Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Kitchen Garden

I was flaneuring around Mosman, one of those leafy North Shore Sydney suburbs. looking at architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens. Houses had grown and gardens shrunk to mere decoration or, at best, extensions of indoor living. My mind was cast back…..
 In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda, in the Falls country east of Armidale.  It had been done in a rush.

They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.

They left Nulalbin in December 1884 for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hill on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.

Establishing the kitchen garden

One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on the properties around Armidale, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.

In the towns, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardeners with their plots spread along the local creek were a common feature in most Northern towns.

Creating kitchen gardens was not always easy. The spring of 1885 was a very good one on Kangaroo Hill. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came that evil that those living in the New England high country know so well, a sudden frost. “It seems useless”, Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.”

Albert’s problems were not unusual. New England is marked by great variation in soils, temperature and rainfall from coastal subtropical to high country to semi-arid. The new settlers had to learn what would grow best, how to grow it. In many places, water had to be carefully rationed. Nevertheless, they persevered and finally succeeded. They learned how to  create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. They also learned when to plant things to best effect.

The importance of fruit and vegetables

The importance of fruit and vegetables in diet was stressed but not always complied with in a meat loving society. In 1893, Sydney doctor Philip E Muskett, one of the first Australian nutritionists, attacked Australians love of meat, tea and tobacco. Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked six or more miles a day. This advice was largely ignored.

The CWA (Country Women's Association) was more practical. Founded in 1922 to provide mutual support to country women often living in isolation, its long running cook book (it’s still in print) became something of a domestic bible. Home is not a Home without a garden. Plant one, and it will repay you” it stated:
Every wise housewife knows the value of the kitchen garden. It is a money saver, and a pleasure at all times. Nearly all vegetables are of easy culture. All soup vegetables should be grown at home. It is a great comfort to slip out and cut your own home requirements in your own back yard."
This advice combined an appeal to domestic values with the idea of economy and good cooking. Those CWA ladies became considerable cooks, capable of cooking for often large numbers with the sometimes limited ingredients at hand.

Masterchef has been a popular Australian cooking show in which contestants compete by cooking particular dishes for judgement by an expert panel. Back in 2010, the challenge set for contestants in one show was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts.

I was watching it with my family. Now we knew the CWA pretty well and had eaten a lot of country cooking. My wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.

These contestants had cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There had been individual failures, but overall the results had been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed big time. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I gave her some time ago. “I feel like scones”, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.

After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2.

I digress, but they were nice scones!

Managing the kitchen garden

A reasonable size home garden could be a complex operation involving all the family.. Herbs - lavender, thyme, marjoram, mint, sage, parsley and rosemary - were usually grown near the back door so that they could be easily picked for domestic purposes.

Further out were the vegetables grown in cycles depending on the growing season. Standard vegetables included onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and beans, sweet corn, pumpkins, lettuce, sometimes garlic although its use was then less common, cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, silver beet, beetroot, parsnips and turnips. The compost heaps could normally be found near the vegetable garden, carefully maintained to provide a steady stream of compost to the changing beds.

The garden nearly always included vines and fruit trees, with the mix varying depending on the climate. In the case of our home garden - a cool climate garden - there was the ubiquitous grape vine, three apricot trees, a rather superb plum tree, a fig tree, gooseberries, red and black currants, strawberries and raspberries. In warmer climates, you might find passion fruit and citrus trees.

Many gardens also contained a chook (hen) yard providing fresh eggs and the sometimes fowl for dinner. Some breeding their own chicks maintained roosters whose crowing could disturb the town neighbourhood. As a child, I hated discovery an embryo in the egg. The manure from the yard was collected and used to fertilise the beds.

Even in town, many families maintained a milker to provide milk, cream and butter. Staying at Glenroy, my aunt and uncle’s property at Kentucky south of Armidale, we used to get up early to go with Uncle Ron to see the cow milked. The milk would be brought back in a bucket and then heated gently to raise the cream that would be collected and used to make butter. In Armidale, mum would sometimes send us out to get fresh milk that came from a cow a few blocks away.

Then there were the flowers grown both for decoration and to supply cut flowers to the house. At home, they would be cut and then brought into the kitchen for trimming and placement in the multiple vases that Mum had placed on the kitchen table. I have some of those vases in front of me as I write, although I fear that my use of them is now, at best, irregular.

Harvest Time

The reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. As children we knew every fruit tree in the immediate area, knew when they were coming into fruit. We also picked and ate from the garden, new peas, tomatoes, fresh beans and little cucumbers. No problem in getting children to eat fruit or vegetables Somehow things that we picked ourselves were just that much more satisfying.

For adults, hard work was involved. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. It wasn’t just produce from the home garden. Fruit and vegetables now in abundant supply and therefore cheap were purchased or given by relatives or friends. There was a considerable bottling ritual, a production process. The bottles were sterilised, the fruit cooked, the tomato relish made, the jams created, providing a steady stream of produce for the rest of the year. Some of the tastes were wonderful. Many of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!

