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. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Belshaw's World - return of New England

Documentary film maker Mathew Harvey (Kangabear Pictures) has begun the development of a film looking at the North and the question of Northern or New England identity, including the fight for self government.

Mathew was attracted to the project because he thought that there was a story there that had been neglected.

In an email to me earlier this week, he said that he had just been watching the YouTube the other day and had seen the 'Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall' song by Coldplay.

That song has been a considerable success.

The video clip has had 22 million views. Another clip with just the song has had close to 13 million views. The song has hit number 14 in the States and the band is the biggest rock/soft rock band in the world at the moment.

Now the point here is that the song heavily samples Peter Allen's 'I Go to Rio'. This led Mathew to wonder how many kids in the New England would even know this, or who Peter Allen was. He went on:

“Australian society in general doesn't know the impact of New England artists/musicians because most of them don't even know that New England exists outside of being the federal seat of 'that politician Tony Windsor'

who gave us the Gillard government’.”

Mathew is right of course, and that’s part of the reason for his documentary. However, there is an interesting sea change underway.

I began blogging on New England issues back in April 2006. By New England I mean the broader new state New England, not just the Tablelands. In turn, this led to this column, with the first Belshaw’s World appearing at the end of 2008.

When I began writing on New England issues it was actually quite lonely in the sense that nobody came. Our North really seemed to have gone for ever, swept by the tides into the dustbin of Australian history. We didn’t exist and nobody was interested.

Slowly that changed, so slowly that at first I wasn’t aware of the change.

Through the miracle of the internet I began to gather readers who also provided comments. I found that there was real interest in the history and character of the North, the broader New England.

Page views on the New England Australia blog grew from a few hundred a month to well over 5,000 a month. Once again, people were talking about New England issues.

I am not suggesting that the increase in interest was solely due to my efforts, although I think that I helped. Other things were important as well.

One was simply peoples’ desire to know something about their own past. A second was growing dissatisfaction with the way NSW was governed, meaning that people once again started looking for alternative structures.

Most writers, certainly all historians, draw from previous writers.

As I sit here in the early morning, it’s a bit after 4am, I think of those New England writers and especially political writers who have gone before me. You see, I draw from them all the time.

I think of Victor Thompson scribbling away in the cramped Tamworth Observer office penning the editorials that would launch a new state campaign.

I think of David Drummond seeking donations to fund the publication of his pamphlet on constitutional change and then telling Ernest Sommerlad not to destroy the type because Drummond hoped for a new print run.

“I have received your terribly fearsome letter”, Sommerlad wrote before patting Drummond down.

I think of Sommerlad himself writing the first ever book on Australian journalism, one that articulated the special role of the country press.

Then there was Ulrich Ellis whose typewriter went with him everywhere.

As we lost our history, all the many New England writers exited stage left. It wasn’t just political writers, but all writers.

Measured by theses and journal articles, interest in New England history actually peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s.

From the start of the 1980s it went into long term decline.

The University of New England, once the powerhouse of New England research and writing, lost its own focus. Even today, it has a much diminished view for an institution that once saw itself as the Sydney University of the North.

New England is back, but it will take time to rebuild. We are just at the start of the process. Yet I take great comfort in the fact that we are back.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 23 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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The dead hand of Sydney myopia

My main post today, Dreams past: Collective Wisdom, education & the NBN, is on my personal blog. It is, as the title suggests, a memory of time's past.

In that post, I refer to a bid for funding under the the Commonwealth Government's Cooperative Multimedia Centre's program. There were five NSW contenders - two from Sydney, one each from Armidale, Lismore and Bathurst. I still remember how hard it was to get any interest out of Sydney at official level.

Straight after the  demonstration I refer to in my post, I left for Sydney to join my family. Later that year, one of my colleagues asked me to put forward nominations for people that might go onto the State Government's Information Industries Board. Based on my knowledge, I put forward a number of non-metro suggestions. They were all knocked back by the Department of State Development on the grounds that they weren't in Sydney, that they needed Sydney people because it made working easier.

One of the reasons why I sometimes despair is that the entrenched barriers that we have to work against to get effective Northern development are just so great. When I was a kid I thought that it was conscious neglect. That can happen, but what actually makes it so hard is that we are dealing with structures set up in such a way as to encourage neglect, to work against real change.

People aren't dumb or uncaring, they just don't see it. They go with what's easy or efficient at the time. To do otherwise requires a conscious act to break out, to see in different ways. There is really no incentive or even mechanism that will allow them to do this.

A lot of my readers will agree with me, I think, that self-government is the final answer. But we also have to deal with the now. And that won't change until change is forced.

Monday, November 28, 2011

New England new state car sticker, 1960s

This is a New England New State movement car sticker from the 1960s. I had it on my first car.

I have no doubt that if we had won the 1967 vote, we would have been a bloody sight better off. Even if we did not have a new state by now, we could not have been ignored in the way we have been. IMG_0002

Sunday, November 27, 2011

North Star online

Do you know, I know New England pretty well, but I have never been to North Star, a small farming community in New England's north west. Nearby communities include Boggabilla to the north, Moree to the south. The Aboriginal community that I mentioned in Toomelah the movie opens in cinemas is not far away.

North Star is now the terminus of the branch railway line that once ran to Boggabilla from Moree. There is a story here. When the line was under consideration, one of the Progressive Party members for the then Northern Tablelands seat (David Drummond) fought to have planning for the line extended into Queensland to junction with the Queensland network. The move was opposed because it might divert wheat traffic from Sydney.

