Friday, June 29, 2007

Snippets

I am just back from Lord Malcolm's memorial service. I felt nervous about going, but am glad that I did. It was a nice service and good to meet Neil, if briefly. I will let Neil describe the service itself.

After finishing my last post, I have decided to rest for the moment my commentary on the Government's moves in the Northern Territory. I am getting too introspective, too close to the topic. Better to stand back for the moment.

From a narrow personal perspective, blogging has had one adverse effect. I have found it very good as a way of exploring and clarifying my own thinking. But it has also reminded me that ageism is alive and well.

Normally I do not think about my age, nor do I talk about it. Since I began blogging I have begun to do so, because part of my commentary has - as in my last post - involved looking at things through the perspective of my own past.

All this is fine. But I find that if I do mention my age in conversation, it changes people's reactions to me. At this stage in my life and professional career I cannot really afford to be classified as old!

I suppose that I should be flattered that people think that I am younger than I am.

I am not sure that I look younger in physical terms, although my very kind daughters and their friends say that I do. Rather, people take you as you behave. So the fact that I have teenage daughters, that in some ways I have perhaps not fully grown up, means that people tend to think of me as younger. All this changes if I remind them of my real age!

Time to finish.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why Australians - and Kiwis too - are rather wonderful

Photo: Gordon Smith, We get the Good News. After nearly a week marooned in Innamincka due to water logged roads and flooded creek crossings, Gordon Smith finally gets the news that he can move on. But only if they go east!

Early this morning I started another post on the Australian Government's intervention in the Northern Territory. Then I became very dissatisfied and stopped. I will continue (now posted), but something happened tonight that explained to me why I was unhappy.

I was talking to eldest about one of her friends, a really nice and intelligent girl. This girl has strong views about Asians. Those of the PC variety would call her racist. Yet she has Asian friends from school who she thinks are wonderful and sees no inconsistency between her general and particular views. I thought that this was very Australian.

Australians have always been prejudiced so far as other groups are concerned. At the end of the Second World War surveys showed - I cannot give the reference because I am remembering things from years ago - that Australians thought of Southern Europeans as wogs and had strong prejudices against them.

Yet despite this, Australia launched a mass migration program that changed the entire ethnic composition of the country and accommodated this with minimal disruption. This was a remarkable feat. Now we are doing it again, hopefully with similar success, with the admission of peoples from very different ethnic backgrounds.

Key to this has been our capacity to distinguish between individual and group. Mr Hittler concluded that all Jews were bad regardless of individuals. The Australian position is that a group may be bad, but Fred from that group is okay. So we can adjust.

Now how does this link to Australia's indigenous peoples? Why did it explain to me why I was unhappy?

Quite simply, I think that we are losing the plot in some of the current discussions triggered by the Commonwealth Government's intervention in the Northern Territory. But the reasons I think this are quite complicated, mixing a whole series of things together.

On Ancestry

I had some difficulty in answering the question in the census on ancestry.

My dad was born in New Zealand.

I am very proud of my New Zealand side, and often classify myself as as half Kiwi or even just Kiwi. I see New Zealand as different from Australia, many common elements but also differences that (to my mind) blanch and temper the Australian experience.

On Dad's side, my grandparents were born in England during the mid stages of the industrial revolution. So I am English. When I read Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier I thought of it not as a political or historical piece, but as something about the place my people come from.

This was the world of the formation of the English Labour Party (Grandfather ran for Wigan Council as a Party candidate immediately following the Party's formation), of the fight for worker's rights and better conditions. Today I am still interested, visiting Wigan World to find out about my past.

On Mum's side, her father was born in Scotland and was incredibly proud of his Scottish ancestry. Growing up, I thought of my ancestry as Scottish. For a period I even ate my porridge with salt to be like him!

This was the world of the clans, the enclosures, the fight for Scottish independence. Here one of the books my grandfather gave me was John MacCormick's Flag in the Wind, a story of the fight for Scottish independence in modern times.

Like my own support for New England self-government, something that I learned from this grandfather, MacCormick's views were ridiculed by Westminster (Sydney).

Like the Scottish nationalists, my own sense of regional identity, of being a New Englander, my own sense of country, were forged in part by opposition to and the need to change the status quo. In many ways I remain a regionalist and New England populist, always suspicious of imposed central authority, always wanting to understand the local position.

My grandmother on Mum's side came from English farming stock that had settled in New England as small farmers/graziers during the gold rushes. English, but very different from the Lancashire Belshaws' industrial background.

I grew up in a very Christian world. One grandfather was a Primitive Methodist home missionary, the other both a Methodist and Presbyterian lay preacher.

But while strongly Christian, this was also a world of sectarian divides in which the old European battles of Reformation and Counter Reformation, of Irish versus English still played themselves out. I remember one mother from the Irish and Roman Catholic tradition becoming really concerned when I became friendly with her daughter. This was a world in which some official Catholic writings suggested that a Protestant was doomed to perdition.

Yet when I finally married, I married a girl from the Irish, Roman Catholic and Labour tradition. In fact, at one point three generations of her family were members of the NSW Trades and Labor Council at one time. So my daughters now have a Country Party, New England, Populist Protestant tradition on one side, an Irish, Catholic, Labour tradition on the other.

On Time and Change

All this covers a very large span in time and space.

In a day to day sense I now live mainly in the world of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, wrestling with but also enjoying the challenges posed by teenage daughters who are very much part of the current world. This is the world of ipods, mobile phones, computers, the tribalism of the young, shopping and metro fashion.

Yet I am also conscious of and still influenced by the world of the past.

Grandfather and Grandmother Belshaw were born in Lancashire 140 years ago. It is 137 years since Great Grandfather Goode joined with others from Uralla to sign the document congratulating Constable Walker on killing Captain Thunderbolt. It is 128 years since Great Grandfather Morris Drummond sailed from Scotland for Sydney on the John Elder, attracted by Sydney's building boom.

Grandfather Drummond was born in Sydney 117 years ago. One hundred years ago David Drummond arrived in Armidale as a farm labourer, establishing the New England connection. That same year, the Belshaws sailed from England for New Zealand, establishing the New Zealand connection.

Dad was born in New Zealand 99 years ago, Mum at Arding near Uralla seven years later. It is now 92 years since Uncle Will went ashore at Gallipoli, 90 years since Uncle Morris was killed in France.

It is 87 years since Victor Thompson and the Northern Daily Leader re-launched the campaign for New England self-government and David Drummond was elected to the NSW State Parliament for the first time. One outcome was the establishment by Drummond eight years later of the Armidale Teacher's College.

