Personal Reflections

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The fish rots from the head - the Financial Services Royal Commission

I wasn't a supporter of the proposed Australian banking Royal Commission or to give it its proper title the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. For the benefit of international readers, the Royal Commission came about following sustained pressure from a small group of backbenchers especially in the National Party concerned about irregularities and injustices in the Australian financial services sector.

I believed that there had been irregularities and injustices over a considerable period, I had experienced some myself, but felt that changes were finally being made and that a Royal Commission was too blunt an instrument to address the problem. Boy, was I wrong. Before going on, here are a few of the stories from the last few days:
You can find transcripts from the hearings here.

We have talked here before about problems in the banking and financial services sector. Just based on the evidence to this point, those problems would appear to be far deeper and more systemic than I had realised. kvd might say told you so!

I said systemic because there are clearly inter-related problems including:
  • problems with IT platforms
  • lags in recognising problems and then in responding especially where there are response costs or reduced income or a combination of the two
  • incentive scales and performance measures that, in combination with cross-selling arrangements, encourage behaviour that disadvantages customers
  • ethical problems at individual and organisation levels where the pursuit of the sale becomes dominant to the exclusion of everything else. I couldn't help thinking here of the old saying that a fish rots from the head.  . 
One thing I find especially sad is that the AMP,  arguably once Australia's most respected financial institution,. has become just another financial institution since demutualisation.

I think that one of the problems in all this is going to be the avoidance or at least minimisation of new layers that simply increase costs and reduce choice, especially for the smaller investor.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reflections in my latest Armidale visit - a mix of travel, history, the town: a mixed bag

Just back from Armidale where I delivered a paper on Friday (13 April 2018) in the University of New England's humanities seminar series 'New England travels: journeys through space and time".The paper was described in this way in the blurb:
 This paper explores key themes across 30,000 years of the history of Australia's broad New England region, the Tablelands and surrounding valleys, showing how the interaction of geography and events has moulded life and culture from the arrival of the Aboriginal peoples to the end of the twentieth century. 
An historian and economist by profession, Jim Belshaw is writing a history of the broader new state New England from Aboriginal times to the end of the twentieth century. Jim, an alumnus of UNE, also writes the weekly history column for the Armidale Express.
It had been several years since I last spoke. These papers take a fair bit of effort in preparation and then there is the trip itself. I normally treat the trip part as a mix of professional, social and holiday, but this time it was harder work, partly because I was very tired when I drove out.

As always, I came back with things to do. This includes completing the footnotes so that I can provide copies to the people who have requested it. I will write up some elements in posts here and on the New England blogs; this post reflects on the trip. itself, sort of an aide memoir.

The Journey

I know the road very well after all this time. You can always tell Armidale locals because they know the shortest route. Going north it's up the Paciifc express way. This stretch is pretty boring, but its generally fast unless clogged by holiday traffic. 14k past Raymond Terrace you turn left onto Bucketts Way. This runs in a north westerly direction through Stroud, a historic AA (Australian Agricultural Company) town to Gloucester. . It's quite pretty country with lots to explore. .

At  Gloucester, you turn left onto Thunderbolt's Way following the Walcha signs. The road passes through the little town of Barrington where I usually stop for coffee at the little post office cum general store cum petrol station cum restaraunt. It's a good little earner. Coming back this time tired, that Barrington stop was very welcome. I sat on the verandah savouring my cappuccino writing up my trip notes.

Just past Barrington, the road turns hard right passing through the the headwaters of the Manning River. This is a pretty road that meanders up and down, constantly swinging back and forth over the ridges and along the streams.  Near the Bretti Nature Reserve, the road climbs quickly up the escarpment. This road did not exist when I was growing up. The New England Highway was the only route to Sydney. The road was cut through in 1961 but was not greatly used until tared. I didn't really start using it until after we moved to Sydney in 1996.

Driving habits have changed. I grew up driving on country roads, often dirt. While I do like to get from point A to point B quickly, I enjoy variety, don't mind curves and am philosophical about delays including being stuck behind timber jinkers and cattle trucks. Drivers trained on city roads and expressways find it more challenging. That road, a friend said! It's a very popular road with motorcyclists.

At the top of the mountain the little village of Nowendoc lies to the right just off Thunderbolt's Way. There is a little reserve with a hall and toilet.where I often  stop This is fugitive country country. Most recently, the hall was the centre for the ultimately successful police search for Malcolm Naden. Returning to the main road, New England Cheese can be found a little further on to the left.  I had one of their little freezer bags to return, but the gate was shut, so I drove on.

Often I find small adventures on this road (Sunday Essay - early morning on a New England roadCurious cows Walcha-Nowendoc Road). Again I had to stop for stock! I also spotted through the trees some homesteads that I had not noticed before.That was not wise, I wobbled dangerously. I didn't have time to stop, but you really have to if you are to investigate.You have to walk the ground.