I mention North Star now because the community has taken to the internet in a big way via:

Well done, but a suggestion. Do tell people where North Star actually is and how to get there!

Postscript:

To ask, sometimes,is to receive. Thanks to the miracles of twitter, the good folk at North Star added material to meet my suggestion as to the location of North Star.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

Toomelah the movie opens in cinemas

Another New England movie, Toomelah, has hit the screens, if again with limited release. The plot is described in these terms: 

The film is set entirely in the remote Indigenous community of Toomelah, located on the NSW, QLD border. It was created as a mission during the 1930s, bringing together Gamilaroi and Bigambal people from the surrounding area.

The story centres on Daniel, a small ten year old boy who dreams of being a gangster. He is kicked out of school and befriends a local gang leader, until a rival gangster arrives back from jail to reclaim his turf. A showdown ensues and Daniel is caught in the middle, leaving him with a choice to make about his uncertain future.

Toomelah is a deeply personal story, that intimately depicts mission life in contemporary Australia. The film reveals the challenges facing the young Gamilaroi people of the Toomelah Community. Robbed of much of their traditional culture by Government policy, it is a community on a cultural edge, struggling for an identity. It is a provocative and yet comic story that transports audiences inside the community, creating an authentic world and way of life that is "Toomelah"

I know that many Australians are actually put off by movies about Aboriginal people or issues, but this one is worth seeing in its own right and as a depiction of one aspect of New England Aboriginal life.  Further comments follow the trailer.

I have written a fair bit on New England's Aboriginal peoples. In this context, this post is actually the tenth in a continuing series introducing readers to past and present Aboriginal life in New England.

Those who are interested can find a full list of posts by either clicking New England Aboriginal life or, if you want, to read in date order from one up, click on Introducing New England Aboriginal life. I still have to do a consolidation of all my historical posts.

I have also done written a fair bit on New England films. Again, I need to do an update.

It's nice to have a film showing a very different aspect of New England life that should appeal to a wider audience.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

APN ceases daily publication of Tweed Daily, Coffs Advocate

Yesterday's post, Belshaw's World - New England’s newspaper history bespeaks change, talked about aspects of the history of the media in New England.

Given this, I thought that I should record APN's decision to cease daily publication of the 123 years old Tweed Daily News and the 104 year old  Coffs Harbour Advocate.

In the latest set of Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, the Daily News was selling just 3,689 copies. The paper started life in 1888 as the Tweed and Brunswick Advocate. It became The Tweed Daily in 1914. At one point it was one of only two daily newspapers in Australia to have an offset printing press.

The Daily News will sell a print edition only at the weekends with a cover price of 50 cents instead of the current $1.30. It will go on offering readers online updates via the mydailynews across the week.

The Coffs Coast Advocate will  become a twice weekly freesheet, circulating on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On its paid for days it had been averaging 2,959 sales.

I have written a little on the history of the New England media. Maybe time to do an update.

Postscript

In a comment, the Armidale Express's Janene Carey (@janenecarey) pointed to the job losses involved - 30 to 35 of 85 staff, apparently mainly editorial.

Janene and I have talked about this one - the survival of the print press and the reporting that depends on that press - in posts and comments on a number of occasions. It's a very difficult issue.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Belshaw's World - New England’s newspaper history bespeaks change

I am writing a short piece for the new Companion to the Australian Media on the remarkable story of the Vincent newspaper family.

It’s hard to fit the story into 500 words, for we are talking of three generations and multiple mastheads. Local mastheads included the Glen Innes Examiner and Uralla Times.

I will write a little more on the Vincents later. Immediately, my research drew me back into the past days of New England’s newspaper world.

Today we forget just how important the printing press was. It provided a vehicle not just for books, but also pamphlets and then newspapers. According to Wikipedia, by the early 19th century there were 52 London papers and over 100 other titles.

The political and economic impact of the printing revolution was just as significant as the internet today.

The authorities struggled to deal with new forms of political expression. New concepts emerged such as the fourth estate and freedom of the press.

Advertising was born, fuelling emergence of what we now call mass consumer goods. Advertising allowed the price of newspapers to be reduced. Mass circulation papers emerged.

The new papers fed an ever-growing demand for information and entertainment. The invention of the telegraph made news from far distant places accessible.

The public demand for information was remarkable.

On the moving frontier in the Australian colonies, newspapers were handed on, read in reading rooms but also by firelight in distant camps.

A single paper could be read by dozens of people until, finally, it met its end lighting fires, pasted onto walls as insulation or as toilet paper. In the days before toilet paper, newspapers were cut into squares as a substitute.

As towns emerged in the Australian colonies, they wanted their own papers. Powerful figures fighting for their commercial and political interests were often prepared to fund papers.

In the Clarence where either inclusion in Queensland or, alternatively, creation of a new colony was a hot issue, one paper was founded to support the cause, another to oppose it.

The new papers were highly unstable, opening and closing all the time. Often, they vanished without historical trace.

In Armidale, the presence of Frank Newton’s Armidale Telegraph is mentioned in the historical record. However, no copies were known to have survived until one was found, by accident, in the walls of an old Armidale house.

Start up costs were relatively low. All you needed was a press and some initial working capital. Those presses were constantly recycled, moving down the chain to new smaller papers as their original owners replaced them with new equipment.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, even small New England communities had their own newspapers, bigger towns had two.

Many of the names are gone now. Who remembers the Tingha Miner or even knows that Tingha once had its own paper? Yet their influence lingers.