The Great Depression began 78 years ago, almost closing the College. It survived, helping lay the base 69 years ago for the creation by Drummond and the other New Englanders of the New England University College, an action that bought my father to Armidale as one of the original academic staff, there meeting my mother who was in charge of the small library.

The Second World War began the following year, almost closing the new College. I was born 62 years ago as the War drew to a close, my brother fifteen months later, making me a war baby, he a baby boomer.

Fifty three years ago the University of New England gained full autonomy, with dad as the foundation Professor of Economics.

It is now 44 years since my grandfather retired from politics as Member for New England and I attended my first pre-selection meeting, a meeting that saw Ian Sinclair nominated for the seat, a seat that he was to hold until his retirement nine years ago.

It is 42 years since I registered as a conscientious objector in the midst of the turmoil of the Vietnam War, 40 years since we lost the New State plebiscite and I started work in the Commonwealth Public Service, 35 years since I made my first unsuccessful run for pre-selection in a year that also saw the election of the Whitlam Labor Government.

Tracking forward, it is 19 years since I married and our first daughter was born, 11 years since we moved to Sydney, something that I had sworn I would never do and am still not very happy about.

Time, Change and the Australian Sense of Identity

Congratulations if you are still with me.

If you look at this chronology, you can see how the world has changed through the prism of one family.

There is, I think, a great weariness that comes from adjustment to constant change, from seeing your verities, the apparent constants in your life, torn down and replaced by others that disappear in turn.

You can see this today in the anguish felt by many at the Howard Government's intervention in the Northern Territory. I am not making judgements here, simply observing that the reason why the decision has generated so much angst, so much venom, is that it challenges deeply held sets of beliefs.

I can understand this. By the mid nineties I felt a sense approaching despair at the changes that had taken place in Australia. I no longer feel that, in part because of my exposure to my daughters and their friends. In fact, I feel comfortable with them in a way that I am not with their generally Generation X parents.

There seems to be something enduring in the Australian character, something created over the years, that carries on through the generations despite the scale of change around us.

Part of this lies in symbols, language, even the smell of Australia - anybody looking at the photo at the start of this post would recognise it as Australian immediately. We can all recognise this. But part also lies in less tangible things, in the way that we think and look at the world around us.

This is where our capacity to treat individuals as individuals regardless of our prejudices about groups comes in. The same applies to our cynicism about authority, our sense of a fair go, our desire to get things done.

Need for a New Approach to our Indigenous People

It is the Australian character that gives me hope that the Howard Government's intervention in the Northern Territory will prove positive in the longer term, despite the weaknesses that I see in the Government's approach. I say this for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the scale, swiftness and drama of the move has moved the future of our indigenous people and the relations between them and the rest of Australian society to centre stage in a way never seen before.

In historical terms, this will be seen as the defining moment of the Howard Government. Forget Iraq, Tampa and refugees, water, good economic management, whatever All these things will be smoothed over by history, will be seen in terms of trends and patterns. This move will stand out not just because of its role in the overall history of our indigenous people, but as a jagged point, a change point.

I am not sure that Mr Howard and Mr Brough actually realised this. Whether they did or not, the reality is that Government simply cannot afford to fail.

This brings me to my second point. In challenging and overturning previous policy in the way they did, the Government has in some senses swept away the past. We all know that previous policies have not worked. Many of us, me included, have been arguing the need for new approaches. We are now getting them whether we like it or not.

Now here I have a problem. We know that previous approaches have not worked. But the initial Howard-Brough intervention was, again in my view, fundamentally flawed because of its short term and narrow focus on child protection. Here we can already see it evolving in the face of public scrutiny and criticism.

This is where my perception of the Australian character comes in. My belief is that now that their attention is engaged, the Australian people will not accept failure. None of us can say exactly what will result, except that we now have a chance to put the past aside, to work out new approaches that will not just help our indigenous people in the short to medium term but redefine the relationship between them and the broader Australian community.

Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 3

Photo: Alice Springs town camp. Alice Springs News

This post continues my discussion on the issues raised by the Commonwealth Government's intervention in the Northern Territory. Today, for the first time, the issue has ceased to be the lead story in the Australian media.

I am very annoyed with myself.

I gave demographic data in my previous posts. As mentioned, the 2006 census data is now out. Those who are interested and would like to find or play around with the data can find it all here.

Why am I annoyed? Well, in drawing from my previous work, I mixed together two things. The first is 2001 census data. The second were ABS projections of indigenous populations based on the 2001 data.

I picked the error up because the 2006 census number for Australia's indigenous population at 455,018 is lower than the number that I cited for the 2001 population. So the number I cited was not the 2001 census estimate, but the ABS projection based on the census.

Blow. I hate making gross errors in public. It does not affect my core argument, but it is a reminder of the need for care.

I am finding it harder to comment in a sensible fashion simply because the public debate is all over the place. I do not want to get involved in a running commentary on particular views. Instead, I want to continue to focus on elements in the debate that I think are important and especially those neglected in other coverage.

International Perspective

In my earlier writing on Tamworth and refugees I made the point that Australian media coverage on the issue had done us serious international damage. I also suggested that our collective obsession with domestic issues was blinding us to the way our internal debates were interpreted elsewhere.

The same thing is happening now. I accept that Tamworth was a very different case, but the process is similar. I will do a review of the international coverage later. All I am saying at the moment is that we need to be aware that we are now operating in a gold fish bowl.

"White vs "Black"

In my first post, I suggested that it was time to do away the terms "white" and "black" as gross descriptors because they failed to recognise, in fact concealed, the diversity in Australia in general as well as in the indigenous community itself. Added force is given to this point by the way that the terms are being interpreted internationally.

The census table on ancestry by country of birth by parents reinforces this point so far as Australia as a whole is concerned. I have not checked all the definitions involved, there are some definitional issues here that I do not yet understand, but the raw numbers on ancestry illustrate Australia's increasing ethnic diversity.

If you look at the following list, you can see that Australia remains very much a migrant country. You can also see the effects of continuing waves of immigration first from Great Britain, then from European countries after the Second World War, now from Asia.

