Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas greetings

Just back from the shops getting last minute things we need for Christmas.

Thinking about Christmas and looking back, I think of this as the year we began rediscovering New England. Just as it took New England many years to decline in public prominence, so its rediscovery takes time.

One aspect of this is the way in which easily available material on New England, the broader North, vanished. Now it's starting to come back.

My thanks to all my friends and colleagues, new and old, for your support during the year.

Back on 31 December 2008, Belshaw’s World: Christmas in New England provides one picture of a New England Christmas. There are many others.

May you all have a happy and peaceful Christmas.  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Belshaw's World - Negative message hinders university

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 15 December 2010. 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

As I read the story by Craig Schneider (University to face grim times: Vice-Chancellor, AE 8 December) reporting on Professor Barber’s speech to the Armidale & District Chamber of Commerce, my heart sank.

The University of New England has a remarkably loyal group of alumni. They would have to be to still hold the faith after all the things the University has done to them.

Over the last thirty years, we have seen the University lose sight of its own past and traditions. We have lived through the networked university when it came close to collapse, losing all its reserve funds. We have lived through a fight between Chancellor and Vice Chancellor that pushed the University onto the national front pages for all the wrong reasons.

During this time we have seen multiple new strategic directions, multiple cultural changes processes, multiple marketing initiatives, all couched in the language of modern management speak. When Professor Barber speaks of the need to re-examine UNE product, its markets and its business processes, he is following in the steps of his predecessors.

This column is not an attack on Professor Barber, nor on the detail of his proposals. I do not know those well enough to comment. Indeed, I doubt that many alumni do, for the University has not been especially good in communicating to its broader support base. Instead, I want to look briefly at the challenges that the University faces and make a few suggestions on possible responses.

To begin with, Professor Barber is correct that the University faces a fundamental challenge. It is not alone in this.

Australian universities as a whole are declining in the global pecking order. In saying this I am not talking about the pecking order on the various international rankings that so obsess some. Rather, I am talking about the chat I see on web sites and blogs.

In a recent discussion on one of the leading Australian blogs, the theme was that there were no Australian universities left that could hope to match it with an Oxford or Cambridge. They had become second rate mass degree shops, unable to provide the type of education that was once available here.

I argued during the discussion that, by happenstance, UNE was still a university in the true sense, drawing supporting comments from other alumni.

You may dismiss all this as chatter, but it is more fundamental than that because it affects future attitudes.

In recent years, international full fee paying students have become the cash cow for many Australian universities. Now we face something of a slowly rolling crisis in which enrolments are dropping, commencements are dropping faster.

Faced with this decline, the big universities who have benefited most from those students are turning back to the local market, increasing competition for local students. Here the most lucrative group are those from what are called lower socio-economic backgrounds because they get the greatest funding.

This hits UNE hard simply because its main regional student catchments actually contain a very high proportion of students in these groups.

All Australian universities also face a progressive “deregulation” of the student marketplace, one that provides an incentive to get big or get out. Professor Barber has, to my mind, correctly pointed to some of the issues here. Again, UNE faces more competition for students.

Action has to be taken. The difficulty is that the reporting on those actions whether in the Express or the Australian is actually reinforcing the stereotype of UNE as a place in trouble. There are no positive messages, no unifying themes.

People forget, I think, that the majority of the broader university community do not live in Armidale, nor in Northern NSW. Messages designed for a local audience actually spread quite widely.

If members of the broader community know that our university is in trouble because Professor Barber told us so, think of the impact on prospective students. Why should they bother enrolling at UNE? Unless, of course, they just want to use it as an entry point to Sydney!

We cannot sell process or negatives. We have to explain to students why they should some to UNE, to alumni why they should support.

This brings me to my final point.

If, as many of us believe, UNE remains a true university, that is no small thing in today’s Australia. It is huge long term selling point. We should focus on it as a unifying theme.

This should not prevent change. However, it provides a touchstone against which changes can be measured. It also affects the language used in presenting change.

If we don’t do something like this, then the latest changes risk becoming just another in the round of changes that have so afflicted the University in the past.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Round the New England blogging traps 21 - a few photos

I have been remiss in not mentioning before that our fellow blogger Bronwyn Parry has been unwell.  Partner Gordon Smith has been posting regular updates on Bronwyn's blog. Fortunately Bronwyn seems to have come through a very serious operation okay.

In this blogging round-up, I thought that I would focus on New England photographic blogs, or at least blogs with a high photographic content. I also thought that I should write in such a way as to make the post more accessible to those who do not know New England, including the large number of US visitors attracted by the title.

For the benefit of those who do know New England, the New England or Northern Tablelands is Australia's largest tablelands and stretches from the Hunter Valley into southern Queensland. When I speak of New England I mean not just not the Tablelands, this is often described as the New England, but also the river valleys that flow from the Tablelands to the west, north, east and south. While diverse, it is an area also united by geography and history.

The boundaries ascribed to New England and hence its size vary. However, the boundaries set by the 1935 Nicholas Commission as suitable for self-government within the Australian Federation cover an area of 64,000 square miles, 166,000 square kilometres. The area I cover in my present history of New England project is actually larger, because it includes part of New England now included in Queensland.

Whichever way you cut it, we are talking about a large geographic area. To put this in perspective, England is 50,346 square miles, 130,000 square kilometres.   

For those who are interested in a little more, in The colours of New England I tried to paint a picture of the area's diversity using a combination of prose, poetry, photos and painting.

