Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Overcoming the curse of local self-interest

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 18 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

At last, fully back on line.

Last week, I suggested that first two building blocks in turning New England around were the adoption of a long term view plus a continued focus on community development at a local level.

I will say a little more on these two later. In this column, I want to discuss the remaining building blocks I mentioned: a focus on ways of helping other communities achieve their objectives; together with the articulation of broader approaches to development within New England.

As I wrote my last column, Walcha withdrew from the organisation of southern Tablelands’ councils. I cannot comment on this action because I do not know the facts. I can say that local self-interest has been one of the curses of New England.

I don’t think that I need to labour this point. Anybody who has been involved at any level with regional development activities will know what I mean.

This self interest has fragmented collective efforts to achieve things that would benefit all. Among other things, it has allowed those seeking power in Macquarie Street to practice what I call the pottage approach to politics.

First brought to an art form by Sir Henry Parkes, this approach involves buying votes in particular communities through direct assistance – a playground here, a road works there, a grant to a community organisation. The skill lies in playing off different interests to achieve the desired results for the minimum amount of cash.

The pottage approach divides. Peoples’ views shrink to their localities. They act to protect what they have, forget broader interests.

We need to turn this around, to reach out to help others. This may sound like idealistic clap-trap, so let me illustrate.

Armidale’s core business is education. That business has been under threat because of demographic change. UNE is the business flagship. Yet UNE’s future is not secure. There is still a real risk that the university may end up at best as a branch campus controlled elsewhere.

Every family added to Tamworth or Inverell, Tingha or Glen Innes, Grafton or Kempsey, means at least one potential UNE student. Yet, and I stand to be corrected, I have seen little interest in Armidale in building those other communities.

There will always be conflict between communities when they are fighting for the same piece of cake. Conflict drops as you seek to create new cakes that all can share.

To extend my argument, take the Tingha community regeneration example I referred to in my last column. On every statistical measure, Tingha is one of the poorest communities in Australia. It is also a community with a high indigenous population.

Bob Neville’s community regeneration project - -aims to rebuild Tingha from the bottom up. Success will benefit not just Tingha, but nearby communities as well.

The gains to Armidale may be small in absolute terms, but the project still warrants Armidale support. My point is that success in rebuilding New England depends upon a whole series of small compounding steps.

I mentioned Tingha’s high indigenous population. This brings me to my last building block, the need to force Governments to respond by the articulation of broader approaches to development within New England.

One measure that I used to review the NSW Government’s state plan was the extent to which it might address indigenous disadvantage in New England. I thought that it would have little effect.

Following the riots at the Block, the NSW Government created a Minister for Redfern, now Redfern Waterloo. The post is currently held by Kristina Keneally.

At the last census there were 1,982 indigenous people in the City of Sydney. They have a Minister. Tamworth Regional Council with an indigenous population of 3,705, up 35% from the previous census, is just a dot on the map.

We cannot afford to be treated in this way. Resolution of indigenous disadvantage is a mainstream New England need in a way not seen in Sydney where indigenous populations, while sometimes large in absolute terms, are a tiny proportion of the overall population.

The key issue is access to opportunities, and that means economic development and jobs. Here Indigenous and non-Indigenous needs are in fact identical, because Indigenous jobs in places like Kempsey, Tamworth or Moree depends upon broader economic development. Aboriginal specific economic development strategies have their place, but will have little real impact in the absence of broader development.

We need to make Sydney recognise this, forcing them to respond to our broader needs.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Turning New England around

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 11 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

One Sunday morning in January 1967 I flew out of Armidale to take up a position as Administrative Trainee with the Commonwealth Public Service Board. This marked the start of an intensive twelve month training course intended to train future public service leaders.

Young and away from home for the first time, I found my new life far too interesting to worry too much about past concerns.

The loss of the new state plebiscite later that year marked a something of a full stop in my mind; it would be almost five years before my interest in country matters really re-surfaced; a further nine years before I could properly articulate the economic and political factors that created systemic bias against regional areas and that of themselves justified (among other things) the new state cause.

