Thursday, November 26, 2020

Discomfort and discordance when your own past becomes part of history

 It’s strange when you read a history that is analysing events that you lived through yourself. The events are familiar, of course, but there’s also an element of surprise at things you didn’t realize at the time, and at the matters that the historian has placed emphasis on, when you weigh them against your own perspectives and memories. It’s also rather disconcerting to realize that your own lifespan is now considered ‘history’.‘ The Resident Judge of Port Phillip reviewing Michelle Arrow's "The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia." 

I must say that this comment struck a real cord. There is something disconcerting about about finding part of your life the subject of history, to find that what individual historians select as important jars with your own recollections and lived experience. 

Aquarius Festival Nimbin, May 1973

Historians select their own questions based on what they are interested in and consider to be important. Inevitably this is based on the present. But if you lived through a period, if it's still in your current memory, then those selected topics may seem peripheral or, if important, less important than other questions you considered to be important at the time. Your views may be re-balanced with time and new experiences, that is inevitable and indeed desirable, but there is a discordance.

This has been much on my mind because of the introductory course I have been delivering on the history of the broader New England, the New England Tablelands and surrounding river valleys. The last part of the course covered the period from 1945 to 2000, including the 1970s. Here I had to choose what I should focus on, what to include and exclude, how much weight to place on particular issues, recognising that I could not cover everything. I also had to recognise my own biases. 

The approach I followed was based in part on the geographic area under study. Was it relevant to the history of the area under study.? As an example, I said very little about the Whitlam period because much of that story including the dismissal was not relevant to my story. 

My approach was also influenced by the fact that I was looking forward, not back. By the time I came to the 1970s I had spent multiple lectures sketching out the area's history. I needed to address change from the perspective of what had come before. Looking forward with questions dictated by the past is very different from looking back with  questions dictated by the present. 

Let me try to illustrate.The 1970s were a tip decade, one that marked a break between the Australian present and past. This was also a period that marked the start of a structural decline within New England, this actually began earlier but accelerated, that would consign many of the things that we had talked about on the course, the dreams and aspirations, to the dustbins of history. I had to address this, to try to explain.        

Consider the rise of the counter-culture movement that included the Aquarius Festival but began in the sixties. 

This was part of a global phenomenon that had considerable local impacts in social and cultural terms. I tried to explain that. However, the combination of cheap rural land associated with the decline of dairying, the rise of the surfing culture and the counter-culture movement marked the start of a sea-change rush in the 1980s that would, among other things, totally disrupt the balance that had existed in populations terms between coastal and inland New England. In so doing, it would disrupt and then break the sense of Northern identity that had previously facilitated cooperation between local and regional areas despite intense parochialism. 

That is one example. There are many others. 

I was at least a bit player in many of the events I am trying to teach. In some case, I am still a player.

This raises obvious questions of perception and bias.  But it also creates a sense of dislocation at many levels. I read histories that conflict with my lived experience. Then in trying to teach, I have to challenge my own perceptions and memories. It's a sometimes uncomfortable experience!  


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sunday Essay - Armidale: avoiding submergence in the local


Beardy Street Armidale, 1964

It's very hot in Armidale today, 28.0C as I write. I find the heat enervating. I suppose that's a sign of just how much I have acclimatised in the twelve months since my return to Armidale. 

Writing of growing up in Armidale. I said that it was an unusual experience, intensely local on one side, international on the other.

The very particular rhythms  of life in Armidale and, to a lesser degree, the North dominated life. Sydney was remote, Oxford and Cambridge closer. I was more aware of global developments than I was of events in that parochial metro centre huddled round its harbour. Even then, the city's growth had created its own urban sprawl with outlying suburbs that few visited or knew much about. 

From birth until my twentieth birthday I visited Sydney perhaps eight times. 

Three of those trips were to Manly for holidays, creating an image in my mind of central Manly, the harbour and ferries and the Sydney CBD. Childhood memories are vivid, I remember the way that pineapple crush made my nose sting with the cold. 