From a kid's perspective, one of the greatest things about the home garden was the way it provided trees to climb, places to hide, spots to dig in or to build camp fires. We were expert in fires, how to start them in the best way, how to build fireplaces. Potatoes cooked in the ashes were eaten, charcoal and all, with butter with the melting butter running down fingers. Nostalgia!

Australia’s changing diet

There is an enduring myth that Australians only discovered nice food with the arrival of new migrant groups after the Second World War. This myth compares the perceived standard meal of meat and three over-cooked vegetables with the variety in Australian diet that we now have.

Like most myths, there is a kernel of truth. Many more food options are now available. In my own case, for example, olive oil has moved from something that was a medicine when I was a child to a cooking staple. I use more garlic, a greater variety of herbs. There is far more variety in salads, we use more lentils. These are all gains. That said, the history of Australian food is far more complex than people realise.

The Australian diet has changed many times since the European occupation of the continent, It has also varied from area to area. Take, as a simple example, the decline in the calories required to support daily activities.

At the end of the nineteenth century, men humped weights as a matter of course that would now be illegal outside gyms. On the female side, too, the eighty per cent of women without servants engaged in the sheer physical drudgery of maintaining households without those labour saving devices we now take for granted. Both men and women walked long distances as a matter of course.

As life became more sedentary, the required daily calorie intake dropped. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that it may well have halved over the twentieth century. This led to changes in food tastes.
At the start of the twentieth century, cook books were full of cake and biscuit recipes. They ran for pages. There were hundreds of local variations. Cakes were eaten at meals, served to visitors, taken in packed lunches. By the end of the twentieth century, the cake was largely vanquished. This was partly due to greater choice in sweet things including ice cream, more to the decline in calorie requirements. Even the CWA cookbook, that bastion of cakes and baking, has dropped some of its traditional recipes, replacing them with low carb options.

Now, too, we waste more food. The earlier cook-books had many recipes to take advantage of left-overs. There were good, practical, reasons for this emphasis. Food took a much higher proportion of family income than it does today for most.

The roast chook became soup, the vegetables went into bubble and squeak, the roast lamb or beef was minced for a new dish. I still miss the cast iron hand-mincer I inherited from my parents. I don’t know what happened to its innards, they went missing in one of our many moves. It was actually much more efficient (and easier to clean) than modern devices.

Recognising that we clearly have more variety in food today, it is less clear that we eat better. The opposite may in fact be the case as preparation is replaced by convenience. Now we obsess about diet and dieting.

The emphasis on proper nutrition is not new. At least from the time of Philip Muskett in 1893 through the first CWA cookbook to the domestic science lessons, official pronouncements and cookbooks of the 1930s, the need for a balanced diet was recognised and emphasised. One result was a focus on the dreaded meat and three vegetables since that was an easy way to prepare standard balanced meal. Today we have gone further: we search for miracle diets that will somehow reduce our weight, avoid allergies and improve our overall health and longevity. And all with minimum effort!.

The many changes in Australian diet over the years partially reflects changing fashions and the availability of food stuffs, but also the tools available for cooking. Cooks have to match what they do to the available equipment. Thus the open fire and camp oven was replaced by the fuel stove and then the generally smaller gas or electric stoves better suited to the smaller kitchens in the growing urban areas. These had advantages, but also limited what could be cooked. Today, bigger kitchens are back along with a new range of BBQ equipment.

In our case, we had a substantial fuel stove that not only provided constant hot water but a substantial range of cooking options. It could be a bit cranky; you had to be able to judge the temperature, but that came with experience. The firebox was on the right. The temperature  of the whole stove could be controlled by varying the intensity of the fire through a combination of fuel and dampers. The hot air from the fuel box ran along the top of the stove to the chimney on the left.

A hot plate ran the length of the stove with heat gradually diminishing towards the chimney. This allowed food to be cooked and then moved to a cooler place to set or stay warm. The ever present kettle could be moved from the left of the stove to the hotter right where it quickly boiled. The oven was on the left with a warming oven below. This allowed food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving. Later, my mother acquired an electric fry pan, a useful supplement when time was pressing.

The food we ate was influenced by what we had in the garden, what had already been harvested and stored. The standard main meal was two courses, three for bigger meals. The main dish consisted of a meat dish presented in different ways, usually with two to three vegetables drawn from the garden. Growing up in sheep country, sheep meat was a staple. Beef, the major meat across Australia was less common because it was more expensive.

This main meal; was followed by a desert often of bottled fruit, sometimes with fresh cream or (more rarely) ice cream. In some cases soup preceded the main meal.

The exact mix of main meals depended on what was available. Soups, stews, roasts and casseroles were common because these made best use of available produce. I still love the taste of fresh field mushrooms, of rich casserole sauce.

There was great variety in home made soups. Some soups like chicken, often made from the remains of a bird previously killed, were relatively light, as were the broths served to invalids. Some soups were major meals in their own right, served with crusty bread.

