Friday, July 09, 2021

NAIDOC Week 2021 - reflections on the meaning of Country


My Country. Gordon Smith, Stormy Morning

The theme of this year's NAIDOC Week is Heal Country. The NAIDOC web site describes is in this way:

The NAIDOC 2021 theme – Heal Country! – calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

Country that is more than a place and inherent to our identity.

Country that we speak about like a person, sustaining our lives in every aspect - spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and culturally.

NAIDOC 2021 invites the nation to embrace First Nations’ cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage and equally respect the culture and values of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders as they do the cultures and values of all Australians.

For generations we have been calling for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of our culture and heritage.

We are still waiting for those robust protections.

This year’s theme also seeks substantive institutional, structural, and collaborative reform – something generations of our Elders and communities have been advocating, marching and fighting for.

Healing Country means finally resolving many of the outstanding injustices which impact on the lives of our people.

It is about hearing and actioning the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples which are the culmination of generations of consultation and discussions among our nations on a range of issues and grievances.    

In a way, this description is confusing because it mixes together a number of different things. In this post, I want to concentrate one thing, the sense of Country. 

                                My Country. Julia Griffin Rain on the Uralla Road

I once tried to explain the difference between the Aboriginal perspective and that of the new European settlers in this way: to the Aboriginal peoples, the present was an extension of a living past, to the Europeans, a point towards a still to be defined but hoped for future. The Aboriginal perspective was carried through in various kinship systems that effectively integrated the natural and human environment by placing plant, animal and physical features within kinship systems. 

The modern Aboriginal idea of Country and connection to Country draws from this traditional base although it carries connotations that reflect the  Aboriginal historical experience, including the desire to re-establish and re-assert links to past connections and experiences destroyed by European colonisation. In a way, the idea of Country and healing Country is part of a set of beliefs linked to but independent of the original history, a set of beliefs that has now gained a living presence, creating its own history.

The Celtic Revival provides an example of a similar process in a European environment. This drew in part from historical grievances, in part from a sense of loss, in part from a romanticized version of the past.  In doing so it aimed to recover elements of that past, including language revival. It also incorporated mystical elements drawing from Celtic folklore that have had a huge impact in, among other things, fiction including in fantasy world. The ABC TV series Cleverman (a series I greatly enjoyed) provides an Aboriginal example.

                                    My Country. Gordon Smith Winter Morn 

When I first came across the Aboriginal sense of Country, my instinctive reaction was Yes! because it so exactly mirrored my reactions to the area in which I grew up, which remains my Country today.  Later, when I worked with Aboriginal people, I came to understand why Country was so important to people whose pasts had been so disrupted. Without that contact they were adrift in a way I sometimes felt faced with the destruction of the immediate past and present, with distance from my home, with my inability to do things that might protect, preserve and create. 

Some may argue, and especially those deracinated Australians who have lost connection with place, that the comparisons are not comparable. How can I as an older white male from a middle class background who has gained from the benefits of settler society, from the benefits of dispossession, possibly understand, share? In response, I would argue several things. 

From my experience, there is a thirst among many Australians to establish their own place in their family histories, to link back to the places they and their families have come from, to establish connection with the places they now live. Many, and especially older Australians from regional backgrounds who have moved on but now hark back to their past, share and re-share stories and images from places that were, in their thinking, their own Country. I know all this from my experience as a regional historian, from my participation in groups such as Armidale Families Past and Present. 

In my own case, my mind is filled with experiences, stories and images that now incorporate the deep history of Aboriginal New England however imperfectly. I am a story teller who has ended in the role as preserver of memories. My mind is full of stories. Those stories are all linked in some way to land, to Country.  
To my mind, the Aboriginal concept of Country holds out important possibilities for healing the gap between between Indigenous and non-Indigenous society. In understanding the Aboriginal concept of Country we learn about Aboriginal society and history. We can better support action to heal the past. But we also learn more about our own concepts of Country, about the things that are important to us. 

Sunday, July 04, 2021

NAIDOC Week - reflections on the teaching of Aboriginal history

Aboriginal languages, NSW at the time of European Occupation. In 1788 there were at least 250 Aboriginal languages on the Australian continent incorporating multiple dialects. 

I see that Neil Whitfield has put up his annual post(s) on NAIDOC Week.  The Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life. This year the Week begins today, 4 July.

I am less familiar with NAIDOC Week than I was when working as a contractor for the Aboriginal Housing Office, NAIDOC Week was a major celebration, Now many years later and miles away, my current activities have caused me to reflect on the teaching of Aboriginal history. 

As regular readers will know, I have been teaching a full semester (six month) course on the history of the broader New England. As shown by the map, the study area covers the  New England Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. This is a large area, larger than many European counties including England, incorporating many sub regions. 

The first part of the course traces the history of Aboriginal New England from out of Africa perhaps 72,000 years ago though to 1788. I deal with the impact pf European occupation including the Aboriginal response in two lectures and then try to incorporate subsequent Aboriginal history as elements in the course.

