Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The remarkable case of Australia's cabinet files

I have been working on the follow up post to my first post on surviving in an age of outrage, this one on survival in the public space, but this has taken longer than expected. While it's a reasonably long post, the delay reflects my difficulty in sorting through issues in my own mind. I hope to finish it soon, but in the meantime I wanted to make a brief comment on the remarkable story of the suddenly discovered Australian cabinet papers.

By way of background for international readers, the ABC reports that the story began at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.Among the items on sale were two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one could find the keys. They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill. Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files. The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade. Nearly all the files were classified, some as "top secret" or "AUSTEO", which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.

Following discovery, the files ended up in the hands of the ABC who are reporting on some of the documents (link above). Others were deemed by the ABC to be too sensitive to reveal. I wondered how this might have occurred.

It is now thirty years since I last dealt with highly classified material. Then my top level security clearance allowed me to see sensitive documents including top secret and code word protected. However, there were quite strict rules about those documents. Some I was given, but had to return once I had read them. Others could be stored in a secure heavy metal filing cabinet. A small number had to be stored in a safe. I did not have, did not want the hassle involved in having, such a safe, so these documents had to be returned once I had absorbed them.

When I switched jobs or the area was restructured, the cabinets would remain, with the keys handed over to my successor.

Against this background, I found the discovery a little surprising. I don't know what the filing cases looked like, whether they were just key opened or required a combination as well. I don't know where they were originally located, although from the sound of it it has to be in Prime Minister's and Cabinet, Finance, Treasury or a former minister's office since these were the only places that would have had access to the particular combination of cabinet documents involved.

The only way that I can explain the whole thing is that the filing cabinets in some ways became orphans. This might happen because an area was abolished or a minister lost position, leaving the cabinets behind with no-one responsible. Then they sat there sans keys until someone wanted to clear space. Even then, it's surprising with a disconnect between whoever shifted them and the person authorising the shift. They may have been seen as empty, but they were obviously heavy.

All hell is breaking loose, so we will learn more. One thing to be cautious of is the argument that the breach justifies abolition of paper files or copies. This was an error, not a leak. But if you really want to protect records from disclosure in whatever form by whatever means, keep them paper. Single disclosures of electronic records actually dwarf the total number of leaked written documents across human history.

Update Friday 2 February 2017

The photos I have now seen of the cabinets, assuming that the photo is real, show them with combination locks. At least one is labelled "Cab subs"! ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) has now retrieved the files. It has also been confirmed that the material came from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In an opinion piece in the Fairfax press, Cabinet files reveal a dispiriting truth about how governments work, Waleed Aly expressed concern about the light thrown on the internal workings of government.
Put simply, we're seeing snapshots of governments that either ignore or bury independent advice they don't want to hear, that are prepared to mislead the public about the advice they receive, and that are quite prepared to intervene to politicise processes that masquerade as apolitical.
The first case he cited concerned release of cabinet documents at the time of the Pink Batts Royal Commission. There Mr Aly wrote in part:
And now we know just how belligerent prime minister Tony Abbott was in pursuing Rudd on this. We've known that when he set up the royal commission, he took the stunning step of ordering that confidential cabinet documents be handed over in violation of a century of convention. This, we were told (after it was initially denied), was based on the advice of the Australian government solicitor. 
Now we learn that this very same solicitor in fact gave the opposite advice, saying this would be unprecedented and inconsistent with "legal practice and principle". That advice was reinforced by the secretary of Abbott's own department. Perhaps there's some other legal advice out there taking the opposite position. Or perhaps we were misled.
I am not totally sure of the accuracy of the this part of the comment: "This, we were told (after it was initially denied), was based on the advice of the Australian government solicitor."  I wrote on the release of the documents to the Royal Commission at the time: - The principle of Cabinet confidentiality, Saturday 24 February 2014. If you look at the post, you will see how it evolved in light of comments and further information. This is not such a simple issue as My Aly's comment would seem to imply. 

