Friday, December 22, 2017

Seasons' Greetings

Copenhagen December 2016. Clare discovers gaming heaven! 

This year I'm putting all my various publishing platforms on holidays on hold until the 3rd of January. While I have some writing to do, I really feel the need for a break and a recharge.

This time last year, Clare and I had just arrived to spend Christmas in Copenhagen with Helen and Christian. That was a fun trip. This year will be much quieter..

Over on my New England blog, I reflected on Memories of New England Christmas's past.

I wish all my readers and blogging friends a very happy Christmas and a truly great New Year. For those to whom Christmas is not relevant, may the peace and joy that is meant to mark Christmas be with you in your lives.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A chaotic three weeks in Australian politics!

It's been a remarkable three weeks or so in Australian politics. It's been quite hard to keep up. In fact, I couldn't, even though I kept notes! Today, I just want to record some of the various happenings.

Marriage Equality

Wednesday 29 November 2017, the bill to legalise same sex marriage passed the Australian Senate. The vote was 43 ayes, 12 noes, with 17 absences or abstentions including approved leave from the chamber. On 4 December, the bill entered the House of Representatives, passing on 7 September. Only four MPs voted against, with a further nine absent or abstaining.

There was a certain romantic moment when Liberal MP Tim Wilson proposed. (photo Canberra Times) to his partner Ryan Bolger during his speech on the bill.. Mr Bolger, who was sitting in the visitor's gallery for the speech, said yes, a response duly recorded in Hansard.

It's been something of a roller coaster ride to this point, one whose culmination I wanted to note. It's been an issue where my own views have shifted over time from a degree of neutrality, I wasn't opposed but was concerned about pushing too hard, to public support for immediate action to bring the change about. . .

I had reservations about the voluntary ABS electoral survey on the issue. Whatever the validity of those reservations, the results (79.5% voting, 61.6% yes vote) were a sweeping affirmation in support of change. All states and territories voted yes, while 133 of the 150 House of Representatives electorates recorded a yes vote. You will find the full results here.

The distribution of majority no electorates was not quite what people expected; 14 of the 17 were in Sydney (12) and Melbourne (2). Only three regional electorates voted no, all in Queensland. The 14 electorates voting were all home to significant migrant communities.

Queensland Elections

Queensland went to the polls on Saturday, 25 November 2017. It took considerable time to finalise the results although the most likely result, the return of  Labor Party Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with a slim majority, was clear quite quickly.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said on the night that this was the most difficult election he had ever had to call. I'm not sure why, for the results were a fairly accurate reflection of the public opinion polls which showed a close context in which the final balance would be determined by the on-ground contests in a small number of individual seats.

Main stream media commentary focused on the One Nation party results, with some surprise that the party had "failed' to win more seats. Again, I don't know why. One Nation was polling well in absolute terms, but it was going to be hard for it to translate that vote into actual victories because of the nature of preference arrangements. One Nation had to win clearly or at least get sufficiently far in front of the Liberal National Party candidates so that their preferences would carry One Nation to victory. This was always going to be a challenge.

I think that part of the problem for both Mr Green and the media commentators was Queensland's reintroduction of full compulsory preferential voting. Under this system, voters have to rank all candidates in order of preference. Preferences are then distributed until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.

I grew up under this system and do understand it. It tends to weaken the dominance of the main party machines by giving greater freedom to independents and minor parties to break through in particular seats. My own political biases mean that I like this system. I like minorities and individual results, I don't like the machines. Australia is not and never has been divided into just two main parties.

National Party Ructions and the Banking Royal Commission

The lead-up to the Queensland election had seen growing tensions within the Coalition, tensions not helped by the forced absence of National Party leader Barnaby Joyce campaigning to regain his seat of New England following the High Court decision that he was a dual New Zealand citizen and that consequently his previous election was invalid. Having renounced his right to New Zealand citizenship, Mr Joyce was free to run,  but his absence combined with the loss of the National's Deputy Leader Fiona Nash to the same citizenship imbroglio that had snared Mr Joyce left the party effectively headless.

While many factors played into the tensions between the Liberal and National parties, a key element was the belief that that Nationals had become submerged, that the party needed to assert its own identity or risk electoral disaster. This belief is not new, but has grown in strength over the last few years.

We saw it during the WA elections where the Liberal and National parties ran independent campaigns. We saw it in NSW where the Nationals' desire to assert independence, if still within a coalition framework brought down both Liberal premier Mike Baird and the then leader of the National Party Troy Grant, with Mr Grant .replaced by  John Barilaro, the member for Monaro. We have seen it federally with Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash running an active campaign centered on the decentralisation theme, presenting the Nationals as the party of the regions.

The position in Queensland has been especially complex, for there you have a combined party, the Liberal National Party. In a formal sense, the LNP is actually a division of the Liberal Party. There are no LNP members in the State parliament. However, Federal members may choose to sit as either Liberals or Nationals. Faced with the rise of One Nation, the continued existence of the Katter Australia Party and the unpopularity of the Liberal Party in some regional areas, Queensland Nationals have been asserting the need for separate identity, campaigning under the National rather than LNP banner.

Banks have been a hot issue in the bush for a long time. A number of National Party parliamentarians including Inverell based NSW National Party senator John 'Wacka' Williams, have been campaigning  for reform for a very long time . Senator Williams has not limited himself to the banks, but has also (among others) pursued auditors and insolvency practitioners such as Newcastle liquidator Stuart Ariff, earning a reputation as a tenacious and wily inquisitor.

The push for a banking and financial services royal commission was supported by the Greens and increasingly the ALP. However, it was strongly resisted by the Government who argued that it was already taking action, that a commission would not achieve anything and could damage the financial sector. It would, the Prime Minister said, be "rank socialism".

On Thursday 23 November, Queensland National senator Barry O'Sullivan unveiled draft  legislation for an extensive probe that ranges from banking, insurance and superannuation services to the adequacy of regulation and the treatment of small business and farmers. The draft Banking, Insurance, Superannuation and Financial Services Commission of Inquiry Bill  had been drafted so that its wide-ranging terms of reference reflected almost everything the Greens, Labor, One Nation, Bob Katter and the Nationals had variously demanded, with the intention that it would be broadly supported and passed quickly.

Pressure was brought to bear on Senator O'Sullivan not to proceed. However, following the Queensland elections on the Saturday  (25 November) which accentuated dissent, it became clear that enough Nationals were likely to cross the floor to get the legislation through. The issue had become another distraction throwing doubt on Mr Turnbull's leadership at a time when the introduction of the same sex marriage bill should have provided a welcome relief from partisan politics. By Friday 1 December, temperatures had reached the point where NSW Deputy Premier and National Leader John Barilaro called on Mr Turnbull to go.

It is obvious that discussions had been going on among ministers, in cabinet and with the banks. Later that  Friday, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a Royal Commission. into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry with Honourable Kenneth Madison Hayne AC as Royal Commissioner.

The New England By-election

Saturday 2 December saw the New England by-election. This had been a nasty campaign.

From the social media feeds, I learned far more of Mr Joyce's personal life than I ever wanted to know. I kept wanting to say stop. Mr Joyce is a public figure, but what you are doing is not fair on anybody else.