Running north from Nowendoc you enter what is called the Three Falls Country where the head waters of three major coastal rivers - the Manning, the Hastings and the Macleay are co-located. Geoff Blomfield’s “Baal Belbora: the end of the dancing” explores the frontier wars in this country. This is also an area where a number of Aboriginal language groups overlap.

Coming into Walcha, I noticed that some new pieces had been added to the Walcha sculpture streetscape but did not have time to stop.From Walcha, the road continues  to Uralla.
Julia Griffin, Rain on the Uralla Road, one of my favourite paintings. Fortunately, this drive was dry. 
At Uralla, we leave Thunderbolt's Way, turning right to join the New England Highway for the last short stretch into Armidale.

Around Armidale

I was very glad to get to my motel to unwind. Accommodation had been a real issue, as it had been five years before when my delivery of a paper coincided with graduation. I described this a visit at the time in a photo essay. The beauty of Armidale & UNE. This time it was worse because the TAS (The Armidale School) junior (under 12) rugby carnival was on. .

This is the largest carnival of its type in the country. This year it brought together 44 teams from 21 schools and 16 clubs from across three states with 108 games of rugby. It also brought national coach Michael Cheika to town.

Reporting in advance of the carnival,  the Canberra Times' the Cauliflower Column  ( Folau fallout continues as Cheika) said in the context of the problems that have been facing Australian rugby::
The school will welcome an estimated 950 children from as far as Dalby, the Sunshine Coast, the Southern Highlands and even the Perth-based Western Spirit. It will be a rousing statement, particularly on the back of some flat participation numbers revealed in the 2017 Annual Report this week.
This must be the first positive story about Armidale to appear in that paper for quite some time!

I drove past the school grounds on my way home on Saturday just to look. It was a busy colorful  scene with the multiple parked buses, multiple little tents and games, Sadly I could not stop.

While many of the players themselves were accommodated in school boarding houses, the teams also came with officials and parents adding to accommodation pressures associated with graduation. All motels in the immediate area were booked out as were Armidale's 128+ Airbnbs some able to accommodate as many as six people plus the caravan park. There were also "luxury" tents (their phrase) at the showground, although these were too pricey for me in any case! I managed a motel room for the Thursday night and the last available Airbnb room for the Friday night, a simple room in a two bedroom flat. .

I don't know the final visitor numbers, but the town really was packed. The TAS rugby carnival alone brought in an estimated $1.6 million in visitor spend. I went for a walk on the Thursday night past all the motels with their no vacancy signs to buy some takeaway food. All the takeaway places had queues.

As I drove out to the university on Friday morning, I wondered how many people I might get, given graduation. In the end, there were about 45-50 people, A lot were older and from town attracted by the topic as well as my role as a public historian, but I did attract some staff as well including Martin Gibbs, professor of archaeology. Nicholas Fuller, the Armidale Express' newly appointed
arts and culture reporter, also came.
The questions were helpful in refining my views. Later over coffee in the staff room I was able to catch up with people including finding out out some of the latest research. Because I work so much outside the academy, I was a little nervous in talking. I form my own views, develop my own syntheses. I do expose this through the blogs and in the columns, but there is still a degree of caution when I come in contact with others with their own particular expertise. I think in practice I probably get more feedback and have greater freedom and more time for thought than those burdened by KPIs and growing teaching loads.  .

Part of my mission is to try to create interest in New England history. I found the conversations with Martin particularly because it gave my new ideas, but also helped me understand the problems he faces in attracting students to archaeology in general and New England studies in particular. There is also a growing problem in getting approvals to dig from Aboriginal communities, something others including John Mulvaney have talked about.  .

I will write more on this later, as well as the ideas that I picked up.I have already been sent two papers containing work that I had not seen before.

After the seminar I wandered around town a bit, sitting in Central Park for a bit to write up notes. It was quiet and beautiful.  One thing I noticed there and elsewhere were the number of older people just sitting. This is a feature of an aging population. Again, thoughts came to mind for later writing.

After lunch I went into the Express to do an interview with Nicholas Fuller. He also took photos of me standing next to the iron lacework outside the Armidale Folk Museum. We talked about his role, but also about the changes taking place in the newspaper world. I have written a little about this, but the discussion helped me extend my thinking

After seeing Nicholas I went out to see Bill Oates, head of the Heritage Centre. I then walked around the old Teachers' College building. This was managed by the University but was recently handled back to the State Government. I found this a profoundly depressing experience for reasons I won't go into here beyond mentioning that one side effect is the need to re-house or throw out archival records, books, newspapers previously stored at in the College building. The lack of periodic maintenance on the College building was clear to see. At a purely personal level, my intention to give key family papers to the archives may prove impossible.      

Again, I may write something more when I have had a chance to process it all.