The course has been more demanding than expected. Last year's course was stopped in its tracks by covid requiring it to be spread over the full year. Then I structured first semester 2021 into two groups with with two discussion groups, a structure based in part on the risk that covid might limit the numbers that could be accommodated in the available space. One result was that I ended up with two full lectures a week plus a discussion session. Now I am planning the the third session restructured again to take covid into account. This will start in a bit under two weeks, 

The numbers involved are not large, This is an adult education course, not a fully credentialed course targeting larger student numbers delivered within the University system. I did trial external delivery via  Facebook group but found that the combination of technical difficulties with my limited time and  skills prevented proper action. Still, by the end of 2021 I expect to have some 80 people completing the introductory course with a core group of perhaps 20 who want to go onto further discussion.

The participant reaction to the Aboriginal segments has been interesting. Almost universally, people have liked the story from out of Africa to 1788 because I am telling a story that they have never heard, one informed by new scientific discoveries that throw sudden light on a deep past, Nearly everybody wants this section to be much longer as we try to explore some of the changing detail of Aboriginal history and life. 

The Serpentine stone arrangements east of Armidale are one of the major Aboriginal ceremonial sites 

Having completed the story of Aboriginal New England I turn to European settlement sketching the penal and pastoral periods ignoring the impacts on Aboriginal peoples. I chose this route because it seemed to me that you needed to understand the pattern of European occupation before you could understand how it affected the Aborigines. When I do address the impact of European occupation people have some knowledge of the long Aboriginal history as well as the patterns and drivers of the settler arrival, 

 I also try to focus on the Aboriginal response.  To my mind, this makes it easier to understand just what happened. In teaching. I try to avoid the current focus on massacres. I do so a number of reasons. 

To begin with, a massacre focus is both contested and also largely ignores the multiple factors involved including disease and destruction of habitat.  It also treats the Aborigines as passive victims rather than people with agency responding to events that they could not directly control but did respond to as best they could. Presented objectively, it leads people to a sense of shock. It also lies the base for the later treatment of Aboriginal history. Herein lies a problem if we think of Aboriginal history after colonisation as uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery. 

The key problem from  my viewpoint lies in the absence of current writing that I can draw from.  As a general historian writing on a particular area, I necessarily have to rely on secondary sources, I can only do so much original research. There is enough material to allow me to sketch some of the history including key events, but not enough to present a proper synthesis.

This deserves a separate post at some point.

While useful, most national histories suffer because they are based on generalisations, focused on particular key events, The problem here is that Aboriginal history is local, family, regional and jurisdiction based. Only when you have looked at this level can you generate a proper national perspective. And here we have too few regional or jurisdiction studies. 

I try to teach history in an objective way, based on the evidence that I have. Of course, I have my own biases. 

When I look at Aboriginal history post British settlement including especially the attitudes of the best intentioned members of European society, I find myself myself shaking my head and saying "how could you believe that?!"  Too a substantial degree, the worst damage has been done not by the usual suspects but by those who really wanted to make a difference. I suspect that this may be true today. 

When I present post frontier events including the role of prejudice I find my class shaking their heads in shock. When I present evidence showing how far the Aboriginal peoples have come from disaster I have found the same reaction. This leads me to my final point. 

As a non-Aboriginal person teaching elements of Aboriginal history, I constantly strike trouble. Many, non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal, believe that Aboriginal history  can only be taught by Aboriginal people. 

I do not accept that view. As I reflect on NAIDOC week, I would like to think that my history teaching makes a difference, one that will contribute to our share future.    

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Confusions over AstraZeneca

Clyde reading local history.

I have a certain sympathy for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce who was fined Monday for his failure to wear a mask. He had filled the car with petrol and then went inside the service station to pay mask-less. Someone reported the matter to the police.

We haven't had to wear masks in our area. The decision to mandate them from Sunday despite the absence of covid here was taken as a consequence of the current Sydney outbreak.

Sunday morning kitten Clyde was found paralyzed and unmoving on the bathroom floor requiring an emergency visit to the vet. The vet suggested a visit to the next door McDonalds for coffee while she ran tests. We entered and after a little while were told that they could not serve us if we did not have a mask. Wandering downtown I was able to get a coffee at one of the stalls at the monthly market. I noticed that there were more masks around although wearing was still patchy. 

I still wasn't sure what was going on. Coming home, I called in at the small corner store then at the little bottle-oh. In both cases I was served but told that masks were now mandatory. Now there was a problem. To get masks at the chemist I had to enter the shopping centre and then the chemist but could not do so without a mask! Finally, I found an old one and using that acquired some disposable masks. 

Monday I had to buy something, dashed out, reached my destination and realised that I did not have my mask.  I came home. Had I been going to a self-serve petrol outlet I might have found myself in the same position as Mr Joyce, filling and then unable to pay without breaching the regulations. 

As I said, I have a certain sympathy for Mr Joyce. However, there is a broader issue, the break-down in the social consensus that has made covid restrictions successful. All jurisdictions bear some responsibility for this. Some examples to illustrate. 

"I don't want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got COVID, probably wouldn't die.

"We have had very few deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50 and wouldn't it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine.

Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young 

The issues associated with AstraZeneca have been widely covered. By the time I received my first injection I was worried about side-effects, but decided that the risk was worthwhile given my age. Since then, official advice has varied although the epidemiological evidence has not really changed. 

