big inland centres where services have been centralised. They are welcome.

Doctors are the most classic example. I monitor the country press quite closely. You will find story after story of local welcome for foreign doctors regardless of ethnicity or creed. The community needs those doctors. They are very important, and they are welcome.

Finally, bananas. Australians like their bananas and take them for granted. The Queensland cyclone that wiped out the banana crop and led to an explosion of banana prices was a salutatory reminder of the importance of local supply and long supply chains. Suddenly, every Australian found themselves in the same position as Christmas Islanders.

In the Northern Territory, the need to prevent the spread of banana freckle disease has led to the wholesale removal of banana trees. Now Panama tropical race four (TR4) has been found on a farm in Queensland.This disease remains in the soil for 30 years or more.

I have always been a supporter of quarantine measures to try to protect Australia's disease free isolation. I remain so.          


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bonds, interest rates and the risk of a crash

A speech yesterday by Guy Debelle, the Australian Reserve Bank's Assistant Governor (Financial Markets) dealt with a problem that has been worrying me.

This graph shows the yield on Commonwealth Government bonds. They are now at the lowest levels in history. However, they still offer a tiny positive return. That is not true in many places, with some Government securities providing negative nominal interest returns. In buying them, you lock in a guaranteed loss.

Even where yields are positive, they are now so low that  investors are getting little or no compensation for term risk or the risk of inflation.

Two factors appear to be at work. The first is that banks in particular are being required to hold a greater volume of Government securities as part of the post GFC reforms of the global financial sector. At the same time, the global supply of Government securities has been reduced in part because of action to reduce budget deficits, in part because quantitative easing has been hoovering up the supply of bonds, transferring ownership to central banks. The banks must hold Government securities, so they have been chasing a diminishing supply, bidding up prices.

You can see the flow-on effects. In the case of retirees, for example, it is now very difficult to find a secure investment offering a meaningful positive return. People respond by eating into their capital or by chasing those assets that still offer possible returns, bidding up prices there. You can see the flow on effects, too, in the bidding by bodies such as pension funds for existing infrastructure assets that hold out the potential for a higher yield.

The present position is unsustainable. Interest rates will rise. But the unwinding process could well be very messy.As a simple example, requiring banks to hold certain classes of securities for liquidity and safety purposes when the marketplace for those securities has become distorted of itself creates new systemic risks.

Sadly, the defects in my crystal ball make sensible prognostications difficult. My best guess (hope?) is that we will muddle through, but I am far from sure at the moment as to how this might happen. The alternative is another economic crash.     .

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Essay - finding a new way to deal with the scourge of Ice

There is no doubt that Ice (crystal methamphetamine) has become a major problem. I was reading some stuff the other day that provided an insight at community level. Frankly, I was horrified. You can see why people are demanding action. It's not just that the drug itself has potentially severe side effects, it's the adverse effects of a sometimes violent distribution system that, among other things, uses children as couriers and imposes silence through fear.

This wasn't the first time that I had heard references to explosions in Ice use and its community effects, it's been running around the grapevine for a while. However, this was the first time that I had seen reporting from people I knew about a community of which I had some knowledge. I found myself wanting to take some action.