After seeing Bill, I went into town to look at the display at the Council community consultation centre and then back to my room to have some food and continue writing up my notes. Driving back the next morning I was generally pleased with trip, if still depressed about what I had seen at the old Teachers' College. I wondered what might be done to rectify the position without coming to a firm views.  .      .

Monday, April 09, 2018

Monday Forum - was 1950s Australia still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners?

Coetzee praised Murnane’s “chiseled sentences,” placing him among of the last generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.” Mark Binelli 

I bristled at these words of J M Coetzee quoted by Mark Binelli in his New York Times Magazine piece Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? (27 March 2018). I hadn't actually heard of Gerald Murnane until kvd referred to him in a comment on The internet: algorithms, bias and the censorship of information, pointing to both the Binelli piece and also this article by Murnane himself, The Still-Breathing Author (Sydney Review of Books, 6 February 2018).

I feel a little sheepish admitting my ignorance. He is clearly an important figure, although views about his writing expressed in the comments vary. kvd thinks, he is wonderful. Neil Whitfield took a different view: "I'm sure it is my fault not his, but every time I have tried to read Murnane I have given up! To me he is almost unreadable!" Responding to kvd, marcellous adopted a somewhat related position to Neil: "It's the content which I've found unreadable when assayed before - possibly because I'm not brought up Catholic with an enthusiasm for the turf (not that I'm saying you were/are). Incidentally, what you read as early love looks to me like slightly creepy laundry-line stalking"!

In my own defence, I do read all the time. However, I really gave up reading what one might describe as "serious fiction" several decades ago. That was partly a matter of time, more that I found that my own reactions to work considered to fall within the important category at considerable variance from those telling me that it was important and that I should consequently read it. Even today, I find Patrick White almost unreadable although here I have to make another attempt because he falls within my current field of historical interest.Still, my interest in Mr Murnane has been caught and I will read him because I can see connections with my other current interests.

I said at the start that I bristled at Coetze's words, that he (Murnane) was among the last of  generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.”

Gerald Murnane was born on 25 February 1939. Others born around this time include Robert Hughes and Les Murray (1938), Clive James and Germaine Greer (1939), Mungo MacCallum (1941).and Martin Sharp and Bob Ellis (1942) to name just a few. All spent the first part of their childhood in war conditions, completing their education during the 1950s. They all were affected by, affected and were part of a process of cultural and social change that peaked in the 1970s. This was followed by dramatic economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s. These changes were not unique to Australia.

Two questions arise. Were they growing up at a time when Australia was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners? If so, what has changed?

I am a member of the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook group. It's a closed group, you have to be approved as a member, that has grown rapidly to over 1,900 members. Over half the group and a  higher proportion of regular commenters/posters, it's a very active group, no longer live in Armidale. They are remembering their time there as children or younger adults. The posts are loaded with photos - school groups, work groups, activities, old scenes of Armidale, then and now individual shots.  The comment threads run and run stretching into the hundreds covering every aspect of life.

Commenters come from every walk of life with very different experiences. Even in a small city like Armidale there are many different groups and experiences, unified by the common city and overlapping links and experiences. .

Yabbying or Craybobbing near Armidale. Which term to use was the subject of the Great Craybob War!
One common thread is the memory of freedom as children or young adults, of doing sometimes silly things, of just roaming, along with a recognition that this is no longer possible today.

Recently, ABC Radio National had a program on why children don't walk or ride to school anymore. Various suggestions were made, but then a Queensland listener threw a spanner into the works. It was, the listener suggested, now illegal in that state to let children walk or ride to school on their own if they were under twelve.

Queensland police notice  
 The ABC investigated. You will find the results of the investigation here: What the law says about letting your child walk to school on their own.

In short, this is a genuine police notice issued at a particular time in a particular place for particular reasons. However, the legal position varies between jurisdictions and is by no means clear cut. But the bottom line is that you may break the law if you let your child walk or ride to school alone depending on the interpretation placed on the law. It all depends.

We have moved into territory that I have talked about before. In many ways, Australian society is indeed more repressed, puritanical and suspicious today than it was in the 1950s. There have been advances, but the overall pattern is clear and accelerating.

Are we more suspicious of foreigners than we were in the 1950s? The answer here is less clear cut, but I suspect that it is yes. It's just that the targets have changed to some degree. The 1950s saw the progressive ending of the White Australia policy. That policy was based on the idea of cultural homogeneity, of the need to protect workers and jobs from foreign competition. It changed because the world was changing resulting in a revolution that saw Australia open its doors to mass immigration first from Europe and then the world. The revolution was led by Government, but also broadly supported by a sometimes suspicious population..

And where are we today? We live in a world where the idea of cultural homogeneity, of the need to protect workers and jobs from foreign competition, is central to immigration policy in many countries. Australian Governments have held the line to some degree, but they have also made border protection a key ideal, feeding the idea that the country must protect its borders from the risk of people smugglers and unrestrained migration. One result has been a rise in xenophobia based more on religion than the old idea of ethnicity or race, although they do overlap.

