Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Essay - a note on race and racism

Humans are classifying animals. We create constructs, systems of classification, that help us interpret and explain the complex world around us. This affects our interpretation of the world in profound and often unseen ways, something I have often written about.

Our views of the world are always imperfect, partial. Despite this, they are deeply held and shift only slowly. When evidence emerges that conflicts with our world views, we first try to accommodate it, ignore it or even fight against it or against those who pose an alternative interpretation. At some point,  we get what Thomas Kuhn has called a paradigm shift, the replacement of one world view by another.

In a post on 10 September, Writing preoccupations - Vikings, History awards, Native Title, Roman villas and New England architecture, I said in part:
One effect of this (the new discoveries) is that the entire conceptual structure underpinning, common ideas about race and evolution, that underpinned so much of nineteenth and twentieth century thinking has been swept aside. It survives today and remains important, but it can't survive in the longer term in the face of the growing evidence. 
Last week, the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) held its annual conference. I followed the discussion via the twitter feed -  #ESHE2017. I lack the knowledge to properly understand the significance of all the reported discoveries, but was again reminded of the speed of change in our knowledge of the deeper human past.

I thought of doing a piece on the evolution of ideas about species and race and their implications for current thought patterns, but this required more time than I had. Instead, I thought that I would make some brief comments about the impact on my own language.

I avoid using the term race unless it is in a specific historical context because I don't think that it has much meaning otherwise. Something of the same problem comes up in the use of the term racist.

The dictionary definition of a racist is a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another. However, the use of the term has broadened to the point that it has often ceased to have meaning beyond an epithet attached to someone who expresses certain types of views about groups that the user disagrees with.  I do struggle a little with this one, though, because it requires a new language to describe prejudice within particular contexts.

The third example is black-white relations. I do use this term in an historical context where it has a degree of accuracy in terms of attitudes at the time. Even then, I have become more cautious.But for the life of me, I don't know what it means today.

Of course I am aware that Aboriginal people suffer from prejudice that I would call racist on my narrower definition of the term,. It is impossible not to be aware of this after working in the Aboriginal housing space.  However, I don't the term black-white is especially helpful in explaining this.Rather, I think that it is more helpful to address the root causes of the prejudice however held.  

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Saturday Morning Musings - untangling Brexit

On 30 April 2017 I briefly discussed Brexit and the EU, revisiting the question on 22 June. On 30 April, the EU had just released its negotiating guidelines, rejecting the UK desire for parallel negotiations. There was a lot of background chatter about EU problems, about the UK's internal problems.  My feeling was that the actual outcome of Brexit would fall between the worst and best case scenarios, resulting in a somewhat stronger EU, a somewhat diminished UK.

By 22 June there had been that UK election (9 June) that UK Prime Minister Theresa May almost lost. Within Europe, the anti-EU forces had weakened somewhat with the election of Emmanuel Macron as President (7 May 2017), while Angela Merkel's position in Germany was strengthening as was the EU economy. Initial Brexit negotiations had begun, with the EU sticking to its negotiating line.My feeling was that the initial negotiations suggested that in practice the UK will have little choice but to follow the EU agenda, although I although suspected that there was some scope for flexibility. My conclusion of a strengthened EU with a somewhat diminished UK remained the same.

Since 22 June, the Eurozone economy has continued to strengthen, as has Angela Merkel's position in Germany. The German elections are tomorrow. I am reluctant to make a forecast, but it does appear like business as usual in Germany. In France, President Macron has begun to implement reforms designed to strengthen the French economy.  Discussions about EU reforms continue, although no-one doubts the problems.

Now British PM May has announced the UK Government's latest stance on the Brexit negotiations. While details are still sketchy and will need to be worked out in negotiations, PM May's position seeks a two year transition period after formal Brexit, offering concessions in return. From my superficial scan, I thought that the basic structure was credible.

You simply can't untangle something as complex as Brexit without time and considerable compromises,. this is fundamental constitutional and economic change, but so far so good. In fact, a little better than I expected.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday Forum - Open Thread

Today's Monday Forum provides a chance for anyone to raise whatever they like I am not even going to give hints!.

Update 1

With demolition underway in George Street, Sydney, the old side of the Peapes' building suddenly reappeared with its advertising.

Peapes was Sydney's leading men's wear store. It operated from Beneficial House from 1923 to the business's closure in 1970. Peapes was a posh store, an elegant place, in-keeping with the quality of Peapes’ goods, which were stressed to be of the highest degree.

Mum bought me my first sports coat at Peapes. I must have been in 5A, what we would now call year 9. She wanted me to get a nice Harris Tweed and was slightly surprised when I went for a slightly blue version with a degree of glitter. She was probably right you, I had no idea of fashion! Some of my older friends may actually remember the jacket, for I wore it for many years.

Back in Armidale, I wore it proudly to the local show on the Saturday. There, mixing.with the boarders, I got into a degree of trouble from a master because I wasn't in school uniform!

On Mirror Sydney, Vanessa Barry's A Peep at Peapes tells the story of the store. It's a nice piece on a very good blog.

Do you have clothing stores that you remember from your childhood?  

Update 2

kvd remembered Fletcher Jones. He pointed to this YouTube video on the firm's last days as it fought to stay alive in the face of falling tariffs and lower overseas wage rates.

kvd also found this UK blog, Ornamental Passions.Subtitled "Devoted to the unexpected details that help to make life in the city worth living", the blog looks at the statues and building decorations that are such a feature of London. It's really a very good blog. kvd asked me if there was a an Australian equivalent. I don't know of an exact one. Perhaps Helen Webberley (Art and Architecture, mainly) might know? As an aside, Helen's blog maintains its very high standard. It's a good read. .

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Urban notes - House of the Year 2017, Melbourne's mansion wars, the demolition of Hensley Hall

I remain focused, indeed obsessed with architecture and the built environment. This will pass, but for the present I am enjoying the journey!

In Auchenflower Magnificent in its modesty: Auchenflower house wins House of the Year for 2017, Jenny Brown reports on the Queenslander that won the House of the Year award. I quote:
If you took closer note of the 1910 white weatherboard on an up-sloping corner, you might think that even with that obviously contemporary wedge-shaped rear extension, “it fits”. Auchenflower House hasn’t made any bid for attention in the neighbourhood of character Queenslanders. 
But that is the essential point of the project.
As decided by the jurists of the 2017 Houses Awards – one of the nation’s premiere residential awards because the host magazine talks to architects in their own dialect – what Vokes and Peters have done has created a dwelling of “deceptive simplicity”.
It was a curiously unsatisfying article because while I understood the broad point, I couldn't quite work out what had been done and why, However, I did take her point about the way in which preservation of the Brisbane built environment and the traditional Queenslander home had added to Brisbane's visual appeal and livability.