According to newspaper reports, the NSW Government will announce its response to the problem today as part of its re-election campaign. It appears to be very much your standard law and order approach so beloved by current Government systems, containing five elements:
  • halve the threshold required to charge dealers with possessing large commercial quantities of ice, from one kilogram to 500 grams, so more offenders face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment
  • a mandatory state-wide online recording system of all sales in NSW pharmacies to reduce access to pseudoephedrine – a vital precursor chemical ingredient in ice
  • triple the number of roadside drug tests, to over 97,000, by next year. 
  • grant greater powers to confiscate the assets of drug dealers and traffickers
  • invest $7 million in establishing three new Stimulant Treatment Program clinics within the Illawarra, Mid North Coast and western Sydney regions, with an additional $4 million earmarked for non-government programs. Along with two existing facilities at Newcastle and Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, the clinics will collectively cater for up to a thousand drug users at a time. 
I make no pretense to any form of expertise in this area. However, I would have thought that this program was highly unlikely to work:
  • it is likely to end up with a lot more mules in jail without greatly affecting supply
  • the State already has substantial powers to confiscate assets of drug dealers. It is not clear that an extension would have significant impact
  • increased roadside drug tests may have a public safety aspect, people may be more careful about driving having taken drugs, but so far as the Ice problem is concerned the impact on use is likely to be zero
  • it may actually make family or community members more reluctant to come forward to seek help or provide information to police.
What would I do instead? Well, this is a case where it it is fine for me to lecture, but where I really struggle with alternative answers. For what it's worth, here are my suggestions:
  1. I think that we need to make a clear distinction in our minds between users and the distribution system. 
  2. So far as individuals, their families and communities are concerned, we need to find a way of providing help that can be delivered in the first instance without involving the police. I am well aware that  there are specific programs already in place, but the Ice explosion has been such that many of those affected have no idea where to seek help.The Government's expansion of treatment options is limited and does not address to information gap, nor is it especially helpful if you live outside the immediate coverage areas.
  3. I think that we need targeted information and health awareness advertising and programs. At the moment, you get generalised approaches such as the War on Drugs.This doesn't really cut through, especially given the multiplicity of health messages, If Ice is the scourge I see  it to be, then it needs a very specific campaign along AIDS lines. This would also address distribution issues by attacking demand.   
  4. Penalties along the distribution change should be more graduated and even reduced. Seriously, families, friends and communities will not cooperate if the effect is to send their loved ones to jail. To illustrate, would you give information to the police on any drug issue connected with Indonesia if the effect was death by firing squad? 
  5. We should attack the distribution chain. This is an area where I as a civil libertarian have absolutely no problem with being required to sign for a product containing pseudoephedrine. It does not affect my real liberties, but may make it more difficult for the bad guys. That I can support. I suspect that there are other measures that I would support too. 
  6. I support additional police resources, but only if those resources focus on intelligence, targeted action and, most of all, support for individuals and families who want to redress problems at individual and local levels. I also support more discretion for police.
Now if you look at what I am trying to achieve here via these proposals:
  1. I have focused on one drug
  2. I am trying to help communities, families and friends deal with an immediate problem that affects those that they care about
  3. I suggest measures to attack demand
  4. I then focus on the supply chain, looking for a nuanced approach that will encourage people to inform, place action responsibility at individual, family and community level,  give the police new resources and social responsibilities but limit this to their core role. 
Perhaps I'm naive. I stand to be corrected. But when I read those meeting minute, I thought how did we let this happen? When I look at the Liberal-National Party response, I think how is this going to make any difference at all? It won't. Meantime, the community that sits at the back of my mind will just have to suffer.


I am going to treat this post also as the Monday Forum post because I am interested in increasing my understanding of the problem.

This is a Radio National story from 10 March focused on Ice related problems in Mildura in Victoria.

I suppose that it was about eighteen months ago that I first started hearing stories of Ice problems in particular communities. Prior to that, it seemed to be just another recreational drug, cool to use kvd's phrase among particular groups and at dance or music events. From this base, it spread through fairly aggressive pushing into new markets especially in regional areas.

I do not know whether or not the stuff I was reading that I referred to earlier is accurate. It wasn't a police report or anything like that, simply the minutes of a meeting of particular community groups. The Ice problem came up as one issue, raised in the context of one community in particular, one with  considerable mining/trades presence. I mention this only because the RN program mentions tradies as a particular Ice using group. I have no idea whether or not this is true.

The salient features of the minutes were:
  • Ice use had exploded quite suddenly among a particular group at this particular place
  • The Ice was Chinese origin and was being pushed by Chinese linked gangs using children and teenagers to deliver
  • The trade was quite violent, leaving people afraid to talk. There had been a spike in deaths and in criminal activities such as burglaries in order to find cash to buy the drug.
  • Community groups were struggling to work out just how to respond. 
As I said, I cannot validate the stories. In this case, I am just reporting.