And, finally, was Australia still a cultural colony of England at the time Mr Murnane was growing up? The answer here is partially yes but primarily no. However, wimping a little because of time, that is a topic for another post.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The internet: algorithms, bias and the censorship of information

Today's post reflects my own confusions and indeed frustrations about the way that the internet is increasing telling me what it thinks I am interested in, preventing  me from finding what what I am actually interested in. It has become a form of censorship by algorithm.

Let me start with a few examples.

I have a particular interest in New Zealand. I used to go to the Google New Zealand site because its algorithms allowed me to pick up New Zealand pages that I might not otherwise find. That is no longer the case. When I go to tools to limit my search to New Zealand pages only, the site knows that I am from Australia; the only choice I am offered is Australian pages. And this on the New Zealand site. I can no longer find pages or items that I knew were there.

I follow BBC News among others to provide me with an alternative non-Australian view on events. I see a substantial number of Australian stories. I do not know whether or not my news is being tailored by my geographic location. I suspect so.

At the end of last year I spent some time looking at rental, house sales and AirBnb sites in Armidale. Within 48 hours, my Facebook feeds were running ads in all three areas. Are you still looking? I didn't actually object to this, but I was impressed by the speed with which my searches on other sites translated to Facebook.

I use Google image search all the time. That service has become less and less effective. There are fewer and fewer historical photos, more and more current crap, quite a bit of which has nothing to do with the topic. Part of the change is due to increased sensitivity about copyright, part to volume. The problem is compounded by the way in which other sites change and merge. Google closed Panoramio, a hugely valuable site. I downloaded some key photos before the site closed, but not all. Picture Australia, once a key photo site, was merged into Trove with consequent loss.

In a piece on his personal blog, paleoanthropologist John Hawks asked Is Facebook killing science news? I can see his point in that so many people seem to be getting their scientific views from Facebook feeds as opposed to more objective or analytical sources. However, I don't share it.

Facebook is not a news channel, rather a platform for personal opinion and personal sharing. This can create an echo chamber effect and disseminate the false, including some of the strangest conspiracy theories. However, in the end, it is up to people to decide what they read and don't read. They still have access to other sources.

In a way, John is caught on the horns of a dilemma of his own making. He is an effective user of social media, I really value his contribution here, but the platforms he uses so effectively can be used by others.

But that still leaves the problems I have identified, the way in which internet companies are increasingly tailoring their responses to what they think we are interested in compared to what we actually want, the way in which an increasingly crowded internet makes information search difficult, the way in which the combination of legal issues such as copyright interact with structural changes in content provision act to limit choice.

These are the issues we have to work around.

Postscript 4 April 2018

Gordon Smith kindly provided this answer to the conundrum how to access Good sites from other countries. It seems to work:
To find NZ content (for example): go to local Google search web page, click ”Settings” at foot of page (right hand side), select ”advanced search”, change ”region” to ”New Zealand” in drop-down menu. Add search terms at top of the same page. Click blue ”Advanced Search” button.
Alternatively, in the New Zealand case, this link also from Gordon should take you straight there. If you type in railways, for example, New Zealand railways should come up first.  

Postscript 2, 5 April 2018

Just to share with you a frustration from today that links to this discussion. I was writing my Armidale Express column. I wanted some stuff  on the dance summer schools held at UNE. These were quite important. I knew there was material previously available. I went to images first, and the only relevant image now available was on one of my earlier posts. This happens quite a bit.

Mmm. I went to that post because I knew it had some links. All those links were dead. The irony was that in the post I had refrained from copying material because I wanted people to read it in the original. Now I regret that.

I know that I have been blogging for twelve years, but I do struggle a bit with the idea that in a changing internet my blogs are becoming a source of record!. .

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Sydney's growth problems - Eastlakes

Crown Group's Eastlakes Live promo image. 

In  Photo essay - a taste of Eastlakes (22 January 2013) I described the quaint little Sydney suburb and shopping center just down the road (it's about a ten minute walk) from where I have been living. My affection for the suburb will be clear. 

Crown Group has announced its full development plans for Eastlakes. Grandly called Eastlakes Live, the $1 billion development will replace the existing shopping centre with a new shopping centre with 534 high end apartments on top. 
"They all say it it (Pagewood Green)is an over-development...But there must be authority. If the authorities say this is right then its right. People will all the time complain. Not only I but all the people who buy here, they are very happy too. And they pay. Never mind people who talk and don't pay......It (traffic) is not a big problem because as you know there is not much traffic. I don't think there is any problem." Meriton founder Harry Triguboff interviewed by the Southern Courier, reported March 7,  2018.    
In Sydney's growth problems - light rail, Kingsford, Pagewood and Daceyville (29 August 2017)  I reported on the transformations taking place just to the east of my current home including Pagewood Green. In February I reported (Sydney growth problems - Sydney Water's Eastlakes over-kill, 28 February 2018) on the proposed Sydney Water redevelopment just down the road from my place towards Eastlakes that would add 744 apartments.