Australians by Ancestry:

  • Classified simply as Australian, 7,371,824 of whom 138,313 had both parents born overseas
  • English, 6,283,650 of whom 1,470,190 had both parents born overseas
  • Irish, 1,803,741 of whom 283,619 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Scottish, 1,501,201 of whom 333,288 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Italian, 852,418 of whom 435,358 had both parents born overseas
  • German, 811,540 of whom 201,326 had both parents born overseas
  • Chinese, 669,980 of whom 594,962 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Greek, 365,147 of whom 235,611 had both parents born overseas
  • Dutch, 310,089 of whom 161,159 had both parents born overseas
  • Indian, 234,722 of whom 212,029 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Lebanese, 181,745 of whom 134,319 had both parents born outside Australia
  • New Zealander, 160,681 of whom 97,851 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Vietnamese, 173,658 of whom 162,632 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Polish, 163,802 of whom 109,336 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Filipino, 160,374 of whom 135,674 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Croatian, 118,046 of whom 85,844 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Welsh, 113,250 of whom 47,385 had both parents born outside Australia
  • French, 98,333 of whom 47,467 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Serbian, 96,365 of whom 75,662 had both parents born outside Australia
  • Maori, 92,192 of whom 68,814 had both parents born outside Australia

NORFORCE


NORFORCE presentation of the colours, 2006

Today Mr Brough released details of next steps. This involves teams moving into an initial group of communities for an on-ground assessment. Mr Brough's release has a PDF attachment giving locations of the various communities involved. I note that the Alice Springs town camps themselves do not appear to be included at present.

"The teams will consist of NORFORCE vehicles, personnel and logistic support for a small group comprising officers from Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Health, DEWR and Centrelink. There may be some AFP personnel."

By the time you read this, there will have been extensive coverage of these moves. The use of army personnel has attracted great attention. Yet I find it interesting that no one appears to have commented yet on the use of NORFORCE itself (and here, here, here, here, here) to provide personnel, vehicles and logistics support.

NORFORCE, or North-West Mobile Force to give the regiment its full title, is a rather unusual military unit.

Its origins go back to 2/1st North Australia Observer Unit (also known as the "Nackaroos"), which was formed in 1942 as part of the defence of northern Australia from the Japanese during the Second World War. The 559 or so men in the Unit supported by 59 indigenous guides acted as observers across Northern Australia, patrolling the remote bush in order to give warning in the event of a Japanese invasion.

The unit was disbanded in 1945.

In the 1970s, the Australian Government made the decision to increase the military presence in Australia’s far north. As part of this, the Regional Force Surveillance concept was begun, with the first unit was raised from the 7th Independent Rifle Company, based in Darwin.

In 1981 this was renamed as the North-West Mobile Force, or NORFORCE. To give the regiment an identity, the Army decided that, because of the similarities to the NAOU, it would adopt its traditions.

Today NORFORCE is an elite reserve unit responsible for patrolling 1.8 million square kilometres covering the Northern Territory plus the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. I have seen various estimates of the numbers in the unit, but it appears to be of the order of 800, of whom 60 per cent are indigenous.


Bush Soldiers, NORFORCE

The role of NORFORCE in indigenous life as well as the influence of its indigenous soldiers on the unit’s character were well described in an ABC Message Stick documentary.

I make the point about NORFORCE because it is an interesting story in its own right, but also because it is a unit many of whose personnel come from the lands affected by the Commonwealth Government’s decision. In this sense, it is certainly not just another military unit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Intermission - this time voluntary

Just back and I have to cook tea, but I wanted to make a few brief comments, continuing later.

Neil, it looks almost certain now that I will be able to make Lord Malcolm's service Friday. But here I have to reveal a gap in my knowledge. What is a red ribbon occasion?

A sign in our local supermarket yesterday that I have never seen before in an Australian store. "Notice to customers. The cold weather that has impacted (another word I hate) the supply of certain vegetables and fruit including (list follows)."

They were not kidding. No beans, zucchini, brocolini at all. As I write there are floods in other parts of Eastern Australia. I must do an update post on the strange thing we call our weather!

Initial results of the 2006 Australian census released today. The media is full of it, so to speak. I spent an hour trawling through the detail and will do a post tailored to my own somewhat strange interests.

Because of the crash in our home computer system I was not able to do my next planned post on Mr Howard, Mr Bough and Australia's Aborigines. I will try to do so later tonight.

It's now 6.30 and I need to cook. I am in fact very hungry. I left for work at seven, got home after shopping not long ago, and did not have time for lunch. Talk among yourselves!

Another Intermission - this one forced

I came home last night to find that the internet connection on our household computing system had stopped working. Great frustration. It is on now, but I have not been able to do any of the things that I had hoped to do. I will continue tonight.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 2

This post continues the analysis begun in my first post in this series. I will summarise that post in a moment. But first an update.

My thanks to Aboriginal Art & Culture: An American Eye for suggesting that my post offered the best outline as to what was proposed. I had not seen this blog before, and I have bookmarked it because it fills a gap.

Now turn to the coverage in the Australian. Please read it not from the viewpoint as to whether you agree or not, but look at it as an analyst or commentator. What does it tell you about the Australian view? Look at the reported views of Peter Shergold. As head of the Prime Minister's Department, Mr Shergold is the PM's official adviser.

As I write, SBS news is showing Australian troops joining planes to be on ground tomorrow to support the civil authorities. Models developed by Australia in intervention in Timor or the Solomon Islands are now being applied on Australian soil.

Opposition leader Rudd has backed the PM's plan. Three states are reported as having already committed 30 police, doubling existing police numbers in the communities in question. The Australian Federal Police have begun to deploy.

It's all very dramatic. In the words of the Prime Minister:

"We have gone along with the idea that these are state and territory responsibilities, which technically they are," he said.

"We'd persevered with that, we'd worked the old paradigm but we just came to the conclusion that wasn't going to work and we've decided, in effect, to put aside the old approach and to adopt in the short-term a highly interventionist approach."

But will it work and what does it all mean?

Summary of my Previous Post

I began my previous post by outlining the Commonwealth Government's proposed actions. These centred on restoration of law and order, grog control, health and schooling.

I then briefly outlined the history, pointing to the way in which past policy failures and current policy and political frustrations and especially those of Minister Brough had combined to trigger the move.

In simple terms, and as indicated by the PM's words quoted above, the Commonwealth Government has put aside past policies and approaches and done so in a dramatic and emotionally charged way that sidelines past ideas.

As an example, Michael Mansell, the director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, condemned the plans for singling out Aborigines, saying:

"It would be different if his social behaviour strategy applied to everyone in Australia, but it doesn't, making his policies racist," he said.

"This is a racist attack on the weak and an immoral abuse of power, amounting to nothing more than political vote scoring."

The difficulty for Mr Mansell and for others such as Green Leader Bob Brown is that their views are no longer relevant. The intervention is there and has to be dealt with.