The pattern with other meals was a little different. Breakfast was generally a bigger meal than it is today. As children, we normally had porridge or wheat bix with hot milk followed by a hot meal, often bacon or some form of eggs. Later when things were busier, I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf or from the fridge and have it with cream.

Lunch, by contrast, was far more pedestrian depending on just what we were doing. In fact, lunch did not have a clear pattern because it varied so much. On Sundays then as indeed now, lunch was often a roast dinner. The Sunday roast remains an enduring tradition in many Australian households. Where, as in this case, lunch was actually dinner, tea was a relatively light meal.

There were then no school canteens, nor were there the bars and other convenience snacks that now dominate the supermarket shelves. School lunches were sandwiches, a piece of fruit, often a piece of cake, and a drink. Looking back at some of the reminiscences from the 1950s, the memory of soggy tomato sandwiches seems to be a constant theme!

There were other meals and snacks, of course. The pattern here varied from family to family depending on income and taste.

Then as now, busy parents sometimes resorted to the very quick and easy. This was where tinned food came in handy. Tinned spaghetti or baked beans on buttered toast or tinned soups with bread fingers.

The kitchen garden’s decline

The kitchen garden that used to be common in both city and country has been in sad decline. The gardening folk memories that we used to absorb from our parents have also declined as a consequence. The decline began slowly and then accelerated during the busy 1980s.

Walking around Armidale or Queanbeyan during the 1970s you would still see kitchen gardens everywhere. Queanbeyan, the NSW town just across the border from the Australian Capital Territory where I was then living, was a fascinating place with a large immigrant community that had come to work on the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme or on the building of Canberra. They brought with them farming and gardening techniques from Eastern and Southern Europe where the home garden had been a way of life. This was industrial scale kitchen gardening where the garden and associated livestock provided much of the food over the year.

It also provided the base for a range of home made alcohols that could be a real trap if you were involved in local politics as I was at the time. That one drink for hospitality purposes could extend and be repeated on calls elsewhere, creating a degree of unsteadiness by the end of that day’s visits.

By 2000, the decline in the kitchen garden was largely complete. Many things contributed to that collapse. Neighbours and councils began to object to the noise and smells associated with the garden, including the omnipresent hens. Blocks became smaller, flats or townhouses more common. More people rented.. The supermarkets brought a wider range of cheaper foodstuffs, reducing the incentive to garden. Time became more precious as two income families tried to balance the demands of more complex lives.

Can the kitchen garden come back? I think not, although the increased interest in sustainability and the rise in community gardens does hold out some hope. The difficulty is that these things appeal to particular niche views and lifestyles whereas the old kitchen garden was an integral element in normal life. 
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter forms part of a bigger section entitled family life.   

Monday, May 28, 2018

Monday Forum - Science Magazine: What’s really behind ‘gluten sensitivity’?

Kelly Servick in Science had a really fascinating piece, What’s really behind ‘gluten sensitivity’?  I mention it in part because it really is interesting as an example of the complexity involved in establishing not just what reactions are real, but also because its shows the difficulty in analysis where there may be multiple causative factors including the influence of fashion and news.

A week or so back on the Armidale Families Past and Present site someone listed a whole set of current medical conditions and asked how many people remembered from their child hood. Many of the members of the site are older, while it's a big group with over 2,100 members. So it's a reasonably representative sample.

Few members could, although a a retired teacher noted that ADHD might explain difficult children that she had to deal with. Still, I was left with an impression (one that I already had) that children (and adults) suffered from far more ailments now than in the past? I might be wrong, but I simply do not remember things like the range of allergies that are now around.

Are we becoming sicker or is it simply a matter of awareness and reporting? What were the main diseases or conditions when you were a child?

This is the Monday Forum post. As always, go where you want.      

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Section 44 imbroglio - fight over the 28 July by-election dates

The imbroglio over citizenship and Section 44 of the Australian Constitution is a gift that keeps on giving.

The announcement that the by-elections for the five vacant House of Representatives seats would be held on 28 July has created something of a political storm (here, here for example) because this date coincides with the ALP national conference. This date was recommended by  the Australian Electoral Commission in part because the new requirements to provide detailed citizenship and family genealogical information would disadvantage independent candidates and those from the minor parties compared to the major parties.

The date seemed to blindside Labor. The Government was fairly sniffy about this on the grounds that the problem - the resignations - was one of Labor's own making, thus continuing the relative blame game between parties over the whole matter. I do think, however, that Tony Smith as Speaker of the House of Representatives should have provided Labor with the courtesy of consultation before the announcement of the date.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Reflections on the art of flânerie

Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later.This chapter marks the start of a bigger section entitled people and place.   
Flâneur – the stroller, lounger, saunterer
Flânerie – the act of strolling with all its associations
To be a flâneur is to idle without purpose, interested in what you find.
When practicing the art of flânerie, it is important to stop and observe. The pleasure lies in the discovery of the unexpected
 John Baxter’s book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris introduced me to the concept of flânerie. Baxter, an Australian born writer, journalist and film maker, has lived in Paris since 1989. There, by accident, he became a guide taking walking parties on literary tours through the streets of a city that he had come to love. The book describes his experiences in that role.