Postscript 2

In a comment, Sue pointed me to an new book,  "Chasing the Scream" by Johann Hari. While apparently flawed, the book looks interesting.

Postscript 3 - 25 March 2015

The Australian Crime Commission has now released a report The Australian Methylamphetamine Market, The National Picture that deals with the Ice epidemic. At this point, I haven't been able to find a link to the report its self.

Postscript 3 26 March 2013

A commenter kindly provided this link to the report. Just click on download this file. As an aside, Australian Policy Online is a good resource. Maybe I'm wrong, but I expected more substance in the report after all the reporting. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Miscellany - Putin, PUPs with a dash of blood on the wattle

This has been a funny mixed up week, making posting difficult. Hopefully, I will do better next week.

It was a week in which Prime Minister Abbott's life style remarks received major media coverage. I had a post written, but waited until I saw the transcripts. I am glad I did, for the reporting and response based on that reporting was selective. Given my own biases, I had gone along a different track. For that reason, I will amend and post later.

This was a week in which Russian President Putin confirmed what we all knew, that Russian troops had been directly involved in the Crimea. As the week ended, President Putin vanished from public view, leading to speculation about his health and position. I suspect that he will be back shortly, but who knows.

This week a Brick fell on a PUP, leaving the poor animal sorely wounded. I do wonder whether this aids or hinders the Abbott Government in its millennial pursuit of a legislation passing Senate. Probably not.

This was the week I made the mistake of buying Bruce Elder's Blood on the Wattle, subtitled massacres and maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788. If I had taken the time to speed read it in the shop I would have not done so. But I was running late for the train, had been wanting to read it for some time, so just grabbed it. It may have been voted the tenth most influential Australian non-fiction book of the twentieth century, I accept that it was arguing a case that may needed to have been said at the time of first publication, but it just annoyed me.

It's not often that I get so little from a book. I picked up a few points on the native police, but that was about it. Bruce makes the point that he is not writing history, that it's a compilation, but even so. In the end, I couldn't distinguish fact from fiction, the author's interpretation of what people and especially Aboriginal people were thinking based on what he thought that they were or should have been thinking.

I know Northern NSW best, of course, including the main sources he used. The picture is far more complex, more nuanced than he allows. That doesn't make it any less tragic from an Aboriginal perspective.

Ah well, I won't go on any more. Time to move.


Am I being unfair on Bruce? Perhaps at one level, for he does have material on areas outside my primary geographic focus that I wasn't familiar with. I think that I would still stick to my primary criticisms, however.  


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mr Pyne's education reforms - introducing the packaging problem

A very short post tonight because of time limitations.

It's been a while since I commented on Australian Education Minister Pyne's attempts to change the Australian higher education sector. He is now seeking Senate compromises, offering what is in effect a levy that would see universities increasing their fees beyond a certain point receive progressively less in their per student base payment. In so doing, he is attempting to meet a concern that the combination of deregulated fees on one side with an open ended student loan scheme on the other would see something of a price explosion.

When first announcing the changes, the Minister stated that university fees would not increase because of extra competition. This was immediately challenged on the grounds that the combination of deregulation of fees with an uncapped loan scheme and cuts to university base funding would create an irresistible pressure for fee increase that would spread across the sector in varying ways depending on the individual market power of the universities.  

Minister Pyne also linked the $150 million funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) - described as the "backbone of research in Australia" - to the government's stalled higher education changes passing the Senate on the grounds that continued funding depended on the savings built into the proposed changes. NCRIS facilities support 30,000 staff at 27 sites across the country.

The dynamics in all this are quite interesting. The proposal to cut funding to NCRIS has drawn apparently universal condemnation from the scientific community, coming as it does on the top of other research cuts. My feeling is the cut cannot proceed, although anything is possible.

 The proposal to reduce base subsidy if fee increases pass a certain point has split the university sector, with the powerful Group of Eight totally opposed. You would expect that of course, since they have the greatest market power and hence capacity to increase fees.