The emotional intervention by Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young following the Prime Minister's announcement that AstraZeneca could be accessed by younger Australians was a dramatic over-reaction that, to my mind, reflected the pressures upon her as well as the political stance adopted by the Queensland Premier. 

The take-home message that the risks of a younger person dying from covid were less than those rare reactions from AstraZeneca strikes at the heart of the vaccination program, feeding into the narrative that the AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe. It also feeds into the broader anti-vaxxer story that all vaccines are unsafe. If the risks of a young person dying from covid are lower than those associated with vaccination why bother getting vaccinated? Why take the risk? 

The issue is not helped by disagreements among professionals. Each jurisdiction states that it relies on its health experts, that its policy decisions are based on health advice. Leaving aside differences among experts, this statement is misleading in that the decision on that health advice is affected by political circumstances and judgements. This is not a criticism, simply an observation. 

The requests from Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia to reduce the quotas on overseas arrivals in Australia are inherently political. Take Queensland as an example. 

Queensland is running up against capacity constraints in the existing hotel quarantine system. That's a genuine constraint from a public policy viewpoint. The question of the best way of expanding the quarantine system is a public policy question. However, the broader expressed concerns about the risks of covid leakage from the quarantine system and the responses involve a mix of public heath and political responses. 

The public health question involves an assessment of risk and how that risk might best be managed. The political response focuses on the likely community impact and associated costs. These issues involve political as well as public policy responses including how much risk the community is prepared to bear as well a public concerns about preferential treatment for particular groups. .

Simplifying, the Prime Minister's core announcement was an indemnity scheme that would make it easier for those under 40 to accept AstraZeneca should they choose to do so, The responsibility here rests upon individuals who have been advised of the risks by their doctors. This seems perfectly appropriate to me.  Since the announcement, there appears to have been a rush of younger Australians to get the AZ jab. This makes perfect sense to me. 

Each Australian jurisdiction from the Commonwealth down focuses on those presently living and especially voting  within its jurisdiction. This makes perfect sense, but ignores changes elsewhere in a world that is now opening up despite the virus. To many younger mobile Australians, it makes sense to get vaccinated now with AZ not just because it reduces their immediate risks but because it will enable them to travel when the borders open - as they must.

Oh, just to finish, Clyde's x-rays suggested a possible spinal fracture or head damage from a fall or alternatively some form of thrombosis, The prognosis was grim. By nightfall, he was showing some sign of movement although the vet warned he might not last the night. By morning, he was moving and ate something, although he seemed to suffer from sight loss. By the time we picked him up, he was able to walk and was complaining. The vets were amazed!      

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Expunging history - the case of Benjamin Boyd

Moves to expunge the name Ben Boyd from a visible physical presence in Australia continue to gather strength. Examples here, here.  

I am a little tired of fighting some of these battles. In a way, I no longer care. Let the chips fall where they may. In the longer term, it probably doesn't matter. However, a word of caution may be advisable. 

Those who seek to have Boyd's name removed from settlements, roads and national parks do so because they are opposed to an aspect of his life. They wish to expunge Boyd's physical presence in the present day and replace it by a new narrative, part of an anti-colonial narrative. That is their right, but they risk a perverse result. 

Assume that they are successful, Boyd will move from a primary figure to a secondary footnote in another story. Even now, Boyd is largely forgotten. The current debate has, temporarily, restored him to a degree of prominence, but this will pass. Those who wish to use Boyd to teach a moral lesson, to show an historical injustice, would be well advised to maintain his name in some way. Once it goes, so will their narrative. 

Human memory is short. If you doubt this, look at the way the Whitlam dismissal has diminished, almost disappeared, from current memory. The passion remains among the diminishing number of those directly or indirectly involved, it has been recently strengthened by some nostalgia pieces, but the dismissal is still moving towards an historical footnote despite the drama involved. Doubt this? Then who was the Australian Governor who dismissed an elected leader, a huge event at the time?

If you wish to preserve our knowledge of Australian history, if you wish to use figures such as Benjamin Boyd to tell a story, you would be well advised to preserve names and monuments to act as an historical peg for your story. Get rid of them, and you risk the destruction of the story you wish to tell.  


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Covid 19 vaccinations at local level - a personal experience

When Australian  governments announced that those in group 1b ( essentially Australians over seventy) were eligible for covid-19 vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine I held off because I knew that supplies were limited. Then, with all the controversy over the AZ vaccine, the suggestion that supplies were available because people were refusing it, I decided to move. The results were instructive. 

I went to the Government website to identify local GP suppliers. The site said that my GP clinic was not taking bookings, so I went to another GP clinic that was. They said that they were only getting fifty doses per week. More, that they did not know how many doses they would get to the end of the week before. They were now fully booked to the end of May. They suggested that I try my own GP clinic even though they were not taking bookings. I did so. 

My GP clinic said that their supply was limited. They were working through from their oldest patients down and were now to 82 year olds. However, as it happened, they had just had a cancellation. If I came in immediately, I could be vaccinated. I did so and now am. 

