Personal Reflections

Friday, December 09, 2016

Australian education: the leaning tower of PISA

“Today’s PISA report goes further than last week’s Trends in Maths and Science report, this year’s NAPLAN results and the OECD Education at a Glance report in terms of not just showing a plateauing of results in Australia but that it shows a clear decline from year to year in Australia’s education performance,”  Australian Federal Education Simon Birmingham.
The Minister was commenting on the release of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. You will find details of the Australian country report here. The Minister's remarks were illustrated with this graphic.

Australian performance is also recorded by school system., broken up into independent schools, Catholic schools and the Government sector. Here the independent schools released a very helpful summary of the differences between the sectors. In summary:
  • In reading literacy where Australia ranked equal sixteenth, Australian independent schools ranked first, Australian Catholic schools ranked equal seventh, while the Australian public school system was below the OECD average
  •  In scientific literacy where Australia ranked fourteenth, Australian independent schools ranked second, the Australian Catholic system tenth, while the Australian public school system had fallen below the OECD average
  • In mathematical literacy where Australia seems to have ranked  21st, Australian independent schools ranked equal fifth, Australian Catholic schools equal 17th, while public schools were well below the OECD average. . 
Note the use of the word seemed in the last point. There was a conflict in the data presented that I didn't have time to resolve. In any event, the overall point - relative performance - is not affected. 
The release of the TIMSS 2015 report attracted much media and political attention .... because of the way it suggested that Australia is falling behind in maths and science performance at school. ... Looking at the results, I had real difficulty in understanding just what TIMSS told us and what we might do about it. 
I wrote this on 1 December. A key reason for my difficulty lay in the existence of correlation among the variables measured. The results suggested that there was a positive correlation between academic performance and the social economic status of the families measured by books at home, the educational attainment of parents and access to learning supports. No surprise there.

The results suggested, too, that kids in metropolitan areas were likely to do better than kids in regional areas who in turn do better than kids in remote and very remote areas. Indigenous kids performed less well than non-indigenous kids. No surprises in either case,

Now consider this pattern. Regional areas have fewer higher income families and a smaller proportion of higher educated people. That feeds into lower academic performance. Indigenous people have lower incomes and academic attainments too and are also more likely to live in regional areas. So the measures are interrelated.

The graphic on the right shows the PISA 2015 performance gap for Australia by various measures. The thing that is quite startling is the performance by economic status. The gap between the highest and lowest performance measure in this area is three years, noticeably larger than the performance gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, recognising that these students have a weighting towards lower socioeconomic status. The gap is so large that it suggests that socioeconomic status has become the dominant determinant in determining relative performance.   

On average, students going to private schools come from significantly higher socioeconomic backgrounds, those going to Catholic schools somewhat higher. Increasingly, those going to public schools come from the lowest socioeconomic groups outside those going to selective schools

The partially implemented Gonski reforms were intended in part to address the socioeconmic gap by equalising the resources available to schools, increasing the resources available to poorer schools. However, that was never going to be a complete answer. The problem in the debate actually is answer to what?  
“While our school systems remain above average among developed economies we must acknowledge the reality that our performance is slipping. Given the wealth of our nation and scale of our investment, we should expect to be a clear education leader, not risk becoming a laggard. We must leave the politicking at the door and have a genuine conversation that is based on evidence about what we do from here.  
“Commonwealth funding for schools has increased by 50 per cent since 2003 while our results are going backwards. I’m not suggesting that adequate funding is not important, of course it is vital, but as the OECD notes Australia ranks as spending the fifth highest amount on education in the OECD and once you get to that level there is little value in just increasing spending, the harder task is to invest in the areas that the evidence says makes a difference." Minister Birmingham
This is actually slightly slippery stuff. To begin with, how do we know that our performance is slipping? What do we mean when we say that Australia should expect to be a clear education leader? What, indeed, is the purpose of education?  If we are going to use evidence based approaches, what evidence and for what purposes? There is a real risk that our approaches to education have now become so mechanistic, so based on a narrow range of indicators, 
"While the overall decline in the achievement of Australian students is of concern, there is evidence of a drop in performance across the OECD." Independent Schools PISA summary
"Success in PISA rankings and other global league tables are an important part of the Singapore “brand”. Singaporean academic Christopher Gee calls this the “educational arms race”. Highly competitive schooling is the norm." Professor Amanda Wise, The Conversation 
Australia is not alone in struggling to maintain, let alone improve, PISA rankings. The global competition based around the PISA scores is quite close to a zero sum game in the sense that competition requires more and more effort with limited result. Every dollar spent to achieve better test results is a dollar that could have been spent on something else. There is in fact no evidence that I know of  that shows a clear connection between PISA rankings and economic performance, a central Government concern. 
"Public discussion in Australia around why we are not doing as well as the Singaporeans is largely focused on what goes on in that country’s schools. 
Yet there is one thing missing from the reporting on Singapore’s success: the role of private tuition (private tutors and coaching colleges) and the part it plays in the overall success of students in the tiny city-state." Professor Wise
We have to be very careful in comparing school systems. Professor Wise quotes these school numbers from Singapore::
  • 60% of high school, and 80% of primary school age students receive private tuition.
  • 40% of pre-schoolers receive private tuition.
  • Pre-schoolers, on average, attend two hours private tuition per week, while primary school aged children are attending, on average, at least three hours per week.
As Professor Wise notes, these are remarkable numbers. You will find the same type of pattern in Australia for families competing for entry into selective schools. Do we want to adopt it generally in order to compete in the PISA arms race?  
The Strauss piece is the simplest description of the Finnish system that I have found. If I had to draw a single lesson from it, it's the relative simplicity of the Finnish system, the absence of controls, the grant of autonomy to schools and teachers, the apparent absence of prescriptive measurement, that goes to the heart of performance. 
Finland is another country often used for comparison purposes, something that I explored in Monday Forum - what lessons does the Finnish education system offer? The piece contains a link to the Strauss piece referred to above. Again, Finland is very different from Australia. I should note that Finland has dropped behind a little in the latest PISA scores if still scoring better than Australia.  
Three themes in Australian education: national efficiency, citizenship and social advancement
Looking at the history of education in Australia, three themes have dominated although the weighting has shifted over time. .