The two decades following the First World War saw consolidation.

Newspapers merged in Inverell, Glen Innes and then Armidale. The Tamworth Observer changed its name to The Northern Daily Leader and launched a campaign to become the premier inland Northern daily, attacking the metropolitan newspapers on one side, the purely local papers on the other.

While many papers remained sole proprietorships, new companies emerged. Northern Newspapers and the Armidale Newspaper Company are examples.

The papers were in fierce competition and fostered that local parochialism that has always been New England’s curse. Yet they could also combine. The rapid expansion of New State agitation in the early 1920s was led by the papers.

When first radio and TV came to the North, it remained locally controlled. Even in the late 1960s, every media outlet in New England was locally or regionally owned.

Then everything changed. By 2,000, local ownership was limited to a handful of independents.

With that loss went the capacity to combine in any coordinated way. Newspapers were split between a Queensland looking APN and Rural Press, two organisations that barely talked to each other. Radio and TV were integrated into national organisations.

The newspapers themselves still represented the local interest, but it was a much diminished interest for it was now purely local.

Looking at the Northern Daily Leader as an example, the old Leader consciously positioned its coverage to provide a Northern focus.

The Leader still carries a limited range of broader Northern stories, but the days when it outsold the Sydney Morning Herald in Armidale are long gone.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 16 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Belshaw's World - cursive writing a critical tool in the modern world

From time to time, there have been suggestions that the teaching of cursive writing, what we used to call running writing, should be totally done away with. Better to teach children to touch type, or one of the other skills required for a modern world.

I really hated lessons in running writing at primary school. I don’t have especially good fine motor skills, nor eye hand coordination. Running writing lessons were a misery only exceeded by the obligatory craft.

Ultimately I learned to write and write fast. I had little choice if I was to complete exams. Then, too, at work I faced tight deadlines.

My writing was never neat. Not for me the old fashioned copper plate nor what was called a fair hand.

Typists and secretaries struggled to read my writing, although once they got used to it problems dropped away because I was at least consistent.

Once computers became popular, I stopped using hand writing on a regular basis. Like so many of us, I sat in front of a screen and keyed directly.

Without practice, my hand writing deteriorated quite quickly. My old problems with fine motor skills re-appeared. I also had a very particular problem in my right wrist, a repetition strain injury from all my previous writing.

By the early 2000s, my occasional handwritten notes had become an illegible scrawl.

There was one partial exception to this retreat.

Over the years, I have done a lot of facilitation and training. I enjoy it, while it has also been very useful and sometimes profitable.

As part of this, I used whiteboards and butchers’ paper all the time. This means hand writing.

Through a combination of printing and sometimes scrawl I got the message across. Indeed, I used my bad handwriting as a teaching device, something to entertain but also as an excuse to re-explain.

Had you asked me then whether I thought it necessary to still teach cursive writing in primary school, I could well have said no. Now I have changed my mind!

About three years ago, I started to keep writer’s diaries. I was spending up to three hours each day travelling by train or bus, and wanted to use the time productively.

Part of my writing was simply recording thoughts or notes on things around me. Part was also recording reactions to things that I was reading, including taking research notes for later use.

I actually became quite addicted to the process, beginning what I still call my train reading. This involved picking a book each week from my shelves almost at random that I had not read, or at least not read for a long time.

I got some funny looks on the buses and trains as I sat there absorbed in a book with my notebook in front of me, reading and then scribbling. Some of my best short writing came from this process.

Initially, my handwriting was literally a scrawl. However, as I wrote more I found that my running writing was coming back because it was both neater and faster.

Having re-acquired handwriting, I now find myself using it all the time. It’s just so useful for someone like me: I jot notes in parks and on benches; I use it as an excuse to leave my desk to sit somewhere else while still working; and I find that it’s increased my working speed.

In pre-computer days, you had to work out just what you were going to write before you really started. Too many people with computers just start writing, relying on the edit facility.

Sometimes that’s good. However, it can also lead to slower work, worse English. And that’s bad.

It seems that I have rediscovered the importance of handwriting as a tool. If you ask me now whether the teaching of cursive writing should be abolished in primary schools, I would say no!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 9 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.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Coal seam gas & the rise of political and policy stupidity

This is the first of two posts on New England's environmental wars with a special focus on coal and coal seam gas.

In yesterday's post on my personal blog, Carbon tax, the Sydney/Gunnedah/Bowen Basin & coal seam gas, I introduced the Sydney-Gunnedah-Bowen Basin, coal and coal seam gas.

While there is some overlap in readership and issues between Personal Reflections and this blog, the two blogs serve different purposes. The sidebar here reads:

This blog is dedicated to the history, life and culture of Australia's New England, that part of Australia stretching from the Hunter Valley through to the Queensland border and incorporating the Hunter Valley, the Mid North Coast, the Northern Rivers, the New England Tablelands, Slopes and Western Plains.

While New England has still to achieve formal political identity, it has its own character and identity and is, in the words of the Australian poet A D Hope, an ideal in the heart and mind.

The majority of the readers on this blog come from or have a connection with or at least an in interest in New England. This includes the great New England diaspora. By contrast, while regular readers on Personal Reflections are well aware of my New England interests, they could hardly be otherwise, they read the blog for its mix of commentary and analysis with the purely personal.

One issue common to the two blogs can be summarised as out of sight, out of mind.

On this blog, I talk about the way in which the submergence of New England identity has led to neglect. On Personal Reflections, I talk about the way in which current main stream metro dominated media reporting with its focus on a narrow range of issues impoverishes policy discussion.