I got in because  the dose would have gone to waste otherwise. As I got my shot, the clinic was full of much older Armidalians getting their jabs. The oldest was born in 1929. 

When I came home I listened to stories about metro based mass vaccination centres intended to speed the process up. Am I wrong to wonder why governments shouldn't fix up the existing distribution system first on the supply side?! Am I wrong to think that these centres will attract preferential supply and make the existing position in Armidale worse?  

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Reflections on the death of Prince Philip


The death of Prince Philip affected me more than I had expected, in part because it marked the end of not just one but several eras. 

Prince Phillip has been part of my whole life. I don't remember his marriage to Elizabeth, I was too young, although in that immediate post war period our family homes were filled with World War Two memorabilia including multiple things on the Royal Family in the war. 

I do remember the 1953 Royal Visit to Australia. It was such a big deal. I did not see the Royal couple on the visit. However, there was massive news real coverage and a special feature film that I watched at the local picture theatre. From there, there were multiple visits. 

The Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme reached Australia in 1959, becoming a key conduit between the Duke and Australia, giving the Duke a a local presence independent of the Queen. In the second half of the sixties, links were established between my old school, The Armidale School (TAS), and Gordonstoun, links that continue to this day. 

TAS was an early participant in the Duke of Edinburgh awards, began a student exchange program with Gordonstoun  became a member of the Round Square school group. The strong links were established when a TAS teacher visited Gordonstoun on an exchange program. Among other things, he involved Prince Edward with drama, creating another link that continues to this day. 

 1983. Private visit by Prince Edward to TAS. While there he presented badges to the new day boy houses. Inaugural Green House captain Samuel Blanch on the left, Robert Kirwood, first captain of Ross right. The photo is a bit of a classic! 

My own views on the Duke have fluctuated over time. Initially, I thought of him simply as the Queen's husband. Later, I thought of him as something of an old-fuddy duddy prone to gaffes and support for old fashioned causes. 

I suppose that there is a certain irony here for some of the causes supported by the Duke and Prince Charles such as conservation and organic farming have become very mainstream indeed. 

I was also not a supporter of some of the ethos espoused by Gordonstoun and adopted by Prince Phillip. I dislike regimentation and indeed cold water! Later still, the Duke became just a familiar figure, someone I did not know, we never met, but somehow knew.

When I started this post, my intention was to set Prince Phillip in an historical context, to use him as a window into history. I have wandered. However, I do want to make one final point. 

The obituaries have focused on his sense of duty. Today, the idea of duty has become legalised expressed in terms such as duty of care. The old fashioned idea of duty as personal responsibility, responsibility for role independent of forced obligation, seems somehow old fashioned. 

I think that's a pity. Perhaps Phillip's death may remind us again of duty in the old fashioned sense.      

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Fallacies of race and racism in Australia

I have been struggling with the return of racist language and discourse in Australia. It's really taken me by surprise. I thought that we had killed it outside some of those on the left and fringe elements on the right. Now it's back. 

I suppose I should start with a simple point. There is no such thing as a race within homo sapiens. 

DNA analysis shows us that the actual genetic differences between groups of people are small. It also shows us that we all carry mixed genetic ancestry. The Aborigines, for example, carry Neanderthal and Denisovan genes as well as later additions including those derived from the European occupiers. When we come to others such as those from Western Europe we find a complex admixture of genes that reflect multiple migrations and occupations. In a simple sense, we are all mongrels. Why, then, do we still use the term race?

All human beings belong to groups who use terms to describe themselves and others. For example, the term Hindu describes a group marked by religion.  

Those seeking or who hold power within groups use labels to consolidate their position and extend their influence. These labels are applied to those within and outside the group. The BJP promotes Hindu nationalism suggesting that Hindu and India are equivalent. This transforms a religious label into a political label. It also acts to exclude non-Hindus. Further, in pursuit of Hindu nationalism, the nationalists seek to use history including DNA results to establish the history required to support their claims. 

I could use other examples, but hope that I have made my point. But why if race has no meaning is it still important? The answer is complex. 

The idea of classifying people by race came out of the scientific revolution. Part of that revolution was a classification process focused on the identification and classification of different species, leading to the subdivision of humanity into different races. To this was added social Darwinism, the idea of competition within and between different human groups in which the best rose to the top over time. 

Inevitably, those on the top classified themselves as the best and sought to preserve their position. The racial subdivision was never clear cut. If you read Australian official documents, you will find references to the British race and to the Australian race as a variant. The Australian race was seen as superior, but there were concerns whether this could be maintained. 

Once you add in  social Darwinism, you are left with the uncomfortable thought that you might not survive the competition. Writing in the 1930s, the English travel writer J H Curle was left with the uncomfortable suspicion that the Chinese would become the dominant race. 

Racism is deeply associated with fear, In South Africa, fear about African competition for jobs made many European mining and industrial workers support the Boer approach to racial separation. In Australia the same forces played out, this time focused on workers from China and India. It is no coincidence that the Labour movement was the strongest supporter of White Australia to the sometimes distress of the Government in London wrestling with the problems of a multi-cultural Empire. 

