Personal Reflections

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Section 44 imbroglio - fight over the 28 July by-election dates

The imbroglio over citizenship and Section 44 of the Australian Constitution is a gift that keeps on giving.

The announcement that the by-elections for the five vacant House of Representatives seats would be held on 28 July has created something of a political storm (here, here for example) because this date coincides with the ALP national conference. This date was recommended by  the Australian Electoral Commission in part because the new requirements to provide detailed citizenship and family genealogical information would disadvantage independent candidates and those from the minor parties compared to the major parties.

The date seemed to blindside Labor. The Government was fairly sniffy about this on the grounds that the problem - the resignations - was one of Labor's own making, thus continuing the relative blame game between parties over the whole matter. I do think, however, that Tony Smith as Speaker of the House of Representatives should have provided Labor with the courtesy of consultation before the announcement of the date.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Reflections on the art of flânerie

Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later.This chapter marks the start of a bigger section entitled people and place.   
Flâneur – the stroller, lounger, saunterer
Flânerie – the act of strolling with all its associations
To be a flâneur is to idle without purpose, interested in what you find.
When practicing the art of flânerie, it is important to stop and observe. The pleasure lies in the discovery of the unexpected
 John Baxter’s book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris introduced me to the concept of flânerie. Baxter, an Australian born writer, journalist and film maker, has lived in Paris since 1989. There, by accident, he became a guide taking walking parties on literary tours through the streets of a city that he had come to love. The book describes his experiences in that role.

I enjoyed it in part because I have been to Paris several times and so knew many of the places and some of the stories he wrote about. It’s a well written easy to read book. I was also interested in a professional sense since I see part of my role as a story teller.

Baxter used the concept of the flâneur to introduce his view of the pedestrian in Paris. I had not heard the term, although I later found it to be in widespread and growing use, especially in a travel context.

Wikipedia records that flâneur comes from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”. The term flânerie, strolling or idling, dates to 16th or 17th century France. However, it was in 19th century Paris that the flâneur became a cultural icon, someone who wanders the streets as an observer and philosopher, an urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street. The concept spread to related activities such as photography, was applied in other fields including literature and became wrapped in social analysis and theories. It also spread to other places, including England and Germany.

In Germany, for example, the writer and translator Franz Hessel became one of the first exponents of the idea of flânerie, culminating in his 1929 collection of essays Walking in Berlin. Most essays describe a walk or an outing centred on a theme or part of Berlin. Hessel weaves history into his observations of people and place, capturing the rhythm of Weimar Berlin at a time of profound shifts in life and culture.

Today Hessel is probably best known as the inspiration for the character of Jules in Henri-Pierre Roche's 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Jules et Jim. This novel inspired the famous 1962 French New Wave romantic drama film of the same name directed, produced and written by François Truffaut. The 2016 release by Scribe of a new English translation of Walking in Berlin subtitled a flaneur in the capital may redress the balance by bringing Hessel to a wider audience.

Reading Baxter, I was immediately attracted to the idea of flânerie. It provided a perfect justification for my habit of just wandering, following my nose to see what I could find. It justified a sometimes insatiable curiosity that could verge on sticky-beaking. I was now engaged in a respected cultural practice! Most of all, I liked the idea of combining history with current observation.  However, I faced a problem in adopting the art.

The concept of idling, of strolling, of sauntering, of observing without fixed purpose or destination runs against a deeply held Australian cultural trait, the need to do something, to achieve something.

This need is embedded in us from childhood. We go to school to learn things, to meet required standards, to achieve and help the school achieve targets. Out of school, we engage in organised activities; our lives are a series of activities carried out at particular times for particular purposes. In adulthood, we try to practice the seven habits of effective people, we are told that we must practise continuous improvement, that we have to learn new skills, that we have to adjust to an ever changing world. At national level, governments constantly tell us that we and our children must work harder, must do better so that the country can do better.

.I am not immune to all this. The idea that I should go sauntering to see what I could find with no objective other than interest conflicted with my deep conditioning that I should be doing something productive. I knew that that view was silly, but I could not help myself. And yet, despite all this, for a time I became a most dedicated flâneur, wandering the streets with a camera looking for detail and stories. .

I think I was helped by the fact that I was doing it with a friend who shared my interests. Then with time I drifted away, although I introduced a remarkable number of people to the concept.

One of the reasons for my drift is that I started walking for exercise, itself a modern target oriented approach. This came about in part because work had a health program. I was given my own little step counter and was expected to enter my steps into a web site that tracked my path across the world.

This may be healthy, but it tends to defeat the point, the discoveries that can come from random idling. I find that when walking for exercise I have in mind distance and time, two things in direct conflict with the art of flânerie. What's worse, I tend to get very bored and thus stop walking! Even the desire to achieve a minimum number of paces (10,000 per day appears to have become an almost universal target) provides insufficient incentive. The irony, of course, is that I actually walked more as a flâneur than as an exerciser because I was simply more interested, was inclined to keep moving.