I am actually not opposed to the principle of the Eastlakes redevelopment, although locals will miss the village feel of the current centre as well as the lower prices. Woolworths Eastlakes is presently the lowest priced supermarket in the area by a considerable margin. It's hard to see that surviving with inevitable higher rents combined with gentrification. However, it does make sense to increase density where an existing and somewhat old and shabby shopping centre is involved.        

The general problem I have is that all these developments place emphasis on their access to existing parklands and leisure facilities as well as access to transport. This may be a valid point for one but not for three at a time when transport is becoming more congested and the parks and sporting fields more crowded. So far as I can see, none of the developments add anything to community infrastructure. 

Mind you, they may not all proceed on the scale envisaged. Real estate prices in this area have finally gone off the boil with some lower prices and longer sales time.     

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Wolfe, Quebec and Benjamin West's iconic painting the Death of General Wolfe

Detail, Benjamin West, The death of General Wolfe, Oil on Canvass, 1770

Back in  2012 (Indian Mutiny 3 - the Company) I referred to the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), in some ways the first truly global war. The North American theatre of that war is often referred to as the French and Indian War.

This map from Wikipedia (link above) shows territorial claims by Britain, France, and Spain, as well as disputed territory before the war. The British victory in North America removed the French from the equation and also gave the British control of Florida.

Mind you, the French could have maintained their  territory, but in the peace negotiations they largely traded off their North American claims

The British had offered France the choice of surrendering either its continental North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which had been occupied by the British. France chose to cede the former because the Caribbean  islands were seen to be of greater economic value! France was able to negotiate the retention of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, two small islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along with fishing rights in the area.

One of the most critical battles in the North American conflict was the Battle of Quebec, also known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  After a protracted but unsuccessful siege,  the British commander James Wolfe led 4,400 men in small boats on a very bold and risky amphibious landing at the base of the cliffs west of Quebec along the St. Lawrence River.

This group with two small cannons scaled the 200-metre cliff from the river below early in the morning of 13 September 1759. They surprised the French under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm, who thought the cliff would be unclimbable, and had set his defences accordingly. Faced with the possibility that the British would haul more cannons up the cliffs and knock down the city's remaining walls, the French fought the British on the Plains of Abraham. They were defeated after fifteen minutes of battle, but when Wolfe began to move forward, he was shot three times, once in the arm, once in the shoulder, and finally in the chest, dying on the field. Montcalm too was badly wounded, dying shortly afterwards.

Wolfe's death after such a heroic assault and victory made him a British hero.In 1770, painter Benjamin West memorialised the death in a painting, The death of General Wolfe. The painting attracted some controversy because it replaced previous stylised heroic approaches based on classical forms with apparent realism. However, it quickly became one of the most iconic and popular Imperial images.

This Youtube video from the National Gallery of Canada came via Artdaily. It provides more detail on on the painting itself.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sidney Kidman, the Channel Country and the 2018 Davenport Downs Flood

The Davenport Downs homestead perched on the edge of the Diamantina River flood in mid-March 2018. Photos by Ross Myhill. From Queensland Country Life. .

At 1,500,000 hectares (15,000 square  kilometers), the Davenport Downs aggregation is Queensland's largest cattle station.  It lies 350km south west of Winton in the Channel Country. The Channel Country features a a flat arid landscape with a series of ancient flood plains from rivers including the Diamantina which only flow intermittently towards Lake Eyre. in the south west.

In the generally flat terrain, the Diamantina does not have a single course but rather flows through a series of rivulets that progressively fill as the river rises.When the rains reach the catchments especially in the north, the Diamantina and other rivers can flood sending water to the south west. In wet years, the waters can reach as far as Lake Eyre.

There has always been a certain romance attached to the Channel Country. Growing up one of my favourite books was Ion Idriess's The Cattle King (1936), a significant best seller. This tells the story of Sidney Kidman.

Born in 1857, Kidman built a huge pastoral empire. Central to this was the concept of chains of cattle stations that would allow Kidman to move stock across Australia from property to property as climatic conditions changed. By the time of World War I he controlled station country considerably greater in area than England or Tasmania and nearly as great as Victoria.

