Personal Reflections

Monday, January 22, 2018

Yet more on Pleistocene, Holocene sea level and climate changes

My main post today is on the history blog. Implications for New England of the latest analysis on the impact of sea level change on Aboriginal Australia - a note continues my discussion on the effects of sea level and climate change on Aboriginal New England.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reflections inspired by Nick Brodie's family history "Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation"

I find that my brain has been slow to re-engage after the Christmas break, especially when it comes to serious stuff. To a degree, that's still true. I haven't made any new year resolutions beyond a desire to attempt to work less and to read and relax more.

One of the difficulties with working from home as I am at present lies in achieving real separation between work and leisure. I feel I should be doing something all the time and as a consequence become very inefficient. I  know that I should fix this, but its quite hard. Still, I have picked up my reading.

Looking back over my blogs, I have written a fair bit about family history, my own and family history as a craft or discipline. I mention this now because one of the books I read over Christmas was Nick Brodie's Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation. This is a really good book, a yarn, and I encourage you to read it.

One of the challenges in family history is to find a way to avoid becoming lost in family trees. Each generation you go back in the tree expands the number of names and possible further connections. This makes some family histories effectively little more than lists with some commentary.

The long running BBC TV series Who Do Think You Are, the start of a global franchise, solved this problem by selecting only what they saw as the most interesting bits, the Australian program even more so. This plus the sometimes breathless imposition of current views and sensibilities on the past became somewhat annoying with time.

Nick has chosen a different route by taking portions of the family tree and telling the story in discrete blocks, effectively making each a stand-alone story. This means that you don't have to remember the entire family tree, although I sometimes found myself a little lost and had to refer back to the main tree at the front of the book. But that's just me. You can read the book as a series of stories without worrying to much about that.

He has also consciously tried to place the stories in the context of the time, trying to avoid or at least minimise the filter created by the present.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had finished, at least for the present, my Express series on New England's built landscape and architecture. Inspired Nick Brodie, I decided to do the next series of columns on the Belshaw family.

The first column is here. The photo shows walking day, Platt Bridge, Wigan 1900. I promised Cousin Cyril a long time ago that I would write a full history of the Pacific Belshaws and added it to my list of books. As you might expect given my already existing list of books, this has lagged. Still, its a start in sorting out themes. .  


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy - interpreting Donald Trump revisited

It's been a while since I said anything about President Trump. There seemed to be little sensible that I might say that would add value to such a polarised discussion.

Looking back over the little I have written, in  Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy - interpreting Donald Trump (18 January 2018)  I suggested that the writing of Tom Clancy might be used as a framework to interpret President Trump. I said:
I am not equating Jack Ryan with Donald Trump. They are very different people. However, Clancy did capture accurately certain aspects of US right wing populist thinking (I am using that phrase in a descriptive not pejorative sense) including distrust of those within the Beltway and of career politicians, a belief in bureaucratic inefficiency, a belief in the people, a belief in US military power and a somewhat mercantilist view of trade.
I also noted that in bringing about change, President Ryan has to deal with a media and political establishment that constantly tried to interpret his actions against existing models, paradigms, of thought and action. I thought that this was important, for that's what people were trying to do, judge Mr Trump against existing models that didn't quite fit. I thought that we would have to watch and wait to see what it all meant. I really didn't know! At the end of this post, you will find the new President's inaugural speech. That's worth re-reading, for it does provide a framework for President Trump's subsequent actions.

Clancy wrote rattling good yarns and I still enjoy them. However, I always thought that there was a certain naivety in his view of the world, one that became more pronounced with time. This included a belief in and fascination with the application of technology in a military environment allowing the US to win wars despite an over-stretched military. .

Jack Ryan is not Donald Trump. In Executive Orders (1996), Ryan becomes President unexpectedly after a Japanese pilot crashes his airliner into the Capitol building during a special joint sitting killing nearly all members of the Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. That's cleaning the swamp on a large scale.

Ryan inherited a fully functioning White House staff. This included Arnold van Damm as a Chief of Staff, a key figure with extensive political and Washington experience who guided the President through those first turbulent days. Ryan also picked highly competent replacement figures, especially in Treasury and Defence. They may be stereotypical of that belief that private sector figures are best, their attitudes may reflect prevailing orthodoxy about the inefficiencies of the public sector,the need for tax reform and redeployment of Defence spend, but they were highly competent, able to manage the re-emerging Congress without involving the President. In turn, Ryan gave them a wide degree of freedom.

Unlike Ryan, President Trump came to office after a very messy election campaign. Unlike Ryan, he faced a fully functioning if somewhat dysfunctional Congress. Unlike Ryan, he had to create his office from scratch. President Trump also faced a problem in that he did not have a lot of real depth to draw from in setting up that office and in making Executive appointments.

Twelve days after that first post I wrote Monday Forum - the administrative competence of the Trump Administration.That post began:
I think that the thing that most surprised me about President Trump's Executive Order "PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES" was the apparent administrative incompetence involved, something that may be becoming a feature of the new US Administration at this point in its life.          
This was an initial analytical, not political; observation. I said something very similar about new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd very early.The weaknesses and features displayed in the immediate period after his election would ultimately bring Mr Rudd down.

It will be twelve months Saturday since President Trump's inauguration. It's been a roller-coaster ride. If we look at a policy level, I think that President Trump has broadly tried to stay true to his original campaign pledges sensible or not. But then we have twitter and off-the-cuff Trump. Not only has this created uncertainty, but it has continued an almost existential debate that began prior to Mr Trump's election, one in which different world views collide in ways that may not have a lot to do with what is actually happening.

One unfortunate result has been a coarsening of the political rhetoric on both left and right as they talk past each other and try to relate beyond.. I listened to an example of that this morning from Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo.

Australia is engaged in a trade dispute with Canada over wine. In describing this this morning on ABC Radio National, Minister Ciobo used Trumpian language about Australian jobs and Australian first. I'm not sure he used exactly that last phrase, but that was the message.