Returning to my post, I continued by suggesting that the Federal Government's actions had changed Australia forever and that to understand this we needed to look at two dimensions, the indigenous context and then the broader Australian scene.

The Indigenous Context

I began my discussion of the indigenous context by looking at Aboriginal demography, making the point that changes that will affect all Australians were being driven by problems associated with a population equivalent to a reasonable size regional city.

I went on to make the point that the problems experienced by certain of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal communities, while replicated elsewhere, were not typical of the total Aboriginal experience. This links to a point I have made many times, that we cannot and should not talk of the "Aborigines" as though they are a single group, instead recognising the nature and extent of regional and local variation.

A similar point was made by tiwidownlands in a thoughtful comment on that first post. Talking in a Northern Territory context, tiwidownlands wrote:

The NT always has problems with the aboriginal problem because political viability depends on a cluster of Darwin and Alice Seats – which would not reward good work done for the indigenous.

And to talk about the population of indigenous in NT needs to be split up because the education, health and social profile of the traditional community is vastly different from the non-traditional.

So in considering the Howard Government's response, we need to recognise that we are dealing with a slice (traditional NT aborigines) of a slice (Northern Territory Aborigines) of a slice (Australia's indigenous people) of a whole (Australian population).

If we focus just on those directly affected, will all this work? And what do we mean by work anyway?

In past comments on indigenous issues I have been very careful about commenting on things that I do not properly understand. I have never visited a remote NT Aboriginal community, so have not commented on the detail of discussions couched in local terms or dealing with specific local problems. Instead, I have tried to focus on the areas where I am strong and especially questions raised by my public policy experience.

Looking at the on-ground impacts through this prism, there are some things that we can point to.

I have no doubt that the short term logistic issues, the problems that many are pointing too, will be worked out. Australians are good at this. However, these are the least of the issues.

To begin with, we need to recognise the crushing weight on those involved as the full force of the Australian Government comes to bear upon the 50,000 or so people directly affected, as well as those surrounding them who will be affected as well. This is no small matter.

I think that we also need to recognise that the Australian Government has begun what is in fact a major process of social re-engineering. These communities will never be the same again.

Some may say, and this may indeed be correct, that this will be a good thing. But just as current problems are due in significant fashion to past policy failures, so future problems will be created by failures in the new approach. Anybody involved in public policy knows that apparently good policy measures can have unforeseen side effects.

This leads me to some real concerns.

If we look at the language and focus of the Government's intervention, we see first the overwhelming focus on law and order issues. We can also see the use of models associated with our international interventions. Thus the Government talks about first stabilising the situation, staying for five years, then getting out.

Later

I am out of time. I will publish, but continue later.

Continuing - events update

I have not been able to catch all the news during the day, but it seems clear that the continuing debate is zeroing in on some of the issues that I consider to be important from an indigenous perspective.

It is also clear from the Premiers' reactions that some elements of party politics are alive and well in this election year. That was to be expected.

What I do find interesting, however, is that there appears to have been little discussion to this point on what I think are the broader national issues raised by the intervention.

NT Emergency Response Taskforce

During the day (25 June) Mr Brough announced details of the new Taskforce. It is anticipated that the Taskforce will operate for at least 12 months and will be supported by full time administrative and field staff.

The terms of reference for the Taskforce will include providing advice to the Government and oversight of a Taskforce Operational Group effort, including:

    • Community engagement, design of intervention, coordinated delivery of resources
      and activities and data gathering and monitoring;
    • Set up and appointment of community government business managers;
    • Nominate communities in critical situations; and
    • Liaise with the Australian Government, the NT Government and
      other State authorities to provide the best emergency support efforts on the
      ground.

The members of the Task Force are:

Dr Sue Gordon OAM (Chair) - Western Australian Magistrate in the Perth Children's Court, Dr Gordon is also Chair of the National Indigenous Council. Dr Gordon chaired the Inquiry into Response by Government Agencies to Complaints of Family Violence and Child Abuse in Aboriginal Communities, in Western Australia in 2002. In 2003, Dr Gordon received the Centenary Medal for service to the community, particularly the Aboriginal community and in 1993 she was awarded the Order of Australia for commitment to Aboriginal people and community affairs. In 1986 she was appointed as Commissioner for Aboriginal Planning becoming the first Aboriginal person to head a government department in Western Australia.

Shane Castles - Career police officer with 32 years experience, including as Assistance Commissioner with the Australian Federal Police. His experience includes international deployment and investigating illicit drugs. He was Police Commissioner of the Solomon Island's until early this year. Mr Castles will be the Operational Commander as well as being a member of the Taskforce.

Dr Bill Glasson - A practicing ophthalmologist and former Australian Medical Association President, Dr Glasson has worked in a voluntary capacity in various Indigenous communities. He recently travelled to East Timor as part of a team which treated in excess of 3,000 East Timorese patients. He is a consulting ophthalmologist to the Australian Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

John Reeves QC - Practicing barrister, and Chair of Red Cross NT and national board member. 30 years experience in Indigenous issues. Mr Reeves was also the federal ALP Member for the NT and is experienced in local government. In 1998 he completed a review of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act for the Australian Government.

Roger Corbett AM - Chairman of CIES Food Business Forum, Member of the board of the Reserve Bank Australia and former Chief Executive Officer and Group Managing Director of Woolworths Ltd. Member in the Order of Australia (AM) in 2003 for service to the retail industry, particularly as a contributor to the development of industry policy and standards, and to the community.

Miriam Rose Baumann AM - Principal of St Francis Xavier Catholic School, Daly River, NT and current member of the National Indigenous Council and Chair of the NT Aboriginal Benefit Account Advisory Committee. In 1998, Ms Baumann was awarded an Order of Australia - Australia Medal - for her services to the community of Nauiya Nambiyu as a member of the community council.

Dr Peter Shergold - Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet since February 2003.

Paul Tyrrell - Chief Executive of the Northern Territory Department of the Chief Minister and head of the Northern Territory Railway unit.

This is clearly a high level and representative group. However, a few points to note.

I mentioned Peter Shergold at the start of this post, with a link through to a newspaper story setting out his views. Mr Shergold will be the key link through to the PM.

International readers may not read between the lines in the appointment of Mr Castle as Operational Commander. I mentioned before that this intervention appeared to be modeled on our international experience.

As head of the Solomon Island's police, Mr Castle was directly involved in RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands, the multinational force put together to restore order in that country.

Bill Glasson is the only member of the Task Force that I know personally from the time that I was CEO of the Royal Australian (now Australian and New Zealand) college of Ophthalmologists. Bill has a long track record of working with remote communities in the eye care area.