The second case involved a request by then immigration minister Scott Morrison that ASIO go slow on its security checks of asylum seekers so the government could squeeze through changes that would deny these people permanent protection in Australia. This case made me very uncomfortable because it involved an apparent misuse of due process, of a Government determined to do whatever required to maintain its position regardless of convention. This has been a consistent pattern in the border protection arena, but has not been limited to that area.

In an apparently disconnected story, current Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton has called for public input into the selection of judges and magistrates. This formed part of his current law and order campaign. While he refused to comment on whether or not he supported adoption of the US system, his comments did seem to be going down that path. This led me to wonder if Mr Dutton understood the principles and history of our system of government. Perhaps not, or perhaps he considers them to be unimportant or outdated.

Whichever way, it is a worrying development considering his position in charge of the new mega Department of Home Affairs. To quote the Department,  this "brings together Australia's federal law enforcement, national and transport security, criminal justice, emergency management, multicultural affairs and immigration and border-related functions and agencies, working together to keep Australia safe."  With this combination of activities, Australians are heavily reliant on the willingness of the Department and its minister to follow due process and to temper what can be done with what should be done. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Surviving in an age of outrage - the personal space

We seem to be living in an age of outrage. I know from reading history books or old newspapers that outrage has always existed. However, we appear now to be outraged about so many things and so strongly! And heaven forbid if you choose to disagree. Unless, of course, you are a cultural warrior from the other side when it all becomes grist to your particular mill!

A case in point is the current wave of sexual harassment allegations and the #MeTo movement, something that Neil tiptoes into with Christos Tsiolkas speaks my mind.

I note that, like many, the on-going discussion has caused me to review and question my own past behaviour. That is a good thing, but it's got to the stage that I say not another one, where will this end? I feel tarnished. I know that I'm not alone in feeling this. Some of my female friends feel likewise, that the movement has gone over the top.

There are just so many angry issues now.

At a purely personal level in personal conversation, I used to try to argue counter viewpoints. I do enjoy and argument and also like providing balance. Few issues are wholly black and white. Now where the other person has strong views and especially in a group with similar views, I find it best not to become involved, to listen. Life is too short and relationships too important to risk them over a difference in opinion. I also value having friends with a variety of views.

Mind you, this type of self-censorship is not new, nor do I apply it universally. There is an old saying never discuss money (or sex), religion and politics in polite company. I used to think that that was really fuddy duddy, old fashioned, but it was intended to preserve social cohesion in particular groups or societies by limiting discussion on key topics that divide, that are likely to put people against each other. While I am still of my original view, I am a little more sympathetic. Today there seem to be many more issues that divide.

I think that the problem is compounded by the echo chamber effect combined with diminished diversity in networks. I grew up in a smaller community with multiple, varying and often strongly held views. Survival in that community, the achievement of collective objectives, required a measure of self-discipline. I may violently disagree with X's views on Y, but I needed X's support to achieve a particular community objective. In most cases, best to shut up about Y unless Y is so important that it absolutely requires a response.

I mentioned diminished diversity in networks. I have to be careful, here. Is it just me? Have my own networks just shrunk? At one level that is true, for I see or mix with fewer people in a direct day to day sense. But I don't think that is the case, for I still mix across groups especially in the on-line world as well as in geographic space. I'm actually very lucky here, for my views are constantly challenged.

That said, I am conscious of growing uniformity in group views, of a decline in community cohesion and activity. Again I need to be careful here. I am no longer involved in certain activities such as school that provide a common base. Still, I do feel that people mix less, are less aware of and less accepting of alternative positions.

That's a personal perspective. For the moment and in the personal space, I suppose the key thing that I have learned in surviving in this age of outrage is that you don't have to play. Just respect others views and shut up!

In my second post in this series, I will look at the question of survival in the public space.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Yet more on Pleistocene, Holocene sea level and climate changes

My main post today is on the history blog. Implications for New England of the latest analysis on the impact of sea level change on Aboriginal Australia - a note continues my discussion on the effects of sea level and climate change on Aboriginal New England.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reflections inspired by Nick Brodie's family history "Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation"

I find that my brain has been slow to re-engage after the Christmas break, especially when it comes to serious stuff. To a degree, that's still true. I haven't made any new year resolutions beyond a desire to attempt to work less and to read and relax more.