This is a trade dispute. Australia believes, correctly to my mind, that Canadian restrictions are reducing importation of Australian wine in a way that is in breach of World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements intended to prevent restrictions on global trade.. Australia is therefore taking action against Canada under the WTO rules  to try to reduce the perceived barriers.

The way that Minister Ciobo phrases it plays into the current trope about the dangers of globalisation and free trade and the need for countries to to adopt them first attitudes regardless of the broader consequences. This began on the left and has now spread to the right and to the left and right populist parties. To my mind, it is one of the most dangerous sides of Trumpism.

This cartoon presents the results of the me-first policies that helped create the Great Depression. I could not find the Low cartoon on autarchy that shows each country eating their own legs in the interests of self sufficiency. 
At present, my train reading is W K Hancock's Argument of Empire (Penguin Books, 1943). Keith Hancock is arguably Australia's greatest historian. I will write about this book properly later in my train reading series. For the moment, the book reminded me of the Great Depression and its aftermath.

In 1930,  The US Congress passed the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act. This was an America first measure designed to protect American jobs at a time of global downturn. It lead to other countries adopting or increasing protectionist measures. The result was disaster, a collapse in world trade, that turned a depression into the Great Depression. As the results were recognised, countries began to reduce tariffs and sign free trade agreements, a process brought to a sudden end by the onset of war. However, the lessons learned led to a new series of agreements including Bretton Woods (1944) and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (1947) that created the structure for a new rules based economic order.

This structure laid the base for economic expansion in the Post War period, but is now under severe threat. How President Trump responds on trade issues is one of the two critical Trumpian things I will be watching in 2018.

The second can best be described as insecurity. For much of the time since the Second World War, Australia has operated within a relatively stable international relations and security framework. The American Alliance has been central to that. New developments such as the rise of China posed a challenge to that framework, but few Australians (me included) expected a situation where instability and uncertainty in US foreign policy itself would become a significant challenge.What do Australia and all US allies do now?

I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing, but it is unsettling. It's unsettling for the US too in ways that I'm not sure are properly recognised there as yet. The US is used to doing its own thing, used to being in the lead with others following. As the US withdraws  from certain activities such as the agreement on climate change or the TPP, other countries step up.

We simply don't know how the Trump administration will evolve over the next twelve months, we don't know what changes in defence and foreign affairs will be made as a consequence. We just have to wait.     .

Saturday, January 13, 2018

January round-up of my other writing - Historic changes in climate and sea levels, more on hominin history, architecture and the built environment, Airbnb

Today's post is another of those update rambles through my recent research and writing in other places..

Historic Changes in Climate and Sea Levels

I am still seeking to increase my understanding of the enormous variations in climate and sea level over the last 100,000 years, something that affected all human species.  If Aboriginal people arrived on Sahul 65,000 years ago, they would have been affected by multiple changes including especially the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum and the subsequent arrival of the Holocene. The last two saw sea levels fall by 120 metres below current levels then rise to perhaps 3 metres above current levels before stabilising. The climate fluctuated from relatively benign to very cold, windy and dry to hot and moist to today's climate.

These are huge changes. Generally, they would not have been noticeable within any generation, but sometimes sea level changes were so fast that entire hunting ranges could be lost in a single generation. That's a very fast change, one that appears to have been recorded in Aboriginal oral traditions.

We can think of these patterns at various levels. At the highest level, there are widespread changes that affected the varying distribution and indeed evolution of various hominin groups. Then there is the likely pattern at the time the peoples who would become the Aborigines were making their way to Sahul. We then have the changes that occurred after arrival affected the distribution of people across the continent and might well have threatened the very survival of the Aboriginal peoples.

One of the analytical challenges is to move from the broader picture to the local. The exact pattern of climate and sea level change and its effects varied between areas far more than I had originally realised .There was also more variation over time. You simply cannot take a broader macro picture and just apply it locally.

No doubt you will hear more of all this! For the present, my most recent posts have been:
Populating the Globe

I have continued monitoring as best I can research results on early human history, the most recent post being Beringia and the settlement of North America - DNA results from Alaska.

Of all the academic fields I am interested in, I think that history is the one that has changed most over the years. While the basic canons of the discipline remain, I'm not sure that can be said of other fields such as economics, the tool kit available to historians has exploded. In many ways, history has become a truly multi-disciplinary subject.

This poses a major challenge for historians. How do you  absorb all this stuff, especially in areas outside your areas of expertise?

Architecture and the Built Environment

Architecture and  the built environment has continued as one of my major interests. A sad note first. Dreams of self-sufficiency - the Lammas Ecovillage has been one of the most popular posts on this blog in the last twelve months. Sadly, the hobbit house that featured burned down on New year's Day.

At the end of December my Armidale Express series on New England's built landscape and architecture came to an end after some sixteen columns. There was much more to say, but I thought that it was time for a break. I will bring up a post on the New England history blog providing an entry to all the columns in order and then post a link. For the present, I have created an entry point for the last four columns, The story of builder and philanthropist George F Nott, making it easier to access information on this remarkable man.

As an aside, one of the features I have noticed on the UK Grand Designs program is the importance placed on airtight houses to reduce heating costs and hence energy consumption. This included mandated rules and physical testing to ensure the house is airtight. Watching Grand Designs at a time I was writing on New England's architecture and built landscape, I was struck by the differences in perspective, between keeping heat in and Australia's desire to keep heat out. In pre-air conditioning days.this made things like breezeways, eaves and verandahs critical.

 I was therefore struck by a recent story suggesting that modern Australian air tight homes designed to be energy efficient were in fact having the opposite effect. The ABC headline captures the message: Modern homes trapping heat 'like a plastic bag".

Airbnb and similar platforms

My first post on the New England Australia blog this year, How new platforms such as Airbnb and Stayz might support New England development part 1, went in a different direction.

I have always been interested in the impact of new technologies. Most recently, the new communications and computing technologies seemed to hold out the promise of increased individual freedom, diversity and choice. To a degree they have gone in the opposite direction, encouraging centralisation, control, conformity and standardisation.