Developments outside the relatively narrow circles in which politicians, reporters, commentators and indeed public servants move tend to be ignored until, suddenly, they explode on the scene. Responses to them are then conditioned by the culture and attitudes of the dominant groups. The results often include confusion and simplistic analysis.

If you think that I'm wrong, consider the confusions in reporting and analysis that arose over the formation of the minority Gillard Government. Lacking any real knowledge of New England's history or geography or indeed the history of the various country movements more broadly, really unaware even of the existence of the New England independents, commentators struggled to make sense of the whole thing. They had been bitten by a now unknown past.

Coal and coal seam gas is another such issue. You see, while important, coal seam gas is only one of a series of interconnected economic, environmental and land use issues that have been bubbling away for a number of years.

Isolated community or farm protests rose and fell. New movements emerged and died, with their media treatment depending on prominence and fit within the conventional left/right or apparent party political spectrum. Riven with conflicting views, apparently disconnected groups began to coalesce, looking for support elsewhere.

It must be four years now since I began to write on Personal Reflections about the growing disconnect between dominant, predominantly urban views and the rest of the country. About eighteen months ago, I started focusing on New England's own environmental wars.

I felt that all this was significant. I was also annoyed at what I saw as the sometimes contemptuous dismal of things as unimportant, as special pleading. I have been involved with the country movements most of my life. I have been researching their history for thirty years, during which time I have seen them largely vanish from the research agenda. Well, they are back.

The Government's ability to pass the mining resource rent tax largely depends not on all the policy papers, not on the views of the states, mining industry or main political parties, not on the views of the reporters or commentariat, not on the views of metro voters. It depends, instead, on a single issue, whether two New England independents and Mr Windsor in particular can be satisfied about coal seam gas. I find this sad and frustrating.

This is not in any way a criticism of Mr Windsor, nor is it a comment on the coal seam gas issue. Rather, it is my indictment of the way our political system and associated policy processes have evolved. To my mind, we no longer have the capacity to analyse a multi-faceted issue, to identify principles, to recognise the impact of variation outside certain now very stylised formats.

These are strong charges. To illustrate them, I am going to take New England's environmental wars in my next post and discuss principles and issues. It will be Sunday before the post comes up since I have to go away.

There are no perfect answers, no ways of satisfying everyone. But the best results in an imperfect world come from information and recognition of the issues involved. I leave it to you to assess the validity of my arguments.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Belshaw's World - Armidale is different and difference sells

Back in 2006, the then Labor Government introduced a new state plan. I did it the courtesy of actually looking at in detail because I thought that the concept was a good one.

To do this, I started by defining what I saw as New England’s needs. By New England I mean not the New England, but the broader new state New England from the southern edge of the Hunter to the border.

This took me quite a long time since this area does not formally exist. I collected statistics and prepared policy analysis. What were New England’s problems? What might be done about them?

I then examined the new State Plan against my analysis. Sadly, I concluded that even if every one of the thousands of targets was delivered, it would leave New England just where it was before in terms of key needs.

Blow me down, it seems to have happened again.

The trigger this time was some writing that I was doing on tourism.

A week back, David Whitley wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald Sorry Australia, Europe rules. He compared Australia adversely to Europe, suggesting that things like the Opera House cannot compete.

These European attractions were always going to appeal. There was nothing Australia's tourism authorities could do about them. What they should do was differentiate and sing about what Australia could do better instead.

I suppose that we are all locals at heart.

Country people (and universities) cannot help comparing themselves with bigger fish. Armidale can offer good coffee, all the features you can find in Sydney.

Sydney people are just as bad. People should come to enjoy Sydney’s cosmopolitan life style. Our food is as good as anywhere in the world. Yawn!

Armidale or New England cannot compete with Sydney on Sydney’s own turf, nor can Sydney compete with global centres on their grounds. It is difference that sells.

This problem is not new.

Rod, one of my blogging colleagues, was at UNE in the 1990s. He got very angry when the then mayor and VC said things like “the area has all the features you could want in a city" or “this region can offer the same university experience as a city university”.

As Rod said, how dumb can you get! Armidale and UNE were so different and that difference was what made it worth more than studying at a city university or any other for that matter.

In writing on these issues I made the point that the broader new state New England needed its own tourism strategy, one that would promote the area’s specific features. Not the tablelands, not the country, but one that capitalised on the very specific differences, commonalities and linkages across an area larger than the UK.

Anybody who has been involved in tourism will know that NSW tourism promotion has been a mess for a very long time. There has been no coherence, no stability. Branding strategies come and go.

From a New England perspective using New England in both a narrow and broader sense, our own image has been destroyed in a greater mess.

As I said in one piece of writing, if you think I’m wrong just try to answer these question: what is NSW’s tourism message? If you say NSW, what core images come to mind? Then compare this to the other states and territories.

I thought that maybe I was being unfair in all this given a new government, so I went to the new state plan (http://2021.nsw.gov.au/).

There are differences in ideology and emphasis. In fairness to the National Party, there is a greater regional emphasis in the new plan. Yet it is still the same mess of disconnected performance indicators.

And on tourism? It doesn’t appear to exist. There is no tourism strategy, no indication of the ways this might fit in, not even a performance indicator that I could find.

Mind you, there is a new tourism body Destination NSW, which is developing another strategic plan. Something may come of this.