I enjoyed it in part because I have been to Paris several times and so knew many of the places and some of the stories he wrote about. It’s a well written easy to read book. I was also interested in a professional sense since I see part of my role as a story teller.

Baxter used the concept of the flâneur to introduce his view of the pedestrian in Paris. I had not heard the term, although I later found it to be in widespread and growing use, especially in a travel context.

Wikipedia records that flâneur comes from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”. The term flânerie, strolling or idling, dates to 16th or 17th century France. However, it was in 19th century Paris that the flâneur became a cultural icon, someone who wanders the streets as an observer and philosopher, an urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street. The concept spread to related activities such as photography, was applied in other fields including literature and became wrapped in social analysis and theories. It also spread to other places, including England and Germany.

In Germany, for example, the writer and translator Franz Hessel became one of the first exponents of the idea of flânerie, culminating in his 1929 collection of essays Walking in Berlin. Most essays describe a walk or an outing centred on a theme or part of Berlin. Hessel weaves history into his observations of people and place, capturing the rhythm of Weimar Berlin at a time of profound shifts in life and culture.

Today Hessel is probably best known as the inspiration for the character of Jules in Henri-Pierre Roche's 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Jules et Jim. This novel inspired the famous 1962 French New Wave romantic drama film of the same name directed, produced and written by François Truffaut. The 2016 release by Scribe of a new English translation of Walking in Berlin subtitled a flaneur in the capital may redress the balance by bringing Hessel to a wider audience.

Reading Baxter, I was immediately attracted to the idea of flânerie. It provided a perfect justification for my habit of just wandering, following my nose to see what I could find. It justified a sometimes insatiable curiosity that could verge on sticky-beaking. I was now engaged in a respected cultural practice! Most of all, I liked the idea of combining history with current observation.  However, I faced a problem in adopting the art.

The concept of idling, of strolling, of sauntering, of observing without fixed purpose or destination runs against a deeply held Australian cultural trait, the need to do something, to achieve something.

This need is embedded in us from childhood. We go to school to learn things, to meet required standards, to achieve and help the school achieve targets. Out of school, we engage in organised activities; our lives are a series of activities carried out at particular times for particular purposes. In adulthood, we try to practice the seven habits of effective people, we are told that we must practise continuous improvement, that we have to learn new skills, that we have to adjust to an ever changing world. At national level, governments constantly tell us that we and our children must work harder, must do better so that the country can do better.

.I am not immune to all this. The idea that I should go sauntering to see what I could find with no objective other than interest conflicted with my deep conditioning that I should be doing something productive. I knew that that view was silly, but I could not help myself. And yet, despite all this, for a time I became a most dedicated flâneur, wandering the streets with a camera looking for detail and stories. .

I think I was helped by the fact that I was doing it with a friend who shared my interests. Then with time I drifted away, although I introduced a remarkable number of people to the concept.

One of the reasons for my drift is that I started walking for exercise, itself a modern target oriented approach. This came about in part because work had a health program. I was given my own little step counter and was expected to enter my steps into a web site that tracked my path across the world.

This may be healthy, but it tends to defeat the point, the discoveries that can come from random idling. I find that when walking for exercise I have in mind distance and time, two things in direct conflict with the art of flânerie. What's worse, I tend to get very bored and thus stop walking! Even the desire to achieve a minimum number of paces (10,000 per day appears to have become an almost universal target) provides insufficient incentive. The irony, of course, is that I actually walked more as a flâneur than as an exerciser because I was simply more interested, was inclined to keep moving.

I really rediscovered the art of flânerie on my second trip to Copenhagen where eldest had moved for work. I was really on my own, had no things that I had to do and had lots of time. I knew the bones of the city quite well after the first trip . Now I decided to flesh out the details.

There is something enormously relaxing about heading out with only a rough idea of direction and time scope. I wandered almost at random, looking a the buildings and shops. Sometimes, I would find myself back at a familiar place and then wander around working out just how I had got there. Finally, I would head for home by the shortest route.

Suitable rewards add to the enjoyment of flâneuring. I found Copenhagen's Cafe Sommersko by accident. I had been wandering for well over an hour and felt like a coffee.

I was fascinated by the place. Obviously moderately posh, a restaurant at night, it was starting to fill with casually if well dressed young Danes. They knew each other, and hugged or kissed as they unfolded their outer street-ware to reveal the plumage underneath, ordering coffee and drinks.

Investigating later, I found that the Cafe Sommersko. was opened in 1976 to provide a place for the city's artists to meet, introducing a new cafe concept to the city. I must say they struck me as very well dressed artists!