A particular effect that I have been concerned about is the impact on local activities. The vision was that the the new technologies would provide choice in location and lifestyle. You could work from wherever you wanted, access services from wherever you wanted, breaking the tyranny imposed by distance and travel costs. To a degree that has happened, but for every local job created dozens have been lost through service centralisation facilitated by the new technologies.

In a way, platforms such as Airbnb or Stayz are no different in that the markets they play to are driven by existing patterns. For everybody who knows Bingara, 100,000 plus know Byron Bay. Traffic and service supply are drawn to the existing bigger markets, reinforcing the status quo. .

All that said, I have recently spent time browsing round Airbnb listings for various New England centres. It started looking for specific places to stay but ended with a much extended and quite enjoyable browse. I was left with though that Airbnb or Stayz might actually be used as platforms to support tourist development outside the main tourist centres which automatically attract Airbnb or Stayz visitors. I want to tease this out in my second post in this series.

Update 17 January 2018

Map of Australia by Sean Ulm showing sea-level change and archaeological sites for selected periods between 35,000 and 8,000 years ago. PMSL=Present Mean Sea Level. 
Regular commenter on my history blog JohnB pointed me to this recently published paper on the historic pattern of climate change in Australia:Alan N. Williamsa, Sean Ulm, Tom Sapienzab, Stephen Lewis and Chris S.M. Turneya, Sea-level change and demography during the last glacial termination and early Holocene across the Australian continent, Quaternary Science Reviews Volume 182, 15 February 2018, Pages 144–154, published on line 12 January 2018. 

The authors provided a summary of the  paper in The Conversation, "Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before", January 16 2018. The map is from this paper.

While the authors' analysis of the past appears broadly consistent with my own analysis, there are a couple of elements that make me cautious I need to think this through and will write an analysis on my history blog when I have done so with a cross-link here. Meantime, I thought you might find the results interesting.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Train reading - reflections on Lyon's Balcony over Jerusalem

One of the books I was given for Christmas was Balcony Over Jerusalem: a Middle East Memoir (HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney 2017) written by John Lyons with partner Sylvie Le Clezio who provided the photos. John Lyons is a distinguished Australian journalist. In 2009 he, Sylvie and son Jack moved to Jerusalem following John’s appointment as Middle East correspondent for the Australian. They lived there for the next six years.

While the book does describe some of John’s experiences covering conflicts across the Middle East, its primary focus is on the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians using both family experiences and John’s interviews as catalyst and evidence.

It’s actually a difficult book to summarise properly. In broad terms, he:

  • Shows how Israeli occupation including the settlement program affects, penalises, ordinary Palestinians
  • Examines the evolution of the settlement program, arguing that it reflects long-standing Israeli policies
  • Traces the rise in power of the settler movement
  • Suggests that occupation and the settlement program is having a coarsening affect on Israeli culture and political life, with most Israelis increasingly isolated, cocooned, 
  • Is very critical of the Palestinian leadership which he regards as inept, corrupt and self-serving, caught in an almost  symbiotic relationship with the Israeli Government
  • Is very critical of US Government policy and the influence of the pro-Jewish lobby in Australia and the US 
  • Suggests that a real two state solution may no longer possible given fragmentation of Palestine lands
  • Suggests that the Israeli Government cannot accept majority rule in a single state since demographic change means that the Jewish population would inevitably be in a minority. In these circumstances, the most likely outcome is an apartheid Bantustan style arrangement.

I note that this is my interpretation in my words.

Issues of Balance, Bias and Pattern

I felt that this book was partisan to the point that balance was lost.

I will explain this in a moment. First, I want to give you a link to a response from the polar opposite, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), an organisation heavily (and I suspect correctly) criticised by John. His descriptions of the AIJAC’s lobbying efforts within the Australian were a bit staggering.

The AIJAC piece suggests, among other things, that John is biased to the point that it distorts his judgement; that he misrepresents or at least misreads the history of Jewish settlement in the occupied lands; that he presents attitudes in Israel as fixed and uniform when there is variation; and that he quotes selectively from those who support his position.

To cross-check the AIJAC report from an Israeli perspective, I spent a frustrating three hours searching for Israel  English language responses to the book, including site specific searches on both Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. Recognising the growing weaknesses of Google as a search tool, a constant frustration, I thought that I might find something since I think the book received some form of Israeli launch. That was not to be. The coverage that is out there was almost entirely written from a Palestinian perspective.

I said that I felt that Balcony over Jerusalem was partisan to the point that balance was lost. It is a passionate book, a memoir, neither a journalist’s report nor a coldly objective analysis. I found myself wishing that John had dealt a little more with the why, including Israel’s place in the region. I found myself questioning some of his examples not because they were necessarily wrong, but because of a feeling that John’s passion made the reporting unreliable. In this context, I thought that the AIJAC response made some valid points.

John also has something of a reputation as a campaigner.This 2005 piece from Crikey, John Lyons: hatchet man on the make, provides a then left perspective. The review of Balcony over Jerusalem by David Leser  in the Australian (Still Occupied, 5 August 2017)  provides another perspective.

If you accept the book's bias, if you accept that the reporting on individual events and broader history is not necessarily reliable, there is still a pattern of events, one that is supported by other reports, linked to the nature of occupation itself, to the concept of a Jewish state and to the need for that state to defend itself. That is why I read Balcony Over Jerusalem with interest, but with a sense of depression..

My Own Evolving Position

Back on 11 November  2009, I wrote:
I do not pretend to understand the dynamics of this conflict, although I do know a fair bit of the history. Like many Australians, I have swung from very strong support for Israel coming out of the dynamics of World War II to something of an opposite position, almost a pox on both your houses. 
Leaving aside current issues, I think that the combination of economics and demographic change is working inexorably against Israel. I suspect that if I sat down and looked at the numbers I could probably guess the point at which the balance will finally tilt. It may be that Israel has now lost its chance for a viable two state solution and that, instead, it is now staring down the barrel of a gun at some far more unpalatable outcomes.
I am old enough that the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust were very fresh when I was a child. I also grew up in a fairly religious environment, so I was very familiar with the the Bible and its stories. I was also strongly influenced by Leon Uris's 1958 novel, Exodus and the subsequent 1960 film of the same name.  I wasn't blind to things like the Irgun terrorist attack on the King David Hotel nor to the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians, but I was very pro-Israel.