I accept that I am biased at many levels. Among other things, I believe that New England needs its own state to have any chance of making progress. I am also quite one eyed when it comes to the need for New England advancement.

Accepting this, my charge on tourism is simply this: it is up to the Sydney Government to prove that it can deliver on the things that will benefit the North. I doubt that it can.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 2 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.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Northern Tablelands - UNE archaeologist up a tree!

This post is a simple follow up to Clarence Valley - UNE archaeologists at rest!, just another photo of past UNE digs and survey missions. I am not sure why I wanted to climb that tree! Brief comments follow the photo.Belshaw dig

In 1920 the first New State manifesto, Australia Subdivided, complained: In Northern New South Wales, a few high schools, no technical schools, no universities exist to retain the intelligence and culture of the area.

The manifesto was dead right. One outcome of the subsequent campaigns was the establishment of the University of New England.

Now that I have a few photos I am going to bring up a piece on the New England History blog  looking at aspects of the role played by the University of New England in documenting the history of New England with a special focus on Aboriginal New England.  It's a good story. and one that shows the University delivering on the hopes of those who published that first manifesto.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Another New England revolutionary song

I have several  part completed posts. I am going to bring them up at their due date.

In a comment on Clarence Valley - UNE archaeologists at rest!, anon wrote in a comment:

1:40 found this site
1:41 bookmarked this site
Long live New England! Ever heard "Chester" by William Billings?

I had not. It is a US revolutionary song. The first stanza reads:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns.

You can see why anon noticed it. It may be in a different time and a different place, but it's another New England revolutionary song. For those who don't know it, the chorus of the New England New State anthem:

We will raise the
Banner of New England
Work for New England
Fight for New England
We will raise the
Battle cry of freedom
Fight for our Liberty

You can find out more about the anthem in More on New England's Battle Song. I wonder how many musicians we have in our midst. We need more New England songs!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Clarence Valley - UNE archaeologists at rest!

I have been sorting, a distracting task!

I was thinking of Mark when I found this photo of one of the Seelands digs. I am on the left. Comments follow the photo.Seelands 65 or 66

The Seelands Rock Shelter is an important Clarence Valley archeological site excavated by UNE teams under the leadership of Isabel McBryde.  At the time this photo was taken, I wanted to be an archeologist specialising in Australian prehistory. Other things intervened and I became a professional economist. Yet, years later, I have returned in some ways to my original dream through my historical research.

We are  clearly at rest. It was a very hot day. By the end I had a splitting migraine head ache, so I remember the day very clearly.   

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Turmoil in Northern NSW Football

I had intended today to follow up yesterday's post  Local Government & the Australian Constitution with a more detailed analysis of the issues. However, an issue has come up that I wanted to report on.

Soccer is the only sport in which Northern NSW, the broader New England, has its own state league independent of NSW. The creation of the Northern NSW Football Federation dates back to the height of the 1960s new state campaign. SACKED: NNSW Football chief executive David Eland. –  Picture by Darren Pateman

on 31 October, the Newcastle Herald reported on the axing of NNSWF CEO David Eland. The move generated controversy.

The following day, the paper reported that former president Bill Walker had blasted the  board of directors over its sacking of David Eland, saying the process to remove the chief executive was ‘‘morally and ethically’’ wrong. Mr Walker resigned from the board in protest.

Then on 2 November, the Newcastle Herald carried three stories:

Today's story is NNSWF defies advice, names Jock Graham CEO. The NNSWF turmoil finds some reflection on its Facebook page

Reading between the lines, a number of factors seem to have come into play here, including politics in Football Australia. What is clear is that the turmoil is not helping soccer - NNSWF has 50,000 members in seven zones across New England.

Postscript

Updated story in the Newcastle Herald NNSW board brushed FFA's appeal. I quote in part:

It now appears the NNSWF annual general meeting, set down for December 4, will be the likely showdown between the board and its members.

In any vote to remove the board, the seven zones each have two votes and the standing committees of the state league and first division clubs each have one, as does the referees’ association. A successful vote requires a 75 per cent majority. Zone officials are confident all votes will go against the board.

As an observation, I was a little surprised at the apparent lack of newspaper coverage on this one, I have only skimmed the online editions, elsewhere in New England.    

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Local Government & the Australian Constitution

Just at present, an expert panel is reviewing the question of whether or not there should be some form of constitutional recognition for local government. The following submission to the panel was written by Newcastle accountant, Greg Howell, the president of the emerging Northern New State Movement.

Constitutional recognition for local government raises some complicated issues from a new state perspective. Many new staters support an enhanced role for local government, but how to achieve that without destroying the ideal of real self government raises complicated issues.

I will explore some of those issues tomorrow drawing from Greg's analysis. For the moment, I note that Greg is writing in a personal capacity to place issues and ideas on the table.   

29th October, 2011
The Secretariat
Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government
GPO Box 803
Canberra ACT 2601

Submission to Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government

As an interested citizen, I am responding to the discussion paper published on the website http://www.localgovrecognition.gov.au/

I have no political affiliations, but I am acutely aware of the difficulties and challenges faced by regional Australia. My own perspective is that of a resident of Newcastle – Australia’s largest non-capital city, and a significant but often neglected large regional centre.

Introduction

The role of government should be to provide its’ citizens with fairness in terms of democratic representation, self-government where possible and equitable distribution of funding and services to all citizens, regardless of whether they live in capital cities or regional cities and towns. Regional Australia gets a very poor deal in this regard.