One of the difficulties with working from home as I am at present lies in achieving real separation between work and leisure. I feel I should be doing something all the time and as a consequence become very inefficient. I  know that I should fix this, but its quite hard. Still, I have picked up my reading.

Looking back over my blogs, I have written a fair bit about family history, my own and family history as a craft or discipline. I mention this now because one of the books I read over Christmas was Nick Brodie's Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation. This is a really good book, a yarn, and I encourage you to read it.

One of the challenges in family history is to find a way to avoid becoming lost in family trees. Each generation you go back in the tree expands the number of names and possible further connections. This makes some family histories effectively little more than lists with some commentary.

The long running BBC TV series Who Do Think You Are, the start of a global franchise, solved this problem by selecting only what they saw as the most interesting bits, the Australian program even more so. This plus the sometimes breathless imposition of current views and sensibilities on the past became somewhat annoying with time.

Nick has chosen a different route by taking portions of the family tree and telling the story in discrete blocks, effectively making each a stand-alone story. This means that you don't have to remember the entire family tree, although I sometimes found myself a little lost and had to refer back to the main tree at the front of the book. But that's just me. You can read the book as a series of stories without worrying to much about that.

He has also consciously tried to place the stories in the context of the time, trying to avoid or at least minimise the filter created by the present.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had finished, at least for the present, my Express series on New England's built landscape and architecture. Inspired Nick Brodie, I decided to do the next series of columns on the Belshaw family.

The first column is here. The photo shows walking day, Platt Bridge, Wigan 1900. I promised Cousin Cyril a long time ago that I would write a full history of the Pacific Belshaws and added it to my list of books. As you might expect given my already existing list of books, this has lagged. Still, its a start in sorting out themes. .  


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy - interpreting Donald Trump revisited

It's been a while since I said anything about President Trump. There seemed to be little sensible that I might say that would add value to such a polarised discussion.

Looking back over the little I have written, in  Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy - interpreting Donald Trump (18 January 2018)  I suggested that the writing of Tom Clancy might be used as a framework to interpret President Trump. I said:
I am not equating Jack Ryan with Donald Trump. They are very different people. However, Clancy did capture accurately certain aspects of US right wing populist thinking (I am using that phrase in a descriptive not pejorative sense) including distrust of those within the Beltway and of career politicians, a belief in bureaucratic inefficiency, a belief in the people, a belief in US military power and a somewhat mercantilist view of trade.
I also noted that in bringing about change, President Ryan has to deal with a media and political establishment that constantly tried to interpret his actions against existing models, paradigms, of thought and action. I thought that this was important, for that's what people were trying to do, judge Mr Trump against existing models that didn't quite fit. I thought that we would have to watch and wait to see what it all meant. I really didn't know! At the end of this post, you will find the new President's inaugural speech. That's worth re-reading, for it does provide a framework for President Trump's subsequent actions.

Clancy wrote rattling good yarns and I still enjoy them. However, I always thought that there was a certain naivety in his view of the world, one that became more pronounced with time. This included a belief in and fascination with the application of technology in a military environment allowing the US to win wars despite an over-stretched military. .

Jack Ryan is not Donald Trump. In Executive Orders (1996), Ryan becomes President unexpectedly after a Japanese pilot crashes his airliner into the Capitol building during a special joint sitting killing nearly all members of the Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. That's cleaning the swamp on a large scale.

Ryan inherited a fully functioning White House staff. This included Arnold van Damm as a Chief of Staff, a key figure with extensive political and Washington experience who guided the President through those first turbulent days. Ryan also picked highly competent replacement figures, especially in Treasury and Defence. They may be stereotypical of that belief that private sector figures are best, their attitudes may reflect prevailing orthodoxy about the inefficiencies of the public sector,the need for tax reform and redeployment of Defence spend, but they were highly competent, able to manage the re-emerging Congress without involving the President. In turn, Ryan gave them a wide degree of freedom.

Unlike Ryan, President Trump came to office after a very messy election campaign. Unlike Ryan, he faced a fully functioning if somewhat dysfunctional Congress. Unlike Ryan, he had to create his office from scratch. President Trump also faced a problem in that he did not have a lot of real depth to draw from in setting up that office and in making Executive appointments.

