Saturday, October 31, 2020

The importance of nuanced history - a note

There was an interesting short post on Christopher Moore's History News, Historical Ethics. The post begins:

In 2017 the Law Society of British Columbia removed all the honours and distinctions it had previously given to Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, appointed in 1858 as the first and for a long time only judge in the new colony of British Columbia. Statues were taken down, etc. The Society was acting on a report that condemned Begbie for disregarding indigenous law, putting to death warriors of the Chilcotin war of 1864, and having "negative" and racist views.  

This decision was challenged by a group of B.C. lawyers, many of them long active in indigenous legal matters and legal history, put it to the Society that, while it was appropriate that Begbie no longer be considered the symbol of justice in British Columbia, the report was inaccurate and misleading and unworthy of the Society. They provided evidence to the contrary to the Law Society. When they got no response,  they took their case to the (virtual) annual general meeting of the Law Society, put forward their case as a motion -- and got it passed. I leave you to read Christopher's post for more details. 

Christopher is concerned with questions of both accuracy and nuance in history or, perhaps more precisely, the use of history. The case against Begbie was apparently both inaccurate and also failed to recognise his other achievements. 

My first instinctive reaction was highly sympathetic to Christopher's position, Indeed it still is. However, reflections on my own experience illustrated how difficult the whole area is.

I have written a fair bit over time on questions of selection, perception and bias in the writing of history. I have tried to suggest that bias is inevitable in the questions we ask and the way we frame our arguments. However, in practising our craft we have to be guided by the evidence even where it is contrary to our views. More importantly, we have to present the history in such a way that it is checkable and potentially refutable. 

When I was CEO of the then Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists I consciously used the College's history to support changes that I wanted to make. In that sense, I was no different from those today who are seeking to use history to bring about change including removal of monuments. I was trying to select and weight elements in the College's history to bring about the changes I wanted. However, my selections had to be defensible in terms of evidence. I could not just use history willy-nilly regardless of the evidence.   

I have been running an introductory course on the history of Australia's New England, the Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. It's an adult education class and a fairly big effort with 20 lectures and 9 discussion groups. I have found it more time consuming than I expected because the material that I am delivering is new. There are no overall texts. My blogging has suffered as a consequence. I console myself that once the task is complete I will be able to use the material to complete some other writing projects.

I have found that the act of teaching has forced me to address some of the questions that Christopher raises. This is an area where I have some strong beliefs, where I and my own family have been involved in events. I have tried to manage this by pointing to my own biases,

The course also involves contested territories. I have consciously put that in plural. 

The impact of European settlement on New England's Aboriginal peoples is an example. 

I had already presented three lectures on Aboriginal history up to 1788. This is contested territory in itself. I was challenged by Aboriginal people who held different views, including the belief that Aboriginal people had been here from time immemorial. 

I then described the spread of European settlement over the penal and pastoral expansion periods. In doing so, I said that I was consciously leaving the impact on the Aboriginal peoples aside to set a context, for later discussion.

I then devoted two lectures to the impact of occupation against the framework of the pattern of early European occupation, This allowed me to some degree to sketch out the differing patterns of occupation and response. I then took two case studies, the Hunter and the New England Tablelands, to show how patterns replicated while varying, to explain nuances.  

The invasion period is contested territory. My approach meant that I barely mentioned massacres, a dominant trope today. Instead, I focused on the patterns of impact and response, starting with impacts such as disease that extended beyond the moving frontier and on the Aboriginal response. I had wanted to use this as a base for telling the story of later Aboriginal history. It's important because it hasn't been written, but I ran out of time and could only sketch later elements. 

Dealing with these type of issues is obviously uncomfortable. This is where nuance comes in. We are concerned with what happened and the pattern is rarely black and white.   


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - on the modern fallacy of leadership

I have commented before about the sometimes inverse correlation between the public prominence of an issue and on-ground reality. 

The 1990s were a period of restructuring during which many older workers in particular lost their jobs, many never to find work again. This was also the time when the literature and commentary focused on the importance of HR and proper people management. 