The Channel Country was central to Kidman's plans. In Kidman's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry (link above), Russel Ward describes Kidman's concept in this way:
Long before his thirtieth birthday he had conceived the idea of buying a chain, later two chains, of stations stretching in nearly continuous lines from the well-watered tropical country round the Gulf of Carpentaria, south through western Queensland to Broken Hill, and across the border into South Australia within easy droving distance of Adelaide. Many stations on this 'main chain' were watered by Cooper's Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers which sometimes brought northern tropical rain-waters to the centre even during droughts. By the 1890s he had begun to acquire his second chain of stations strung along the Overland Telegraph line from the Fitzroy River and Victoria River Downs in the north to Wilpena station in the Flinders Ranges near Adelaide. Thus, by moving stock from drought-stricken areas to others, by selling in markets where the price was highest, by his detailed knowledge of the country, and by his energy and bushcraft he withstood the depression of the 1890s and the great drought of 1902. 
I was reminded about the Channel Country and Sydney Kidman by an interesting piece by Sally Cripps in Queensland Country Life, Queensland's largest cattle station benefiting from Channel Country flood (25 Mar 2018). This describes the effects of the latest Channel Country flood on Davenport Downs. It's an interesting piece not just in its description of the floods but because of the insights it provides to managing a property the size of a small European country. Some of the approaches would seem familiar to Sidney Kidman. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Niko Ghika, John Craxton, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor and the allure of Greece - British Museum exhibition

John Craxton, Still life with three sailors 1980-1985 (detail) Tempera on canvass
I am still bogged down with other writing. Hopefully that is easing.

Interesting piece in Artdaily 21 March 2018, Exhibition explores the influence of Greece on the lives and work of three artists on a new exhibition at the British Museum this European spring. ,
Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor explores the influence of modern Greece on the lives and work of three influential artists, the Greek painter Niko Ghika, British painter John Craxton, and British writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. The three met at the end of the Second World War and became enduring friends who all made their homes in Greece. The show brings together their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions in the UK for the first time.

It sounds like an interesting show about interesting subjects. I have given you the links to the Artdaily piece above and then the Wikipedia links to each of the three. If you are interested, I suggest you start with Artdaily and then go to the Wikipedia entries. From there, you can easily sidetrack into multiple directions!

 I have wondered before about the enduring love for Greece and the Greek Islands especially for writers and artists. In popular fiction, for example, Mary Stewart's thrillers The Moon-Spinners and My Brother Michael. The last includes a description of a hostel at Delphi occupied by archaeologists, artists and writers. The Australian writers George Johnson and Charmian Clift lived on the Greek island of Hydra for several years attracted by the low prices and other writers and artists. Johnson's Clean Straw for Nothing tells the story of a journalist (David Meredith) who relocates to a Greek island, but fails to find the answers he seeks after even 13 years.  

From my own trip, cheap wine, cheap cigarettes, cheap food, cheap rent, nice views and weather all provide  a possible answer. It's more than that, of course, for the romantic ideal of Greece is deeply entrenched in Western thinking.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Canberra Times, ACT Chief Minister Barr and freedom of the press

Real flutter in the Canberra dovecotes this week as the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and the Canberra Times exchanged blows.

The kerfuffle began with the leaking to the Canberra Times of a recording of remarks made by Mr Barr to communication companies attending a "meet the buyer" event held at the ACT parliament. This led to a story from the Canberra Times' Kirsten Lawson 'I hate journalists and I'm over the mainstream media': ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Mr Barr's reported opening remarks set the tone:
Mr Barr began .... with some "frank statements that may or not shock some people in the room". "I hate journalists. I'm over dealing with the mainstream media as a form of communication with the people of Canberra. What passes for a daily newspaper in this city is a joke and it will be only a matter of years before it closes down," he said.
He then went on to outline his objective:.
The government wanted to hear directly from Canberrans and communicate directly back to them, "not through the filter of journalists, and particularly through the filter of print journalists, which is a dying industry",  
Noting that the circulation of the print edition of the Canberra Times had dropped below 15,000, Mr Barr suggested that most Canberrans did not consume traditional media, in part because half of Canberra's population was under 34.
"We need to completely overhaul the way we communicate as a government and that's exactly what we're doing," he told the communications specialists. "My challenge to everyone in this room is to be at the cutting edge of communication, to put up contentious, risky and interesting ideas about how we can communicate ...
Mr Barr told the group he had been "blunt and frank" in delivering the same message to "everyone within the communications area of government".
The Canberra Times was not impressed, editorialising Barr's hatred of media is driving a dangerous message. This view was picked up by other papers. For his part, the Chief Minister subsequently issued a statement reiterating his views. As reported by the Guardian:
Barr later issued a statement, saying the traditional media no longer engages with the diverse community in Canberra, and that his government was exploring new ways to reach the public directly. 
He said he cancelled his subscription to the Canberra Times because it was too conservative. Barr subscribes to two non-Canberran news sources, Crikey and the Saturday Paper. 
“In relation to other print media available in Canberra, I find the Australian to be very right wing and favour the conservative side of politics,” Barr said. “The same can be said for commercial talk back radio. I would not be alone in reaching that conclusion.”
I have not always been a fan of Canberra Times reporting cf  Canberra Times sleazes over Armidale and APVMA. However, I think that the paper generally does a pretty fair job (the editorial linked above contains some examples), resulting in a sometimes tetchy relationship with the Chief Minister. However, the whole matter raises some broader issues worthy of comment.