Twelve days after that first post I wrote Monday Forum - the administrative competence of the Trump Administration.That post began:
I think that the thing that most surprised me about President Trump's Executive Order "PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES" was the apparent administrative incompetence involved, something that may be becoming a feature of the new US Administration at this point in its life.          
This was an initial analytical, not political; observation. I said something very similar about new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd very early.The weaknesses and features displayed in the immediate period after his election would ultimately bring Mr Rudd down.

It will be twelve months Saturday since President Trump's inauguration. It's been a roller-coaster ride. If we look at a policy level, I think that President Trump has broadly tried to stay true to his original campaign pledges sensible or not. But then we have twitter and off-the-cuff Trump. Not only has this created uncertainty, but it has continued an almost existential debate that began prior to Mr Trump's election, one in which different world views collide in ways that may not have a lot to do with what is actually happening.

One unfortunate result has been a coarsening of the political rhetoric on both left and right as they talk past each other and try to relate beyond.. I listened to an example of that this morning from Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo.

Australia is engaged in a trade dispute with Canada over wine. In describing this this morning on ABC Radio National, Minister Ciobo used Trumpian language about Australian jobs and Australian first. I'm not sure he used exactly that last phrase, but that was the message.

This is a trade dispute. Australia believes, correctly to my mind, that Canadian restrictions are reducing importation of Australian wine in a way that is in breach of World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements intended to prevent restrictions on global trade.. Australia is therefore taking action against Canada under the WTO rules  to try to reduce the perceived barriers.

The way that Minister Ciobo phrases it plays into the current trope about the dangers of globalisation and free trade and the need for countries to to adopt them first attitudes regardless of the broader consequences. This began on the left and has now spread to the right and to the left and right populist parties. To my mind, it is one of the most dangerous sides of Trumpism.

This cartoon presents the results of the me-first policies that helped create the Great Depression. I could not find the Low cartoon on autarchy that shows each country eating their own legs in the interests of self sufficiency. 
At present, my train reading is W K Hancock's Argument of Empire (Penguin Books, 1943). Keith Hancock is arguably Australia's greatest historian. I will write about this book properly later in my train reading series. For the moment, the book reminded me of the Great Depression and its aftermath.

In 1930,  The US Congress passed the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act. This was an America first measure designed to protect American jobs at a time of global downturn. It lead to other countries adopting or increasing protectionist measures. The result was disaster, a collapse in world trade, that turned a depression into the Great Depression. As the results were recognised, countries began to reduce tariffs and sign free trade agreements, a process brought to a sudden end by the onset of war. However, the lessons learned led to a new series of agreements including Bretton Woods (1944) and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (1947) that created the structure for a new rules based economic order.

This structure laid the base for economic expansion in the Post War period, but is now under severe threat. How President Trump responds on trade issues is one of the two critical Trumpian things I will be watching in 2018.

The second can best be described as insecurity. For much of the time since the Second World War, Australia has operated within a relatively stable international relations and security framework. The American Alliance has been central to that. New developments such as the rise of China posed a challenge to that framework, but few Australians (me included) expected a situation where instability and uncertainty in US foreign policy itself would become a significant challenge.What do Australia and all US allies do now?

I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing, but it is unsettling. It's unsettling for the US too in ways that I'm not sure are properly recognised there as yet. The US is used to doing its own thing, used to being in the lead with others following. As the US withdraws  from certain activities such as the agreement on climate change or the TPP, other countries step up.

We simply don't know how the Trump administration will evolve over the next twelve months, we don't know what changes in defence and foreign affairs will be made as a consequence. We just have to wait.     .

Saturday, January 13, 2018

January round-up of my other writing - Historic changes in climate and sea levels, more on hominin history, architecture and the built environment, Airbnb

Today's post is another of those update rambles through my recent research and writing in other places..