 In all this, Mr Pyne still cannot win the Senate. Underlying the mess that the Minister finds himself in is a rather unfortunate feature of modern public policy. I call it the packaging problem, the linking together of sometimes unrelated elements into a single package in which each element depends on the other in such a way that if one falls they all fall. I will look at this in a later post.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Monday Forum - creating new habits in a crowded world

I headed my last post Saturday Morning Musings - time and focus in a crowded world. As is sometimes the case, the heading didn't quite reflect the content, although I alluded in part to the underlying thought at the end when I wrote: 

Writing a really good investigative piece takes time, sometimes a lot of time. This is hard for journalists in their daily round, equally hard for writers like me who have to fit writing into the need to earn a living. 
I cannot take the equivalent of two to three weeks full time to focus on a single issue. Instead, I try to build a pattern over time based on multiple bits across my multiple interests. There are things to think about here, but not today!

Most of us are time poor. In my case, for example, I spend around 36 hours per week at work. To get there and back takes almost three hours a day, so that's another fifteen hours per week. Then I spread the rest of my time across my research and writing, meals, domestic activities, seeing friends etc. Inevitably some things suffer. 

Like most of us, I have been through various phases in trying to manage all this: time management, goal setting, self-improvement campaigns, fiddling with work-life balance etc. Those who read this blog regularly will have seen this peek through from time to time. 

Measured objectively, I know that I have quite a high work-rate. I am also reasonably focused and self-disciplined. However, I also suffer from a periodic sense of dissatisfaction at the things that don't get done, as well as conflict between things that I like to do and things that I feel that I should be doing. 

When I get home in the evening, I'm often tired. I like to settle down with a drink and just catch up on comments, correspondence and the world around me. That's fine, but its actually not very efficient. By the time I've done that then cooked tea, I really don't want to settle down to spend the next few hours writing. So I tend to go to bed reasonably early and get up early to try to write. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.  

In all this I find, and this is the most dissatisfying element, that the important but not non-urgent tends to get crowded out; exercise, keeping the house tidy, eating properly, personal business, even just seeing people I really like, all suffer. Life becomes a daily whirl. As the days and weeks pass, one wonders what it was all for!

I know that most of us suffer from this to greater or lesser extent and that our responses are determined by the combination of personality, habits and our personal circumstances. In my case, grand attempts to redesign my life don't work, not can I address bad habits head-on. I have to sidle round these things, sneak up through the back door. I also find that I need motivation, positive or negative, to force change. 

 I now have a new campaign running based on the simple mantra health, history and home. 

Each represents a particular point of present dissatisfaction in my life: I need to improve my physical condition; I am not making progress on my main writing targets; the mess around the house is affecting mood and performance. Apart from health where I want to thrash my daughters in tennis (!), I am not setting specific targets or goals, just very broad objectives against which I can measure weekly progress. I also have a friend who is interested and can help me.

Regardless of final results, the campaign has already some results. However, the ultimate success depends on my success in creating new habits or modifying existing ones. 

Take health. Here I have a motivation - thrash my daughters at tennis. While I have been walking, I had become very unfit. I have a regular activity - youngest and I are playing tennis once or twice a week. In playing, I found that the muscles in my left shoulder were straining when I served - I am a right hander, so the opposite shoulder. This means that I need to re-build my upper body strength. Then in the latest round, I started rushing the net when youngest was serving, aiming to put her away quickly. Even though I was only getting one shot in three in, I found that it worked quite well, but it left my knees sore. So other body building exercises are required.

Note that I am not trying to stop my bad health habits, simply build new ones.

This brings me to the point of this Monday Forum. How do you handle your crowded life? What works or doesn't work for you? As always, feel free to go in any direction!  

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings - time and focus in a crowded world

With the NSW elections almost upon us, I have created a post on my New England blog, 2015 NSW State election - New England thread, where I can post specific election updates focusing on the Northern NSW seats.