 There was a remarkable and sudden transformation in Australia after the Second World War. Partly driven by fear, we must populate or perish,  the country opened its doors to migrants that would come to include migrants from all ethnic groups. Over twenty years, a country whose immigration policy had been based on racial exclusion transformed itself.

Of course there was suspicion of the new arrivals, of course there were examples of ethnic and racial exclusion, most migrant families will testify to that, but it was still a remarkable achievement. By the early 1990s, Australia was celebrating its achievements, This has turned round over the last five years.

One of the measures of this is the rise of racist based movements on the right. They were always there but on the absolute fringes.  The detailed reasons for this are beyond this post, but I want to make a few points. 

There were always fragilities in the social consensus underpinning the Australian transformation. People need time to adjust when faced with fundamental change. They need to feel that the things that they value are valued still. 

In 1957 under the pen name  Nino Cullotta, John O'Grady published They're a Weird Mob, the story of an Italian migrant to Australia. The book became a smash hit, as did the subsequent film. Both book and film are criticized today for some of their attitudes, Those criticising the book miss the point. Published just ten years after the start of the mass migration program, the book bridged the gap between traditional Australian stereotypes and the challenges faced by a new migrants. I suspect that in one blow it humanized the entire Italian migrant community, 

The social consensus underpinning Australia's migrant and multi-ethic success began to break down in the 1990s in the face of constant change. The formation of One Nation in 1997 was a sign of this.

This process has accelerated over the last few years  as those on the left continue to hammer the theme of Australia as a racist society. In so doing, they have recreated a race based debate drawing on overseas events that pits whites against the rest. 

I may say that this is silly, that there is no such thing as race, but by attaching a label you may create the very thing that you are opposing. The War on Terror is a case in point. Now we are seeing the same thing in the rise of white racism, with the label creating the very thing that the attacks are meant to stop. 

I never expected that certain fringe groups that I opposed in the past would become a major threat. I still think that the present position is controllable. However, the threat is there. 

Australia has become a more fragmented society in economic, cultural and demographic terms. Resentments have grown.  Scope exists for a right wing political leader to emerge capable of capturing the different resentments. That leader will not come from the extreme right, but will need to capture some of their views.      



Wednesday, March 31, 2021

On menstruation and menopause

The Victorians have a lot to answer for. No, not those from the state of Victoria, those from the Victorian period in history.  

When I was young, my mother used to send me down to the corner store with an envelope. I would give this to Mrs Beatty who would pop away and then on return hand me a brown paper bag. It was years later that I realised that I was buying sanitary pads. 

A little later, I suddenly started growing pubic hair. I had no idea what was happening. Something was wrong. Each night in my bath I would use my father's razor to shave the hair away to try to get back to my smooth skin. Eventually I realised what was happening. 

There was no internet then. Years later I asked my mother what she hadn't told me about these things. She looked very embarrassed and said but we gave you a book! She may have, but I have no recollection of ever seeing it,  

The Victorian period wrapped sex and bodily functions within a blanket of restrictive language, religion  and custom that would create scars lasting to this day. It wasn't until I started going out with girls and then later still after marriage and the birth of my daughters that I started too understand the female body including the impact of menstruation.  

When I say body I do not mean the body in a sexual sense, but the body as a functioning physical object with all its processes. By now, I was used to going to the chemist or supermarkets to get tampons or painkillers.

This knowledge affected my management style. I became much more sensitive to changes within female staff members. If a woman was displaying signs of bad period I didn't ask are you having a bad period? After all, she might just be having a bad day and might question might be construes as an insult. I would just ask are you alright? With time and trust, this would usually be sufficient to bring out any problems.

The idea of menstruation as somehow unclean is deeply imbedded in past and some present societies. I know that this is silly, even dangerous, but the idea persists. 

Later still, I was introduced to the menopause. This can be a difficult time for women. Apart from things like sometimes hot flushes and pain, it affects women's attitudes to themselves, the attitude of partners and others, It also affects sex as lubrication can be reduced.

As men age, they retain the capacity to create children but libido is reduced. As with women, many men suffer sexual anxiety, fear of non-performance, fear that they are losing their attractiveness.

I am a male therefore I focus more on women. I understand the practical effects of menopause and understand both men and women's concerns. But I also know that older women remain attractive sexual objects if, perhaps, the form of sex has changed somewhat: companionship, cuddling, becomes more important. I know, too, that older women remain beautiful. 

This can be physical. More, it relates to a variety of things like contribution and intelligence, to the fit between people. 

We presently live in a world dominated by sex and sexual activity, an obsession that would have done the Victorians proud. I wonder in all this if we are missing the point? We should be concerned not just with with activities at a point in time but with changing relationships over life.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Australia's continuing trade surpluses conceals weaknesses

One of the things I have been monitoring is the impact of covid on international trade with a particular focus on Australia. This also links to the relationship between Australia and China.

On 4 March  2021, the ABS released the latest trade data showing that Australia was maintaining a trade surplus in terms of goods and services. This is set out in the following graph from the ABS.

As Greg Jericho pointed out in an interesting Guardian article, Australia's economy is more reliant on iron ore than ever, the pandemic reduced both exports and imports, leaving a trade still making a positive contribution to GDP.  