It seems to me that Mr Barr is confused about the differences in role between Government communications and that of the media.

Government communications is concerned with gaining information from the public and with informing the public about policies and procedures. Traditionally, a distinction has been made between official and political communications, although I accept that this has become increasingly blurred.

The media's role is to investigate and report freely and fairly independent of Government. This role too has has become been blurred to some extent by the greater weight placed on opinion and commentary mixed together in the news columns, breaching the separation that previously existed between reporting and editorial,. but it remains important.Governments understandably find this sometimes uncomfortable. The rise of PR and the proliferation of Government communications people is an attempt to manage the reporting cycle and to find new ways of getting messages out, of influencing as compared to informing.

I don't have a problem with Governments seeking to find new ways to communicate, although I do not like the way that political communication has become so embedded in official communication. However, I do have a problem with the idea that the media should be effectively replaced, supplanted, by Government communications. That strikes me as profoundly undemocratic, a point picked up in reporting on Mr Barr's remarks.

The argument that a diminishing number of people are reached by the main stream media is an important one in considering official communications strategies, although I'm not convinced by the specific argument that younger people do not consume main stream media or, perhaps more precisely, that a diminishing proportion do. Yes, the media environment has become more complex in our internet social media focused world, but if you sit on a train and watch what people are scrolling through you will see younger people checking their news feeds. It's the form of consumption that has changed.

At a purely personal level, my daughters actually actually consume a greater variety of main stream media and in more countries than would have been the case in the past, but spend less time on single outlets than previously. Therein lies the rub for both news companies who want advertising and Governments.who wish to communicate. In all this, the mainstream media in its varying forms remains the best way of reaching a broader audience and will do so for the immediate future. In the longer term, none of us can know what the landscape will look like.

As a final comment, and as Mr Trump has found, attempts to by-pass the main stream media imposes its own costs in terms of greater scrutiny by the excluded outlets. That would certainly be the end result here if Mr Barr proceeded with his apparent desire to exclude the Canberra Times or other main stream media outlets. Love them or hate them, Mr Barr has to live with them.  

Update 17 March 2018

In comments, we have been discussing what the readership figures actually mean. I wonder if there is an expert out there who can tell us.

Meanwhile, the Canberra Times Jack Waterford has responded to the whole kerfuffle (All media critical to effective government, whether Andrew Barr likes it or not) while the Chief Minister has sought to clarify his position ( 'Wasn't a nice thing to say': Andrew Barr apologises for saying he hates journalists).  

Monday, March 12, 2018

Belatedly seeing Black Panther - a real romp

This post is also the Monday Forum post

Eldest has been back in Australia on a short visit so we went to the pictures Wednesday afternoon. She wanted to see The Post. I was happy with that, but made the mistake of saying that I had seen it before. That was a no-no. It had to be a film I hadn't seen before, so I nominated Black Panther.

As an aside, she had seen it but didn't tell me. Maybe just as well, because otherwise it would have been The Post.   That wouldn't have been bad, I really liked the movie, but I did enjoy Black Panther.

I knew it was a Marvell film. I could hardly not given youngest's interests! This meant that I broadly knew what to expect. I knew that it had been very successful at the box office, adding to Disney's now overflowing coffers. I did not know about all the hype surrounding the movie as a somehow significant "black" film.

I'm glad I didn't because I came to the film without preconceptions, treating it just as a spectacle and story. Had I known, I might have watched it differently; the message significance would have stood between me and the story.

As you might expect, the visual effects in the film are spectacular, the pace fast, sufficiently fast to conceal the inevitable plot weaknesses. The film also plays to various tropes

The idea of a hidden African kingdom dates back to the days of  European exploration when Africa was still an unknown continent to European eyes. King Solomon's Mines is an example. The broader idea of hidden kingdom or organisation that people search for is exemplified by the mysterious Second Foundation in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.

The meld between traditional African images and those modified by the Kingdom's history is instantly familiar in visual terms, while the good v evil battles are part of the Marvell trope as well as familiar to anyone who reads fantasy and especially young adult fantasy  Then, too, the film incorporates (pinches?) specific tropes/memes/images that will be instantly recognisable from car chases to Q in the James Bond series. Here I found myself musing on just how much fun the production team must have had in thinking about this.

This is not a serious film, but it is fun. If you haven't seen it, I suggest that you do so!  

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reflections on the process problems in the Barnaby Joyce sexual harassment complaint

This brief post reflects my own uncertainties on the handling of sexual harassment complaints against former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. I note that the post has nothing to do with Mr Joyce's behaviour nor with the complaint itself. However, I need to provide some basic facts to set a context:

I am reasonably familiar with sexual harassment policies and procedures in a work place context, although they are quite complex. The Australian Human Rights Commission has a useful introduction to the Australian position in general including work place issues.