Growing up, I saw things simply in terms of an oppressive city, an oppressed country; “on the money from the North, cabinet ministers sally forth”, to quote the words of a New England song, pretty much summed up my views.

I was to find that the real difficulties were far more complicated, that much politics and policy failed because they dealt with symptoms, not causes.

The dividing line in my thinking came early in 1980.

After almost twelve years in the Commonwealth Treasury I had accepted a position as the Department of Industry and Commerce’s professional economist, head of the Department’s Economic Analysis Branch. That Friday evening I was at the Departmental happy hour when John Martin, my senior Director, came to find me to tell me that Keith Purcell, my Division Head, needed me urgently.

Keith explained that Prime Minister Fraser and Industry Minister Philip Lynch had been talking that afternoon about the decline of Australian manufacturing.

Minister Lynch wanted proposals on his desk Monday morning explaining how this might be turned around. He would then talk to the PM. I gulped, and started calling in staff.

We worked all that weekend. Our problem was that we could use statistics to delineate the problem, but beyond individual measures such as accelerated depreciation that had not really worked before, we had no real solutions. I was mortified and swore that I would never find myself in that position again. It took us several years to work out possible solutions.

How does all this link to the decline in New England that I discussed in my last column?

Well, just as the problems faced by our manufacturing sector in 1980 were systemic, inter-related and poorly understood, so are New England’s problems.

Further, the measures that have been tried to address those problems have not worked. We need to find something new.

To start turning things round, I think that we have to do four things. We are already doing some of these things. We need to do them better and in a more integrated way.

First, we need to work on a long term, say twenty years, time horizon. Our problems did not just emerge; their resolution will take time.

Secondly, we need to continue to focus on community development at a local level even when the problems seem great. Bob Neville’s community redevelopment in Tingha is a local example. This provides key building blocks.

Thirdly, we need to focus on cooperative action between communities, but do so in a different way.

In particular, we need to focus on ways of helping other communities achieve their objectives, not worry too much about how they are going to help us achieve our own.

This builds cohesion and leverage.

Fourthly, we need to articulate broader approaches to development within New England that might provide solutions to common problems, forcing politicians and policy makers to respond.

These may sound just words. They are more than that.

In some of my coming columns I will flesh these points out, using specific examples to make them tangible and precise.

To finish with an apology: I am still having email troubles, so have not been able to respond properly to people’s emails.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Can we stop New England’s decline?

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 4 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line.

In November 2006, the then Premier of NSW announced a new 10-year plan for NSW, I examined it in detail against needs across the broader New England as I saw them.

I concluded that even if everyone of the myriad performance targets were to be met, the plan would do little to address New England's core needs.

In February 2007, Professor Vinson released his study into national economic and social disadvantage. Nearly all the most socially disadvantaged towns and villages in NSW identified by professor Vinson are located in the broader New England.

It is now March 2009. As part of some contract work that I am doing, I have been looking at demographic data for regional NSW -local government area (LGA) after LGA, town after town, locality after locality; from Baryugil to Balranald, Walcha to Walgett, Moree to Murrin Bridge, Leeton to Lightning Ridge, Tingha to Tenterfield.

I grew depressed as the statistics painted the continuing relative decline of New England and, more broadly, regional NSW.

Looking back, I grew up within a world defined by the history and mythology of the fights for country development. Success seemed possible simply because we had already achieved considerable results.

The three defining pillars in that lost world of mine were the New England New State Movement, the Country Party and the University of New England.

The New England New State Movement provided a vehicle uniting often competing interests across the broader New England. Its very existence forced Governments and political parties to pay attention not just to New England but, more broadly, to questions of regional development.

The Country Party had been forged in the fight for better services for the bush. Just one of the movements spawned by the needs of country people - the CWA was another - the Country Party and its leadership were still directly connected to the passions and causes that had created the Party.

