Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Train Reading - Shogun: William Adams, Ieyasu and the rise and fall of the Shogunate

One of my favourite books was James Clavell's Shogun. I say was because I haven't read it for many years. I must buy another copy. I suspect that I would still enjoy it.

I mention it now because yesterday I plucked another book that I hadn't read of the shelves for my train reading, Richard Storry's A History of Modern Japan (Pelican, 1960). There  I found reference to the remarkable story of William Adams, the real person on whom Clavell based his hero on Shogun.

I hadn't known that Clavell's English sailor John Blackthorne was based on a real person, nor what a remarkable life William Adams had had. I leave it to you to read the Wikipedia entry (link above) to see what I mean.

I chose to read Storry's book as a break from the constant swirl of current events. I knew a little of Japanese history, but had not expected it to be so interesting, nor to have so many resonances to current events.

Shipwrecked in Japan, Adams became involved with Tokugawa Ieyasu, a figure of considerable power who founded the Tougawa Shogunate that controlled Japan until the forced reopening of the country to external influences by Commodore Mathew Perry and others.

In Shogun, Clavell presents Ieyasu (Toranaga) as the man who turned Japan inward to preserve culture and power from the encroaching Euopeans. That's not quite true. It is clear from Adam's story that Japanese external outreach continued. Indeed, Storry muses on what might have happened if Japan had continued open. Would there have been an earlier Japanese empire in Asia and the Pacific?

What is true is that the Tougawa Shogunate would turn inwards, largely it seems as a way of preserving its own power. The structures and culture created influence Japan to this day.

I said Commodore Perry and others forced the reopening of Japan. By the time Perry arrived in Japan in 1852, the Russian Empire was advancing in the North while the British were becoming the dominant Pacific maritime power. Indeed, Perry's visit was connected with the rivalry between the US and the British Empire and with the desire of some in the US to extend US influence across the Pacific. The only question in the Japanese case was the pattern of opening, for opening was inevitable.

The Shogunate fell in the shock of opening, with reform forces centered around the Japanese Imperial court triumphing. Japan turned to modernisation with a vengeance. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Monday, June 27, 2016

Monday Forum - with a week to go to the Australian election, what do you think?

With just one week to go to Australia votes, I couldn't let this last Forum before the election go without giving you one last chance to comment before Australians plunge to the polls.

To start with a video on the ever heating New England campaign produced by one of my much younger friends. I had to laugh. At least I knew what GofT was, even though I've actually never seen it. Isn't that a terrible admission? Still, Clare has always kept me in touch.

When I first started trying to revive the New England cause, I naively believed that all I had to do was to put it out there and then people would come running, attracted by the evident self-rightness of the cause! Then I realised that so much time had passed, so much infrastructure and knowledge, so much history, had been lost that I had to start with absolute basics, the representation of  our shared past, if anything was to happen.

That started me on a journey that still continues. Now, ten years and perhaps a million words later, our New England past has started to come back to life. One side effect is that there is now a young group such as Carlo and Mat who hold to the dream. I dealt with this a little in Reflections on Joyce v Windsor in New England in the context of New England's fight for statehood. They may not agree with me, they hold to their thing (this video is an example), but I'm reasonably sure now that with further work the dream will continue in some form.


Sorry for the slightly nostalgic digression, but change comes because people persevere. Back to the main theme!

Now that we enter this last week, what are your comments on the campaign, the likely results, what it all means? As always, go in whatever direction you want.


This forum post was probably a bit to indulgent and self-centered to attract comment, so just adding a few things.

Referendum - or plebiscites. What's the constitutional theory? Am I right in thinking that the same sex marriage thing is both an abrogation of Parliamentary responsibility and a total divisive risk?

And what about the Senate? Does the Reps election matter when either side has to deal with a Senate that is going to pay the PM back in spades for his apparently clever political decisions?

Sunday, June 26, 2016


In his book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris, John Baxter is very rude about the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin and his 1987 book called The Songlines. Chatwin, Baxter suggests, had made it all up drawing especially from one European informant, in so doing creating a new myth.

Baxter may well be right. I know of no reference to songlines before Chatwin's book, although readers may be able to correct me. Now, of course, songlines has entered the vernacular and become a potent descriptor of an aspect of traditional Aboriginal culture. To challenge the idea is to enter into that field called the history wars. That said, I wonder whether it matters.