My coverage today begins with a Gordon Smith photo, Storm season begins. This shows storm clouds gathering over the University of New England in Armidale. This attractive if small cathedral and university city is located on the Tablelands and for much of the twentieth century was regarded as the capital in waiting for a self-governing New England state.20101214-storm-season

The Clarence River, the big river, rises in the Tablelands and flows north before heading east to the sea. This photo by Clarence photo-blogger Mark Bellamy  is entitled "Oh the Flame Trees Will Blind a Weary Driver". Mark's caption reads:

Don Walker wrote the lyrics to Flame Trees about Grafton.
It's the classic aussie country town song of love, loss, friendship and anti-nostalgia.
I can't get this tune out of my head at this time of the year.

This song from 1984 is one of the best known ones from Australian band Cold Chisel.

Flame Tree

As you might expect given its size, each river valley in New England is different. Then within each valley you find variety again.

The Bellinger River lies to the south of the Clarence. A much smaller river, it runs through a very pretty valley. The first thing that generally strikes a visitor from inland New England is just how green it all is. This photo from Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite is simply entitled REPTON NSW DECEMBER 2010. 


Much of life along the rivers flowing from the ranges to the Pacific Ocean centres around the river and nearby sea. This photo from Lynne, again from the Bellinger Valley, is simply entitled NORTH BEACH POOL.

North Beach Pool

I am out of time now. More later.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Nicola Woolmington & the Forgotten Australians

Sometimes I do get annoyed with the Armidale Express! The Express of Friday 10 December carried a rather good story by Janene Carey that has been excluded from the on-line edition. Fortunately I found an on-line copy, Close to home, posted by Janene to the National Museum of Australia  web site.

Nicola Woolmington is an Australian documentary film maker and the adopted daughter of Jo and Eric Woolmington. I spoke of her parents back In January 2008 in More UNE Passings - death of Jo Woolmington.

It is many years since I last saw Nicola. Then I remember her mother talking about Nicola's desire to be an actress.

From Armidale Demonstration School she went to Armidale High and then studied drama at the University of New England. After completing her Dip. Ed in Melbourne, she tried out for the stage but found that it did not pay the rent. She then enrolled at Swinburne Film and Television and began a long career as a director.

Her first documentary, Searching (1992), in part tells the story of her search for her own natural mother after she was given up for adoption in the 1950s. Since then, she has  produced a number of films including Where Angels Fear To Tread (1997), Paying for the past (2000) and Einstein's Wife (2003).

Nicola's latest documentary, The Forgotten Australians, screened on SBS Television in November. Nicola began working on it in 2004 when hundreds of stories of people from people brought up in institutionalised care came to light during a Senate inquiry.

Armidale had two, perhaps three, orphanages. I say perhaps three because I am not sure whether the third was an orphanage or a residential hostel. The biggest one, St Patrick's, occupied a large gothic style building occupying a prominent hill to the south of Armidale. There four to five nuns looked after up to one hundred children. The Woolmingtons used to take out children from St Patrick's, while Nicola's discarded toys went there.

Nicola feels that she acquired her social conscience from her mother. If you look at my post on her mother, you can see why that might well be.

I haven't seen Nicola's film. However, it aroused a degree of controversy in Armidale with some former residents feeling that St Patrick's had been unfairly treated. I can't comment, beyond noting that my own research into the NSW child welfare system makes me well aware of the type of injustices that can occur in any form of institutional care. If you look at Drummond's life chapter 1 - A troubled child: family life 1890-1907 and then again at Drummond's life 8 - Return to Education: the Minister 1932-1936 you will get a feel for what I mean.

Armidale's orphanages have long gone. Nicola attributes this to Gough Whitlam's decision to pay pensions to un-married mothers, meaning that they could now keep their children. I am sure that's partially true, but I also think that the pill, as well as changing attitudes to pregnancy out of wedlock, also played a role. By 1972, the social pressures that used to be placed on un-married women to give up their babies had greatly diminished.

In all, it's another example of the type of social changes that I have been talking about over the second half of the twentieth century. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Re-imagining Newcastle - suggestions

In my last post, Re-imagining Newcastle - and the North, I concluded by saying that in my next post I would:

risk my hand by painting a vision of Newcastle's future. It is a risk because I do not live there, do not pretend to be an expert on on-ground conditions.

In doing something like this, it's generally a good idea to begin by laying down some general principles. The point about principles is that they help generate new ideas while providing a base against which proposed actions can be judged. They also make it easier for people to understand just what is proposed. If you go straight to actions, then you risk ending up with the type of mess you so often see in NSW.

I propose the following principles:

  1. Proposed actions should enhance Newcastle's life style. To my mind, life style is one of the best things Newcastle has going for it. We want to build on that. We have already seen the power of life style in the way that Melbourne has reinvented itself as compared to Sydney.
  2. We don't want to add people just for the sake of adding people. There is something highly mechanistic about current NSW planning approaches. The projections say this, we will do that. What Newcastle really needs are more higher level jobs. Otherwise, and as we have seen on the North Coast, population growth can actually lower an area's relative economic standing.
  3. Newcastle's growth should not come at the expense of surrounding areas. To illustrate with a local example, promotion of Newcastle should not preclude promotion of Maitland or, more broadly, an Armidale or a Grafton. One problem with the promotion of Sydney as in brand Sydney has been the way in which it sucks oxygen from other places.
  4. Following from 3, Newcastle's development should add to development elsewhere. Very specifically, it should improve the economic integration of New England as a whole.

