Friday, April 29, 2016

Cranes and Australia's growing refugee mess

It's been a crazy week. one in which I have found it difficult to do many things. that I would normally including posting and responding to comments.

This, by the way, is one of the old cranes on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. This one reminded me of nothing so much as a Transformer movie figure. Standing below it, it is angular and harsh and very industrial. But then, it is all of those things!

More on Cockatoo Island in a later post.

Australia's refugee policy is a gift that keeps on giving. In previous discussion, I made the point that regardless of the arguments for or against the approach, the way that it was structured was high risk to the Government in terms of the probability of things going wrong. I also made the point that, with given objectives and rules, there was still a question of humanity in approach.

The last week has illustrated both points.

First we had the PNG Supreme Court Ruling that the Manus Detention Centre was illegal, followed by the PNG Government's decision that it must close. The Govrnment's first response was to wash its hands of matter. According to the Courier Mail, Australian Immigration  Minister Peter Dutton: stated
responsibility for the regional processing centre on Manus Island lay with PNG, saying the Supreme Court decision bound the PNG government, not the Australian government.
“We want to see people off Manus and off Nauru but they won’t be coming to Australia,” he said.
 Even as the Manus Island solution was unraveling, the case of a Nauru rape victim was before the Australian courts. The evidence of Immigration official David Nockels is quite extraordinary, displaying an inhumanity in process that I find hard to comprehend.

Even as the rape case was before the court we had the self immolation and subsequent death of the Nauruan detainee known as Omid. Today we have a report that Prime Minister Turnbull had again rejected an offer from New Zealand to take 150 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres saying: “Settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by the people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.”.

Think about that for a moment. There is a certain inconsistency between Minister Dutton's position that the Manus problem is a matter for PNG and Mr Turnbull's stance. If those centres are matters for the PNG and Nauruan Governments, how can Australia reject a resettlement offer? It's not an Australian decision.

The PNG Government seems clearly of the view that the Manus detainees are Australia's responsibility and, in the end, that will be the case. Meantime, this editorial in the Melbourne Herald Sun shows the confusion even among those who support the Abbott policy.

It is true that, as the Herald Sun suggests, that Labor leader Shorten has been struggling to hold divisions within his Party as the bib and bub concensus between Coalition and Labor starts to break down. Whether a break down in that concenus would hurt Labor is far from clear notwithstanding the Herald Sun.

I don't have a crystal ball. I suspect that the Abbott/Turnbull position is a bit like that crane, still impressive but rusting.

The Government has a problem now with PNG and what to do about the detainees. It has problems on Nauru. Whichever way you cut it, there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong yet again.

One of the sideshows in all this is the electoral competition in New England.

Barnaby Joyce as Deputy Prime Minister has loyally locked himself into support for the Government's position, while opponent Tony Windsor has made refugee treatment one of the three key issues of his campaign. Those who support the Government position on the issue are already in Mr Joyce's camp,.those who oppose are more likely to be in Mr Windsor's camp. It's the ones in the middle who count.

Normally, I would have said that refugee matters would not be important at the end of the day because other issues were seen as more important. Now I don't know.

Many things can happen between now and the election. I do know that there are many who may support the Government's general stance but are concerned about the results of the policy. Unless the Government can resolve or reduce the inhumanities, unless further shocks can be avoided, their votes may shift.

My view here is based upon my knowledge of the structure of country communities, of the way they interact. There is not time tonight to explore this properly, but it comes back to community activism and the way people interact across broader social and political divides. My feeling is that it may lead to a 1% or 2% shift in votes, and that would be enough for Mr Windsor to win if the current polls are to be believed.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Monday Forum - university cheating, book titles

Hat tip to Legal Eagle for the first part of this Monday Forum.  I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald:

On Monday, the NSW government's Legal Profession Admissions Board advised students that it would be instituting a new closed-book exam policy and would be banning the publication of past exam papers and the use of wristwatches. Law exams have traditionally been open book, with students required to adapt large swathes of information to questions.

At the same time and from the same article, and again I quote:
Professor Alexander said UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) had moved more in the direction of open-book exams in order to minimise cheating by asking students to come up with creative rather than rote-learned answers.

"We are trying to prepare people to enter the real world of work," she said. "The assessments are much harder to design but people can't pass just by copying. It is much harder to cheat in that way." 
Mmmm. Open book, closed book, both to minimize cheating? You see the significance of the Dilbert cartoon?

I wondered what you thought of student cheating. Why has it become more prevalent, if indeed it has? What should we do about it?

The second very different topic this Monday Forum is book titles. Some people are very good at book titles, so good that the title enters common parlance. Examples include For whom the bell tolls ans the tyranny of distance. What or you favourite (or least liked) book titles?

As always, roam where you like.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Snippets - mainly climate change and the need for middle ground

This is the first of two photos from ABC New England North West that made me smile. They were taken at Red Range on the New England Tablelands. The second will follow in a moment.

This morning's post is a meander with a special focus on what other bloggers are saying.

In Where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?, marcellous mourns the loss of Sydney Opera House sandwiches (among other things).This is followed by a rather nice review, Berg, Bruckner, Dohnanyi, of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performance that was associated with the lost sandwiches.

