Thursday, December 29, 2011

New England's Air Wars

The following Rigby cartoon provides an insight into another element of New England's past, the air wars that dogged our skies from time to time.

The then Menzies Government had a two airline policy. There was no room under that policy for Tamworth based New England carrier East West Airlines as a separate airline.

In 1961, Civil Aviation Minister Shane Paltridge told EWA founder and Chairman Don Shand that EWA must merge with Ansett Airlines. When Shand revealed this, Paltridge denied that the conversation had taken place.

  David Drummond as MP for New England had been present at the discussions. Drummond was then 71 and in his final term. The Government had a wafer thin majority of one. Drummond tried to see PM Menzies to warn him, but without success.

White and shaking, Drummond rose to speak to an almost empty house. The house filled as he spoke, confirming Shand's versions of events. Given Drummond's reputation for honesty, no one doubted his words. The NSW Labor Government then came in in support.

Minister Paltridge and the Government hastily backtracked. EWA remained as an independent New England owned carrier. The cartoon captures the drama of the moment.    Rigby Air Wars

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Belshaw's World - UNE should change marketing focus

There were a number of things that I could have written about today: swimming pools, history excursions, meeting old friends and the latest craziness’s that pass for modern management all came to mind. The last was a close run thing and indeed forms the entry point to this column.

There is a basic principle of management that says if the rules won’t let you win, change the rules. If you can’t change the rules, change the game. If you can’t change either the rules or the game, then stop playing.

In my last column I spoke of the flock instinct that afflicts journalists and commentators as they chase around after a story. They become participants in a game where the behaviour of other members of the flock influences them as much as the thing that they are reporting or commenting on.

Something very similar happens in senior management. They too behave like chooks. The views of their peers in the flock, their success as measured by those views, can come to dominate.

A story to illustrate just what can happen.

Some years ago I moved from Treasury to the Commonwealth Department of Industry and Commerce as that Department’s principal economist. We wanted to do new things, but to do that we had to reduce the power and influence of what are called the central coordinating departments – Treasury, Finance, Prime Minister and Cabinet – in the policy areas that we were interested in.

Those agencies had established an intellectual lock on ideas, on what was considered to be acceptable in policy terms. New ideas were welcome, but only so long as they fitted in with the conventional wisdom as espoused by the central coordinating agencies. They set the terms of the policy debate at officials’ level.

To break through this impasse, those and others like me had to mount an intellectual challenge to the current dominant mind sets. We had to articulate and sell alternative perspectives. We were trying to change the rules of the game.

For a period and especially in the early days of the new Hawke Government we were quite successful. Things happened. But then, the dead hand of central control began to reassert itself.

Many of our senior officers came, as I had, from the central coordinating departments. In the Canberra pecking order, their careers depended upon the assessment of their peers and especially those in the central coordinating agencies. The flock instinct began to re-assert itself. Creativity dropped away.

I make this point now because during the week there was one of those conversations among UNE alumni and ex-staff about the university. Why, asked one former staff member, did UNE either not feature in or feature so low in the rankings so loved today?

If you are bored and want to see what I mean, have a look at http://www.australian-universities.com/rankings/.

Now those of us outside UNE know that UNE has been and still is a very good university. I know from the experiences of my own daughters that it is far better than many of those ranked higher. Indeed, I and others feel that one of the distinguishing features of UNE lies in the fact that it is, in fact, still a real university.

Despite this knowledge, we struggle to get the message across. Part of the reason for this is that UNE persists in playing university games, continues to insist on applying competitive techniques and management theories that have been effectively discredited in a broader environment.

Consider the UNE little boxes ad that has been running on SBS. When I first saw this, I thought that it was a good ad and in some ways I still do because of its focus on the student experience and the ease of study. However, the ad on its own misses a key point.

James Cook is running competitive ads at the same time, targeting internal students. Those ads focus not just on the student experience, but on JCU’s absolute excellence in certain things.

UNE says study with us externally because we offer a great external experience. JCU says study with us because we are the best.

Townsville is a bloody sight further away from Armidale, yet I know that it is attracting students in place of UNE. To add salt to the wound, I know that Darwin’s Charles Darwin University is starting to out-compete UNE in certain areas.

On the rules of the current game with its relative ranking systems based on narrow criteria, UNE cannot win. The university has to change the game and that means focusing on absolutes, on its role as a university.

An excellent delivery system, and that’s all on-line delivery is, does not a university make. It’s just one element in the mix required to make students come.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 21 December 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Forum - memories of holiday's past

Over on Australian Observer, Paul Barratt's The summer holiday drive recalls the summer holiday drives from Armidale to the coast. This was an annual ritual  for many inland New Englanders, something that I have written on.

Those posts attracted a range of nostalgic comments from others with similar experiences. That got me thinking. As part of my work in documenting New England history and life, it might be interesting to further document some of our collective childhood holiday experiences.

