Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A review of Valerie Morton's Blame it on the Rain: life around Byron Bay

"Northern New South Wales is a big, fat, subtropical, coconut - and turmeric - laced cliché of heavenliness.

Here in Northern New South Wales, people like to go about barefoot." 

At Christmas time I took some book vouchers and went across to Harry Hartog's to try to but some books with a connection to Northern New South Wales, my broader New England.  The pickings were very thin, the worst they had ever been. Even the second hand book section gave zero results. In the end, the only book I could find was Valerie Morton's Blame it on the Rain: Life around Byron Bay (:Red Flower Books, 2018).  

Lavishly illustrated with photos, the book is a series of vignettes about beach, bush but mainly locals - with a dash of cane toads, ticks and gold top mushrooms. Did you know that some people lick cane toads because the poison contains a powerful hallucinogenic? That was certainly news to me. 

While the book references  Northern New South Wales, it is actually about the Northern Rivers, more precisely still that part of it covered by the Byron Shire, even more precisely the town of Mullumbimby and surrounds. 

It is not clear to me when people started to call the Northern Rivers  Northern New South Wales. It seems to link to administrative naming  by the Sydney Government, most recently the decision to name the local health district covering the Northern Rivers the Northern New South Wales Local Health District. Whatever the cause, the misuse of names has become an absolute pain. It's not easy when naming conventions take away the identity of your entire area. 

Valerie moved to Byron Shire some twelve years ago and now lives in a rain forest near Mullumbimby. a very pretty town. Nearly everyone that features in her book is a new arrival. I could only identify one local born person. That reflects the changes that have swept across the North since the 1970s. 

Australian poet and artist Edwin Wilson's The Mullumbimby Kid: a portrait of the Poet as a Child (Woodbine Press, 1973) present a picture of life in the area  before the changes, as does Shirley Walker's Roundabout at Bangalow (University of Queensland Press 2015), . When I was at university, some of my friends came from Mullumbimby, following the path of Wilson and Warlker out into the broader world via education in Armidale. 

First the counterculture and then the sea change movements brought great changes, changes facilitated because the  decline in dairying made relatively cheap land available .A proper history of these changes remains to be written, but they were quite profound. 

This is reflected in Valerie's book. This is a very local world made up of people with particular view who seem to have very little linkage with the surrounding regions, more in common with the patterns of life in Australia's inner city areas. Except, perhaps, that those in Byron Shire have developed particular patterns linked to their local environment. They are the same, but different, with trends accentuated by .smaller size. According to Wikipedia, link above, Mullumbimby has the lowest vaccination rates in Australia.  

This is not a criticism of the book, simply a reflection on my reactions to it. The book is not high literature, although it's well and simply written. Rather, it presents a clear and interesting picture of a some ways unique life in a particular area at a particular point in  time. It's worth a read whether you are in Australia or elsewhere. .     

Monday, February 25, 2019

Port of Newcastle. another example of the malign impact of Sydney centric decisions that ignore the North?

Port of Newcastle. another example of the malign impact of Sydney centric decisions that ignore the North?

On 25 February 2019, the Newcastle Herald carried a story by Michael Parris (NSW port privatisation inquiry finds key details kept secret from Parliament, calls for policy review)  reporting on the preliminary report of the NSW Public Works Committee Impact of Port of Newcastle sale arrangements on public works expenditure in New South Wales.

I first reported on the proposed sale of the Port of Newcastle back on 28 January 2014: Competition heats up for Port of Newcastle. It was only a very brief note in which I said that there appeared to be little opposition to the sale within Newcastle, perhaps because part of the sale proceeds was to be allocated to Newcastle infrastructure. Even then, I was quickly corrected when regular commenter Greg wrote :

"Actually Jim, there has been a fair amount of opposition in Newcastle. The port of Newcastle is substantially different to both Port Botany and Port Kembla in that the government would not be selling a business so much as a) a tax stream (ie. charges for use of the port facilities) and b) an awful lot of prime harbourside land which will severely restrict what can be done on and around the harbour for the next century. In particular, a container terminal was promised for the port a decade ago. That would have been logical to service the north of the state and help relieve congestion around Port Botany. This government has canned that and it is likely that the sale of the port will see hopes fade of a container terminal ever being built in Newcastle. 

There is also resentment that the money for infrastructure in Newcastle is tied in to the port sale, yet the dollar figure is set in stone. If the port gets sold for closer to say $1bn (highly likely), Newcastle won't see a zac more than that already promised from the sale. The state has made that absolutely clear. I don't think that there are too many people who believe that it is a good deal for Newcastle. The sale of the port will benefit Sydney more than it does Newcastle."