The Aborigines had a deep knowledge of country. The ways of traversing that country had to be taught to carry from generation to generation. Further, country was associated with cultural and religious beliefs, beliefs that populated the landscape. We don't have to subscribe to the belief that every aspect of country, every individual feature, was enshrouded with myth or legend to accept that key features were.

The Aborigines were great travelers, moving by foot over long distance to visit other  places. We know this from the ethnohistorical record. It stands to reason that the stories of those visits were discussed and narrated, the route charted, the key stops identified.

The songline narrative is especially associated with the desert regions of inland Australia. Again, this makes perfect sense, for here water sources were very important, accurate routes critical. In the more fertile and populated parts of the country interaction was higher, there were many more paths. There was less need to record in minute detail, the nature of individual reactions less prominent in memory because there were just so many more of them

So I find the concept of songlines useful and important without assuming that it applied in all places in the same way. I also find interesting, if more problematic, the way the concept has come to be universally applied  I don't accept this. It doesn't seem to fit with the evidence. However, it has become part of the current narrative and for that reason has its own relevance.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lost Brexit Post

Sadly, while adding material I managed to lose my Brexit post. I don't know what happened. Frustrating, for it had taken a long time to write.


Well, the post is now back thank to Noric who found the post in Google cache - Confusions and risks in the post-Brexit path

Confusions and risks in the post-Brexit path

I watched the UK's Brexit vote first with interest then with fascination and then with a degree of horror. I was opposed to the original decision to join the EEC, but after forty years membership unpicking the whole thing becomes difficult. Further, the campaign itself and the consequent vote played to and accentuated divides in the UK.

Northern Ireland

Northern Island voted to remain, but it was a divided vote. The leave campaign was backed by the DUP and Chief Minister and gained more support in Protestant areas. The DUP's Edwin Poots said he was "absolutely delighted"."I believe that we will recover very quickly after the initial shock. The farming community has been in the doldrums... I would expect this will help them. I would expect it will help our manufacturers and our exporters at this time."

Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney called it "a pyrrhic victory", pointing to the way that the English majority had over-ridden the democratic wishes in Northern Island. Sinn Féin is already calling for an all-Ireland vote to determine new arrangements.

The Irish Times reports that the British and Irish Prime Minister have already spoken on on the need to develop a new border plan that will preserve the links between the two countries. Neither side wants a resurgence of the Irish troubles that cause so many deaths.


Scotland voted across the whole nation to remain by 62% to 38%, a sea of yellow. During the Scottish independence referendum, the EU was a key argument on the No side. You cannot assume, the No case said, that an independent Scotland would be able to join the EU. Best stay with Britain. 

In ruling out any immediate move towards another referendum, SNP Chief Minister Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that that position was conditional on the UK staying a member of the EU. As it became clear that the Leave side was heading for victory, she issued a statement saying the vote  had made clear "that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union". She added: "We await the final UK-wide result, but Scotland has spoken - and spoken decisively."

Later, she told a media conference that a second independence referendum was "highly likely" after the UK voted to leave the EU.

The SNP manifesto for May's Holyrood elections said the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there was a "significant and material change" in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will.

"It is, therefore, a statement of the obvious," Ms Sturgeon said, "that a second referendum must be on the table, and it is on the table." However, as in the Irish case, there is a desire to avoid rush, to try to think things through. Mr Cameron has undertaken to consult Scotland closely as the exit negotiations proceed. 

England and Wales

I have joined these two together primarily because I do not have sufficient information to make a sensible comment on Wales. Both voted to leave.

The English Leave vote dominated the total results. It was especially concentrated in areas that have not shared in growth or which have felt their way of life threatened. London generally voted Remain, but could not offset the Leave vote elsewhere. Manchester, a city undergoing reinvention, voted yes, but the former industrial areas to the North (original Belshaw country) voted to go.

This was also a generational conflict, with support for stay apparently higher among the more mobile young who have grown up with the EU.

Failure of the Political Classes

The Conservative Party split on this issue. So, to a much lesser extent, did Labour. Only the right wing UKIP was completely united and indeed is likely to have greatly strengthened its position. The  majority of the economic and political establishment who supported Remain failed to carry their normal supporters. The deep divisions were especially apparent within the Labour Party. 

