Sunday, March 31, 2019

The importance of a treaty with Australia's Aboriginal peoples - reflections on 13 years of blogging 2

Posed photo. Thomas Dick collection, Aborigines, Port Macquarie

"I first became interested in the idea of culture and cultural change in studying prehistory. 
Here culture was defined in simple terms as nurture, not nature, all the things that were learned. Necessarily in pre-history, this had a material focus, but anthropological and sociological studies dealt with culture in a broader sense, including interactions between individuals and societies. 
During this period I came in contact with what is now called mirroring, the way in which individuals or minority groups (in this case the Australian Aborigines) could come to reflect or mirror the attitudes held about them in the broader society. 
You can see this today in the way I approach Aboriginal policy issues - I argue (among other things) that our focus on Aboriginal disadvantage and failures not only stigmatises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the broader community, but feeds back into attitudes and perceptions within the Aboriginal community". Belshaw, 23 May 2010 
This post follows from We create the things we most fear - reflections on 13 years of blogging 1.

In all the areas that I write about, the one that I have found most difficult, the one where I have lost most joy, is the history of, and policy relating to, Australia's Aboriginal peoples. I find it all just so complicated, complications that have continued to increase since I wrote the above in 2010.

Looking back over my writing, I can see many things that are worthy of republication, a few that are wrong and deserve retraction. I may look back as part of this series on some of the things I have said that are worthy of repeat or retraction, but in this short post I want to focus on just a few things.

Back on 20 December 2006 I wrote Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post. It was, I suppose, something of a manifesto. Over the thirteen years since I have written 146 posts here, more elsewhere. I have also given one major seminar paper on New England's Aboriginal languages. I really have no idea of the total word length. I guess that it would be well over 200,000 words in all.

When I wrote that first post I had nor met many Aboriginal people. Later, I would work for the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office. I would have an Aboriginal mentee. At AHO we also shared a building with the NSW Aboriginal Land Corporation.

During the four and a bit years I worked with AHO I met many hundreds of Aboriginal people, I attended community meetings, meetings with Aboriginal housing groups. I saw Aboriginal politics and policy making at first hand. I did not change my basic views, but those views were tempered by a better understanding of prejudice and disadvantage.

I respect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to express views about their own communities. This may sound trite, even condescending. Surely it is self-evident that the rights of any group to make comments about their community should be respected? Well yes, but in the Aboriginal cases it goes to something more important, the right of self determination.

Here I am always conscious of the words of my Aboriginal mentee. We had been at a combined session of mentors and mentees and had gathered outside for a fag. "We know our culture must change", Jenny told the assembled group, "but we want to control that change." I accept that viewpoint. I also accept the right of Aboriginal people to point to and highlight the ills of the past. I may disagree on historical fact, but we are dealing with feelings and emotions that must be respected. This bears upon something that I argued for many years  ago, the need for a new compact with our Aboriginal peoples.

Reflecting on my historical research over the colonial and post-colonial periods, I have often found myself shaking my head .and saying you could not think that. I am not talking about race, although racial prejudice has been and remains a factor. Rather, I am thinking of those who for the best of reasons wanted to "do something to help" our Aboriginal peoples. Bluntly, the Aborigines would have been better off if none of those things had occurred, if there had been no Aboriginal specific policies at all.

Paternalism, the desire to do good for others, the belief that officials and social reformers knew best, had quite devastating effects. This remains a factor today. The Intervention is an example. I wrote a fair bit on this at the time. I was prepared to suspend judgement. Now, with the passage of time, I'm hard pressed to identify a single positive that might justify the expense or the disruption of people's lives. It's just another failure in a long line of policy failures.

I mentioned mirroring in my introductory quote. I came across this in an article in Oceania in the 1960s, I no longer have the reference, looking at the way that prejudices and stereotypes about Aboriginal people affected the views of those people about themselves. I think that it's an important concept that I have carried with me over the years. 

The effects of mirroring combined with paternalism and prejudice have been quite profound. They largely destroyed Aboriginal agency, the affected culture, they created structures and policiesthat were bound to fail. In recent years, their effects have been compounded by "white" guilt which is, in its own way,quite as destructive and paternalistic as its predecessors. 