The following graph by Greg refers to merchandise trade, but service exports and imports both declined dramatically, leaving the position broadly unaltered. 

Greg also noted the growing importance of iron ore exports, offsetting declines across the board in other export areas.  

China gives and it takes away. Iron ore exports have grown because China presently still needs Australian iron ore. This growth has been sufficient to offset an average  40% decline in most other Australian exports to China, with some exports blocked entirely.

Greg suggests that the growing dependence on iron ore reveals and conceals a narrowing of and potential fragility in Australia's export base. I agree with him.  

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Setting myself a challenge

I think that I have something like six part completed posts written over the last two months. I know that I should have finished them but events - personal and external - intervened. 

This morning in a an interview with the ABC's Fran Kelly, Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher made the point that the business of Government has to go on regardless of current controversies. I immediately said yes!

Like many Australians, I am disgusted by some of the allegations now coming out. Like many older males, events over the last few years have caused me to reflect on my own past. And yet I am very conscious and indeed confused about present change processes, some of which threaten this country's future.  

I have tried writing very short posts focused on one issue but find myself distracted.  I wonder if I can change this? We will see!            

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Saturday Morning Musings - the Facebook imbroglio. What does it really mean?

I had to smile. I was lined up at the checkout when the nice lass in charge pointed out that someone was trying to talk to me. Deeply absorbed in my own thoughts, I was oblivious to this. 

We met outside for a chat. My friend reported a conversation at a local function where someone had remarked that a group that I was involved with had been reduced to a few malcontents! I had to laugh. True, by December last year the active membership had dropped to a very small number of increasingly ancient people. Since then we have restructured the committee and have created a Facebook support group with 113 members. That's not huge, but it's still good progress for two months.

I am reasonably expert in social media and use Facebook in particular as a platform to achieve specific objectives. The interconnected groups, pages that I am involved with give me a reach now over 10,000 people. That's not huge, my present interests are specialised in terms of both locality and content, but it's far more than I could reach through the conventional media even when papers were still being printed. 

All this means that I have a very particular interest in the current dispute with Facebook. However, that interest is affected by my local experiences since returning to Armidale. As a policy adviser I have have always argued that good policy depends upon movement between the macro, the overall objectives and principles, and the micro, 

I live in an electronic world as do most if not all of those making or advising on policy. That's an example of the macro. But what about those who do not? Here I have been surprised since returning to Armidale at the number of especially older Australians who do not. To illustrate.

The Armidale & District Historical Society has several hundred members. Around half do not have email. In the history course I have been running a small but significant proportion do not have email or internet access. A much bigger proportion do not access Facebook. In many cases, this is a matter of choice not money. However, there are also large groups of poorer Australians especially in regional areas who cannot afford the kit required.

The cessation of the print editions of many of the print edition of papers including free papers such as the Armidale Express Extra has effectively cut these people out of the news system outside TV and radio. I see the practical effects because I appeal to an older demographic. I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me that they miss my columns, while the direct feedback that I used to get after individual columns has largely vanished. When I say to people that the columns are generally still on-line, they respond that they don't use the internet or, if they do, they are not prepared to subscribe to the on-line paper or if they do that they either don't bother or can't find the columns. A problem here is that the columns that once appeared for free every Wednesday, a known, now appear at different dates and are tagged in different ways.

A broader problem lies in the growing dependence of on-line for processing without proper alternatives. There was a simple practical example during the week. Access to a particular facility requires on-line application. You also need to do a covid checklist that can only be done on-line. This blocked out an older Australian working on a specific project. There is apparently no provision under current rules to accommodate someone who does not have internet access or skills. I think that we can do something about this, but it is an example of a problem.  

I mention all this because it explains my somewhat complicated reactions to the current dispute between Facebook and the Australian Government.

Following Facebook's blocking decision., all the Australian Community Media (ACM) mastheads carried this type of message:  Facebook news ban prompts ACM to ask Australians to delete the app. The message was reinforced via my email feeds from ACM itself and from some of individual newspapers. I had a very dusty reaction indeed, 

I would be the first to admit that Facebook has overplayed its hand. Far to many people have received message such as the above. Far to many non-news sites were blocked.  There was no discrimination between smaller independent local news sites such as the Clarence Valley Independent. their Facebook site now shows this message, and the bigger chains. Mr Zuckerberg is playing a big end of town game, but so is ACM and indeed the Federal Government itself.     

I am not a typical news consumer. If I were asked if I use Facebook to access news I would answer yes, but its not accessing news in the conventional sense.

 I use multiple media sources (radio, TV, media web sites, twitter, blogs among others) to access news. So far as Facebook is concerned, I do follow feeds from multiple media organisations, but with rare exceptions they simply indicate to me what is being covered. Exceptions include some of the immediate on-line TV coverage and small independents such as the Clarence Valley Independent where I have used Facebook as my main entry point. Now I have simply bookmarked its home page and will go direct so long as the current trouble lasts. For most of the newspaper feeds and especially ACM I do not click through because it immediately brings me up against a paywall. 