I was also conscious of what these social media accentuated divides are doing to social cohesion in smaller communities where, at the end of the day, people have to work together. I guess that's another story, but it's something that is important to me in a personal sense. I was sharply reminded of this on a recent visit to Armidale. My friends span political and indeed issues divides. Sometimes you just have to shut up, keep your opinions to yourself.

Mr Turnbull and the Government needed a circuit breaker in this election and they got it. Mr Joyce scored a primary vote of 65.1%, a swing of 12.8%. You can see the relief on Mr Turnbull's face. It was also an election that marked the end of the New England independents, as well as (but less certainly) a further decline in the Green protest cause. This is something I should write on for historical records. 

Section 44 and the continued Citizenship Imbroglio

Mr Turnbull needed Mr Joyce back in Parliament and they got him there quickly thanks to the election result. With votes in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister needed him partly for his general support, more because  of the constantly evolving crisis over Section 44(i) of the Australian constitution and eligibility for membership of the Australian Parliament. Now the wheels came off for Labor leader Shorten, at least in the short term.

As I wrote previously,  Mr Turnbull's ho-hum attitude to the two Green senators who became the first victims of the crisis (they should have done their paperwork better) set the stage for his problems. Now, Mr Shorten was to experience the pain.

Mr Shorten had adopted the view that the ALP's vetting procedures were robust, that this was a coalition problem. As members of the two houses began to provide details of their family and citizenship, it quickly became clear that Labor had a problem too.

Now I have argued previously that the whole mess is something of a nonsense. This story by Jeremy Gans, Papers, please!, points to some of the difficulties. In a multi-ethnic country like this one where people come from multiple places in often difficult circumstances, it's just not possible to provide documentation of the level required where, in any event, the question of multiple citizenship also depends upon changing law in other countries and especially decisions by authorities in those countries on the position under their law.

I was especially struck by the need for our Aboriginal politicians with mixed heritage to provide information, to try to prove, their family trees in circumstances where their story is one of dispossession. The idea that an Aboriginal politician should be disbarred from Parliament because they happen to have a Scottish or British or whatever parent or grandparent strikes me as a pernicious nonsense.

Whatever the arguments, Mr Shorten's certainty and desire to gain political points made it extremely difficult for him to negotiate a sensible approach to the problem once Labor's problems emerged. So far, two Labor parliamentarians have been referred to the High Court. More may follow on both sides in helter-skelter unless the parties can agree a sensible approach.         .  

Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution is not the only part of Section 44 creating problems for eligibility to Parliament. When Senator Nash was determined by the High Court to be ineligible to stand on citizenship grounds, the procedures laid down by the Court mean that the next person on the combined Liberal-National ticket, Hollie Hughes, was elected. However, there was a problem.

Following the election, Ms Hughes had taken a position on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a Government appointment that she resigned as soon as Senator Nash was declared to be ineligible. On Wednesday 15 November 2017, the High Court ruled that Ms Hughes was ineligible. (here, here). The argument seems to run this way. Because Senator Nash was ineligible, Ms Hughes had in fact been elected. However, because she had, her subsequent acceptance of an office of profit under the crown meant that she was no longer eligible to be a senator and consequently could not take Senator Nash's place. Go figure!

On Tuesday 12 December, another eligibility question under S44 reached the High Court. The question here is whether Assistant Health Minister and National MP for Lyne David Gillespie is eligible to sit in Parliament.

Labor candidate Peter Alley, who unsuccessfully against Mr Gillespie, filed an application under the Common Informers Act in July in the first major case of its kind, arguing that Dr Gillespie should be disqualified because he allegedly holds an indirect pecuniary interest in an agreement with the commonwealth. The interest in question is the ownership of a small shopping centre in which one tenancy is held by a local agency of Australia Post.

The case raises a number of quite important constitutional issues. Watch this space.

Senator Dastyari and China

With Barnaby Joyce's victory, Labor's citizenship woes and then the marriage equality vote, Prime Minister Turnbull was on something of a roll. Then came the forced resignation of Labor Senator Dastyari over his China links.The issue was not so much the links themselves, but the way that Senator Dastyari prevaricated over aspects of them.

The Dastyari affair came at a time of increased sensitivity about Chinese involvement in Australian politics. Mr Tunbull combined the two in responses that played upon Australian concerns including national security and even included phases in Mandarin. The Chinese response was quite strong.

Over the period of the Howard, Rudd/Gillard and Abbott/Turnbull Governments, we have seen a constant stream of responses on issues with international implications that are driven by short term local political considerations. I suspect that this falls in this class. It deserves a fuller response.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse

On Friday 15 December, the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse delivered its final report.  This has been a long and complex inquiry, one that has been wearing on the Commission, its staff and the victims involved. Given the sensitivities of the issues, I think that all those involved really deserve commendation for the way they have approached the process.

Whether all the recommendations, the hopes and aspirations that flow from the process, are sensible or possible is a separate issue. Having studied the history of child welfare in NSW, I don't believe that perfection, the avoidance of all harm, even sometimes the achievement of positive results, is possible. Sometimes, initiatives intended to address and redress problems have worse results than the system they amended or replaced. We would have been better off if nothing had been done.

This is not an argument against taking action. Improvement is a process. Things only improve, injustices addressed, because people try.

At a professional level, I have to look at the detail of the report, because the problems identified and addressed fall within the scope of the history I am writing.

Bennelong By-election

Today, Saturday 16 December, is the by-election brought about because John Alexander, the sitting member, was declared ineligibly elected by the High Court. he is running again having sorted out his citizenship paper work. His labor opponent is Kristina Keneally, a former NSW Premier.  
This is an important by-election, given the present Australian Government's razor thin one seat majority. If Mr Alexander holds the seat, Mr Turnbull maintains his momentum.

The results are too close to call. The opinion polls suggest Mr Alexander will retain the seat, if with a swing. But there are some problems with the polls, because (among other things) people are sick of being polled. This electorate also has the largest overseas born Chinese voting population (around 16%) in Australia and no-one knows how they are are reacting to the China controversy.


This post basically covers just three weeks in Australian politics. Can you see why I am struggling to keep up?


The Liberal's John Alexander had a reasonably comfortable win in Bennelong (here, here) if with a considerable swing against him, thus restoring the Government's one seat majority in the House of Representatives. With counting still proceeding, the Australian Conservatives Joram Richa  is on 4.5% of the vote.

This was the Party's first lower house outing, and they appeared to devote considerable resources to the contest.There was a second Christian party candidate running, Gui Dong Cao from the Christian Democrats, a long established NSW party. The main Australian Conservative vote seems to have come from the Christian Democrat vote, although the two parties combined did achieve a small swing compared with the Christian Democrat vote at the general election.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sydney's growth problems - from free range to battery city

This is the Eastern Suburbs "continuous flow intersection" at the junction of Anzac Parade, Dacey Avenue and Alison Road planned as part of Sydney's WestConnex project. It involves a continuous traffic flow with 12 lanes of traffic and a light rail through the middle.   
At the end of August 2017 (Sydney's growth problems - light rail, Kingsford, Pagewood and Daceyville), I wrote of the changes taking place around the little Sydney area in which I have been living connected with the combination of population growth and planning. Change has continued since then.

A bloody big intersection

The illustration above shows a planned major intersection in what is called the Alexandria to Moore Park Connectivity Upgrade (A2MP) plan. Those who are interested can find find videos of the proposed A2MP route here. The connectivity requirement flows from the need to take traffic to and from the eastern end of the giant WestConnex freeway project. Councils and local MPs are up in arms in part because of tree loss, in part because this traffic will be then funneled into already overcrowded local streets.