In a comment on "Threads in Australian politics - Australians in Indonesian death row, the McClure report, industrial relations and that Intergenerational Report", kvd noted the increasing size of the Intergenerational Reports - 2002 705kb, 2007 1.6Mb, 2010 1Mb, 2015 2.6Mb. He went on: "Extrapolation would suggest that the 2050 IGR will come in at about 10-12 Mb; may take 7 years to prepare; will take 9 years to digest. And how come one was snuck in at 2010?"

I suspect that part of the reason for the jump in size in the last report lay in layout including rising graphics intensity. It took quite a long time to download, longer to print. Memo to Malcolm. Improve bandwidth or make government reports less bandwidth hungry! Oh, and printer friendly too.

kvd also commented:
Not to be too cynical, but I expect somebody will actually read the reports, even tho at best they can only be a collection of motherhood statements of the obvious, aligned to the particular bias of the government of the day. 
At the very least, any future IGR should start with a brief para headed "What we got wrong in the last IGR", or maybe Prof Aitkin can update his "What Was It All For?"
I'm not sure that  I quite agree about the motherhood bit, but it does lead to a very important point. In a way, the reports are fairly mechanical. But part of their value lies in the way they provide a snapshot of longer terms views (and assumptions) at a point in time.

At the time Treasurer Costello produced the first report, the urgent focus was on the implications of an aging Australian population. That is still there. But the combination of far higher than projected migration with a higher birthrate has altered the aging parameters quite significantly, pushing out some of the effects. We were debating about a big Australia; it's clearly here as previously defined.

Then in the last report, climate change emerged as an equal existential problem to population aging, only to vanish in this report. That, clearly, is a political decision. By the time of  the next report (if we can keep them going), we will have far more evidence on this for good or evil.

Most political or public policy discussion has a short term focus even when it is meant to be dealing with long term issues. In the daily rush with its constant information overload, nobody has time to go back to check and measure. We say what went wrong, but it's always in a narrow context, part of the blame game. As policy cycles shorten, and they have, we need a mechanism that will allow us to look at longer term trends and, more importantly, what we thought about them.

The value of the Intergenerational Reports lies not in each report, but in the reports as a whole.

Frank Robson's Gone guy: the mysterious case of missing tradie Dane Kowalski is one of those human interest pieces that really grabbed me.

Writing a really good investigative piece takes time, sometimes a lot of time. This is hard for journalists in their daily round, equally hard for writers like me who have to fit writing into the need to earn a living.

I cannot take the equivalent of two to three weeks full time to focus on a single issue. Instead, I try to build a pattern over time based on multiple bits across my multiple interests. There are things to think about here, but not today!


Friday, March 06, 2015

Threads in Australian politics - Australians in Indonesian death row, the McClure report, industrial relations and that Intergenerational Report

This is an opium den. I tried to find one with guaranteed local provenance, but could not in the time I had.

I mention this now not because any of Australia's politicians displays signs of smoking opium; they don't! By all accounts, opium smoking is a peaceful occupation reducing the desire to argue. Instead, I am presently bogged down in aspects of the history of the Chinese in Australia with especial reference to New England. The things that I am learning about!

Meantime, a number of things have been happening in Australia at political and policy level that warrant a mention.

To this point, I have not mentioned the potential imminent execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the ringleaders of the “Bali Nine” drug smuggling gang. I have not done so because I haven't been sure just what to say that might have any meaning. The continued delays have become cruel, high farce. If the result is a cancellation of the death sentence, then that will not matter. If the execution does proceed, it matters very much indeed.

 The affair has reinforced Australian opposition to the death penalty. That's not a bad thing from my perspective.  It has damaged the reputation of the Australian Federal Police, although the AFP has said that it will have more to say on this should the executions proceed. The fall-out in in terms of the relations between the two countries is difficult to predict, but is likely to be complicated. Overall, the worst part is the misery inflicted on all the parties. .

By the way, the inclusion of the opium photo and comment above is not connected with this case, just with my interest in New England history.