I really rediscovered the art of flânerie on my second trip to Copenhagen where eldest had moved for work. I was really on my own, had no things that I had to do and had lots of time. I knew the bones of the city quite well after the first trip . Now I decided to flesh out the details.

There is something enormously relaxing about heading out with only a rough idea of direction and time scope. I wandered almost at random, looking a the buildings and shops. Sometimes, I would find myself back at a familiar place and then wander around working out just how I had got there. Finally, I would head for home by the shortest route.

Suitable rewards add to the enjoyment of flâneuring. I found Copenhagen's Cafe Sommersko by accident. I had been wandering for well over an hour and felt like a coffee.

I was fascinated by the place. Obviously moderately posh, a restaurant at night, it was starting to fill with casually if well dressed young Danes. They knew each other, and hugged or kissed as they unfolded their outer street-ware to reveal the plumage underneath, ordering coffee and drinks.

Investigating later, I found that the Cafe Sommersko. was opened in 1976 to provide a place for the city's artists to meet, introducing a new cafe concept to the city. I must say they struck me as very well dressed artists!

I had enjoyed my coffee reward. It was time to move on to the next step in my exploration of Copenhagen, its life and people.

Since returning from Copenhagen, I have tried to maintain the practice of flânerie for practical as well as personal reasons.

As an historian, I know just how important it is to walk the ground. I studied ancient Greek history at school and university, but had no idea on key underpinnings until our 2010 visit to the Greek Islands. I was surprised at their small size, I had not properly realised the importance of water nor the importance of trade. The same holds with my studies on New England history. You cannot understand relationships or patterns unless you actually know the geography.

At a personal level, flânerie has given me many unexpected pleasures. It remains hard sometimes to actually stop and look, especially when travelling. I still find it hard to break from the need to do something, to achieve something, to get to a destination or objective. To just wander without defined purpose remains hard. I guess that I will have to keep working on that. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Forum - the Royal Wedding, Section 44, Germans like cash

This is a short round-up post. It also acts as the Monday Forum post - go where you like here.

The Royal Wedding

I hadn't intended to watch the royal wedding. While I am a supporter of the current system and enjoy a good spectacle, my TV has stopped working and I didn't feel like going to a venue to watch. As it happened, I was invited to dinner at what turned out to be a royal wedding session complete with tiaras and veils for the girls and crowns for the boys. So I did watch, although I couldn't help think of the irony of a group of largely staunch republicans not only enjoying the spectacle but capable of identifying all those minor royals!

I see that Neil Whitfield enjoyed the wedding (Yes, I watched it! And with much pleasure…) althow I wasn't as keen on Bishop Michael Curry. I thought he started brilliantly but then lost me in the middle to some extent. I think that this was partly a matter of the poor sound on the TV we were watching.

More prosaically, wearing my economist hat I found myself trying to calculate how much the wedding was worth in cash terms at a time when the British economy is not strong with confusions and concerns over Brexit acting as a drag. I know that it cost a fair bit, but my best best guess is that the direct and indirect benefits may have exceeded the costs at least twenty fold.

Excluded: The impact of section 44 on Australian democracy

Excluded: The impact of section 44 on Australian democracy, the report of the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, was released earlier in May. My post Sunday Essay - can we change Section 44 of the Australian Constitution?just before the release.

The response to the report suggests that there is little appetite among any of our political leaders to start a discussion on the desirability of change, while the News Corp papers seem to have lined up against any change.: Daily Telegraph headline "We can't allow political citizenship rules to change", The Australian  "Power grab by the political class thwarted by Turnbull".

I think that it's a mess that does need to be discussed, but see little point in repeating arguments. I think one or a combination of three things will happen: there will be more cases of members thrown into doubt because they are unable to property demonstrate renunciation; the rules and processes regarding nomination will be tightened to the point that only candidates who are wealthy or have big party backing will be able to meet them; and that Parliament will tighten rules on referral to the High Court, effectively transferring power to it from the Court.

Germans like cash

Interesting story in Quartz by Matt Phillips on German's continuing liking for cash. One part the reason lies in their dislike of credit, a belief that using cash better controls spending. I can see their point of view.

I am out of time, I will hold my other stories to later posts.

Update 22 May 2018: 11 and 12th Century Trade Routes

Fascinating story from Merchant Marine, An Incredibly Detailed Map Of Medieval Trade Routes, . Worth a read.
Update 22 May 2018: Sydney housing and infrastructure woes

Sydney's problems in the supply of infrastructure and affordable housing continue as hot issues. Because I don't have time to review at the moment, I thought that I might at least post some random links for later review.

I will add to this list when I have time.

Update 23 May 2018. Google Search and newspaper blocks

A frustration. I do a Google search, find an interesting story, click on it, and come up against a newspaper paywall. This wastes my time and effort. Is it time for Google to change its algorithms so that only material that is in fact accessible to the searcher is included in search?