Two of the trips were were for sporting events, one running in the GPS athletics, one  to play rugby.against Cranbrook. Two more were transiting Sydney on the way too or from New Zealand. In all cases I stayed in what might be called the inner city or at least that area and immediate suburbs. In the remaining trips I transited Sydney, spending the day wandering around Central waiting for my next train.  

Later and especially after I moved to Canberra, I would visit Sydney many times, For the moment, I am simply trying to illustrate how remote Sydney was when I was growing up. I came from a middle class family. Many people had less money and fewer opportunities to interact with Sydney. Many had never been to Sydney at all. 

Tattersall's Hotel, Armidale, before modifications in the 1930s

Once I decided to return to Armidale to live, I started to dig back in to create and recreate links. I knew that the city had changed and had no automatic expectation that I would fit in. I had to earn my place. As it happened, I need not have worried. My newspaper columns have given me a continuing base in town. Indeed, many did not realise that I was not living in Armidale and indeed had not for twenty years.  I also found that the combination of my personal history  with the work done in rebuilding my connections had paid of in ways I could never have expected. But I also found a problem.

Armidale is a scarred city, scarred by history and present lack of vision. I find this difficult to describe. 

Arnidale as a city has been greatly affected by external decisions and especially by externally imposed changes in education, now the city's main industry. Those changes are externally imposed I find that people are focused on internal responses, on the failure of those responses, not the challenges themselves I find that people are so concerned with parry and issues divides, areas dealt in absolutes, that they cannot respond to cross-areas except in political or preferred issues framework, 

I experienced this in the context of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Authority (APVMA)  move to Armidale. In the face of virulent attack from ACM's Canberra Times, I attempted to mount a counter case based on economic and policy analysis. I struggled. 

The Armidale Express simply picked up the arguments from its fellow ACM masthead. Those opposed to Mr Joyce attacked the move. Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon said that anybody who expected the move to happen had rocks in their head. There were arguments about the procurement process, arguments picked up in detail by the Canberra Times.  In the end, APVMA did move, but Armidale did not deserve the move. It had worked very hard to stop it. 

During the APVMA discussion, Col Murray as Mayor of Tamworth attacked the  APVMA move. It was, he suggested, featherbedding Armidale. Why shouldn't Tamworth get benefits from decentralisation? While I attacked him at the time, I have to say that I have some sympathy with the Mayor. 

When both the Teachers' College (!929) and the University College (1938) were established in Armidal,e there was no opposition from the Northern Press nor from other Northern towns. Ii was seen a a logical extension that would benefit all, Today, Armidale residents and many civic leaders oppose water to the Costa tomato plant in Guyra, the extension of university education in Tamworth, on the grounds that it might damage Armidale. And then Armidale people wonder why those outside the city oppose things that might benefit Armidale! 

At the moment, I am working on a new project, the development of a new approach to UNE's Heritage Centre.   Success depends on getting people to recognise the benefits that the Centre offers to Northern NSW and beyond. Sometimes I regard Armidale as the greatest impediment to success.  

If this is seen as an Armidale focused initiative it's dead, wrecked on the rocks of dislike of Armidale. I really had no idea how great this had become until I returned. If we come up with a model that involves diminution of the Armidale role, can we sell it in Armidale?

Bluntly,  Armidale needs to ship up, to adopt a a broader Northern perspective, or it should really ship out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

China's apparently expanding Great Wall against Australia


The signature on Sunday 15 November 2020 of  the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) after eight years of negotiations should mark a step forward, combining China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea alongside members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), 

I say this with a considerable degree of caution because it comes at a time when China is apparently raising barriers against Australian trade in retaliation for what it sees as Australian wrong doing. The latest escalation came when a defence pact, the Reciprocal Access Agreement, was agreed to '"in principle" during Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's state visit to Japan, The agreement would pave the way for the Australian and Japanese militaries to have access to each other's bases, and would deepen cooperation between the two countries. China, correctly, sees this as a reaction to its international objectives.