Where Facebook does come into its own as a news source lies in particular types of news where media coverage is often slow, non-existent or only to be found behind paywalls. This includes feeds from particular institutions where I have an interest and from local organisations and groups. Here the Facebook platform is actually filling a gap left open, even created, by the traditional media as their coverage becomes more restricted. But "news" in a conventional sense is peripheral to the main ways people such as me use Facebook.

One test of a policy is to ask what will happen if it's implemented. At a purely micro level ,I would not expect it to have a  significant effect on the news that I can access. Yes, some of the bigger media groups may receive some funds that will allow them to expand journalism, but I struggle to see how this can have other than a marginal effect. 

Feel free to correct me!   


I have wandered a little in this post. Google raises somewhat different issues, but in both cases control over advertising is the underlying critical issue. I think that this is also being addressed by another ACCC inquiry, but it's complicated making for slow progress.  

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Trump, Biden and Pelosi - an early assessment

Ten days into the Trump administration I wrote (Monday Forum - the administrative competence of the Trump Administration) I wrote: 

I think that the thing that most surprised me about President Trump's Executive Order "PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES" was the apparent administrative incompetence involved, something that may be becoming a feature of the new US Administration at this point in its life. 

I think that this assessment was reasonably accurate. 

We are now at the same point in the Biden administration and I haven't yet formed a view beyond a degree of concern about the huge number of Executive Orders, As President Trump found out, an Executive Order does not an action make.

Rightly or wrongly, I think that President Biden's biggest problem is his own party. In  Trump, fear, hate, love and the need for objectivity in US politics, I wrote: "Nancy Pelosi. To my mind, she has become part of the US problem, impeding a US solution."  She forced and lost a first impeachment trial. Now she is trying again. 

Her base case my be stronger, but in going for an ex-President she has created circumstances where Republicans can combine to reject the move on in-principle grounds without really addressing the underlying issue. Even more precisely, they can recognise that what President Trump said was wrong and then reject the impeachment on procedural grounds. 

The Democrats may have hoped to gain by dividing the Republicans. In fact, they have given Republicans a get out of jail free card.

I may be wrong of course. We will see. In the meantime, we have to wait to see how President Biden goes. As I said, I don't have a view here yet, just a concern.      

Friday, January 15, 2021

Writer's Block


A weight on my shoulders

I have rarely suffered from writer's block. More normally, I have the opposite problem, too many ideas chasing to little time. Yet now I struggle to write anything really productive. The ideas and words won't flow.

I know that part of the problem is that I'm over-extended, a perennial problem that I can normally manage to some degree at least. It's partly that I have been pushing too hard, building frustration with myself. But beyond these two things lies a simple fact, my reading has collapsed. 

I don't know about you, but many of my ideas and some of my language comes from others. I pick up some ideas through personal interaction, more through books. 

Inevitably, a fair proportion of my reading is professional. Most recently, this has been strongly connected with my main history project, the history of New England, something I will write about on my history blog in my part completed annual review. This reading feeds into the community activities I have added since I returned to Armidale. I value these, I have objectives to achieve, but they do take time.

The reading outside that I have to do is the area of collapse. I used to read widely in what I call my train reading. This began with a conscious effort to pick books at random off my shelves that I had not read to read on the train. There were two rules: I had to finish the book and then write something about it. I found it very stimulating, forcing me in new directions. 

Many of the books were much older, some now 150 years old. I am not talking "classics" here, although some were. Rather, they were a varied range often inherited from my father or grandfather, most now long disposed of in the skips used by libraries to clear books considered as irrelevant or out of date. As I read the memoirs of a long dead foreign correspondent or a pioneering study of the classical world or an analysis of Chinese history, I absorbed "new" old ideas as well as new ways of writing. English style changes, but change does not always mean improvement. 

In truth, my train reading declined after I stopped travelling to Parramatta. It is one thing to read stuck on a train or bus, a second to allocate time in the morning or afternoon to read things not relevant to one's immediate concerns. Then the thought that you should really be doing other, more "relevant" things, constantly intrudes. However, I did retain other reading for a period. Most recently, that has dropped too, as have my general writing notes.   

I need to address this. Sitting in front of a computer trying to research and especially write when neither ideas or words will flow is not especially helpful. After a point, it becomes totally unproductive. Somehow I have to re-learn just how to read for pleasure without specific objective no matter what else I should be doing! 



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Trump, fear, hate, love and the need for objectivity in US politics

Nancy Pelosi. To my mind, she has become part of the US problem, impeding a US solution. 

Like many Australians, I watched events unfold at the US Capitol Building with a degree of distress. Like many Australians, I felt that President Trump had gone totally off the rails. All that said, I think that the Democratic Party is in danger of doing the same. that many who oppose President Trump and his objections are doing so blindly, allowing emotion to overcome objective analysis and that we will all be poorer as a consequence.  

Some 75 million Americans voted for President Trump. He has used his marketing skills and showmanship, his understanding of the many Americans who feel disenfranchised, to develop a loyal supporter base that spans from decent Republicans through independents and even Democrats, to right wing conspiracy theorists. As many have pointed out, President Trump is a symbol of a divided America, an America in which many feel betrayed by the American system. 