Historic Changes in Climate and Sea Levels

I am still seeking to increase my understanding of the enormous variations in climate and sea level over the last 100,000 years, something that affected all human species.  If Aboriginal people arrived on Sahul 65,000 years ago, they would have been affected by multiple changes including especially the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum and the subsequent arrival of the Holocene. The last two saw sea levels fall by 120 metres below current levels then rise to perhaps 3 metres above current levels before stabilising. The climate fluctuated from relatively benign to very cold, windy and dry to hot and moist to today's climate.

These are huge changes. Generally, they would not have been noticeable within any generation, but sometimes sea level changes were so fast that entire hunting ranges could be lost in a single generation. That's a very fast change, one that appears to have been recorded in Aboriginal oral traditions.

We can think of these patterns at various levels. At the highest level, there are widespread changes that affected the varying distribution and indeed evolution of various hominin groups. Then there is the likely pattern at the time the peoples who would become the Aborigines were making their way to Sahul. We then have the changes that occurred after arrival affected the distribution of people across the continent and might well have threatened the very survival of the Aboriginal peoples.

One of the analytical challenges is to move from the broader picture to the local. The exact pattern of climate and sea level change and its effects varied between areas far more than I had originally realised .There was also more variation over time. You simply cannot take a broader macro picture and just apply it locally.

No doubt you will hear more of all this! For the present, my most recent posts have been:
Populating the Globe

I have continued monitoring as best I can research results on early human history, the most recent post being Beringia and the settlement of North America - DNA results from Alaska.

Of all the academic fields I am interested in, I think that history is the one that has changed most over the years. While the basic canons of the discipline remain, I'm not sure that can be said of other fields such as economics, the tool kit available to historians has exploded. In many ways, history has become a truly multi-disciplinary subject.

This poses a major challenge for historians. How do you  absorb all this stuff, especially in areas outside your areas of expertise?

Architecture and the Built Environment

Architecture and  the built environment has continued as one of my major interests. A sad note first. Dreams of self-sufficiency - the Lammas Ecovillage has been one of the most popular posts on this blog in the last twelve months. Sadly, the hobbit house that featured burned down on New year's Day.

At the end of December my Armidale Express series on New England's built landscape and architecture came to an end after some sixteen columns. There was much more to say, but I thought that it was time for a break. I will bring up a post on the New England history blog providing an entry to all the columns in order and then post a link. For the present, I have created an entry point for the last four columns, The story of builder and philanthropist George F Nott, making it easier to access information on this remarkable man.

As an aside, one of the features I have noticed on the UK Grand Designs program is the importance placed on airtight houses to reduce heating costs and hence energy consumption. This included mandated rules and physical testing to ensure the house is airtight. Watching Grand Designs at a time I was writing on New England's architecture and built landscape, I was struck by the differences in perspective, between keeping heat in and Australia's desire to keep heat out. In pre-air conditioning days.this made things like breezeways, eaves and verandahs critical.

 I was therefore struck by a recent story suggesting that modern Australian air tight homes designed to be energy efficient were in fact having the opposite effect. The ABC headline captures the message: Modern homes trapping heat 'like a plastic bag".

Airbnb and similar platforms

My first post on the New England Australia blog this year, How new platforms such as Airbnb and Stayz might support New England development part 1, went in a different direction.

I have always been interested in the impact of new technologies. Most recently, the new communications and computing technologies seemed to hold out the promise of increased individual freedom, diversity and choice. To a degree they have gone in the opposite direction, encouraging centralisation, control, conformity and standardisation.

A particular effect that I have been concerned about is the impact on local activities. The vision was that the the new technologies would provide choice in location and lifestyle. You could work from wherever you wanted, access services from wherever you wanted, breaking the tyranny imposed by distance and travel costs. To a degree that has happened, but for every local job created dozens have been lost through service centralisation facilitated by the new technologies.

In a way, platforms such as Airbnb or Stayz are no different in that the markets they play to are driven by existing patterns. For everybody who knows Bingara, 100,000 plus know Byron Bay. Traffic and service supply are drawn to the existing bigger markets, reinforcing the status quo. .

All that said, I have recently spent time browsing round Airbnb listings for various New England centres. It started looking for specific places to stay but ended with a much extended and quite enjoyable browse. I was left with though that Airbnb or Stayz might actually be used as platforms to support tourist development outside the main tourist centres which automatically attract Airbnb or Stayz visitors. I want to tease this out in my second post in this series.