The Premiers

Before talking about the Premiers, back to the demographic facts. Again using 2001 census data, indigenous populations by state follow Remember as I said in my last post that the latest census figures will show significant changes, although the broad pattern is likely to remain the same. The figures are:

  • NSW 134,888
  • Queensland 112,777
  • WA 58,496
  • NT 50,790
  • Victoria 25,090
  • SA 23,410
  • Tasmania 15,780

I suspect that few Australians realise that NSW has in fact the largest indigenous population in the country. Why, then, is the NT the focus? Why are the Premiers of Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland especially sensitive? It all comes back to a point I have made before, the great variety in the indigenous experience.

As one measure, take home ownership, a key traditional measure of social progress in Australia.

  • Tasmania 59 per cent
  • Victoria 42 per cent
  • NSW 36 per cent
  • SA 29 per cent
  • Queensland 28 per cent
  • WA 27 per cent
  • NT 14 per cent

Now all these figures are below the average in the mainstream Australian community, reflecting the fact that our indigenous people have been clawing their way out of disadvantage. But there is a clear gap between the top three and the bottom four, with the Northern Territory clearly at the bottom by a very long way.

These things link to another measure, the proportion of the indigenous population in each state or territory living in remote areas. Absolute numbers follow with the percentage of the total state or territory indigenous population in the brackets.

  • NT 41,204 (81.1%)
  • Queensland 26,397 (23.4%)
  • WA 26,210 (44.8%)
  • NSW 7,311 (5.4%)
  • SA 5,172 (22.1%)
  • Tasmania 537 (3.4%)
  • Victoria 57 (o.23%).

If you look at these numbers, you will see that after the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia have the greatest proportion of remote area indigenous people. Further, these are the states where the indigenous people came most recently in touch with European settlement.

I make this point because it is then perhaps not surprising that it is the Premiers of Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia that have expressed the greatest reservations about the Commonwealth's new plans.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that they are simply defending their own patches, although this may be a factor. Five minutes listening to South Australian Premier Mike Rann talk about problems in South Australia is enough to show that he both knows a lot and is quite passionate about the problems faced by the State's remote Aboriginal communities. I am suggesting, however, that they face the greatest difficulties in adjusting to the new approach.

I am going to finish this post here and continue the story in a new post.

Intermission - the HSC, New England and the Tiwi Islands

Looking back, this has been a rather good month for comments, not just because of number (some 40 including my own responses) but also quality.

My post, NSW HSC and Kitchen Conversations, where I mused about our experiences with the HSC system drew a very thoughtful response from Thomas, reflecting on his own relatively recent experiences.

In response, I asked Thomas if he would mind if I ran the comment as a full guest post on this blog because I think it deserves broader exposure. Subject to his views, I will do so soon.

As an aside, another thing that I like about this small evolving collective blogging community is the age range that now seems to span from university through to the opposite end of the age spectrum.

Mind you, small is a relative term. Before plunging into exam marking, Legal Eagle remarked that she had had 10,000 hits in the month and a half since she moved to wordpress. Neil, too, has seen significant traffic growth.

In both cases it is the combination of the quality and variety in the posts that underpins the growth. I continue to stand in awe.

Mind you, I do get to bask to some degree in the glory shared by others.

My stats system will not allow me to track referrals properly, but there is a consistent pattern of visitors from other blogs. Of the last ten visitors, for example, one came from View Italy, one from Neil's blog, one direct. That's 30 per cent that I would classify as community.

Just as well I do get these referrals since Technorati still fails to recognise this blog. Back on 20 May I ran a post, Technorati Sucks - Day 342. At that stage I had intended to run a post with a similar title until I finally got recognised, but then decided that life was just too short to bother. For the record, it is now 376 days since T. last checked this blog.

As an aside, I have just noticed that with blog visits now at 13,991, visitor 14,000 should arrive some time today. I wonder who it will be? For the record, visitor 13,000 arrived on 19 May.

Back on 17 June in Howard Hinton, Philanthropy and the New England Sense of Identity, I said that I was going to limit posts on this blog until I had finished the New England piece I was working on.

I have been making some progress, but the Commonwealth Government's move on Northern Territory Aborigines side tracked me. My first post here, Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 1, drew a very thoughtful comment from Tiwidownlands. I commend this to you.

For those who do not know the Tiwi Islands, the beautiful Tiwi Islands are situated 80 km north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea. There are two islands, Bathurst Island and Melville Island with a total land mass of 8320 sq km.

The accompanying map may be a little hard to read, but if you click on it you should see it in bigger scale.

You can find out more about the Islands from the Tiwi Islands' Local Government site.

Tiwidownlands comment led me to the Tiwidownlands blog. This blog is designed to keep the Tiwi Islands community in touch with Tiwi students attending Downlands College in Toowoomba.

There are not a lot of entries. For those who are interested I suggest that you do as I did, start at the bottom and read up to the top.

Now I can really empathise with those Tiwi kids.

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I went to school in Armidale, a very similar climate, and found initial difficulty in fitting in. We also played football against the Toowoomba schools. Coming from Armidale, I was at least used to the climate. But I can imagine what it is like to be very cold in a strange new environment a long way from home.

Tiwidownlands reminded me that a girl from Wallace Rockhole, another of the Northern Territory communities that will be affected by the Howard/Brough plan went to my daughters' school as a boarder like the Tiwi kids at Downlands.

The Wallace Rockhole community hosted a school visit including Clare, youngest, something that Clare really enjoyed. They took a video camera with them, and on return put on a show for the parents. I wonder what the Wallace Rockhole community thinks of all this.

I will try to finish the second part of the post today.

Later

I finished this and then had to leave to take Clare to hockey. While school hockey has finished, the other competition continues. Here Clare is playing as goalie for two of the University of NSW teams and today had to back up for a third. So that made three hockey games in one day!

Clare really loves playing goalie. It's a position, I think, that exactly fits her personality. Longish periods of doing nothing followed by centre stage! She will probably kill me for saying this, mind you, if she ever reads this entry. But there I am pretty safe.

I think that the goalie choice has been a blessing in keeping her interested. It's a position that few want, allowing her to build up specialist skills.

While I was out, visitor 14,000 did arrive. A direct hit - this means that they came to the blog direct - from a big pond user in Queensland. Welcome, and thank you for visiting.