Down in Melbourne,battles have been raging over demolition of traditional mansions in Melbourne's wealthy (and leafy) inner east. This mansion at 9-11 Edward Street, Kew, was bulldozed after a failed attempt to get heritage listing.

Allison Worrall's piece in Domain provides a picture of the battles now raging. The problem is that wealthy buyers who want to live in the area in their own designed modern house are prepared to pay full market price plus demolition costs to gain access to the prestige sites. We have seen a similar pattern in Sydney.

In both cities as well as Brisbane, the search by developers for possible medium to high density sites has also been driving changes to the streetscape and the pattern of living, something I spoke of in Sydney's growth problems - light rail, Kingsford, Pagewood and Daceyville.

This is an artist's impression of The Hensley, a new development at Sydney's Potts Point. In June 2016, Domain reported that  the plan would involve retaining and updating the twin terrace facade of Hensley Hall, a former boarding house that was something of an area icon, adding an eight-storey building to house 44 apartments. A ground-floor cafe was also planned for The Hensley.

Interestingly, the developers also said that Sydney's controversial lock-out laws had encouraged change in some areas towards inner city residential.

Whatever the plans were in June 2016, the outcome has been the effective demolition of Hensley Hall apart from two facade slivers. The Daily Advertiser report on the fiasco suggests a degree of confusion and mixed signals, with the developers clearly not placing sufficient weight on their original undertaking.   .   .

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why the Finnish approach to homelessness will struggle in Australia

Martin Place, Sydney. Closing the homelessness camp. Image Sydney Morning Herald

The visit to Australia by Professor Eoin O'Sullivan, editor of the European Journal of Homelessness, to present the keynote address at the Victorian Homelessness Conference. attracted considerable media attention (here, here are examples) because he suggested that Australia and other countries including the UK are approaching the growing homelessness problem from the wrong direction. He contrasted their experiences with that of Finland, which has largely solved the problem.

I think that he is right, although its not quite as simple as that.

In Australia, the current policy structure involves a hierarchy of emergency accommodation, transition housing and then longer term housing. This model is based on the idea that a homeless person needs a bed now, then because many have other mental and social problems that limit their ability to handle housing you put them into time limited transitional housing where they can be supported while they "learn" to manage their issues and then you exit them into longer term rental accommodation in social housing or the private rental market place.

The Finnish model involves immediate placement into long term secure housing. Once there, support can be provided as required.

The Australian model does not work. It is expensive and over-burdened by red tape and reporting requirements. To take some very simple examples, compliance with reporting requirements requires you to have sophisticated IT systems and full time staff that have the capacity to collect information and interface with Government information systems. This can chew up resources and rule out smaller providers with local focus who are increasingly dropping out of service supply because it's all just too hard. Government contracts for supply are short term, making it difficult to invest for the longer term or to ensure continuity in supply. And the homeless themselves face continuing insecurity because there is no certainty as the end of the transition period.

The Finnish model does appear to work. The number of homelessness has dropped. Expensive emergency and transitional housing has been greatly reduced, offsetting the costs of longer term housing. It is actually cheaper to place people in longer term housing.

The Finnish model cannot work in Australia, at least not to the same scale. Finland has a population of 5.5 million. Between 2008 and 2015, the Finns built 6,000 units specifically for homeless people. NSW, to take one state, has a population of 7.6 million. Its Social and Affordable Housing Fund, the main growth mechanism in social housing, will deliver 3,400 homes spread across the social housing sector. NSW is simply not building the number of homes required to deliver the Finnish model. The same is true in other states and territories.

For the immediate future, we are forced to satisfice, to decide on and pursue courses of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal, To illustrate.

The creation of the Martin Place homelessness camp created a political imperative to do something, to close it. .Most of those who wanted permanent accommodation have now been placed in social housing. But with social housing in short supply, their placement means that 100 or so social housing places have been taken in an already strained social housing system, extending waiting lists for others.

We have satisficed, dealt with the now, but haven't dealt with the longer term for either the homeless or others waiting for social housing.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Ideology of left and right - how do we break free?

I woke this morning thinking about just tired I have become with change, instability and uncertainty. I know that I should follow kvd's advice and focus on the green shoots appearing on trees, ignore the rest, but it's hard.

Over the decades I have been alive I have seen massive change. Much I agree with, some I do not. In all this, I think that the hardest thing to cope with are the constant changes made to Government policies, programs and laws that actually seem to have limited point. Now I am just tired.

I have made my position clear on the current postal vote on same-sex marriage. I support a yes vote. However, listening to the yes campaigners on some of the no arguments, I fear they miss a simple point. Many of the people on the no side are actually drawing a line in the sand against further change. They say, simply, that their beliefs and values have been progressively challenged and overturned. If we agree to this one, what comes next?

This is a perfectly rational position. The progressive have been constantly pushing the boundaries, determined to enshrine their beliefs on right and wrong in legislation and policy. I may agree with many of their points, but that doesn't make me blind to the social engineering involved, nor to the sometimes bigotry associated with the progressive position.

We live in an increasingly intolerant society. I remember the 1950s and do not wish to return there. The two greatest social changes from that period that I value are the changing role of women and attitudes towards sexuality. While there were many good things about the 1950s, young people could actually get a job, there was also a sometimes stultifying conservatism. Now, however, we seem to be in a remarkably similar position, but without the stability that marked the 1950s.

I don't quite know how to manage all this.We have the neocons arguing on ideological and theoretical grounds that Government should get out of activities. We have the progressives arguing that Government must intervene to prevent things. We have Governments swinging in the wind in response to pressures, but still focusing on the grand goals of risk minimization, efficiency and effectiveness. At a time when there is apparent agreement about the limitations of government power, there is yet constant pressure on governments to do things even where that is likely to be at best ineffective, at worst counter productive.

Blowed if I know. I think, in the end, that all we can do is to keep trying, I also think that it is especially important for those not locked into the main ideological schools to keep trying to present an alternative view.

Postscript 14 September

Fellow blogger Legal Eagle has posted a very thoughtful post on the same sex marriage issue that is worth reading - Why I am voting Yes in the SSM postal survey (but won’t be telling anyone else how to vote)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Writing preoccupations - Vikings, History awards, Native Title, Roman villas and New England architecture

Today's Sunday snippets are a round-up of my own and other people's writing. I hope that you find something of interest.

An article in RT reports confirmation based on DNA analysis that the body found in a famous Viking burial site was female. Analysis of the skeletal remains had suggested this, but doubts were raised because of the perceived structure of Viking society. It is the first formal confirmation of the existence of a female Viking warrior. The RT article includes links to the scientific paper reporting the results. This is worth a read.