According to the ABC,  an editorial in the Global Times published in both Chinese and English for domestic and foreign audiences framed the two countries as pawns of the United States.
"China is unlikely to remain indifferent to US moves aimed at inciting countries to gang up against China in the long run," it read.
"It's inevitable that China will take some sort of countermeasures.
"Countries like Japan and Australia have been used as US tools. The strategic risk for a tool to be damaged is certainly higher than that of a user." 
We do not know what form those counter measures might take, but they could well involve further trade retaliation. The process here has been interesting. Apart from not taking Australian ministerial calls, trade retaliation has involved a series of apparently actual or threatened ad hoc decisions that act to impede or sometimes stop Australian exports of particular products. The process is opaque in that actions or potential actions can come at local or regional level Chinese level via reports in the Chinese media allowing a measure of deniability. This can have the same chilling effect on trade because it means that Australian exporters have to make commercial decisions based on the costs and risks of possible Chinese decisions. The measures taken skirt the WTO rules as China tries to balance its official support for free global trade with the need to punish Australia.

The Australian Government's position suffers from lack of subtlety. Australian PM Morrison is not an especially subtle man. He is not helped by ideological warriors such as Senator Abetz whose treatment of Chinese witnesses to a senate inquiry where he called on them to  “unconditionally condemn” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to my mind unconscionable, reminiscent of a certain US Senator in the immediate post war period. If I had been a witness and had been asked that question I would have refused and fired right back. 

 In all this, I think that there are certain things that we should remember:
  • Chinese Australians are an integral part of our community. Some have been here for many generations. Others, like Senator Arbetz himself, were brought here by their parents. Others are more recent migrants.They are valuable members of our community. Some, I would like more, have been my friends
  • The Government's present focus on national security and the avoidance of foreign interference may or may not be right. More likely, it's partly right. However, it strikes me as very ham fisted and poorly implemented 
  • Australia is, at best, a mid-size power. We need to recognise that. Theodore Roosevelt reportedly said, "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." We need to speak still more softly because our stick is small. This does not mean giving up on our values or core interests. It does affect how we express them. It also means that we need allies
  • We need to recognise that other people's values are different from ours. This does not mean that that we should not protest abuses. We just need to recognise limitations, as well as the beams in our own eyes. I winder how many recognise the allusion? It comes from the Bible where criticism of the mote in some one else's eyes is contrasted with the failure to recognise the beam in our own
  • We have no control over the Chinese Government. It will  do what it will do. If we are to be punished, we will be punished. We just have to get on with life regardless. Our responses are the only things that we can control.   
I suppose, in conclusion, that we are trying to build a new and different society in Australia, I think that we need to focus on that, for that gives us the best chance of a future. 

Postscript 191120

Even as I wrote this, the position was deteriorating. This ABC story, Australian officials respond angrily to fresh attacks from Chinese diplomat, provides a picture. 

A new phrase has been added to the English language, Chinese "wolf diplomats", diplomats who see their role not in traditional terms but in the aggressive public pursuit of their country's interests.  I corrected this. I had written tiger eather than wolf. 

Postscript 201120

More from the BBC

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Covid-19, lunch in Uralla and the Great Barrington Declaration

Lunch today at Uralla's Top Pub. It's a pretty pub. 

Sitting there on the shaded verandah watching the passing parade, I thought how lucky we were. Yes, the covid-19 distancing regulations are still in place, and indeed the pub has a very active covid safety plan, but it's close to normal life. 

On 24 October in Have we got the balance right between freedom and protecting the vulnerable?, Winton argues that restrictions have now gone too far.

"It seems to me that Australians should be giving serious consideration to the approach advocated in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) of a group of infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists. The GBD advocates focused protection of those most vulnerable, whilst allowing the rest of the community to live their lives normally and to build up immunity through natural infection.

The GBD approach offers the best hope we have of life returning to normal in a reasonable time frame. If we do not get an effective vaccine or treatment, natural immunity offers the only hope that life can ever return to normal. If an effective vaccine or treatment becomes available over the next few months, that will remove most of the risks associated with the GBD approach. As I see it, there is no good reason why life in Australia should not return to normal very soon after vulnerable people have been offered the protection of a vaccine." 

The Declaration has come under attack. This piece in the Conversation, 5 failings of the Great Barrington Declaration’s dangerous plan for COVID-19 natural herd immunity, is an example. 

