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The Abbott Government and the Future of Australia

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Like thousands of Australians I have been almost consumed by frustration over the political situation in Australia over the last several decades. To anyone reading these pages that will come as no surprise. The last 25 or so years have for the most part been exceptionally difficult as politically and economically the country seemed to retreat to the past, to embrace more than most other countries an economic model which on examination lacks any real justification in history or people’s behaviour, a subject I have already traversed in the context of education policy.

Australia has achieved some astounding things in its relatively short history.

And it has been through some horrendous experiences, though almost as nothing compared to what has fallen on the citizens of many countries. And continues!

But more than that, the embrace of a policy – neoclassical or market economics – which focuses so much on the short run, on a belief in the merits of competition and financial rewards and more, indeed an ultimate gain in individual gratification through financial success, has led to further marginalisation of the less advantaged and ongoing limitation in the expectations for many. That is seen in policies for education and housing which entrench advantage, in limited investment in infrastructure of all kinds and in continued reliance on resource exploitation and primary production, a “dig it up and ship it out” mentality which allows that commercial enterprises, especially those owned by overseas interests, need not necessarily devote resources to research and development in this country because the answers can be got from overseas, sometimes from their branches. In particular little attention has been paid to economic diversification whilst the contribution of some areas of the economy, especially mining, are vastly exaggerated by their supporters. The Australia Institute has released reports showing, for instance, that solar energy contributes more to the economy than coal mining.

To some, such things as concern for the disadvantaged, for universal access to education and universal health care, to decent housing for everyone and to functioning and attractive physical and natural environments, to a system of justice which recognises and protects the dignity and justifiable right to reasonable privacy for all, a society in which creativity and inquiry are valued and not least a society in which diversity, cultural, racial, gender, age and more including sexual orientation, seem justifiable only in an economic frame. That these things, along with workplaces which respect and appropriately reward the unique contribution of everyone, do actually contribute very substantially indeed to economic success is evident beyond any doubt to anyone who considers that evidence. Seemingly, that is not sufficient to those who allow that personal experience and entrenched belief should trump everything. So political propaganda and patronage of fear can play havoc and divert attention from the imperatives of the future in favour of the emergencies of the present. Something that the wonderful Barry Jones said decades ago.

Ignoring the substantial contributions that Australians have made to science and the arts are just part of the mix, a view that innovation is something that business does but government doesn’t. That is wrong! As Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem, 2014), very many extremely significant commercial developments developed from basic “blue sky” research by government funded agencies, not from business. Business takes on the results of the basic research and brings the product to market. To do that requires business to be prepared to take risks, including the risk of failure, an essential element of innovation. The claim for certainty heard often from business is antithetical innovation and ignores the real world.

The response? The Australian government’s spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP is now the lowest it has been since 1978 and the third lowest of any OECD country. For several decades there has been a drive for CSIRO to be more commercially oriented and substantial numbers of staff have been lost from the organisation. In 2007 the Productivity Commission reported concerns about the focus and called for the tax breaks for business investment should not be targeted only at commercial benefit. Then science minister Julie Bishop dismissed the concerns.

In October 2014 the Abbott government announced $500 millions for programs entirely directed at certain areas of the commercial economy and Industry Minister Macfarlane acknowledged that there were concerns about reductions in funding but blamed the budgetary situation!   At the same time most other countries are investing heavily in science. The 2013 budget contained very substantial cuts to research in universities and proposed increasing charges for students attending universities. These were part of proposed university deregulation which large universities, some policy groups like the Grattan Institute and the Business Council supported. That is despite clear evidence that in Australia the return to the community is far greater than that to the individual.

Of course we do well in sport: well we don’t actually achieve internationally in sport as we do in the arts and in science, for our size. Recall the number of leading actors, dance companies, orchestras – the Australian Chamber Orchestra recognised as the best small orchestra in the world – authors and musicians. Films don’t miss out because they are no good but because of the scene being swamped by huge promotional spends by overseas companies.