I have been deliberately provocative here to make a simple point. If, as I believe. Aboriginal people have to determine their own future, then they should be allowed to do so. The question of how the broader community responds is a separate question.

My personal view is that we require a treaty to move forward. The creation of that treaty will be a messy process since neither side presently has a common position. Still, I believe that it can be done. I also think that it needs to be done to allow us to put the past aside. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

We create the things we most fear - reflections on 13 years of blogging 1

This post is an initial follow up on my last post, Initial reflections on thirteen years of blogging. There I said "Over the next few weeks, I plan to reflect on some of the past events and my associated writing here and on my other blogs". This is the first follow up post. I will keep each post short, centred on  a single idea.

Back on 23 May 2010 in Sunday Essay - threads in Belshaw thought, I provided an update on the evolution of my own thinking over time. I think that the post does draw out some of the evolving threads in my thinking. While my core framework remains the same, my views have continued to evolve.

 One thread in that May post was the way our mental constructs, what I call mudmaps, affect our view of the world. A second was the way that our views can affect the behaviour of others through a process called mirroring. I think that we are in that position now in some of our current debates.

In my brief writing on the "War on Terror", I suggested that the mental construct, the rhetoric attached to it, was misleading. A war implied a structured conflict between two sides. That was not the case. However, in applying the rhetoric and in forcing other people to respond. to it, we actually risked creating a war  by creating the very thing that we feared, a structured response that took the rhetoric and used it to it;s own ends.

I think that we are now in that position in the currently confused discussion on race and racial prejudice with its constant emphasis on the past and current evils of "whites", on the need for society to protect itself from right wing aka white extremism. As someone involved in country politics over a long period who sits to some degree on the right of politics but who also straddles from left to right, I have been amazed at the way that rhetoric and response has created patterns that I never expected.

 In the "war on terror", the West's response helped create the demon so painted. Now, I think, we are doing it again, but in the opposite direction.

Brief Update 28 March 2019

I wanted to provide a brief update before moving on.

Remember in this post I am not talking about whether particular views or episodes but the way in which particular mental constructs, particular forms of rhetoric, can actually create the thing attacked. In this case, the growth of certain right wing political views.

It does become complicated because of the emotional and value overlays involved in discussion. Take some of the discussion and responses around that Al Jazeera sting on One Nation.

Former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste called the story unethical. I think that's right. It's like what we have come to expect from certain Australian media outlets. It lowered my opinion of Al Jazeera as a serious media outlet.

At a second level, it told us little that we did not know before, although the sheer stupidity in getting caught is a bit mind-blowing. But then, and you may call this a personal bias, I have long thought of One Nation as distinctly unprofessional and silly. Here former One Nation David Ettridge made a remarkably lucid point.

Interviewed by, I think, the ABC's Patricia Karvelas, he said that the whole thing would have little impact on the One Nation vote because it played into an already established trope, Ms Hanson and One Nation as victim of the main stream media and parties.

I think that is probably right, although PK was a bit incredulous. You see, we are not dealing with a conversation or even a conventional political debate, but views expressed by two groups that are now disconnected. And, my argument is, we have created that second smaller group through the frames we have adopted.     

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Initial reflections on thirteen years of blogging

My first post on this blog came on 19 March 2006, so the blog turned 13 last Tuesday. In human terms, that makes the blog a teenager. In blogging terms, I fear that it may have entered old age for there have been so many changes over that period.

Since starting, I have published 3,339 posts here, some very short, most middling length, some very long. I don't know how many words I have written here, somewhere over two million would be my guess. While my posting has sometimes been irregular, the blog provides a record of issues, events and changing attitudes over that period, in general and in a personal sense. I am not the same person I was in March 2006, nor are my attitudes the same. Just so much has happened.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to reflect on some of the past events and my associated writing here and on my other blogs. In saying this, I don't want to make a rod for my own back. I remain busy and somewhat disorganised. But at a time of another fundamental change in my own life, it seems a sensible thing to do. I note that the change is not bad, it's just change.

Inevitably with so many words, there is a lot of dross. However, I also think that I have said some useful things that are worth repeating and discussing. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Dane meets Australia's democracy sausage

From left to right. Helen's mum, Helen's Danish partner Christian, Helen Belshaw. This morning Denise and Helen introduced Christian to Australia's democracy sausage, Randwick Public School. 