 This month's history carnival, the 168th,was hosted by Helen's ART and ARCHITECTURE mainly. Do have a look. My favourite among the posts mentioned, and I'm not alone here, is Laundry Methods During the American Revolution: The Really, Really Quick Version  

On 1 September I reported on Winners of the 2017 NSW Premier’s History Awards. The post includes the judges' comments on each award winner along with a link to the publisher. I heard an interview with Mark McKenna telling part of the story from From the Edge and I'm looking forward to reading the book. 

 My main post on the New England Australia blog during the week was The Western Bundjalung Native Title Decision

At Tabulam on 29 August 2017,around 400 people including traditional owners gathered in a crowded marquee erected on the local racecourse as a temporary courthouse to hear the consent determination delivered in the long-running Western Bundjalung Native Title case. 

After a Welcome to Country and traditional smoking ceremony, Federal Court Judge Jayne Jagot delivered her consent judgement. This granted the native title claim, legally recognising the rights and interest of the Western Bundjalung people as traditional owners of the land, including the right to camp, hunt, fish, gather resources and conduct their cultural practices on their country, as well as the right to be consulted on matters including mining applications on their land that affect the management of their land.

The post provides details and background on the decision. While it's mainly drawn from the media reports listed at the end of the post and is in that sense derivative, it took me a long time to write because I was trying to gather it all together to tell a story. I also wanted to add some links to things like the full decision.  

The photo from ABC Mid North Coast shows some of the elders at the hearing. If you look at the left hand side you can get a feel for the emotion of the day.

I was a bit nervous about this post as I am so often now on writing about Aboriginal history or issues. However, Michael Bennett,  the historian at NTSCORP Ltd who played an important role in collecting the evidence required to substantiate the case, said in a tweet: "Thanks Jim for your thorough and authoritative review". Needless to say, I was pleased. Outside his work for NTSCORP Ltd., Michael has been painstakingly putting together a history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW. You will find the results of this work at Pathfinders. The History of NSW Aboriginal Trackers.It's an interesting site and well worth a browse.    

I have another story to do on the latest Yaegl Native Title decision, the first to award title over ocean in NSW. Native title does not grant absolute rights, but it means that people can exercise traditional rights without restriction from State legislation. This has become a major problem in Southern NSW where the Yuin people have been restricted from fishing for private purposes on what was their land because of general restrictions and charges designed to protect fisheries and raise Government money. 

Meantime, the new discoveries keep rolling out. The fossil footprints of Trachilos date to c5.7 million years ago reports on one such discovery. As my regular history commenter Johnb says, it's exciting. The discoveries have turned our understanding of the deep human past and the evolutionary process itself on its head. Linear evolution has been replaced by possible multi-linear evolution from several sources. We have many more hominid species who may have or indeed did interbreed.  

One effect of this is that the entire conceptual structure underpinning, common ideas about race and evolution, that underpinned so much of nineteenth and twentieth century thinking has been swept aside. It survives today and remains important, but it can't survive in the longer term in the face of the growing evidence. 

Not all the discoveries relate to the distant past.We are finding new stuff all the time.This Guardian story,  Barn conversion leads to amazing find of palatial Roman villa, is an example. 

These discoveries don't necessarily invalidate previous historiography. Many now ignored histories that are seen as fuddy duddy, well past their use by dates, not reflective of "modern" thinking, actually contain great insights. Just because a person has worked from less evidence and from world views that many now reject does not mean that they are wrong on every point. Sometimes, having less evidence can be a real advantage. However, at the very least the new discoveries add texture and depth to familiar stories as well as writing new stories. It's an exciting time to be an historian. It's also a challenging one because so much more has to be fitted in. 

My core writing focus remains on New England Travels: journeys through space and time.  I am trying to use this as an integrating device across a range of my historical writing, ultimately leading to my full history of New England. 

I thought of titling this photo "You call that a verandah. This is a verandah!" This is the Croft, just outside Armidale. 

The linkage is that my latest historical research foray is architecture, including a new series on the New England built landscape and architecture in my Armidale Express column. These forays take time and put off actually finalising anything, but they do add to the texture and depth of the product. 

Mind you, I blame the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) for this latest foray because of programs like Grand Designs!

In my first column in the series (Architectural keys to past), I said in introduction. "The past lies all around us in the form of the built landscape. We see it, but then we don’t because it is so familiar to us." I think that's right. No matter where you live, the built landscape is both where you live now and an historical artifact.

In the series I am going from the Aboriginal built landscape right though to the most modern.  

This is a recent construction outside Armidale from architect Luigi Rosselli. The description reads: 
This hill top house is a concrete expression of Armidale ’s unique meeting of rural life and culture, “agri-culture”, a town with a university and many other cultural institutions. 
The clients seamlessly combine their flourishing agribusiness with their white collar occupations.  Gentlemen farming.   Their modern “Homestead” is located at the peak of the property overseeing the health of the cattle in the valley below. 
The 1000 metres of altitude are felt outside with cold winter fog covering the valley, whilst inside the house is a refuge enhanced by strongly integrated passive solar design principles.   The sheds and barns are located remotely. 
Keeping nature intact, the grassy slopes of the hill continue all the way up under the concrete platform.   The slab and the corrugated steel skirt under, are a protection against grass fires and conceal large water tanks.   The concrete and the tanks provide ample thermal mass to balance the temperature extremes that high country encounters.   The Interiors are an urbane and cultured refuge to a collection of art and indigenous artefacts collected in Africa and Asia.   There is no place for whips, saddles and country style clich├ęs.
Now I happen to be rather fond of country style cliches and older styles such as this one, Woodleigh, also just outside Armidale. But the point about architecture and the built landscape is that it constantly reinvents itself, replacing what went before.

That replacement process can go too far to the point that it destroys the past beyond repair,  That has happened in Sydney to a significant degree to that city's permanent loss. But to the historian its all evidential grist to the mill.

I have sidetracked, something that I am prone to do. However, and just to finish this post, I have had a wonderful time searching the house sale notices looking for examples to illustrate various architectural styles and to trace changing patterns over time. I wrote about this in Using Domain or as historical research tools.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

NSW Council elections: the strange case of Bayside

Created in the name of efficiency and improved service delivery  by a forced NSW Government merger of the the Botany Bay and Rockdale Councils, Bayside Council lacks any community of interest.

Today were the first local government elections since the recent round of State Government enforced council mergers which, among other things, created Bayside Council. Voting is compulsory, so I toddled off to vote.

I am in Port Botany Ward.which has some 20,000 people on the roll. There are five wards in all, all roughly with the same number of voters. The forced merger of Botany Bay and Rockdale left deep resentments among Botany Bay Council residents.