The fact that business can thrive quite satisfactorily and at the same time be regulated to protect the legitimate interests of the citizenry is not a deeply held view. Too often, especially in respect of financial institutions (which incidentally have done best from the measures put in place to confront the Global Financial Crisis), an attempt by government to regulate is howled down. For the governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott almost any regulation is seen as a burden. Indeed the Abbott government seems intent on abandoning any role in regulation and even the notion of Australia as a nation except in respect of defence and foreign policy and a few other things such as “being open for business”, whatever that means. Providing we determine who comes to this country and allowed to stay!

All of these issues are ones traversed energetically in the increasing conversations in social media and more serious places. But governments in the last 25 years have not necessarily listened to those views which do not suit their philosophies. Though one would have to say that the Rudd and Gillard governments were characterised by substantially greater intelligence than some others. A contested view of course. But think education reform and the response to the Global Financial Crisis. And the substantial raft of legislation passed despite it being a minority government: being supported by intelligent and committed independents made a difference which Abbott refused to admit, branding the government illegitimate but not labelling the coalition government of David Cameron in the UK with that epithet.

Go back further and think of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments, not just economically. The Whitlam government whose achievements have been so acknowledged in the last weeks of October following the death of Gough Whitlam aged 98, achievements of vast long-term economic importance, achievements denied at the time. The Fraser government which enacted some of the Whitlam initiatives, embraced humanitarian approaches to asylum seekers and immigrants which have so enriched this country in the context of multiculturalism initiated during the Whitlam years, difficult though that was. And advanced Indigenous interests.

Now we face critical issues at almost every turn. As I have already written, these essays under the subject of “In Australia” address some of those issues and eventually will suggest some approaches for the future. But the views and suggestions are just more amongst the many views and suggestions of others, the thoughts and opinions of the many Australians whose commitment and intelligence will be evident to anyone reading, listening to or watching the more serious publications, radio and television programs. Most of the last two and some of the first are to be found on the platforms of the ABC and SBS, media branded as inefficient at best and biased at worst by those of the right. Despite being trusted by over 80 per cent of the population on every survey! Despite their attention to the very values which so many cherish and which on occasion have been embraced politically.

The next two essays address a very difficult subject: is the Abbott government competent to lead the country.

More on Museums and More on other Issues

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Museums, Gardens and their Future with Government

A short essay on departures of senior executives from New South Wales museums and botanic gardens in 2013 and what they say about government policies is added to the essays about effective museums. Earlier it had been  posted on my blog, commenced in October 2013. The essay questions whether governments and boards appointed by governments to manage and oversight museums and similar enterprises actually show themselves capable of effectively fulfilling their obligations. In the study of effective museums the first distinction, the most important one, of effective organisations was that they are independent of, or at least maintain a distinct arms length from, government.

Governments are often obsessed with centralised control, which usually ends up achieving very little, and boards appointed by them seldom comprise persons with genuine understanding of the organisation and its principal aims. Newly appointed members are seldom properly briefed at the time of their appointment; the chair is often not appointed because they possess the most important characteristic of an effective chair, the ability to bring people together to envision a shared purpose and ensure meaningful participation of the members of the board, but because they are a friend of the Minister or have achieved prominence in business or some other field. The fact is that often people  rise to positions of prominence for reasons related mainly to who they know and where they went to school. For all these reasons boards of cultural organisations very often fail to achieve effective governance and in particular may not even make appropriate appointments to the most important position, that of executive director.

If the truth of the assertions of the above paragraph seems doubtful, consider the fact that the vast majority of the people in the UK in the professions of the law and finance are from a few “public” schools. A review of the composition of boards of Australian cultural institutions would show that even if the members are scientists or artists they seldom have any experience of leadership or governance. However, their expertise would be valuable were the majority of the decisions made by the board related to considered judgements about the principal purposes and business of the organisation. Instead they often concern financial matters and issues of an administrative nature.

New Essays on Other Issues

In October 2013, a new blog site was commenced. It will contain articles on subjects other than museums, leadership, organisational  development and similar subjects with which this site has been concerned for the last 11 years and education, essays on which have been posted in the last two years.

The first essays deal with climate change; other articles which appear on this main website have been cross posted on the blog site.

A full list of articles on the blog is posted on its own page.

Articles on other sites

Articles published on other online sites are listed on the Publications page of this website. They cover education, economics and climate change.

John Howard, Climate Change Denier and much more!