As we moved into the 2000s there was a growing focus on maximising the value of the brand. This was the time that newspapers stopped being newspapers and became mastheads instead. While the trend was pronounced at this time, it really dates back to an earlier idea, the idea that managing a larger firm was in fact managing a portfolio of businesses rather than a firm and its individual businesses as organic entities. Value maximisation came from managing the portfolio to extract maximum short term cash either directly or though buying and selling operations or trademarks. Perhaps not surprisingly, the focus on maximising the value of the brand coincided with a period of brand destruction.   

I recognise that what I have written is a bit rough and ready. I really need to go through and consolidate my business and management posts to tease things out. I have been writing on this stuff for long enough so that my posts and my own changing views provide something of an historical context, including the role of management fads and fancies. Still, it sets a context for this morning's brief muse. 

Listening to the radio I was struck by the focus on leadership and failings in leadership. In political terms we have the focus on the role of Premier Andrews in Victoria, in NSW on the extent to which Premier Berejiklian's status as leader has been diminished by the problems surrounding her personal life. In business, the problems facing Crown Casino are being attributed to a lack of leadership combined with failures in compliance. 

I'm not quite sure when this focus on leadership and failures in leadership first emerged and then became dominant. I am old enough to remember the older focus on management that was then swept away, replaced by leadership. 

To my mind, our current leadership focus is highly problematic. 

The word leader literally means the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country. This compares with one standard definition of manager, a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff. These two functions are different. 

Hitler was clearly a great leader, one who could command loyalty. However, he was a hopeless manager who led his country into a disastrous war where his incompetence as a manger guaranteed Germany's final loss. Alexander the Great was another great leader, but his empire fell to bits with his death. Churchill was a great leader, one whose leadership attributes were uniquely suited to the times. but he was not an especially effective manager. In business, Harold  Geneen built International Telephone and Telegraph into a great conglomerate, but his centralised authoritarian style left the company ill-equipped to survive his death.     

I have given these examples to try to illustrate the difference between leadership and management. To my mind, many of the problems that people attribute to poor leadership are actually management problems. In NSW and Victoria, the problems that emerged in the covid-19 responses did not reflect lack of leadership - both premiers were playing leadership roles in their own effective ways - but instead represented management failures.  Despite my reasonably extensive public and private sector management experience, I could not understand why the decision processes were so chaotic, why decisions were undocumented. Then I reflected on my own experience. 

Some years ago I chose to drop back down the hierarchy, to do contract work to try to support my writing addition. I ended up doing contract work within the NSW Public Service, working at a level I last worked at in my twenties. I was struck by just how sclerotic, centralised and hierarchical the system had become. As a simple example, there were five reporting levels between my policy position and the minister, each level with its own sign-off requirements. 

I was also struck by the absence of real management in the sense of managing people and resources to achieve objectives. Many old management functions had been taken over by centralised computer systems where the role of the "manager" had diminished to a tick-box compliance role. The "manager" had also to ensure compliance with a far greater range of policies, procedures and training requirements that, while no doubt important, had peripheral relevance to primary roles. Something akin to the older structures continued in some functional delivery areas for practical reasons, but in broad terms I was struck by the absence of management as I had known it.   

During this period I had to undergo ethics training. This wasn't ethics training as I had known it with its focus on the role and responsibilities, rather more training in compliance and fraud prevention. As part of the training, we were given a number of actual case studies. Talking to the trainer later, I said that the thing that stood out to me in the cases was the absence of over-sight. As a reasonably hands-on manger, I would have expected to pick the problems up early from direct observation or through the management information systems. Now there appeared to be two problems: the management information that might have revealed the problems was not necessarily accessible to the line manager, while the role and responsibility of those in "management" roles had diminished. They simply didn't have the supervisory access or responsibility that might have triggered an early response or even prevented the problem in the first place.

One feature of the decline in management has been a diminution in the role of and number of middle managers. We call this thinning out. The argument is that reducing the number of middle managers will save money and create efficiencies and responsiveness through flatter structures. This process is facilitated by modern computer systems. In practice, I have come to think that it actually increases hierarchy and centralisation, reducing the scope and role of managers.