Did you have a favourite holiday spot? What are your memories of getting there, what did you do while there? What things are now draped in nostalgia? 

Remembering the Tamworth Boys Home

The Tamworth Boys Home was opened in 1947. On 16 DecembeBoys line up at Endeavour House in Tamworth.r, the ABC's 7.30 report carried a story (video and transcript here) on the horrors of the place.

That same day, ABC news carried a further story with a little more detail. The photo is from that story. Back in 1999, Submission - Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, outlined the experience of another inmate at the institution. You will find the archival records for the Home here.

It's just a small snippet of New England's history, but one that I thought that I should record.

I have the strong impression that the Second World War period saw a distinct harshening in aspects of Australian life. However, that's something that I will explore further on the New England history blog

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Belshaw's World - seagulls from fish and chip wrap become part of the story

Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to describe the whole process as feeding the chooks. By this he meant the way in which the media gathered around while he fed them.

Now whatever one may think of Joh, he was a shrewd old bird himself. It is hard to deny that the media does behave like a flock, and Joh knew them all pretty well.

Like any flock, the individual birds do have differences, as do breeds. Journalists from the Australian do not behave in quite the same way as those from the Age or, indeed, my colleagues from the Armidale Express.

Yet despite these differences, reporters and commentators wheel in circles, rushing from place to place in a flock.

When the Rudd Government was elected, Mr Rudd received universally favourable coverage. The flock wheeled around the new PM, pushing and shoving to receive scraps from his hand.

Then, quite suddenly, Mr Rudd could do no right. The flock had turned cannibal, pecking away at him until he bled to political death.

Ms Gillard’s media honeymoon was brief, but it was there. Then a new food source arrived in the person of Mr Abbott.

Initially derided, the media could not resist the new food source. They rushed after him. The coverage of the Gillard Government became relentlessly negative. A new feeding frenzy formed. The Gillard Government, too, began bleeding to political death.

Then, surprise, surprise, the reporting tide turned.

The Government didn’t fall over and managed to get some successes. As we reach year’s end, the flock is now pecking away at Mr Abbott as Doctor No, suggesting that Ms Gillard has in fact had a successful few months.

We saw the same flock behaviour during the Global Financial Crisis. We will all be ruined shouted the breathless reporting. Then, as it became clear that Australia was not to experience economic armageddon, the flock wheeled. Suddenly, the reporting was all about this country’s relative success.

To a quite substantial degree, the media flock now operates independent of reality. The flock has become its own reality.

The problems experienced by Mr Rudd lay in part in his style and personality. But they were also affected by current structures in politics and public policy and administration.

Those of us watching how Mr Rudd worked pointed to problems early on. Initially, these problems were ignored by the main media flock until, suddenly, they became central to reporting.

In removing Mr Rudd, the Labor Party removed certain aspects of his style, but other elements were in fact left untouched. As problems resurfaced, reporting swung.

Mr Abbott’s focus on a very small number of issues was quite effective. However, barring a catastrophic collapse by the Government, it was always going to be the case that just the normal business of Government would bring new issues and initiatives. This swung the media flock back.

The media’s flock behaviour is due in part to its focus on the current issues and the now twenty four hour news cycle. Inevitably, reporters constrained by time and lack of resources go quickly with main stories and themes. This has become more important as real resources are reduced in the name of productivity. However, I think that it’s more than that.

One of the distinctive features of modern media is the way that reporters and commentators talk too and watch each other.

The same talking heads appear on multiple outlets, exchanging views. They may disagree on issues, indeed that disagreement is part of their stock-in-trade, but they actually talk about the same things. They opine, opining that inevitably affects subsequent reporting, but they opine about similar things.

This drives the flock behaviour. However, there is another factor.

Today we live in a world dominated by celebrity. Reporters and commentators have become name figures, themselves feeding the flock. They no longer report just on the news, but have become part of the news.

I think that’s a problem.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 14 December 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Armidale in leading edge Vodafone trials

Vodafone has connected its first customers to the National Broadband Network, in Armidale: a move that marks its first foray into fixed network offerings.

According to IT Wire, It is trailing the fetchTV IPTV service including high definition movies on demand and is also the first operator to trial femtocell technology over the NBN, using the Vodafone Expand product. Vodafone says it is planning similar trials in Kiama, NSW and Brunswick, Victoria in 2012.

More information here.

New England's brumbies

This photo from Gordon Smith is simply entitled Brumbies. 

The caption reads:

Brumbies watch us as we pass them by. The stallion in the foreground was especially interested in making sure that his harem was kept away from us.

There is a certain romance about the brumby, descendants of horses that escaped from or were abandoned by European settlers. In Australia, they are best known in the Alpine country in the Monaro and Victoria, but they have been a feature of New England life or many years. Their control has been a matter of some debate.  