The first is education for national efficiency. This became popular in the lead up to the First World War especially in technical education because of the competition between the British and German empires. 

The second is education for citizenship, the idea that a functioning society required an educated population. 

The third is education for social advancement. Education provided a path for an individuals to improve their social position, to advance. 

For much of Australia's history, practical considerations have greatly influence weighting. The challenge was providing primary education for all, then secondary education, then tertiary education. While quality was always important, the real issues lay in ensuring mass delivery. 

Today, national efficiency dominates. The other two themes are there, but are subsumed in the focus on education for  the purposes of economic development, for maximising the country's global competitive position. It is, if you don't mind me saying so, just so 1914!  
I didn't send my daughters to school to achieve a standard
Today we live in a standards based world dominated by education's role as an economic contributor. I didn't send my daughters to school to achieve a standard or help the country achieve a standard. I didn't give a damn about PISA rankings. NAPLAN results were interesting as a rough measure of their comparative academic performance, but were largely irrelevant in a practical sense.

I sent my daughters to school to get an education that I hoped would be as good as the opportunities offered to me, recognising that I was unusually privileged. I wanted an education that would make them rounded, that would allow them to compete in an increasingly competitive environment but, most of all, I wanted an education that would help them to think, to be interested in new things, to enjoy life. 

Did I get that? I think that I did. So don't expect me to be sympathetic to much of the current "education" debate. I am modern enough to be aware of all the current issues, to know how my daughters fared, to know the opportunities offered. I am old fashioned enough to believe in the value of education in its own right. I am both modern and old fashioned enough to believe that equality in educational opportunities, however unachievable, should be central. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Australia and the spreading threat of the red fire ant

The red fire ant is a particularly nasty invasive species. The photo shows a worker ant.

The ants appears to have first reached Brisbane via a container ship from New York in 2001. Once discovered, a well publicised emergency eradication campaign was launched. The matter then seems to have vanished from main stream media coverage and I assumed that eradication had been successful despite the difficulties involved.

An ABC news report by science reporter Jake Sturmer and the National Reporting Team's Alison Branley shows just how wrong I was.
Just 40 kilometres south of Brisbane, the city of Ipswich is being held to ransom by the South American pest. 
Mayor Paul Pisasale said just two suburbs in the city were now unaffected. "These things are just marching all over the place," he said. 
Council staff have had to be trained in identifying the ants and there are strict measures around soil movement. 
"The worst one was Leslie Park at Goodna. We had to close the park," Cr Pisasale said.
Despite eradication successes, there are now questions as to whether Australia has lost the chance to eradicate the pest, with infestation now just 50 k from the Northern NSW border.

I didn't know much about the ants, but the Wikipedia story on the species shows how well organised they are, how quickly they can breed and spread. You can see why eradication or even control can be difficult.

Speaking personally, if there is the slightest chance of eradicating the ant, then we should go with it. Looking at the distribution of the ants in the US, large slabs of South East Australia would appear to be a suitable habitat, including the major coastal cities. I definitely don't want a fire ant in my backyard!    

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Initial reflections on the EY APVMA cost benefit analysis

I apologise for the delay in posting. I have been slowly working my way through the Ernst and Young report on the proposed move to Armidale of the APVMA. I have now brought the first of two posts on the move up on the New England blog, Evaluating the evaluation - EY, APVMA and the move to Armidale part one.