It is a truth universally acknowledged - I do like that phrase however hackneyed it may have become - that I am not a music buff. marcellous makes me wish that I were!

This is the second photo. You may see why I laughed. There is a strong toilet theme in Australian humour. The dunny has been the source of many jokes.

The decision on who should build Australia's next submarines is close. According to a story in the Interpreter, the Japanese bid looks sunk. If so, that would be a real turn around after earlier remarks by the then PM Tony Abbott.

In On-line Opinion, Don Aitkin repeated a piece from his blog ‘But aren’t 97 per cent of climate scientists sure that humans are causing global warming?’ The phrasing gives the answer. I think that Don has a point, but I do get so sick of certain elements of the debate.

As I write, 171 countries have ratified the Paris Climate treaty, so it now has the effect of law, if with considerable ambiguities and uncertainties. One of the points I tried to make in the context of the Abbott Government's actions was a very simple one: regardless of one's views on the overall issue, there was a global consensus that action needed to be taken. That was a reality that had to be recognised. In those circumstances, it made no sense in policy terms to dismantle the Australian emissions trading architecture since some form of emissions trading seemed likely to emerge at global level. The Government could achieve its policy objectives in another way.

There was never any chance that my view would be accepted, the politics dictated otherwise, but I remain convinced that my position was sensible in public policy terms.

Moving beyond this point, the thing that I find so difficult lies in the way so many things get confused together to the point that it can be difficult to have a sensible conversation.

Is climate change happening? Quite possibly. There is actually more consensus on this than would appear at first sight, a consensus concealed by the debate about causes. Those attacking the current climate change orthodoxy point to past examples of climate change. Essentially, it has occurred, will occur, One consequence of this interest is an expansion in our knowledge of past climate.

This is something that I am personally interested in and do write about, especially in an Australian context. When I first studied history, I more or less, mostly more, took climate as a given. I am now much more sensitive to the impact of climate variations on human history, both short and long term. We also know just so much more about past climates. I would count this as a real plus of the focus on climate change, although knowledge and awareness was expanding before the climate change debate became so intense.

Within the debate about climate change, the thing that I am most interested in is the question of sea level changes, for that is arguably the most important element both directly, how it affects land surfaces, and indirectly, how it affects climate. We know that sea level changes are often slow, but can also happen quite suddenly and dramatically. Some of the evidence, or at least the reporting on the evidence, would appear to suggest that we may be about to experience quite dramatic sea level changes. I would like to know more about this.

Once we move from the question of whether climate change is happening and what it might mean, we then go to the question of causes. Here I am inclined to accept the argument of human induced causes. I just don't think that we can pimp so much stuff into the atmosphere without effect, and the warming effect of certain gasses appears to be well established. However, I don't know how much of the changes can be attributed to human action, how much to other factors. So now we have two uncertainties, those associated with the extent of climate change, those associated with cause.

Then we come to the desired responses to all this. Here I simply despair, for we have entered the role of theology, of beliefs, rather than science. Long ago in the context of Sydney water restrictions, I wrote of the way that climate change was being used to justify very silly policy positions. Now it's gone to extremes, especially on the environmentalist side.

We live in a world dominated by two existential positions.

One says climate change is happening, it's a disaster. it's human induced and therefore we must take whatever steps are necessary to solve the problem, and this includes the following steps Fit in here whatever position you like. A second says we don't know if climate change is happening, if it is happening we don't know that it's human induced as compared to a natural phenomenon and, in any case, we don't know what to do about it. Fit in here opposition to any action at all. There can be no joining between these two extremes.

 For those of us who sit in the middle, life can be a tad uncomfortable.Ask questions on climate change and you are a deniest. Support coal mining and you are committing a moral sin notwithstanding price based arguments. In a reducing emissions world, you can still have coal mining if the emissions price is right. Coal mining is an economic, not moral, activity.  Alternatively, say climate change seems to be happening, it could well be human induced on the evidence, we need to do something about it, and you are a wet leftie.

It's all quite hard. In some of my writing, I have tried to define a position that says if it's happening, what might we do about it? How do we create structures that allow a fast, phased, response? What are the options we have? How do we use these changes to our advantage?  In answering the last, I tried to look especially at new land-use techniques that, intuitively, might offer special benefits.

I don't accept the position of a conflicted right, conflicted because the right's denial of climate change makes debate difficult,  that price based solutions are the sole answer, although I think that price based solutions are central. I don't accept the position of the left that we should ban on one side, subsidise on the other. Some of this is crazy stuff.

Idealistically, what I want is middle ground where we can have a sensible conversation.

I have sidetracked from my original idea of snippets based around a review of what other bloggers are saying. Sorry about that.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections on a decade of blogging

The first post on this blog dates to March 2006. It was just a test post. The first substantive posts appeared in April 2006. For that reason, I count the anniversary of the blog from that April. On 8 April in my opening post, I wrote:
Since my first test post, I have been mulling over how I want to use this blog. 
Much of my professional work is client or management focused. There is so little time for reflection, for integrating the things I do and learn, both professional and non-professional. There is also little time for conversation. 
I work mainly from a home office. On some days I am alone for six to eight hours except for the constant email traffic, most focused on work issues. This adds to the conversation gap. 
So, thinking about all this, I want to use this blog to chat about all those things that would otherwise be submerged.
It took me a while to work out what I was doing. There were three posts in April, just one in May, six in June. Posting then accelerated. The first comment came in July from Geoff Robinson in response to a story I had written on his then blog.