In this case, a WA woman made a sexual harassment complaint to the WA branch of the National Party about Mr Joyce. The complaint was meant to be dealt with in private, but became very public. The complainant feels that the way she has been treated since making that allegation has denied her natural justice and shows why people in her situation do not come forward.

On his side, Mr Joyce apparently learned of the complaint just before it became public when he was visited by the Party's national president and lawyer.Given the general situation at the time, he then felt that he had no choice but to resign as Party Leader and Deputy PM as the matter became public.

In organisational terms, the National Party is a Federal structure with a relatively weak national organisation. Mr Joyce is not an employee of the National Party, He is a Member of Parliament representing the seat of New England. .He was pre-selected by the New England Electorate Council and is part of the NSW Branch. The parliamentary wings are independent of and cannot be directed by the Party organisation. The only formal sanction available to the Party is to withdraw endorsement of the member. I am not familiar enough with the current constitution to know how this might be done and under what circumstances.

To the best of my my knowledge, this is the first formal complaint lodged with an Australian political party about suggested sexual harassment by one of its parliamentary members. This is new territory in a way so the process questions become important.

The complaint appears to have been lodged with the WA branch of the Party and been the subject of considerable discussion within the Parliamentary party there. Here we have two apparent process breaches.

The first is that the WA branch had no jurisdiction. It should have been referred to the Federal organisation at once. The second is the involvement of the WA Parliamentary party. This was a breach of due process that ultimately destroyed confidentiality, breached natural justice and precluded a fair outcome.

The confidentiality issue is both important and complex. If, as appears to be so in the Geoffrey Rush case, the complainant wanted the matter kept confidential even from the subject of the, then it really becomes complicated. I know of no evidence that this was so in this case. I think that while the complainant  wanted general confidentiality to be maintained, she would have every expectation that the matter would be discussed with Mr Joyce as part of the process. For completeness, I note that confidentiality becomes very complex if the process reveals a possible breach of the law.

The next question is what the complainant hoped to achieve from the process. This is unclear to me but is important because it affects the process. If she wanted the Party to formally sanction Mr Joyce within the powers that it has, then a very formal process would have been required. If her objective was to bring about behavioral change, to make an in principle point, then a more collaborative, consultative process would have been appropriate. This would have been quite difficult in the pressure cooker at the time, but became even more so with the breach of confidentiality.

I think one of the difficulties is that the National Party had no processes in place for handling all this. I suspect it is not alone. If, and it is not clear that this should be the case, the party machines are going to become a vehicle for lodging such complaints against MPs, then all parties need to define specific ways to manage those complaints.

As in so much of the Joyce affair, there are no immediate winners in this particular case, just losers.

Important correction

In writing, I had forgotten one important complication, the relationship between the WA National Party and the national National Party. The WA Party is an independent party but some way with the Federal Party.

I don't think that this fundamentally affects my argument. The WA Party had no power to accept or investigate a formal sexual harassment complaint against Mr Joyce on its own account since it had no jurisdiction over Mr Joyce. The only way to handle this was by referral to the Federal Party.organisation.

This might not stop the Party carrying out its own investigation for its own reasons. We have seen quite a bit of that from many quarters. However, that would not have met the apparent wishes of the complainant for a formal investigation following the rules of due process.          

Monday, March 05, 2018

Monday forum - Australia's housing affordability problem

This is the Monday Forum post. As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you want.

On 4 March 2018, the Grattan Institute released its latest report, Housing affordability: re-imagining the Australian dream. The ABC provides a useful summary. That same day, the Australian and NSW Governments, together with eight local governments of Western Sydney, signed the Western Sydney City Deal.  "The City Deal," states the web site, " is a 20 year agreement between the three levels of government to deliver a once-in-a-generation transformation of Sydney’s outer west – creating the ‘Western Parkland City’"  This is planned to be Sydney's third metropolitan city after the harbourside city (the current metro) and Parramatta.

On 12 February, the NSW Federation of Housing Associations released its NSW Community Housing Industry Development Snapshot. Between 2012 and 2020, 18 of the largest community housing providers will have delivered $1 billion in new projects in 34 local government areas. Between 2012 and 2017 the community housing industry provided 1296 new social and affordable homes in NSW communities, valued at $438 million. The industry is committed to delivering another 1404 more homes by 2020, bringing total
investment to $963 million.

The new homes will largely (98%) concentrated in greater Sydney with a focus on one and two bedroom properties and an increasing shift to high density living. The numbers do not include homes developed via the NSW Government's Community Plus and Social and Affordable Housing fund programs.

Returning to 4 March,  the Sydney Morning Herald's Helen Pitt had an interesting piece, Tale of two Sydneys, comparing two similar families living in quite different parts of the city.

Against this background, the question is what, if anything, can be done to solve the affordable housing problem, recognising how many things are involved? .