The report is quite long, 85 pages. I needed to understand the direction they were coming from, the assumptions used. I also needed to look at the commentary and the policy background.

Much of the debate has been framed in narrow terms with people using headline numbers from the EY report for their own purposes . I don't think that it's possible to overcome this. The EY report is not especially good, but it's not a bad report either for its type. It's just limited.  

Given the stated regional development policy objective behind the move, I think three questions needed to be addressed:
  • What are the costs and risks associated with the move?
  • What are the gains from a regional development perspective?
  • Do those gains outweigh the identified costs and risks?
The EY analysis concentrates on the first question. The cost-benefit analysis is narrowly defined so that it deals with the NPV of the financial costs of the shift including certain costs to industry. Here the costs of a new building plus redundancy and recruitment costs dominate, costs focused in the first few years that more than offset later property savings. The sensitivity testing suggests a range of NPV costs over twenty years ranging from $9 to $23 million depending on the combination applied.    . 

The risk analysis is okay in broad terms, but really goes off the rails when it comes to calculating potential cost of lost production, a much quoted headline number. The assumption chain involved means that the final number really has no validity. The most that can be said is that it provides a worst case number of what might happen if all assumptions were met and no remedial action taken.

The way the REMPLAN input-output model is used to calculate relative impacts on the ACT as compared to the previous Armidale- Dumaresq LGA is misleading. Among other things, it's not comparing like with like.

But accepting the $23 million twenty year NPV cost for the moment, two questions remain:  
  • What are the gains from a regional development perspective?
  • Do those gains outweigh the identified costs and risks?
I will look at these questions in my next post on the New England blog. . 

Thursday, December 01, 2016

TIMSS 2015: what does it mean?

The release of the TIMSS 2015 report attracted much media and political attention (examples here, here) because of the way it suggested that Australia is falling behind in maths and science performance at school. The report describes TIMSS in this way:
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international comparative study of student achievement directed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). TIMSS 2015 represents the sixth such study since TIMSS was first conducted in 1995.  Forty-nine education systems tested at Year 4 level and 39 tested at Year 8 level. In Australia, TIMSS is managed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and is jointly funded by the Australian Government and the state and territory governments.
The goal of TIMSS is to provide comparative information about educational achievement across countries to improve teaching and learning in mathematics and science. It is designed, broadly, to align with the  mathematics and science curricula in the participating education systems and countries, and focuses on assessment at Year 4 and Year 8. It also provides comparative perspectives on trends in achievement in the context of different education systems, school organisational approaches and instructional practices; and to enable this, TIMSS collects a rich array of background data from students, schools and teachers, and also collects data about the education systems themselves.
This report is a first look at the results from TIMSS 2015. Focusing on the achievement results in mathematics and science at Year 4 and Year 8, this report will be followed early in 2017 by the full Australian National Report, which will examine achievement more fully and incorporate descriptive and analytical findings using the background and demographic data.
Looking at the results, I had real difficulty in understanding just what TIMSS told us and what we might do about it. A key reason lies in the existence of correlation among the variables measured

The results suggest that there is a positive correlation between academic performance and the social economic status of the families measured by books at home, the educational attainment of parents and access to learning supports. No surprise there.

The results suggest that kids in metropolitan areas are likely to do better than kids in regional areas who in turn do better than kids in remote and very remote areas. Indigenous kids perform less well than non-indigenous kids. No surprises in either case,

Now consider this pattern. Regional areas have fewer higher income families and a smaller proportion of higher educated people. That feeds into lower academic performance. Indigenous people have lower incomes and academic attainments too and are also more likely to live in regional areas. So the measures are interrelated.

This simple point goes to the way the statistics are used and the conclusions drawn from them. Much commentary has really dealt with the aggregate results. Here I quote Stefanie Balogh in The Australian (link above):
The alarming results from the four-yearly Trends in Internat­ional Mathematics and Science Study last night sparked calls for Australia to “wake up’’, reject short-term fixes, raise the effectiveness of teaching, and improve retention and training of qualified maths and science teachers.
I suppose that we could call this an education focused response. Here are a few more examples from the same story:
Education Minister Simon Birmingham said despite increased funding Australia was not achieving sufficient improvements. “The fascination of some policymakers and special interest groups with how much money is being spent on schools has been to the detriment of the real questions we should have been asking that would turn around these declining trends — ‘how should the money be best distributed?’ and ‘what are the initiatives in schools that are proven to lift results that we should be backing?’ ’’ 
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said high-­quality maths and science education was a “key part of making Victoria the education state’’ and the state had set a target to increase the numbers of students excelling in scientific literacy by 33 per cent and maths by 25 per cent over the next 10 years. 
Federal Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said the results underlined why needs-based funding was vital and “poor kids in poor schools need extra help to get better results’’. “Only around 7 per cent of the six years of Gonski needs-based funding had flowed in 2014,’’ she said, insisting it would be “completely wrong’’ to draw links between the results and funding. The ACT outperformed other states and territories, except for Victoria, on a state-by-state breakdown in Year 4 maths. The ACT and Victoria again performed well in Year 8 maths, while the ACT was ahead in Year 4 science and Year 8 science. Results in NSW for both science and maths declined.
I go back to what I said. I'm not sure what the statistics mean, what conclusions to draw from them.