Update 24 May 2018. Remarkable insights into public sector governance

Thanks Nicholas Gruen (@NGruen1) for pointing me yo these remarkable insights!


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday Forum - the use and abuse of language

From time to time here we have talked about the use and abuse of words. Today's forum follows this up with an example that I am finding especially annoying at the moment, the abuse of the imperative.

It's being creeping into official documents for some time now with an almost mandated requirement. that things be expressed in positive terms. Say that your target is to create 2,000 affordable houses in ten years. You now have to say that in 10 years we will have created 2,000 affordable houses. Then you have a number of steps that you propose to carry out to achieve that target. You put those in imperative terms. To this end, we must....., industry must, the community must. .

Now you have yourself locked in terms of primary target and intermediate steps expressed in terms of absolutes. But what happens if that primary target cannot be achieved, or the intermediate steps actually won't deliver the results? What happens if you cannot guarantee that no child will live in poverty by a due date or a particular element of Aboriginal disadvantage cannot in fact be overcome in the desired time horizon?  

A strange variant of this type of approach has crept into broader English. Say you disagree with something .that Mr Turnbull is doing. You say, Mr Turnbull must resign.But this is silly.You have no control over Mr Turnbull. You really mean that in your view Mr Turnbull should resign.

With all this as background,  what are your present pet hates about the use and abuse of language,  words or phrases? As always, go in whatever direction you want even if it has nothing to do with the topic!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday Essay - can we change Section 44 of the Australian Constitution?

While I have been preoccupied, Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution has continued to claim more parliamentary victims. On 9 May 2018, the High Court ruled that Labor Senator Katy Gallagher had not been eligible to stand for election because she had not completed the renunciation process for her British citizenship before she was elected. As a consequence, three Labor MPs (Susan Lamb, Justine Keay and Josh Wilson) and one Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie who were in a similar position all resigned the Australian Parliament triggering a super Saturday round of by-elections.

I have lost contact with just how many actual or prospective Members of Parliament have been felled over the last twelve months as a consequence of Section 44 challenges..Is it 19 now?

In a piece in The Conversation,  constitutional laywer Professor Anne Twomey"s Dual citizenship debacle claims five more MPs – and sounds a stern warning for future parliamentarians looks at some of the issues arising from the High Court's black letter interpretation of Section 44(1). Another constitutional lawyer, Professor Jeremy Gans, looks at related aspects in another piece in Inside Story, Anne Aly and the insurmountable obstacle.The message is captured in the sub-heading: "The High Court has set a new citizenship test for parliamentarians of uncertain status, but who on earth could pass it?" Certainly it is far from clear to me on the evidence so far presented that Ms Aly would actually meet the High Court test.

Since the current controversy began, many extraneous issues have been dragged in. An example is this rather fatuous piece by Waleed Ally, Why are all our dual citizens white? which really has nothing to do with Section 44 but is an expression of Mr Aly's own perceptions of the world. Perhaps Scott Stephens, his co-host on the ABC Minefield program,  might subject Mr Aly's view to forensic analysis?

My own ideas on this whole issue have been set out in various posts. For the record, I have listed the posts below so that people can follow the story through to some degree. In this post I simply want to comment on a few issues.

Core Problem

In July last year in a post on the sudden resignation of Green Senators Senators Ludlum and Waters I wrote:
The Constitution was passed as an Act of the British Parliament in 1900. This was a very different world, one of Empire and emerging Commonwealth. As you can see from the Wikipedia article on Australian nationality law, concepts of citizenship have evolved, as has the definition of a foreign power. In 1900, it would have been seen as inconceivable that Canada or New Zealand could or would be classified as foreign powers for the purpose of Section 44(i) as compared to, say, the United States or Germany. When Canberra founder King O'Malley, for example, wanted to run for Parliament, he appears to have changed his birthplace from the US to Canada so that he was not precluded by Section 44(i). 
The problem now can be simply put: something like 28% of the Australian population was born overseas, while almost 50% of the Australian population has one parent born overseas. Perhaps as many as 4.5 million Australians are or may be eligible for dual citizenship depending on the laws in the other country and hence not be eligible to stand for the Australian Parliament on a strict interpretation of the wording of Section 44(i).
I regarded this as a bad thing. I still do. Those who were affected by this first round were predominantly, not all, the children or grandchildren of those who came to Australia in the first big round of immigration after the war. Those who will be more affected in the future are the children and grandchildren of recent migrants, a very different wave. We talk about the need for diversity in the Federal Parliament, but we have a constitutional provision as now interpreted that will act as a barrier to some degree to just the diversity we seek.

This view is shared by many others. To quote former High Court Justice Michael Kirby's reported views
London: Former High Court justice Michael Kirby says the constitution should be changed to allow dual citizens to run for federal parliament because "dis-entitling" them undermines Australia's success as a multicultural nation. 
Mr Kirby said Australia's prohibition - which has seen 10 MPs disqualified since the 2016 election - was detrimental given Australia's rich immigrant culture. 
"Unless there is some other interpretive way to solve the problem then I think it should be changed because Australia really has been successful as a multicultural society and that is challenged by this approach to disentitle a very large number of members of the Australian community being elected to the national parliament. That's not a good thing," he said.
It's the law - get over it

Reading the comment streams on various articles, a common theme is "it's the law - get over it". This view suffers from certain weaknesses.