Yet more density housing

 In pursuit of its vision to transform Sydney through the creation of three metro centers,. the Greater Sydney Commission's Eastern City District Plan (the Eastern City also know as the Harbour City is the current CBD plus surrounds) provides for the area from South Kingsford to Maroubra especially along Anzac Parade to be developed as a priority precinct. For this, read medium and higher density. Randwick Council is objecting on the grounds that the transport on which the plan is based will not be developed in the immediately foreseeable future.

And more waste

The South Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils projects that the population covered by its councils will grow by 28% to 2.18 million people by by 2036. This is expected to increase waste generation up by 27% to over 880,000 tonnes per annum.

And crowded buses - but who could have expected universities to become mega-industrial institutions?

Under the heading "Don't worry, it's usually worse", the Southern Courier reports on the problems faced by University of NSW students seeking to get from Central railway station to UNSW. The Telegraph  carries the story if under a less dramatic heading.

The story is linked to changes in the bus timetables, but it's also connected with the sheer size of the university. If I had known when I supported the Dawkins' university reforms that it would lead to a homogenised university sector dominated by  mega corporatised industrial institutions I would have died in a ditch to prevent it. In fairness to myself and Mr Dawkins, nobody could probably have foreseen the tinkering that would take place later.

Extreme? The best way I can illustrate this is to say that it's like trying to shift the entire adult working population of the Northern Tablelands to Armidale each day to study or work in one institutions.

House prices and rents

When we first moved  to Sydney, the million dollar price point for a simple house or semi was south of Rainbow Street. Soon after, it roared across the street and ran south along the coastline. Further inland, the million dollar price point crept up Anzac Parade through Kingsford and then jumped Gardner's Road into Daceyville. Further west, the million dollar price point swallowed Rosebery, and then jumped.Gardner's Road.

Over the last twelve months, the median price in Eastlakes has jumped 34.4% to $1.55 million. With very low inflation rates, this is a huge real increase.

Rents are slowly inflating. Slow income increases mean that landlords' ability to increase rents have been suppressed, leading to very low rental yield on investment properties. This can't continue, and owners are constantly pressing the margin.

Last week, my daughter and her flatmates received notice that the rent they were playing on their apartment was to be increased from $800 to $850 per week. It's a nice apartment, but that's a very big increase, one they can't afford. So a move has to be on.

The end point

The position in Sydney is unsustainable. The present Australian gross median income is about $81,000. Sydney's is higher. It has to be. Even if you are prepared, to use Leith van Onselen's phrase, to move from free range to battery city, to move from house to smaller apartment, the place is becoming just too expensive.

The solution offered to meet the growing problem of all the service workers who can no longer afford to live in the place is to subsidise  the construction of affordable housing. I don't support this unless the program is funded by a levy on those who wish to live in Sydney and need the services. Instead, and I have come to this conclusion quite reluctantly, we should slow immigration.

The majority of migrants come into Sydney or Melbourne. They are the driver of Sydney growth. They are chasing other people out. If we froze immigration even for a brief period, and I would only support a brief freeze, the Sydney bubble would collapse. We could then resume migration on a sensible basis.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Turnbull Government problems - the NBN

I haven't felt like writing about recent developments in Australian politics. It isn't so much the developments themselves, but the chatter that surrounds them that leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth.

Prime Minister Turnbull is finding, as Julia Gillard found before him, that when things go wrong they keep going wrong. When the wheels come off, the billycart keeps grounding on bumps in the road that, with wheels, would be whisked over in a second. Almost nothing is going right.

The NBN (National Broadband Network) is about to roll out in my area. This means that I am getting  promotional material from re-sellers seeking to sign me up. For the first time, this includes guaranteed minimum download speeds. These struck me. With the exception of the most expensive package, the maximum guaranteed down load speed was 12 mbps.

Australian may remember that in the political debate over the future of the NBN, Mr Turnbull said that the maximum download speed that the ordinary household needed was 50 mbps and that this would be guaranteed by his mixed technology solution. There were two elements in Mr Turnbull's claim. One related to what the mixed technology could deliver. That was an engineering judgement. The second related to household needs. That was a market judgment.

While Mr Turnbull is very knowledgeable, he is neither an engineer nor a market expert. When he ventured into this space for political reasons, he took ownership of the NBN and the resulting outcomes. In doing so, he delivered hostages to fortune.

I am presently on a high end and expensive 50 mbps package using ADSL and twisted copper wires. The best download speed I can actually get is a bit over 6 mbps. Sometimes, it drops to 3 mbps. One of the things we have to do, my daughters tell me, is to get you onto a decent broadband service.

The difficulty is that the old infrastructure in the area where I now live will simply not support the higher speeds I am paying for. . If the NBN can offer me a guaranteed 12 mbps at a lower price, then that's good value. It's not what Mr Turnbull promised, but I will at least be better off. However, there may be a problem here.

The latest NBN rollout plans say that the NBN will become available here early next year. However, there is an apparent problem. The rollout in this area depends on Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC), one of the mixed technologies.  According to the latest news reports, technical problems with the use of HFC means that NBN HFC rollouts have been deferred for six to nine months.

In the words of an old Telstra ad that has entered Australian folklore,  not happy Jan. One can debate the economic implications of the NBN, but one could at least expect it to offer a decent engineering solution. I was just putting up with my current poor download speeds, but now all this has forced me to focus on what i have and how much I am paying.     .    

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

New England Cheese: reflections on a changing Australia on National Agriculture Day

I have been travelling, returning to past haunts. I had been very busy. Well, perhaps busy is not the right word, for I have been distracted rather than productive. The journey gave me a chance to reflect without the constant chatter of the internet world.

This photo shows some of the goats at New England Cheese. You will find New England Cheese just off Thunderbolt's Way outside Nowendoc.

I had been meaning to call in for many years, but things never worked out. They were always shut to the public, or so it seemed. The reality proved to be a little different.

I had thought of New England Cheese as one of those craft operations, places that people ran for interest and as it suited them. An amateur aspirational place focused on life style and a desire for a natural product. As I was to find out, New England Cheese is partly that, but it is also so much more.

I had checked opening hours and thought that it might be open, but it had been closed on all my previous trips. Stopping for a cigarette and a pit stop at the little reserve outside the Nowendoc Hall. I spoke once there for a women's gathering. Later, it was the police headquarters for the police search for wanted criminal Malcolm Naden,  Reflecting, I decided that I would call in if it was open even though we were running a little late.

The closed sign was not on the gate so I drove up the winding road to the farm buildings. There was an old red cattle dog lying in a basket outside the front door who growled gently at us. I wasn't sure that the place was open, but pressed forward. There we found Lia Christensen, a tall, good looking and very fit woman. She needed to be, for reasons I will explain a little later.

There was a customer already present, a chap who had grown up on an apple orchard outside Armidale. We swapped notes about  fruit thinning and life on an orchard while Lia pressed samples on us, always saying you don't have to buy, but I want you to try.

"I have to close soon", Lia said. "Do you want to help me pack 400 boxes of yogurt?"  At this point, the full story of New England Cheese emerged.