Given these principles, I suggest the following policy initiatives and for the following reasons:

  1. Further development of Williamtown as a major domestic and international airport. I recognise that there are issues here such as inconvenience to those under the flight path, as well as funding questions. However, if Newcastle is to develop as a centre in its own right and not just become a Sydney dormitory, then it needs to be able to bring people direct to the city, for people to be able to go direct from the city. This will also benefit areas further north. Such development need not preclude development elsewhere such as expansion of Coffs Harbour airport.
  2. Promotion of Newcastle as a direct travel destination and as an entry point to Northern NSW, the broader New England. Again, this need not preclude other places adopting somewhat similar strategies. The aim should be to increase the total number of visitors in New England.
  3. A cultural development strategy intended to build and promote both overall cultural activities and Newcastle's special features. I am of the view that far too few people actually know that Newcastle has its own cultural tradition. I, for one, did not know the scale of this until I started writing on it. Even now, I have only scratched the surface. This type of promotion not only brings visitors, but adds to local lifestyle.   
  4. Further development of specialist services servicing a broader Northern market and also the Central Coast. Again, this need not preclude developments further North if the aim is fair sharing. Examples include:
    1. Development of Newcastle as a sporting centre. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Jets are promoted just as a Newcastle team when we have a Northern NSW Soccer League. Yes, I understand that there are myopias on both sides, but the broader New England really should be seen as a feeder area.
    2. Further development of specialist medical services in Newcastle. This is already happening to some degree. One present limitation is transport. For many, it is easier to get to Sydney even if Newcastle is closer.
    3. Better integration between New England's universities to allow for more resource sharing and relative specialisations. A classic example here is the joint NU/UNE rural medical school. This benefits both NU and UNE, but also benefits New England. The simple analysis I have done suggests that there is considerable scope for further cooperation to the benefit of all.
  5. Better integration in transport planning. I do not pretend to understand all the issues associated with transport inside Newcastle. However, as a general comment, transport planning appears to focus at the moment on either locality or locality to Sydney. There appears to be very little focus on transport to and from Newcastle. Yet if Newcastle is to develop in the way I am talking about, people in the Hunter and broader New England have to be able to get to and from Newcastle more easily.

This post has, I suspect, barely touched the surface as to what might be possible in the longer term if only we can look at things in new ways.

I emphasise longer term. Change just takes time and has usually to be done in small chunks.

In this context, I think that Greg is right in his comment on an earlier post that some things can't happen without self-government for the North. There are just too many conflicts, too many compromises, built into the existing system to allow for proper recognition of the needs of any particular area. That said, I also think that I am right when I wrote:             

Re-imagining the North is hard. But in doing so, we achieve a number of things. We get New Englanders to again think of themselves as a unit. We force Sydney responses. And we start to lay down a platform - a set of ideas - that our own Government can implement.

What do you think?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Re-imagining Newcastle - and the North

In Wednesday Forum: Re-imagining Newcastle, I posed this question:

To help you here, assume that there is suddenly a New England state. Newcastle as the biggest city, bigger still if we include the surrounding urban areas, suddenly has an opportunity to carve out a new and independent role free of previous constraints. What would you advise?

I then asked a set of further questions intended to stimulate discussion. In response, Greg said:

Hi Jim,
I have been trying to think of a response to this post, but it is a tough one. Newcastle has all the essential elements of a truly interesting and great city, but is stuck in a 1950's time warp that it can't escape from.

Consider this. In 1950 Brisbane, Perth and Newcastle were similar in size. Brisbane had a metropolitan population of about 440,000 people, Perth 340,000 and Newcastle 300,000. Just 60 years on and Brisbane (1.9m) and Perth (1.6m) have powered ahead in size and relative importance. Newcastle (1/2 m) has languished and been left in their wake - still an "overgrown country town".

Newcastle's relative decline mirrors that of the entire Northern NSW compared to Qld and WA. Newcastle is northern NSW in microcosm.

How do Newcastle and Northern NSW break out of this rut? Short of self-government I really don't know. I believe that self-government would of itself be a catalyst for change in the way others see us and the way we see ourselves. The tangible benefits would inevitably follow.

Greg's comment draws out the scale of the decline in Newcastle's importance. In response, I wrote:

I agree with you re self-government. In the meantime, and as part of our push for self-government, we have to get people to focus on the needs of Northern NSW as a unit and in terms of individual areas. We can use the push for self-government as a way of doing this.

One might argue that this threatens our longer term objective. The more we get, the lower the demand for self-government. I don't see it this way. I just don't believe that Sydney can reconcile the conflicts involved in governing an entity that no longer makes any form of sense.

Re-imagining the North is hard. But in doing so, we achieve a number of things. We get New Englanders to again think of themselves as a unit. We force Sydney responses. And we start to lay down a platform - a set of ideas - that our own Government can implement.

As Greg found, as I have found, it is not easy to imagine what might be when what is imposes seemingly impossible constraints. Yet we need to do this if we are to force change.

In my next post I will risk my hand by painting a vision of Newcastle's future. It is a risk because I do not live there, do not pretend to be an expert on on-ground conditions. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Belshaw's World - running on empty

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 8 December 2010. 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

This is column 100 for the Armidale Express. That’s quite a lot; 75,000 words!

Do you ever have one of those times when your mind is just a blank, unable to work?

It’s like those times in class when your teachers asked you to answer a question and you had absolutely no idea.

Well, we are back in the rental market again.

We knew when we took our current house that the maximum lease period would be eighteen months. Still, we were glad to take it.

It’s not just that the house is nice, although it is rather special. It’s also that we had to vacate our previous house after just six months when the owners decided to move back in.

Moving costs are high. When you have to do it twice in seven months it adds the equivalent of a $100 per week to the rent. That hurts!

I am sitting here knowing that I should be checking rental houses on line, but just don’t want to do it.

I have come to think that our modern life style is really running on empty.