To begin with, it ignores the way that this matter has evolved. Other interpretations of the constitution were possible. It ignores, too, the way in which the High Court acts in these matters on referral from the Parliament, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. On the surface, the Parliament could have chosen not to refer. However, as more referrals were made further referrals became inevitable. Even then some referrals were not made even though they might have been, given that the High Court is the only body that can finally and formally rule on eligibility.

The common argument ignores, too, the costs and difficulties involved where eligibility to sit in the Australian Parliament is made dependent upon changing citizenship requirements in other countries that can only be interpreted in regard to the laws of those countries.

In the case of Green Senator Waters who was born in Canada to Australian parents who were studying there, had she been born just one week later she would not have been eligible for Canadian citizenship because of another change to Canadian law. Labor MP Sam Dastyari was born in Iran and came to Australia when he was four. It cost him a reported $25,000 in legal fees to try to clarify his citizenship position.

Countries appear and disappear. Regimes change. As these changes occur., citizenship laws change. People are citizens on day, may be not another,  may become citizens again later. Membership of the Australian Parliament is made dependent not on Australian law, but on the vagaries of other countries laws.and the interpretations place upon them.

Confusions over allegiance. 

It seems clear from comment streams that people are confused. Surely, they suggest, it is only reasonable that Australian parliamentarians should only possess Australian citizenship?  This one is more complicated.

The original provision in the constitution was introduced at a time of great power rivalry between the British empire and other imperial powers including the US and Germany. While the provision was never subject to serious discussion, the intent was imperial protection. The idea that the provision might be used to exclude people from New Zealand, the UK or Canada from the Federal Parliament, the idea of multiple citizenships or even citizenship itself, was outside the ken of those involved.

The world has changed since then, in fact many times. It's not all that long ago that Australia did not recognise dual citizenship.If I had got a British passport as was then possible, it would have created a difficulty for my Australian citizenship.

So there are some issues here that have to be thought through. But surely nobody would argue that just because Sam Dastyari was born in Iran, Larissa Water in Canada, that this would in any way affect their primary allegiance to this country?

Failures of political leadership

This whole mess reflects a failure in political leadership. When some time ago it was suggested that this was a problem that needed to be addressed, their was no willingness to do so. When the two Green Senators became involved, the Prime Minister was dismissive.
 "Obviously Senator Ludlam's oversight is a pretty remarkable one when you think about it - he's been in the Senate for so long," Mr Turnbull said.  
"Anyway, there it is, he's ineligible, and so there'll have to be, I assume, a countback ordered by the High Court to produce a replacement for him."  .
Then when  the Liberal and National Parties got caught up, Opposition Leader Shorten was somewhat gleeful on the grounds that Labor's processes meant that that Party was protected. That hubris brought its own rewards as measured by the latest resignations. The hole thing would be quite funny if it were not so problematic.

Now that all parties have been so badly stung, is it too much to hope that we can actually have a conversation on what changes might be made to the Constitution?

Previous Posts

2 November, 2016 How far does Section 44 of the Australian constitution actually stretch?
Tuesday, July 18, 2017 Senators Ludlum, Waters and the emerging Section 44(i) mess
Monday, August 14, 2017 Why Barnaby Joyce may not be a dual citizen under Australian law
Monday, October 30, 2017, Section 44 of the Australian Constitution - clouded issues with a dash of moral bigotry
Friday, November 10, 2017, Chaos, confusion and the evolving Section 44 mess

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 - 2015 - at the Powerhouse Museum Sydney

Hhat tip to Artdaily for this one.

Men's clothes as seen on display at the Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 - 2015 exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Reigning Men is the world's largest exhibition of men's fashion featuring some of the world's most iconic examples of menswear spanning over 300 years and traversing the globe. It runs from May 2, to October 14, 2018.


Rather nice parallel piece by Peter McNeil in The Conversation, From ‘macaronis’ to mohawks, men’s fashion has always been political.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Problems with Gonski 2.0

I have been reading, more precisely trying to read, the Australian Gonski 2.0 report into school education. It is so full of jargon that I am finding it almost impenetrable. Since I'm not prepared to devote hours of my life to getting through the jargon, I thought that I would stand back and make a few general observations roughly linked to the report.

Education for what?

I think that one of the problems with Gonski et al is that they fail to look at the purpose of education. One aim is to give people certain basis skills. This is what tends to be measured in the basic tests so beloved by educational administrators. However, education also provide knowledge of particular domains and teaches people to think critically. It teaches social skills. It also provides a smorgasbord from which students can accept or reject things in terms of interests and later choices.