Ten years, 3,037 posts, 10,176 comments including my own responses later, I suppose one could say that the blog has settled into something of a pattern! I haven't felt the need to be especially reflective about the blog's history, although I have been enjoying Neil's reflections and repeats over at his latest place. I say latest place advisedly, for Neil has been through several phases of what I once called that dreaded blog instability, changing templates and opening and closing blogs with gay abandon. I, too, have done a bit of that, although Personal Reflections itself has remained relatively stable.

Neil and I first began interacting in August 2006 following the death of writer and playwright Alex Buzo. I have been enjoying his present posting in part because of our shared interactions over what is now almost a decade, more because there has been some really interesting stuff there.

I said that I haven't felt the need to be especially reflective. April 2006 was a different world, one I remember quite clearly. The girls were still at school, my routine still dominated by the rhythms of domestic life. I was wrestling with particular problems at the time.

All my writing is at least tangentially autobiographical, if only because it links to events or issues that I selected as interesting if not important at the time. One result is that the last decade is the most documented of my entire life. I hadn't realised the extent of this until I started editing the Belshaw's World columns for possible publication. I became very uncomfortable as I did so.

Belshaw's World was a weekly personal column in the Armidale Express written over the period from the end of 2008 to early 2012, over 120,000 words in total. While it spans many topics, it contains many then current personal stories and anecdotes written to entertain, from house moves to cats to school stories to the minutiae of domestic life. I hadn't actually realised how strong the personal was until I came to editing. Therein lies the rub.How much to edit, how much to retain?

In 2006 I was in a different place, at the start of a change process that would affect every aspect of my life.

In 2006, I was wrestling with the question of a return to the more conventional workforce, of just finding a new job, of the extent to which I was prepared to be ambitious in a work sense, of getting back on the ladder, of giving up certain dreams. In 2006, writing was important, but still ancillary. In 2006, family life was still central.

Over the next decade, everything changed. Today, in 2016, I am in a better place, but the passage to that place has been hard and often very painful. One change was the progressive realisation that I did not want to return to the professional rat race, if indeed I could after my sidetracks. A second was the transformation of writing from something I did on the side to a central position with other things on the side. A third was the importance of valuing what I have now, what I have and can still achieve, something I alluded to in my connections post.

So I have decided to let most of Belshaw's World stand. It is real, part of the story of a life. The target publication date remains July, although the pressures of my new job may mean that slipping a little.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

That Australian Life - gates and grids

To take the simplest example I can think of - and something which I am sure you would recognise from your own country past - how would you as a newcomer to a large farm approach the problem of a closed (or open) gate?  
The rule is always that you leave it as you found it - closed or open - even though, for you as the visitor, its present state is less convenient (closed: you have to stop, open it, move through, close again) or seems careless (open: why have a fence if you leave the damn gate open?) given earlier gates you have travelled through. kvd 19 April 2016
kvd's comment brought back childhood memories. As children, we would run ahead to open the gates, then close them quickly and run to the car once it had passed through.

Those gates could be quite difficult to open.

Some were old, leaning and splintered wood gates where you had to slide back a small piece of wood to open the gate. Some were no more than temporary structures, wire strung between fence palings that collapsed to the ground when opened and had to be lifted up again to shut.

Others were more modern, but getting the chain and ring off the bulb holding it could be quite a challenge for a child, especially if the gate had dropped slightly and had to be lifted before you could open or close it. And then there were the gates shut with twisted wire. I really hated those.

Within properties, opening gates could be quite fun because it was usually associated with bouncing across the paddocks while sitting on the back tray of utilities. Yes, we used to do that. However, on longer trips along the secondary dirt roads linking localities that ran through properties, gate opening could be a real pain. Between my grandfather's place, Foreglen, and Wallumumbi Station there were no less than 33 gates.

Those secondary dirt roads were and are interesting because they brought you close and personal with the countrysid,e including native an domesticated animals and the rhythms of country life.

I don't know who invented cattle grids, slotted metal rods across the road. The Wikipedia article does not tell me, although the first US patent dates to 1915.

With time, the cattle or stock grid, often with a gate along side, replaced the gates on the dirt roads winding their way through the countryside. Stock find it difficult to cross the grid, so it serves the same purpose as a gate.

I do not regret the loss of the gates. They involved effort and, as an adult, opening gates does not have childish fun. Still, its another element now vanishing into the misty past.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Gambia's Islamic state

We get very little African news in Australia, so it requires a special effort to keep up. This is a photo of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh.

For those who don't know Gambia, it is a narrow meandering slice along the Gambian River. The smallest country in mainland Africa, The Gambia is less than 48.2 km (30.0 mi) wide at its widest point, with a total area of 11,295 km2 (4,361 sq mi)..So its rather tiny.