In April 2014, then NSW Premier Baird announced that a 98 year lease over the Port of Newcastle, the world's biggest coal port, had been sold for $1.75 billion. Of this amount, $340 million would go to Newcastle projects to aid the city's revitalisation. So it was sold for much more than projected, with just under 20% going to Newcastle projects.

What was not known at the time was that previous sale agreement of the leases to NSW Ports over the southern Port Kembla and Port Botany provided that the State Government would provide a financial reimbursement to NSW Ports should container traffic at the Port of Newcastle pass a certain trigger point. This clause was inserted to maximise the immediate cash to the Government in Sydney. The subsequent sale agreement for the Port of Newcastle included a clause that the new owners would have to reimburse the NSW Government should container traffic trigger the compensation clauses under the original agreement for the sale of Ports Botany and Kembla. The effect was to make a new container terminal un-economic.

These restrictive practice clauses were confidential, but inevitably peaked into the public domain. partly because the Port of Newcastle began to seek to develop a container port 

On 10 December 2018,  the ACCC (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission) announced that had instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against NSW Ports Operations Hold Co Pty Ltd and its subsidiaries Port Botany Operations Pty Ltd and Port Kembla Operations Pty Ltd for making agreements with the State of New South Wales that the ACCC alleges had an anti-competitive purpose and effect.
“We are alleging that making these agreements containing provisions which would effectively compensate Port Kembla and Port Botany if the Port of Newcastle developed a container terminal, is anti-competitive and illegal,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

The following day, 11 December 2018, the Port of Newcastle released a commissioned report on the economic impact of a container terminal at the Port of Newcastle. This suggested (among other things) that a modern container terminal would cut land transport costs for northern NSW businesses by $2.8 billion by 2050. This would, according to Port of Newcastle CEO Craig Carmody, increase exports from Northern NSW including the Hunter by $1 billion by 2050

"Businesses in Newcastle, Singleton, Tamworth, Gunnedah, Port Macquarie, Kempsey, Liverpool Plains and Narrabri can look forward to savings of more than $500 per standard container, if they shipped their goods through Newcastle rather than Port Botany or Port of Brisbane," Mr Carmody said.

With these actions, the originally secret agreements preventing the Port of Newcastle competing against Port Botany and Port Kembla in the container trade finally entered full public gaze. It had been some time coming.

NSW Public Works Inquiry

On 10 November, 2018, a month before the ACCC action, the NSW Public Works committee established an inquiry into the matter. It's terms of reference were;  

"1. That the Public Works committee inquire into and report on the impact of Port of Newcastle sale arrangements on public works expenditure in New South Wales, including: 

(a) The extent to which limitations on container port operations currently in place following the sale of the Port of Newcastle contribute to increased pressure for transport and freight infrastructure in New South Wales, specifically: 
(i) the Westconnex Gateway project (ii) the Port Botany Rail Line duplication 
(iii) intermodal terminals and rail road connections in southwest and western Sydney 
(iv) other additional public road infrastructure requirements due to the additional road freight movements in Sydney under the existing port strategy.

 (b) The nature and status of the port commitment deeds, the extent to which they contain limitations on container port movements, and the terms and binding nature of any such commitments.

 (c) The extent to which container port limitations contribute to additional costs for NSW industries who are importing or exporting from New South Wales, especially in the Port of Newcastle catchment.

(d) Any other related matters.

2. That the committee report by 28 February 2019".  

The committee members were:
  • The Hon Robert Brown MLC   Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Chair  
  • The Hon Taylor Martin MLC Liberal Party Deputy Chair*  
  • Ms Cate Faehrmann MLC The Greens
  • The Hon John Graham MLC Australian Labor Party   
  • The Hon Trevor Khan MLC The Nationals   
  • The Hon Scot MacDonald MLC Liberal Party
  • The Hon Lynda Voltz MLC Australian Labor Party
The Committee reported on 25 February 2019. It found:
  • Finding 1: The Port Commitment Deeds including the conditions of sale and the levy were not disclosed to the public or the Parliament:  
  • Finding 2 26 That the limitations on Newcastle container port operations following the ports transactions have not significantly impacted expenditure required on transport infrastructure projects in Sydney.
It recommended:
  • Recommendation 1: That the Legislative Council consider establishing an inquiry into the ports transactions, and specifically container limitations and associated financial obligations contained within the Port Commitment Deeds, at the conclusion of the Federal Court proceedings involving the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and NSW Ports or at such time as the House determines. 
  • Recommendation 2: That the NSW Government conduct a detailed investigation of freight rail options between Ports Botany, Newcastle and Kembla, including options for line duplication and dedicated freight-line construction, to ensure strategic future corridors are preserved, to optimise rail modal share of freight transport, to better align capacity to meet future demand and to improve the rail service reliability. 
  • Recommendation 3 35 That the NSW Government conduct a review of the state's ports policy, including the potential for a container terminal at the Port of Newcastle, at the conclusion of the Federal Court proceedings involving NSW Ports, or at such time as the House determines.