Children vary enormously in interest and learning speeds. They slow and accelerate. Often, the things that they most value later are not seen at the time but come to be valued in retrospect. Often they have little to do with formal courses but are linked to particular events or teachers. Sometimes, rejection or rebellion are the main things remembered from school days.

The purpose of education is not national economic efficiency, a concept popularised by the German Empire at a time of fierce competition between empires.. Rather, education has multiple purposes which can conflict and whose results at individual level may not be measurable for years.

Child focused

We are told that schooling should be child focused. The way that this is phrased is, to my mind, a nonsense. By child focused, we mean that education needs to focus on the child as the best way of getting them to perform in ways that we want, to get them to do what we want them to do, to allow them to measure up as determined by the externally imposed measures that we have set. This has little to do with the individual needs of the child. The child becomes an input into a process.

Measurement and national  performance

We are told that Australia is falling behind international educational performance. If that's true, it's a devastating criticism of two decades of education performance focused on improved performance. But is is true? The performance comparison are based on specific measure such as the PISA tests, tests that measure a small number of dimensions. Singapore is cited as a performance example.I wonder how many Australian parents would actually want thier children to go through that system.

Continuous improvement

The report makes much play with the idea that the school system must seek to improve performance: teachers must become more professional and constantly seek to improve their performance; coasting schools (those comfortable to sit in the middle of the pack) must be encouraged to improve; school "leaders" must be encouraged to improve their performance; pupils must be pushed to improve performance and improve their individual performance.

The concept of continuous improvement is a slippery one.It's a concept that I have supported as a management consultant in advising particular organisations, in part because it is a useful corrective to the alternative idea that an organisation can suddenly make a quantum performance leap.To a degree, Gonski 2.0 wants both continuous improvement and a quantum leap.

In looking at performance improvement, I have always been conscious of the need to take into account individual variation. A teacher may be doing a good job within limits set by their own aspirations, time availability,  needs and alternative priorities. A student may be coasting in certain ways because they neither need or want to do better. They prefer to do other things, seek other paths.

If you try to push either group beyond the limits they have set, you create tensions, pressure and stress. Performance drops as a consequence.

To my mind, we have an increasingly stressed school system measured by teacher and pupil stress. I did the old NSW leaving certificate. This was a relatively stress-free environment. My children did the NSW Higher School Certificate. Stress levels were far higher to the point the school had to have programs to help kids manage it. Today I have friends whose children are doing the Higher School Certificate. Stress levels are higher again.

I think it absurd that a year 11 or 12 student is so stressed out that they need medical support and may make their parents' life a misery..And for what purpose? In most cases, the variation in their marks will have no impact on their longer term career or options. Ironically, the lower performing students who perhaps should be worried are likely to be those who worry least because they don't care. It is the conscientious kid who suffers.

Evidence based approaches

There is the usual focus on evidence based approaches and teachers as professionals. My concern in both cases lies in the lack of definition applied to these terms.


Mr Gonski and his panel members may well argue and with some justice that in standing back the way I have ignored some of their arguments and key principles. For example, the idea that advancement should be based upon progress independent of formal year structures, that the school curriculum should include more generic skills to equip students for a rapidly changing world.

My problem apart from the jargon involved is that Gonski 2.0 remains a centralised command and control measurement based approach that will do little to increase the flexibility of the schooling system or give teachers more freedom to diverge from mandated approaches.
This post is also the Monday Forum post.
  .  .  .  

Thursday, May 03, 2018

New England Travels seminar paper

I have now posted to my history blog the paper I delivered  in the University of New England’s Humanities seminar series on 13 April 2018: New England Travels: journeys through space and time. The paper is a personal ramble through elements in New England's history.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Monday now Tuesday Forum - inherent conflicts in modern management

This is a very thoughtful piece Jim - my thanks. 
Some of the problems recognised in your comments are, I submit more associated with country Australia than city. There is more sense of community in country, and less transient population, making for a marketplace based on a relatively static consumer base - in my innocent opinion. There are other problems of country/rural which also don't readily translate/apply to city folk - and I'm going to move to another of those that I have been following, somewhat wistfully: dairy co-ops. 
Here's the latest post from a blog I follow quite closely: A Mexican standoff as the sun sets on MG   
- and to tie it back to your comments on newspapers, this is a blog I have come to trust more completely than the reportage to be found on the same subject in either metro or even rural press outlets. I think this is partly due to the "interests" represented by Marian compared to the "interests" of the media outlets. Agree?
But carry Marian's concerns one step further, and you can get back to a wider subject of direct and current concern: AMP Society and how it appears to have "lost its way" as revealed by the Banking Royal Commission. 
Here's Marian's linked piece on co-operatives generally:The heart of the co-op  which, I believe could as well be used as a base descriptor of our "mutuals" of the finance and banking world, because it raises the very same problem at the heart of it: the rise of a "managerial class" with objectives not completely connected to the business of its prime customers/owners. 
I'd be interested to see if you can see the same connections that I can observe in the above?
I will pick up some of kvd's comments via the New England media post. However, I thought that they might also provide an entry point for a Monday now Tuesday forum topic.