Today is election day in New South Wales as the people elect a new state government. It's been a complex campaign and no one knows who might win.

Australia has compulsory voting. Everybody must vote or be fined unless they have an acceptable excuse. This means that much of the Australian population must go to the polling place. Further, elections are held on a Saturday, making it easier for people to vote and to participate in election activities.

Many of the Australian polling places are at schools. Many years ago, school Parents' and Citizens' Associations or Parents' and Friends' Associations worked out that this gave them a captive market to sell things to voters to raise money for school activities. One popular result was sausage sizzles, BBQ sausages in buns with onions and sauce.

 Probably ten years ago now, I have not traced the exact date, these sausages came to be called democracy sausages, a celebration of Australia's democratic traditions. The name stuck, and has become globally recognised.

Clare's birthday brought Helen and Christian to Australia to celebrate. Helen had to vote and decided that as part of Christian's introduction into things Australian he must experience a democracy sausage.

Now not all polling booths have sausage sizzles. In fact, the nearest booth to the place they were staying did not. Fortunately, there is now an organisation called that provides details of the booths where democracy sausages can be found. Helen, a modern lass, checked the internet and took her mother and partner of the Randwick Public School where the aforesaid delicacy could be found.

Now here stories differ. Christian was hungry and ordered three. Helen ordered two. Then she, or so Christian claims, had half of his last one. making two and a half. Helen denies this, of course. She had, she says. just a bite. Two rather large bites responded Christian.

Whatever the truth of the story, and at the risk of getting into trouble with eldest I'm inclined to believe Christian, I think that the idea of a democracy sausage is one of those really nice concepts at a time when life sometimes seems just too serious.       


Monday, March 18, 2019

Beating the cockroaches - reflections on the events in Christchurch

It's been a funny mixed up period, one that reminds me of the fragility of life.

On the 9th of  March I found Avenger dead in the drive way. He had not been well.

Since I started living on my own, he has been a companion., sometimes annoying, but a companion. He was the last of our family cats. He came with me when the family broke up in 2012. 

The last few months have not been especially good and the death hit me more than expected. Even today, I found myself almost turning into the supermarket  to buy cat food.

Things picked up. After a month and many hours talking to Optus I finally got my email re-connected. In the end, it wasn't complicated. I just had to find someone who knew what they were doing!

That was good, although I had over 2,000 back emails to sort through. I now have that down to thirty that require a substantive reply. But then on Friday we had the dreadful news from Christchurch and then news of Anna's death, something I wrote about briefly in Death of Anna Carlborg.

But life goes on. On Saturday was youngest's. Clare's, wedding. It was a lovely ceremony, and both were so happy. so in the midst of difficulty and death, there is love and life.

This is a fairly long preamble for brief reflections on the events in Christchurch,

I am half  Kiwi, my father was born in Christchurch, I still have family living on the South Island, so there was an area and family connection. Then I found that the arrested person was an Australian, from Grafton in the broader New England that I write about so often.

Like many, I struggle to understand events like this, although as an historian I have seen many similar cases over the millennia. Trying to think it through, I come down to a small number of points.

I have argued before in the context of terrorist attacks of all types, and there have been so many over the years, that our ability to control them is limited. Sometimes, our attempts to do so create make for a far worse outcome, the prescribed cure is far worse than the disease.The only thing that we can control is the nature of our response.

 Here, wearing my New Zealand hat, I am just so proud of the New Zealand response.

Prime Minister Adern's response was measured, compassionate. Her action in reaching out to the small Muslim community in that personal way went around the world.

The New Zealand officials interviewed were balanced, objective. The response of the Christchurch community and that more broadly within New Zealand was loving and caring, denying the very validity of the message that that Australian alleged  killer had tried to impart.

“They are us,”Adern said of those killed and affected during the attack. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand." The New Zealand public agreed.

The reactions in Australia have been more complicated because our politics is more complicated, more adversarial, more identity based. The million Australians who signed a petition calling for a certain Australian senator to be expelled from Parliament for his views miss the point, although I can understand their reactions.