When your car is empty, it’s harder to start and there is the worry about running out of petrol. You know that you have to fill it, but you put it off for that short run.

We live in a just in time world. Increasingly, everything is geared to doing things at the last moment, or at least doing things in very quick time. Increasingly, there is little scope for recovery if things go wrong.

Much of my life for the last twenty years has been spent managing or advising professional services firms.

At the moment, I am working on an assignment for a new legal services on-line business. With the thinning out of middle management, the reduction in in-house knowledge, demand for technology that might provide a substitute is increasing.

Part of the work can only be described as anal, detailed line by line comparison of grouped templates accompanied by the development of use instructions.

This is very detailed stuff.

By nature, I am not a detail person. I much prefer more broad based analysis leading to action. However, I taught myself to work this way to overcome my personal weaknesses. Now I find a degree of demand for these services.

There is a dreadful irony here.

Mr Fittler, my Dem School primary teacher, complained about my spelling. He and later teachers suggested that my inability to spell would hold me back. Now I find myself doing detailed proof reading!

Fortunately my work is not all anal. I also spend time working out how different types of customers might use the service, linking this to marketing strategies. That’s more my style.

Today the managing partner was complaining about client habits.

“They are all so busy”, he said, “that they think that a short email plus a few documents is an instruction.”

It doesn’t quite work this way.

Clients forget that the legal document – contract, confidentiality agreement, licensing agreement, whatever – is simply the legal wrapping. The law cannot resolve any basic problems in the arrangement surrounded by the legal wrapping, although the law may determine winners and losers.

In my professional writing and in my training, I have tried to emphasise the importance of what medicos call the diagnostic.

No good doctor would simply accept the symptoms described by the patient and then prescribe without at least trying to check and understand the basic details. Yet this is just what too many other professionals do.

In a way, I cannot blame them.

In a time poor world where they and their clients are all running on empty, the pressure to just react is enormous.

See problem, fix problem and do it now is the refrain. In the end, the client pays, for a good diagnostic can save costs.

In the project management arena, I once tried to explain it this way.

The Japanese spend a lot of time conceiving and defining the project. Implementation then follows quickly.

In Australia, we are impatient of the first, then spend a lot of time trying to fix things that should have been worked out in the beginning.

The Japanese approach is generally more cost effective.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Explanation for a pause in posting

I have been off line since last Friday because of other pressures. Normal publishing resumes tomorrow.

In the meantime, have a browse of 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A great Clarence Valley photo blog

poplar plantation North Grafton

In memory of Grafton beer drew a companion post, The Beer That Made Grafton Famous from Mark Bellamy.

It would be unfair to steal Mark's thunder by repeating the photo. Instead, have a look.

Mark really has a great Clarence River Valley photo blog.

While I won't  repeat the Grafton beer photo, I will show this shot 

It shows the last remnant of the once extensive Poplar tree forests that serviced the Federal Match Co in North Grafton.

I really was pleased to find Mark's blog because it provides another building block showing the visual texture of life in New England today.

Welcome to visitor 45, 000

Visitor 45,000 arrived on this blog today.

The visitor came in via Yahoo search but did not stay. Despite that, welcome!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Belshaw's World - damning numbers and cultural enlightenment

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 1 December 2010. 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

As many readers of this column will know, I am trying to write a general history of the broader New State New England, the North.

In this column I want to talk about the next stage in the project, one that I hope will form the base of a paper to be delivered in Armidale early next year, a paper on social change in New England between 1950 and 2000.

This is a topic that I have been dodging because I find elements of it so depressing.

In 1950, all the New England media was locally owned. By 2000, most were part of externally owned media chains.

In 1950, most major local organisations were locally owned or, at least, locally headquartered. By 2000, most were externally owned and controlled.

In 1950, the dream of self-government, of our own state, was alive. By 2000 it seemed dead and almost forgotten.

In 1950, the inland population rivalled that on the coast. As late as 1974, it was still possible to believe that Armidale’s population would pass 40,000 by 2000. Indeed, official projections said so. By 2000, inland New England was in absolute and relative decline.

In 1950, New England’s population and wealth was greater than that in South or West Australia. By 2000 we had slipped in population, more so in wealth.

By early in the new century, the poorest Federal electorate in Australia was to be found in New England. Fourteen of the identified poorest localities in Australia were in the North.

Of course, not all the changes were bad.

I, for one, would not want to go back to the world of sectarian divides. Women have far more opportunities, something that is important to me in a personal sense as a father with daughters. There are far more educational opportunities today.

All this said, there have been enough negatives to make it difficult to for me to write about it given my emotional involvement with the area in question. Still, I had to look at it if I was ever to complete the book.

As I dug down into the topic, I found it increasingly interesting. Indeed, I became fascinated.

The social changes that took place in New England over the period were, in some ways, a microcosm of those taking place elsewhere. You would expect this.

The mass migration programs that followed the Second World War, changing gender roles, changes in religious expression, structural change and associated changes to the world of work were all broader changes.

Yet while changes such as these were broader changes, their particular expression within New England is still interesting, still important. It’s not just that it forms part of our own immediate history, but also because the particular local expressions of change can help us better understand broader patterns of change.

We have already seen one local example of this in Don Aitkin’s What was it all for, a history of social change in Australia seen through the eyes of the Armidale High Leaving Certificate class of 1953. This is a very good book indeed.

When we talk about history in general and social change in particular, we talk about trends, about movements, about big social shifts. We use words such as revolution,

When we talk like this, we forget that change takes place because of individual decisions, that people are affected by change in different ways.