Lia and husband John had been dairy farmers in Victoria and decided to retire. They were looking for a place to retire where they could also pursue their interests in dairy and cheese and so bought a small block at Nowendoc. However, the concept of semi-retirement proved to be just that, a concept. The business took off.

There are a number of parts to the New England Cheese business. There is the small herd of goats and sheep from which the specialty cheese is prepared. There are the milking facilities. You can't milk sheep and goats in the same way as cows. There are the cheese making facilities. Then they buy in milk from Gloucester down the mountain to make specialty yogurt and cheese. This is not a small business, for New England Cheese supplies Harris Farm home brand milk, yogurt and cheese that is just the same as it sells through the shop door. It's very nice..

Quality control is central. This photo shows John in the milk processing facility.

In all this, there is a rub. New England Cheese can't get staff. Back in 2013, John complained about the difficulty of getting qualified cheese making staff.

It's not just qualified staff. New England Cheese can't get staff to do basic stuff because Nowendoc is now seen as just too remote. Modern Australians won't move to the country even if there is work, decent pay and accommodation available when they have none of this where they are.

This throws a major load back on the Christensens. While John drives the refrigerated truck on the regular deliveries to the Harris Farm warehouse at Flemington, Lia packs. Talking to us, she raised her arms and flexed her muscles! When, last year, Lia broke her leg in a farm accident, they had to stop production of sheep milk cheese for twelve months because there was no one else to help.

I would like to have stayed to help Lia with those 400 cartons. I would have learned a fair bit. But I had to move on. Perhaps I might go back?

On this National Agriculture Day, I think that it is worth reflecting on the way that the texture of urban life and food depends on businesses like New England Cheese.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Chaos, confusion and the evolving Section 44 mess

In his post today (10 November 2017 Weird things happening in Oz), Neil Whitfield referred (among other things) the mess that had arisen in the context of Section 44(i) of the Australian constitution. He also pointed readers to the updates I had being doing on an earlier post of mine, Section 44 of the Australian Constitution - clouded issues with a dash of moral bigotry. I had actually stopped updating because the whole thing had become just so chaotic, messy and downright confusing. 

I will provide a brief update in this post. But first, this is Section 44 of the Australian constitution dealing with ineligibility for election to the Australian parliament. I have given the section in full because other parts are now in play as well.
 Australian Constitution – Section 44 – Disqualification 
Any person who- 
(i.) Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights & privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power: or
(ii.) Is attained of treason, or has been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer: or
(iii.) Is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent: or
(iv.) Holds any office of profit under the Crown, or any pension payable during the pleasure of the Crown out of any of the revenues of the Commonwealth: or
(v.) Has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than twenty-five persons: 
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.  
But sub-section iv. does not apply to the office of any of the Queen’s Ministers of State for the Commonwealth, or of any of the Queen’s Ministers for a State, or to the receipt of pay, half pay, or a pension, by any person as an officer or member of the Queen’s navy or army, or to the receipt of pay as an officer or member of the naval or military forces of the Commonwealth by any person whose services are not wholly employed by the Commonwealth.
At the time of my 30 October post, the High Court had just ruled (27 October) that:
  • four members of the Senate (Ludlum Greens, Waters Greens, Roberts One Nation and Nash National Party) had been dual citizens at the time of nomination and had therefore not been validly elected
  • one member of the House, Nationals Leader and Member for New England Barnaby Joyce, had also been a dual citizen and therefore not eligible for election
  • that two senators (Canavan, Nationals) and Xenophon NXT) were classed as validly elected if on somewhat different grounds. Mr Xenophon subsequently announced his intention to resign from the Senate. His position will be taken by a Green nominee formally appointed by the South Australian Parliament.  
In ruling, the High Court unanimously adopted a narrow literal interpretation of the wording of Section 44(i) raising the possibility that other members would be affected too.

Even as I was writing, it emerged that Senator Parry (Liberal Tasmania and President of the Senate) was seeking clarification as to whether he was a dual British citizen. He subsequently resigned from the Senate following advice that he was a British citizen by descent. Technically, he could not resign since he had not been validly elected.

Following Senator Parry, the Liberal member for Bennelong revealed that he had contacted British authorities to inquire urgently whether he too was a UK citizen by descent. The former tennis champion's father, Gilbert Alexander, migrated to Australia in 1911. Mr Alexander was born in 1951, two years after the creation of Australian citizenship in 1949.

This was followed by suggestions in the Australian newspaper that, Josh Frydenberg, the Liberal member for Kooyong, might be entitled to Hungarian citizenship through his mother. This infuriated Mr Frydenberg and many others because his mother came to Australia as a stateless person following the end of the war. The issues here are complex, but would appear to centre on the question as to whether subsequent alterations to Hungarian law to restore forfeited might have created an entitlement to apply.for Hungarian citizenship.

By now,  everybody was trawling through official records to try to determine whether a person might have some foreign citizenship or entitlement to that citizenship under the laws of other countries or, alternatively, whether the way that citizenship had been renounced might fail to comply with the High Court's rulings on the matter. The ABC has something of a list. All parties are affected, although the Labor Party's more rigorous processes provide it with a degree of protection.

The matter is fiendishly complicated because it involves foreign citizenship laws, while only the High Court has the power to determine whether someone is eligible or not. At this point it seems quite possible that more members will be caught up.

Should the Court determine that a member was not eligible to run and consequently declare the position vacant, then it has to be filled. In the lower house, this requires a new election for the vacant seat.  

Following the High Court decision, a by-election was announced for the seat of New England. The National Party renominated Barnaby Joyce since he was now eligible to run following his formal renunciation of any claims to New Zealand citizenship.Should John Alexander or any other member of the House of Representatives be found to have breached the constitution then further elections will need to be held.

The process in the Senate is different. In this case, the Court has ruled that a recount of the votes at the previous election must occur with the now ineligible Senator excluded. There are some complexities here, but this would normally result in the election of the next person down on the Party's Senate ticket. In the case of the National's Senator Nash, that meant Hollie Hughes, a Liberal because there was a joint Liberal/Nationals Senate ticket in NSW.

Today's High Court decision confirmed three of the four people to fill the first vacancies.However, the question of Hollie Hughes's eligibility was referred for decision to the full High Court. The problem was that following the election she took a Government position. Had she therefore breached Section 44(iv), holding an office of profit under the Crown? I would have thought not. She was eligible in the first place and could not have known that this position would arise. She also resigned the position as soon as the Nash problem became clear. However, I am not a lawyer and have been wrong on this one before.

The High Court now has to decide the case of Senator Parry and any other present Senators that may be caught up in the whole thing. There are also other actual or potential cases coming up involving other parts of Section 44 including the case of David Gillespie.  

None of the political parties have handled this evolving mess especially well. The problem of the meaning of Section 44(i) was identified some time ago, but it was either seen as not important enough or too hard to handle. As it broke, the party political responses tended to be short term reactive, seeking to contain or take advantage of the immediate situation. Few foresaw the scale of the problem even though it was foreseeable. The possibility that the High Court might adopt a literal almost black letter interpretation of the constitution was not sufficiently recognised, nor were the widespread ramifications that might follow such an interpretation.

The major parties will ultimately agree a process for handling the short term issue, leaving the broader issue of possible changes to the constitution to a later time. Meantime, Australians and indeed the rest of the world look in bemusement at this uniquely Australian constitutional crisis.