I am, I think, a reasonably good manager measured by results and the loyalty and enthusiasm of my people. In becoming so, I went through a seasoning process combining a genuine interest in management with a staged increase in responsibility. 

By the time I became a section head I had been both 2IC and acting section head. It was a reasonably big section, nine staff, combining policy and processing responsibilities in a particular area. I then had considerable experience as an acting branch head before being appointed a branch head. Now managing branches with up to 39 staff and multimillion dollar program budgets I wasn't worried about the management role. In retrospect I was lucky because I had more scope and responsibility than equivalent levels today. 

If you had asked me during this period whether I thought of myself as a leader, I would have replied yes, but this wasn't my primary focus. I was a policy adviser and program manager focused on the management of my people to get results that I wanted. Leadership was something I tried to provide, but it wasn't my core responsibility. Management was.

Today when we talk about leadership I worry that we are talking about a concept of slippery meaning, setting up a straw horse that must lead to disappointment, that has limited relevance to what people have to do, that is hard to teach, 

Take your middle manager with limited power and authority. Now say that he or she must aspire to be a leader, that that is his or her core function. What does this actually mean? It is much easier to talk about and focus on the management role, recognising that not everybody can be a good manager. 

As we move up the organisation, leadership may acquire more meaning, but it is still a very limited and hierarchical concept, one lacking definition. Most CEO's will tell you that they want to empower their people. That is management speak, but it carries a truth: you may articulate a vision, but you require managers to carry it out. 

Many years ago when I first studied the emergence of new political movements, I was struck by a typology that said that all successful movements required three things: the agitator, the leader who articulated the need, the dream; the theoretician who codified the ideas so that they could be explained and used; and the administrator who actually made things work. These roles can overlap. 

1920 marks 100 years since the emergence of the party that became the NSW Country Party, something that I have been writing on, Within that new movement, we have Earle Page as the agitator, Drummond as the theoretician who articulated the constitutional basis for the new party, Bruxner as the practical administrator. 

If we now look at Victoria, Dan Andrews has been acting as leader who has, I think, been successful in that role. But his success, his achievement, has been sullied by management failures in delivery. Leaders without management struggle.            


Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sunday Essay - Donald Trump, Joe Biden; what does it mean for Australia?

I have struggled to write anything sensible on the current US election campaign. I suppose that I've really tuned out in circumstances where commentary in Australia and the US is so polarised. I also wonder if it actually matters outside the US who wins. This may sound extreme, so I will try to explain.

We live in unexpectedly troubled times. 

At global level, we have seen the decline of what has been called the rules based order, essentially the institutions and rules that have governed trade, commerce and international relations since the Second World War. These may not always have been effective, but they did provide a framework. 

We have seen a rise in nationalism and in politics based on national and ethnic identity, We have seen a focus on "race" and "racial issues" from both left and right that has taken me back to a past that I thought we had put behind. We have seen a decline in humanitarian ideals, the rise in me first, a decline in the willingness to make sacrifices for others or the greater good, a fall in tolerance of difference and a disintegration in commonly held values.  

We have seen a rise in state actors asserting raw power wrapped up in the rubric of national pride and the redress of past wrongs. 

Certainly President Trump has been part of this process, but he is really a symptom rather than cause. He appeals to people who feel, rightly to my mind, that they have been ignored and have become, or at least risking becoming, the detritus of a change process. They feel, again rightly to my mind, that their beliefs are denigrated and belittled. In a way, they have been shafted by the libertarian right on one side, the left on the other. 

As an older Australian, I find the extremities of US thought very strange, The US is a far more complex society than ours, although the US extremities are represented here. However, I can recognise and respect. the views and grievances of Mr Trump's supporters even when I find them alien. There are similar groups and concerns in Australia. I understand them too even where I disagree. 

When I look at Mr Trump as a symptom as well as president, I think of him (in  Donald Rumsfeld's words) as a known unknown, known in the sense that we understand the broad parameters, unknown  in that we have no real idea what he will do next. He is a random element, a disruptor. This is not always bad. In shaking things up, he forces shifts in the way we perceive the world. I may dislike it, but it does cause shifts.  