Many of those in the UK and elsewhere on the right who argued for a Leave vote in the hope of a less regulated more dynamic Britain freed from the regulatory shackles of Europe will, I fear, be gravely disappointed. This was a vote against against change, a reaching to the past, a vote for protection. Expectations have been created that will be hard to fulfil, but the attempt must be made.

There is a lesson in this for Australia, for our main political parties and the political classes themselves have been insufficiently aware of the divides emerging in this country. 


It is, I think, no coincidence that within Europe it is the protectionist parties of the nationalist right who have cheered the results. They see it as legitimizing their cause. 

The more main stream parties still largely committed to the European project, the smaller countries especially in Eastern Europe who saw Britain as a balance, are all severely disappointed. They feel betrayed and see the English decision as an almost existential threat. This will play out during future discussions on British exit paths an its future relationships with Europe.

The stated European view is that the UK must negotiate an exit as soon as possible. The UK needs time to work through the consequences of its decision, to try to unify the country, to plan, but time is short.


In many ways, the debate over immigration has been one of the silliest elements of this campaign, one high-jacked by concerns about refugees and homogeneity.

Many million British including retirees live in Europe, many million EU citizens live in the UK. Following the vote, the position of all these people has become uncertain and needs to be resolved. This dwarfs any present refugee issue. 

To stay an economic member of the EU free trade area, Britain will have to accept continued free movement of people. This creates a significant political problem.

Economic Impacts

The present wild gyrations in markets following the vote will pass. The economic shock will remain, although the final size has still to be determined. Businesses across Europe and indeed the world are now attempting to work out what this means for them.

For the present, the formal structures will remain. Nothing will change but everything has changed. Flows of goods and services will continue, but decisions on the future will now be based on the new relationship.

At a machinery level, things continue while Britain and the UK attempt to define new relationships. Do not expect this to be easy. EU calculations will be based on a simple equation: how do we minimize the political and economic damage? The UK's negotiating position is quite weak. In a way, it wants the EU without having the EU!

The changes that will take place in the medium term are unclear because of the complexities involved. They depend not just on institutional arrangements, but on millions of response decisions. Firms for whom the EU is a key market, especially global firms, will reduce UK activities. There will be some shift of jobs to Europe, but I'm really unsure as to the end effect.

Political and Diplomatic Repercussions

The decision represents a major change in the Western and indeed global political infrastructure. In the short term, it weakens the influence of both the UK and EU. The Western Alliance has been based in part on a Britain within Europe.

In the longer term, I suspect the effects will be less here than might be expected because the underlying dynamics haven't changed. However, it will require a myriad of changes to existing institutional arrangements before things settle down. The big risk in the longer term is that a more inward looking EU will lead to a major diminution in the European role and influence.

The Future of the EU

Britain's decision leaves a weaker EU. The decision is is also a sign of political and institutional failure within the EU. Will the EU fall apart? I very much doubt it, but the EU that now emerges will be a different EU.

The desire of the proponents of the European project to expand the EU into a truly pan-European Union that would make Europe great over reached in institutional, cultural and political terms. There will be much soul searching. The need for compromise and reform will, I think, lead to a more inward looking EU, one less open to external influence, one less willing to become involved.

I say this because the EU has to focus on fixing itself and that is going to require political compromises and an internal focus if it is to balance the forces of nationalism, improve performance and allow time for change. The resulting compromises are likely to weaken the centre for the moment, but will also lead to a more insular EU.

A New Elizabethan Age?

One of the reasons why the Remain case failed lay in its focus on economics and risks. It all came back to the UK will be financially better of if we remain in the EU, the costs to you of leaving will be too high.

 Accepting that I am away from the detail, it was all negative campaigning. There was no articulation, at least that I could see, of any positive messages linked to the EU membership. As an outsider if one with a daughter working in the EU, as an outsider with a knowledge of history, I can see messages. EU membership gives our children more options. The EU has linked Europe together, reducing the risks of another major European conflict. The EU increases our influence in the world. We should stay in the EU and work to reform it, to make Europe great.