It's now evening and the usual tea round. I also have all sorts of house keeping things to do. But I will try to finish the series on Howard, Brough and the Australian Aborigines before I go to bed. The first post is clearly attracting traffic.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 1

Like Neil, although I do not have his download problem, I have refrained to this point from commenting on the Federal Government's proposed intervention in the Northern Territory to deal with, in the Prime Minister's words, what we can only describe as a national emergency in relation to the abuse of children in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

I really needed time to think the issues through.

I am still doing this, listening to the debate with interest. However, I thought that it would be helpful to me and might be of interest to you if I tried to disentangle some of the issues. My personal view is that this intervention may well come to be seen as marking a seismic shift in Australian Government, and not just for our indigenous people.

The Prime Minister's Announcement

By way of background to my international readers, on 30 April 2007 Rex Wild and Pat Anderson handed their report to the Northern Territory Government on the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. Entitled "Little Children are Sacred", the report paints a disturbing picture of conditions in certain Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. You can find a copy of the report here.

On 22 June, Prime Minister Howard and Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Brough made the dramatic announcement that the Australian Government was taking over direct control of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal lands and the communities on them.

Nine key measures were announced.

First, the intention to introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months. The Federal Government will ban the sale, possession, transportation and the consumption of alcohol and (introduce the) broader monitoring of take away sales across the Northern Territory.

Second, the Government will bear the cost of medical examinations of all indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the age of 16 and will provide the resources to deal with any follow up medical treatment that may be needed.

Third, change welfare payment arrangements so that 50 per cent of the payments to parents can only be used to purchase food or other essentials. This requirement will follow the parent wherever that parent may go, so the obligation cannot be avoided simply by moving to another part of Australia.

The Prime Minister also foreshadowed that Mr Brough would be bringing to Cabinet at its next meeting some proposals to further extend the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children.

Fourth, the Government will enforce school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land. The Government will ensure that meals are provided for children at school with parents paying for the meals.

Fifth, the Government will take control of townships through five year leases to ensure that property and public housing can be improved. If that involves the payment of compensation on just terms as required by the Commonwealth Constitution then that compensation will be readily paid. The Government will also require intensive on ground clean up of communities to make them safer and healthier by marshalling local workforces through Work for the Dole arrangements.

Sixth, the Government will scrap the permit system (this controls outside access) for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal land.

Seventh, the Government would ban the possession of x-rated pornography in the proscribed areas and would check all publicly funded computers for evidence of the storage of pornography.

Eighth, to enforce law and order there would be an immediate increase in policing levels. Here the Government would be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers who'll be sworn as police in the Northern Territory. Special financial incentives would be provided to reward the police in question.

Ninth, additional resources would be provided to set up an Australian Government sexual abuse reporting desk, while the Government would also ask the intergovernmental ministerial council to formally refer the issue of child abuse to the Australian Crime Commission to allow the Crime Commission to locate and identify perpetrators of sexual abuse of indigenous children in other areas of Australia.

To support these measures, the Government will legislate to amend the Northern Territory land rights legislation and the Territory self government legislation.

The measures themselves are going to be overseen by a taskforce of eminent Australians. This will include logistics and other specialists and child protection experts. In addition, managers will be appointed to control Government activities in particular communities.

Setting a Context

I am not quite sure why all this took people so much by surprise. Something like this has been coming for a while.

As with the gun-control legislation introduced after the Port Arthur Massacre, the Prime Minister has previously demonstrated that he is prepared to intervene outside the Commonwealth's role and powers when personally convinced that something needs to be done.

I am using Port Arthur as an example, there are many others, because this was an intervention supported by the majority of the community where most of those affected and opposed were Government supporters.

The fact that previous policies towards our indigenous peoples have failed has been widely recognised and has become a national scandal.

The emergence of Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson prepared to challenge conventional wisdom inside and outside the Aboriginal community has changed the dynamics of the debate. I have watched Mr Pearson with growing admiration as he has emerged as a sustained, passionate and articulate advocate of the need for change, an admiration shared by many others in the broader Australian community.

Then we have Mr Brough's own growing frustrations. I have never met Mr Brough nor do I necessarily share all his views. I do know that he is a former army officer, a determined man whose frustration and growing anger with the staus quo has been apparent for some time.

We can see this if we look back at his press releases over the last twelve months. You can also see the progressive emergence of the skeleton of the Commwealth's response.

I suspect that the final straw was the rejection in May by Tangentyere Council and the Alice Springs Town Camps of the Australian Government's proposal to upgrade the camps to suburbs in return in part for land title changes. I think that this sealed the fate of current structures because it showed how hard real change had become.

If we look at Mr Brough's press releases from this point we can, I think, see the evolution of the new approach.

Two days after the rejection, Mr Brough released (25 May) an independent report of a review into policing levels in remote Indigenous communities in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. In his release, Mr Brough again mentioned the problem of child abuse while complaining about lack of cooperation from the Northern territory and Queensland in the inquiry.

On 28 May, Mr Brough slammed Northern Territory Labor Senator Trish Crossin over her suggestion in Senate Estimates that Tiwi Islander's had been bribed to accept an historic land agreement along the lines proposed for Alice Springs.

Then on 14 June Mr Brough expressed his disappointment with the 2006 Report by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma.

Noting that the Budget included an additional three-quarters of a billion dollars to measures focusing on education, early childhood, and economic independence, taking overall indigenous spending to a record $3.5 billion in 2007-08, Mr Brough suggested that Mr Calma had failed to recognise the progress that had been made.

He concluded that he was also particularly disappointed that the Social Justice Commissioner did not choose to use his report to give a higher profile to the issue of family violence in Indigenous communities.

The Australian Government has been leading the way on this issue for the past year but there is minimal discussion of human rights abuses occurring in Indigenous communities, let alone of our work to address this.
I would have thought it reasonable to expect that this issue would be a higher priority for a Social Justice Commissioner.
The following day, 15 June, saw the release of the Northern Territory report into child abuse. Mr Brough responded:
The report into child abuse in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory is a damning indictment into the failure to protect children.
He went on:
These are issues that I raised soon after taking over the Indigenous Affairs portfolio 18 months ago as a direct result of parents telling me of their concern about violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities and desperately wanting someone to listen and act.
After attacking the Northern Territory Government for its failure to participate in previous inquiries, Mr Brough said in what I found a quite remarkable comment:
I was not provided the report or its findings ahead of its public release today.
I find this remarkable because I would have thought that common politeness as well as practical realities would have dictated some notice to the Commonwealth Minister given his role. While Mr Brough expressed his willingness to cooperate, I suspect that this finally sealed the fate of the Northern Territory Government.