I see Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris more as an unknown unknown. From a purely US domestic viewpoint, they may or may not be a good thing. My feeling is that they will bring more stability, but I'm not sure that they can bridge the divides. 

From an Australian and indeed global viewpoint I have no way of making a judgement. I just don't know. The current US presidential campaign is a US campaign driven by US domestic issues. There is no clarity on the US global approach that is so important to the rest of us. 

That is why I said that I wonder if it actually matters outside the US who wins. My feeling is that the US domestic focus will continue, that confusion will continue, that very little will actually change so far as the rest of the wold is concerned, 

So what does or should Australia do? That's a topic for another post.      



Saturday, October 10, 2020

Saturday morning musings - struggling with my history of Australia's New England

From time to time I have mentioned the introductory course I am presently delivering through U3A on the history of Australia's New England, the New England Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the west, east, north and south, It's an ambitious course, far more ambitious than I fully comprehended when I started. 

I began by tracing the story of the Aboriginal peoples from out of Africa, the journey to the ancient continent we call Sahul, the spread across Sahul, the arrival in the area I call New England. We then explored the impact of the Last Glacial Maximum that came close to wiping the Aboriginal peoples out, the subsequent recovery finishing with an attempted synthesis of Aboriginal New England on the dawn of invasion. In delivering, I have attempted to integrate archaeological, genomic, linguistic and ethnographic evidence. 

Colonial New England began with the penal (1801-1840) and pastoral expansion (1820-1851) periods and then looked at the impact on Aboriginal society: the impacts beyond the moving frontier, then uneasy co-existence, active resistance and finally survival in the face of over-whelming disruption. I then turned to colonial history and society, mining (1851 to 1890s), agriculture (c1861-1910) and the rise of the towns. In all this I looked at themes including politics and self government, education, sectarianism, architecture and changing daily life.

We are now charging though to the end of the twentieth century. 

In delivery, I have tried to integrate the local and regional with the global story, outlining the linkages between the New England story and events elsewhere. Increasingly, I have devoted part of the lectures and discussion to summarising past discussions and to answering questions raised by my group, questions that often extend beyond formal course scope. Most recently, for example, I was asked about the history of Aboriginal voting rights in Australia. 

The story here is not as it often seems. Many people believe  that the 1967 constitutional referendum granted Aboriginal voting rights. That is not true. The story dates back to the 1850s when with responsible government Aboriginal males were actually eligible to vote in NSW, Victoria and South Australia so long as they met the general eligibility requirements. From there the story becomes complicated varying between jurisdictions and entwined with changing social attitudes that varied between jurisdictions. So last week I tried to explain all this. 

The course has been greatly disrupted by covid 19. When I began I scheduled 18 lectures plus twice monthly discussion groups with the first course finishing in June. Then everything stopped. I knew that the interruption was (hopefully) temporary. You would think that I would continue preparation, but I found it hard to do so.   

When we resumed it was under strict distancing requirements.  I had started with some 45 internal attendees. Some I knew had dropped out because the course did not suit them Now I had a maximum of 12 people that could be accommodated in one group excluding me. 

U3A found a second slot for me so that I could accommodate 24 students. I had to survey the group a number of times to find out what people wanted to do. Some dropped out entirely.  Some wanted to transfer to a first semester next year course, committing me to running again. Eighteen were keen to continue, requiring two weekly lecture sessions with capacity to switch between sessions since we were under the maximum levels. The discussion group could continue as was since we were below maximum levels. 

The net effect was that my face to face teaching hours went up by over a third. To try to extend interest in and knowledge of New England's history, I had planned to run an external group via Facebook but this hit the dust because of time constraints, However, I do hope to catch up here.  

To teach is to learn. My reduced cohort may be relatively small but they are enthusiastic. They push me by questions and also pressure me to provide the written material I have promised. 