Starting with some very general points. What is the purpose of education? How much weight should be placed on one set of measures in one area? Does a focus on simple specific measures actively disadvantage students whose strengths lie elsewhere? Are so called STEM courses in fact the be all and end all?

Continuing. To what degree do the results simply reflect social and economic change, including the hollowing out of the middle class especially in regional Australia and the rise of socially disadvantaged communities? To what degree can we expect education to solve problems that are not educational at their base? How do we tailor education to meet local needs instead of statistical aggregates?

Focusing on the last question. In writing my biography of my grandfather, a long serving NSW Minister for Education, I had to research the history of education. especially but not only in NSW, over one hundred years.

Oh dear, I am feeling jaundiced. The modern debate on education has become so boring, so standardised, so based on universal standards, that's it's hard to identify a single new idea. Please correct me. Surely I'm not right? In responding, it would help if you could identify ideas and initiatives that link actions to the needs of local or regional communities.          

Monday, November 28, 2016

Monday Forum - George Brandis, drop bears, yowies and other Australian fauna

Today's Monday Forum is another as you will.

I have been slowly working my way through the Ernst and Young cost-benefit analysis of the proposed move of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) to Armidale (photo). I am trying to be objective, but it's hard.

As a piece of work, it sets out its approaches and assumptions clearly enough to be understood. That's good. However, it is also a clear case of the limitations of cost benefit analysis or, perhaps more correctly, the way the frame used determines the result. Its actually quite important as a case study in the misuse of comparative and input-output models. Among other things, the methodology is such that the move of an agency from a bigger to smaller centre is likely always to show negative results because of the structure of the model applied. Another problem is the reliance on generalised statistics based on the past.  

I will comment further when I have completed my analysis. meantime, 2t might like to read the report and respond!.  

Australian Attorney-General George Brandis finds himself in further trouble over the dispute with former Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson. I wrote about this first here and then here.You will find Senator Brandis's statement on the matter here.

This dispute must seem awfully obscure to people outside Australia and many within. The twitter streams and instant politician responses have very little to do with the issues but are simple repetition of opinions and other opinions that might appear supportive. The constitutional issues are quite important, but get lost in the immediate discussion.

I see that Tamworth City Council has named a new lane Drop Bear Lane. The Australian Museum describes drop bears in this way: "T he Drop Bear, Thylarctos plummetus, is a large, arboreal, predatory marsupial related to the Koala."

It goes on:
Around the size of a leopard or very large dog with coarse orange fur with some darker mottled patterning (as seen in most Koalas). It is a heavily built animal with powerful forearms for climbing and holding on to prey. It lacks canines, using broad powerful premolars as biting tools instead.
Clearly this is a dangerous beast. It reminds me of other dangerous creatures including the hoop snake. What advice would you provide tourists coming to Australia as to how they should manage all this wild life? We owe a duty of care and indeed need to ensure that our visitors provide informed consent.

There may be other dangerous creatures of which I am not aware. Please feel free to educate me. In this context, I came across an earlier story:
A $100,000 reward was offered 11 October by the board of directors of the Queanbeyan City Festival Ltd for the capture of the monster known as the Yowie. A Canberra radio station promptly matched the offer bringing the sum to a staggering $200,000. 
The offer is serious and expeditions are now being mounted, with world wide interest in the outcome. The eight-foot high Biped has been sighted in the Monaro region. Festival president, Jim Belshaw, said many people had reported their sightings since photos of Yowie footprints were published in a Queanbeyan paper.
Sadly, despite the many well-equipped exhibitions mounted to capture this creature, the reward was never claimed. But it does remain the most effective PR exercise ever mounted by the aforesaid Jim Belshaw.

So let your imagination run free. How do we assist visitors to Australia  to identify and manage the many risks they face?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dalwood House

My main post today is on the New England Australia blog, New England Travels - A visit to Dalwood part one.

Some time ago, I started writing New England Travels, subtitled journeys through space and time. Part history, part travel, part personal reminiscences,  the book gave me an opportunity to write beyond the usual confines set by the need to record sources, to sit within boundaries.