To begin with, Parliament does not have that power. Then, too, the senator in question is running for re-election where he is consciously targeting, trying to build, enough of a small base vote to get him back into the senate. He doesn't need than many. To him, publicity is the breath of life. And he is getting that in quids.

I do not object to the idea of a Parliamentary vote condemning him. although it may play into his hands. I think that the Parliament needs to make a statement for the broader community. However, the best way of dealing with a cockroach is to get a broom and sweep him out of the door at the next election.

I am not a leftie. I really dislike some of the "progressive" views. I have attacked them. But this is not a matter of left or right. Both can be equally dangerous. It is a question of survival for those who believe in a just but compassionate society.

I said that I was proud of the New Zealand response. Looking at it gave me hope that good might come from even the most horrendous circumstances, that New Zealand will use this horror to build. Tonight, I am proud to say that I am a Kiwi - well at least half! 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Death of Anna Carlborg

For those who knew her, I am sad to report that Anna Carlborg (AC) died last week. Several years ago she had cancer which they thought had been caught. It returned last last year.

Anna was a remarkable woman, Born in Poland towards the end of the war, she grew up under the communist system, training as a mathematician. She left Poland when her then husband took a job at IBM in Paris. They came to Australia where Anna worked in IT at IBM and Westpac.

Anna lived between Poland and Australia, appreciating both although sometimes not sure just where she belonged. She was widely read with a love of film and theatre as well as literature. It was Anna who introduced me to the art of flânerie, something that became an addiction. I guess that I was doing it anyway!

Anna began blogging in 2013. Her blog, My Observations, captures her interests and sometimes idiosyncratic English, thinking Polish but then writing English. She was very kind and much loved by her small group of friends including those she met through blogging.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

When to use the Oxford comma?

Just where do you place, or not place, the comma? Image Madam Grammar

I am not a grammar nerd. I fear the controversy over the Oxford or serial comma escaped my attention for a very long time. Wikipedia defines such a comma in this way: "In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms." In the graphic above from Madam Grammar, you can see the Oxford comma in the second example.

I grew up in a world without Oxford commas. A comma marks a pause as does and, so you don't use them both. Indeed, just last week in editing documents originally written by someone enamoured of the Oxford comma I removed them with a degree of frustration, However, the March 2017 decision of a an Appeal Court in Maine, a decision that I have only just become aware of, made me reflect.

The case involved the question of whether drivers for the Oakhurst dairy in Maine were entitled to get paid overtime for some types of work. Under state law, drivers were supposed to get 1.5 times their normal pay for working overtime (more than 40 hours per week). However, the law provided some exceptions. Specifically in this case, you do not get special overtime pay for the following:

"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
1. Agricultural produce;
2. Meat and fish product; and
3. Perishable foods."

The case revolved around the absence of a comma after the word shipment. That missing comma cost Oakhurst $US5 million. You will find the full judgement here. It may appeal if you are a grammar nerd. 

Now before going on, Liz Bureman has a rather simple even masterly piece on the Oxford comma that  is worth reading.

I struggled a little with the judgement because it seemed to me that it wasn't just a question of a missing comma, but one of bad drafting that could have been avoided. 

A key thing in good drafting, it's something that lawyers such as Legal Eagle or marcellous have in spades, is the avoidance of ambiguity, the establishment of clarity. I sometimes struggle with that.

Had that clause come before me as an editor, my instinctive reaction would have been to insert commas after packing and distribution, thus reading " storing, packing, for shipment or distribution, of". In this case you have a series of activities which are exempted from overtime if they are being carried out for shipping or distribution. The acts of shipment and distribution would still have attracted overtime. To provide greater clarity still, the comma between storing and packing could have been replaced with and.  

Now say someone had said to me in response, "that's not right, we want to cover shipment and distribution as well. Then the clause would be amended to read "storing, packing, shipment and distribution of", replacing or with and. 

I said that I am not a grammar nerd. I reserve the right to continue to delete the Oxford comma in simple lists because it adds nothing, just detracts from the flow. Where there are ambiguities, then it comes back to the construction that provides the greatest clarity and, in my case, sounds best!  

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - Mr Dutton doubles down: refugees, social housing and health services

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has used the departure of the last refugee children off Nauru to increase the pressure on Labor over the medical transfers legislation and claim Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for healthcare and public housing. Source

I was going to write something on the environment this morning looking back at some of the things that I had previously written. Then in conversation with a friend, I realised that I couldn't go past the latest spray from Australia's Home Affairs' Minister Peter Dutton. 