Alone in his White House bunker with encircling enemies, President Trump lost all sense of tactics, let alone strategy. He kept trying to pull the levers of power even though they were becoming increasingly disconnected, even as his closest aides were distancing themselves. As recently as four weeks ago I thought that he had a path through not to retention of the presidency but to retention of influence and protection of his commercial assets. It was not a path I would have chosen, but as an analyst I could see ways in which it might work.  

His remarks and consequent Capitol riots have destroyed that path. It left a country further divided, fearful.The key need in these circumstances was unification, the calming of emotions. Instead, President Trump's opponents have resorted to emotional language driven by payback and a get Trump mentality playing on the fear of what right wing fringe groups might do that has further divided the nation.  

One common thread in all this is that Trump brought US democracy and the US system of government to its knees. I have a very different view, This episode has actually demonstrated the strength of US democracy. President Trump used every one of the diminishing levers at his disposal to try to overturn the results and failed.

The move by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to try to impeach the President strikes me as very unwise. The previous attempt failed and was early recognised as certain to fail. In that sense, it was a symbolic gesture whose political purpose was to wound the President. It failed there too. 

Now in the last eight days of the Trump presidency, we have another Pelosi political gesture in impeachment which adds to the theatre of it all but whose practical results are quite uncertain.  It does play to the Democratic political base, but equally it plays to the underlying Trump narrative that everybody is out to get him, that he and his supporters are being robbed. In doing so, it does increase the risk that some Trump supporters may take matters into their own hands. 

For the moment in all this I am just keeping my fingers crossed that we get through to the Biden administration with minimum trouble. Then we can look at new things.    


Monday, January 04, 2021

Reflections on the passage of time - deaths of Mungo MacCallum and Doug Anthony

Talking to people and in on-line discussions, the major reaction to the new year has been one of relief that 2020 has finished. It has indeed been a dog's breakfast of a year! I may try to write something in detail later. For the moment, some random observations in another matter. 

Hotel Wellington, Canberra 1970. Photo Noel Butlin Archives. Prior to the opening of the National Press Club in 1976, the Wellington was one place where journalists, ministerial staff and public servants gathered to drink on a Friday afternoon   

The inexorable passage of time means that events once fresh in our minds, formative periods in our lives, fade. Then something happens to bring at least the emotions and textures alive once more.  

Two such were the deaths of Mungo MacCallum and Doug Anthony, bringing alive a particular slice of Canberra in the 1970s.  

Mungo's death has been well covered in the Australian media. This ABC piece provides a general overview of his life, the Echonetdaily piece provides a picture of his life after he moved to Ocean Shores. 

I did not really know Mungo, although I knew about his family connections with the eccentric Wentworth's, This post, 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside, will give you a little taste of that family. However, we did coincide at drinks.   

Canberra was a very small place in the 1970s, a gold fish bowl in which everybody knew or at least knew of everybody else. It was also a remarkably discreet place, at least so far as personal matters were concerned. The sometimes prurient reporting on personal lives that we know today still lay in the future.  

I was working in Treasury at the time and sometimes used to drink at the Hotel Wellington on a Friday afternoon. The front press bar there with its walls covered by copies of past news stories was a favourite watering hole for journalists, staffers and the younger public servants including those from Treasury. Mungo was often found there or later at the Press Club after it opened. 

My memory is of a tall, slightly stooped figure with a bushy if some what straggly beard. Casually dressed, sometimes wearing sandals, he would expound on the world and political events in a barrage of words and hand gestures. I liked him and found him interesting but rarely joined in, partly because of shyness, more because I had different interests and views. 

I knew Doug Anthony rather better. At the time I was heavily involved with the Country Party as a party official and pre-selection candidate, I was also involved in attempts to give the party new directions through bodies such as the McEwen House Group. For several years during the Whitlam period, a number of us gathered in Doug's office on budget night to analyse the budget and provide Doug for talking points in response. 

I said that Canberra was a much smaller place. It also lacked much of the security paraphernalia you find today. This allowed us to come into Parliament House (now the Old Parliament House) all the time. Technically, the attendants should have stopped us, but so long as you looked as if you knew where you were going, were walking with purpose, nobody objected. 

This access plus our knowledge of the Press Gallery was central to the most successful stunt I ever pulled, something I wrote about in  The story behind that 1976 Queanbeyan $100,000 Yowie reward

Upon reflection, Doug was pretty tolerant. One issue at the time was whether or not the Country Party should re-enter into coalition with the Liberals. Our view was no, because we saw this as an opportunity for the Party to continue to rebuild its separate identity. Here there has long been a divide between those whose primary focus lies in blocking Labor as compared to those who believe that the Party must maintain a clear separate identity and adhere to its traditions if it is to deliver for its constituents.   

Doug's view was that coalition was necessary. We prepared a counter case, copied it in Doug's office and distributed it to all Country Party Parliamentarians. It had little impact, but the point is that we could do it and were not reprimanded or disciplined in any way.

I found Doug personally charming, open to new ideas, someone I could follow.  I am not alone in that view.  Reflections on his death across the political spectrum show respect and liking. 


 As an aside, I am sad that I threw out or lost in moves the material relating to this period. I think that it would now be an interesting historical record.