The twelve hundred meat workers who lost their jobs when the Tablelands meat works closed are not just a statistic, but people directly and permanently affected by change.

The closure of the BHP steelworks in 1997 was an economic decision that took place against a background of industry change and of changing policies in Canberra and Melbourne. It also marked a fundamental shift in the very psyche of Newcastle, for the BHP as it was known, had been a dominant feature of the city for much of the twentieth century.

The big changes such as the decline of many of New England’s traditional industries or the rise of the coast are relatively easy to see. However, there are also smaller and more subtle changes that can lie concealed.

The remarkable growth in New England’s cultural activities is one such change.

As one measure, I think that there are more published authors living in Armidale today than in the whole of New England in 1950.

This change is not limited to Armidale, but can be seen in varying forms across the North. Newcastle, for example, has established its own gritty cultural tradition that finds expression in writing, music, photography and film.

As you can see, I do find all this quite fascinating. I hope to share some of it with you over the next few months.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Wednesday Forum: Re-imagining Newcastle

While this post will still appear with a Wednesday date, it is in fact coming up later because of other pressures.

Last Forum, Wednesday Forum: improving public transport, drew no comments. That happens.

This time I want to deal with a different issue, the best way of re-imagining Newcastle. 

To help you here, assume that there is suddenly a New England state. Newcastle as the biggest city, bigger still if we include the surrounding urban areas, suddenly has an opportunity to carve out a new and independent role free of previous constraints. What would you advise?

To further help you here, a few questions:

  1. As one of Lonely Planet's new top ten global cities, how would you promote Newcastle's role not just as a destination in its own right, but as entry point to New England?
  2. Should Newcastle aim to turn its airport into a promoted international airport? This has benefits, but there may also be environmental implications.
  3. Newcastle has its own gritty cultural tradition, one not well recognised outside the city. How would you promote this?
  4. There appear to be rivalries and tensions among Hunter Valley councils. How do you promote Newcastle in such a way as to benefit other areas?
  5. While Newcastle has its own business community, the city is in many ways a branch office economy. What might be done to encourage the creation of new Newcastle or Hunter headquartered businesses?
  6. What are the main impediments to be overcome if Newcastle is grow not just in economic but in life style terms?

In memory of Grafton beer


This and the following beer label come from a beer label collection.

Growing up, Grafton was the first beer I drank.

Most people now don't remember Grafton beer. The Grafton Brewing Company was taken over by Tooheys in 1961. At first, they maintained the Grafton label, but then it went.

For the life of me, I cannot remember when. I was away. When I left it was still there. When I came back, it was gone. 

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 9: Grafton Brewing Company Limited tells a little of the story of Grafton beer, set in the context of my continued exploration of social change in New England in the period of 1950-2000.

As I remember it, Grafton was quite a bitter beer. I know that some people didn't like for that reason. I guess I learned to like it. Even today, I find some beers to sweet.

The story of Grafton beer is an interesting one, because it shows how difficult it can be to break into a marketplace when you faGP001ce entrenched opposition.

New England once had a lot of local beers. With the coming of the railways, the smaller breweries vanished in the face of mass-produced beers.

To my knowledge, Grafton is unusual because it was a later attempt to enter the commercial marketplace.

Today at least some New England beers are back in the form of boutique beers.

It would be interesting to know how many there are. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Rural Press, Fairfax and Brian McCarthy

The sudden departure of Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy marks something of an end to an era.

Just 55, McCarthy was born in Newcastle, the second of five children, and the eldest boy. None of his brothers and sisters work in the media but his father, Keith, spent his working life at the Newcastle Morning Herald and, when television came to the Hunter Valley, at NBN.

Quoting from a 5 May 2007 interview by Mathew Ricketson in the SMH:

McCarthy's first media job was as finance manager for Regional Publishers, where he was hired in 1976 by editor-in-chief Dan Austin, who taught him the truth of the phrase "the devil is in the detail", and the virtue of discipline and hands-on knowledge of a business.

McCarthy describes John Parker, who was Rural Press chief executive when he hired McCarthy in 1987, and more recently John B. Fairfax, as mentors.

From Parker, he learnt the value of "working on the relationships with people", and from Fairfax, the statesmanlike quality of "giving the people around him the room to move".

I was puzzled by the two conflicting dates in the story, but we can put this aside.

John Parker took The Land, the former Farmers & Settlers Association newspaper owned by an unlisted public company, and turned it into a regional press empire. There are links and interlinks here.

The FSA, the more radical farm group representing farming interests including small farmers, played a major role in the formation of the NSW Progressive Party, later Country Party. When my grandfather, David Drummond, ran for Parliament he had been active in the FSA and was nominated by local FSA branches. Later, he would become FSA State President .

While this happened well before I was born, our family still had shares in The Land Newspaper Company.

While rare today, small unlisted public companies were then quite common. They provided a vehicle for local business that made it possible to have a larger number of shareholders and for shares to be sold without the burden of listing. While unlisted public companies still exist, the old form is no longer possible because the regulatory costs and burdens associated with being a public company mean that they no longer a viable option for smaller businesses.

I should perhaps illustrate what I mean by quite common.

My grandfather had shares in six such companies: the Land Newspaper Company, preference shares in the local Armidale Ford dealership, the Grafton Brewing Company Ltd, Northern Newspapers Ltd, the Armidale Newspaper Company and Broadcast Amalgamated Ltd.

To a substantial degree, the rise and then fall of such companies is a key thread in the economic history not just of New England, but of country Australia in general. While the public company form facilitated cooperation and local ownership, it also made acquisition easier. Over the 1970s and 1980s, local and regional unlisted public companies vanished in a takeover blitz. 