Update 17 January 2018

Map of Australia by Sean Ulm showing sea-level change and archaeological sites for selected periods between 35,000 and 8,000 years ago. PMSL=Present Mean Sea Level. 
Regular commenter on my history blog JohnB pointed me to this recently published paper on the historic pattern of climate change in Australia:Alan N. Williamsa, Sean Ulm, Tom Sapienzab, Stephen Lewis and Chris S.M. Turneya, Sea-level change and demography during the last glacial termination and early Holocene across the Australian continent, Quaternary Science Reviews Volume 182, 15 February 2018, Pages 144–154, published on line 12 January 2018. 

The authors provided a summary of the  paper in The Conversation, "Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before", January 16 2018. The map is from this paper.

While the authors' analysis of the past appears broadly consistent with my own analysis, there are a couple of elements that make me cautious I need to think this through and will write an analysis on my history blog when I have done so with a cross-link here. Meantime, I thought you might find the results interesting.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Train reading - reflections on Lyon's Balcony over Jerusalem

One of the books I was given for Christmas was Balcony Over Jerusalem: a Middle East Memoir (HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney 2017) written by John Lyons with partner Sylvie Le Clezio who provided the photos. John Lyons is a distinguished Australian journalist. In 2009 he, Sylvie and son Jack moved to Jerusalem following John’s appointment as Middle East correspondent for the Australian. They lived there for the next six years.

While the book does describe some of John’s experiences covering conflicts across the Middle East, its primary focus is on the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians using both family experiences and John’s interviews as catalyst and evidence.

It’s actually a difficult book to summarise properly. In broad terms, he:

  • Shows how Israeli occupation including the settlement program affects, penalises, ordinary Palestinians
  • Examines the evolution of the settlement program, arguing that it reflects long-standing Israeli policies
  • Traces the rise in power of the settler movement
  • Suggests that occupation and the settlement program is having a coarsening affect on Israeli culture and political life, with most Israelis increasingly isolated, cocooned, 
  • Is very critical of the Palestinian leadership which he regards as inept, corrupt and self-serving, caught in an almost  symbiotic relationship with the Israeli Government
  • Is very critical of US Government policy and the influence of the pro-Jewish lobby in Australia and the US 
  • Suggests that a real two state solution may no longer possible given fragmentation of Palestine lands
  • Suggests that the Israeli Government cannot accept majority rule in a single state since demographic change means that the Jewish population would inevitably be in a minority. In these circumstances, the most likely outcome is an apartheid Bantustan style arrangement.

I note that this is my interpretation in my words.

Issues of Balance, Bias and Pattern

I felt that this book was partisan to the point that balance was lost.

I will explain this in a moment. First, I want to give you a link to a response from the polar opposite, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), an organisation heavily (and I suspect correctly) criticised by John. His descriptions of the AIJAC’s lobbying efforts within the Australian were a bit staggering.

The AIJAC piece suggests, among other things, that John is biased to the point that it distorts his judgement; that he misrepresents or at least misreads the history of Jewish settlement in the occupied lands; that he presents attitudes in Israel as fixed and uniform when there is variation; and that he quotes selectively from those who support his position.

To cross-check the AIJAC report from an Israeli perspective, I spent a frustrating three hours searching for Israel  English language responses to the book, including site specific searches on both Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. Recognising the growing weaknesses of Google as a search tool, a constant frustration, I thought that I might find something since I think the book received some form of Israeli launch. That was not to be. The coverage that is out there was almost entirely written from a Palestinian perspective.

I said that I felt that Balcony over Jerusalem was partisan to the point that balance was lost. It is a passionate book, a memoir, neither a journalist’s report nor a coldly objective analysis. I found myself wishing that John had dealt a little more with the why, including Israel’s place in the region. I found myself questioning some of his examples not because they were necessarily wrong, but because of a feeling that John’s passion made the reporting unreliable. In this context, I thought that the AIJAC response made some valid points.