Consider this:

1) The Newcastle region has over 550,000 people residing in five LGA’s. Those five LGA’s have no unifying strategy for the Lower Hunter, nor do they have any significant capability of developing any such strategy. They are largely in competition with each other and have limited financial resources. Most significant government matters are administered at state level in Sydney by bureaucrats with little knowledge or understanding of the Lower Hunter.

2) The Newcastle region alone has a larger population than the state of Tasmania and also larger than the territories of ACT and NT, each of which has self-government, Senate representation, a voice at COAG and a share of Commonwealth funding. The Hunter and Northern NSW generally have no such independent voice or advocacy.

3) Northern NSW from the Hunter to the Queensland border has a population exceeding 1.5 million people, similar to that of South Australia. This represents approximately 7% of Australia’s total population in an area larger than the state of Victoria. Yet it's voice, unique needs and aspirations are swamped by metropolitan Sydney which dominates the state of NSW.

4) The people of Northern NSW have held aspirations of self-government which pre-date the creation of Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. Those states have far outstripped Northern NSW since their creation. Without self-government, Northern NSW slips ever further behind in infrastructure, services and relative importance. This is not only to the disadvantage of Northern NSW but also the disadvantage of Australia.

5) Politically, Northern NSW currently provides just one of the 76 Senators to the Australian Parliament. It has not provided a NSW state premier since the first years of federation and it’s only Prime Minister was Earle Page from Grafton (for just 20 days in 1939). That is an appallingly poor representation for Australia’s largest, and arguably it’s most important, region.

Northern NSW has Australia’s largest regional population, yet the above suggests that it is under-represented at higher levels of government and suffers from a lack of self-empowerment. All levels of government have failed Northern NSW badly. Regional Australia clearly needs more than just token recognition of relatively weak local government.

The discussion paper states that:

“The Constitution sets the basic rules on how governments, and the different arms of government, operate in Australia. Due to historical circumstances, it addresses only the relationships between State Governments, Territories and the Commonwealth. Local government is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.”

As the discussion paper states, Australia has indeed changed significantly since Federation. A nation of fewer than 4 million has grown to 22 million. Sydney’s population has grown from about ½ million to 4.4 million and its’ share of NSW population has grown from 36% to more than 60%. Northern NSW now has a greater population than had the entire state of NSW at the time of Federation. but a significantly lower proportion of the total state population.

In spite of these demographic changes Australia’s political landscape has remained static with no new states having been added in the 110 years since Federation. By comparison, USA has added 5 new states to their Federation in that time reflecting their continuing evolution and progress.

The relationship between the Commonwealth and the States has not always been smooth. The Commonwealth increasingly micro-manages state affairs, to the disadvantage of the States, via fiscal dominance and the state grants power contained in section 96 of the Constitution. It is hard to imagine how the Commonwealth might now also micro-manage some 560 competing local government bodies.

I will address my views in relation to the specific points in the discussion paper under the same headings.

Why recognise local government in the Constitution?

The discussion paper makes the claim that:

“Local government would be better able to attract the support and resources it needs, and to develop the new capacities to fulfil its increasingly important role in our system of government.”

This is a dubious claim without evidence. It is hard to imagine that local government would or could be any better positioned unless recognition is also accompanied by the ability to raise taxation revenue and make laws of its’ own. This in turn would change the entire nature of government in Australia and would probably have little chance of success in any referendum. This claim is not one that lends any significant weight to the need for local government recognition.

Ideas for changing the Constitution

The discussion paper has sought ideas that will:

  • “make a practical difference
  • have a reasonable chance at a referendum
  • resonate with the public.”

The expert panel noted a real potential Constitutional impediment to including any substantive provisions in the Constitution in that it could be held to “prohibit a State from altering the fundamental characteristics of a system of local government.”

It is hard to imagine any ideas that lack substantive provisions resonating with the public and having a reasonable chance of success at a referendum.

“The panel would also like to know whether there are any other ideas you would like to add.”

I have addressed my own ideas in detail under the heading “Further Questions”.

Symbolic recognition

“Do you think that, if the Constitution is changed to include a preamble or statement of values, local government should be referred to in either?”

“Symbolic recognition of local government would seek to enhance the status of local government in the Australian Federation in a way that has minimal or no legal effects.”

It is hard to see the purpose of any mere symbolic recognition of local government. If there is no substantive change from this process then this would be a truly wasted opportunity.

The discussion paper failed to examine just what, if anything, such a “preamble or statement of values” would be designed to achieve. This would seem to add little advancement to either the interpretation of the Constitution or the status of local government. Given that local government is recognised in each of the state constitutions, further reference in the Commonwealth Constitution would seem to be an unnecessary duplication.

We need to be careful to ensure that there is no overlap and confusion as to which level of government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of local government. If it is to remain the responsibility of the states (and there is no reason to believe that any change to this responsibility is either necessary or desirable) then why local government should be mentioned in the Commonwealth Constitution needs some explanation. Without an objective or an explanation of what this is intended to achieve I would not support this proposal.

Financial recognition

“Should the Constitution be changed to explicitly say that the Commonwealth Government can provide funding directly to local councils? Do you agree with either of the suggested changes to section 96 of the Constitution?”

Funding of local government services is a significant issue. Councils have relatively limited ability to raise revenue and limited powers delegated by their states. The states have ultimate fiscal responsibility for government within their state boundaries.

As pointed out in the discussion paper, direct funding by the Commonwealth is of questionable constitutional validity. I also do not agree that direct funding would be desirable since the demands of 560 LGA’s would potentially raise questions of equitable allocation of Commonwealth resources, as well as the real likelihood of further undesirable centralisation of power and control in Canberra.