I agree with kvd that milkmaidmarion's blog provides excellent reporting and, like kvd, I have been following the fall of Murray Goulburn with sadness. I suspect I agree with the idea that the country and rural media no longer provides the reflective reporting that we might once have expected. In fairness, though, that type of reflection has generally appeared outside a press concerned with the day to day or week to week. Where I think a change has occurred is that the press can no longer pick up, report on, the more reflective stuff or follow the longer stories in a coherent way.

kvd suggests that the loss of way shown by the Murray-Goulburn disaster or the AMP fiasco, something I referred to in The fish rots from the head - the Financial Services Royal Commission, is due to the rise of a managerial class. I wonder if that's true, although I accept that it's part of the problem. Rather, I wonder if we have completed a system that is fundamentally conflicted.

I do not know how to express this clearly. It's a feeling that I would like to explore in discussion. Perhaps I might clarify a little by posing a few questions:

  • have we lost sight of the fact that organisations are formed for different purposes and need to be judged differently in terms of those purposes? For example, a cooperative might chose to earn a lower rate of return on its accumulated capital if that maximises the benefits to its members?
  • have we created a system where narrow performance measures dominate to the exclusion of other considerations?
  • have we created a system where universals such as effective governance become a distraction from, an impediment to, performance, substituting rules for a focus on ethics and purpose? 
  • have we created a system where targets, performance measures and associated remuneration dominate at organisation level even though the aggregate targets are mathematically across sectors or the economy are mathematically unachievable?        .

I will leave it here. I would be interested in your comments. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday Essay - Can the New England media survive? Yes, but only if it changes

The visit to Armidale gave me another chance to catch up on media changes, especially in my little local pond. I have written quite a bit about the changing media landscape. Think of this post as a further catch-up, one focused especially but not exclusively on the regional press.

We can summarise some of the changes in this way:
  • A progressive reduction in content in the print editions. 
  • An increased focus on the on-line editions
  • Increased use of content across mastheads
  • Increased use of podcasts and videos
  • Fewer long pieces, more short pieces, to fit the internet format.. 
Some of these changes are actually very good:
  • The use of audiovisual material including live broadcasts. The New Zealand Herald is a leader in this area, but all the New England press is doing it too. This means that the papers compete with TV in particular. 
  • While the increased use of shared content reduces the original content, it does allow the appointment of specialist reporters linked to one paper but providing content to several. The very recent appointment of  Nicholas.Fuller as the arts and culture reporter for the Armidale Express is an example. This is a completely new role. 
I am very conscious of all these changes, partly because I am a columnist with the Express, partly because I follow so many media outlets.

Let's start our discussion with the print editions of the papers. Under the traditional business model, the number of  pages is directly related to the volume of advertising. As advertising shrinks, so do the pages including news content. As the news content reduces with reduced paper size, the incentive to buy the paper falls. "I don't buy the Express" has been a popular if increasing call for a long time; "there is nothing in it." As print circulation declines, the scope for advertising supplements that used to be so profitable for the Rural Press group also declines.

Circulation declines are associated with reduced distribution. The paper becomes less available. It is many years since I saw a copy in the motels I stay in when visiting Armidale. The Express experience is not unique. The Melbourne Age, for example, has become very thin.

My column is included in the Express Extra published on a Wednesday with a claimed circulation of 18,000. It is delivered through Armidale and Uralla and inserted into the paid papers in Walcha and Guyra. "The content", Fairfax suggests, "is a mixture of hard and soft news stories, mostly feature style stories which don’t date, and interesting columnists." We columnists are indeed interesting! Actually, we are not bad.

Walking around Armidale, I haven't checked Uralla, the Extra appears to have become less readily available. Again, I haven't seen it in the motels.There does not appear to be a strong distribution focus even though it's free.

I know that people do still read the Express and especially the Extra.My columns appeal to a particular demographic, older locals. The 45 or so locals that I drew to my last talk all read the print edition of the Extra. That's why they came. They do not read the on-line edition.

And yet in terms of penetration, the Express is not pulling in the way it did.

There is an interesting test here. I have been writing for the paper for many years, week in, week out. Yet when I book into accommodation in Armidale nobody knows who I am! There is no name recognition. When I say that I write the column, I find that no-one reads the paper. I must admit to a mild feeling of pique!

While the decline in the circulation of print editions is a common pattern, it's not universal. The decline for some papers is slower, while a small number are actually increasing circulation. Those who are doing better have a clear focus on their market and on circulation. They have not given up!

Under former editors, my columns were not on-line. I was mildly miffed and asked the previous editor Lydia Roberts about that. She explained that she was concerned that if it was on-line it might affect the circulation of the Extra.That was flattering, of course, but also reflected the fact that a small number of people do actually collect the Extra just to read my column.