This as been well covered in the Australian media, I tried to find a release or transcript of Mr Dutton's remarks because I like to check the original material but without success so am relying on the press reports.

The idea that Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for social housing or health care is factually incorrect. Waiting lists will not be affected. What will be affected is allocations. For example, if I am on the social housing wait list I will remain on the wait list but may drop down a little in terms of the allocation of social housing, thus delaying my access. The same holds for the public health system.

Social housing is in short supply because of previous underinvestment. In NSW, for example, there are more than 50,000 people on the housing wait-list. Housing is allocated first to priority applicants, which means that those on the general wait list can wait a very long time for a house. This wait varies from place to place, but is highest in the cities. 

 Assume that every person on Nauru or Manus Island ended up in Australia as a consequence of medical transfers and was given NSW social housing. At present, there are something like 150,000 social housing properties in NSW. As I said, there are around 50,000 on the wait-list. As housing has become tighter and more expensive in general, as the proportion of very low income or welfare households has risen, families are staying longer in social housing. 

Herein lies the rub, for it means that the number of properties becoming vacant each year has been falling. I don't have the numbers here, but I'm guessing that the number of properties becoming vacant each year may now be as low as 5%,  

 So if every refugee household, household includes single men, was evacuated to Australia and given social housing in NSW it would be a tiny proportion of the total housing stock, but might amount to a reasonably significant proportion of social housing becoming vacant. This would push out wait-lists. However, the final impact would depend upon the actual number of properties required and their distribution,  

The position in the public health system is a little different because of scale differences. I haven't had time to check numbers, but I suspect the effect would not be statistically significant.  

In a way, all my analysis to this point misses the point, but I wanted to provide a minimal statistical base. You see, Mr Dutton's remarks are misleading, playing to concerns in the Australian community for political effect.

If this were a serious public policy issue, Minister Dutton, and the PM who later echoed Mr Dutton's remarks. would need to provide information. How many might actually end up In Australia and how much might this cost? They do not want to do this.

Consider social housing where the impact may be greatest. Here we have one problem, underinvestment in social housing, conflated with a second one, the impact of new demand on constrained social housing supply. Even if every detainee ended up in Australia, and that won't happen , we could fix this with a one-off total spend of perhaps $500 million. That may sound a lot of money, but it's a relatively small spend compared with the current recurrent costs of offshore detention. It would also create a government asset available for later use. 

The Government does not want to engage in this type of discussion for fairly obvious reasons, it distracts from its primary narrative, the need to protect Australia's borders, stop the boats, they shall not come. While I have previously expressed reservations about the Government's approach, I think it reasonably clear that it has majority Australian support. It is also one of the small number of things that actually favour the Government. 

The Parliament's decision to facilitate certain medical transfers was vehemently opposed by the Government. The amendments made by Labor addressed some of the Government's core concerns. The Government was not prepared to accept this and basically doubled down. Mr Dutton's remarks are part of this process.

I have said before that I follow a range of social media and news feeds despite  my sometimes discomfort. One thread is the constant repetition that refugees receive unwarranted preference in housing and welfare benefits, that the ordinary citizen loses access,is disadvantaged, and bears the costs. The Australian threads also constantly recirculate similar material from other countries and especially Europe, 

Mr Dutton is, I think, well aware of these views. His latest comments play to them. They also reinforce the underlying theme that if the floodgates are opened through things such as medical transfers then welfare access and costs will blow out to the disadvantage of ordinary Australians. There is a problem here. 

It is possible to argue against the preference issue on the facts. To the degree preference does exist, and it does in rationed social housing, it is also possible to argue on the basis of values and judgements. It is also possible to argue on the basis of alternative solutions such as the successful placements of refugees in certain country areas. It's possible to argue, too, that Australia as a wealthy and successful country has certain responsibilities. But once an issue or conclusion becomes a matter of belief, of faith, argument is no longer possible in a world of simplistic black and whites. 

To my mind, Mr Dutton's double-down response plays to emotion, reinforces divisions, is designed to stop discussion. I think Australia is the worse for it.