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

It would be easy to dismiss former Prime Minister John Howard’s address, to acolytes in London, presented at the invitation of climate sceptic and former UK Chancellor Lord Lawson. Over at New Matilda Ben Pobje has done that. So have others including Guy Rundle and Max Gillies in their 2002 production Your Dreaming: Poets, Pontificators and Expatriates and Jonathan Biggins and others at the Sydney Theatre Company satirise numerous politicians and others every year in their Revue.

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Related articles: Australia’s Carbon Emissions Target: Intellectual Laziness At Work

Owl’s Hoots No. 13: Co-Producing The Museum And What Actually Do We Think We’re Doing?

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Several of Howard’s statements are gratuitous, several are misrepresentations.

Howard’s principal statements must be identified for what they are. To suggest that the climate scientists’ statements are “sanctimonious” and that the term “denier” has some overtone of intimidation, as Howard does,  is to misrepresent the meanings of words and the nature of the discourse.

Howard misrepresents the present state of scientific understanding by branding it as a mantra, as a set of views to be not denied. And he asserted, “In the past five years, the dynamic of the global warming debate has shifted away from exaggerated acceptance of the worst possible implications of what a majority of climate scientists tell us, towards a more balanced, and questioning approach.” Rubbish! Dangerous stupid rubbish!

This article is posted at my blog site.

Australia’s Carbon Emissions Target: Intellectual Laziness At Work

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Most of us have difficulty admitting we have been wrong. More importantly, views which cannot be supported by reasonably intelligent analysis of the facts at hand can be considered intellectual laziness, the failure to keep abreast of the latest knowledge. Behavioural economic and other studies reveal people are more wedded to their preconceived views based on their own experience and the views of those they respect than they are to what is revealed by the latest information and experience. Only what agrees with the past is retained.

That is something that typifies Tony Abbott’s ministers. The debate around climate change and Australia’s strategies have been bogged down by absolute refusal to depart from earlier policy decisions despite overwhelming evidence on two fronts, one of which is well traversed, the other less so but just as important.

The less well-known evidence has been covered several times in recent months by the splendid website Climate Spectator. The most informative article, by Tristan Edis on 16 August last year, pointed out that Australia’s abatement task may in fact be much lower than anticipated. Attention is drawn to this in the just released report from the about to be axed Climate Authority. The reduction needed is actually about a third of what it was previously estimated. So, what is Minister Hunt’s problem in committing to increasing the emissions reduction target to 15%? Or better still 25%!

Increasing frequency and severity of storms and drought all over the world flowin g from rising temperatures make taking action more important than ever. Messrs Abbott and Hunt and others denied a link between climate change and the recent fires in New South Wales. The just released Intergovernmental Panel’s Fifth Report states clearly in one of its graphs, as pointed out by Tristan Edis, that for each of the three scenarios extreme fire weather is a significant feature!

This post is also on my blog site.

OWL’S HOOTS No. 13: CO-PRODUCING THE MUSEUM AND WHAT ACTUALLY DO WE THINK WE’RE DOING?

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Hoots No. 13 – 21 December 2009: “Co-producing” the Museum using social media; Education and “Radical Hope”: Noel Pearson’s essay on education and Indigenous Australians; an observation on the misdirection of attention on learning and teaching.

Co-producing the Museum – Social Media and Interaction with your Museum

On the Museum Marketing website  Jim Richardson has written a very interesting article about the communications revolution “coproducing the museum”. It is the text of a keynote address he gave to the Museum Association’s Social Media Day.

Amongst the things he has to say are these:

“Change in the internet has been clear for anyone to see, with the shift from static web pages to dynamic and sharable content and social networking. The internet is no longer just a place to find information; it is now a forum for collaboration, a place to create, curate and share content online. This has changed the way we work, influenced the way we think and adjusted our individual place in society forever.

The explosion in social media has created a socio-cultural shift; the way that people act is changing and audience expectations are snowballing both online and offline, and museums need to think beyond simply building a fan page on Facebook, writing a blog or starting to use Twitter to keep up with the change.”

He points out that people who use Facebook, iPhones, iTunes and Wikipedia, with its hyperlinks allowing users to “drill down” through information, find many of their interactions with museums, including their websites, to be unsatisfactory: static and difficult to engage with.