I have argued that that the restrictions in this country have lacked subtlety and nuance. However, it is hard to argue that they have been unsuccessful. They contrast with an explosion of cases in the UK, Europe and the US leading to the imposition of  renewed lock-downs.

I don't think that anyone believes that there will not be more covid cases in Australia. I also think that once international travel opens up as it must, the probability of new cases will increase. But what the restrictions have done is buy us time. 

I am not an epidemiological expert, but what does stand out to me are the variations in the pattern of both the pandemic and responses between jurisdictions and, possibly, ethnic groups. I'm not sure what I make of this. My feeling is that later analysis  of these variations will tell us much, including the extent to which herd immunity has worked and in what time horizon. 

Meantime, I'm just glad that we were able to have our lunch in Uralla!   

Postscript 18/11/20

The current covid outbreak in Adelaide and the subsequent imposition of a six day lockdown across South Australia shows just how quickly things can change. The outbreak seems to have begun in a "medi-hotel", the name used in SA for hotels providing quarantine facilities for returned travellers. 

This outbreak seems to have some new features. The SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier is reported as saying that the particular strain of the virus is breeding “very, very rapidly” with a short incubation period of about 24 hours, and with infected people showing only minimal symptoms. The last sounds good!  


Monday, November 09, 2020

Differences in interview techniques - Geraldine Doogue V Fran Kelly


I spend a fair bit of time listening to radio. One of my all time favourite programs is the ABC's Saturday Extra, hosted by Geraldine Doogue. I always learn something new.

Thinking about this, it's partly a question of topic and guest selection, partly a matter of interview style.

Unlike, say, the ABC's Fran Kelly who uses closed questions in which she states an opinion and then demands that the interviewee agree with it, Geraldine uses more open questions. While she expresses opinions, her questions are more open, more inviting a dialogue. 

I have been listening to Fran for a long time and am fond of her, but do wish that she would change her approach. I accept that there are format differences between the programs including less time that impose additional constraints on Fran. But too often I find myself saying shut-up Fran. You are standing between your guest and me. I know what you believe, I want to find out about your guest's views. And if you want to pin your guest down, you need to change your question format. At the moment, your encourage set piece responses that allow the guest to simply sit on and hold a standard line independent of the question. 


Thursday, November 05, 2020

Which day would you nominate for "Bad Management Day."

Custer's last stand. When leadership goes wrong!

In a response to my post Saturday Morning Musings - on the modern fallacy of leadership, my old friend Noric Dilanchian came up with three rather good topics for me to write about: 

  •  “Desperately seeking great managers”
  • “Theory and management sausage, leadership sizzle”
  • “Great leaders at dawn, failed managers at sunset”
I will do so, but for the moment I am just recording his suggestions for later use, 

Searching around, I found the Custer graphic in a 2015 post by John Hollon, The Lessons of Custer: Five Things to Consider on “Bad Management Day” John suggests that 25 June should be "commemorated" as bad management day because it is the date of Custer's last stand.  

I see his point, but there are other choices. I wondered which date you might nominate to be selected for Bad Management Day?

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Merle Curti and the US elections

Merle Curti in 1929. First published in 1944, his book, The Growth of American Thought, remains a masterpiece. 

The American elections are on as I write. While I think that Mr Biden is in front, I  am still unsure as to the final result. It could go either way, I think. We may know by the time that you read this. 

Reading and listening to the election commentary, I was reminded of just what a complex place the US is. 

I had come home to Armidale to work on my thesis, staying with my parents once again after many years. I did not know it, but both would be dead within three years, making the time very important in retrospect. 

In many ways, these were a golden two years. I had no responsibilities and could just enjoy myself, dropping back into patterns from my undergraduate years. As part of this, I read and read, books that had nothing to do with my thesis. One of those books was Merle Curti's The Growth of American Thought.  