The map above suggests superficial unity in that the new council is grouped around Botany Bay, hence the name. What won't be clear from the map is that Sydney Airport creates an almost total divide between the two merged areas. If you were to map communications and transport patterns within Bayside, you would find almost no interaction between the two areas. For me to get to Rockdale by  public transport takes 45 to 75 minutes depending on connections.

I don't like party politics in local government, I feel that it distorts, so as much as possible I vote for independent candidates. Of course many of these do have party affiliations, but they are generally not bound to support the party machine or promote party interests when local and party interests to conflict. As it happened, I didn't have a lot of choice. There were just seven candidates in Port Botany Ward (three to be elected) broken into three Liberals, three ALP plus one independent who actually lived in the Ward. So my first vote was clear.

Checking the other candidates, I found that the the ALP team were all locals, while the Liberals all came from the old Rockdale Council area. I was surprised at two levels. It seemed unwise, given local sensitivities. It was also hard to see how the Liberal candidates could represent constituency interests when they were so far away. Labor were having a field day at the booths on all this. Vote for us as the only local candidates, they said, ignoring the local independent.

All this made voting fairly easy. One independent and then the Labor team in reverse order.

I will watch the results with interest. There may be just enough dyed in the wool Liberal voters to get one candidate up, but it wouldn't surprise me to see three ALP or two ALP plus the independent. In the longer term, it wouldn't surprise me if Bayside unraveled into a Botany v Rockdale mess.


While there is still some counting to go, it seems that Liberal core vote was just enough to get the first Liberal candidate elected in Port Botany Ward. At this point, the position appears to be:

  • ALP 64.4% of the votes, 2.57 quotas, 2 elected
  • Liberal 23.1% of the votes, .92 quota, one elected
  • Independent 12.5%, 0.50 quota

Friday, September 08, 2017

The same-sex marriage postal vote. The yes should win, but........

A friend gave me this gem. I really laughed.

I didn't know whether to be pleased or sad about the High Court's decision allowing the gay marriage postal vote. Pleased in that it should allow the matter to be resolved by the end of the year, sad because I thought the decision strengthened the power of the Executive in a way I did not like. However, we won't know the scope and implications of the decision until the High Court releases its reasons.

I have previously indicated my support for same-sex marriage. Subject to two important qualifications, I expect the postal vote to be carried.

The first qualification is that (and this may be very unfair) I don't really trust the discretion or judgement of some of the yes activists. The attacks on Dr Lai are a case in point. This type of behaviour risks alienating those who might otherwise vote yes.

The second qualification is, to a degree, linked to the first. Quite a few people who are on the No side will not discuss it in public or, perhaps, even admit it in polls for fear of getting their heads bitten off or suffering from a job perspective. The second is a very real fear in organisations where the official position or attitudes of senior management or fellow staff is is strongly pro yes. Just because people self-censor doesn't mean their views have changed.

We also don't know to what degree the samples normally used in the polls are representative when attitudes are very skewed. Based primarily on anecdotal evidence, I would expect higher no votes in various migrant, religious or ethnic groups.

To the degree that I do become involved in discussions with no voters, I plan to spend my time largely listening rather than arguing.

Postscript 13 September 2017

This ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation Vote Compass story provides an interesting picture of the pattern of support and opposition to same sex marriage across the country. Because of the number of respondents, it overcomes (to some degree at least) the question of sample bias that I mentioned above.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Australian Government's dog days

The world seems to be in a degree of turmoil at present. Internationally, the North Korean crisis continues. I think that Kevin Rudd has provided one of the most sensible summaries of the position. He thinks that war is unlikely but now possible. He places the possibility of war now at 20-25 per cent.

The thing that worries him, as it does me, is that some-one will finally lose patience and say bugger it. Mr Rudd phrases it more politely, crises have their own logic, but the message is the same.

There is little that you or I can do or perhaps anyone else. It's an example of a wicked problem whose evolution will be discussed for years to come.

Here in Australia the same-sex marriage postal vote is before the High Court. The Government seems confident, they have to appear so, but constitutional expert George Williams takes a counter view. Intuitively I'm inclined to agree with Professor Williams, but in any event we will know soon enough. Whichever way it goes, the issue will continue to suck oxygen from debate on other issues in that there will either be campaigning for the postal vote or a renewed push for legislation back in Parliament. Meantime, Section 44 dual-citizenship uncertainties will continue until resolved by the High Court.

The nightmare scenario for the Coalition Government is one in which the High Court rejects the postal vote and also rules that citizenship by descent does make candidates ineligible  for election as a consequence of Section 44(i) in the Australian Constitution.. The ABC's Antony Green discussed some of the issues in a very helpful blog post on 25 August.

In the Senate, the main problem for the Government would be the resolution of tensions arising from the the existence of a joint ticket between the Coalition Parties in NSW, together with the presence of a merged party in Queensland. In the House of Representatives, the Government would face a by-election for Barnaby Joyce's seat of New England. My Joyce would recontest and probably win. However, this would remove the Government's one seat majority in the meantime. In this case and depending on timing, I think that the Government would prorogue Parliament until the by-election had been held, thus avoiding sittings.

Problems with the Australian energy (electricity and gas) sector covering price and supply add to the Government's woes. A few weeks back I got my latest electricity bill. This rose from $395 for the previous quarter to $600. Part of that was due to usage, the house is cold and I have been using an electric heater quite intensively, more to increases in the basic price. On top of this have been debates about the reliability of supply that began with the South Australian blackouts. Yesterday, AEMO (The Australian Energy Market Operator) provided advice to the Government.  
The NEM is not delivering enough investment in flexible dispatchable resources to maintain the
defined target level of supply reliability, as the transition from traditional generation to variable energy resources proceeds. This was vividly illustrated by the load-shedding events of February 2017 and by the Finkel Review analysis. Most stakeholders see changes to market rules as the most economically efficient way to remedy this deficiency. AEMO forecasts of NEM demand and published investment plans confirm the urgency of this task and short-term measures will be necessary until a long-term solution is agreed and becomes fully effective.
The current mess has been  a long time coming and, to a degree at least, foreseen. The problem is that there hasn't been agreement on causes or responses, with discussion caught up in ideological and environmental issues. Now that interconnected problems have become acute, all governments are scrabbling to address them

It's a case study in bad policy at all levels. The Commonwealth Government faces a particular problem in that in his opposition to a carbon tax, previous PM Abbott effectively nailed the Government to a lower electricity price flag-pole. The problem has been compounded by the absence of a coherent narrative from the Government.  

In all, a mess.

Monday, September 04, 2017

A problem with coins - and bring back the $2 note

Here in Australia, a Melbourne pensioner went into Coles store with her daughter. The pair selected groceries and took them to the checkout. The total came to $130.