I said that I was not a lawyer. Interesting post from Boilermaker Bill, Can Hollie Hughes Get Past the High Court’s “Brutal Literalism”?, that sets out why the High Court might rule against Hollie Hughes despite common sense saying the opposite. .

Postscript 2 Update 12.50 11 November

As I write, John Alexander is resigning as an MP, meaning another by-election. The Liberal Party has also obtained advice from former Solicitor-General David Bennett, QC suggesting that Labor's Justine Keay and Susan Lamb and NXT MP Rebekha Sharkie may all be in breach of section 44 (i) of the constitution because they failed to complete renunciation of potential foreign citizenship by the date nominations closed. There are also claims chief government whip Nola Marino may have acquired Italian citizenship through marriage.

Am I alone in thinking that it is time for everybody to stop digging into everybody else's family histories and let Parliament agree a process for managing what has become a god-awful mess?

Monday, November 06, 2017

Guy Debelle, forecasting, uncertainty and policy failure

......the history of economic forecasting tells us that our central forecast will almost certainly be wrong. But there are things we can do to manage this uncertainty. 
The methodology in Philip Tetlock's Superforecasting is very helpful: try, fail, analyse, adjust, try again.(Tetlock P and D Gardner (2015), Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Crown Publishing, New York). 
It is essential to ask, after the fact, what did cause our forecasts to be wrong? Evaluating forecasts ex post is as important as generating the forecasts. This can be described in three stages: 
Where were we wrong? For which variables were our forecast misses the largest? 
Why were we wrong? There are a number of possible reasons. Was it because the model was the wrong model? Has the model changed? Was our judgemental adjustment wrong? Was our forecast for an explanatory variable wrong? Was there an economic event or ‘shock’ that we didn't anticipate?
Having attempted to answer these questions, we can then ask what can we learn? What, if anything, do we need to adjust in our forecasting framework?
Guy Debelle, Uncertainty, 26 October 2017
Useful speech by Australian Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Guy Debelle on the problem of uncertainty in economic forecasting and the development of monetary policy. He begins: "Uncertainty is one of the few certainties in monetary policy decision-making. It enters at nearly every stage of the process – from understanding where the economy is at the moment to knowing where it will be in the future"  From that point, he discusses some of the main ways that uncertainty affects things along with the nature of the Bank's responses. It's a simple and useful speech.

The problems of uncertainty are not limited to forecasting nor to macro-economic policy. They bedevil all policy making. Problems here have risen exponentially with the rise of measurement, key performance indicators and "evidence based" public policy. Policy has become locked into a strait jacket set largely by what can be easily measured in circumstances where available statistics are often scanty, lagged and with uncertain meaning. The result is policy failure on a large scale.    

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Saturday Morning Musings - cleaning out my library

It is almost two months since my last report (Writing preoccupations - Vikings, History awards, Native Title, Roman villas and New England architecture) on my current reading and writing preoccupations. I thought that I should provide you with an update, recognising that my blogging continues to be a little irregular. I also thought that it might be a break from some of the current political preoccupations.

I have been cleaning out my books. Those books are the joy of my life as well as a key professional resource, but I am probably moving and cannot take them all with me. While my library is well down from its peak, I had the best part of 10,000 books, it is still very substantial in multiple bookcases and book boxes. Many of those books have been badly damaged in multiple moves, but they are still precious.

Have I read all those books? No, but that's also been part of the fun. Many of the books are older, some quite old, because they come from my father's and grandfather's libraries. There is a lot of fiction, but the collection is mainly non-fiction, a melange of authors and topics spread over two hundred years. Both topics and writing styles vary enormously, reflecting the interests and cultures at the time of publication. In some cases, I can take a single topic and compare attitudes and writing at multiple points in time over time.

My train reading series of posts began because I was picking books from my shelves at random that I had not read and then making myself finish them, The finishing part was important. I had to do that even when I disagreed with the ideas or found the writing boring because it was part of the game. The result was something of an education, an increase in tolerance, an understanding of difference.

In my current book sort, I have been putting books in piles for possible throw-out. One was Wing Commander Asher Lee's Blitz on Britain, a second Oluf Reed-Olsen's Two Eggs on My Plate.

Blitz on Britain (Four Square paperback, 1960) was published to coincide with the telemovie of the same name. The photo shows pilots running to their plans.

I almost put this book into the bin without re-reading, but then thought that I should read it. I am glad I did. Asher Lee know his stuff!

 The tone of the book is reasonably unsentimental. The writer's sentiments are clear, but the dedication shows that he could stand aside from some of the emotion that surrounds the events of the time.
This book is dedicated to the pilots of both air forces, those of the German Air Force and those of the Royal Air Force. On different days and in different ways they fought against odds with skill, courage and devotion.  
I found the book interesting Lee is able to show events in context on both sides of the Channel. He includes statistical data on things like relative aircraft production. Perhaps the most unexpected message is that the Battle of Britain was by no means the uneven fight, a triumph against overwhelming odds, as conventionally presented.

On the German side, the Germans had to bring their air force up to newly created bases in occupied territory to allow sustained attacks on Britain. This took time. The Luftwaffe was also involved on several fronts, making it more difficult to concentrate resources, a difficulty compounded by strategic confusions. The total number of German planes was substantial, but these were spread across multiple types meaning that the number of a particular type was limited.

The feared Stuka Dive bomber with its iconic siren was used to effect early in the war but suffered from a major weakness, its slow speed compared to fighters. It was used over Britain, but high losses meant that it had to be defended by fighters. This lead to its withdrawal from service in that theatre, reducing the number of available German planes.

On the British side, British military aircraft production had been increasing to the point that it was matching German production. The British also developed air defence systems that allowed them to track in-coming German planes. The big initial problem was shortage of trained pilots. Planes could be replaced, experienced pilots were in short supply.

Here Lee makes a very interesting point about the German experience. The Luftwaffe began with a larger solid cadre of experienced pilots. As the war proceeded, accumulating pilot losses began to degrade the Luftwaffe's offensive capacity quite quickly.

I put Lee's book in the bin.  I was glad that I had read it, but could always borrow it.            

Oluf Reed-Olsen's Two Eggs on My Plate is a more personal story, a story of a Norwegian resistance fighter during the Second World War. The title comes from the habit of giving people who where about to go on mission from England into occupied Europe two eggs on their plate at the final meal. Eggs were in short supply, so this was seen as a signal and reward.

I had read this book many times, but many years before. I read it again with enjoyment (it's a boys own style yarn) and then put it in the bin.

Reading both books reminded me of two things in particular. The first was the passage of time.

I grew up in an era when the Second World War was very close. War stories were common and popular. Now the war has receded into history and become the subject of nostalgia pieces such as ITV's Home FiresFoyle's War and The Halcyon. Perhaps nostalgia is the wrong word, but you know what I mean,

There is something a little odd in the way that so many of the decades from the forties on have progressively become the subject of nostalgia. Nostalgia for particular periods is not new, but we do seem to make a welter of it today. Is it just because populations are aging in many countries, creating a desire to reach back?

The second thing thing was the extent and nature of changing sensibilities. I chose that now old fashioned word quite deliberately. It has two almost contrasted meanings. One is the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity. The second encapsulated in that Jane Austen title Sense and Sensibility is a quality of delicate sensitivity that makes one liable to be offended or shocked..