There was a an underdog, David and Goliath thing in all this. As Israel grew in strength to become a nuclear power with the most powerful armed forces in the immediate region, it became harder to think of it as underdog. The continuing troubles associated with occupation, settlement and injustice began to rank more highly, to erode my support for Israel. I was not alone here. It was part of a broader trend. The Israeli/Jewish lobby may be powerful and able to deliver tactical victories in certain countries, but it appears to have lost the strategic war. so far as public opinion is concerned.

Part of Israel's problem lies in its definition of itself as a Jewish and democratic state.Originally, Jewish was defined in terms of ethnicity. Hitler did not distinguish between Jews by ethnicity and Jews by religion. If you met the Nazi definition of Jewish based on birth you went to the gas chambers. With time, the Israeli definition of Jewish seems to have become more focused on religious belief.

There is an inherent tension between a Jewish and democratic state. How can you be a Jewish state if the majority of your population is not Jewish? How can you be democratic if you have rules to preserve your Jewishness and role as a Jewish state that over-ride democratic majorities?

In theory, the problem might be resolved in this way. Israel is a secular state.It is also homeland to the Jews. Both are written into the constitution and are accepted by all. Being a Jewish state need not mean, however, that non-Jews are discriminated against. All Israelis are equal but all accept that Israel is a home for the Jews wherever they may live, a refuge. This does not preclude Israel being home to others, nor does it mandate special treatment for Jewish people in domestic law. In practice, this is not so easy. The problem has become more complex as the definition of Jewishness becomes more religious based.   

At present, people of Jewish descent make up around 75% of the Israeli population, around 6.6 million people. All these numbers are rubbery since they are affected by boundary definitions and disputes. The Arab population is around 1.85 million. In West Bank and Gaza, the non-Jewish population is around 4.7 million. Again very roughly, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations are roughly in balance. However, the higher non-Jewish birthrate means that the Jewish population is likely to drop well below half over the next thirty years. Here-in lies the rub.

The original two state solution would have made two different spaces. However, the progressive fragmentation  of the West Bank now makes it very difficult to create anything approaching a viable, sensible Palestinian state. A one state solution means that  the Jewish population could be out-voted if votes proceeded on ethnic lines.

 I am going to have to leave this thought thread up in the air. I am out of time on these reflections.I suppose that what I am searching for is a path outside the current binary approach.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Vale Scrawny

Sadly, I think Scrawny has died.

Initially I thought of him as Blackie, then a reasonably fed cat from across the road. Suddenly he got, well, scrawny, clearly starving.

I started to feed him outside the front door. A few months later I reported that Scrawny was doing quite well:

"He/she, I’m still not sure which, has put on weight. Scrawny remains resolutely independent. I think Scrawny is being fed by other people now as well, for visits to me have become less regular. Days will pass without sightings and then there is a miaow at the gate when I go out. We chat, I provide food, and then go on my way."

With time, we came to a working arrangement. He would scratch at the front door on most morning and afternoons and I would give him some food. The birds liked this arrangement too! They started gathering in the morning  I could watch them from the kitchen window.

Later, I learned a little more about Scrawny. His real name was Smokey, although he remained Scrawny to me. His owner had a stroke that put him into a wheelchair. Neighbours were feeding Scrawny, but I don't think that it was as regular as it should have been given his emaciated state. I also found out that he had cat aids.

Scrawny has not been well in recent weeks, having difficulty in eating, losing weight. I was away for a week and even though food was being left out for, him he went down hill. Then he started throwing up food even when cut up into very little pieces and fed in small bits. He would eat, and then go back to home territory across the road. Then, a week ago, he vanished.

I am not a sentimentalist so far as animals are concerned, but I will miss Scrawny!

Update 17 January 2018

Last night there was a very large sharp bang, loud enough to rattle some windows in the street and bring the most of the neighbourhood out into the street. I gathered across the road with what turned out to be almost the entire Smokey aka Scrawny feeding group. "Did you hear what happened to Smokey", one asked? I replied that I did not, but that he had been unable to hold down any food.

One of the feeding group said that she had tried giving him cats milk with food mashed into it. She had also organised antibiotics. He seemed to get a little better, but then vanished. On 2 January his body was found in front of another house just a little up the road. He had died on the doorstep with his paw still stretched out. A sad end for what had become such a well liked cat.   .

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Street stories - meeting the Assistant Cat Lady

I met the Assistant Cat Lady over Christmas on one of my walks. I have been trying to keep my walks up, driven by the little pedometer on my belt. My target is 10,000 paces a day, but that's actually quite difficult to achieve. Still, I continue to try.

I came around the top of the street and there was a much older lady walking her dog. I knew her by sight,. I know all the regular walkers by sight, and had always said hello. This time we stopped for a chat, encouraged by her dog who clearly required a pat. That was how I learned the story of the Cat - and possum - Lady.

The Assistant Cat Lady explained that over Christmas she had spent time helping a friend feed her cats, something that had become a regular pattern. This was clearly significant, I could see in my mind that cats was in capital letters, so I asked how many. Well, my friend said, it started with a few (her own) but then grew in numbers because of the number of hungry strays, most unsexed, that were attracted by the food. Now there were twenty!  

Don't the neighbours object, I asked? They do, she said, but more about the possums. The possums, I responded?! Well, she explained, WIRES (the wildlife rescue service) releases rescued possums into the park at the end of the street. This park extends into golf courses and wetland areas. The difficulty, it seems, is that there is almost no possum food, so the animals starve, attracting them to the food put out for the cats.

Given possums don't eat the same things as cats, Cat Lady's Assistant experimented with fruit and vegetables to find things most attractive to possums. Now six possums have joined twenty cats at feeding time.

How did you become involved, I asked? Cat Lady's Assistant explained that her friend lived alone, was frail and had little money.She could no longer afford electricity and lived without power. So the Assistant Cat Lady had become the main feeder.