I had enjoyed my coffee reward. It was time to move on to the next step in my exploration of Copenhagen, its life and people.

Since returning from Copenhagen, I have tried to maintain the practice of flânerie for practical as well as personal reasons.

As an historian, I know just how important it is to walk the ground. I studied ancient Greek history at school and university, but had no idea on key underpinnings until our 2010 visit to the Greek Islands. I was surprised at their small size, I had not properly realised the importance of water nor the importance of trade. The same holds with my studies on New England history. You cannot understand relationships or patterns unless you actually know the geography.

At a personal level, flânerie has given me many unexpected pleasures. It remains hard sometimes to actually stop and look, especially when travelling. I still find it hard to break from the need to do something, to achieve something, to get to a destination or objective. To just wander without defined purpose remains hard. I guess that I will have to keep working on that. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Forum - the Royal Wedding, Section 44, Germans like cash

This is a short round-up post. It also acts as the Monday Forum post - go where you like here.

The Royal Wedding

I hadn't intended to watch the royal wedding. While I am a supporter of the current system and enjoy a good spectacle, my TV has stopped working and I didn't feel like going to a venue to watch. As it happened, I was invited to dinner at what turned out to be a royal wedding session complete with tiaras and veils for the girls and crowns for the boys. So I did watch, although I couldn't help think of the irony of a group of largely staunch republicans not only enjoying the spectacle but capable of identifying all those minor royals!

I see that Neil Whitfield enjoyed the wedding (Yes, I watched it! And with much pleasure…) althow I wasn't as keen on Bishop Michael Curry. I thought he started brilliantly but then lost me in the middle to some extent. I think that this was partly a matter of the poor sound on the TV we were watching.

More prosaically, wearing my economist hat I found myself trying to calculate how much the wedding was worth in cash terms at a time when the British economy is not strong with confusions and concerns over Brexit acting as a drag. I know that it cost a fair bit, but my best best guess is that the direct and indirect benefits may have exceeded the costs at least twenty fold.

Excluded: The impact of section 44 on Australian democracy

Excluded: The impact of section 44 on Australian democracy, the report of the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, was released earlier in May. My post Sunday Essay - can we change Section 44 of the Australian Constitution?just before the release.

The response to the report suggests that there is little appetite among any of our political leaders to start a discussion on the desirability of change, while the News Corp papers seem to have lined up against any change.: Daily Telegraph headline "We can't allow political citizenship rules to change", The Australian  "Power grab by the political class thwarted by Turnbull".

I think that it's a mess that does need to be discussed, but see little point in repeating arguments. I think one or a combination of three things will happen: there will be more cases of members thrown into doubt because they are unable to property demonstrate renunciation; the rules and processes regarding nomination will be tightened to the point that only candidates who are wealthy or have big party backing will be able to meet them; and that Parliament will tighten rules on referral to the High Court, effectively transferring power to it from the Court.

Germans like cash

Interesting story in Quartz by Matt Phillips on German's continuing liking for cash. One part the reason lies in their dislike of credit, a belief that using cash better controls spending. I can see their point of view.

I am out of time, I will hold my other stories to later posts.

Update 22 May 2018: 11 and 12th Century Trade Routes

Fascinating story from Merchant Marine, An Incredibly Detailed Map Of Medieval Trade Routes, . Worth a read.
Update 22 May 2018: Sydney housing and infrastructure woes

Sydney's problems in the supply of infrastructure and affordable housing continue as hot issues. Because I don't have time to review at the moment, I thought that I might at least post some random links for later review.

I will add to this list when I have time.

Update 23 May 2018. Google Search and newspaper blocks

A frustration. I do a Google search, find an interesting story, click on it, and come up against a newspaper paywall. This wastes my time and effort. Is it time for Google to change its algorithms so that only material that is in fact accessible to the searcher is included in search?

Update 24 May 2018. Remarkable insights into public sector governance

Thanks Nicholas Gruen (@NGruen1) for pointing me yo these remarkable insights!


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday Forum - the use and abuse of language

From time to time here we have talked about the use and abuse of words. Today's forum follows this up with an example that I am finding especially annoying at the moment, the abuse of the imperative.

It's being creeping into official documents for some time now with an almost mandated requirement. that things be expressed in positive terms. Say that your target is to create 2,000 affordable houses in ten years. You now have to say that in 10 years we will have created 2,000 affordable houses. Then you have a number of steps that you propose to carry out to achieve that target. You put those in imperative terms. To this end, we must....., industry must, the community must. .

Now you have yourself locked in terms of primary target and intermediate steps expressed in terms of absolutes. But what happens if that primary target cannot be achieved, or the intermediate steps actually won't deliver the results? What happens if you cannot guarantee that no child will live in poverty by a due date or a particular element of Aboriginal disadvantage cannot in fact be overcome in the desired time horizon?  

A strange variant of this type of approach has crept into broader English. Say you disagree with something .that Mr Turnbull is doing. You say, Mr Turnbull must resign.But this is silly.You have no control over Mr Turnbull. You really mean that in your view Mr Turnbull should resign.