Like so many of my projects, it is only part written, but I decided that I should share some of the material via irregular posts.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - forgeries, fees, cash and all that stuff

I was really annoyed. I wanted to buy something but the place in question charges 30 cents for EFTPOS. So I went to an ATM from a bank a few doors away to get $40 in cash, two twenty dollar notes. When I came back, we discovered that one was a forgery. So I had to incur the EFTPOS charge plus lost $20. Grrr.

We have talked here from time to time about the changing role of cash, with some feeling that they should use cash more often (me), some that physical cash should be abolished (kvd). Quite a few of the smaller businesses actually do not accept credit cards or EFTPOS or add a surcharge. The surcharge is almost universal on things like Sydney's Opal card fare card top-up, presumably because the margins are so low. Many businesses also have a minimum amount that you must spend to use EFTPOS.

In all the shops that demand cash, there is one that has developed a unique business model. Certainly I hadn't discovered it before. When I offered my card, they said we only take cash, but we have an ATM machine that you can use, they said..Wishing to avoid the $2.50 charge for use of a foreign ATM, I walked out and found a machine that would not charge.

Thinking, about it, it's an interesting business model. This is high volume fast food business selling mainly a particular type of chicken and chips with a variety of add-ons. In these cases, cash is actually faster, especially if you are in an area where card transaction declines is likely to be greater than average. By using cash, you save a little time and fees. By having an ATM machine, you collect a return from that machine instead of paying out to the banks.

Mind you, ATM machines themselves are in decline in Australia. Australians were an early and enthusiastic adopter of ATM technology because of the convenience of the technology. Now we have all taken to tap and go with enthusiasm for smaller transactions under $100, the present limit.  

Growing up, I was an avid reader of science fiction often featuring dystopian worlds. They often featured cameras everywhere used to monitor citizens (tick); the use of cards and electronic systems to record individual activity (tick); constant regulation of what citizens could and couldn't do (tick); and often the abolition or restriction of the use of physical cash (coming tick). Most focus on the way the state used these systems to control, others on what happens when complex systems break down.

I didn't realise at the the time that all this reading was giving me a deep distrust of government, not government in general so much but about the inevitable misuse of power and decline of systems. Of course, the novels themselves often featured brave characters fighting successfully against odds to redress wrongs and overthrow corrupt powers. I am perhaps less sanguine about the second now.

Meantime, there is a practical reason for my continued desire to move to cash despite the forgery. Like many Australians, I cannot really be trusted to control my spending when spend is just so damned easy!            

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monday Forum - post-truth, alt-right and whatever occurs to you

Russia has formally withdrawn from the International Criminal Court following the Court's Ukraine ruling.I think that the gesture is more symbolic than real in that (I stand to be corrected here) Russia had not formally ratified the Rome Statute setting up the ICC. South Africa had, so its formal withdrawal is more substantive.

Leaving aside the somewhat heated rhetoric you will find in this Forbes opinion piece, International Criminal Court: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine Is A 'Crime,' Not A Civil War, the thing that struck me about the pattern of withdrawals was the way it mirrored the growing dividing lines in the architecture of the global community. By architecture, I mean simply the pattern of global multilateral arrangements, treaties and arrangements that have provided the institutional structure for multilateral and bilateral arrangements.

 At the APEC meeting in Peru, countries attempted to affirm the importance of global freer trade, but it was also clear that relationships were shifting as countries reacted to the void created by present uncertainties over the future direction of US policy. What do you think it all means in general and for Australia and New Zealand in particular.  

A story on the ABC reports that "Post-truth" has been proclaimed international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries after beating off "alt-right" and "Brexiteer", a choice the publisher said reflected a year defined by emotive political discourse.  The Dictionary defines post-truth as:
"relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief".
I  would have thought that this was a pretty fair description of politics in general. To my mind, the coining of and then popularity of the term is more a reflection of challenges to prevailing orthodoxies that had themselves achieved the status of dogmas than anything else. I am not convinced that "post-truth" as defined is actually worse today. You may care to correct me.

The term "alt-right" is defined as "an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content".

Whereas post-truth comes especially from the centre-left, alt-right appears to come from the extreme right as a way of making respectable certain extreme positions. I may be wrong here re the etymology, I have only just come across the term. I still remember my chagrin at discovering that the term culture wars appears to have been invented by the left as a way of describing certain challenges to prevailing views.

 A challenge. What words might you coin to describe views that you particularly object to?

As always, go in whatever direction you want.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday Snippets - Round-up with a special focus on the Pew international migration statistics

At a time when the news is a tad depressing, its good to see Aer Lingus and Air New Zealand in a twitter war over something important, the respective merits of their two countries rugby teams.

The dispute over censorship of false news on Facebook largely passed me by. There are enough problems on FB now without the company being forced to try to use algorithms to screen out the fake. Even though conspiracy theories and false reports do abound, let people sort it out for themselves.