I am still working my way through the analysis, However, some things stand out. Note that I am looking at the report from a Northern NSW, a broader New England, perspective. I make no apologies for that.

The analysis is very Sydney centric. I have seen this type of analysis before dating right back to the Cohen Commission inquiry into a proposed Northern state. There the analysis focused on railways, the apparent economies associated with the Sydney port rail network and the additional costs associated with developing an alternative system. Leaving aside costing and pricing issues, the way that then NSW rail freights were set provided an artificial surplus to the Sydney railway network carrying Northern good that then became a cost, the analysis was based on what was not what might be.

I thought that was the case here too. It is heavily set within existing plans, existing structures. The Port of Newcastle is seen as an extension of the Sydney network and analysed in that context. In a way, the approach adopted by the Port of Newcastle in emphasising certain savings that would accrue to Sydney through (for example) reduced infrastructure spend encouraged that approach. Disprove those, or at least cast doubt on them, and the case starts to fall to ground.

Assuming that I understand the arguments correctly, the evidence ran that the majority of container traffic was Sydney bound and that, further, the economic locus was shifting to the south and south west, effectively isolating Newcastle, The argument here seems to have been two fold. That expenditure and planning should be focused on the existing infrastructure and that these trends made it unlikely that a container port at Newcastle could be viable.

I have commented before about the way in which present development dynamics are progressively disadvantaging and indeed fragmenting the North The evidence presented to the committee seems to support that view. However, the whole analysis misses certain key points.

The anti-competitive clause itself should never have been there in the first place. It artificially increased the price that was paid for the long term lease at the cost of the Port of Newcastle, Newcastle and indeed importers and exporters across Northern NSW who might have benefited from alternative shipping options. It also artificially increased traffic through the Botany Bay and Port Kembla, creating an economic incentive for further investment to manage the increased traffic.

One can argue about the quantum, one can argue about the extent to which container traffic at Newcastle would be viable, but it remains an economic distortion introduced by the Sydney Government whose costs are born by those in the North.

In this context, and this in part reflects the way the committee's terms of reference were written., there is actually no recognition in any of this of the North as an economic and geographic entity with its own interests. How might we use a container terminal at Newcastle? How might we combine it with other infrastructure to encourage Northern development.? I think that these questions are worth asking.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Another blow to the North; Paywalls damage regional reporting - and cohesion - across Northern NSW, the broader New England

On Monday 5 January 1920,  Victor Thompson as editor of the Tamworth Observer (now Northern Daily Leader) re-launched the campaign for self-government for the North with an editorial on country neglect. Over the next eleven issues,  he published a series of articles calling for the establishment of a new state in Northern NSW. 

Following the initial success of the Thompson campaign, a meeting of Northern newspapers held at Glen Innes in March 1920 agreed to form a New State Press League and Press Propaganda Executive with Thompson as secretary to direct an intensive propaganda campaign.

Over the next twelve months, the twenty-seven newspapers that had joined the League funded the Propaganda Executive to distribute news and editorial material to Northern newspapers. By August 1920, sixty newspapers from the Upper Hunter to the border were publishing League material. 

These newspapers were intensely parochial, dedicated to their own communities. They were also in competition with each other. And yet, they could combine together to campaign for Northern interests.

In Sommerlad’s view, the provincial editor who had “a right conception of his office”, and was not afraid to offer constructive criticism, was the most important citizen in the community. “He can be a local king-maker if he guards jealously the sacred flame and wins and holds the confidence of his readers.” Rod Kirkpatrick

The role of the country and New England press was articulated by pressmen such as Ernest Christian Sommerlad.

Sommerlad was a shrewd businessman operating a business, but believed in the profession of journalism and he had a very particular view of the role of the newspaper, something he articulated many years later in his book  Mightier than the sword; a handbook on journalism, broadcasting, propaganda, public relations and advertising. (Angus and Robertson 1950).

To Sommerlad, reporting was a critical part of the role, promoting the interests of the area served by the paper an equally important part, leading public opinion a further important part. In these roles, he did not see the interests of, say, Glen Innes in narrow parochial terms but as part of a broader whole.