Editors change and my columns are now on-line. My print deadline is the Thursday for publication the following Wednesday. In fact, depending on available content, it now sometimes appears in the on-line edition of the paper on the Friday. Further, and again depending on available content, it may also be run in the on-line editions of other Fairfax Northern Tablelands papers and, it appears, other sometimes surprising mastheads as well. Sometimes it appears in those papers on-line but only the Extra print edition so far as the Express is concerned.  I do not object to this, but it raises a key question about marketing targeting.

I said earlier that I follow multiple media outlets. This includes all the Fairfax papers on the Tablelands as well as other papers such as the metro media. I have become very conscious of the extent to which they run common content and then tell me via twitter. At least two issues arise:
  • For the life of me, I can't see why they should uncritically run other other Fairfax press stuff such as the Canberra Times pieces on the shift of APVMA to Armidale that actually work against the area they  serve. Note I said uncritically. I really mean without thought. 
  • The commonality at least of on-line content blurs the distinctive nature of each paper. I think the papers (and this includes the metros) have lost sight of their market places and the communities they serve. They have lost the ability to differentiate. 
Let me try to illustrate. My focus is on the local press and especially the Express as a case study.

The first market served is those that live in the paper's catchment area. There are three channels here.

The first is the print edition. I have already indicated that I feel that the papers have lost sight of this channel. There is a real issue here that I have alluded to for papers serving an older demographic who are the most dedicated followers but who do not read on-line. One correspondent who was organising an event that spanned areas, put the problem this way. The only way I can get to older people interested in this event (a major family reunion) is through the print papers, but it's hard to get the papers to run stories. The apparent problem is that as the print editions shrink in size the amount of content that can be carried shrinks too, creating a rationing effect.    

The second channel is the e-editions, the subscriptions to the on-line version of the print paper in pdf  form. I get the Express in this form and it doesn't always work very well. .That is partly because I have an old box that doesn't always load. But it's also that I find the print edition more satisfying. In terms of the local market, each subscription to the e-edition substitutes for a print sale. However, the advertisements still reach the same audience. .

The third channel, really channels, is the paper websites and associated social media presences. This is the area of most dramatic change, but one where the papers have yet to work out how to monetise properly in part because of lack of clarity over audience and role. .

The main changes can be summarised this way:
  • With exceptions such as the Northern Daily Leader,  the print papers are generally bi weekly or weekly. However, in their internet editions many have effectively moved towards daily publications with constant updating of the websites.  
  • The sharing of content between websites is part of this. The structure of the websites now mimics the bigger papers, but for people like me who monitor a number of the papers the shared content is very obvious
  • The websites now carry more varied content including podcasts, video material and live broadcasts, material that cannot be provided through the print editions
  • In addition the websites, the papers also have Twtter, Facebook and, although this is poorly developed, YouTube channels. Again using the Armidale Express as an example, it has 2,417 followers on Twitters 8,246 followers on Facebook. 
  • It also has multipliers, reporters and columnists who have their own handles and sometimes Facebook pages. For example, in my case I post links to my columns on Twitter (264 followers), my public Facebook page (118 followers) and the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook group (2060 members). Some of those tweets, posts get shared. 
  • The multiplier effects are quite considerable, Allowing for duplication between groups through shared membership, my rough estimate is that I reach at least 2,000 people each week who would not otherwise see the column. That's well over 10% of the print edition of the Armidale Express Extra. Not all read the column, but I think a fair number do.    .     . 
I now want to introduce a new variable, newspaper structure. When Rural Press took over the Tablelands and Slopes media, it broke up the previous linkages between local newspapers. It's solution to maiximising broader reach was via advertising supplements and multi-paper publications such as the extras. When Fairfax merged with Rural Press, it atomised the individual papers, reducing them to local markets. The broader unity was lost. Now economics dictates shared resources. Suddenly, the various Northern Tablelands/Slopes papers are again a broader entity, more so in fact. This opens new commercial possibilities that have yet to be realised. However, those possibilities can only be realised if they focus more on their markets, channels and advertisers.  .    .

Dealing with markets first.

The first market place is obviously the local, the traditional marketplace. However, each paper has a broader audience, those connected with the community who live beyond. Let me take the Armidale Express again as an example.For every person living in Armidale, there are at least five ex-Armidale people living elsewhere who are interested in the city. Some might be paid to subscribe to the print or e-edition. More would, in fact do, access a web site. They represent a largely untouched market.

Now for channels. Each channel is a marketplace in its own right. It needs a differentiated approach to determine just what the commercial value is. I don't think that happens at present.

There also needs to be a targeted approach to advertisers based around audience and channel. For example, if you are a local chain store, you really need the print edition. That is not necessarily true if you are a government agency who wants to get across a general information message. However, you might want to run or be persuaded to run an advertisement across a number of local mastheads in print and on-line or even just on-line. How might you do this?

Because each paper has its own market, because there is a regional market as well, there needs to be an integrated sales and marketing strategy. This seems to be impossible because so much is centralised across Fairfax, across Australian Community Media as a central platform. There is limited local or regional. . .