Jammeh became head of state in a coup in 1994 and has remained in power since. Early fairer elections seem to have become progressively less fair.

Wikipedia records that on 11 December 2015, President Jammeh declared The Gambia to be an Islamic republic in what he said was a move designed to distance the country further from its colonial past. 

Speaking on his return from the 13th Islamic Summit of the Heads of State/Govenrment of the Organisation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), President Jammeh thanked the member states of OIC for the support to host the 2018 OIC in Banjul. He concluded:
 “I depend on the Almighty Allah for whatever we achieve in this country, am not counting on anybody am counting on only the Almighty Allah for whatever we are going to do in this country because it is only the Almighty Allah that can give you what you want and that is what am banking on,” 
Meantime, the political situation in Gambia appears to have become more oppressive with the arrest of opposition leaders. I am not implying a link between the somewhat unexpected move to an Islamic state and the deterioration in civil liberties, for the deterioration in civil liberties was underway before that move. However, the President does appear to be using the move to provide further justification for the positions he is adopting.   

Monday, April 18, 2016

Monday Forum - Australia's coming election

Well, based on today's Senate vote, Australia is off to the polls on 2 July. It's going to be a long election campaign. Everybody comes back early for the budget session then the writs are issued and the Government goes into care-taker mode. It really is now, in fact.

The opinion polls suggest a continuing weakening in the Government's position, although it still retains a winning lead, if with losses. However, the election is a long way off, a very long way way indeed, allowing plenty of time for attitudes to shift which ever what way.

We have discussed Mr Turnbull and the Government's position many times here. The people I talk to or whose feeds I read are showing skewed results. If they were representative Labor would be in front, the Liberal Democrat vote would be higher, only the Greens would be about the same.

Last week I bought a copy of the Australian to try to get a different perspective. Even there I noticed that Mr Turnbull's media honeymoon was over.

Up in New England, it's hard to gauge how well Mr Joyce is going as compared to Mr Windsor. I have enough Windsor supporters among my contact network to suggest that Mr Windsor is doing quite well, but they are far from a representative sample.

One of the things that I am finding it difficult to judge is just how the policy debate is going to unfurl. Industrial relations will obviously be one key battle ground. But beyond that? It's likely to be an odd budget, part election, part business as usual except that none of it beyond necessary supply legislation can be discussed in Parliament until the second half of the year.

And will the Senate voting changes yield the Government the desired results? I suspect not. At the moment, it would seem that the Government (assuming it wins) is likely to be left with a very difficult Senate still with a recalcitrant cross-bench.

I wondered what you collectively thought of all this? As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you want!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Essay - The importance of connection

It's been a fairly frantic few weeks settling back into the rhythms of full time work in a reasonably demanding job with longish daily travel times. I haven't had time to scratch myself.

There are advantages to being an older worker with lots of experiences if you find yourself in a job where you can actually use them. Too often in recent years I have found myself using only a narrow slice of  experience and capacities. Broad experience can be a significant disadvantage in these circumstances. You see the things that need to be done, would like to bring them about, but they are outside scope. If you push too far you become a nuisance, a distraction.  

If I had to define my single most important work "failure" in recent years, it would be my inability to bring about changes that were clearly needed, that I identified, that I pushed for. I have put "failure" in inverted commas because the changes were not part of my mandate. I did not fail in delivery of my job, just failed to bring about changes that I realised were important, that were outside my defined role.

You can see why people and organisations are sometimes reluctant to employ older workers, especially those who haven't lost their fire. They are harder to manage, can be a threat. They do the immediately defined task, but are likely to push for more. How do you manage them? It can be hard, especially for the immediate manager.

There is an entire subject area here that I will no doubt write about later: how should you manage the older worker; if you are an older worker, how should you operate? For the moment, I just note that I am enjoying the job.

One of the advantages of staying in the workforce lies in connection, the way that work connects you with the current, with people, with ideas. This can sometimes be difficult. It's hard to believe, but I have been in the workforce for fifty years. That may be the flick of an eye-lid in historical terms, but it is a long time at a personal level.

People assume that the older worker is stuck in the past, that they are less flexible, less able to adjust, victim of now past ideas. This can happen, but the reality is a little different. The real problem is that when you have been around for a long time you have seen the pattern of changing fads and fashions, each proclaimed as a revolution, a challenge that will improve the way we do things.

Some older workers do become stuck in particular times and resist change. Others, more dangerously, look at the current orthodoxy and say this will not work, is not working, we have become stuck, change is required. Drawing from their experience, they can become revolutionaries, a new generation of change agents. They do not want to return to the past, but to use the past to affect the future.

Fairly obviously, I place myself in this group. But to identify the required changes and then agitate to bring them about, you must be connected. You have to know how things work or don't work now, what the systems are, what are the underlying assumptions, what are the defined relationships within the systems currently in place. If you don't know this, then you are always responding to symptoms.

Identification of the elements involved requires you to ask what is, not what should be. If you don't understand what is, you can't understand what should be done. You also have to understand the limits on action. There is no point in pushing for something if it's so far outside scope to be impossible in the short term.