On 19 June Mr Brough welcomed the Noel Pearson/Cape York Institute Report On From Hand Out to Hand Up: Cape York Welfare Project. This set out a radical approach to welfare reform targeting Cape York's particular needs and received extensive media coverage.

Three days later, 22 June, the Federal Government acted, in so doing changing Australia forever.

To explain this, we need to look at two dimensions, the indigenous context and then the broader Australian scene.
Indigenous Context

For more information on the demographic data that follows see here, here, here.

According to the 2001 census, Australia's indigenous population was 485,000. The number will be higher now because more people are classifying themselves as of indigenous descent, while indigenous birth rates are significantly higher than in the broader community.

In 2001, the Northern Territory's indigenous population was 50,790 of whom 41,204 were classified as remote, the group most affected by the current move. Both numbers will be higher now for the reasons given above.

I make this point because while the land affected covers perhaps 40 per cent of the Northern Territory, a vast area, the population involved is perhaps a quarter of one per cent of the Australian population. In simple terms, changes that will affect all Australians are being driven by problems associated with a population equivalent to a reasonable size regional city.

In saying this, I am not detracting from the problems that must be addressed. My aim is to provide a sense of perspective.

As a number of Aboriginal leaders have pointed out, the total number of those affected by problems of social and economic deprivation and associated problems of abuse are far greater in the broader community than the total Aboriginal population.

My second point, and this is one I have repeated many times, is that the problems experienced by certain of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal communities, while replicated elsewhere, are not typical of the total Aboriginal experience.

I make this point because so much of the discussion has, yet again, come to be expressed in terms that simplify and in so doing treat the Aboriginal people as a single uniform lump. They are not.

Take, as an example, the way the terms "white" and "black" are used, terms that I have seen used by some of left liberal, right wing and indeed Aboriginal leaders in their discussion on this debate.

What does "white" mean today in an Australia containing people from more than 140 countries many of whom are clearly not "white"? Are we suggesting that a third generation Chinese Australian is a "white"? Or a new refugee from Southern Sudan?

Similarly, what does "black" mean? If "black" is code for Aboriginal, where does this leave my Sudanese example or, for that matter, any African or African American Australian?

My point in all this is that we have to avoid stereotypes, to recognise that the problems experienced by some (not all) of the Northern Territory's Aborigines are special problems that need to be dealt with in a local context.

This is, I think, one of Mr Pearson's core points in regard to his own communities. He wants a Cape York solution, one that deals with the specific on-ground problems faced by his people, not one imposed from outside regardless of local conditions.

After more than six hours, I need to finish this post here. I will continue in my next post.

Postscript 8 April 2015

I apologise for the loss of links in this post. That's the price we pay for constant shifts in Government structures. However, I think that the post itself tells the story.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

NSW HSC and Kitchen Conversations

Tonight I had the rare privilege of having my daughters talk to me while I was cooking tea. Food is still on, but I am taking the time to start this post while it cooks. Just a stew I am afraid, something I like but the rest of my family does not.

This year, thank God, is the last year we have to put up with the NSW Higher School Certificate. While I will be very sad to see the end of my connection with the school world, I will not miss the HSC. Not one bit.

In all the discussion now underway in Australia about measurable educational standards, few mention that education is meant to involve fun as well as work or, for that matter, that there is more to life than formal work or study. No wonder the idea of a gap year has become so popular. Kids just want to get away from study.

The core of the problem lies in the continuous assessment system. Learning from the experience of (Helen) eldest, both we and Clare are much more focused on the cumulative school mark that will ultimately, when scaled, form half the marks. The final public exams form the other half. Here Clare's results are presently very mixed, all the way from a band one in English to a high band five in art.

In management terms, and I have come to think of the HSC not as education but as a management problem involving the whole family, we obviously have some issues that need to be addressed in English, whereas art is looking like a potential band six.

The problem is to work out just what to do.

If we look at the likely UAI, the final University admission mark, Clare's three units of English (she dropped the fourth unit along with two unit maths ealier in the year) stand to more than offset high band fives or even sixes in art and ancient history. Of the other subjects, drama is a bit problematic at the moment, while design and technology is sort of sitting in the middle.

Thank heaven for eldest in all this. She is, I suspect, a born teacher and has been through the system, so she can identify and explain problems to Clare in a way that we cannot.

I am sad about English. Clare had been blossoming in this area. She loves reading, has a great ear for dialogue, and was doing a lot of her own writing. Despite extra coaching outside the school, she has gone backwards this year in the face of the particular disciplines and rigour of HSC English. With help from Helen she will pull up, but I still find it sad that the effect of studying English has been a reduced interest in the subject and in writing.

Conversely, her love of ancient history and of art has grown. To me, art has been the surprise. I have always known that Clare was creative, but I had no idea at the start of year 11 that art would become her best subject.

Her major work, really a series of works, has just been reviewed by external examiners organised by the school to give the girls an independent assessment of progress. Clare originally chose her art project to reinforce her English studies, using different art styles to interpret English works. While that objective has really gone, the art has continued.

The examiner's assessment was mixed - some works were highly praised, others criticised - but the overall tone was positive and also gave her some clear guidance.

Enough. Time to eat.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The rise and rise of the New Zealand dollar

New Zealand is a small country by global standards. Yet the New Zealand dollar, like the Australian dollar, has become an internationally traded currency with a weight far beyond the relative size of the domestic economy.

Recently, the New Zealand Reserve Bank has twice taken the unusual step of selling the currency down to try to halt the rise of the kiwi. I was fascinated to hear remarks suggesting that currency flows between the yen and the kiwi were forcing the yen down, the NZ dollar up. On the surface, this is a bit like the currency equivalent of David and Goliath. But then, David did win!

The problem lies in New Zealand interest rates, now some of the highest in the world.

Partly for historical reasons dating back to Rogernomics and the economic troubles of that period, the New Zealand Reserve Bank has always followed a more stringent "purist" approach to monetary policy than its Australian counterpart. To this end, the Bank has raised official interest rates to try to ensure that domestic inflation stays within the target band.

The difficulty for the Bank in all this is that an economy with relatively low inflation, stable economic management and high real interest rates makes the currency very attractive. Add to this the possibility of currency appreciation, and you can see why the Bank has a problem.

I haven't looked at the NZ economy for some time. I should do so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Australia really is a lucky country - in economic terms at least

It is raining as I write.

While significant parts of the country are still gripped by drought, recent rains mean that the winter cropping season at least in NSW is now looking the best in years. The bad drought did depress economic activity, but not by sufficient to turn the whole economy down because of the strength of the resources boom. Now some commentators are worried that a rural upsurge on top of continuing resources demand could cause economic overheating.

