Monday, September 23, 2019

Monday Forum – as you will

I let the Monday Forums lapse in the turmoil of the move. I think it time to reinstate them, recognizing that my irregular posting plus loss of some commenters means that responses are likely to be very slow initially. I have found them valuable in a personal sense in alerting me to new things, generating new ideas.

This first Monday Forum after the break is an as you will. Feel free to comment on things that have interested/ annoyed you!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Reflections on my first three weeks in Armidale

I have been enjoying my return to Armidale, although the internet is still not functioning properly. That’s not the NBN’s fault, just problems with my ISP.

Apart from the increase in my standard of living (my rent has dropped $215 per week for a much better house compared the increasingly grungy two bedroom semi), I’m enjoying the reduced travel time.

In Sydney it took me two way travel time of an hour thirty to go to the State Library which made it a significant excursion. Here things are much closer.

One day last week I drove into town for coffee then went to the industrial area to buy some wood. I have a wood stove and while I haven’t used it a lot (it’s been warm) I have really enjoyed it. From the hardware store I drove to the Family History Centre to pay my subscription and to do a quick scan of their collection. I also answered some queries from family researchers who called in. From there I popped over to the Heritage Centre and Regional Archives to talk to archivist Bill Oates about a possible UNESCO listing for some of the material. I then went to Coles to buy a few things for the house and then home. All this took two hours thirty.

I have also enjoyed doing some things that I used to do, but which were more difficult in Sydney.

Tuesday evening I went to the Armidale & District Historical Society meeting to hear Bill Crocker talk on “Working on the railroad; memories of a young teacher.”  Having finished Teachers’ College, the 19 year old Bill’s first posting in 1947 was to the provisional school at Kinalung, a small railway settlement near Broken Hill on the line between Menindee and Broken Hill. There were two gangs there, each responsible for maintaining a portion of the line. Their children plus a few from neighboring properties who came in by horseback provided the pupils.

Bill is a skilled raconteur, telling a string of stories that brought railway life in that small community and in Broken Hill and Menindee vividly alive. I was going to take notes, I wish I had, but the bloody pen ran out as soon as Bill started talking. Looking later, I found one nice story on Kinalung and school, if earlier than Bill’s time. I also found that Kinalung was probably a composite element in Tiboonda, a small town that appears in Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake in Fright. I filed some thoughts away for later reference.

Friday I went to a humanities seminar at the University presented by Professor Graham Maddox, “Rome as a model of Republican Liberty?” Graham focused on the constitutional views of Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner including their views on liberty. Both claim linkages back to republican Rome. There were, he suggested inconsistencies within their views and between their views and the realities of Roman history and political and constitutional expression.

This one stretched me because while I have a reasonable knowledge of Roman history, I lacked the background knowledge on certain political theories. That, of course, was partly why I went, to expand my own knowledge.

As Graham talked about their views, I was struck by the similarities between those views and some of the libertarian views I have seen expounded. I had also noticed a tendency among some libertarians to hark back to Ancient Rome. I also started seeing similarities between the arguments and those set out by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. In the end, I asked a question about possible linkages. This was so badly worded (I was trying to articulate a very ill-formed impression) that it left both Graham and I confused!

Dissatisfied, I came home, did some quick research and put the results in the form of a draft email to Graham. I may or may not send this, I don’t want to bother him, but it has given me a possible post as well.

The next day, Saturday, I went to the official opening of Boobooks’ new sci-fi, fantasy room. They had all dressed up in costumes and had prepared a cake. They also announced new writing prizes to go to younger writers (school age, up to 28) in the New England North West area.  

You can see that I am having quite a social time, if one that fits within my particular intellectual interests. In so doing, I have met or re-met quite a few people. At the end of three weeks, I seem to have slotted right back in even though it is 23 years since we moved to Sydney.

One thing I really like is the availability of resource material linked to my particular interests. I still have my State Library reader’s card which gives me on-line access. I am a member of both the City and University libraries which have some particular collections that I am interested in. I also have access to the big collection at the heritage centre including state records and the smaller collections at the history and family history societies.