She started telling me stories, especially about the possums. There was the new father whose partner and new babies lived down the back of the yard. They stayed there while he suspiciously came up to the feeding area. He would grab some food and rush back to the family. That deposited, he would come back for more.

Being an Assistant Cat Lady has its complications. There had been some burglaries in the neighbourhood and an umarked police car with its lights out was parked on watch. It's just turned dark when around the corner comes Assistant Cat Lady carrying a large bag. Excuse me, said the police, what are you doing? I'm going to feed the cats and possums. May we look in your bag, the police asked? It was a big bag. Out came a variety of foodstuffs.

Interested, the police asked her for more details. She explained the whole story. They then turned the spotlight on. All you could see were the tails and bums of cats and possums running in all directions!

For those who celebrate Christmas, I hope that yours was happy. May 2018 be good for all of us.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Seasons' Greetings

Copenhagen December 2016. Clare discovers gaming heaven! 

This year I'm putting all my various publishing platforms on holidays on hold until the 3rd of January. While I have some writing to do, I really feel the need for a break and a recharge.

This time last year, Clare and I had just arrived to spend Christmas in Copenhagen with Helen and Christian. That was a fun trip. This year will be much quieter..

Over on my New England blog, I reflected on Memories of New England Christmas's past.

I wish all my readers and blogging friends a very happy Christmas and a truly great New Year. For those to whom Christmas is not relevant, may the peace and joy that is meant to mark Christmas be with you in your lives.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A chaotic three weeks in Australian politics!

It's been a remarkable three weeks or so in Australian politics. It's been quite hard to keep up. In fact, I couldn't, even though I kept notes! Today, I just want to record some of the various happenings.

Marriage Equality

Wednesday 29 November 2017, the bill to legalise same sex marriage passed the Australian Senate. The vote was 43 ayes, 12 noes, with 17 absences or abstentions including approved leave from the chamber. On 4 December, the bill entered the House of Representatives, passing on 7 September. Only four MPs voted against, with a further nine absent or abstaining.

There was a certain romantic moment when Liberal MP Tim Wilson proposed. (photo Canberra Times) to his partner Ryan Bolger during his speech on the bill.. Mr Bolger, who was sitting in the visitor's gallery for the speech, said yes, a response duly recorded in Hansard.

It's been something of a roller coaster ride to this point, one whose culmination I wanted to note. It's been an issue where my own views have shifted over time from a degree of neutrality, I wasn't opposed but was concerned about pushing too hard, to public support for immediate action to bring the change about. . .

I had reservations about the voluntary ABS electoral survey on the issue. Whatever the validity of those reservations, the results (79.5% voting, 61.6% yes vote) were a sweeping affirmation in support of change. All states and territories voted yes, while 133 of the 150 House of Representatives electorates recorded a yes vote. You will find the full results here.

The distribution of majority no electorates was not quite what people expected; 14 of the 17 were in Sydney (12) and Melbourne (2). Only three regional electorates voted no, all in Queensland. The 14 electorates voting were all home to significant migrant communities.

Queensland Elections

Queensland went to the polls on Saturday, 25 November 2017. It took considerable time to finalise the results although the most likely result, the return of  Labor Party Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with a slim majority, was clear quite quickly.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said on the night that this was the most difficult election he had ever had to call. I'm not sure why, for the results were a fairly accurate reflection of the public opinion polls which showed a close context in which the final balance would be determined by the on-ground contests in a small number of individual seats.

Main stream media commentary focused on the One Nation party results, with some surprise that the party had "failed' to win more seats. Again, I don't know why. One Nation was polling well in absolute terms, but it was going to be hard for it to translate that vote into actual victories because of the nature of preference arrangements. One Nation had to win clearly or at least get sufficiently far in front of the Liberal National Party candidates so that their preferences would carry One Nation to victory. This was always going to be a challenge.

I think that part of the problem for both Mr Green and the media commentators was Queensland's reintroduction of full compulsory preferential voting. Under this system, voters have to rank all candidates in order of preference. Preferences are then distributed until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.

I grew up under this system and do understand it. It tends to weaken the dominance of the main party machines by giving greater freedom to independents and minor parties to break through in particular seats. My own political biases mean that I like this system. I like minorities and individual results, I don't like the machines. Australia is not and never has been divided into just two main parties.

National Party Ructions and the Banking Royal Commission

The lead-up to the Queensland election had seen growing tensions within the Coalition, tensions not helped by the forced absence of National Party leader Barnaby Joyce campaigning to regain his seat of New England following the High Court decision that he was a dual New Zealand citizen and that consequently his previous election was invalid. Having renounced his right to New Zealand citizenship, Mr Joyce was free to run,  but his absence combined with the loss of the National's Deputy Leader Fiona Nash to the same citizenship imbroglio that had snared Mr Joyce left the party effectively headless.

While many factors played into the tensions between the Liberal and National parties, a key element was the belief that that Nationals had become submerged, that the party needed to assert its own identity or risk electoral disaster. This belief is not new, but has grown in strength over the last few years.

We saw it during the WA elections where the Liberal and National parties ran independent campaigns. We saw it in NSW where the Nationals' desire to assert independence, if still within a coalition framework brought down both Liberal premier Mike Baird and the then leader of the National Party Troy Grant, with Mr Grant .replaced by  John Barilaro, the member for Monaro. We have seen it federally with Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash running an active campaign centered on the decentralisation theme, presenting the Nationals as the party of the regions.

The position in Queensland has been especially complex, for there you have a combined party, the Liberal National Party. In a formal sense, the LNP is actually a division of the Liberal Party. There are no LNP members in the State parliament. However, Federal members may choose to sit as either Liberals or Nationals. Faced with the rise of One Nation, the continued existence of the Katter Australia Party and the unpopularity of the Liberal Party in some regional areas, Queensland Nationals have been asserting the need for separate identity, campaigning under the National rather than LNP banner.

Banks have been a hot issue in the bush for a long time. A number of National Party parliamentarians including Inverell based NSW National Party senator John 'Wacka' Williams, have been campaigning  for reform for a very long time . Senator Williams has not limited himself to the banks, but has also (among others) pursued auditors and insolvency practitioners such as Newcastle liquidator Stuart Ariff, earning a reputation as a tenacious and wily inquisitor.