The one exception I might make is sponsored stuff where FB is taking money. Then the company does have some responsibility. But how do you distinguish between the satirical false news sites and the plain crap? In Australia, we have the Betoota Advocate (company site here, Wikipedia here).  They did fool me once. It was the first time I came across the site. The story was strange, a bit funny, but vaguely credible. What I couldn't work out was how there could be a Queensland country newspaper that I had never heard of in a town that that I had never heard of. A bit of investigation soon revealed the hoax.

The first story I saw from The Onion was harder to spot, in part because it is a US site and I didn't have the local familiarity. I also saw it via a repost from someone who had taken the story seriously. I actually felt a bit silly when I realised that it was a spoof even though it hadn't taken me that long to work it out. In a way, that's the point: these stories remind us of our own credulity.

Christopher Moore's History News continues to remind me of the similarities but also especially the differences between Canadian and Australian histories. Accepting that Canadian history is more complex, I am left with the feeling that Canadian historiography is deeper and more varied than that practiced in this country. And all this despite Christopher's sometimes complaint about the paucity of Canadian historiography.  

In one post, Christopher wrote:
Reconciling indigenous history into "Canadian" history? On the evidence of two substantial, successful Canadian books on what's a pretty thin shelf these days, still a long ways to go, historians. Not saying it's easy, either.
I really struggle with this one, a struggle that deserves a fuller post on my history blog. I don't have an answer.

It's been a while since I mentioned Gordon's lookANDsee blog, partly because he has been posting less regularly. This photo is a Kingfisher taken near his place to the east of Armidale.

The Pew Research Centre has a fascinating interactive, Origins and Destinations of the World’s Migrants, from 1990-2015. You can search by five years from 1990 to 2015, by nationality of overseas born in each country and by number of people from each country living elsewhere and in which country. Have a play. There are some problems with the numbers, but the results may surprise you. From a quick scan, here is a not inclusive list of countries where the total number of people living in Australia in 2015 is ranked in the top ten from the viewpoint of the source country: The numbers include students.
  • New Zealand first
  • Fiji first
  • United Kingdom first
  • French Polynesia around first
  • Cook islands second
  • South Africa second
  • Cyprus second 
  • Bhutan equal second
  • Gibralta second
  • Brunei around equal second
  • Croatia third
  • Canada third
  • Japan third
  • Ireland third
  • Greece third
  • Cambodia fourth
  • Chile fourth
  • Ecuador around fourth
  • Guam around fourth
  • Hong Kong fifth
  • Botswana equal fifth
  • Israel sixth
  • Italy sixth
  • Hungary sixth
  • Laos sixth
  • Burundi around equal sixth
  • China equal sixth
  • Czech Republic seventh
  • Iran seventh
  • Finland seventh
  • Denmark equal seventh
  • Burma seventh
  • Afghanistan eighth
  • Djibouti ninth
  • Angola around equal ninth
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina equal ninth
  • Indonesia tenth
  • Albania around equal tenth
  • Iraq equal tenth
  • Estonia around tenth
I am going to pause here both because I am out of time and because the material is better presented in tabular format.  Immigration statistics are usually presented from the viewpoint of the host country and then ranked in order of magnitude. If you look at it from the viewpoint of country of origin, a different perspective emerges.

If you look at the list above, two things stand out. The first is the diversity of Australia's immigration intake, the second the number of countries in which Australia ranks in the top group from the viewpoint of the source countries. This actually gives Australia a remarkable reach in international terms. But that's another story.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Mingoola, Dutton and immigration

My main post today, From Africa's Great Lakes to Mingoola's Field of Dreams, is a follow up post to a rather inspirational story from the ABC Australian Story program on the resettlement of refugees from Central Africa in the small Northern New England settlement of Mingoola.

The program came out on the Monday. The following Thursday, Andrew Bolt in combination with Immigration Minister Dutton took the immigration debate in another direction.

