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.  .