Each generation has its own sensibilities using both meanings.Each generation assumes that its sensibilities are correct, an assumption challenged by subsequent social and cultural changes. The current age is one of high and complex sensibilities with an especial focus on the second meaning. There are just so many things that offend or shock us. .
My type of reading forces me to confront differing sensibilities. The sensibilities displayed by Asher Lee or Oluf Reed-Olsen are familiar, if different from today's. J L Myres' The Dawn of History is a little different.

The book was first published in 1911 and proved very popular. My copy, a Home University Library edition from 1933, is the tenth reprint. The first page shows it was a second hand book originally owned by M Broadhurst  and sold for 1/6. The writing on the first page in my father's hand says J Belshaw, NEUC (New England University College), Armidale NSW Sept 38.  So it was purchased by my father in his first year in Armidale and just one year before the Second World War broke out.

I had not heard of J L Myres and therefore had to look him up.

Wikipedia records that Sir John Linton Myres (1969-1954) was a British archaeologist who conducted excavations in Cyprus in 1904. In 1910 he became the first Wykeham Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxford, having been Gladstone Professor of Greek and Lecturer in Ancient Geography, University of Liverpool from 1907. At Oxford, he highly influenced the British-Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe.  In addition to his academic writings, he contributed to the British Naval Intelligence Division Geographical Handbook Series that was published during the Second World War.

I almost gave this book up in Chapter One. "We have only to glance at a globe or a general map", Myres wrote, "to realise that as matter of fact almost all historians have confined their attention to a few quite small regions of the world "  Very large areas have little or not historical literature. The reason for this, Myres suggests, "is obvious; there is little or nothing there in the way of human achievement for the historian to write about." Myres then presents a stylised version of cultural types - hunter gatherer, pastoral and agricultural/industrial; civilisation begins, history dawns, with the last beginning in the Middle East. Myres is a geographical determinism and a believer in the big man school of history. He also uses racial descriptors.    

Most current readers would have put the book aside at this point as I was tempted to do. I still use the now old fashioned term prehistory to distinguish between history based primarily on written records and that based primarily on other sources where written records are not available, but this is a methodological distinction.

In my own writing on the history of New England, the first part of the draft book deals with Aboriginal New England up to 1788. In evidence terms, this relies particularly on archaeological evidence supplemented by the ethnographic record. In my mind, this is just as much history as later sections. However,  in writing, I do use the term prehistory at spots where it has particular relevance to the previous study of New England history.    

I digress. I think that part of the reason I objected so strongly to some of Professor Myres' early remarks is that simplistic models of human society are still around and deeply embedded, including especially ideas about the "primitive' nature of hunter gather societies  Like Childe and indeed me, Myres is a synthesizer and model builder. This aids interpretation and the asking of new questions, but in the end new evidence makes fools of us all.

Take this review by  Kambiz Kamrani in Anthropology,net, Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.  In 2009 the first DNA was extracted from the bone of a Neanderthal, In the eight years since, everything we thought we knew about the human past has been turned on ts head. A line has been drawn in fire though multiple compendiums of human thought and belief.

I kept reading because I had to, my rules required it, and in the end was glad that I did. This was partly because my reactions reflected my own sensibilities. Take the racial categorisations. So far at least, they appear to be used as descriptors that reflect prevailing views, but without any overlays of superiority or inferiority. More importantly, Myles' focus on geography and on relationships between groups is in some ways quite modern and creates clear pictures that I found interesting and helpful.

I will reread earlier sections of the book because I am interested in changing thought patterns. However, I want to look again at the way he approaches geography  I am not a geographic or environmental determinist. However, geography is important, and I have been wrestling with the question of the best way of bringing it alive, of integrating it into the narrative in a way that makes it part of the story for readers who know nothing about the area I am writing about. Given all this, I have added the book to the keep pile, at least for the moment.  .  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Section 44 of the Australian Constitution - clouded issues with a dash of moral bigotry

Chaos, confusion and the evolving Section 44 mess provides an update to this post. 

The theatre that is Australian politics continues. with a by-election underway in the Federal seat of New England and now a full state election in Queensland. This post concentrates on the issues surrounding the New England by election.

I first wrote on Section 44 of the Australian Constitution on 2 November 2016 in How far does Section 44 of the Australian constitution actually stretch?. This section reads:
 44. Disqualification
Any person who:
(i) is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power; or
(ii) is attainted of treason, or has been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer; or
(iii) is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent; or
(iv) holds any office of profit under the Crown, or any pension payable during the pleasure of the Crown out of any of the revenues of the Commonwealth: or
(v) has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than twenty-five persons;
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives. 
But subsection (iv) does not apply to the office of any of the Queen's Ministers of State for the Commonwealth, or of any of the Queen's Ministers for a State, or to the receipt of pay, half pay, or a pension, by any person as an officer or member of the Queen's navy or army, or to the receipt of pay as an officer or member of the naval or military forces of the Commonwealth by any person whose services are not wholly employed by the Commonwealth.
At the time my focus was on Senators Day (Section 44 (v)) and Cullerton (Section 44(ii), both of whom were disqualified. Those clauses haven't gone away (there are cases looming here), but it was section 44(i) that was about to bite the Australian Federal Parliament on a sensitive part of its anatomy.

The trigger here was WA barrister Dr Cameron who began investigating the citizenship position of various Parliamentarians.He established that Green Senator  Scott Ludlum was classed by New Zealand as a New Zealand citizen, something that Senator Ludlum was not aware of. Senator Ludlum then resigned from the Senate. Green Senator Larissa Waters then checked her own position, found that she technically had Canadian dual citizenship and then resigned from the Senate as well. This was a considerable loss to the Greens and indeed the Senate itself.

I wrote on this on 18 July 2017 in Senators Ludlum, Waters and the emerging Section 44(i) mess. There I said in part:
.The problem now can be simply put: something like 28% of the Australian population was born overseas, while almost 50% of the Australian population has one parent born overseas. Perhaps as many as 4.5 million Australians are or may be eligible for dual citizenship depending on the laws in the other country and hence not be eligible to stand for the Australian Parliament on a strict interpretation of the wording of Section 44(i)........ 
One of the arguments in the current debate is that people should renounce their alternative citizenships and that they have only themselves to blame if they have not done so. There are a number of problems with this argument. You have to know exactly what your position is. Further, you have to be able to do so in some meaningful way given the laws of the other country. This actually makes membership of the Australian Parliament dependent on other countries' changing laws, something of an absurdity.  
I also commented that a fair bit of point scoring from all sides had gone on around  the question of  Section 44 as they seek to use it for immediate political advantage. At a low level, this included Mr Turnbull's comment on Senator Ludlum:
 "Obviously Senator Ludlam's oversight is a pretty remarkable one when you think about it - he's been in the Senate for so long," Mr Turnbull said.  
"Anyway, there it is, he's ineligible, and so there'll have to be, I assume, a countback ordered by the High Court to produce a replacement for him."  .
Maybe that's fair, I wrote, but it ignores the way this issue has been developing and the implications it has for the operations of Parliament. Do we really want to place ourselves in the position that more than 25% of the Australian electorate may be excluded from running for Parliament?