John also has something of a reputation as a campaigner.This 2005 piece from Crikey, John Lyons: hatchet man on the make, provides a then left perspective. The review of Balcony over Jerusalem by David Leser  in the Australian (Still Occupied, 5 August 2017)  provides another perspective.

If you accept the book's bias, if you accept that the reporting on individual events and broader history is not necessarily reliable, there is still a pattern of events, one that is supported by other reports, linked to the nature of occupation itself, to the concept of a Jewish state and to the need for that state to defend itself. That is why I read Balcony Over Jerusalem with interest, but with a sense of depression..

My Own Evolving Position

Back on 11 November  2009, I wrote:
I do not pretend to understand the dynamics of this conflict, although I do know a fair bit of the history. Like many Australians, I have swung from very strong support for Israel coming out of the dynamics of World War II to something of an opposite position, almost a pox on both your houses. 
Leaving aside current issues, I think that the combination of economics and demographic change is working inexorably against Israel. I suspect that if I sat down and looked at the numbers I could probably guess the point at which the balance will finally tilt. It may be that Israel has now lost its chance for a viable two state solution and that, instead, it is now staring down the barrel of a gun at some far more unpalatable outcomes.
I am old enough that the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust were very fresh when I was a child. I also grew up in a fairly religious environment, so I was very familiar with the the Bible and its stories. I was also strongly influenced by Leon Uris's 1958 novel, Exodus and the subsequent 1960 film of the same name.  I wasn't blind to things like the Irgun terrorist attack on the King David Hotel nor to the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians, but I was very pro-Israel.

There was a an underdog, David and Goliath thing in all this. As Israel grew in strength to become a nuclear power with the most powerful armed forces in the immediate region, it became harder to think of it as underdog. The continuing troubles associated with occupation, settlement and injustice began to rank more highly, to erode my support for Israel. I was not alone here. It was part of a broader trend. The Israeli/Jewish lobby may be powerful and able to deliver tactical victories in certain countries, but it appears to have lost the strategic war. so far as public opinion is concerned.

Part of Israel's problem lies in its definition of itself as a Jewish and democratic state.Originally, Jewish was defined in terms of ethnicity. Hitler did not distinguish between Jews by ethnicity and Jews by religion. If you met the Nazi definition of Jewish based on birth you went to the gas chambers. With time, the Israeli definition of Jewish seems to have become more focused on religious belief.

There is an inherent tension between a Jewish and democratic state. How can you be a Jewish state if the majority of your population is not Jewish? How can you be democratic if you have rules to preserve your Jewishness and role as a Jewish state that over-ride democratic majorities?

In theory, the problem might be resolved in this way. Israel is a secular state.It is also homeland to the Jews. Both are written into the constitution and are accepted by all. Being a Jewish state need not mean, however, that non-Jews are discriminated against. All Israelis are equal but all accept that Israel is a home for the Jews wherever they may live, a refuge. This does not preclude Israel being home to others, nor does it mandate special treatment for Jewish people in domestic law. In practice, this is not so easy. The problem has become more complex as the definition of Jewishness becomes more religious based.   

At present, people of Jewish descent make up around 75% of the Israeli population, around 6.6 million people. All these numbers are rubbery since they are affected by boundary definitions and disputes. The Arab population is around 1.85 million. In West Bank and Gaza, the non-Jewish population is around 4.7 million. Again very roughly, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations are roughly in balance. However, the higher non-Jewish birthrate means that the Jewish population is likely to drop well below half over the next thirty years. Here-in lies the rub.

The original two state solution would have made two different spaces. However, the progressive fragmentation  of the West Bank now makes it very difficult to create anything approaching a viable, sensible Palestinian state. A one state solution means that  the Jewish population could be out-voted if votes proceeded on ethnic lines.

 I am going to have to leave this thought thread up in the air. I am out of time on these reflections.I suppose that what I am searching for is a path outside the current binary approach.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Vale Scrawny

Sadly, I think Scrawny has died.

Initially I thought of him as Blackie, then a reasonably fed cat from across the road. Suddenly he got, well, scrawny, clearly starving.