The push for a banking and financial services royal commission was supported by the Greens and increasingly the ALP. However, it was strongly resisted by the Government who argued that it was already taking action, that a commission would not achieve anything and could damage the financial sector. It would, the Prime Minister said, be "rank socialism".

On Thursday 23 November, Queensland National senator Barry O'Sullivan unveiled draft  legislation for an extensive probe that ranges from banking, insurance and superannuation services to the adequacy of regulation and the treatment of small business and farmers. The draft Banking, Insurance, Superannuation and Financial Services Commission of Inquiry Bill  had been drafted so that its wide-ranging terms of reference reflected almost everything the Greens, Labor, One Nation, Bob Katter and the Nationals had variously demanded, with the intention that it would be broadly supported and passed quickly.

Pressure was brought to bear on Senator O'Sullivan not to proceed. However, following the Queensland elections on the Saturday  (25 November) which accentuated dissent, it became clear that enough Nationals were likely to cross the floor to get the legislation through. The issue had become another distraction throwing doubt on Mr Turnbull's leadership at a time when the introduction of the same sex marriage bill should have provided a welcome relief from partisan politics. By Friday 1 December, temperatures had reached the point where NSW Deputy Premier and National Leader John Barilaro called on Mr Turnbull to go.

It is obvious that discussions had been going on among ministers, in cabinet and with the banks. Later that  Friday, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a Royal Commission. into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry with Honourable Kenneth Madison Hayne AC as Royal Commissioner.

The New England By-election

Saturday 2 December saw the New England by-election. This had been a nasty campaign.

From the social media feeds, I learned far more of Mr Joyce's personal life than I ever wanted to know. I kept wanting to say stop. Mr Joyce is a public figure, but what you are doing is not fair on anybody else.

I was also conscious of what these social media accentuated divides are doing to social cohesion in smaller communities where, at the end of the day, people have to work together. I guess that's another story, but it's something that is important to me in a personal sense. I was sharply reminded of this on a recent visit to Armidale. My friends span political and indeed issues divides. Sometimes you just have to shut up, keep your opinions to yourself.

Mr Turnbull and the Government needed a circuit breaker in this election and they got it. Mr Joyce scored a primary vote of 65.1%, a swing of 12.8%. You can see the relief on Mr Turnbull's face. It was also an election that marked the end of the New England independents, as well as (but less certainly) a further decline in the Green protest cause. This is something I should write on for historical records. 

Section 44 and the continued Citizenship Imbroglio

Mr Turnbull needed Mr Joyce back in Parliament and they got him there quickly thanks to the election result. With votes in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister needed him partly for his general support, more because  of the constantly evolving crisis over Section 44(i) of the Australian constitution and eligibility for membership of the Australian Parliament. Now the wheels came off for Labor leader Shorten, at least in the short term.

As I wrote previously,  Mr Turnbull's ho-hum attitude to the two Green senators who became the first victims of the crisis (they should have done their paperwork better) set the stage for his problems. Now, Mr Shorten was to experience the pain.

Mr Shorten had adopted the view that the ALP's vetting procedures were robust, that this was a coalition problem. As members of the two houses began to provide details of their family and citizenship, it quickly became clear that Labor had a problem too.

Now I have argued previously that the whole mess is something of a nonsense. This story by Jeremy Gans, Papers, please!, points to some of the difficulties. In a multi-ethnic country like this one where people come from multiple places in often difficult circumstances, it's just not possible to provide documentation of the level required where, in any event, the question of multiple citizenship also depends upon changing law in other countries and especially decisions by authorities in those countries on the position under their law.

I was especially struck by the need for our Aboriginal politicians with mixed heritage to provide information, to try to prove, their family trees in circumstances where their story is one of dispossession. The idea that an Aboriginal politician should be disbarred from Parliament because they happen to have a Scottish or British or whatever parent or grandparent strikes me as a pernicious nonsense.

Whatever the arguments, Mr Shorten's certainty and desire to gain political points made it extremely difficult for him to negotiate a sensible approach to the problem once Labor's problems emerged. So far, two Labor parliamentarians have been referred to the High Court. More may follow on both sides in helter-skelter unless the parties can agree a sensible approach.         .  

Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution is not the only part of Section 44 creating problems for eligibility to Parliament. When Senator Nash was determined by the High Court to be ineligible to stand on citizenship grounds, the procedures laid down by the Court mean that the next person on the combined Liberal-National ticket, Hollie Hughes, was elected. However, there was a problem.

Following the election, Ms Hughes had taken a position on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a Government appointment that she resigned as soon as Senator Nash was declared to be ineligible. On Wednesday 15 November 2017, the High Court ruled that Ms Hughes was ineligible. (here, here). The argument seems to run this way. Because Senator Nash was ineligible, Ms Hughes had in fact been elected. However, because she had, her subsequent acceptance of an office of profit under the crown meant that she was no longer eligible to be a senator and consequently could not take Senator Nash's place. Go figure!

On Tuesday 12 December, another eligibility question under S44 reached the High Court. The question here is whether Assistant Health Minister and National MP for Lyne David Gillespie is eligible to sit in Parliament.

Labor candidate Peter Alley, who unsuccessfully against Mr Gillespie, filed an application under the Common Informers Act in July in the first major case of its kind, arguing that Dr Gillespie should be disqualified because he allegedly holds an indirect pecuniary interest in an agreement with the commonwealth. The interest in question is the ownership of a small shopping centre in which one tenancy is held by a local agency of Australia Post.

The case raises a number of quite important constitutional issues. Watch this space.

Senator Dastyari and China

With Barnaby Joyce's victory, Labor's citizenship woes and then the marriage equality vote, Prime Minister Turnbull was on something of a roll. Then came the forced resignation of Labor Senator Dastyari over his China links.The issue was not so much the links themselves, but the way that Senator Dastyari prevaricated over aspects of them.

The Dastyari affair came at a time of increased sensitivity about Chinese involvement in Australian politics. Mr Tunbull combined the two in responses that played upon Australian concerns including national security and even included phases in Mandarin. The Chinese response was quite strong.