All this type of thing was lost in a debate which came back to we will be worse off if we go on one side, we don't care but we want to do our own thing on the other, we want to make Britain (really England) great again.

Can Boris Johnson and the other more expansive leave proponents create a new Elizabethan age as promised in the face of Nigel Farage and UKIP and the little England proponents?

I would like to think so, but am sceptical. There is a fundamental conflict between Mr Johnson's rhetoric of a more open deregulated UK trading with the world and the practical realities of English politics, with the practical realities of a leave campaign that oversold the benefits, with the desire of so many English people to preserve the status quo, to recover things that have been lost.

All we can say at the moment is that things will be different. The nature of that difference will only be revealed with time.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Joyce v Windsor in New England

My main post to night is on my neglected New England Australia blog.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Monday Forum - what is the role of the board?

Interesting piece in today’s Australian Financial Review by Adele Ferguson reporting in part on the results of a Spencer Stuart, Harvard Business School and Women’s Corporate Directors Foundation survey of 4,000 global directors. The directors included 136 Australian based directors.

According to the survey, 74 per cent of Australian directors ranked the economy as a key political issue compared to 65 per cent globally. Whereas 18 per cent of global directors ranked political instability as a key issue, the comparable Australian figure was 27 per cent. Almost half of the Australian sample viewed the regulatory environment as a major stumbling block to achieving their strategic objectives.

The picture that seems to emerge of the Australian cohort is an inward looking group worried about their own navels, with an almost obsessive concern with compliance issues.

Adele then raises a broader question, the role of the company board. Quoting John Stanhope, the Chair of Australia Post, she poses the question how can a director who meets a few times a year set the tone for the company? The Spencer Stuart survey reports that the average time Australian directors spent on board matters each year was higher than the global average, 218 hours as compared to 158 hours globally. And yet, that’s not a lot of time to try to understand a complex business. Should we therefore limit the number of director positions a person can hold? Or can technology provide an answer by making information more accessible to directors?

In another story in the AFR, James Eyers reports on the rise of regtech in the financial sector, the use of technology to make regulatory reporting and compliance less burdensome and more accessible. Again, we have the same emphasis on technology, compliance and reporting.

In considering all this, I wonder if we have not all been guilty of over-complicating things, blurring responsibilities between board and management, creating a corporate governance overlay that doesn’t help. Corporate governance - the mechanisms, processes and relations by which corporations are controlled and directed – has always been around. However, the use of the particular words “corporate governance” and the sometimes over-whelming obsession with the concept is quite recent.

So for today’s discussion, I pose two simple questions. What is the role of the board? What is the relationship between board and management?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Brexit Conundrums

Updated 21 June
On 23 June, the UK will vote on Brexit, the decision to leave or remain within the EU. The last stage of the campaign has been overshadowed by the tragic murder of British MP Jo Cox.

We are not used to MPs being assassinated. I had actually forgotten that the IRA murdered a number during the troubles.

The Brexit campaign has been quite messy. According to the BBC, there is a large pro-Remain majority in the House of Commons, 454 MPs to 147. The vote is being held because of Euro-sceptic views within the governing Conservative Party, views that appear unrepresentative of the Parliament itself.

The electorate is polarised, with the majority of the young supporting remain, while leave support climbs with age. UK nationalists support leave, while Scottish nationalists support remain.

Now that a leave majority seems distinctly possible, everybody is scrambling to work out what it might mean. Can the UK, as the leave case argues, continue to gain the economic benefits of a common market and EU association while removing the disadvantages? The issue then becomes the price to be paid. According to French Economy Minister Macron, "If the UK wants a treaty of commercial access to the European market, the British will have to contribute to the European budget like the Norwegians or the Swiss. If London doesn't want that, then the exit will have to be total,"

It is quite difficult unscrambling an egg. The UK is enmeshed with the EU at so many levels that a managed exit would be quite difficult. The volume of legislation that would need to be amended or replaced alone would be a considerable task.

Other countries and international bodies including the IMF have lined up to warn of the dangers. The IMF's most adverse Brexit scenario predicts 2019 growth 5.6% below what it would otherwise have been, and also a drop in GDP in 2017 of 0.8%. The leave case argues that the UK would gain an economic bounce from reduced EU regulation and that the UK Government would, if necessary, replace EU subsidies presently received by some parts of the nation.