I started to feed him outside the front door. A few months later I reported that Scrawny was doing quite well:

"He/she, I’m still not sure which, has put on weight. Scrawny remains resolutely independent. I think Scrawny is being fed by other people now as well, for visits to me have become less regular. Days will pass without sightings and then there is a miaow at the gate when I go out. We chat, I provide food, and then go on my way."

With time, we came to a working arrangement. He would scratch at the front door on most morning and afternoons and I would give him some food. The birds liked this arrangement too! They started gathering in the morning  I could watch them from the kitchen window.

Later, I learned a little more about Scrawny. His real name was Smokey, although he remained Scrawny to me. His owner had a stroke that put him into a wheelchair. Neighbours were feeding Scrawny, but I don't think that it was as regular as it should have been given his emaciated state. I also found out that he had cat aids.

Scrawny has not been well in recent weeks, having difficulty in eating, losing weight. I was away for a week and even though food was being left out for, him he went down hill. Then he started throwing up food even when cut up into very little pieces and fed in small bits. He would eat, and then go back to home territory across the road. Then, a week ago, he vanished.

I am not a sentimentalist so far as animals are concerned, but I will miss Scrawny!

Update 17 January 2018

Last night there was a very large sharp bang, loud enough to rattle some windows in the street and bring the most of the neighbourhood out into the street. I gathered across the road with what turned out to be almost the entire Smokey aka Scrawny feeding group. "Did you hear what happened to Smokey", one asked? I replied that I did not, but that he had been unable to hold down any food.

One of the feeding group said that she had tried giving him cats milk with food mashed into it. She had also organised antibiotics. He seemed to get a little better, but then vanished. On 2 January his body was found in front of another house just a little up the road. He had died on the doorstep with his paw still stretched out. A sad end for what had become such a well liked cat.   .

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Street stories - meeting the Assistant Cat Lady

I met the Assistant Cat Lady over Christmas on one of my walks. I have been trying to keep my walks up, driven by the little pedometer on my belt. My target is 10,000 paces a day, but that's actually quite difficult to achieve. Still, I continue to try.

I came around the top of the street and there was a much older lady walking her dog. I knew her by sight,. I know all the regular walkers by sight, and had always said hello. This time we stopped for a chat, encouraged by her dog who clearly required a pat. That was how I learned the story of the Cat - and possum - Lady.

The Assistant Cat Lady explained that over Christmas she had spent time helping a friend feed her cats, something that had become a regular pattern. This was clearly significant, I could see in my mind that cats was in capital letters, so I asked how many. Well, my friend said, it started with a few (her own) but then grew in numbers because of the number of hungry strays, most unsexed, that were attracted by the food. Now there were twenty!  

Don't the neighbours object, I asked? They do, she said, but more about the possums. The possums, I responded?! Well, she explained, WIRES (the wildlife rescue service) releases rescued possums into the park at the end of the street. This park extends into golf courses and wetland areas. The difficulty, it seems, is that there is almost no possum food, so the animals starve, attracting them to the food put out for the cats.

Given possums don't eat the same things as cats, Cat Lady's Assistant experimented with fruit and vegetables to find things most attractive to possums. Now six possums have joined twenty cats at feeding time.

How did you become involved, I asked? Cat Lady's Assistant explained that her friend lived alone, was frail and had little money.She could no longer afford electricity and lived without power. So the Assistant Cat Lady had become the main feeder.

She started telling me stories, especially about the possums. There was the new father whose partner and new babies lived down the back of the yard. They stayed there while he suspiciously came up to the feeding area. He would grab some food and rush back to the family. That deposited, he would come back for more.

Being an Assistant Cat Lady has its complications. There had been some burglaries in the neighbourhood and an umarked police car with its lights out was parked on watch. It's just turned dark when around the corner comes Assistant Cat Lady carrying a large bag. Excuse me, said the police, what are you doing? I'm going to feed the cats and possums. May we look in your bag, the police asked? It was a big bag. Out came a variety of foodstuffs.

Interested, the police asked her for more details. She explained the whole story. They then turned the spotlight on. All you could see were the tails and bums of cats and possums running in all directions!

For those who celebrate Christmas, I hope that yours was happy. May 2018 be good for all of us.