According to Wikipedia, between 22 October and 24 October 2000, approximately 600 Brumbies were shot in the Guy Fawkes River National Park by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The public outcry that followed led the NSW Government to establish a Steering Committee to investigate alternative methods of control.[52] Since the campaign began to remove horses from the national park, over 400 have been passively trapped and taken from the Park, and 200 of these have been re-homed.

In 2007, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service commenced a plan to reduce Brumby numbers in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park by passive trapping . Over 60 brumbies captured in the Apsley River Gorge have now been re-homed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Belshaw's World: I love writing – whether I’m a writer or not

A bit over two years ago, I decided to do short term contracting work. I really wanted to write, needed time for that, but also needed cash to feed my writing addiction.

While I write a fair bit, I make very little money from writing as such. In the meantime, groceries have to be purchased and bills paid.

The contracting work proved far more fraught than I had expected, with long gaps between contracts.

The other day my wife looked at me and said “your hair has gone completely white”. She was right, and it happened quite suddenly, almost overnight.

I will write on the contracting experience at some point, for it has broader lessons. For the moment, it got me musing on my desire to be a writer.

You would think that I would rush to take advantage of my involuntary periods without work to actively pursue my writing projects. After all, I say that I want to write full time, and here is the chance to actually do it! Sadly, things don’t quite work that way.

By its nature, writing is a solitary occupation. There is you, a pen and paper or a keyboard, the piece you are writing, the imagined reader or audience at the end.

I am used to working from a home office. When the kids were young I chose to work from home because it allowed me to fulfil the primary child care role. I learned to create structure, but also had structure imposed on me because of the routines of school and domestic life.

I must say that it was very lonely some times. Still, I had my outlets: business meetings, conferences, school functions. Today is very different.

It’s partly that the family has changed.

My wife and daughters lead busy lives. The things that I used to do that gave structure, the running around, have largely gone. The cooking that I used to do has become complicated since the numbers at home for dinner vary all the time. Even a simple thing like a combined family meal has to be scheduled a week in advance.

These changes do give me more time, although just keeping the house tidy is a bit of a battle. However, I find the absence of past structures difficult to manage.

The term writer’s block was coined in 1947 by the psychoanalyst Edmund Bergle to describe circumstances where a writer loses the ability to complete new work.

At one level, I don’t have writer’s block because I still write all the time. And yet, I find that my productivity has dropped enormously despite all the extra time I have at present.

In my case, writer’s block manifests itself through an inability to concentrate. I know that I should be writing, but I will do everything and anything first: clean the kitchen, go for a walk, vacuum the hallway, draw up a new writing plan.

Those dreaded plans! If I can’t do, I find myself planning how to do. Planning becomes a satisfactory substitute for action because it gives me an illusion of progress.

In all this, I must say that I am beginning to wonder about my desire to be a writer, even wondering what the term writer actually means.

For a long time, I refused to describe myself as a writer. It sounded just too pretentious. Now if asked what I do, I sometimes say that I am a writer. After all, I now think of myself as a writer.

This gives rise to some funny reactions. “And what do you write?” is a pretty standard question, with people often having novels or plays or poetry in mind.

But just what do I write? Anything and everything actually, but it is nearly all non-fiction. I don’t write a single thing, I write many things, and that’s part of my problem. I am neither fish nor fowl.

Trying to think through just why I am so addicted to writing regardless of form, it comes back to a love of language combined with a desire to involve and to communicate.

In my historical writing, for example, I write as an historian. In doing so, I have to comply with the canons of the discipline. However, as a writer I also want my history to be good writing, so I am addressing a double barrelled challenge as historian and writer.

I am not quite sure where I am going in all this, just trying to clarify thoughts and issues that are important to me at present. Still, I have at least finished another column!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 7 December 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

New state support grows in Newcastle

My thanks to Greg for this one.

In Container port bound for Botany, the Newcastle Herald reports that the Sydney Government is to ditch the long standing plan to make Newcastle the next NSW container port after Botany Bay.

The story attracted a range of comments reflecting the way an issue likes this generates divergent views. Yet what was interesting from my viewpoint were the number of comments suggesting that this was yet another example of the need for a New England or Northern new state.

I haven't checked back, I am short of time, but it must be two years now that the need for a new state first surfaced in comments on Herald stories.  At first the comments were scattered. Now they have become a consistent thread. The simple idea that self-government for the North is a part solution to the problems of misgovernment in the Hunter is becoming entrenched.

Obviously I welcome this, given my own views. Yet what's interesting from a political perspective is the way that an idea once rejected as just too left field, a figment of the past, has again become current.