The pensioner then provided $100 in notes and $30 in Australian gold coins. The check-out operator said that she would accept the coins this time., but next time she can only accept $20 in gold coins.

Both pensioner and daughter were upset. The pensioner does understand EFTPOS, nor does she has an EFTPOS card, so she always pays cash.

So why was the store refusing to accept coins? They were legal tender.

The answer seems to lie in the Currency Act of 1965. While coins are legal tender, there are limits and you can’t pay more than “10 times the face value” of the coin.

I haven't checked the Act, but assuming this is correct the position would appear to be that the maximum you can pay in coins is:
  • 50 cents with 5 cents
  • $1 with ten cents
  • $5 with 50 cents
  • $10 with $1 coins
  • $20 with $2 coins. 
We all accumulate coins, more so since the Government did away with the $1 and $2 notes. They weigh in our wallets or accumulate in coin jars.Once the $2 note was abolished, we added the two dollar coins to our jars.

I don't know about you, but when I'm broke I raid the coin jar, apparently breaching the rules by offering more than the stated limits for each group of coins. This may sometimes annoy the shop person (you try counting 5 cent coins). but nobody has ever said to me that they could not accept the coins for legal reasons.

The problem that now arises is most acute with the one and two dollar coins, for these coins (and especially the $2 coin) still have real value. I really miss the $2 dollar note.It was just so practical in the minutiae of domestic life, especially for those on low incomes. who actually do watch their single dollars.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Friday morning at the 2017 Archies

Mitch Cairns, Agatha Gothe-Snape, oil on linen. Winner 2017 Archibald Prize.
Friday I went to see the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize finalists at the Art Galley of NSW. The finalists for this and previous years including photos of some of the works can be found here:
While the photographic record is not complete, a browse will provide some picture of changes in the Australian art scene over time, including changing themes.

Overall, I thought the 2017 standard across the prizes was better than the last few years, although in each of the previous years there have been some interesting and sometimes quirky works. Three noticeable features this years were the number of self-portraits, the number of Aboriginal entries and the almost complete absence of the environmental themes that had been such a feature.

Noel Thurgate, Homage to Peter Powditch, oil and mixed media on board

As nearly always happens, I disagreed with the Archibald Prize choice. Going in, this portrait by Noel Thurgate of artist Peter Powditch was my favourite and remained so, although there were a number of other works that I really liked. It's just such an interesting work that captures the eye and the imagination.

Mind you, and this will not be clear from the reproduction, the mixed media would probably make it an absolute bastard from a conservation viewpoint!

This year's Young Archie Competition (this is open to young artists between 5 and 18) had some very impressive entries indeed. There is clearly a strong crop coming through.

This work by 14 yeas old Torren Whisson, Portrait of a War Veteran, is an example.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Discovery of submerged Neapolis with a dash of garum

Art Daily reports that vast underwater Roman ruins have been discovered off the coast near Nabeul in northeast Tunisia, apparently confirming a theory that the city of Roman city of Neapolis was partly submerged by a large tsunami in the 365. BCE. Other remains of Neapolis dot the ground in Nabeul.

"It's a major discovery," Mounir Fantar, the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission which made the find off the coast of Nabeul, told AFP.

He said an underwater expedition had found streets, monuments and around 100 tanks used to produce garum, a fermented fish-based condiment that was a favourite of ancient Rome.

My knowledge of Roman foods is fairly limited. I hadn't realised that garum was so popular or such a major trade item. The Wikipedia article on garum provides some fascinating material on its preparation and use.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sydney's growth problems - light rail, Kingsford, Pagewood and Daceyville

From time to time I have written about the changes that have been sweeping across Greater Sydney. These continue apace. Few parts of Sydney are immune.

The map shows the route of the City-Eastern Suburbs Light rail system presently under construction. For the moment, the main effect has been disruption  of traffic, shopping and business along its route, including the loss of the famous nine ways roundabout at Kingsford. However, even though the line will not carry its first passengers until 2019, the ripple effects are spreading into the real estate market in regard to both development and house prices.

Both Kingsford and Daceyville, the little suburb where I presently live, lie at the end of the line. In Kingsford, the median house price is now $2.29 million, the media rent $900 per week.

Daceyville prices are traditionally lower because while the suburb is heritage listed, the majority of the housing is state owned social housing with a limited supply of private properties. These are generally smaller and are often semi-detached. However, recent price indicators suggest a price range of $1.6 to $1.8 million for a two bedroom semi-detached, over $2 million for a free standing home.

The big Eastgarden shopping center at Pagewood is a fifteen minute walk south from Daceyville. Next to it, the 16.8ha site formerly occupied by British American Tobacco is being developed by Meriton. The Pagewood Green development, Meriton's largest project, will have 3000 apartments and cost an estimated $3 billion dollars.

In its the promotional material, Meriton makes great play on the developments access to green space, parks and especially golf courses. The golf courses may welcome additional members, but the parks are already very busy at weekends with sporting activities. Add a further 9,000 people in the immediate area and they are likely to be very congested indeed.

Working from home at the moment, I spend a fair bit of time walking around Daceyville just to get a break. I have come to know a lot of the locals and especially the social housing tenants since more of them tend to be home during the day. Many of them are older and have lived in the area for many years. A number are worried that development will force them to leave. I think that they have cause to be worried.

The heritage listing means that Daceyville itself cannot be turned into high rise development, at least for the foreseeable future. However, here we have a very attractive low rise suburb with lots of green space and very good access to transport. Because of the suburb's history, it was the first garden suburn developed to provide affordable housing for the working man, most if not all of the heritage properties are social housing owned by the Government. At a time when the supply of social housing is so constrained, it is hard to see the NSW Government not wishing to realise the assets to redeploy funds into areas where social housing can be provided more cheaply.

I don't see this happening in the immediate future, in part because it makes economic sense to hang onto ownership while prices around rise to capture the maximum capital gain associated with the scarcity value of the site. However, it will happen.   .

Monday, August 28, 2017

Grant, monuments and the study of Australian history

Unveiled on 25 February 1879, this statue in Sydney's Hyde Park of Captain James Cook has become the latest symbol in Australia's dispute over Aboriginal history The inscription on the statue reads "Discovered this Territory 1770".
On 18 August, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Indigenous Affairs Editor Stan Grant published an opinion piece entitled America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours. Mr Grant is a highly respected reporter. Passionately written, it used the Captain Cook statue as an entry point with its inscription, arguing that while the US was recognising its racist past with the campaign against monuments, the great silence still reigned in Australia.

The piece came at a time when there had been debate about monuments  (a statue of Governor Macquarie was vandalised earlier in the year) and about the date of Australia Day. As part of the second and immediately before Mr Grant's piece, two inner Melbourne councils decided that they would not celebrate the Day in its current form. As a consequence, the Federal Government withdrew their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies.