I am not suggesting that people from other parties did not support and work for country development. The ALP’s Bill McCarthy is a local example. I am suggesting, however, that the Country Party’s existence and focus did force other parties to respond to country needs.

The University of New England was created to be the Sydney University – the lead university - of the new New England State. It was both international and intensely regional.

Not all UNE staff supported either the Country Party or the New England New State Movement, UNE provided many of core ALP supporters, but there was a powerful commitment across the institution regardless of party to regional development and university extension. UNE provided many of the intellectual bullets in a continuing debate.

In combination, these three pillars made New England difficult to ignore.

Today, the New State Movement has gone, lost in the despair, infighting and political turmoil that followed the loss of the 1967 plebiscite.

The Country Party has become the National Party. Cut off from its historic roots through the professionalisation that has happened to all political parties as well as the dominant needs of coalition, the Party struggles to escape from a trap set by its now perceived role as the conservative regional wing of the anti-Labor forces.

The New England independents, in many ways the inheritors of the New England populist tradition, have cut a swathe through the National’s traditional New England heartland. However, I feel that they have yet to articulate a coherent alternative regional development philosophy.

The University of New England, too, has suffered from a loss of vision as to its role. In some ways its regional role has shrunk to what is now called New England North West. While individuals still carry the flame, the regional passions that used to inspire the place have, I think, greatly diminished.

The causes of New England's economic and political decline are systemic and deeply embedded in our past. In the absence of more radical change, the interaction between my pillars could not halt the decline. However, the decline has accelerated with their decline.

Can all this be turned around? To some extent at least I believe that it can. I will look at this in my next column.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Manning Valley protests against proposed Marine National Parks

A story by Helen Manusu in the Manning River Times reported on local protests to proposals by the National Parks Association of NSW to lock up large portions of the NSW coast in new marine national parks.

Reading Helen's article, there is a degree of special pleading in the local protests. That said, there is also a serious point.

I used to be a strong supporter of national parks and indeed of the NPA. I now have very serious reservations.

We have got to the stage where there is constant argument by special interest groups for new national parks. There is no rigorous analysis of the justification and costs of new parks, nor can we in fact to afford to manage the parks we already have.

I think that we need a completely new discussion on the issues involved, one that centres on the role and management of national parks rather than the desirability or otherwise of specific park proposals. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Moree's Dhiiyaan Indigenous Centre


I hope that plans to restructure the Northern Regional Library Dhiiyaan Indigenous Centre succeed. The plans were reported in the Moree Champion on 17 March 2009.

The above photo from the Centre's collection shows the Pilliga Mission, one of the sites at which Aboriginal people were gathered on missions or reserves under the control of the Aborigines Protection Board.

At present, the Centre is part of the Northern Regional Library & Information Service and is based in Moree, servicing the shires of Brewarrina, Gwydir, Moree Plains and Walgett. Included within these shires are a substantial number of Aboriginal settlements. They include; Boggabilla, Boomi, Brewarrina, Collarenebri, Mungindi, Toomelah, Walgett and Moree itself.

The plan now is to develop it into a larger stand-alone entity.

I do not know whether or not the Centre is unique in Australia. I do know from my web searches that it is unusual because of its focus (among other things) in helping Aboriginal people trace their families.

The Centre lies at the heart of Kamilaroi territory, but extends beyond this.

My only criticism of the Centre's Mrs Noelene Briggs-Smith and her supporters is that their vision is arguably too narrow, too local. Here I am thinking not so much of services, but of the support base.

My feeling is that the Centre should be selling itself more broadly, seeking to attract support not just from the Moree area and State Government, but also from interested people elsewhere in New England and beyond.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Belshaw’s World: the wicked wiles of a strange deity

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 25 February 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line.

I had an absolutely wonderful response to my request for names of possible map makers.

I am sorry that my email responses were so limited. We have been moving, and I have very limited access at present to email or anything else on-line for that matter.

I will respond properly once we have email connections to the new home office.