He quotes The Centre for the Future of Museums, “For Americans under 30, there’s an emerging structural shift in which consumers increasingly drive narrative. Technology is fundamentally enabling and wiring expectations differently, particularly among younger audiences, this time when it comes to the concept of narrative.

“Over time, museum audiences are likely to expect to be part of the narrative experience at museums. While the overall story might not change, how it is presented may change to allow visitors to take on a role as a protagonist themselves.”

He gives some really interesting examples of museums which have grasped change in the way they use social media to allow active interaction by virtual and physical visitors. Some of them are:

Tate Modern released songs, initially exclusively inside the museum, to which visitors could listen through listening posts and later on the Tate Tracks microsite, then invited the public to participate in searching for an additional track. The invitation potentially reached up to two million people. Young musicians were invited to compose a piece of music inspired by an artwork in the museum and the public were invited to vote for their favourite submitted composition.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art launched a project – “It’s time we MET” –  asking people visiting the permanent collection to photograph their experience and using Flickr enter it in a competition to star in a new advertising campaign. Almost a thousand pictures were posted; a panel of judges selected two winners and five runners up.

N8 Audiotours asked members of the public to create their own audiotours about items found in venues around Amsterdam.

Brooklyn Museum launched 1stfans. “1stfan membership is an interactive relationship with the museum that takes place online and in the museum. Part of this relationship is through websites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr where private members’ areas contain content for 1stfan members. The content in these areas includes artists composing tweets, members sharing pictures, exclusive videos and access to an active online community.”

The V&A in London used a skillfully designed web page to lead people through webpages containing clues to which interested bloggers responded. “The bloggers received further cryptic messages over the next few weeks and 7thsyndikate also entered their real lives with graffiti planted near their homes and adverts placed in newspapers. This all ended with an instruction to dress in a hat and sunglasses, and with a newspaper under the left arm, these spies were to meet a man wearing a tan mac, bowler hat and dark shoes at the Albert Memorial in London. From here he marched them single file to the entrance of the V&A and the exhibition “Cold War Modern”. In total, 35 bloggers made it to the special preview of the exhibition.”

Education: Noel Pearson

Those who read this blog will know of my interest in learning. I wrote a response recently to the Quarterly Essay, “Radical Hope” by Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. The response was kindly posted on the “Save our Schools” site by Trevor Cobbold.

“Radical Hopeâ” traverses very important issues in respect of the education “gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, maintaining cultural identity on the margin, the nature of learning and indigenous rights including responsibilities of governments on the one hand and individuals on the other.

As Mr Pearson shows there are extremely significant findings from educational research relevant to the education of Indigenous students. Education in the western tradition of the dominant society in Australia does not by any means require suppression of Indigenous identity: in fact quite the contrary. Maintenance and strengthening of identity is fundamental to survival for almost everyone, a fact suppressed by advocates of assimilation. Diversity of identity strengthens society!”

Quarterly Essay 36, “Australian Story” by Mungo MacCallum includes a series of responses to Pearson’s essay by people such as Fred Chaney (a director of Reconciliation Australia), Peter Shergold (Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 2003 to 2008) and Peter Sutton (University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum and author of “The Politics of Suffering…”).

Closing

While the world is crying out for creativity and innovation the attention, at least of the media and business and politicians, is focused on league tables, judging teacher effectiveness by student test scores and performance pay. All these are significantly flawed and little evidence of positve contribution of them is available. The studies of learning and education show that early childhood is the critical time for intervention and that well qualified and highly regarded teachers are what make, in the long run, the greatest difference to educational achievement and a life lived, along with encouragement at home and a strong sense of self worth.

It’s rather like the major issue of now being the personal behaviour of golfer Tiger Woods, as economist Paul Krugman observed in respect of global climate change and the COP15 meetings in Copenhagen in his debate with Bjorn Lomborg.

A recent contribution to On Line Opinion by Peter Vintila observed that “Most of us believe that climate policy aims to protect an endangered planet from a badly-ordered human economy. Now listen to just about any politician or industry spokesperson and you soon hear something different: the point, all of a sudden, is not to protect the planet but to protect the human economy from the planet.”