Wearing my New England hat, the politicians ignore this at their peril. The defeat of the NSW Labor Government was widely welcomed as the start of a new direction in NSW. In relief, people were prepared to give Sydney the benefit of the doubt. And yet. all this did was suspend a deeply felt cynicism.

What commentators and others locked into conventional metro mind sets fail to realise is that this cynicism is not just about politics as such, but about the actual structures of Government.

My 23rd November Express column was entitled return of New England. New England is back. Ignore us at your peril!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Belshaw's World - ratings madness

The global credit rating agencies have become a cancer eating away at the global economy.

In the lead-up to the global financial crisis, they gave triple A credit ratings to institutions and securities that were clearly not. As the crisis unfolded, the variations they made to country and institutional rankings added to market instability.

We see the same thing today in the unfolding crisis with the Euro.

The credit rating agencies provide no new information to the market. The standard of their economic and financial analysis is clearly suspect. Yet despite all this, a shift or threat of a shift in a county’s credit rating can have damaging or even catastrophic market effects even though it tells us nothing that we didn’t already know.

Our problem and it is our problem because it affects us all, lies in the way that we have awarded the ratings agencies authority without responsibility. We have created a cancerous monster.

We have had to work quite hard to achieve this.

Looking back into a now dim and distant past, I remember discussions in the Commonwealth Treasury on the possibility that Australia might get a triple a credit rating for the first time. We did, lost it in 1986, then finally got it back in 2003.

Australia’s original concern with its credit rating at state and Federal level made a lot of sense.

In those days, both State and Federal Governments borrowed to fund infrastructure. We needed access to global capital for both private and public purposes. A high credit rating made it easier for a small relatively remote country like Australia to access funds and at a lower cost.

From being a means to an end, the maintenance of a triple A credit rating became an end in itself. All Australian Governments preached this as a badge of honour.

There was a certain irony in this shift, for it coincided with a fundamental shift in Government funding patterns. Australian Governments largely stopped direct borrowing, thus reducing the direct gains associated with the triple A rating.

One can argue whether or not Australian obsessions with triple A rating were justified. One can also argue about the use of so called private-public partnerships to shift apparent borrowing to the private sector, thus increasing borrowing costs.

What can be said with some justice, however, is that the obsession with the maintenance of a triple A rating did provide some degree of fiscal discipline, something that would be important during the global financial crisis.

So far, so good. However, at this point a fundamental change occurred in the approaches adopted to the ratings agencies, one that would have devastating consequences. In simple terms, their credit rating role became institutionalised.

Take Australia as an example. As part of the deregulation process, local government was given greater freedom to invest surplus funds. Further, there was an expectation that local government would manage their funds so as to get the best return, thus benefiting rate payers.

Under previous arrangements, investments were restricted to a prescribed list of asset classes. Now, local government had greater freedom to invest so long as the securities in question had the appropriate rating from the ratings agencies.

I have used an Australian example, but this type of change took place around the world in both private and public sectors. The ratings as awarded by the agencies were built into a myriad of regulations, financial arrangements and associated contracts.

This institutionalisation created a fundamental conflict of interest in the agencies themselves, for they made the majority of their money from fees charged for ratings. More importantly, it gave the agencies a role that they could not in fact properly fulfil.

We saw the results of this during the global financial crisis when agency rated triple A securities proved to be, at best, junk status. However, there was another even more pernicious effect.

The institutionalisation of agency ratings, their incorporation into so many regulations and arrangements, meant that variations in credit ratings had direct flow on market effects in ways that no-one had foreseen. The ratings system itself had become a direct cause of market instability and on a large scale.

At this stage, it is very hard to see just how all this can be unwound. Yet we need to do so if global economic problems are to be properly addressed.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 30 November 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Discovering a New England treasure trove

One of the reasons why I have been so slow in posting here is the neIMG_0001ed to sort some of my possessions for discard, retention, storage or sale. As part of this, I found three book boxes full of New England books, most no longer available: biographies, autobiographies, local histories, property histories, novels, poems and photographic albums from across the North.  

I knew I had had them, but thought them lost: from North Star to Lake Macquarie, from the Upper Clarence to Scone, from Page to Wright, from McBryde on New England prehistory to two copies of my original honours thesis, a first edition of Baal Belbora and so it goes on.

It's not a complete collection. I used to try to buy every book published in or about or written by someone from the broader New England. Sadly, I ran out of money and space. Still, at a rough count I have more than four hundred publications.

There are other collections, but its a fairly unusual resource. I have also managed to preserve a lot of my original source material on my PhD thesis, including copies of key new state correspondence and, in some cases, the originals because they are family papers.

I have to go on sorting, but you can expect more explorations through the life and history of the North that so many of us love.

As I have said before, and really as Australia Subdivided inferred in 1921, we have lost so much of our history and culture because it was just not seen as relevant by the gatekeepers who control so much of what Australians read or see.