I really hate moving. First come all those dreaded cardboard boxes that have to be assembled. Then the packing starts.

In the beginning everything goes well, with boxes carefully packed and marked with the right room. Then, somehow, things start to go wrong. There is never enough time, so that the last boxes are packed in haste with things just shovelled in.

The old place has to be cleaned.

Cleaning. How I detest it! I suspect that there is a god of moving whose role is to make life difficult for all those who move. This includes depositing dust and spider webs wherever possible on every previously hidden surface.

It gets worse.

In our case, the deity in question chuckled gleefully and gave us rain. Quite a lot of it, sent down specially from Northern New South Wales. I am not saying that the rain should have stayed there, the Bellingen floods were quite bad enough, but it did add to our difficulties.

Our cats were totally freaked out by all this.

We became cat owners by accident. The retired Greek couple next door do not believe in de-sexing. Tiger (our name) decided that our place was the right place to give birth. And give birth. And give birth again. After five or so litters she moved in and we had her de-sexed.

There has been a marked attrition rate among our cats.

Jack, Tiger’s brother, was a very good looking cat with a lovely nature who enjoyed going for walks. He vanished three times.

The first time we think he was stolen on one of his walks. He was discovered more than ten kilometres away.

The second and third times he was chased away by Old Gray, the once good looking stray tom who had marked our street as his territory. We know where Jack is, he has been adopted by another family four blocks away, but decided to leave him there because he is clearly loved and looked after.

Neither Rhapsody nor Black and White were so lucky.

Rhapsody, one of Tiger’s kittens that we kept, simply vanished. Black and White was a different story.

Mistreated and abandoned, she came to our backyard heavily pregnant. Badly traumatised and still very underweight, she began giving birth under a clump of long grass in the backyard. It was raining heavily, so we carried her inside.

Initially things went well. Still very nervous, she used to sit on my desk when I was working. Then she moved the kittens one day while we were out and vanished.

Some weeks later she rushed in through the front door with another kitten, not one of her original ones, and went to the place where she knew the food was. Another cat snarled at her and she rushed back out. We never saw her again.

The scrawny underweight and frightened kitten stayed, so we gave her the name Random. Like Black and White before her, she took to sitting on my desk in front of the monitor.

In moving, we decided to take Random first to give her a chance to settle in before the other cats. This was an error. She went absolutely berserk, escaping into the new yard and then over the fence. We haven’t seen her since.

We managed to move the other cats successfully if with some difficulty, but I will miss Random.

Now we come to the final stage in the moving saga, unpacking. Here the god of moving has another trick up his sleeve. Why it is that the boxes you most need are always hidden at the bottom of a pile of boxes?

Still, I do have my computer working again. Just as well, or I would not have been able to complete this column!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Belshaw's World - Memories of times past and a restaurant once great

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 18 February 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line.
This column is simply a personal potpourri of some of the things around at the moment in Belshaw’s World.

Last week was my birthday. For my present, my daughters offered to pay for a weekend in Armidale for the whole family. We have to set the date, but it means that we will all be there some time in the next month or so.

I was touched. Since Aunt Kay died, there have been fewer reasons to return.

Last year I ran eighteen full day workshops around the state training community housing managers in new rent setting approaches. This brought me through Armidale twice, in both cases driving between Grafton and Tamworth workshops.

The first time it was cold and damp.

I drove into Armidale a bit after seven in the evening. I was very tired. I had been up since four and still had the Grafton road in front of me, but took an hour just to drive round the town.

On the way out I stopped in front of TAS to smoke a cigarette. The school was brightly lit. I stood there in the mist, thinking of times past.

The second time I made the effort and stayed in Armidale overnight, getting to Armidale from Grafton about eight.

I walked down the road to a restaurant that I had always liked. It had become pretty ordinary. I had been going to write a review for one of my blogs, but decided that the less said the better. Still, it reminded me how things changed.