Following Mr Grant's piece there were further calls on one side for monuments to be removed, of support for Mr Grant's position, responses of outrage on the other side from the centre-right wing press in reporting and commentary. "Aussie Taliban", proclaimed the Sydney Daily Telegraph."PC vandals bid to tear down out history." Mr Grant responded with another ABC piece on 21 August, Stan Grant: It is a 'damaging myth' that Captain Cook discovered Australia and then a more nuanced piece on 25 August Between catastrophe and survival: The real journey Captain Cook set us on. Meantime, what appears to have been a lone vandal vandalised three statues in Hyde Park over the date of Australia Day, the Cook statue plus one of Macquarie, another of Queen Victoria, actions that Mr Grant strongly condemned.

To some degree at least, the net effect of all this is a rise in temperature without much light. a continuation of what were called the history wars. Different issues are mixed together into stylized positions. For that reason, I want to make a brief comments on a few of the issues as I see them.

The Reconciliation Debate

On 20 June, The Referendum Council handed in in its report on how to best recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution. The report was finalised following a national meeting of Aboriginal peoples at Uluru. You will find a copy of the report here. It includes the Uluru Declaration released after the Uluru national gathering. .

The original proposal to recognise Australia's First Nations in the preamble has been rejected as too tokenistic. Instead, the focus is on a representative Aboriginal body to be recognised in the constitution. Its powers would be decided by legislation, but its existence would be constitutionally protected. In addition, discussions should proceed on a makarrata or treaty.

It has been a slow and complex process gaining a measure of agreement among Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples on the approach to be adopted. It is likely to be just as complex gaining agreement in the broader community both on the proposals and their implementation.

I regard this as the single most important agenda item, although I have no clear idea as to how it might all work out. Current disputes are not helpful to the process of bringing either constitutional recognition or makarrata to a successful conclusion.

Australia Day

The 26 January date, the date at which the First Fleet landed at Port Jackson, has long been a difficult date from the perspective of many Aboriginal people. This is reflected in the use of the phase Invasion Day as an alternative to Australia Day.

I am no great supporter of Australia Day in a general sense, it's become far too nationalistsic for my taste, although like all Australians  I like an excuse for a party. I have previously indicated that I would support a change in date, although I also thought that a change in date might not be in the interest of Aboriginal activists in that it would remove a major platform for expression of Aboriginal views.  

For the present, retention of the existing date appears to be supported by a large majority of Australians. Wikipedia (link above) reports that in 2004, a Newspoll that asked if the date of Australia Day should be moved to one that is not associated with European settlement found 79% of respondents favoured no change, 15% favoured change, and 6% were uncommitted.

The position appears much the same today. A January 2017 poll conducted for The Guardian revealed that only 15% of Australians supported changing the date of Australia Day, with 83% supporting keeping the name "Australia Day". The poll also found that the majority (68%) felt positive about Australia Day, 19% were indifferent and 7% had mixed feelings, with 6% of people feeling negative about Australia Day. Among Indigenous Australians, however, only 23% felt positive about Australia Day, 31% were negative and 30% had mixed feelings, while 54% favoured a change of date.

Outside the Aboriginal community, the pressure for change in the date appears to come especially from elements of local government. While there is little support for date or indeed name change in the broader community, the form of Australia Day celebrations continues to evolve, something that is likely to continue. To a degree, the use of Australia Day as a protest platform, the broader inclusion of and recognition of Indigenous views, has become institutionalized, built into the Day itself. This process is likely to continue.

Meantime, the agitation over Australia day and especially the actions of the inner Melbourne councils of Darebin and  Yarra in deciding to ditch Australia Day is generating a backlash that doesn't aid the broader debate.

The Great Australian Silence

Mr Grant suggested that the great Australian silence still prevailed when it came to Aboriginal history  under the heading We ignore our history, he wrote in part:
America cannot avoid the legacy of racism. We find it all too easy to avoid. 
If America seeks to find what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature", we vanish into the "Great Australian Silence". 
Anthropologist Bill Stanner coined that phrase in the 1960s to describe what he said was "a cult of forgetting practiced on a national scale". 
We have chosen to ignore our heritage. So much history here remains untold.
Stanner coined the terms the Great Australian Silence in his 1968 Boyer Lectures After the Dreaming, which reflected on the silence on Indigenous Australians in Australian history. What Stanner said was certainly true in 1968, although even then the explosion in Aboriginal Studies had begun. It is not true today.  We are deluged in material.

Leave aside the political reporting and much of the policy discussion which often focuses on problems and has something of a swamping effect. There are a variety of specialist historical journals and research bodies, an ever growing range of thesis and popular histories. I stand to be corrected, but in terms of volume, Aboriginal history probably ranks second after war in terms of aggregate output. The new discoveries in prehistory including DNA results that have (among other things) pushed back the date of Aboriginal occupation of the continent and placed the Aborigines in a new global context are widely reported in the main stream media.

Most streams of cultural life now include specific and widely reported Aboriginal components. If you look at local government web sites or wikipedia sites on specific places you will nearly always find a section on Aboriginal history. And so it goes on.

Not all this material is especially good. I have argued before that the focus on invasion and on black-white relations has tended to twist research and writing on Aboriginal history. This comment has nothing to do with this research as such, nor the importance of the topic. Rather, the overwhelming focus has tended to squeeze out other research, including the history of Aboriginal peoples in the period after the ending of the frontier wars.

To the degree that the Great Australian Silence still holds, it is found especially in the history of the Aboriginal peoples after the frontier moved on and is arguably most pronounced when you move from topics to specific areas and language groups. At least so far as published work is concerned, we know more about the frontier period in Northern NSW, for example, than we do about the subsequent 150 years. It can be hard to find integrated material about particular communities or language groups.

The quantity of material is increasing, but it is still patchy and not readily available to the general reader, Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal, .I think that this is partly why Paul Irish's Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney made such an impact.

Recognising continuing gaps, if I am correct in my earlier conclusion that we are deluged with material, it is a legitimate question to ask why some of the story is not better known. I ask this in particular because I have been struck by the way that things that I thought had been settled years before, in some cases decades before, are regularly presented as new discoveries.

I think that the reason for this is fairly simple. This is contested space. The contest is not so much about the history itself, but the way this should be interpreted and presented in a current context. In the hubbub, the general audience does absorb particular messages but a lot of people just turn off, while the protagonists represent old material as well as new to support their positions.