It should be remembered why our states federated into one nation. The original purpose was for the common good with respect to matters of shared interest (eg. defence, foreign affairs, trade, communications, currency, pensions & welfare etc.). Local and regional matters such as public hospitals, education, roads, and justice remained, quite properly, state responsibilities. The states remain the cornerstone of our federation.

I doubt that our founding fathers had ever intended or even considered that the Commonwealth would become so fiscally dominant as it is today and that it would apply the state grants powers under section 96 in such a questionable manner in order to micro-manage state affairs, much less bypass the states altogether.

This is a significant issue in relations between the levels of government.

I would not support any proposals which have the effect of giving the Commonwealth more power to direct spending via tied grants to either the states or to bypass the states directly to local government bodies. This would only serve to increase centralisation, bureaucratic control and waste from Canberra, when the object should be more decentralisation and regional empowerment.

For reasons outlined above I would strongly oppose any of the suggested changes to section 96 of the Constitution.

Democratic recognition

“Should democratic elections for local governments be guaranteed by the Constitution? If so, which of the proposed provisions should be included in the Constitution?”

Councils have relatively limited ability to raise revenue and limited law making powers. The states remain ultimately responsible for administrations within their borders and therefore should retain the right to dismiss dysfunctional councils where necessary.

Council elections are already a democratic tradition across all states and territories. Dismissal of a democratically elected council is a rare event and unlikely to be taken for spurious reasons. I do support the principle that local government should be democratically elected and should not be dismissed except by an act of the state parliament as opposed to ministerial directive. However, this is and should remain a matter for each state and territory Constitution rather than a Commonwealth constitutional issue. I do not believe that local government is a Commonwealth matter and would be hesitant to support amendment of the Commonwealth Constitution in this regard.

Recognition through federal cooperation

“If the Constitution is changed to refer to the desirability of cooperation between the Commonwealth and the States, should local government be included in any such provision?”

In a practical sense governments already co-operate, although tension naturally occurs when state rights are impinged, when governments of opposing political persuasions disagree or when the Commonwealth and the States have different objectives.

I see little potential for improving and streamlining government by including local government in this process. It could potentially lead to a further blurring of responsibilities, bogging down the business of government in excessive consultation. The states should be free to carry out the business of government within their borders without Commonwealth interference. The Commonwealth’s primary responsibility must be to manage matters of national significance rather than to become involved in local or regional issues. I would oppose any such provision.

Further questions

“What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the particular ideas discussed in this paper?”

Mere symbolic recognition of local government would be a wasted opportunity. Yet I am even more concerned that something more than symbolic recognition for local government would represent a substantial shift in our system of government and potentially lead to greater regulation and control from Canberra. Regional Australia needs more decentralisation.

“Which ideas, or combination of ideas, do you think could best provide a basis for constitutional recognition of local government in Australia?”

For the reasons stated above I cannot support any of the ideas presented. Given the poor history of referenda in Australia and the failure of the 1974 and 1988 referendum questions, it would seem unlikely that enough support can be gathered for constitutional change without an exceptionally strong argument. None of the arguments presented in the discussion paper were persuasive and most proposals have significant ramifications barely considered.

“Are there any other ideas not covered in this discussion paper that you support?”

The Constitution has an existing but never used mechanism contained in Chapter 6 “New States”, sections 121 – 124. This should be activated to create the decentralised government that regional Australia desperately needs.

The constitution requires no amendment to create new self-governing states, although an intransigent state refusing to cede territory could still be an impediment under the provisions as they currently stand. However, this would run counter to the principles of self-determination and a state parliament would find it difficult not to accede to regional self-government if there was a plebiscite in the proposed new state area in favour.

There is a long precedent for states acquiring and ceding territory. During the 19th Century NSW relinquished control of territory as needed for the self-government of Tas, SA, Vic and Qld. In the 20th Century NSW ceded the ACT and Jervis Bay to the control of the Commonwealth, which in turn subsequently established self-government for the ACT. NT has been variously part of NSW and SA before assuming it’s present day borders and self-government. South Australia and Queensland have also both had border adjustments before assuming their present day borders.

There is no logical reason to assume that all existing state borders are set in stone or that no new Australian states should now be created from territory ceded by a parent state. The Cohen and Nicholas Royal Commissions in the first half of the 20th Century both recommended the creation of a new state of New England in Northern NSW. It is now time for the question of self-government for New England to be revisited and for an honest and fair plebiscite to be conducted throughout Northern NSW. Other regions such as North Queensland may also have strong desires for self-government and should also be given this opportunity.

“Do you think that there are other ways of recognising the role of local government and enhancing its status, apart from constitutional change?”

Local government has little or no ability to plan for an entire region or even one metropolis, where there are multiple LGA’s that together make up a broader community. State government is required for matters of regional significance, rather than enhanced recognition of local government.

For example, the Newcastle City Council LGA has approximately 155,000 residents while neighbouring Lake Macquarie City Council LGA has 200,000 residents. The other three neighbouring LGA’s of Maitland, Cessnock and Port Stephens add almost another 200,000 people to the Lower Hunter population. Yet Newcastle, as the major CBD, bears the greatest responsibility for regional facilities which benefit the entire Newcastle region. For example, Number 1 Sports Ground, Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle Region Museum, Civic Theatre, Blackbutt Reserve are maintained by Newcastle City Council. The ratepayers of the city of Newcastle also bear the cost of maintaining public roads that service other state owned regional facilities such as John Hunter Hospital, Ausgrid Stadium, Broadmeadow Railway Station and Newcastle University.