This is fair enough, mind you, although I am struggling to deliver. Thursday/Friday I took them on a fast canter though political parties, groups from the emancipists/exclusives to the end of the twentieth century.   I did so because they were getting lost in shifting names, struggled to see how things fitted together. But they do need the slides to refer to as a reference    

The course has coincided with the most febrile period I have known in terms of issues and debates. This affects both the questions asked by the group and the words I use in presenting material.

I had intended to make this the central issue  in today's muse, but then got sidetracked into others things so will have to come back to it. An example, I suppose, is the use of the word British. What, actually, does this mean? Are the Irish British? 

This diagram from Wikipedia shows the changing political structures on the Isles. Technically, between 1801 and 1922 the word British could be applied to the Irish because they were part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Even then, and as made clear by the name, Ireland was separate from Great Britain.    

The approach that I am trying to follow  is to explain my use of words, as well as my own biases.  In the case of British, I made my reservation about the term clear, generally limiting the use of the word to the British Government or at least official activities. Instead, in talking about European settlement patterns I refer to the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. 

There were, in fact, very few Welsh. Ranked by size, the new settlers were English, Irish, Scots, Chinese and then Germans. Each group had its own identity and culture. Their relative composition within the New England population varied compared to the rest of NSW or indeed the other Australian colonies. You cannot understand New England's history unless you understand these differences.  

My use of the term Germans is another example of labeling problems. Germany as a state entity did not exist until 1871. When I use the term Germans prior to 1871 I am referring to German speakers. I had to explain this in the context of immigration agent Wilhelm Kirchner, in so doing introducing the group to a little of German history.       

 I will come back to some of these issues later. For the moment, think of this as a progress report. 


Saturday, October 03, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - covid-19, compliance and the Australian character


Another graphic that made me smile. It's just so covd-19! Again, I do not know the original source. 

It's one of those graphics that is unlikely to survive the pandemic except perhaps as an historical artefact because the play on words is so very specific to current events. 

It's hard here in this little part of the world in which I live to really appreciate the scale and impact of covid-19. 

To my knowledge, we have had no cases of community transmission here, although there were a small number of cases where the disease was caught elsewhere,  The whole New England North West area has had no known active cases since the end of May. The effects of covid-19 have come not from the disease, but from the measures used to fight the spread of the disease. 

This is not a complaint, although I have said that the measures imposed lacked nuance and could have been better tailored. I think that the Melbourne outbreak now coming under control demonstrates how quickly the disease can spread. 

One thing that has surprised observers is just how compliant Australians have been in observing the restriction. There have been small protests as well as cases of non-compliance, but overall compliance has been high. This conflicts with the image that Australians and others have of Australians as individualists, cautious about and likely to rebel against authority.   Hofstede Insights describes Australians in this way:


The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies people belong to ‘in groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.

Australia, with a score of 90 on this dimension, is a highly Individualist culture. This translates into a loosely-knit society in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families. In the business world, employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative. Also, within the exchange-based world of work, hiring and promotion decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.

While there is some truth in this description, it also gives a misleading picture. 

Australians are egalitarian by nature, democratic in tone. This comes through in forms of workplace address such as the use of first names. But Australians are also very compliant, something that John Hirst explores in The Distinctiveness of Australian Democracy (p112 ff). Further, while Australians may be critical of governments and politicians, there is also an expectation that Government will provide services, an expectation that dates back to early colonial days and the difficulty in providing services to a relatively sparse, geographically dispersed population.  

This difficulty fed into another element in the Australian character, one also in conflict with the idea of the individualist Australian, the volunteer ethos. Australia has a remarkable volunteer tradition, one that began in the early colonial period when people gathered together to meet local needs. We have seen this most graphically in the recent response to the bush fires. Australians looking after Australians. 

Earlier, I said that while I supported the various restrictions in a general sense, I also thought that they lacked nuance. From a purely personal viewpoint, I think that some of the restrictions have become too onerous and make reducing sense when geography is taken into account. The difficulty here is that while Australians can be compliant and collectivist, this holds so long as the restrictions seem sensible. Australian history suggests that once people conclude otherwise, then compliance drops sharply, with people deliberately looking for ways around the restrictions, Katy Barnett's piece in Quillette, Something is Rotten in the State of Victoria, is instructive here.       