John Parker was part of this process. The Land acquired mast head after masthead, turning into Rural Press. Northern Newspapers was one company taken over, a takeover that I tried to block by organising opposing proxies. My opposition was partly sentiment, but I thought that the company was undervalued, and indeed it was.

John B Fairfax gained control of Rural Press. There was a certain irony in this, for both the Land and the country press in general had often been in opposition to the Fairfax controlled papers. The irony compounded later when Rural Press and Fairfax merged, returning the Fairfax family to their original company.

Brian McCarthy took control of Rural Press as CEO in 1994. While he was CEO, the company grew from a market valuation of $400 million to $3 billion at the time of the 2007 merger. The original Land shareholders who had stayed did very well indeed. Brian McCarthy became I think, head first of Fairfax media and then CEO.   

Both John Parker and Brian McCarthy ran a very tight and profitable ship, but it was a country press empire. Fairfax was a bigger business, and one that had been in a degree of trouble especially in its two big city papers where the internet had been eroding the classified advertising cash cow.

In a 2007 interview (link above), Brian McCarthy was asked about the shift:

Regarding the shift from managing regional to city media, McCarthy says: "They are two very different businesses. We are certainly not taking a cookie-cutter approach to the two metropolitan businesses.

"Even the Sydney and the Melbourne papers need a different approach. I don't think it is a one size fits all argument.

"The newspapers need to be looked at very much in isolation. They are fantastic mastheads with great history and tradition. What we need to do is to take that history and tradition with us and look at the challenges that metropolitan dailies face today, not only in Sydney and Melbourne but around the world.

"Those key challenges are circulation and advertising fragmentation, with the rise of the online media. I feel very positive about the future for these two newspapers.

"Some people have said to me that we need to manage the decline. I don't see it that way. I'm not interested personally in managing declining businesses, and I seriously don't see that these businesses are in decline.

"By the same token, they are highly competitive markets. It just means we need to do things differently. We need to be smarter, we need to be more flexible as we move forward. That applies to all departments of metropolitan newspapers."

Asked about the view of some industry analysts that there is a core shift away from print to online media, he says: "I want the print businesses to, hopefully, grow and certainly not to decline, and the online business, if it is growing — and in Fairfax it is — then that is cream on the top. I certainly don't want to take a defeatist approach to the print business in isolation.

"I need people who want that to happen. I want people who are on the staff who have a passion about the printed product. I need people who are flexible and who can see the bigger picture. If we stick by the old traditional rules in publishing, that (future growth) won't happen."

As to how the change will be achieved, McCarthy says: "I don't know the exact structure of the businesses yet, but I think in a perfect world, the print and the online would work together far more in harmony going forward than perhaps they have in the past.

"What we are talking about here is delivering news and information and entertainment to our customers, so the print and online are really methods of distribution of content.

"Fairfax has some first-class content to deliver. We need to harness that content through the editorial staff who are so important."

You can see that Brian McCarthy is a newspaper man. To what degree this affected his performance as CEO is unclear to me. What is, I think, clear from the reports, is that he was uncomfortable with some aspects of the CEO's role. 

Managing Rural Press was a very different matter to Fairfax. The company had a very particular culture that had evolved over a long period. It had a very successful business model, but one attuned to its marketplace. Importantly, both John Parker and Brian McCarthy were simply not exposed to the type of market games and pressures faced by their equivalents in Fairfax. They didn't need to play modern CEO games.

Greg Hywood who has been appointed acting CEO in place of Brian McCarthy is much more in the conventional Fairfax metro tradition. He is also more attuned to modern CEO games. It will be interesting to see how he goes.

In all this, it will also be interesting to see how Rural Press goes in the evolving Fairfax world. I do wonder a little if Fairfax itself can actually manage and maintain the very different culture required to run a regional newspaper network.       


In checking around for this story, I found Press Council Notes from February 1995 on the Country Press. I have just recorded it here because I want to write a story on it.    

Postscript 2

As you might expect, the Australian has had a fair bit of coverage on this issue:

Postscript 3

In this post I listed the Grafton Brewing Company as an unlisted public company. I'm not sure that's right, for it appears to have been listed at the time that it was taken over by Tooheys in 1961. Something to investigate.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Tamworth, GPs & rental housing

I reported on Tamworth's GP shortage In February this year (Tamworth GPs close their books) and then again in July (Update on Tamworth GP shortage). Now there is a new twist to the story.

According to a report by Alysia Ferguson in the Northern Daily Leader, Rental crisis looms for new doctors, rental accommodation in Tamworth is now so short that medicos who do want to come are struggling to find places to rent.

I blinked a bit, but then realised that this was an example of a broader problem. I just wanted to broadbrush this for later discussion, following up on a post I did in March, Conundrums with New England real estate.

Recently, Tamworth's growth has picked up, something of a trend across inland New England. This quickly creates a housing problem.

Inland New England centres who have experienced relatively slow population growth, even declines in some cases, do not have large stocks of serviced blocks available for development. Further, the stock of rental housing is not high. In some smaller centres, there may be none at all.

Earlier this year, the Federal Government's stimulus package took a slab of housing out of the normal rental marketplace. The first home buyers grant increased house prices and reduced housing rental availability at the lower end of the marketplace. Then the social housing programs with their focus on quick to market developments reduced stock in the development pipeline.

In saying this, I am not being critical of the programs, although I was very critical at the time of the increased grants relating to existing house. I am simply commenting on the effects.

With reduced stocks and some growth, the rental marketplace is primed to go critical.