Newcastle Airport, another regional facility is a partnership of Newcastle City Council and Port Stephens Shire Council. This is a rare example of what can be achieved when there is a regional focus. A New England state government with its’ own treasury, taxation base, public service and sharper northern focus could achieve so much more for Northern NSW.

There might be certain minimum criteria for identification of a particular region deserving of recognition as a proposed new state. For example there should be:

  • a desire for self-government;
  • a distinct regional identity (such as Hunter/New England and Northern NSW); and
  • a population not less than the existing smallest state of Tasmania.

“Do you think that there are any implications beyond the benefits to local government that might result from the suggested changes to the Constitution?”

There are substantial implications which have the potential to change our system of government and make it more centralised, cumbersome and less responsible, with few obvious outweighing benefits.

States blame the Commonwealth for failing to provide sufficient funds for state programs while the Commonwealth blames the states for inefficient use of the funds provided. The addition of 560 local government bodies in this process could only exacerbate this.

Conclusion

For the reasons outlined above, I would not support any of the proposals in the discussion paper for recognition of local government. It would have the potential to fundamentally change the way that governments operate and interact in Australia. It is likely to lead to greater centralisation and Commonwealth control without enhancing the values of good government.

The provisions contained under Chapter 6 for creation of new states were included in the Constitution by our founding fathers to recognise and empower regions deserving of self-government and to enhance decentralisation. In more than a century since Federation we have lacked the vision, courage and commitment to use this mechanism for the benefit of regional Australia. Worse still, self-interested state capitals fearful of losing territory in NSW and Queensland have stymied progress towards creation of new states.

Chapter 6 requires no constitutional convention or amendment. All that is required is a commitment to the ideals of democracy and the UN Charter for self-determination, to which Australia is a signatory.

It is long overdue that significant regions with long held desires for self-government, such as Northern NSW, be given the opportunity to vote in a fair and balanced plebiscite in accordance with the conclusions of the Nicholas Royal Commissions and the principles of self-determination.

I urge the panel to broaden the discussion to include recommendations for creation of new states as needed to provide decentralised government and more equitable distribution of resources, infrastructure and services for the major regional populations of Australia.

Yours sincerely,
Gregory J. Howley,
B. Comm., CA, FPA, Reg. Tax Agent

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Belshaw's World - life, death and Sydney’s real estate prices

Another column, another blank screen.

I spent yesterday morning shifting book boxes from one storage shed to another. As I write, my back is killing me, a salutary reminder that I may not be as young as I once was!

I saw from the paper that Lloyd and June Piddington have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Sixty five years! That’s a very long time indeed. My congratulations.

By the nature of their business, the Piddingtons have been entwined with Armidale life for a very long time. In my own case, they have buried grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles.

A family death is always stressful. The thing that I most remember is the calm kindness with which Lloyd and other family members handled the inevitable problems.

Down here in Sydney, the news that the NSW economy is in the slow lane nationally has attracted some attention. The problem from my perspective is that there is no such thing as a NSW economy.

To the good folk in the NSW Treasury the concept makes some sense because they have to estimate tax revenues. For the rest of us, NSW is increasingly little more than lines on a map providing a notional unity to an increasingly disparate territory.

Because of its size, Sydney dominates the numbers. Even in Sydney, there are considerable variations across the city. As we move outside, the variance becomes greater.

Take real estate.

In Sydney, house values have held up, but sales are down. The value of transactions is down nine per cent compared to the five year average.

In the sea change regions of the Northern Rivers and parts of the Mid North Coast, the value of transactions is down 30 per cent on the same basis. By contrast, the mining areas of the Hunter or areas around the ACT are trending above average.

Three areas with three very different performances.

In Sydney, real estate continues to dominate many dinner party conversations. The prospect of quick profit stays in mind, as it has done since the first days of European settlement. However, with Sydney real estate flat, home purchases in the US have become the new investment topic.

There are good practical reasons for this. Both countries have stuffed up their real estate markets.

In the US, rules that limit bank recovery to just the value of the property in conjunction with losses associated with the end of the property bubble have made banks unwilling to lend, while people are also reluctant to invest. House prices have fallen much more than rents, making for very good rental yields.

In NSW, by contrast, it is expensive to develop land or to build houses. Residential building has been low for some time. This leads to high prices and low rental yields; the prospect of capital appreciation dominates expected returns.

With capital appreciation uncertain, people are unwilling to buy even though Australian banks will lend. With the stock market also uncertain and interest yields quite low, some are now investing in US real estate to take advantage of the high rental yields.

With gain comes the risk of pain. Some will be hurt. However, there is a more immediate problem from my perspective.

We rent in Sydney, part of an increasing group forced to do so because of the very high real estate prices. This is a bit of a nightmare, one that is rapidly becoming worse. There simply aren’t a lot of long term lets of the type we want.

We have moved four times over the last five years, with another move possible next May. Each time rents have increased.

Listening to people chat about US housing investment, I just think of what it means for local rents. I also think about my back!

Like other Sydney costs, storage costs have been rising. We are therefore trying to reduce material in store to fit into a smaller and cheaper storage area.

This is complicated by the fact that last time we moved, we moved into a smaller house. This meant more stuff to store.

This morning I have the last twenty boxes to check and move. Oh my aching back!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 26 October 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.