So many of the references and the source material I am interested in are not available on-line. I have already found much that I had not seen, that compliments my own collection.

On the negative side, one thing I have noticed is the aging of Armidale combined with an increase in poverty. This is partially a matter of demographics linked to structural and cultural change.

The city grew very rapidly during the fifties, sixties and seventies. Local school numbers exploded with the influx of new families. Then came the changes associated with the Dawkins education reforms, changes that in combination with centralisation of service delivery cost the city a thousand jobs in a short period. Growth went into reverse. The city hollowed out as families left.

Those in permanent positions appointed during the growth phase who have strong connections with the city have now entered retirement. They were replaced to some degree by new arrivals, although these are much more mobile with changes in tenure. The city has attracted retirees (retirement homes are a growth business) and also people with disabilities or on low incomes attracted by services and the relative availability of social housing.

These changes are very visible in the street or in the shopping centres. In Sydney I lived in Daceyville with its aging social housing and retirement populations. Here I have seen more disability chairs, more walkers, in a morning than I saw in Daceyville/Kingsford in a week or even a month.

The effect is just as pronounced in my areas of interest such as history. I find that I know all those interested, the most active. Most were history staff at UNE or the Armidale College of Advanced Education when I was a post grad student in 1981 or 82. Then there were more Australianists than the total number of history staff at UNE today. The Australian history postgrad students from Litt B up outnumber the total number of history postgrads today.

Armidale is growing again. The population has finally passed the previous peak set during the eighties. There is a vibrant cultural life, a proliferation of writers, artists, of small publishing or production houses. There are new start-ups once more. Interestingly, and this is just a perception, the growth is more city, less university focused than in the past.

I suspect that this growth has come just in time to save the place from a severe shock.  

Monday, September 16, 2019

Fire and drought on the New England

It’s very dry in Armidale. Sitting outside at the back table I look across an expanse of dead grass stretching to Queen Elizabeth Drive, the main drag to the University. Fortunately, it’s been close mowed. Otherwise I would be worried about fire hazard.

The fires at Bees Nest and at Tenterfield and Stanthorpe have attracted much attention. The Bees Nest fire has now burned over 90,000 hectares, so it’s a very big fire. News reports describe it as near Armidale. In fact, it’s some considerable distance away, north of Ebor, north-west of Dorrigo. A camp for firefighters has been established at the Dorrigo Polocrosse grounds.

Fire fighting efforts have been hindered by lack of water. In some cases, limited town supplies have had to be diverted to fire fighting. Armidale itself is relatively fortunate, although level 4 water restrictions have been imposed. The main dam, Malpas on the Gara River is 42.9% full, while the much smaller Puddledock and Dumaresq dams are at 70.7% and 58.6% respectively. Puddledock is reserved for emergency use including fire fighting. Malpas now supplies Guyra as well as Armidale. Guyra’s own dams also on the Gara River are very low.

The streams in this immediate area including Gara flow east and have generally wetter catchments than the westerly flowing streams that form part of the Northern Darling Basin. Rainfall declines across the Tablelands from east to west. While it’s dry on the eastern portion of the Tablelands, it’s even drier in the west.

While I accept the statistics that suggest that this may be a record dry spell, I struggle a little with some of the hyperbole, mainly because I have seen so many droughts. Certainly it is very dry and will remain so until we get decent rain.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The 1980s – the missed link in the story of Australia in space: a note

The discussion and sometimes euphoria over the re-establishment of Australia’s space programs has been marked by a total neglect of the attempts to re-establish an Australian Space Program in the 1980s. Discussion slides from the 1960s or early seventies straight to the present time; it is though the 1980s did not exist. And yet, the 1980s were marked by a considerable push including the failed establishment of new institutional structures.

When the grand new initiative began, I became very annoyed at what I saw as the effective re-writing of history; neglect amounts to rewriting. I was also annoyed because the discussion failed to recognize the individuals who tried so hard. Then during the clean-out of my papers prior to the move to Armidale I found a box of documents on the 1980s’ attempts.