As the campaign evolved, the leave campaign seemed to gather strength because it was selling positives, the advantages of leaving, while the remain campaign was selling negatives, the risks of leaving.

To a degree, the EU polarises left and right, although the Euro sceptics are mainly on the right. Within Europe, there are significant fears that a UK exit might unbalance the Union and encourage those who want to tear it down. There is also a degree of anger. If the UK were to vote to leave, it would be in everybody's interests that that exit be handled with minimum harm to both sides, but that might not happen.

Within the UK, the Cameron Government is likely to face significant problems regardless of the result. If the vote is yes, it will have to deal with a Parliament in which the substantial no majority appears to be already organising to make life difficult, to try to preserve as much as possible of the relationship with the EU. It is also likely to face a renewed push for Scottish independence, with less left to offer.

If the vote is no, the Prime Minister has to manage as best he can the divisions created in his own party by the campaign.

Whichever way the vote goes, 23 June will be an historically significant date.


Useful piece by Nick Miller and Mark Mulligan in the Canberra Times. Just noting for the moment.

Postscript 21 June 2016

Neil Whitfield has written a companion post to this one, Watching the UK’s big decision. In a comment, Bill Pilgrim wrote:
My understanding of this is that the objection by those against leaving the Euro is about Europe being a conduit for refugees entering the UK. And I am guessing that this was behind the recent assassination of Jo Cox. Is there not some way that the laws could be changed to allow Britain the right to determine who can migrate there without throwing out the whole EU union? 
This BBC piece while written from a particular direction shows some of the difficulties in a general sense when part of the angst is about general migration, when refugees become a touchstone issue to galvanise debate and where political parties responding make deliverable promises.

Another BBC piece, Chris Cook's The EU referendum may prove to be a generation game, looks at the generational and regional divides within the UK on the Brexit issue. There are some lessons here for Australia.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - the Australian election enters its end game

A brief post today just to get things going again. It's been a crazy time.

As we enter the last stages of the Federal election campaign, a few observations.

Mr Shorten has run quite a good campaign and seems to have settled into his role. In so doing, he has put to rest some of the doubts people had about his ability to be PM. However, if the opinion polls are any guide, and they are all over the place, the electoral tide has shifted a little. The ALP does not seem to be getting the support now that it needs to overturn the strong coalition majority.

For Mr Turnbull's part, his election seems to have taken some of the heat out of the political debate. The early enthusiasm is gone, but the view seems to be that he is okay as a PM, better than Mr Abbbott, if not quite what many hoped for. Mind you, he is also better than some people expected. It just depends on where you stand.

Mr Turnbull's actions in forcing Senate voting changes and then calling a double dissolution election have not had quite the effect he hoped for. He wanted to clean out the micro parties in the Senate, to capitalise on Labor problems, to gain a clear mandate. Sometimes you can be just too clever. I think he would have been better off biding his time.

In this election, both Liberal and Labor Parties have had to contend with forces to the right and left eating away at their primary vote. Both parties now have a popular support with a 3 in front. The Liberal Party also faces the rise of the Nick Xenophon  Now there is a man who has benefited from Mr Turnbull's decisions. If the polls are to be believed, there could be three Xenophon senators in South Australia plus perhaps one member in the lower house. Not the result that Mr Turnbull wanted.

I am not a supporter of Mr Xenophon. I would far prefer to have retained micro party representation!

There have been two very separate election campaigns, one for the House of Representatives, the place where Government is formed, the second for the Senate.

In the House of Representatives, the focus is micro, a seat by seat battle focused on the marginals, those seats where the result might be swung. The Labor Party has to gain seats from the Coalition while preventing the Greens from picking up Labor inner city seats. The ALP seems to be falling behind in the first, but I'm not sure about the second. My feeling is that the ALP will do at least a little better here than might have been expected.

The Liberal Party has to hold its seats in the face of Labor and National Party challenges and hopes to pick up particular Labor Party seats. The National Party challenge does not affect the Coalition total, but does affect the power balance within the Coalition. Under Coalition rules, neither party can challenge sitting members, but once a member retires or is defeated, both can run.