I have yet to read to McClure Report on the the review of Australia’s welfare system, A New System for Better Employment and Social Outcomes, released on 25 February 2015. The Department summarises the review in this way::
The review’s purpose has been to identify how to make Australia’s welfare system fairer, more effective, coherent and sustainable and encourage people to work.
Anybody spot the problems in this description? Ain't official English wonderful!

The report recommends simplification of welfare payments, something that I strongly support. Whether the recommendations in  the report are the best way to go is something I cannot yet comment on. Perhaps you have views?

In December 2014, the Australian Government has asked the Productivity Commission to review Australia's workplace relations framework.You can find the details here. Winton may have some views. By the way, I found Winton's assessment in Is Papua New Guinea a safe place for tourists to visit? very interesting. I have never been to PNG but have wanted to go for some time.I felt a bit sad at the comments on Lae.

 Finally, .how could I resist commenting on the 2015 Intergenerational Report.For the benefit of non-Australian readers whose eyes are glazing, the Commonwealth Treasury  describes the process in this way:
Every five years, the Australian Government produces an Intergenerational Report that assesses the long-term sustainability of current Government policies and how changes to Australia’s population size and age profile may impact on economic growth, workforce and public finances over the next 40 years. 
The Government is required to produce an Intergenerational Report at least every five years. The first three Intergenerational Reports were produced in 2002, 2007 and 2010. 
The Intergenerational Report contains analysis of the key drivers of economic growth – population, participation and productivity – and examines what projected changes in these areas mean for our standard of living and public policy settings. 
It is a projection into the future, giving us an estimate of the challenges we face as a nation and where opportunities could come from.
I took the report out to lunch today. Yes, I know that sounds very boring and in the end I put it aside to look at some more Chinese Australian history.

Despite Treasurer Hockey's enthusiasm at the launch, it is likely to sink without a trace.as a highly politicized document. I will give you a summary of the media reports later, along with my own assessment. For the moment, I just wanted to note that the report actually raises some interesting issues, especially if you turn some of the framework on its head.


It's difficult to know just what the latest stay in the executions means. I see the Jakarta Globe has called for the end of the death penalty in an editorial.  

Monday, March 02, 2015

Monday Forum - role of writers in shaping language, populist responses to hep A, decline of the intellectual right

Start of another week, another opinion poll. Mark Kenny considers Tony Abbott thrown lifeline in Fairfax-Ipsos poll. Peter Hartcher takes a different view: PM Tony Abbott's 'positive' poll shows he's a dead man walking. In an earlier piece, Exit Abbott, pursued by a bear, Jack Waterford likened the current position to the fifth act of a Shakespearean tragedy.

 This last led me down a sidetrack, the role of literature in shaping languages. I am not a linguist, nor am I really familiar with the history of individual languages. However, I have a possibly ill-informed view that individual writers or pieces of work such as Shakespeare or the King James Bible have been especially important.

Is this true? Who are the writers or pieces of work that have affected particular languages?

The current hepatitis A outbreak in Australia has been apparently linked to frozen berries picked in China. This has lead to moves to change labelling laws to provide better country of origin information. In the same week, the Australian Government announced new measures to restrict foreign investment in real estate.

Both strike me as populist over-reactions. Is this a fair assessment?

Finally, in the interests of balance, should we encourage the Australian to reduce its rigid pay walls? The paper is the main exponent of certain right wing views. If you look at its on-line edition, you can see how 90% of the paper is accessible only to subscribers.The practical effect is that the paper has vacated the public space, allowing papers of the left, center-left or center to dominate. The right complains about left bias in the ABC, but does not object to pay-wall restrictions that actually take them (the right) out of the public debate. Increasingly, the right chatters to itself.

Mind you, Sydney's Daily Telegraph remains as the on-line voice piece of the populist right. This is the paper's take on the latest opinion polls: Leadership spill now unlikely as Liberals roar back in the polls. It's a very different view from those I cited earlier.