With all this as background,  what are your present pet hates about the use and abuse of language,  words or phrases? As always, go in whatever direction you want even if it has nothing to do with the topic!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday Essay - can we change Section 44 of the Australian Constitution?

While I have been preoccupied, Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution has continued to claim more parliamentary victims. On 9 May 2018, the High Court ruled that Labor Senator Katy Gallagher had not been eligible to stand for election because she had not completed the renunciation process for her British citizenship before she was elected. As a consequence, three Labor MPs (Susan Lamb, Justine Keay and Josh Wilson) and one Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie who were in a similar position all resigned the Australian Parliament triggering a super Saturday round of by-elections.

I have lost contact with just how many actual or prospective Members of Parliament have been felled over the last twelve months as a consequence of Section 44 challenges..Is it 19 now?

In a piece in The Conversation,  constitutional laywer Professor Anne Twomey"s Dual citizenship debacle claims five more MPs – and sounds a stern warning for future parliamentarians looks at some of the issues arising from the High Court's black letter interpretation of Section 44(1). Another constitutional lawyer, Professor Jeremy Gans, looks at related aspects in another piece in Inside Story, Anne Aly and the insurmountable obstacle.The message is captured in the sub-heading: "The High Court has set a new citizenship test for parliamentarians of uncertain status, but who on earth could pass it?" Certainly it is far from clear to me on the evidence so far presented that Ms Aly would actually meet the High Court test.

Since the current controversy began, many extraneous issues have been dragged in. An example is this rather fatuous piece by Waleed Ally, Why are all our dual citizens white? which really has nothing to do with Section 44 but is an expression of Mr Aly's own perceptions of the world. Perhaps Scott Stephens, his co-host on the ABC Minefield program,  might subject Mr Aly's view to forensic analysis?

My own ideas on this whole issue have been set out in various posts. For the record, I have listed the posts below so that people can follow the story through to some degree. In this post I simply want to comment on a few issues.

Core Problem

In July last year in a post on the sudden resignation of Green Senators Senators Ludlum and Waters I wrote:
The Constitution was passed as an Act of the British Parliament in 1900. This was a very different world, one of Empire and emerging Commonwealth. As you can see from the Wikipedia article on Australian nationality law, concepts of citizenship have evolved, as has the definition of a foreign power. In 1900, it would have been seen as inconceivable that Canada or New Zealand could or would be classified as foreign powers for the purpose of Section 44(i) as compared to, say, the United States or Germany. When Canberra founder King O'Malley, for example, wanted to run for Parliament, he appears to have changed his birthplace from the US to Canada so that he was not precluded by Section 44(i). 
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).
I regarded this as a bad thing. I still do. Those who were affected by this first round were predominantly, not all, the children or grandchildren of those who came to Australia in the first big round of immigration after the war. Those who will be more affected in the future are the children and grandchildren of recent migrants, a very different wave. We talk about the need for diversity in the Federal Parliament, but we have a constitutional provision as now interpreted that will act as a barrier to some degree to just the diversity we seek.

This view is shared by many others. To quote former High Court Justice Michael Kirby's reported views
London: Former High Court justice Michael Kirby says the constitution should be changed to allow dual citizens to run for federal parliament because "dis-entitling" them undermines Australia's success as a multicultural nation. 
Mr Kirby said Australia's prohibition - which has seen 10 MPs disqualified since the 2016 election - was detrimental given Australia's rich immigrant culture. 
"Unless there is some other interpretive way to solve the problem then I think it should be changed because Australia really has been successful as a multicultural society and that is challenged by this approach to disentitle a very large number of members of the Australian community being elected to the national parliament. That's not a good thing," he said.
It's the law - get over it

Reading the comment streams on various articles, a common theme is "it's the law - get over it". This view suffers from certain weaknesses.

To begin with, it ignores the way that this matter has evolved. Other interpretations of the constitution were possible. It ignores, too, the way in which the High Court acts in these matters on referral from the Parliament, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. On the surface, the Parliament could have chosen not to refer. However, as more referrals were made further referrals became inevitable. Even then some referrals were not made even though they might have been, given that the High Court is the only body that can finally and formally rule on eligibility.

The common argument ignores, too, the costs and difficulties involved where eligibility to sit in the Australian Parliament is made dependent upon changing citizenship requirements in other countries that can only be interpreted in regard to the laws of those countries.

In the case of Green Senator Waters who was born in Canada to Australian parents who were studying there, had she been born just one week later she would not have been eligible for Canadian citizenship because of another change to Canadian law. Labor MP Sam Dastyari was born in Iran and came to Australia when he was four. It cost him a reported $25,000 in legal fees to try to clarify his citizenship position.

Countries appear and disappear. Regimes change. As these changes occur., citizenship laws change. People are citizens on day, may be not another,  may become citizens again later. Membership of the Australian Parliament is made dependent not on Australian law, but on the vagaries of other countries laws.and the interpretations place upon them.