When you consider that inland towns generally have lots of land nearby, there really shouldn't be a housing shortage outside short term effects. The problem, at least as I see it, is that it NSW Government rules and taxes now make it so difficult and expensive to both develop land and then build houses that it can take a long time for new stock to become available.

This problem holds across the state. However, it is actually most acute in areas where stocks are small. In Sydney, life becomes more difficult and expensive, but the city limps by. In country areas, it can quickly become an absolute growth stopper.

There is, I think, a measure of agreement that it would be better if population growth were to be better spread. If this is to happen, we have to reduce Government imposed barriers to growth.

In fairness, the current NSW Government has taken steps to reduce fees and charges. Further, in the case of Guyra it has been prepared to join with council in funding a new green fields land development. That said, its rules and controls still accentuate the problem.  Real change is needed.  

Round the New England media 4 December 10 Hunter focus

This New England media round-up begins in the Hunter, where the Newcastle Herald has recently had a number of very interesting stories.

The Bahtabah Local Aboriginal Land Council has lodged a land claim for the entire water body of Lake Macquarie. Damon Cronshaw's story brings out some of the complexities involved.

I have been meaning to write something on native title complexities, but finding the time required to do proper research is a problem.

Michelle Harris reports on the farewell speech of Cessnock Labor MP Kerry Hickey. The story says in part:

Yesterday, he cited achievements including money for main street improvements, pushing for the initial planning of the Hunter Expressway and advocating for better roads in Cessnock.

He expressed his frustration at having ‘‘fought the local council for the past 10 years’’ over the lack of progress with Kurri Kurri’s troubled Hunter Economic Zone, which he said had been central to his efforts to diversify the Cessnock economy.

He said the recent decision to stop an electricity contract between the Kurri Kurri and Delta Electricity from being signed was ‘‘probably the most disastrous thing this government could do’’ for Cessnock.

He questioned the government’s attempts to privatise the power industry and the operation of Cessnock Jail.

‘‘I’ve probably been one of the most vocal members around the place and I’ve got to say that privatisation to me for the sake of privatisation is not beneficial for communities,’’ he said.

‘‘Why privatise a monopoly and give it to someone to screw over the community?’’

I think it fair to say that Mr Hickey is not happy!

This story followed an earlier one by Michelle Harris reporting on a rally by 200 Kurri Kurri smelter workers outside the Parliament House in Sydney, calling for the state government to approve the power contract between Delta Electricity and smelter owners Hydro.

Tensions between the union movement and the Labor Government have not been helped by the Government's decision to contract out the monitoring of coal dust. This was covered quite extensively on the ABC's 7.30 Report.

I actually saw this program. This one links in quite an important way to the New England history I am trying to write. The fight for better conditions in the mines including safety is one thread. The absence in Australia of the dreaded black lung disease is one outcome of that fight. 

The continuing troubles inside Newcastle City Council received extensive coverage on the ABC's Stateline program. There have been tensions inside the council between mayor John Tate and other councillors and also, apparently, between the mayor and CEO Lindy Hyam who has now resigned.

I have to be careful in reporting here because I don't properly understand all the dynamics involved. The politics of Newcastle and the coal fields can be quite complicated. Clearly Mr Tate, who is to be an independent candidate at the NSW elections in March against Labor incumbent Jodi McKay, has his detractors as well as supporters.

Staying with Newcastle Council, Ben Smee reports

Newcastle City Council may have to sell crumbling buildings to cope with a $114million backlog of infrastructure works needed to bring city assets up to scratch.

According to financial reports released last month, the council spent about $34million on infrastructure maintenance during 2009-10.

About $114million is needed to bring buildings, roads, drains and natural assets to a ‘‘satisfactory standard’’.

Newcastle Council is not alone in facing this type of problem. At the end of November, the Local Government and Shires Association reported:

The Local Government and Shires Associations' (LGSA) annual cost shifting survey has revealed that NSW councils continue to foot the bill for State Government responsibilities, with local communities ultimately paying the price.

The LGSA surveyed 77 councils to determine the burden of expenses and services shifted to councils from the State and Federal Government. The cost shifting bill amounted to $440 million for 2008/09, accounting for 5.74% of Local Government's total income before capital.

President of the Shires Association, Cr Bruce Miller, said that the true impact is clear when you consider the annual cost shifting amount of $440 million is over two-thirds of the annual infrastructure renewal shortfall of $600 million.

In the Hunter, there is added venom to this debate because of the issue of mining royalties.  

On 2 December, in Demand for coal royalties to return, the Herald's Michelle Harris reports that the Hunter contributed $897 million, or 73 per cent, of the state total of $1.233 billion in royalties paid to the NSW government in 2008-09. If Gloucester’s $21million is counted, the region contributed 75 per cent of the coal tally.

Checking these numbers against the population of the Hunter statistical division, that's $1,771 per head for every man, woman and child in the Hunter. There is a strong local view that the Hunter has not received its fair share of this money, a view reflected in the comments on the story. Again there were calls for the creation of new state, something that is becoming a feature of the comments on many Herald stories.

My personal position here is well known. I won't comment further since this is a media round-up.

On a completely different topic, a great white shark has been spotted off Newcastle beaches, and its not Greg Norman although he is in Australia for the Australian Open.

Finally, there is the rain, something common to reporting across New England.

The Herald reports that the Hunter’s 2011 vintage is in a precarious position with the recent deluge producing fruit mould. We needed rain, we wanted rain, but now we have too much just when dry weather was needed for harvest. I don't have a figure for the potential losses, but it would run into the hundreds of millions.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Blog Performance November 2010

Stats November 10 2 The graphic shows blog traffic over the year ending November 2010. Yellow visits, yellow plus red page views.