The real revolutionaries among us are those who say damn this, I will stand outside and try to change the whole system. I admire them even when I disagree with them, they are the ones who bring about big changes, but I'm more concerned with making what we have work better. Certainly I argue for bigger changes, but in a day to day sense I'm more concerned with incremental change, changes at the margin that might make things better. I can measure that.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a woman on the New England Tablelands. Living out of town, she had read a column, part of a series, on the history of Armidale's museums, in the dentist's surgery. I really laughed. How do you respond to being read in a dentists's surgery, that repository of bedraggled magazines and papers?  It was a first!

Her comment was a simple one. Why wasn't the Armidale Folk Museum better signposted? It's a fair point. I forwarded her email to a couple of Armidale Dumaresq councilors saying what about it? There may or may not be a change in signage, but if there is it will be due to my correspondent.

This is a second example of connection, the connection that comes through active participation, in my case through writing. Really, my writing is the equivalent of a second job if measured by the time involved. It gives me connection to ideas, makes me think. I'm a naturally curious person, so I find the whole process very interesting.

William Tydd Taylor is a case in point. My current History Revisited series in the Armidale Express is loosely focused on some of the early European settlers in Northern NSW. Taylor and wife Margaretta Lucy Lind arrived in the colony in March 1840 and almost immediately embarked on the steam packet 'William the Fourth" for Port Macquarie where Taylor's cousin, Archibald Clunes Innes had his headquarters. Later that year, he took up a Tablelands run, Terrible Valley now known as Terrible Vale, in partnership with Joseph Middleton.

I already knew quite a bit about Innes and the early days of Port Macquarie partly through Annabella Boswell whose diaries provide an almost Jane Austin style picture of life at Lake Innes. I also knew about Innes' various connections, although I had not known that William Taylor was a cousin. However, I had no idea that Taylor's mother was Harriet Taylor Mill, the wife of John Stuart Mill. 

Harriet Taylor and Mill initially became involved through shared intellectual interests, an involvement that deepened into something more intense although they did not marry until after husband John Taylor's death.

So my journey had taken me from my starting point, William Tydd Taylor and the foundation of Terrible Vale Station, back to a famous economist and philosopher and his wife, one of the noted feminists of the nineteenth century. Further, both William Tayor and wife Margaretta Lind seem to have been children of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment.Connections indeed!

If writing gives me connection with ideas and indeed people through the interactions generated from the blogs and columns, it does not provide the type of daily personal interactions that you find in a working environment. There you have to respond in real time to the myriad small interactions connected with the daily work flow. 

I have spent quite a lot of time over the last two decades working alone from a home office, something I have written about in both a personal and professional sense. This can become alienating, cutting you off to some degree from life, reducing stimulation and indeed the need to accommodate others. You need to make a special effort to get out and sometimes one just doesn't want to do so.

I really have been enjoying the working interactions once again. However, I am struggling a little to re-establish the balance between work, writing and personal life. I don't object to the challenge, but I do find the need to pace myself a little more, to try to set priorities. There in lies the rub - I do like my meanders down the by-ways of life and history! 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

That Australian Life - Development dreams: boom and bust in Australian Agriculture 1

ABC Rural carried a story called
Seven decades of farming: Australian agricultural policy, passion and protest since 1940. The photo from the story shows irrigation on the Ord River Scheme in the 1960s.

The story selects one episode to illustrate a decade. Each has resonance today. As always, the decade device itself is a handy tool, but the periods really overlap.

The Snow Mountains Scheme, the example from the 1940s,  had its genesis in the combination of Post War Reconstruction with the dream of irrigating the inland by diverting the coastal rivers. It  began in 1949, but was not completed until 1974.

The Snowy Scheme remains, I think, Australia's largest engineering project. It is dwarfed by the railway building of the 19th century, but these were multiple projects.The construction of the Great Northern Railway in NSW was an engineering masterpiece of the time because of its scale and engineering difficulty. Construction began in 1857, with the line finally completed in 1888.  However, even though the project employed thousands of labourers, it was still smaller than the Snowy.

I wonder if its possible to still build on the scale of the Snowy? I don't think that we could do it today. The problem is not technical, but financial and political.

I headed this post "Development dreams: boom and bust in Australian agriculture" The various events described in the ABC story form part of the pattern of my own life. They are active in current thinking and debate.

As I write, a Food Futures conference on northern development in Darwin is discussing Northern Development. This discussion links back directly to the Ord Scheme and other dreams of developing Northern Australia. The form of the discussion is always framed by current  political structures and ways of thinking. This report is an example.

In the political and policy arena, there is always a disconnect between current discussion and on-ground realities, a disconnect that can really only be seen in retrospect, with the benefit of time. I think that this disconnect has become greater because of our desire to know what will happen, to achieve defined benefits, to minimise risk, and all within what are, in fact, short term time horizons. Sometimes I think that we worry too much, spend too much time analysing, not enough time doing things and then fixing them up later.

Musing, I should take the ABC story as an entry point and look at some of these issues from a rural and country perspective. For the people who live in Australia's cities, and especially those in secure jobs, the changing pattern of Australian agriculture and indeed of Australian country life is largely irrelevant. For those directly involved, the opposite is true.

I am not promising a structured series, day to day pressures make delivery hard for me, merely a random set of reflections linked to a common theme.    .      .