The same thing happens when I read the Express. There are so few people that I know. Yet despite the changes, Armidale and its surrounds remains my country in a very deeply personal sense. I will be glad to return, as will my girls, both of whom were born in Armidale.

Tuning to other matters, does anybody in Armidale know a cartographer? Let me explain.

Long ago in a dim and distant past, my history honours thesis at UNE was on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales – the broader New England – at the time of European intrusion. I was part of Isabel McBryde’s Australian prehistory group, the first ever such undergraduate group at any Australian University.

Reading High Lean Country, I discovered that one James Belshaw mapped the archaeological provinces of New England. After all these years, and assuming that it is the same James Belshaw, I felt flattered. Still, I had no intention of doing so.

I just felt then, as I do now, that you cannot understand history without understanding geography. So my limited maps were intended to set a geographic context.

In writing my thesis, I decided that I would like to write a history of the broader New England starting in pre-historic times then moving to the present. This dream has remained with me, although I had expected that someone else would complete the task. I did not expect the decline in New England historiography that has occurred over the last thirty years. In some ways, we have lost our broader past.

About three years ago I started researching and writing again on New England history. It has now become a passion.

One of my problems is that there are no maps, or at least no on-line maps. And I need maps.

Let me take an example.

I am fascinated by the interaction between Aboriginal groups. Where were they, how did they relate?

When I wrote my thesis, I concluded that the Tablelands itself was a marchland area, with people leaving it at certain times of the year. My views on seasonal migration were conclusively disproved by Luke Godwin. However, I am convinced that the marchland hypothesis itself was correct.

There is some absolutely fascinating stuff here, holding out (as Sue Hudson and I talked about in an email exchange last year) the possibility of writing a fuller history of Aboriginal Australia in New England. Yet I need maps drawn to test and flesh out the argument.

If you know a map maker, please email me. I cannot afford to pay a lot, but am happy to pay standard rates within my limited budget.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Australia’s creaking administrative systems

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 11 February 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a week's lag because the Express columns are not on line.
It is early Monday morning. As I write, the death toll in the Victorian bush fire disaster nears one hundred. In the midst of the sadness, it makes me proud to be an Australian when I look at the huge efforts of all those involved in fighting such a calamity.

I have been arguing for some time that our current system of public administration does not always work very well. Tell me something I don’t know, some readers might say!

This has become an issue because Mr Rudd wants certain spend to happen quickly. Systemic rigidities make this difficult to achieve.

To the outsider, Australia’s government system appears large and complex. And indeed it is. Yet when you drill down, you find that the number of people involved in any particular area – both advisers and doers – can be quite small. Further, these people operate in a complicated environment where much of their time has to be spent on process matters dictated by an often rigid and over-controlled system.

The problems begin with the expenditure controls that have been in place for many years.

In social housing for example, an area that Mr Rudd has targeted for expansion, declining real funding forced housing agencies in all jurisdictions to try to do more with less.

Faced with the combination of growing needs and limited resources, housing agencies first cut back on maintenance to maintain the supply of new social housing. The led to a maintenance backlog. This is not unique to social housing – look at UNE and its colleges as a local example.

The next step was to prioritise allocations to those with greatest needs.

Who could argue with this? Yet it had some very unfortunate side effects. It reduced the diversity of people in social housing, concentrating people with complex needs in housing estates. It increased costs and reduced rental income.

As the problems became clear, housing agencies throughout Australia looked to ways of leveraging what they had. Some jurisdictions were better at this than others, but the pattern was the same. Available policy and development resources were focused on the task at hand.

Now tell agencies that they can spend and must do it quickly. Neither the plans nor the people are immediately available to do this.

Problems continue.

The Commonwealth wants the states to spend, but also wants to control. Again, who could argue? After all, it’s tax payer money. We want a national approach. So Canberra defines national rules and priorities expressed in terms of key performance indicators.

The difficulty is that conditions vary greatly across Australia. A one size fits all approach often does not work.