All the Northern editors were well aware of the power of local parochialism, a parochialism that had so often impeded cooperative effort. Recognising their own marketplaces, they sought to overcome this to greater or lesser extent by featuring stories from elsewhere in the North, by combining to support cooperative action beyond immediate town boundaries. So many things that we now have exist because of that. Whenever papers played just to the local, their own towns were the ones who finally lost.

In 1950, all the Northern media from Newcastle to the border was locally or regionally owned. By 2000,almost  none were. Newspapers became mastheads, parts of chains. Their focus became parochial. This process was accentuated by the decline in the sense of the broader Northern identity after the loss of the 1967 new state referendum. The result is an intense localism that benefits neither the papers nor the communities they seek to serve.

In the past, papers would report and support things that were seen to be of benefit to the broader North. That is no longer true. Over the last twenty years they have all become so narrow that I cannot think of a single example where  one paper has campaigned or at least editorially supported an initiative in another place on the grounds that it would benefit the North as a whole. I stand to be corrected here, mind you.

The problem with the heading I quoted above is that it plays into the Armidale v Tamworth meme, something that both the local papers have played to before. Of course Tamworth needs its own campus, although that to my mind should be a UNE campus because that facilitates cooperative effort. Otherwise, it's just more fragmentation of the North.

Paywalls localise, stop people following the broader story, further fragment the North

This particular post was triggered by the introduction of paywalls on the main Fairfax papers in the North from the Newcastle Herald north thus extending the paywalls across much of the Northern press. The effects are quite pernicious, made more so because the number of visit before the wall hits is limited to five a month.   They reflect a very particular view of the role of the papers and the markets they serve.

It hits me hard because I try to write about and report on the whole North. This means constant browsing and checking  I simply cannot afford to subscribe to every paper. So now I find myself, for example, effectively locked out of Newcastle. The problem is made worse because of the narrowing of coverage in individual papers.

Does all this matter? Well, it depends upon your perspective. If, like me, you interested in the broader North then I think that it does. But it also locks out people such as the broader New England diaspora who remain interested, can be interested, in particular issues and areas but who do not wish to subscribe to a paper when they are no longer interested in the detail of local life. I think that the practical impact here is to further narrow the influence of papers, extend the influence of other forms of media.

From a purely personal and practical perspective, I have to try to work out how I can maintain my broader analysis when my access to the main papers is limited to headline scans and a carefully rationed click through. My frustration is increased because when I search through google I keep coming across firewalls, if I see a FB or twitter feed and click ditto outcome. At least with the Fairfax papers, there are some smaller papers not behind firewall, while there is at least that miniscule 5 story limit. With the Northern Rivers papers now controlled by Newcorp, the firewall appears absolute.

 No doubt I will find a work-around solution. but it is another blow for the North as a whole and indeed, in the end, for the papers themselves.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

New England Writers' Centre You Tube Channel - an introduction to publishing and writing at the smaller independent end

Sophie Masson, French Australian writer and chair, New England Writers' Centre
I received an email today from Sophie Masson, writer and chair of the New England Writers' Centre. The heading to the letter email read: "Watch great interviews with fantastic Pitch Independent publishers on the brand-new NEWC You Tube channel!

The email went on:
Dear members, 
A new year, and we have a new and exciting initiative! The brand-new New England Writers' Centre You Tube channel is now up and running, and features 13 fantastic interviews with 12 of the fabulous publishers and editors who visited our region during Pitch Independent in August last year. There's also a video interview with Michael Webster, Chair of the Small Press Network, who also travelled to Armidale specifically for Pitch Independent, from his base in Melbourne. 
The School of Arts in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education(HASSE) at UNE partnered with us in Pitch Independent, with the Small Press Network giving in-kind support. Dr Ariella van Luyn and Dr Beck Wise of UNE, who work within its Writing program, interviewed, recorded and edited the interviews, with the approval of all the interviewees. Many thanks to them for all their hard work, and to all our Pitch Independent for giving so generously of their time and expertise. 
This is an absolutely fantastic resource not only for NEWC and our region's writers and illustrators, but also for anyone interested in the publishing industry in Australia and its thriving small and independent sector. 
So head over to the channel, and have a look and a listen, there is much to enjoy and learn:
I did indeed head.to the new channel and think that it is valuable. I think, too, that it illustrates a little of the variety in modern writing, in part because of the thing the series misses out. We live in a world that has ever more opportunities for writers, but diminished opportunities for actually making a living. Listening to the various pod casts, I did think that we were missing out on some of the things in youngest's world, the world of YA and beyond.

This is a world of the merger of media. Still, at the end you have to get published and a book is the tangible form.