The Vexed Question of Monuments and "a new history"

In his first piece, Mr Grant wrote in part:
America is tearing down its old monuments; it is hard and it is painful. 
Captain Cook's statue stands in the centre of our biggest city. There are Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed. 
Personally I accept that it remains; Cook is part of the story of this nation. 
But surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he "discovered" this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook. 
This was not an empty land. 
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defending Australia Day this week, said it is also a day we honour Indigenous Australians. 
If he is serious then what could be more apt than to correct a monument that tells us, still, that in 1770 we did not exist?

Context is important in history. Events including the construction of monuments have to be put in the context of their time. Then there is the modern context, the way the moving present reinterprets the past including monuments.

Captain James Cook died in 1779. The statue was erected in 1879, funded by public subscription to mark 100 years since his death. The inscription on the statue reads "Discovered this Territory 1770" not, as repeated several times by Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National and repeated by Opposition Leader Shorten, "discovered Australia".

As worded, the inscription is factually correct. In 1770 Cook did discover the territory that would become NSW then through separation Victoria and Queensland as well. Overlaying this, is that from the viewpoint of those who funded the statue, Cook's discovery of a new land had laid the base for the establishment of their colony

It is also factually correct that Aboriginal peoples had occupied the land that would become the continent of Australia for at least 60,000 years. Overlaying this, is the more recent narrative of occupation and dispossession. So we have two different world views, one from 1879, one from 2017, held by different groups of peoples.

The question of what you do with names, statues or other symbols when views change is a complicated one, for those who want to replace one view with another often want to expunge the past. The Taliban destroyed monuments, ISIS destroyed ancient monuments including ancient cities on religious grounds. There are many similar examples from Christendom. Roman Emperors removed symbols of their predecessors. As the Soviet Union fell, communist statues were pulled to the ground and destroyed. In Iraq, statues of Saddam Hussein were expunged. In the US, confederate statues are being removed.

We humans are always inconsistent. Tourists flock to ruins and monuments created by or for people or regimes that were, by all accounts, guilty of gross barbarisms. We leer over the remaining symbols of or ruins or relics relating to the Emperor Nero. We celebrate the raids of the Vikings, a blood thirsty lot, with festivals and a stream of new monuments.

I must say that I find all of this very difficult to work though at a professional and personal level. For example, I'm inclined to support the German government's decision to turn Hitler's bunker into a car park to avoid creating a symbol, although as an historian I think that the bunker should have been preserved and also suspect that the decision itself creates a new form of symbol.

I oppose the wholesale removal of confederate monuments in the United States because I actually think its disrespectful to the past. But what do you do, as seems to be the case, about confederate monuments whose historical context is erection during the civil rights struggle in opposition to that struggle. Are they historical artifacts or current symbols of a still current struggle and therefore worthy of removal.?

In all this, there are a few things that I think are important. History is not, as Stan Grant, suggested, a matter of choice. History just is. Historiography, the study of the writing of history and of written histories.or
the writing of history, is. Choice determines, to again use his words, the stories we tell ourselves. Our history is alive in us.

This has led to calls for a new history, one more attuned to the twenty first century. This is really a call for a new historiography, of new interpretations of the past. In this sense, it is a political statement. When artist Ben Quilty stated in an op-ed piece that it's time to acknowledge our colonial terrorism,  he was making a current political statement and value judgment supported by bits of history.

The thing that I cling to in this debate is that the role of the historian is to analyse the evidence and go where that  leads. Of course, the topics selected and indeed sometimes the evidence selected is influenced by the historian's preoccupations and values, but if the work is properly done others can then question, challenge and put forward new interpretations. Sometimes this approach is unpleasant and even dangerous when it challenges preconceptions, but (to my mind at least) it is central to the profession.

This brings me to my final point. I have absolutely no problem in the creation of new monuments or adding explanatory material to explain existing monuments. I do have problems with destroying existing monuments or physically altering them to support particular current views.


Written over several days against a background of shifting discussion, this post attempts to clarify issues that I find quite complicated. They are not easy issues.              

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Confusions over political correctness

This, the first of a series of short follow up posts I foreshadowed in Monday Forum - is modern political discourse just sound and fury signifying nothing?, looks at political correctness. It is a term I have used. Broadly, I know what I mean, but it is a confusing term that adds to the sound and fury that that marks today’s public discourse, a sound and fury that distracts from real discussion. Political correctness or PC has become a symbol of dividing views, one used to lambaste opponents.

This first cartoon shows one side’s view on the debate.

The Wikipedia article on political correctness provides a reasonably good overview of the history the term. Modern political usage is quite new, dating back to the 1990s. But what is political correctness? 

To try to clarify this, I have gathered together a number of definitions:


Wikipedia: the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Merriam Webster: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.

Cambridge: Someone who is politically correct believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided. A politically correct word or expression is used instead of another one to avoid being offensive:

Collins politically correct in British: demonstrating progressive ideals, especially by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, especially  concerning race and gender

Collins politically correct in American: conforming or adhering to what is regarded as orthodox liberal opinion on matters of sexuality, race, etc.: usually used disparagingly to connote dogmatism, excessive sensitivity to minority causes, etc.

Oxford: The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against. marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology:

This cartoon shows a second view of the PC debate.


If you look at these various definitions, you can see what a minefield political correctness is. The first cartoon shows a left perspective, the second one from the right. 

As I said earlier, PC has become a symbol that marks a variety of underlying divides, The term has been especially helpful to the right because they have been able to attach a variety of concerns to it linked to social, cultural and economic change, to shifting power structures in society. The left has responded in turn, with both sides using stereotypes. The result is battle marked by heat, but very little content. 

This is a pity, for there are genuine issues in the debate that need to be explored in their own right. I will look at some of these as part of this series.  

Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday Forum - is modern political discourse just sound and fury signifying nothing?

So many things have been happening! I have had to tear up (can one use that word today in a more paperless word? Perhaps metaphorically) a number of posts because of event swamping. For that reason, today is both a meander and a Monday Forum post. I'm sorry if it's also a little sad. I'm sorry, too, if it's a little confused. But I am weary, bone weary.

In today's post I’m really a conservative…, a title that surprised me, Neil Whitfield suggested that he was a real conservative as compared to some of those masquerading as conservative today. I wouldn't have called Neil a conservative, but perhaps he is. If so, he is a social liberal if also something (as he notes) of a follower of Edmund Burke. I note that while Burke is often claimed to be the founder of modern conservatism, he was also a radical in terms of his time. But Neil is indeed a conservative in the sense that he believes in discussion, is suspicious of ideology and wishes to conserve the good in society, the structure, while preventing tyranny and making improvements that will preserve liberties and freedom of choice.