Confusions over allegiance. 

It seems clear from comment streams that people are confused. Surely, they suggest, it is only reasonable that Australian parliamentarians should only possess Australian citizenship?  This one is more complicated.

The original provision in the constitution was introduced at a time of great power rivalry between the British empire and other imperial powers including the US and Germany. While the provision was never subject to serious discussion, the intent was imperial protection. The idea that the provision might be used to exclude people from New Zealand, the UK or Canada from the Federal Parliament, the idea of multiple citizenships or even citizenship itself, was outside the ken of those involved.

The world has changed since then, in fact many times. It's not all that long ago that Australia did not recognise dual citizenship.If I had got a British passport as was then possible, it would have created a difficulty for my Australian citizenship.

So there are some issues here that have to be thought through. But surely nobody would argue that just because Sam Dastyari was born in Iran, Larissa Water in Canada, that this would in any way affect their primary allegiance to this country?

Failures of political leadership

This whole mess reflects a failure in political leadership. When some time ago it was suggested that this was a problem that needed to be addressed, their was no willingness to do so. When the two Green Senators became involved, the Prime Minister was dismissive.
 "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."  .
Then when  the Liberal and National Parties got caught up, Opposition Leader Shorten was somewhat gleeful on the grounds that Labor's processes meant that that Party was protected. That hubris brought its own rewards as measured by the latest resignations. The hole thing would be quite funny if it were not so problematic.

Now that all parties have been so badly stung, is it too much to hope that we can actually have a conversation on what changes might be made to the Constitution?

Previous Posts

2 November, 2016 How far does Section 44 of the Australian constitution actually stretch?
Tuesday, July 18, 2017 Senators Ludlum, Waters and the emerging Section 44(i) mess
Monday, August 14, 2017 Why Barnaby Joyce may not be a dual citizen under Australian law
Monday, October 30, 2017, Section 44 of the Australian Constitution - clouded issues with a dash of moral bigotry
Friday, November 10, 2017, Chaos, confusion and the evolving Section 44 mess

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 - 2015 - at the Powerhouse Museum Sydney

Hhat tip to Artdaily for this one.

Men's clothes as seen on display at the Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 - 2015 exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Reigning Men is the world's largest exhibition of men's fashion featuring some of the world's most iconic examples of menswear spanning over 300 years and traversing the globe. It runs from May 2, to October 14, 2018.


Rather nice parallel piece by Peter McNeil in The Conversation, From ‘macaronis’ to mohawks, men’s fashion has always been political.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Problems with Gonski 2.0

I have been reading, more precisely trying to read, the Australian Gonski 2.0 report into school education. It is so full of jargon that I am finding it almost impenetrable. Since I'm not prepared to devote hours of my life to getting through the jargon, I thought that I would stand back and make a few general observations roughly linked to the report.

Education for what?

I think that one of the problems with Gonski et al is that they fail to look at the purpose of education. One aim is to give people certain basis skills. This is what tends to be measured in the basic tests so beloved by educational administrators. However, education also provide knowledge of particular domains and teaches people to think critically. It teaches social skills. It also provides a smorgasbord from which students can accept or reject things in terms of interests and later choices.

Children vary enormously in interest and learning speeds. They slow and accelerate. Often, the things that they most value later are not seen at the time but come to be valued in retrospect. Often they have little to do with formal courses but are linked to particular events or teachers. Sometimes, rejection or rebellion are the main things remembered from school days.

The purpose of education is not national economic efficiency, a concept popularised by the German Empire at a time of fierce competition between empires.. Rather, education has multiple purposes which can conflict and whose results at individual level may not be measurable for years.

Child focused

We are told that schooling should be child focused. The way that this is phrased is, to my mind, a nonsense. By child focused, we mean that education needs to focus on the child as the best way of getting them to perform in ways that we want, to get them to do what we want them to do, to allow them to measure up as determined by the externally imposed measures that we have set. This has little to do with the individual needs of the child. The child becomes an input into a process.

Measurement and national  performance

We are told that Australia is falling behind international educational performance. If that's true, it's a devastating criticism of two decades of education performance focused on improved performance. But is is true? The performance comparison are based on specific measure such as the PISA tests, tests that measure a small number of dimensions. Singapore is cited as a performance example.I wonder how many Australian parents would actually want thier children to go through that system.

Continuous improvement

The report makes much play with the idea that the school system must seek to improve performance: teachers must become more professional and constantly seek to improve their performance; coasting schools (those comfortable to sit in the middle of the pack) must be encouraged to improve; school "leaders" must be encouraged to improve their performance; pupils must be pushed to improve performance and improve their individual performance.

The concept of continuous improvement is a slippery one.It's a concept that I have supported as a management consultant in advising particular organisations, in part because it is a useful corrective to the alternative idea that an organisation can suddenly make a quantum performance leap.To a degree, Gonski 2.0 wants both continuous improvement and a quantum leap.