Still, the Australian is the voice of the more intellectual right So long as it remains behind its present pay-walls, its influence will continue to diminish.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sunday Essay - New England historiography and the decline of Australia's universities

In his latest post on family history, Neil’s personal decades 30: Roy Christison 1924, Neil managed to find  A Singleton Argus story from 7 August 1924 linking our respective pasts.
On Tuesday night in the Methodist Hall a public debate was held between the W.E.A.. and the R.S. and S.I.L. In the absence of the Mayor, Mr J. Ogilvy presided, Rev. D. Weatherall, who led the W.E.A. team, moved “That the people of Singleton should support the New State Movement.”
Neil's grandfather, R H Christison, was one of the WEA speakers arguing in favour of self-government. Although not mentioned in the newspaper piece, the debate took place against a backdrop of the Cohen Royal Commission inquiry into new states which had been conducting public hearings across NSW.  For those who want a little more background on all this, you can find it here. I have yet to add the later columns in the series.

There is another connection as well with Neil's story, for my family was also involved with the WEA, especially in New Zealand.

Last Sunday's Essay was Sunday Essay – musings on the rise and fall of New England historiographyIn discussion, Evan and I were talking about institutional influences. In this context, I want to quote one paragraph from my New England  historiography post: 
In the New England case, New England historiography is important because it arose in a context where local elites had sufficient power to create institutional structures that, for a period, could survive despite their isolation from the dominant structures. That isolation was both the reason for their creation and the driver in terms of subsequent focus. As the New England power structures declined in importance, as their ability to assert the separate case declined, so did New England historiography decline. Today it is a shadow of itself.
Talking to a friend about all this, I said that I regarded my historical writing as in some way akin to an archaeological rescue did. A new building is to be constructed, so archaeologists are commissioned to do a dig to record that which might, often will be, destroyed by a new building. In some ways, that's the position I find myself in with New England history..

My current series of columns in the Armidale Express traces the rise and fall of New England historiography. Without repeating the whole story, New England historical writing was affected by broader trends such as the interest in Australian history at the end of the nineteenth century as well as the rise of the museum movement. However, it took particular local form as a consequence of the fight for Northern self-government.

In this context, the establishment in 1928 of the Armidale Teachers' College and then the University College in 1938 were critical because they created institutional structures with a particular Northern focus including local and regional history. From their establishment, came historical writing first by academics and then by students in Litt B, Honours, Masters and PHD theses. This then laid the basis for books. It also created an interest in family and local history.

By 1981, you had two very different but complimentary institutional focuses.The TC now the Armidale College of Advance Education had a powerful local history school, while the University had a broader focus, if still including a powerful New England element. From the mid 1970, there was a publishing explosion by local writers, students and academics. Their books sit on my shelves now (few are on-line or in print) and are critical to to the work I do. Then it all collapsed.

Central to that collapse was the forced merger of the ACAE, the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education and UNE as part of the Dawkins reforms of higher education. Dictated by the demands of efficiency and effectiveness in the name of national improvement, the reforms led to the collapse of New England historiography. There was no real place then or now for such a limited focus. Today, fewer thesis are completed in history in general, in Northern history in particular, than were completed in the 1960s.

Does this matter?  I think that it does. We live in an age of universals, of national KPIs concerned with some concept of improved national performance. There is no real scope for variety in such a world, especially when you shift focus to the local and the regional.

I don't really care how many Australian universities make to top 100 in global rankings. I don't see this as relevant except in narrowly defined marketing terms. I do care when the effect of the process is to damage teaching or, especially, research in the areas in which I have very particular interests.

Now let me really stick my neck out.

I know of no evidence that shows that that the standard of teaching in Australian universities is better today than it was in the 1960s. I know of no evidence that shows that it has improved over the last twenty years despite the ever-growing emphasis on standards or quality improvement, although compliance costs have clearly risen. I know of no evidence to show that the contribution of Australian universities to local or indeed global intellectual life is higher now that it was fifty or even ninety years ago. Indeed, I would argue the opposite.

So in considering my own interest, the decline of New England historiography, I see this  as part of a broader pattern. I stand to be corrected, of course. Perhaps I'm just an old troglodyte, pining for the old age of universities for the elites. I think not, but tell me why I am wrong.

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