Over on My Observations, AC has expressed deep reservations about the attempts by the current Polish Law and Justice Government to rewrite Poland in its desired conservative and law and order image, AC is not a revolutionary. Based  on her writing, I think that she is a liberal conservative who wishes to conserve the gains made following the end of communism, the creation of a free society. She objects to a Law and Justice agenda that while masquerading as conservative is deeply nationalist and reactionary and wants to turn Poland back to an age that never really existed. More precisely, it wants to recreate Poland in a way that mirrors its own social dictates. So did Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Here in Australia, we have caught between the ideologues of left and right. The left masquerades as progressive, the right masquerades as conservative, their operatives work for political gain using and misusing issues, tarnishing by assertion and association. Both are manipulated by those whose ultimate objective is political power. Commentary masquerades as reporting to the point people turn off. There is little scope for objective reporting, less for discussion of the issues.

This creates a feeling of despair in someone like me who feels obliged to read the feeds but actually wants to learn.

It is hard to avoid getting sucked in to this malaise. I have watched people whose support for particular issues or cause has progressively twisted their feeds over time into broader partisan positions to the point that they automatically tweet or retweet only those things that might discredit opponents or support an issue or position. I have seen a friend who I greatly like and respect tweet or retweet attacks on particular issues or initiatives that I know he would have agreed with because they are sponsored by someone my friend disagrees with.

Within this bubble effect, self-sustaining worlds are created that bear little resemblance to reality. Here I see little difference between Mr Trump and some of the left status quo, little difference between the Secular Party of Australia, Get-up, Australia's Christian Lobby, One Nation's view on Muslims and some of the environmental lobby. They all deal with absolutes that are (in their minds) absolutely right.

There is little space left in all this for actual discussion of issues, for modification of positions, for compromises or at least a clear delineation of the differences between the sides. I am not saying that one should not be passionate about positions. Change does not happen without the combination of passion and persistence. I am saying that change is easier if you are aware of other positions and are prepared to engage and to counter.

So much of what passes for current discourse is sound and fury signifying nothing. It may in the end tear things down, but it leaves nothing in its place beyond a base for more sounds and fury. I will follow up this post with some examples to show what I mean, to sketch alternative approaches.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Australian same sex marriage - hopefully, we can get the postal vote done

In many ways, I find the debate over gay marriage confused and confusing. Reading the media coverage, the commentary, the twitter feeds from both, sides leaves me feeling that there is a fair bit of cant, bigotry and political hypocrisy in all this, one that mixes together various issues to achieve particular ends. I include Mr Shorten in this charge, as well as the Greens.

As you might expect, I intend to vote yes in this postal ballot. I do so for a mix of practical and ideological reasons. Before outlining them, the Wikipedia piece on the recent history of the same sex marriage debate provides useful background.

In earlier discussion on this blog, commenters suggested that one solution to the same sex marriage question was to remove the state from marriage as such. Marriage would become a ceremonial activity, with the state role limited to practical regulation of associated matters, thus creating a clear distinction between the two.

While I can see force in this argument, I can also see two problems. The first is that the Australian constitution gives the Commonwealth power over marriage, while civil unions fall to the states, creating a risk of differential treatment. The second is the way that marriage as such is recognised internationally. Problems arise if you have two distinct systems in one country in gaining recognition in other countries.

Despite these problems, I can still see real advantages in recognising the differences between what we might think of as the legal and contractual issues associated with marriage and the ceremonial and personal aspects, including any religious aspects. Under this system, the core role of the state would would be the registration of marriages, with all other aspects falling to the personal domain. The role of the marriage celebrant would lie strictly within the personal domain, although it might include assisting the couple to lodge the paper work as an ancillary activity. Registration of marriage celebrants could be abolished, freedom of choice and indeed freedom of religion maximised.

This type of change requires a sensible national conversation that may not be possible within the bounds set by current discussion. However, it does influence my thinking.

As I see it, the present system of marriage is unfair on two grounds. It denies certain couples who wish to enter into a long term binding relationship access to the full civil protections, rights and obligations of marriage, effectively creating a two tier system. It also denies them the right to call themselves and present themselves as married, something that hurts. Both are hard to justify.    

I said that I felt that there was a fair bit of cant, bigotry and political hypocrisy in the debate, one that mixes together various issues to achieve particular ends and that left me confused. I will try to illustrate this.

Consider the question of a plebiscite. Same sex marriage is a genuinely difficult issue for the Coalition, an issue made more difficult because of the way we have mixed together associated  questions about the role of marriage.The decision to opt for a non binding plebiscite by the Abbott Coalition Government in August 2015 reflected differences in the party rooms about how to manage the question. Some may have wanted to kick it down the road, others saw it as providing a justification to vote in a particular way where they or their electorates had real reservations. If the people show support, I can go with this.

This decision was taken to the electorate as policy in the election held on 2 July 2016. In September 2016, Prime Minister Turnbull introduced legislation to provide for a plebiscite to be held on 11 February 2017. This was defeated in the Senate, with the matter to be put aside until after the next election. Agitation continued, creating a split in the Coalition with some members wanting to introduce another marriage equality bill, the twenty second, into Parliament.

On 7 August 2017, the Joint Coalition Party Room decided to resubmit the plebiscite legislation and then,. if that was defeated, to go for voluntary postal survey via Australia Post postal mail run by the Australian Bureau of of Statistics. Ballots would be mailed out to Australian voters from 12 September and would be required to be mailed back by 7 November, with a result expected no later than 15 November 2017. If the postal vote returned a majority 'yes' verdict, the government would facilitate a private member's bill in the final sitting fortnight of the parliamentary year which would legalise same-sex marriage  This approach is now being challenged in the High Court.    

Those who  opposed the plebiscite did so using a variety of stated reasons: Parliament should decide; a plebiscite is a waste of money;  a plebiscite will inflame divisions. There was a fear that a plebiscite might deliver a no vote, whereas a free vote in Parliament would now deliver a yes because of shifts in views in recent years.

There were genuine beliefs and arguments in all this, but I am left with the very uncomfortable feeling that the combination of purism with a desire to wedge the Government for political reasons were dominant. Had the plebiscite legislation been passed, we would had a popular vote in February. Now we have what many think of as a second class vote that will give us a result in November. If the postal vote is defeated in the High Court as seems quite possible, then either the matter will be deferred till after the next election or, and this is the hope of advocates, the Coalition will split, forcing the introduction of a private members bill. This would probably pass, but may not.

One stated aim of those who opposed the plebiscite on the grounds that we needed to avoid a hurtful and divisive debate has, I think, achieved the opposite effect  If the postal vote is defeated in the High Court as I fear it may be, then the matter may drag on for several years.

One of the real problems in all this, apart from the hurt caused to particular individuals, lies in the way it allows time for the issue to become increasingly divisive, not just in terms of same sex marriage but the broader social divides of which this issue is a part. I just hope that we can get through the postal vote, win and move on.