These were throw away words that Prime Minister Turnbull would come to regret. Even as I was writing that post, Senior National Senator and Minister Matt Canavan discovered that he might be a dual Italian citizen, something I added in a postscript. Senator Canavan took leave from his ministerial position but did not resign from the Senate. Instead, the Government announced that it would test the matter in the High Court,.seeking to clarify the interpretation of Section 44(i).

This was quickly followed by the announcement that first National's Leader Barnaby Joyce and then Deputy Leader Fiona Nash, a Senator, might be dual citizens. This was a serious blow because three of the most senior National Party figures were now under a cloud. Acting on advice from the Solicitor-General, both Joyce and Nash chose to remain in Parliament and as ministers pending the High Court case.

Fall-out continued. Upon checking, Senator Nick Xenophon from the Nick Xenophon Team discovered that he had an obscure form of British citizenship. He stayed in Parliament pending High Court consideration, but later resigned his seat to re-enter South Australian politics. Meantime,One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts came under increasing pressure over his citizenship status and was finally joined in the referral to the Australian High Court, making seven in all.

The Court handed down its decision on 27 October 2017 (decision here). The Court found that five (Ludlum, Waters, Roberts, Joyce and Nash) had been dual citizens at the time of nomination and had therefore not been validly elected, while two (Canavan and Xenophon) were classed as validly elected if on somewhat different grounds.

 While High Court proceedings were getting underway, I tried to tease some of the issues out in Why Barnaby Joyce may not be a dual citizen under Australian law (14 August 2017). The argument with marcellous in comments on that post extended the discussion. There marcellous stated issues that in fact were later reflected in the High Court decision. After the decision, marcellous wrote: "Jim. You were very stubborn on bJ. I'm going to say "I told you so."" I had to laugh. Touche!

In considering the Joyce case and indeed my own, my father was born in New Zealand, I struggled to see how either Mr Joyce or I could be classified as New Zealand dual nationals in circumstanced where we had actually to apply to become so. That still left the entitled problem, that we were entitled to become so by descent. I also struggled to see why the High Court was bound to accept the position that the question of whether a person was a dual citizen or not was to be determined by and only determined by the laws of another country as interpreted in that country. This seemed to me to open a can of worms.

As the case proceeded, it seemed clear that the case was going to be determined within the framework set by the previous High Court decisions since there was limited counterargument. The only question was whether the Court would relax elements of its previous position. In the end, the Court adopted a very literal black letter law position.

I will leave it to others to analyse the full legal implications of the decision. However, to me three things stood out bearing upon the wisdom of letting our interpretation of our constitution depend upon the laws of other countries.

The first was the way that national citizenship laws globally have been been in a state of flux over many decades, with consequent flow-on effects for Section 44)i).

The second was the difficulty that could arise in interpreting particular national laws. In the case of Senator Canavan, the Court could not determine whether in fact he was an Italian citizen based on the advice they received. He was given the benefit of doubt as a consequence,

The third linked issue was the meaning to be attached to the concept of citizenship itself. In the case of Senator Xenophon, the case turned on the question of whether his particular form of British citizenship was in fact citizenship at all set within the frame of current British law, Based on advice, the Court concluded (rightly to my mind) that he was not.

There appears very little appetite for changes to Section 44 in general or 44(i) in particular, with responses determined by immediate political needs as opposed to principles.I note here that while I am sympathetic to Mr Joyce, my position on the importance of the issue, of the potential need for change, was set well before I had any idea that the National Party would be caught up in furor. Most recently, I was especially sympathetic to Senator Waters' position. I thought that was a bit of a travesty,

Ironies abound. The Labor Party, a party that prides itself on its multicultural pluralist stance, is locked into a no change position because that offers the greatest immediate benefit even though it contradicts its stated values. The Coalition, and especially the Liberal Party that has been arguing for a tightening of Australian citizenship laws, now finds itself in a political bind. Even the Greens, another multicultural pluralist supporter, appear to be arguing for the status quo.    
There is a strange moral bigotry in all this, one that I find difficult to express really clearly  Satisfied it has procedures in place that will guard it from damage, the Labor Party has adopted a high moral ground purist position that focuses on compliance, not the underlying issues. It is also conflating issues that are not related.

Changing Section 44, Mr Shorten suggest, is a secondary issue to changing the Australian Constitution to achieve indigenous recognition. That may be right, but the two issues are not connected. I agree that indigenous recognition is very important, but it has nothing to do with Section 44. Linking them clouds discussion on both. But does that matter when you are trying to achieve the moral high ground?


In breaking news, Senate President Stephen Parry (Liberal, Tasmania) has advised the Senate that he may be a British dual citizen. His UK born father came to Australia as a child.He has asked for clarification from UK authorities. There is something a little demeaning in Australia's politicians having to rush to another country to try to establish their citizenship status.

One discomforting thing about the Parry case (sample coverage here, here, here) is that he did not seek to clarify his position, but instead waited for the High Court decision before acting.   

Monday, October 23, 2017

Updating China's Belt and Road project

The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) had an interesting story,  
One Belt, One Road: Australian 'strategic' concerns over Beijing's bid for global trade dominance (23 October 2017), about earlier Cabinet discussions on Australian participation in China's "One Belt, One Road" project. Apparently, the heads of Immigration and Defence strongly advised that Australia should not participate because of strategic risks, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was split with Trade officials in favour of participation, Foreign Affairs officials against.
"The economic case for Australia formally joining simply wasn't made," a senior government figure has told the ABC. 
"We saw very little in additional economic benefit for signing up, but a lot of negative strategic consequences if we accepted Beijing's offer."  
The project, a signature project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, was first announced in 2013. So far, 68 countries including New Zealand have signed up.This 14 May 2017 ABC story, China wants 'new Silk Road' One Belt One Road project to help it dominate world trade, provides additional information, while this earlier piece from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library provides a useful overall summary.  

I wrote of the initiative in Sunday Essay - is this the Eurasian century? (14 June 2015). There I concluded:
Considerable doubts have been raised about the geopolitical problems facing the Chinese initiative. I think that these miss a key point. We are talking relatively long time periods, several decades. As the roads and railway lines spread, so will trade. In a way, I also think that the Chinese are hedging their bets here. If the recreation of the southern Silk Road with all its various projects lags, they still have fast routes to Europe via Russia. 
No where so far as I have seen, I may well have missed something, will you see references to the rise of Eurasia as a continent.We are used to thinking of Europe and Asia as separate continents. They are not. They are a single land  mass that has never been fully integrated because of distance. This is changing quite quickly. 
I think that this is important. In Australia. we like to talk of this as the Asian or Asian Pacific century.What happens if this is actually the Eurasian century?  What does Australia do then?  
In August 2015, I recorded Great Silk Road - first eastbound Polish train leaves Lodz for Chengdu.In January of this year an English service was announced. In April, the first train left England for China.

These trips are hardly fast. I quote from Forbes. "The journey is as much an engineering challenge as a logistical problem. Freight must swap trains along the way, as railway gauges vary between the connecting countries. In its 18-day journey, freight will span 7,456 miles of railways, crossing Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK."

It will be some time before the trains provide effective competition to either sea or airfreight, but the process has begun.

Since I wrote that first story in 2015, I have noticed references to Belt and Road everywhere from travels through the Stans to African stories to stories about ports and investments. I am not talking here about specific Belt and Road pieces, rather stories in which the Belt and Road connection is incidental. I haven't attempted to track them, although perhaps I should. The sheer scale and diversity is a little mind blowing. Herein lies a problem.