The decline in traffic after the big spike in August did stop in November. That was a relief.

December traffic is always down, so it will be interesting to compare this year against twelve months before.  

The ten most popular posts over November were:

Interesting that the Wednesday Forums are scoring in the top group. These are always a bit of a hit and miss affair in terms of responses.

Excluding search engine traffic, the most referrals came from:

I was a bit surprised this time at the absence of Twitter feeds.

The most popular key words were:

  • old trams newcastle 10
  • mckechnie 3
  • photos historic inverell 3
  • south of my days analysis 3
  • south of my days judith wright 3
  • why should new england become its own state of australia 3
  • aboriginal map queensland 2
  • bora ring by judith wright 2
  • charles howard hinton 2
  • counting in sevens poem judith wright 2

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Belshaw's World - ponzi schemes and the human wreckage left behind

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 24 November 2010. 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

I finished my last column by saying that by 1996 I was convinced that current management approaches could not work in the long term. They had, in fact, become a super Ponzi game.

To those who don’t know the term, Ponzi schemes are named after the US con man Charles Ponzi. Investors are attracted by offers of high returns. However, those returns come not from profits, but from the investor’s own money or that of subsequent investors.

A Ponzi scheme will eventually collapse under its own weight. However, that can take some time as demonstrated by the recent case of Bernard Madoff in the United States.

This was the largest investment fraud case in history.

By the time Madoff’s scheme collapsed, the combination of actual losses plus promised returns totaled a staggering $US64.8 billion. Actual cash losses totaled roughly $US21 billion. These are staggering numbers.

Not all Ponzi schemes begin as Ponzi schemes. Some start as legitimate investment schemes. They become Ponzi schemes if lower than expected returns are then topped up from investor’s money.

Now why did I compare current management approaches to Ponzi schemes? Surely that’s unfair?

Let’s start with current approaches to corporate reporting.

The progressive changes that have been made effectively require companies to report on the future. This includes a requirement to report on variations that might affect future profits in any material way.

These changes were intended to protect investors, while making for a more informed market. However, they also had the effect of linking share prices to prospective returns rather than the company’s track record.

You can see this in the changed treatment of price/earnings ratios. They used to be based on historical profits, now they are based on expected future profits.

Add performance pay arrangements linked to the achievement of targets that can include a range of variables including sales, profits, and share prices to the mix.

Growth is central to these targets, growth in sales, growth in profits, growth in share prices. What value are your share options, for example, if share prices don’t increase?

At individual firm level, this may sound fair enough. However, there is a problem.

Each business sets growth targets that then flow through to pay and reporting. But what happens if the totality of those targets is such that they are unachievable?

Keeping things simple, assume the economy grows at three per cent per annum. This means that the combined growth of all firms cannot exceed three per cent.

Yes, firms may increase profits by more than three per cent if the profit share of national income rises. Yes, firms may grow by more than three per cent if they can access international markets, although the trends I am talking about are global. All this said, growth in national income still provides the effective constraint on business growth as a whole.

If the combined growth targets set by businesses exceeds the growth capacity of the economy, then businesses as a whole cannot deliver on target.

Say the combined targets require a ten per cent increase in profits, a not unreasonable individual target, when the growth capacity of the economy is three per cent, then the gap is seven per cent. If the average target is twenty per cent, the gap rises to seventeen per cent.

We now have the precursor condition for a Ponzi scheme. Clearly not all businesses can achieve targets. A gap has opened between projected returns and the results that can be actually achieved.

In our performance based world, the pressures on boards and executives to achieve targets, to show growth, are substantial. Incomes and reputations depend upon it.

We saw the effects of this in the Global Financial Crisis. This was a Ponzi scheme on a large scale. However, there are far more invidious effects.

Operating in an environment where combined targets cannot be met but individual targets must be met, firms focus on actions that will increase short term profits. In practical terms, this means cost cutting.

It is generally possible for a firm to meet short term profit targets by cuts to activities that do not immediately affect profitability. Too often, however, those cuts affect later profits. You are, in fact, operating a Ponzi scheme.

As with all Ponzi schemes, investor desire for above average returns makes the whole thing possible. The markets reward the short term.

Working as an outplacement consultant I saw the immediate results in the human debris that passed through our office. However, I had also seen it in my work as a management consultant.

Still, I should perhaps deal with this in a later column.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Wednesday Forum: improving public transport

This Wednesday Forum focuses on public transport in New England, looking for information and suggestions.

In Results from Wednesday's forum on overcoming division, I reported on a comment from Lynne about the costs of Bellingen-Armidale buses and the absence of public transport between Armidale and Tamworth. I suggested that one outcome of the progressive centralisation of services might be forced depopulation of some areas if rising transport costs associated with peak oil stopped people using cars to get to the services.

In  one of my Express columns, Belshaw's World - inner city dwellers put the choke on car ownership, I mentioned the increased costs of getting and maintaining a drivers license, of buying and maintaining a car. I suggested that this most disadvantaged those most dependant on the car and especially those on lower incomes.

In Ancient Thera, I mentioned in passing the extensive bus services on the small Greek island of Santorini.

Three very different posts, but with linked themes.

At present, discussions on public transport in NSW are dominated by Sydney. However, Sydney trains as an example, may be hot, not run on time, but they exist. The great majority of taxpayer funds spent on public transport are spent in Sydney. There is no comparison between Sydney public transport and that existing (non-existing) across much of New England.

We have a NSW election coming up in March. Based on experience, issues associated with public transport are unlikely to get a mention. I would like to change that.

To help thinking, what is public transport like in your area. What would you like to see done to promote better public transport?