As indicated earlier, the Liberal Party will lose seats to Labor, but broadly seems to be holding. However, it did look as though it would lose three seats to the Nationals. Enter now from stage left a preference deal between Labor and Liberal in which Labor preferenced the Liberal Party over the Nationals.

There have been some weird and wild preference arrangements. What can one say when the Greens preference a Fred Nile candidate, a Party that is opposed to Green agendas, over a left of centre gay Liberal candidate? The Greens backed down on this, but the intent was there.

Like the Greens, the National's support is regionally concentrated. They hoped to pick up seats from the Liberals while holding off a Labor, Green and independent challenge in Northern NSW, the National's vulnerable political heartland. The decision by first Tony Windsor and then Rob Oakeshott to re-enter the political fray has put two National seats into play. This has allowed Mr Turnbull to again raise the spectre of a Labor-Green-independent coalition government. This is a bit silly, I think that both Windsor and Oakeshott have said that they would broadly support a Coalition Government if that were the electoral outcome, but still useful politically.

In the Senate race where the electorate is a single state or territory, the shifting political fortunes make things hard to call. I haven't done the numbers properly, but my feeling is that whoever wins Government will have to deal with a Senate in which neither the Greens nor the Xenophon group on their own have the balance of power. You can either combine the two, or get one and add minor party senators.

My best guess is that there will be at least three such senators. In Victoria, it will be Derryn Hinch. I didn't have him on my radar, but he has a high profile and is number one on the ballot paper. In Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie. Queensland? There the race appears to be between Pauline Hanson and Glen Lazarus. All the major parties have preferenced Mr Lazarus to try to keep Ms Hanson out of Parliament.

In all this, we are either going to have a Senate in which there is one block with sufficient numbers to block, two with sufficient numbers to block in combination, or one in which one block plus the independents/micros have the power of passage. And Mr Turnbull wanted a simpler Senate?

Monday, June 06, 2016

Monday Forum - what lessons does the Finnish education system offer?

A few weeks back, there was a story about the reshaping of the Finnish education system, the replacement of subject based education with topic based. According to the story, the Finns believed that this would make education more relevant, that students would still be able to pick up required subject knowledge via the topic approach. My heart sank, My instinctive reaction was to wonder why replace a system that appears to be working well?

As we shall see in a moment, not all was as it seems. For the moment, I just note that the Finnish school system has attracted world wide attention, in part because its students score so well on the international PISA rankings.

There has been much debate about the reasons for this apparently good performance. Finland spends around the OECD average on education. Its teachers receive around the same pay as teachers in other European countries. Class sizes are similar to those in other Nordic countries, Why, then do Finnish schools perform better?

Various explanations have been advanced. One is the difference between high context and low context countries. In Finland with its homogeneous society and intense shared values, many things can be taken for granted, are understood. They do not need to be taught or explained. By contrast, in lower context countries such as Australia or the UK, more time has to be spent in class establishing a common base, in explaining things.

Another explanation often given lies in teacher training. Since 1970, all Finnish teachers require a masters degree. Of more significance, I suspect, is that a quarter of Finnish graduates see teaching as an attractive options, creating a larger talent pool. Then, too, the structure of the Finnish school system is very different from that holding in Australia. There is no private school system, schools have greater freedom, while the disparities between schools in standards and resources appear relatively low regardless of location. The now very large discrepancies that have appeared in Australia between private and public, between city and country schools, do not exist in Finland.

I said that not all was what it seemed with that story. It came via a current feed. It was only when I checked the story properly to write this piece that I realised that it dated from March 2015, so just over a year old. Whoops! I have been caught that way before. So then I did a search around looking for follow up stories. Thus I found this piece by Valerie Strauss - No, Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Here’s what’s really happening. It appears from this and other stories that I saw from around the same time that the original Independent story really grabbed world wide attention because of the interest in the Finnish school system but that its presentation was a bit over the top..

The Strauss piece is the simplest description of the Finnish system that I have found. If I had to draw a single lesson from it, its the relative simplicity of the Finnish system, the absence of controls, the grant of autonomy to schools and teachers, the apparent absence of prescriptive measurement, that goes to the heart of performance.

This brings me to the topic of this Monday Forum. What do you think makes for a good education system? How would you restructure the Australian system or your own for those outside Australia to improve performance? As always, feel free to wander.