Thursday afternoon, the Melbourne Herald Sun carried a promo for  Mr Bolt's TV program that night. Under the heading " On my shows tonight - refugee crime and the great media meltdown", the paper stated:
On The Bolt Report on Sky at 7pm - The amazing Sudanese crime rate. Our refugee program puts us in danger yet again. My guests: Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Rowan Dean, Graham Richardson and Bruce Hawker. And a round of the greatest media meltdowns of the week.
In the interview that night, Minister Dutton began by talking about Sudanese refugees, but then segued into refugees more generally. The transcript does not seem to be up on his website, so I quote the Channel Nine report:
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says Islamic youth radicalisation and Middle Eastern crime gangs are the price Australia has paid for "flawed" policies by Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s. 
Mr Dutton was speaking after the federal government announced an inquiry into the settlement of migrants and links between young people and ethnic crime groups.
He said many Australians citizens who had joined foreign terrorist organisations were the children or grandchildren admitted to this country by the former Liberal prime minister. 
"The reality is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today, " he told Sky News. 
"We need to be honest in having that discussion. There was a mistake made. "
Earlier he was asked whether young Sudanese men were behind a crime wave in Melbourne. Mr Dutton said it was an "open question" what proportion of the Sudanese community was involved.
Back in October 2007, Mr Andrews, Tamworth and Sudanese Refugees, I found myself in the unusual position of defending then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews over his remarks on Sudanese refugees against attacks that he had been racist. As in this case, the trigger for Mr Andrew's remarks had been the Melbourne shock-jocks. Sadly, the official links have all vanished, but enough remains to show the argument. In both this and the previous Tamworth case (the Tamworth stories are linked in the later post) a key concern was the way the main stream media misreported, attaching the racism tag in a way that (among other things) misreported while damaging Australia's international reputation. In both cases, an underlying theme was Australia's failure to provide sufficient resources to support refugee resettlement programs.

The world has changed. Xenophobia, dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries,.has always existed in Australia, as in most countries. I have argued and would still argue that Australia has been better at managing it that most countries. However, Mr Dutton and others appear to be playing to xenophobia, using it to score immediate political point.

The Australian Prime Minister argues that strong border policies are important (among other reasons) because they provide the base for Australian acceptance of migration. I think that there is some truth in that. I sometimes wonder, and this would not be a popular view, whether or not the White Australia policy was in fact a necessary precondition for the emergence of modern pluralist Australia. However, by playing too fear, Minister Dutton is undercutting the very consensus on which modern Australia has been based, one that the PM seems to accept.

Both left and right argue, if sometimes for different reasons, that Australia should stop accepting migrants. They may phrase it in different ways, but the effect is much the same, the progressive emergence of a new anti-migration consensus.

By all means, let's have a conversation as Minister Dutton suggests, but let's make it a real conversation, a dialogue. I happen to support immigration, although I don't think cramming people into a small number of metros is particularly sensible. For those opposed to immigration, do you want to stop all immigration or just reduce it? If opposed to all immigration, would you allow some measure of family reunion? If you would allow some measure of immigration, how much and on what basis?

The refugee intake is a small part of the total migration program. Would you stop all refugees or allow some in? If so, what level and what criteria would you use to accept refugees? There are more options here than people realise. For example, at present the refugee intake is centrally controlled and delivered. What would happen if it became community and family based within broad criteria? Refugees would be accepted, but on the basis that somebody - group or community - took responsibility for their support. The role of the state would then diminish from control to supporting individual, group or community endeavour.

On existing programs, it is nine years since I wrote that post on Mr Andrews and the Sudanese refugees. Clearly, some problems still exist. What are they? What can we learn? What might we do about it?

In all this, I think that we have to be prepared to call people out, to make them explain. Minister Dutton should not be allowed to simply assert that Mr Fraser made mistakes and that we are paying a price now and that this somehow justifies current actions. There is probably little point in defending Mr Fraser and his policies. Better that Mr Dutton should be required to explain his position. What does he mean by mistake? How serious is the problem? What would he have done instead? How many children or grandchildren? Are the proportions different from other groups? What has been the cost to the community?

One may disagree with his answers, but if forced to respond then his thinking will be exposed to the clear light of public scrutiny. In a conversation, it is necessary to let the other side answer, to use questions to clarify their views. We may not like the clarification, but we will know and can then respond.

Meantime, it is still nice to have a Mingoola to inspire.

Mingoola Follow Up

A brief note on follow up reaction to the Mingoola story.

On Wednesday 30 November 2016, Matt Bedford (Armidale Express) reported on a visit to Armidale by Emmanuel Musoni for discussions with local refugee advocates about the possible placement of some of the 200 refugee families now seeking country placements as a consequence of Mingoola.

The following day in an opinion piece in the Express (Australian Story episode on Mingoola refugees strikes a chord), Donna Ward reported that Deputy PM and member for New England Barnaby Joyce had been inundated with calls from all over Australia seeking to replicate the model in other small, rural towns. "Seeing what the refugees have brought to the Mingoola community," Donna wrote, "the arrival of African families is something we (Northern Tablelands) would welcome with open arms."