Friday, October 02, 2020

Archaeology and the boilings frogs of media change - how to respond?


I must say I enjoy many of the memes and graphics that travel around Facebook. As someone who once wanted to be an archaeologist, this one made me smile, although I think that I have somehow jumped from the tadpole to dinosaur stage without going through the intermediate steps! It's only in recent years that I have gone back to archaeology and then as a student of results rather than a practitioner.

While I enjoy Facebook, the current debates about Facebook and Twitter as news sources strike me as very odd. I follow a number of news outlets on both, but the platforms are not of themselves news sources. 

Consider a simple example. Say that I decided to ditch all news sources and just rely on Facebook: I would get leads to news stories; I would find out what my friends thought; I would find out what sponsors wanted me to read; I would be exposed to a lot of crap with some nuggets; but in all this I would find out little about news beyond some high headlines. The same applies to Twitter.

For better or worse, I am a news junky. When I get up in the morning, I start by checking the BBC. Why the BBC? It's complicated. I want a non-Australian viewpoint. They also have a reasonable range of stories, although their international coverage is quite weak in some ways.And sometimes they are so very English! Then I check the ABC. After that I go to other sources. As firewalls have extended, as the content in news outlets has diminished, the length of time it takes me to review material has declined. What once took me several hours has diminished to 45 minutes.  

I think that I was best informed back in the eighties when I was a branch head at the industry department in Canberra. As a branch head, I had access to all the cables from Australia's overseas posts. Well, not quite all. While I had a top secret security clearance, there were need to know cables. If I were to see such cables they would be carried by hand, the security officer would usually stand by while I read them and then would carry them away. 

Many of my colleagues regraded reading the cables as a burden. They would simply sign the folders of and send them on. I always read them. I loved the country reports in particular even where they were peripheral to my ordinary needs. I learn't so much about sometimes arcane matters.

Those were print days. I matched the cables with what I read in the newspapers and news magazines. When the internet arrived there was an explosion in on-line material. By now my interests had shifted. My browsing expanded to include those new interests. 

For example, each week I would check dozens of newspapers and other sites located in Northern New South Wales. I would prepare consolidated material and analysis. I knew what was going on, as an analyst could consolidate into new interpretative material. Internationally, I would consciously check news sources in multiple countries to check the unconscious biases imposed by my Australian location. 

All this then declined. At a purely personal level, I found that print publications had declined, as had my ability to afford those that were available.  Entire levels of on-line journalism were now behind firewalls, while the print papers had become very thin. 

Covid-19 has added to my woes. I have just realised that the audience for my weekly newspaper column has been effectively wiped out by Australian Corporate Media instability and changes. Nobody knows where to find me! I knew that my reach was declining even among dedicated followers. 

The woman who has cut out everyone of my columns over the years can no longer do so because there is no print paper. Those on the internet or who have a subscription to the PDF edition of the paper cannot find me. The PDF edition has shrunk from twice a week to once a week and does not always have me. When I appear on the website. access is limited to three per month. 

The columns are also variously tagged. Once they were history or multiple tagged including history. Now it seems random. They could be found. Now they are lost. In saying this, I am not being critical of my colleagues. With diminished staff trying to maintain the ship, there is little room for thought or consistency. 

You know the story of the frog in boiling water? It just keeps getting worse but the frog is not conscious of that until it boils. I feel a little like that. 

It came to a head this week. I was talking to my history group. It's just a small group, part of my bigger audience. Most of them came to the course because they read my columns in the first place. Now I find that none of them have seen a column in three months whether on-line or in the PDF version of the paper. They didn't know that I was still writing. I find that depressing! Why am I bothering? 

I have written a fair bit on the media changes. Now I feel the need to get out of the hot water. I'm not talking specifically about the column, more about the general approach. I do have ways that I can build my independent approach despite the changes, but all that takes time and a new focus. That comes with costs. We shall have to see if I can do it!