In a comment, Rod pointed to three Quadrant pieces:
2 tanners was not impressed."The Quadrant articles", he wrote,"seem to be based largely on comparisons which might or might not hold true over time. It seems to me that school is more academically demanding than it was in my day.

It will probably also be a cold day in hell when I acknowledge Quadrant itself as a defender of Western civilisation."

Clearly, 2t has a problem with Quadrant. I have only skimmed the pieces, but add the links now as a contribution to discussion.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

Sunday Essay - decline of the volunteer

With a break in the rain, I headed out yesterday to buy some groceries. I was going to walk, but quickly changed my mind because of the wind, so headed for the bus stop. Standing there with palm fronds coming down onto the top of the bus shelter felt quite uncomfortable. Fortunately the wind dropped.

The death of Muhammed Ali has been widely reported. The various transformations that occurred over his life, transformations that meshed with broader changes taking place, make him a truly remarkable and memorable figure made more remarkable by his own manner Rest in peace.

Down south in Victoria, the trouble over the Country Fire Authority (CFA) has deepened. It's remarkably difficult to keep track of issues across Australia, more so since paywalls started coming in. I had no idea of this particular dispute until I bought a copy of the Australian to find it featured. Then I started digging.

In very simple terms, Victoria has to firefighting bodies, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the Country Fire Authority. To those outside Victoria and perhaps within, the CFA is far better known because of its role in fighting bushfires.

The MFB operates with paid staff, while the CFA depends on a large number of volunteers with some paid staff. The United Fire Fighters Union represents MFB staff and has a institutionalised role in the management of the MFB. The UFFU wishes to extend its role in the CFA. After a rancorous dispute, Fair Work Commissioner Julius Roe delivered non-binding recommendations supporting the demands of the UFFU for greater control of the CFA, infuriating the Authority and its volunteer base.

Victorian Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett with the apparent backing of the Premier backed the CFA and its volunteers in opposing the FWC recommendations. Then it appears that the Premier after consultation with the Union shifted his position, in some ways hanging his minister out to dry. The end result was a political mess, with a search now on for a compromise.

 A lot of the reporting has been phrased in terms of industrial relations issues with, in the case of the Australian and its reporting, a focus on the union power issue. I want to focus on a slightly different issue, the conflict between professionalisation, state control and the survival of the volunteer ethos. 

Traditionally, Australia has relied on volunteers to deliver many community services or to identify and meet community needs. There were good practical reasons for this, especially in country areas where populations were thinner and governments more remote. One outcome was, I think, an unusually high proportion by global standards of popular involvement in voluntary work. I say I think because I have not seen proper global comparisons.

As the state expanded its effective role, it took over activities that had previously been met by voluntary work. There is nothing wrong with this. In many cases, it meant supply of community services that could not be done effectively by cash constrained volunteer groups. The volunteer spirit remained, but redeployed into new areas. However, over the last three decades in particular, the volunteer spirit has gone into decline.

Again, I cannot give you hard data to measure this. But based on my own observations, there are fewer volunteers as a proportion of the population and those that remain are older. There has been a cultural shift of significant proportions. 

Many reasons have been advanced for this decline. 

Australians have, one school argues. become more individualistic and self-centered.  I think that there is some truth in this, but it's clearly not the whole story. You only have to look at the Sydney Olympics or responses to individual disasters to know that the old spirit continues. 

Another school argues that the state is doing too much, that it is taking away individual responsibility - let the state do it - thus reducing the volunteer spirit. Again. there is some truth in this. However, it is not clear that the real scope of state service delivery has actually expanded over the last thirty years. You can get a feel for this by asking a simple question: what is the state doing today that it wasn't doing in 1986? 

Take education. In 1986, the state was responsible for the delivery of mass education from primary through secondary to technical and university education. It still is. The big differences relate to the continued rise in the importance of Federal funding, a greater subsidisation of the private sector and a far more heavy handed regulatory and quality framework.  

In social policy, I am hard pressed to think of a single thing in 2016 that the state wasn't doing in 1986, although the form may have changed. In health, too, the state is still doing the same thing. 

So I don't think that we can necessarily say the changes that have taken place are due to an expansion of state activity as such. That said, there have been changes in the way that services are delivered that have had an impact.