Monday, April 11, 2016

Monday Forum - In a world where.....

In yesterday's post (Sunday Snippets - the end of the internet?) I concluded "In a world where constant improvement and change is seen as a given, it can be hard to recognise that stability, not doing new things, can be of very real value."

kvd, that master of the arcane, pointed out that the phrase "In a world where..." had been popularised if not indeed invented by American voice actor Don Lafontaine. This story provides examples of its use in film. While I was unaware of the genesis of the phrase, I had no doubt absorbed it from the ether.

This got me thinking. Sue and I were in London in 1979 when the film "Alien" was released. There were billboards across London all carrying the tag "In space, no one can hear you scream." I was totally struck by the tag. It was just so evocative, creating an atmosphere of fear. Since then, the tag has become cliched, but in 1979 it was fresh, still glowing.

So as a starting point for today's discussion,  what are some other examples of tags or phrases that so grabbed that they moved into the cliche class? Alternatively, what are some lines that resonated with you and why?

As always, feel free to go wherever you like. Red herrings always welcome!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday Snippets - the end of the internet?

I have become very tired of constant changes to web sites. This is the new Canberra Times web site. No doubt it's been designed for mobile use, and that's a problem in itself, but its actually a crowded mess for a serious user with limited time. More pap, less content, time consuming navigation.

This is the new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) web site. At first sight it looks visually appealing. I am still learning to navigate my way around. That, of itself, is a problem. Time limited, I resent having to relearn navigation. However, there is a greater problem. Most of these changes actually take content away. Instead of making it easy for users to choose the content they want, organisations decide which content they think users might want to have. The result can be a mess.

Two weeks ago, I wanted some census data. I know that it's there. I have used it before and very efficient it was. In just a week, I was able to track the pattern of certain key attributes across NSW. Now I wanted part of the same data for one area in Victoria. I could not find it. ABS kept giving me the information that it thought that I might be interested in minus the key data I wanted.

No doubt it's there, but now I need to spend a large slab of time relearning how to find stuff that once was simple.

We are our own worst enemies, of course.

Thursday morning flying to Melbourne, there was a free copy of The Australian. I read it on the plane with interest. I may dislike the paper's political stance, but there was some good stuff there. Since the on-line Australian went behind the paywall, I had stopped reading both the on-line and paper editions. Note I said both. I used to check the on-line stuff, but also buy the paper itself from time to time because I was interested in learning more. Once the paywall went in, the paper dropped of my radar and so did my purchases.

Reading the paper, I thought that if I want the print editions to survive I should buy them. There is still a problem, mind you. If I'm going to quote a story, I want to be able to give an on-line reference and I can't because of the pay wall..

Staying with the worst enemy theme, I little while ago I got a new mobile phone. Suddenly on the way to and from work, I found myself joining the assembled throng checking Facebook and messages. It was quite nice, but then I had to say what am I doing?!  This was my train reading time, a brief and actually precious space, and now I was caught in the trap of instant stimulation to redeem the tedium of travel. Except, and this is important, travel time wasn't tedious. I was trading stimulation for thought.

Recently, Google changed its search algorithms. Part of the aim was to make the search function more mobile friendly. I checked my blogs  as suggested and was told that they were mobile friendly, in part I think because a use a simple old-style format. However, one outcome was a very sharp fall - around 70% - in my total blog traffic.I still have quite high traffic, but the fall is very noticeable.

Then I realised something else. When I went to do my own web searches, the proportion of crap had exploded. It was taking me more and more time to find useful information. I search over a number of computers in different places and the pattern was the same. Even Wikipedia is not immune. Who would have thought that that the Wikipedia entry on a topic would end up on the second or third search page?! And as for "minor" sites like the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the only way I can be certain of getting there is by putting in an ADB identifier.

Yes, to a degree I can work my my way around all this, but it leaves me wondering. The internet was seen as a freedom device, a way of finding things and communicating, that would allow even small niches and specialist interests to reach out and survive, Now I really wonder.

In a world where constant improvement and change is seen as a given, it can be hard to recognise that stability, not doing new things, can be of very real value.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - a Labrador called Moneypenny

It  may seem sometimes that I suffer from a nostalgia, a desire to return to the past. It's actually not true, for I find the present intensely interesting. 

There are aspects of the past that I would like to preserve. More to the point, there are aspects of the present that I would like to get rid of, things that have accumulated like dross, that tarnish life. Ironically, some of them are things that I have supported in my reformist past.  

Eldest daughter is in Copenhagen working on ways to improve the efficiency of global shipping, youngest has a stand this weekend at Supernova, the pop culture expo, on the Gold Coast. .The stand is in, and I quote, the "artist alley indie press section."  This photo shows set-up. Ready to go, good mike, but just waiting for the cable. 

I spent Thursday and Friday in Melbourne, my first visit for four and a half years. Recently, I have written a little on Sydney and its restrictions: this is an example And the banners flapped lonely in the wind - licensing laws and Sydney's growing sterility.

Driving around Melbourne and on Thursday night at the Arbory, I thought why bother?  Sydney has lost the life style wars. 