Over the period of the Howard, Rudd/Gillard and Abbott/Turnbull Governments, we have seen a constant stream of responses on issues with international implications that are driven by short term local political considerations. I suspect that this falls in this class. It deserves a fuller response.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse

On Friday 15 December, the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse delivered its final report.  This has been a long and complex inquiry, one that has been wearing on the Commission, its staff and the victims involved. Given the sensitivities of the issues, I think that all those involved really deserve commendation for the way they have approached the process.

Whether all the recommendations, the hopes and aspirations that flow from the process, are sensible or possible is a separate issue. Having studied the history of child welfare in NSW, I don't believe that perfection, the avoidance of all harm, even sometimes the achievement of positive results, is possible. Sometimes, initiatives intended to address and redress problems have worse results than the system they amended or replaced. We would have been better off if nothing had been done.

This is not an argument against taking action. Improvement is a process. Things only improve, injustices addressed, because people try.

At a professional level, I have to look at the detail of the report, because the problems identified and addressed fall within the scope of the history I am writing.

Bennelong By-election

Today, Saturday 16 December, is the by-election brought about because John Alexander, the sitting member, was declared ineligibly elected by the High Court. he is running again having sorted out his citizenship paper work. His labor opponent is Kristina Keneally, a former NSW Premier.  
This is an important by-election, given the present Australian Government's razor thin one seat majority. If Mr Alexander holds the seat, Mr Turnbull maintains his momentum.

The results are too close to call. The opinion polls suggest Mr Alexander will retain the seat, if with a swing. But there are some problems with the polls, because (among other things) people are sick of being polled. This electorate also has the largest overseas born Chinese voting population (around 16%) in Australia and no-one knows how they are are reacting to the China controversy.


This post basically covers just three weeks in Australian politics. Can you see why I am struggling to keep up?


The Liberal's John Alexander had a reasonably comfortable win in Bennelong (here, here) if with a considerable swing against him, thus restoring the Government's one seat majority in the House of Representatives. With counting still proceeding, the Australian Conservatives Joram Richa  is on 4.5% of the vote.

This was the Party's first lower house outing, and they appeared to devote considerable resources to the contest.There was a second Christian party candidate running, Gui Dong Cao from the Christian Democrats, a long established NSW party. The main Australian Conservative vote seems to have come from the Christian Democrat vote, although the two parties combined did achieve a small swing compared with the Christian Democrat vote at the general election.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sydney's growth problems - from free range to battery city

This is the Eastern Suburbs "continuous flow intersection" at the junction of Anzac Parade, Dacey Avenue and Alison Road planned as part of Sydney's WestConnex project. It involves a continuous traffic flow with 12 lanes of traffic and a light rail through the middle.   
At the end of August 2017 (Sydney's growth problems - light rail, Kingsford, Pagewood and Daceyville), I wrote of the changes taking place around the little Sydney area in which I have been living connected with the combination of population growth and planning. Change has continued since then.

A bloody big intersection

The illustration above shows a planned major intersection in what is called the Alexandria to Moore Park Connectivity Upgrade (A2MP) plan. Those who are interested can find find videos of the proposed A2MP route here. The connectivity requirement flows from the need to take traffic to and from the eastern end of the giant WestConnex freeway project. Councils and local MPs are up in arms in part because of tree loss, in part because this traffic will be then funneled into already overcrowded local streets.

Yet more density housing

 In pursuit of its vision to transform Sydney through the creation of three metro centers,. the Greater Sydney Commission's Eastern City District Plan (the Eastern City also know as the Harbour City is the current CBD plus surrounds) provides for the area from South Kingsford to Maroubra especially along Anzac Parade to be developed as a priority precinct. For this, read medium and higher density. Randwick Council is objecting on the grounds that the transport on which the plan is based will not be developed in the immediately foreseeable future.

And more waste

The South Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils projects that the population covered by its councils will grow by 28% to 2.18 million people by by 2036. This is expected to increase waste generation up by 27% to over 880,000 tonnes per annum.

And crowded buses - but who could have expected universities to become mega-industrial institutions?

Under the heading "Don't worry, it's usually worse", the Southern Courier reports on the problems faced by University of NSW students seeking to get from Central railway station to UNSW. The Telegraph  carries the story if under a less dramatic heading.

The story is linked to changes in the bus timetables, but it's also connected with the sheer size of the university. If I had known when I supported the Dawkins' university reforms that it would lead to a homogenised university sector dominated by  mega corporatised industrial institutions I would have died in a ditch to prevent it. In fairness to myself and Mr Dawkins, nobody could probably have foreseen the tinkering that would take place later.

Extreme? The best way I can illustrate this is to say that it's like trying to shift the entire adult working population of the Northern Tablelands to Armidale each day to study or work in one institutions.

House prices and rents

When we first moved  to Sydney, the million dollar price point for a simple house or semi was south of Rainbow Street. Soon after, it roared across the street and ran south along the coastline. Further inland, the million dollar price point crept up Anzac Parade through Kingsford and then jumped Gardner's Road into Daceyville. Further west, the million dollar price point swallowed Rosebery, and then jumped.Gardner's Road.

Over the last twelve months, the median price in Eastlakes has jumped 34.4% to $1.55 million. With very low inflation rates, this is a huge real increase.

Rents are slowly inflating. Slow income increases mean that landlords' ability to increase rents have been suppressed, leading to very low rental yield on investment properties. This can't continue, and owners are constantly pressing the margin.

Last week, my daughter and her flatmates received notice that the rent they were playing on their apartment was to be increased from $800 to $850 per week. It's a nice apartment, but that's a very big increase, one they can't afford. So a move has to be on.

The end point

The position in Sydney is unsustainable. The present Australian gross median income is about $81,000. Sydney's is higher. It has to be. Even if you are prepared, to use Leith van Onselen's phrase, to move from free range to battery city, to move from house to smaller apartment, the place is becoming just too expensive.