I had no idea that it was quite a famous work. I just plucked it off my father's shelves. There, sitting at night on the bed in my unheated bedroom (it was winter in Armidale), I devoured the book over a week. I had studied US history to some degree, I was interested in US politics, but the book showed me how little I knew.  That view was re-affirmed later when I visited the US for the first time. Sure, I was knowledgeable, sometimes knowing more of US history than the people I spoke too, but I knew that I didn't properly understand the variety and complexity of regional variation across America. 

Later the book would inform my own own approach to writing about the history of New England. Curti dealt not just with the headline, big picture stuff, but with the patterns of thought that evolved in the homes and on the farms; with the agricultural societies, the almanacks, land grant universities and the fight for education. He deals not just with the elites, the educated classes that feature in so much discussion, but with the broader society with all its regional and other variation. 

I have not read the book for many years, my memory may be imperfect, but I am talking about its lasting impact in my memory. I hadn't realised until quite recently how much it had affected me. Now when I am trying to talk about patterns of thought and regional life in my area of interest, when I switch from history societies to museums to agricultural shows, to books and art, to varying political views and philosophies,  I feel that I am following Curti.

The US elections will work themselves out.  The patterns across the US show the variety in US life and society. I don't think that it helps, although it may be interesting, to apply universal standards or conclusions, dictated by particular view sets. Better, I think, just to watch and then conclude.   

Monday, November 02, 2020

Can R M Williams regain its traditional Australian marketplace?


Back in 2013 in Australian life - R M Williams & Australian Country Style I wrote that a 49.9 per cent share in the iconic Australian brand had been sold to L Capital Asia, a private equity fund sponsored by French luxury giant LVMH Group. The intent was to extend the global reach of the R M Williams' brand.

The company has now been purchased by Australian billionaire Twiggy Forrest, bringing it back under Australian control. Like many Australians, I am pleased at that. 

I do wonder, however, if R M Williams can reclaim its traditional country market place following its shift towards the urban and fashion market place, Reflecting, it's a number of years since I bought R M Williams because the brand had become very expensive and ceased to meet my needs. I would like to return! We will see.  

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Queensland elections give a status quo result

Winners are grinners: Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk 

While votes are still being counted in yesterday's Queensland election, it seems clear that Annastacia Palaszczuk's Labor Government has achieved a comfortable win.

Going into the election I wasn't sure of the results. My reading of the opinion polls suggested a Labor victory. but everyone was hedging their bets, suggesting that regional and seat variations might affect the results.

As has happened before, both commentary and social media feeds were affected by starting partisan positions. This is normal. Social media is a vehicle for attempted persuasion, for the repetition or reinforcement of personal views. This creates an echo chamber effects At best, it provides a rough guide to issues and the beliefs of individual protagonists or groups. 

I mention this because I once allowed myself to be influenced by the volume of social media commentary in a particular by-election. It was a salutatory lesson because the final result bore no relationship to the picture presenting over social media. I was actually mortified. This was an electorate I knew very well  and I should have just followed my own instincts.

Analysts, commentators and the parties are already chewing over the entrails of the election. I'm reluctant to add to this process, but cannot help myself by adding a few comments of my own. 

I would be very careful about reading too much into the results. In a strange way, this was a status quo election, dominated by covid-19. We have already seen in Australia how covid-19 benefits governments in power so long as they are seen to have performed acceptably. It's a steady ship mentality.

This benefited Labor at the expense of the LNP (Liberal National Party). The LNP was already behind at State level and struggled to come back, That said, the LNP lost seats but was not decimated, It retains a base for the future, 

The Greens have won a second seat with the benefit of LNP preferences. The Greens and LNP may be opposing ideological warriors, but both see Labor as an enemy, The preference deal gave the Greens a boost, thus keeping them nibbling away at the Labor Party.

The fall in the One Nation vote has been hailed as a success, the end of the ONP. I don't see it that way. The ONP retained its one seat (the incumbency factor) and also scored quite well in individual seats.They retain a base for the future as a right wing Green equivalent. 

The Katter Australia Party (KAP) retained its three seats as did the one independent. It did so in the face of multiple challenges. Again, a status quo result. KAP is a regional party. It retains a base for the future to be actioned once covid-19 has gone. 

Vovid-19 made this election a one-off. Despite this, I am struck by how little changed.