In looking at performance improvement, I have always been conscious of the need to take into account individual variation. A teacher may be doing a good job within limits set by their own aspirations, time availability,  needs and alternative priorities. A student may be coasting in certain ways because they neither need or want to do better. They prefer to do other things, seek other paths.

If you try to push either group beyond the limits they have set, you create tensions, pressure and stress. Performance drops as a consequence.

To my mind, we have an increasingly stressed school system measured by teacher and pupil stress. I did the old NSW leaving certificate. This was a relatively stress-free environment. My children did the NSW Higher School Certificate. Stress levels were far higher to the point the school had to have programs to help kids manage it. Today I have friends whose children are doing the Higher School Certificate. Stress levels are higher again.

I think it absurd that a year 11 or 12 student is so stressed out that they need medical support and may make their parents' life a misery..And for what purpose? In most cases, the variation in their marks will have no impact on their longer term career or options. Ironically, the lower performing students who perhaps should be worried are likely to be those who worry least because they don't care. It is the conscientious kid who suffers.

Evidence based approaches

There is the usual focus on evidence based approaches and teachers as professionals. My concern in both cases lies in the lack of definition applied to these terms.


Mr Gonski and his panel members may well argue and with some justice that in standing back the way I have ignored some of their arguments and key principles. For example, the idea that advancement should be based upon progress independent of formal year structures, that the school curriculum should include more generic skills to equip students for a rapidly changing world.

My problem apart from the jargon involved is that Gonski 2.0 remains a centralised command and control measurement based approach that will do little to increase the flexibility of the schooling system or give teachers more freedom to diverge from mandated approaches.
This post is also the Monday Forum post.
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Thursday, May 03, 2018

New England Travels seminar paper

I have now posted to my history blog the paper I delivered  in the University of New England’s Humanities seminar series on 13 April 2018: New England Travels: journeys through space and time. The paper is a personal ramble through elements in New England's history.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Monday now Tuesday Forum - inherent conflicts in modern management

This is a very thoughtful piece Jim - my thanks. 
Some of the problems recognised in your comments are, I submit more associated with country Australia than city. There is more sense of community in country, and less transient population, making for a marketplace based on a relatively static consumer base - in my innocent opinion. There are other problems of country/rural which also don't readily translate/apply to city folk - and I'm going to move to another of those that I have been following, somewhat wistfully: dairy co-ops. 
Here's the latest post from a blog I follow quite closely: A Mexican standoff as the sun sets on MG   
- and to tie it back to your comments on newspapers, this is a blog I have come to trust more completely than the reportage to be found on the same subject in either metro or even rural press outlets. I think this is partly due to the "interests" represented by Marian compared to the "interests" of the media outlets. Agree?
But carry Marian's concerns one step further, and you can get back to a wider subject of direct and current concern: AMP Society and how it appears to have "lost its way" as revealed by the Banking Royal Commission. 
Here's Marian's linked piece on co-operatives generally:The heart of the co-op  which, I believe could as well be used as a base descriptor of our "mutuals" of the finance and banking world, because it raises the very same problem at the heart of it: the rise of a "managerial class" with objectives not completely connected to the business of its prime customers/owners. 
I'd be interested to see if you can see the same connections that I can observe in the above?
I will pick up some of kvd's comments via the New England media post. However, I thought that they might also provide an entry point for a Monday now Tuesday forum topic.

I agree with kvd that milkmaidmarion's blog provides excellent reporting and, like kvd, I have been following the fall of Murray Goulburn with sadness. I suspect I agree with the idea that the country and rural media no longer provides the reflective reporting that we might once have expected. In fairness, though, that type of reflection has generally appeared outside a press concerned with the day to day or week to week. Where I think a change has occurred is that the press can no longer pick up, report on, the more reflective stuff or follow the longer stories in a coherent way.

kvd suggests that the loss of way shown by the Murray-Goulburn disaster or the AMP fiasco, something I referred to in The fish rots from the head - the Financial Services Royal Commission, is due to the rise of a managerial class. I wonder if that's true, although I accept that it's part of the problem. Rather, I wonder if we have completed a system that is fundamentally conflicted.

I do not know how to express this clearly. It's a feeling that I would like to explore in discussion. Perhaps I might clarify a little by posing a few questions:

  • have we lost sight of the fact that organisations are formed for different purposes and need to be judged differently in terms of those purposes? For example, a cooperative might chose to earn a lower rate of return on its accumulated capital if that maximises the benefits to its members?
  • have we created a system where narrow performance measures dominate to the exclusion of other considerations?
  • have we created a system where universals such as effective governance become a distraction from, an impediment to, performance, substituting rules for a focus on ethics and purpose? 
  • have we created a system where targets, performance measures and associated remuneration dominate at organisation level even though the aggregate targets are mathematically across sectors or the economy are mathematically unachievable?        .

I will leave it here. I would be interested in your comments.