As an example, Canberra policy towards our Indigenous peoples is heavily driven by Northern Territory problems. This does not necessarily meet the needs of Aboriginal people living in NSW where conditions are very different.

Once the Commonwealth has defined its approach, individual arrangements have to be negotiated with the states. This takes place through the COAG (Council of Australian Governments) structure and is usually a two stage process.

An umbrella agreement or agreements must be negotiated. These take the form of legal agreements setting out what must be achieved by when.

Each state or territory has to work out what the sometimes very prescriptive Commonwealth approach means for them.

Once agreements are signed, implementation plans must be agreed. These translate the agreement(s) into specific action plans linked to the defined national performance indicators. Problems can emerge where indicators set by the Commonwealth and negotiated under pressure do not fit. How do we make this work?

Given the importance of the agreements, the various central coordinating agencies necessarily become heavily involved. Political judgments have to be made. Is the state prepared to accept an imperfect agreement? What is the cost of walking away?

If you look at the whole process, we start with agencies not geared to spend. Add to this the Commonwealth’s desire for uniformity and control expressed through the COAG process. Now you can see the difficulties involved in doing something quickly.

Would things be better if we abolished that states? Not necessarily, but that’s another story.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New England's declining pubs and clubs

I know that change is inevitable, but I don't have to like it.

First pubs and then pubs and clubs were central to the social fabric of New England communities, especially the smaller one.

Many New England communities lost pubs in the past because the structure of licensing laws made it profitable to transfer licenses to bigger communities. Now we are losing clubs partly because of social change, more because of increased Government regulations and taxes.

I understand the reasons for Government action. The practical problem, however, is that the clubs provided key elements in our social fabric such as sporting facilities. The Sydney government gets more money, we lose facilities.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Round the New England blogging traps - 5

Posting is still a problem because of continuing computer and internet problems. Sigh. Still, in the midst of troubles I thought that I might do a short round up of New England blogs.

I see from Bronwyn Parry Australian Romantic Suspense that book two, Dark Country, is due out in September. I thought that the first one, As Darkness Falls, was pretty good, so I am really looking forward to it.

Moving north and east from Bronwyn's home town of Armidale, I see that Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite has been visiting Bangalow. That took me back. It is years since I have been there.

Hard to believe that when I first visited nearby Byron Bay it was a sleepy seaside town. How things change!

Moving a little south, North Coast Voices continues its mixed commentary on local and broader issues.

I have to thank NCV for drawing my attention to the Crikey Andrew Bolt episode. One of my problems in this largely off-line period is that I do not have access to my bookmarks. It is too time consuming to search on individual sites unless I have a very specific reason for so doing, so I am getting very out of touch.

Moving further south to Bellingen in the beautiful Bellinger Valley, Pip Wilson's Wilson's blogmanac continues its eccentric path. I am never quite sure what he will come up with, but I do learn something new every visit.

Moving inland again up the Waterfall Way to Armidale, Keith Burgess had an interesting post on the THE SOUTHERN CROSS FREE TRAPPERS of Victoria., a pre 1840s living history group.

The living history movement, I think that we can call it a movement, is an interesting one. I started off thinking of it as a bit strange, but beyond fun its not a bad way of really understanding the past - learning by doing, so to speak.

Moving south and finishing in the Hunter, I am really frustrated that I have not been able to visit Media Hunter and its sibling blog Marketer.

These are very good blogs. I promise that when I get properly back on line I will do a serious full review of both.

There, at last a post. Hopefully more soon.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Slowly back on-line

Gordon Smith Lost World I have been so frustrated by my inability to post.

Visitor 20,000 came while I was off-line. Then there was story after story that I wanted to write. And I could not visit Gordon Smith's photos.

Gordon called this photo lost world. It is indeed that!

I do hope to resume proper posting now.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A continued pause in posting

I have not been able to post properly nor respond to emails because of disruptions associated with a house move. Even now, the internet connections are not fully in place.

I do hope to be posting properly soon.