The solution offered to meet the growing problem of all the service workers who can no longer afford to live in the place is to subsidise  the construction of affordable housing. I don't support this unless the program is funded by a levy on those who wish to live in Sydney and need the services. Instead, and I have come to this conclusion quite reluctantly, we should slow immigration.

The majority of migrants come into Sydney or Melbourne. They are the driver of Sydney growth. They are chasing other people out. If we froze immigration even for a brief period, and I would only support a brief freeze, the Sydney bubble would collapse. We could then resume migration on a sensible basis.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Turnbull Government problems - the NBN

I haven't felt like writing about recent developments in Australian politics. It isn't so much the developments themselves, but the chatter that surrounds them that leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth.

Prime Minister Turnbull is finding, as Julia Gillard found before him, that when things go wrong they keep going wrong. When the wheels come off, the billycart keeps grounding on bumps in the road that, with wheels, would be whisked over in a second. Almost nothing is going right.

The NBN (National Broadband Network) is about to roll out in my area. This means that I am getting  promotional material from re-sellers seeking to sign me up. For the first time, this includes guaranteed minimum download speeds. These struck me. With the exception of the most expensive package, the maximum guaranteed down load speed was 12 mbps.

Australian may remember that in the political debate over the future of the NBN, Mr Turnbull said that the maximum download speed that the ordinary household needed was 50 mbps and that this would be guaranteed by his mixed technology solution. There were two elements in Mr Turnbull's claim. One related to what the mixed technology could deliver. That was an engineering judgement. The second related to household needs. That was a market judgment.

While Mr Turnbull is very knowledgeable, he is neither an engineer nor a market expert. When he ventured into this space for political reasons, he took ownership of the NBN and the resulting outcomes. In doing so, he delivered hostages to fortune.

I am presently on a high end and expensive 50 mbps package using ADSL and twisted copper wires. The best download speed I can actually get is a bit over 6 mbps. Sometimes, it drops to 3 mbps. One of the things we have to do, my daughters tell me, is to get you onto a decent broadband service.

The difficulty is that the old infrastructure in the area where I now live will simply not support the higher speeds I am paying for. . If the NBN can offer me a guaranteed 12 mbps at a lower price, then that's good value. It's not what Mr Turnbull promised, but I will at least be better off. However, there may be a problem here.

The latest NBN rollout plans say that the NBN will become available here early next year. However, there is an apparent problem. The rollout in this area depends on Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC), one of the mixed technologies.  According to the latest news reports, technical problems with the use of HFC means that NBN HFC rollouts have been deferred for six to nine months.

In the words of an old Telstra ad that has entered Australian folklore,  not happy Jan. One can debate the economic implications of the NBN, but one could at least expect it to offer a decent engineering solution. I was just putting up with my current poor download speeds, but now all this has forced me to focus on what i have and how much I am paying.     .    

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

New England Cheese: reflections on a changing Australia on National Agriculture Day

I have been travelling, returning to past haunts. I had been very busy. Well, perhaps busy is not the right word, for I have been distracted rather than productive. The journey gave me a chance to reflect without the constant chatter of the internet world.

This photo shows some of the goats at New England Cheese. You will find New England Cheese just off Thunderbolt's Way outside Nowendoc.

I had been meaning to call in for many years, but things never worked out. They were always shut to the public, or so it seemed. The reality proved to be a little different.

I had thought of New England Cheese as one of those craft operations, places that people ran for interest and as it suited them. An amateur aspirational place focused on life style and a desire for a natural product. As I was to find out, New England Cheese is partly that, but it is also so much more.

I had checked opening hours and thought that it might be open, but it had been closed on all my previous trips. Stopping for a cigarette and a pit stop at the little reserve outside the Nowendoc Hall. I spoke once there for a women's gathering. Later, it was the police headquarters for the police search for wanted criminal Malcolm Naden,  Reflecting, I decided that I would call in if it was open even though we were running a little late.

The closed sign was not on the gate so I drove up the winding road to the farm buildings. There was an old red cattle dog lying in a basket outside the front door who growled gently at us. I wasn't sure that the place was open, but pressed forward. There we found Lia Christensen, a tall, good looking and very fit woman. She needed to be, for reasons I will explain a little later.

There was a customer already present, a chap who had grown up on an apple orchard outside Armidale. We swapped notes about  fruit thinning and life on an orchard while Lia pressed samples on us, always saying you don't have to buy, but I want you to try.

"I have to close soon", Lia said. "Do you want to help me pack 400 boxes of yogurt?"  At this point, the full story of New England Cheese emerged.

Lia and husband John had been dairy farmers in Victoria and decided to retire. They were looking for a place to retire where they could also pursue their interests in dairy and cheese and so bought a small block at Nowendoc. However, the concept of semi-retirement proved to be just that, a concept. The business took off.

There are a number of parts to the New England Cheese business. There is the small herd of goats and sheep from which the specialty cheese is prepared. There are the milking facilities. You can't milk sheep and goats in the same way as cows. There are the cheese making facilities. Then they buy in milk from Gloucester down the mountain to make specialty yogurt and cheese. This is not a small business, for New England Cheese supplies Harris Farm home brand milk, yogurt and cheese that is just the same as it sells through the shop door. It's very nice..

Quality control is central. This photo shows John in the milk processing facility.

In all this, there is a rub. New England Cheese can't get staff. Back in 2013, John complained about the difficulty of getting qualified cheese making staff.

It's not just qualified staff. New England Cheese can't get staff to do basic stuff because Nowendoc is now seen as just too remote. Modern Australians won't move to the country even if there is work, decent pay and accommodation available when they have none of this where they are.

This throws a major load back on the Christensens. While John drives the refrigerated truck on the regular deliveries to the Harris Farm warehouse at Flemington, Lia packs. Talking to us, she raised her arms and flexed her muscles! When, last year, Lia broke her leg in a farm accident, they had to stop production of sheep milk cheese for twelve months because there was no one else to help.

I would like to have stayed to help Lia with those 400 cartons. I would have learned a fair bit. But I had to move on. Perhaps I might go back?

On this National Agriculture Day, I think that it is worth reflecting on the way that the texture of urban life and food depends on businesses like New England Cheese.