I had left my camera at the hotel A bad error. This photo does not do credit to the venue. 

It's a long narrow strip between Flinders Street Station and the river, the type of space that would be either wasteland in Sydney or limited just to a walkway. Somehow Melbourne manages to multi-purpose these spaces so that the walkway is still there but with additions. 

Add five times the number of people. Now imagine that you are sitting there drinking a beer or whatever your favourite tipple may be, looking at the river with the sound of buskers in the background while the oyster cart comes by. We were there having a farewell drink for a colleague. As we watched the water and the passing parade, I found myself explaining to my still new and now somewhat bemused colleagues that fine dining peaked in Australia in the thirty years leading up to the First World War. As part of this, oyster bars peaked in popularity during the 1890s! You know, you have to have an historical perspective on things.

As an aside, AC's love affair with Melbourne continues. She is an entertaining writer. In order, her posts so far are:
Another aside. On my walk this morning, I passed a pet shop. I wasn't paying much attention until a voice said "Come on Moneypenny, you really need a drink." Startled, I looked around. There was a girl trying to persuade a large Labrador to have some water. Poor Moneypenny. What have we done to you? If it's not bad enough to suffer unrequited love,  do we have to name Labradors after you?   

Finally, on the question of national animals and birds, one of the arguments about Australians eating kangaroo is that we should not be eating our national symbol. This caught kvd's interest, leading him to ask how many countries did just that, eat their national symbol. 

You will find a list of national birds and animals here. It seems to be the case that people do eat their national animals where they are in any way palatable. So I will continue eating kangaroo with a clear conscience. Mind you, I still have to try emu. 

I was especially.struck by Moldova who have the auroch as their national symbol. That's an animal that was eaten out quite some time ago.  

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Proust, Joyce and the modernists

Marcel Proust has a lot to answer for in inflicting  À la recherche du temps perdu upon us. It may well be a great novel, but I have come across so many books recently in which the author learnedly refers to À la recherche du temps perdu in a familiar fashion that I have started to grind my teeth.

I find the Modernists interesting, life in Paris seen through their eyes is certainly interesting, but really. It's a bit like the Bloomsbury Set; after a certain exposure, the sheer unlikeability of the characters begins to wear.

Clive Bell, one of the better of the bunch, attended a famous dinner party in Paris held on 18 May 1922 at the Hotel Majestic. Hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, the party was held to celebrate the first public performance of Stravinsky's burlesque ballet Le Renard, performed by Diaghilev's company, the Ballets Russes.

James Joyce arrived late drunk, allegedly because he did not have the right gear to wear, and sat nursing a drink, his head on his hands. Proust arrived later still, sweeping in. Joyce seems to have had something of a complex about Proust because he considered, probably correctly enough, that Proust had already won the fight as to who would be considered the greatest modernist writer. Joyce had a following among expats in Paris, Proust a following among Parisians including expats; it wasn't an even contest, The discussion (if we can call it that when Joyce mainly answered in monosyllables) between the two was not a social success.

For some obscure reason, my present train reading has taken me deep into this strange world. Who knows, I may even be forced to read À la recherche du temps perdu despite my best judgments!


Neil Whitfield reminded me of his earlier discovery of Proust. Six months later, Neil reported: "Yes, the Proust project continues in fits and starts. I find I can travel over to Proustland and stay for several hours with enormous pleasure, then go elsewhere for a day or a month and return where I had left off to take on that special world once more. I am now into The Captive – so I have made progress since July.". I totally understand the point.

In reference to train reading, kvd asked if I always finished the book picked up for train reading. The answer is yes. It's part of the discipline. kvd also pointed me to this short New York Times piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg, Books to Have and to hold. It has absolutely nothing to do with Proust and Pari, but is worth a read.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Mr Turnbull and the the future of the Australian Federation

The brief dispute over the possible return to the States of the power to levy income taxes illustrates the difficulties involved in changing Australian taxation structures, something I discussed in Wednesday's post, Problems with "tax reform" - dealing with an ever more complicated palimpsest.

At the time I wrote the post, the suggestion that Prime Minister Turnbull might float the idea of returning income tax powers to the states was just that, a suggestion. The suggestion became a reality during the day in a short Prime Ministerial statement entitled Statement on Federation. The key part read:
Currently, Canberra collects taxes and provides the states and territories almost $50 billion a year in tied grants each year to fund services and build infrastructure. This results in ongoing arguments, negotiations and duplication in administration. 
In many areas responsibility is far from clear and the only thing in ample supply is finger pointing and blame. 
We’re all sick of it. 
A way to solve this problem would be to give the states and territories a proportion of personal income tax - rather than demanding money from Canberra they would be raising money themselves and be accountable to their own voters. 
The focus of governments should be about delivering better services – not arguing over funding. 
The key principles will be that this is not about increasing the total tax take - any income tax surrendered by the Commonwealth to the States would be offset by a reduction in Commonwealth grants to the states. 
Taxpayers would not notice any administrative change - the Australian Tax Office would continue to manage the collection of income tax. 
So, clearer lines of responsibility, less duplication, more open accountability.