The first is what I call the bitsy effect. While the totality of government activities may not have changed, Australian governments at all levels want to be seen to be doing new things. To achieve this, they repackage activities that they were doing into new package with a unique name attached, thus creating an apparently new initiative. Then, too, they use relatively small sums of money to create new activities at the margin that respond to particular community pressure points.

This does, I think, create an expectation that if there is a problem, governments will fix it. Effort that might have gone into creating new community activities is sidetracked into seeking funds from Government for that activity.

There is also the creeping professionalisation that I referred to earlier. In the desire to improve standards and performance, professional staff start replacing volunteers in major activities such as fire fighting, while governments place greater demands on those receiving funding in terms both of applications and subsequent reporting.  Reporting can be a particular burden because the information sought has become broader and has to be provided in very particular formats, requiring time, computer systems and expertise. Faced with the choice of either becoming more professional or getting out, many volunteers choose exit.

One side-effect is the rise of the not for profit. Governments have encouraged their development as a way of outsourcing activities and to take advantage of the taxation concessions enjoyed by not for profits, concessions not available to Government itself. These not for profits have to operate on a professional basis and are therefore picking up activities previously undertaken by volunteer groups. Even though some not for profits utilise volunteers especially in fund raising, the net effect is to crowd out previous voluntary activity.

Another factor then comes in in the diminishing space occupied by voluntary activities, the increasing compliance burden. Safety regulations, health regulations, insurance requirements, working with children requirements, obligatory criminal checks, political party registration requirements all combine to make life difficult. One side effect again is to increase professionalisation. In many cases, you require umbrella organisations with the staff and systems necessary to ensure compliance and to provide the necessary insurances.

People still volunteer, especially where their children are involved and especially in the country. However, the volunteer workforce is shrinking and we are, I think, all the poorer for that.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Friday Snippets - mainly political

Snippets tonight after a fairly torrid week.

A little while ago, we were talking about deflation. Recently, I have been spending time with spreadsheets largely concerned with real estate developments. They are all fairly standard, including assumptions about capital appreciation and the rate of rent increase. The assumptions used are quite modest, essentially little more than the projected rate of inflation.

As a matter of curiosity. I altered the assumptions to fit with a deflationary world. I didn't go the whole hog, just took appreciation and rent increases to zero over the ten and twenty year time horizons being used. The results went a little crazy. They would have gone crazier still if I had reduced rents over time by an assumed rate of deflation.

I didn't have time to define the interest rate that would restore the results to investment level, but it was well below current long term rates. As you would expect.

I am not making any profound point here, just the need to test things by very specific example.

 Australia remains in the grip of its remarkably long election campaign. There are some 30 days to go!

The opinion polls suggest a gradual erosion in Government support. Most Australians still expect it to be returned, a significant electoral advantage, but the numbers are dropping.

One feature of the campaign has been the continued strength of forces outside the major parties.
Nationally, Australia has a two house Parliament, a lower house (the House of Representatives) plus an Upper House (the Senate). The Government, with the support of the Greens, forced though changes to the way Australians vote for the Senate intended to reduce the influence of micro-parties. It appears to have had quite perverse results.

The argument for the change was that preference swaps and indeed preference gaming in a complex proportional representation system allowed the election of unrepresentative minor parties attracting a minuscule percentage of the vote. One outcome was an unstable Senate making governing more difficult.

It is not clear to me that that the resulting cross-bench was in any way unrepresentative of the Australian population. If anything, they were more representative than the politicians selected by the major parties from an increasingly narrow slice of the Australian population. In any event, whoever forms government following the election is going to have to deal with a complex Senate whose final composition looks very uncertain.

At least some of the current cross-bench are likely to get back in this double dissolution election with its lower Senate voting quotas. In South Australia, the newly created Nick Xenophon Team could get three seats. In Tasmania, it appears the Jacqui Lambie Network is certain of least one. In Queensland, the final two Senate seats could go anywhere, with Pauline Hanson a distinct possibility to return to the Australian Parliament. There is something odd about Pauline Hanson's web site. It is full of ALP ads! This is the party web site.  

At this point, I think that the only thing one can say with certainty is that both Green and Liberal Party numbers will be lower in the new Senate. Perhaps there is a certain justice in that.