This drought, while not the worst in our history, was one that affected even city folk because of the threat to water supplies. I don't know whether or not its just the impact of rain in some areas, but some commentators are now talking about a golden age for Australian primary production, the best time for more than forty years.

I did blink at this because the focus has been so much on the threat to the Murray-Darling system. Something else that I must investigate.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Talk Among Yourselves - a note

Alright, I couldn't do it! Not post that is. So I have decided to do this.

While I am working on the New England stuff, this is now underway, I will post at least once each day. But those posts will be short gossip posts. No great thoughts, just a short personal gossip post. Who knows, you may prefer this to my more ponderous offerings!

Howard Hinton, Philanthropy and the New England Sense of Identity.



Painting: Howard Hinton, Philanthropist.

A little while a go marcel proust gave me a lead to a court case involving the Hinton Bequest, a collection of paintings given to the Armidale Teachers College. As I said in a later response to a comment by him, I do intend to do a story, but I have one other story to do first.

In my post A Chat with Friends 2 I mentioned the conversation that I had been having with anon in the comments section of Australia's Water Wars - Introduction. This is one of the nice things about past entries, the way they can lead to later conversations.

Anon's response was triggered by my comments on Minister Turnbull's attempt to grab the waters of the Clarence to provide water to Brisbane. She queried my assertion about New England and its sense of identity, suggesting that Clarence residents would not see things in the same way.

At the same time as this conversation was taking place, I had lunch with an old friend whose family has had a long connection with the New England Regional Art Museum, the current home of the Hinton paintings that were the subject of the court case.

We come from very different political traditions, she the Labor stream, me the New England populist tradition. Her father was Labor member for Armidale, my grandfather the Country Party member for the same seat. Yet we both share a common sadness at the way, at least as we see it, the achievements of the past have been progressively torn down. We have far more in common than the traditional party political divides would suggest.

Over time, I have been slowing building a range of material that deals with New England's history and its changing sense of identity, suggesting that the area has a story worth telling and preserving. Many of these series are incomplete and for the same reason, the absence of an overview piece to set a context for the discussion.

On several occasions I have started to write such a piece. However, the size of the task, the need to compress and present a sweeping story in compressed succinct blog form, has always defeated me.

Part of the problem here is that most of the building blocks for the story do not exist, in part because of the very decline that I am trying to address. New England's past has become submerged, lost.

King Canute's point to his courtiers was that no man could hold back the tides. It may be that New England itself has been lost for ever in the changes that have taken place in Australia, detritus from the past left lonely on a vacant unseen shore.

Despite all this, I still feel the need to keep trying. I have therefore decided to again attempt a piece on the New England blog that might at least provide an overall context for my own writings on the subject. Further, to discipline myself, I am not going to post on this blog until the piece is complete!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Drat you Neil, I feel obliged to respond!

Neil (Ninlgun) challenged me to tell the world ten little known or obscure facts about myself. This in turn came from a challenge to Neil from Kanani. About the only positive that I can see in all this is that I had not visited Kanani's blog before.

Now I feel that I talk far too much about myself as it is on this blog. Yes, it is a personal blog, but even so. Still, I have not in fact responded to Neil's last two challenges and so feel obliged to do so this time.

What can I say? The facts are meant to be obscure, but they also should have at least some interest. Desirably, they should probably be strange or even bizarre. But then, they should also not be admissions to crimes or other things that might come back to haunt me. Or just embarrass me!

Still, I have been lucky in the opportunities that I have been given. So here goes in no particular order with some of the strangest things about me that I can find.

One: most terrifying experience. The first time as a monitor that I had to read the school lesson in chapel. My legs knocked together in a most visible fashion and my voice quaked. Seems strange looking back given the public speaking that I have done. But even now if I fall into the wrong mood I can lose it.

Two: the best prophesy. Uncle Jim, Aunt Margaret's husband, came from an Australian-Indian family and spent much of his early years in India. He was there as a young man at the time of partition and saw the bodies piled in the river beds.

Jim loved India and read as much as he could about it.

Running for Liberal Party pre-selection, he tried to explain to the blue rinsed ladies (that, in case you did not get it, is a reflection of my personal prejudice) that the greatest challenge Australia and the world would face in the future was Muslim fundamentalism. They did not understand, but that's not surprising. It was, after all, over thirty years ago.

Three: strangest family story. The introduction of poker machines to India. I will leave you hanging on this one.

Four: my greatest gift to the nation, giving up flying. Soon after I arrived in Canberra I decided to learn to fly. Seemed a good thing at the time. I remember sitting in the plane carefully doing my checks. Very carefully. The whole plane was shaking.

Suddenly a voice came over the radio. Would some one please get this bloody student pilot of the runway! My instructor took over, and we lifted off. Behind us was a scheduled liner revving its engines as it waited.

A little later I was doing circuits and bumps. This involved taking off, doing a circuit, touching down, then taking off again. I suddenly realised, my shirt was sticking to my back because of the sweat, that I would soon have to do this on my own. Given my poor hand-eye coordination, I decided to quit.

Five: embarrassing experience one. We, the students, drank at Tatt's Tavern. In those distant days, if you were cuddling a girl on your lap you could be thrown out. I was and I was. The only problem is that I was marched out between the mayor of Armidale and the president of Dumaresq Shire who were standing at the pub's front door.

The next day was the unveiling of a memorial in honour of my grandfather. There was I sitting in the front row looking at the gentlemen in question. I did not say anything, nor did they. But I have always wondered what they thought.

Six: notorious colleagues. I worked with and knew quite well David Eastman, who was later convicted of the murder of Colin Winchester.

Seven: greatest helicopter flight. Flying in an Indonesian military helicopter low over the countryside between Djakarta and Bandung. Other flights that stand out were another low level flight from Yoevil in the West Country to the centre of London and travel all over Fort Worth between Bell Helicopter plants.

Eight: oddest experience. Being primary child carer of daughters in a world dominated by and geared to mothers. Any male who has picked up children, especially primary age girls, from school will know what I mean. I think that the growing concern with child sex offences has made this worse.

Nine: special skill. While my reading speed has slowed somewhat from a page (full read) in 30 seconds, I am still a very fast reader. Concentrating, I can skim read a 100 page document in 20-30 minutes to get the main points. I much prefer the printed page to the screen because screen reading is so much slower.

Ten: greatest fear. That I am running out of time to do the things that I still want to do.