I know that I am something of a broken record in constantly stressing the importance of clarity, of the importance of clear definitions, of the need to untangle issues, in discussions on public policy. However, the response to Mr Turnbull's suggestion is a classic illustration of the difficulties I alluded to in Wednesday's post.

On Wednesday, I said that a third question related to the nature of Australia's Federation and especially the question of fiscal imbalance. I went on to suggest that everyone accepted that the current system was out of kilter. However, the solutions were not clear. I would add now that lack of clarity in solutions is largely political.

As Wikipedia notes, the term fiscal imbalance refers to the disparity between the revenue generation ability of different governments in a federation relative to their spending obligations. The term covers both horizontal imbalance, differences between states, and vertical imbalance, the differences between levels of Government. In Australia, the focus is on vertical imbalance because we have a process for managing horizontal imbalance through the operations of the Commonwealth Grants Commission. This process has its own problems, the debate over GST shares is an example, but has delivered a more uniform pattern of services and indeed income levels than is found in many other Federations.

Vertical imbalance arises because the Commonwealth now has much greater access to taxation of all types than do the states, yet the states are constitutionally responsible for major spending areas.This disparity between the two levels has grown with time. Balance was provided by Commonwealth general purpose grants, leaving the states free to set priorities in terms of their own needs. Increasingly, however, the Commonwealth come to use tied grants, giving money to be spent on specific things with specific conditions attached.

The original intent of tied grants was to encourage the states to do things that the Commonwealth Government of the time considered to be important. It was an incentive system targeting specific priorities. With time, tied grants changed their form, becoming a means for enforcement and control across all areas of spending, a process justified on the grounds such as the need for national uniformity and the obligation by the Commonwealth to get best value for tax payer dollars. 

The growing problems associated with the current system have been well documented. They include growing bureaucracy,  increasingly complicated and cumbersome decision processes, rising administrative overhead and a reduction in the capacity of the states to respond independently to meet the needs of their own citizens and to spend the dollars they collect from those citizens to best meet their needs.  

Various measures have been taken to address these problems including the rise of the concept of cooperative Federalism and the development of COAG, the Council of Australian Governments. 

In practice, these have just continued the process of complication as anyone who has been involved at a policy level  in Commonwealth-State matters would know. Perhaps most importantly, they have done nothing to address the mendicant process, the creation of a welfare mentality. Today the states are just like a welfare recipient, dependent upon welfare payments made under an increasingly complex regime with limited political or policy incentive to break out. After all, you can always blame the Commonwealth. In all this, it has become extremely difficult for the states to do any meaningful form of long term planning since their revenue streams are now so dependent on payments subject to the political whim of another administration. 

The GST was meant to provide the states with their own growth tax. Even then, it came with strings. One was the requirement that they do away with certain other taxes. A second and more important one was  the inclusion of the GST in the Commonwealth Grants Commission process. As Western Australia in particular has found, this took away the most important element, the possibility that the GST might provide an independent and stable source of revenue as compared to revenue dependent on decisions made by others.

Despite some of the commentary, Mr Turnbull's suggestion that the return of some measure of income tax powers to the states is not new. It has been one recurring thread in discussions about reform of the Federation for decades. Further, it is a theme that has been gathering strength. Note, however, that Mr Turnbull wrapped the suggestion in with something different: "the key principles will be that this is not about increasing the total tax take - any income tax surrendered by the Commonwealth to the States would be offset by a reduction in Commonwealth grants to the states."

This qualification was intended to address two problems: it was consistent with the Government's commitment to reduce or at least not increase the overall size of the Government sector in Australia; and it attempted to address the fear that it might lead to an overall increase in income tax. However, it also meant that the proposal was dead in the water from the beginning. Mr Turnbull was asking the premiers and chief ministers to accept possible political opprobrium without any certainty that their states or territories would be better off in either money or freedom of decision terms.  Not surprisingly, only WA Premier Barnett was supportive.

This, however, is not the end of the matter. The decision by the Commonwealth in the 2014 Hockey budget to cut so much money from the states in health and education in breach of existing agreements was a major driver in the renewed discussion on reform because it showed just how vulnerable the states had become. Now the Commonwealth is pushing forward with other changes that will force the states to either cut services or find more money from other sources. 

I am not opposed to these moves. The Australian Federation is becoming increasingly unworkable. It is going to take a shock or a series of shocks to bring about change.

In all this, I am really over Mr Shorten. 

In response to Mr Turnbull, Mr Shorten is reported to have called the whole thing a "humiliating farce" for Mr Tumbull. He went on:
"Wednesday he had an idea which was going to be the best reform ever to Federation, the crazy idea of double taxation, allowing state income taxes to be levied on working Australians, only to drop it temporarily by Friday," he said. 
"Mr Turnbull wants to move on from the train wreck of this week, with his outlandish idea to have double taxation, but Australians won't let him move on so quickly. 
"The Prime Minister who says that this idea of allowing states to introduce income taxes on working Australians as the most important reform of Federation cannot be trusted when he says, 'Well, I don't want to talk about that idea anymore for the time being'." .
This is populist crap, dreamed up by staffers in Mr Shorten's office for immediate political response. Leave aside the double taxation issue, it's not, the response does nothing to address the key issue, what do we do to make the Federation work better?. .