Belt and Road combines economic and political considerations. Just considering economic issues in particular,  I am left with a feeling of incoherence, of fragmentation, of failure to prioritise. The project may or may not deliver on China's political objectives, but I have a feeling that it's going to leave a lot of economic white elephants in its wake.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The IPA report on the teaching of history - all piss and wind?

In October, Dr Bella d’Abrera from the Australian Institute of Public Affairs released a report entitled the Rise of Identity Politics: an audit of history teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. Under the heading left is Parading Social Science as History, the IPA supporting story begins:
The history and substance of Western civilisation that are essential to understanding our present and shaping our future are not being taught to history undergraduates. 
Instead, the focus of a typical undergraduate history degree has shifted from the study of significant events and subjects to a view of the past seen through the lens of the identity politics of race, gender and sexuality. 
The Institute of Public Affairs’ audit of the 746 history subjects offered in 35 universities – The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities – has shown that the movement that sought to infuse the humanities curriculum across the Anglosphere with identity politics has come to ­fruition. 
Identity politics encapsulates two main ideas. 
The first is that an individual’s political position (and many other things, such as moral worth) is defined by their identity. The second is the way in which a person is to be treated is decided according to that person’s identity. 
The suspicion that history as an academic discipline has been successfully hijacked by left-wing cultural theorists is no longer hearsay or speculation. The audit reveals that at least 244 of the 746 history subjects belong to the social sciences. History departments are replete with subjects that examine the study of human society and social relationships, not historical events or periods. Take for example Gendered Worlds: An Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of NSW; Masculinity, Nostalgia and Change offered at the University of Western Australia; Monash University’s Nationality, Ethnicity and Conflict; and the University of New England’s Being Bad: Sinners, Crooks, Deviants and ­Psychos. 
None of these subjects belongs in a history department. 
In comparison, of the 746 subjects on offer, just 241 explain the material and technological pro­gress and belief systems of Western civilisation. 
That there are fewer subjects devoted to what can be termed as the essential core topics of Western civilisation than social science topics is evidence the humanities have been captured by the left-wing exponents of identity politics.
I have quoted at length because it captures the tone of the report. In essence:

  • The IPA believes that an understanding of the history and substance of Western civilisation is important in understanding our present and shaping the future. 
  • The IPA has defined what it believes to be the core components that should be included in the study of history if the first is to be achieved, these are set out in the report, and has a program to promote its ideas.
  • The IPA has analysed course titles and summaries. The methodology used is actually unclear, but appears to to be based at least in part on a computer analysis of the frequency of words
  • This is then compared to the IPA's desired model to generate conclusions. 
I happen to agree that an understanding of the history and substance of Western civilisation is important. I agree that many of those teaching since the early 1980s do so from a left of centre perspective. I agree that identity politics, more broadly current fashionable ideologies, is a current issue and that it affects course structure and content. I agree that university history teaching has become fragmented, submerged and that needs to change. But dear oh dear, this report sets back all my arguments for change and different directions. This is not helped by Senator Cory Bernardi's support for its conclusions.

To start with two smaller examples both drawn from the University of New England where I have a degree of knowledge.
A UNE course entitled Being Bad: Sinners, Crooks, Deviants and Psychos is specifically identified a a course that should not be taught at university level. The title is designed to grab student attention. The actual course outline reads:
This unit will examine the development of our attitudes and approaches to law and order through a study of some of the most infamous crimes and criminals in the British world between 1700 and 1900. A series of case studies ranging broadly over space and time, will be considered from both historical and criminological perspectives. This will reveal both changing patterns of deviance and criminal behaviour and the evolving efforts to regulate and prevent it. Students will learn how to find, use and evaluate evidence about crime and use it to understand the development of modern society.
That is clearly a university level course. However, the second. UNE course mentioned in the report,  Professor Howard Brasted's Women in Islam, does appear more problematic at first sight. Here the course outline reads:
This unit is aimed at understanding the complex world of Muslim women today. Among the themes are: the Islamisation of women in Asia, women in politics, both at grass-roots and elite levels, Muslim women in the workforce, feminist perspectives both western and Muslim, the role of the media in defining Muslim women, stereotyping, Muslim women and religious participation and Muslim women and seclusion in a modern world.
You can see how this description might lead you to conclude, as the IPA appears to have concluded, that this is an example of the type of fashionable identity/fashionable cause course that they (and indeed I) complain about.

A friend recently enrolled in this course. It is one of the most intellectually challenging courses I have seen, not one for the faint hearted. It begins with the emergence of Islam, the way power, politics and survival  in those early days created different beliefs. It looks at the different interpretations of the Qur'an (students are advised to get several translations so that they can compare) and the various beliefs that emerged around the basic document. All this is traced through to the present time to help delineate current attitudes. The focus is on women, but you can't understand that without the rest. This is a truly genuine university course of the older type,  By the end, you will have had a basic education in Islamic studies, not just women in Islam.

I was fortunate enough to do university level history in a past age, one of fewer choices but greater capacity for depth, one before the vocational and the need for immediate return became so dominant. All my courses were full year courses, not modules.

In first year, History I covered prehistory to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.In second year, my pass course covered European History from the fall of Rome to the Council of Trent. My honours course covered the English Reformation. In third year, my pass course was Modern European history, with the honours course focused on the American Revolution. In my honours year I took prehistory, philosophy of history  and Australian history plus the obligatory thesis, in my case on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life.  So I have done just the type of broad studies IPA wants.

Sadly, or so it seems to me, those days have gone and will not come back. Here the IPA report is a hindrance, not a help, to those seeking change, for it does not address the real issues.

History is no longer seen as a core discipline.  As a consequence, and as Professor Trevor Burnard points out:
 History gets funded, along with English and Philosophy, at a lower rate than any other subject as a result of Australia’s peculiar policy of funding subjects at different levels depending on supposed cost of delivery and perceived social benefit. The government and student funding per university history student is $12,165. Funding for a student doing Politics is $16,591 and for Media $18,979 – much higher than for History even though how students are taught is similar. 
It was the federal government under John Howard that first introduced this funding system, ironically given his supposed enthusiasm for History as a subject. And Simon Birmingham has shown no sign of wanting to rectify what the Howard government did, in order to provide the resources to teach history effectively.
History Departments and their staff struggle with increasing loads, with the need to reduce costs at a time when overhead costs are rising. They face constant threats as resources are progressively redeployed within corporatised institutions to gain the greatest financial and prestige yield for those institutions.

In a market system within and beyond institutions, they have to attract students to do at least some of their courses, hoping that some of those will be encouraged to go on.  That means packaging courses to attract at least some of the students doing other degrees seen as being more useful or financially rewarding. I may disagree with student or official assessments, I think history and the study of history, is a fundamental and useful building block for just so many things, but few agree with me. To my mind, the remarkable thing about many of the historians in academe that I know is that they still hold to the faith, to the preservation of standards, to a belief in the value of history within the academy.

This, then, is my charge against IPA following this report. At a time when the academic history patient is on life support, the IPA is simply picking over the carcass, wishing to re-arrange the limbs. If the IPA, or Senator Bernadi for that matter, wish to see more studies relevant to the history of Western civilisation, then they need to campaign for more money for history in general. Otherwise, it's all piss and wind.