Just under a week later on Tuesday 6 December, Tawar Razaghi reported on AbC New England North West that more regional refugee resettlements were likely, backed by Deputy Prime Minister. She reported:
The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) plans to roll out a similar program in the next 12 months, with Armidale, in northern New South Wales, flagged as an ideal town to host it. 
The voluntary program is being developed by the NFF along with the Migration Council. 
The Federation's Sarah McKinnon said the Northern Tablelands city had been identified for a number of reasons. 
"Areas where there's a lot of rural and regional opportunity and there's good infrastructures and services there," Ms McKinnon said. 
"In many of these towns there are already established refugee populations. 
"They're the kind of towns that we're looking to begin the pilot because we want to give it the best chance of success." 
Other towns considered by the NFF to successfully implement the pilot model are Wagga Wagga in New South Wales and Toowoomba in Queensland.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leaving Parramatta 1 - the Sotto Cafe

Friday was my last day on this working round in Parramatta. I hadn't expected to end up working in Parramatta again - I thought that part of my life was past but events dictated otherwise.

Most mornings, I would stop at the Sotto Cafe, 20 Charles Street, next door to the office. I was meant to be saving, building cash for the next round. Too often, I hadn't eaten breakfast so needed coffee plus raisin toast. Then during the day when under pressure I would sometimes get a cappuccino; always large with one sugar.

Over time, I got to know the crew pretty well. I was variously Jim, James, Jimmy or Jimbo depending on how people were feeling.

They all work hard at making people welcome and in promoting the business. One day recently, I came in and found them all in costume. Was it Halloween or the Zombie Apocalypse I asked? I am very familiar with the second because of youngest. No, Halloween. Ah.

On my final day after my farewell lunch I called in. After asking for a cappuccino, I didn't have to say how many sugars, I said that I was leaving and demanded a photo with the crew on duty. This was delivered, along with a free coffee and a lolly on a stick.

All this obviously made me happy!

 So if you are calling into Sotto for a coffee or lunch, say Jim or James, Jimmy or Jimbo, sent you. You may not get a free coffee, but you should get good service!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Monday Forum - the week's oddities, curiosities and awards

A week since the US elections. It seems a long time! Its been quite a topsy, turvy week.

One of the odder stories of the week was the lost houseboat that somehow managed to find its way from Canada to Ireland. A second odd story, again from the BBC, is that of Liberland, a Libertarian fantasy to create a new state on a patch of marshland between Croatia and Serbia claimed by neither.

The award for the most hamfisted policy of the week goes to the Indian Government for its attempt to remove certain notes from circulation. This one has been running hard, forcing Indian PM Narendra Modi into almost abject apologies. It's not that the move is necessarily unpopular, based on the reporting there is support for the PM's desire to defeat the black economy, but if you are going to remove over 80% of the cash in circulation in a country where cash is still king you had better have a good implementation plan in place. Sadly not.

The award for mea culpa of the week goes to the New York Times for its promise to rededicate itself to journalism:
As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.
Hat tip to kvd for this one.

The award for optimist of the week goes to the Canberra man who attempted to recover the cost of the engagement ring from his ex-fiancee. Hat Tip to Legal Eagle.

 The award for timing of the week goes to the Australian Government for its announcement of a one-off deal with the US to resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru in the US. I guess that they had to get it out there, the announcement was almost certainly delayed by the US election, but its hard to see how the deal can work given the views of President-elect Trump. I suppose the hope is that they will be able to make some progress before President Obama leaves office, but its messy.

A subsidiary award, the ring of steel award, goes to the Commonwealth Government for its decisive action in deploying naval forces north of the country to deter people smugglers who might want to take advantage of the US deal.
A "significant" Defence operation is now underway in waters off Northern Australia, with the Federal Government anticipating an increase in attempted boat arrivals by people smugglers.

"We recognise that people smugglers will seek to exploit this announcement," Mr Turnbull said, repeating the Coalition's policy of intercepting boats and turning them back to Indonesia or the Indian subcontinent.

The precise number of Defence assets is not known, but government sources describe the operation as a "ring of steel", and one of the largest ever peace-time deployments

Later information suggested that Australia had deployed its Armidale class patrol boats, its Border Force vessels, along with two naval support vessels. That should certainly work, with the most probable performance measurement being a total absence of people smugglers.

The award for protectionist of the week goes to Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten for his foreshadowed Australia First policy. So far, the rhetoric I have seen  - "we will buy Australian, build Australian, make in Australia and employ Australians" - comes straight from the Trump economic rhetoric.

Finally, the award for political error of the week goes not to Hilary Clinton nor the New York Times, but to the NSW Premier and Liberal Party Leader Mike Baird and his now departing Deputy Premier and National Party Leader Troy Grant for their remarkable success in the Orange by-election. Since this ABC story, continued vote counting suggests that the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party will just win the seat, while the National's leader and deputy leader have resigned. This was truly a remarkable result with swings on the primary vote in some booths as high as 60 per cent.


I almost feel obliged in posting this link to say that I am not a Trump supporter and that is of itself an interesting commentary on just how polarised the debate has become. This piece by Scott Alexander, You are still Crying Wolf, suggests that the attacks on Mr Trump are misdirected and almost totally miss the point.