I am out of the time that I can spend on this post and will come back to this area later. Meantime, a small test for you. Say you want to run a small add on the Armidale Express on the web site about the 150th celebration of something. You can reach the local audience via the paper, but want to get to the broader expat audience. How might you do this?

Or say you are a Government agency who would like to run an ad on consultation for a regional development plan. You will put an ad in the print edition plus a story, but you want to run an ad on-line on six web sites. How might you do this? Note, by the way, that there appear to be no Government ads at all on the on-line sites.

I will extend this discussion later. For the moment, I leave you with the challenges.


Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald introduced a new website.This has now extended to the Canberra Times.  Grant Newton in Welcome to The Canberra Times' new website provides the rationale for the changes.

I didn't like the SMH changes, but didn't know whether or not I was just being old-fashioned. I found the new website a bit clunky, slowing down my ability to find what I liked. My use of the site has dropped by more than half. The initial comments to the changes on the CT web site suggest that I am not alone. Because the changes are partially geared to mobile readers, I checked on my mobile. I'm not sure that it's an improvement.

My biggest problem is that I cannot see how they will monetise the sites beyond following down the paywall route.  A second problem is that a staff response in comments on the CT story suggests that they are going to roll them out out to all the Fairfax sites. If this is done as a universal without local and regional commercial models in place, then I think that it will destroy the chances of commercial viability for the New England media.  

Postscript 2 8 May 2018

Now that we have had a bit of experience with new SMH website, I realised that while I still visit to some degree, I no longer read it properly. It's too much like hard work, takes me too long to identify what I am interested in, there is too much visual crap. I am just one person and not a member of the demographic they are aiming for. Would be interested to know what other people think.

Friday, April 27, 2018

John French Sloan, the Ashcan School and the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition "Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950"

John Sloan (American 1871 - 1951), Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, 1907 (detail). Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 32 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Meyer P. Potamkin and Vivian O. Potamkin, 2000. 1964-116-5. 

My knowledge of US art is still very limited. I had never heard of John Sloan, the Group of Eight or the Ashcan school until my eye was caught by a piece in Artdaily Philadelphia Museum of Art opens "Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950".

Wikipedia (link above) summarises Sloan in this way:
John French Sloan (August 2, 1871 – September 7, 1951) was a twentieth-century painter and etcher and one of the founders of the Ashcan school of American art. He was also a member of the group known as The Eight. He is best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in New York City, often observed through his Chelsea studio window. Sloan has been called "the premier artist of the Ashcan School who painted the inexhaustible energy and life of New York City during the first decades of the twentieth century" and an "early twentieth-century realist painter who embraced the principles of Socialism and placed his artistic talents at the service of those beliefs."
The Ashcan School is described as:
The Ashcan School, also called the Ash Can School, was an artistic movement in the United States during the early 20th century that is best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York, often in the city's poorer neighborhoods. The most famous artists working in this style included Robert Henri (1865–1929), George Luks (1867–1933), William Glackens (1870–1938), John Sloan (1871–1951), and Everett Shinn (1876–1953), some of whom had met studying together under the renowned realist Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and others of whom met in the newspaper offices of Philadelphia where they worked as illustrators. The movement has been seen as emblematic of the spirit of political rebellion of the period.
The Artdaily describes the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 as exploring the creative responses of American artists to the rapid pace of change that occurred in that country during the early decades of the twentieth century. It "examines the new and dynamic visual language that emerged during this period and had a dramatic impact on painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, architecture, and the decorative arts. These developments" were shaped by the dizzying transformations then occurring in every aspect of life, from the advent of the automobile and moving pictures to the rapid growth of American cities and the wrenching economic change brought on by the advent of the Great Depression after a decade of unprecedented prosperity."

According to Timothy Rub, the Museum’s George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer, "America’s embrace of modern life—its perils as well as its promise—in the early twentieth century was expressed most clearly in the arts. The work of this period still feels fresh and of the moment."

George Luks, Street Scene, 1905, Brooklyn Museum
I said earlier that my knowledge of American art was quite limited. That's actually true of my knowledge of American history and culture in general. I did study some American history,  have read various political works as well as fiction, have been exposed to multiple films and have been to the country three times.

While aspects of America are instantly familiar through exposure, it still strikes me as an alien culture, both simpler and far more complex than Australia. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation.

Back in the early 1980s when I was back at UNE as a postgrad student and on a general reading jag,  I read Stow Persons' book American minds; a history of ideas. This gave me a far better idea of both the simplicity and complexity of American life and thought than any other book that I have read because it was so wide ranging in its scope. The US is a much larger country than Australia in terms of population and resources. It is older and has a much bloodier history. In some ways it is multiple countries contained within borders reflecting settlement patterns and accident of history.

Yet when all this is said, there was something familiar in the art I looked at compared with Australia or indeed Europe at the same period.  I really would enjoy that exhibition.