That box has disappeared for the moment, lost in the pile of boxes in the garage. It will re-appear in due course, allowing me to write a better documented account. For the moment, I just want to record some of the key events, recognizing that without documentation I may get things wrong including the spelling of names.

Australia’s withdrawal from space has been much canvassed in current discussions. Australia had an active launch site and a not-inconsiderable space sector. In Sydney, Hawker de Havilland employed some 4,000 people in its space division. When the British abandoned its independent space program, Australia had a chance to join ESA, the European Space Agency. This move was opposed by France which had its own plans and saw Australia as a threat to those plans. There was also little support domestically. The then Menzies Government saw it as a waste of money. The net effect was an unwinding of Australian involvement in space and our not inconsiderable space sector.

By the start of the 1980s, things had begun to change. Four factors contributed to this:
  •  Barry Jones, the newly appointed Minister for Science and Technology in the Hawke Government, supported by Deputy Secretary Roy Green, began a space push. This led to the setting up of the Madigan Inquiry, While this proceeded, Jones and Green attempted to use Section 39 funds, part of the IR&D grant scheme, to fund Australian involvement if space projects
  • Meantime, the Department of Industry and Commerce, concerned that the industry policy focus was too dominated by support for cot-case industries, established a new branch (the Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries Branch) to chart new directions in the high technology sector. I was charged with responsibility with setting that branch up. We focused early on the role that space might play in developing not just the aerospace sector but Australia’s high technology industries in general
  • There were moves in CSIRO too. The Division of Radio Physics under Bob Frater supported by Colin Cooper had not lost its interest in space and supported increased Australian involvement in space. Ken McCracken, head of Minerals Research and a dedicated believer in the value of space based remote sensing began a push to create a special space focused centre within CSIRO. There was growing interest in the universities too where researchers were experimenting with new space focused technologies
  •  In industry, Hawker de Havilland had not forgotten its previous role and supported the push led by (among others) Peter Smith and Stan Schatzel. Stan had had a long involvement with Australian space activities. There were also a growing number of small space related start-ups.
A number of initiatives resulted:
  • We began a series on industry consultations aimed at identifying opportunities and impediments and to gather support for new space initiatives
  •  In CSIRO, Ken obtained endorsement to create a new committee to examine CSIRO’s role in space of which I was a member. This resulted in the creation of the CSIRO Office for Space Science and Applications headed by Ken, supported by Christine Astley Boden
  • A new Australian Space Board was created headed by Bruce Middleton to develop new program activities.
These various moves would finally fail. The reasons for this deserve exploration as does the whole story. In essence, the climate in Canberra was changing. These space initiatives were seen as yet more special pleading for industry subsidation. I remember a frustrating meeting at Treasury where I finally said in frustration how do I satisfy you? David Borthwick carefully explained about benefit-cost analysis. It was actually quite a helpful response, but my problem was that benefit-cost analysis deals with the known, while I was doing with the what might be. I could explain linkages, show where I though benefits would come, but I was really very reluctant to attach numbers or risk assessments. From my perspective, I could show benefits, but so long as we were in the right ball-park precise quantification was meaningless.

When I get my box of papers I will write more. For the moment, I simply wish to assert that the new Australian Space Agency is not the first Australian Space Agency, that what happened in the 1980s deserves to be remembered.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Returning to Blogging

Cross posting to the New England Australia and New England History blogs.

Well, I am now in Armidale. I still don't have the internet working properly, that requires connecting to the NBN, but can access the internet using a hot spot created on the mobile. This is potentially very expensive, but meets my immediate needs.

After such a long delay in blogging, the move was creating distractions and delays long before the intensive move period, traffic to my blogs has declined greatly. I have to rebuild and that will take time.

I will write about the move, after all it has been a big and all consuming one, but for the moment I simply want to record that I am back blogging.

I look forward to a return to regular posting, to the on-going conversation with blogging friends old and hopefully new!