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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.

A Challenge to our Vision of Humanity

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

‘Are we all here, Do we really count?’ references a statement Australian sociologist and writer Hugh Mackay made some years ago. In his most recent non-fiction book he points out that The Good Life is not one “lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust … It is one in which we treat people the way we would like to be treated… A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.” Mackay has written 14 books including novels, his latest being Infidelity.

Mackay’s lesson is the basis for contrasting statements about humanity with observations of the horrors which ordinary human beings have perpetrated or simply allowed. That humanity has made progress is an arguable statement which is too seldom not seriously thought about or realistically discussed. It is also a view which contrasts with the dominant economic view, one that as Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and one time Sustainability Commissioner for the UK, has pointed out shows we have evolved as social rather than economic beings.

Two books, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Bernard Schlinck’s The Reader are among many scores of books and films which draw out the horrors and the conflicts faced by ordinary human beings, not politicians or generals or soldiers. Do these books and films make any difference to how we run out lives and influence the future of our society? Though there is greater international peace, the horrors continue within national boundaries, sometimes boundaries artificially drawn by colonising powers.

Conflicts continue to generate millions of refugees, deny a future to men, women and children, destroy towns and cities, economies and futures. Yet countries with influence seem unable to agree to stop them. Aid becomes another just another business, another opportunity for colonisation in another guise.

Faced with the need to help those fleeing persecution, arguments are advanced about queue jumping, about illegal asylum seekers, about population growth at the same time as skilled people from poorer countries are recruited to jobs in rich countries so corporations can avoid the costs of  training people already resident in that country. Inequality increases as fewer people gain greater wealth and what should be self evident truths remain denied. And discrimination on the basis of race and more continues, as it has for centuries.

A Prime Minister apologises, people weep, then what?

Continue to essay, “Are we really all here. do we all really count?

UNDERSTANDING MUSEUMS – UPDATE

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On June 10 last year I reported that the first part of Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, edited with Leon Paroissien, had been published as an e-book by the National Museum of Australia.

Late in the year the remaining essays were published. The complete e-book includes 25 separate essays covering everything from a review of the Pigott Report, developments since 1970 in museums generally through progress in art, science and history, education and touring exhibitions, digitisation and social media.

Following a consideration of the recent history of museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien,  Anne-Marie Condé of the National Museum reviews the important Pigott Report into museums and national collections which reported ot the Australian Government in late 1975. Ian Cook, inaugural Director of the State Conservation Centre of South Australia (later called Artlab Australia) and colleagues describe advances in collection conservation, Tim Hart from Museum Victoria and Martin Hallett from Arts Victoria recount the revolution in technology in museums. Des Griffin considers the very recent advances in technology and social media.

John Stanton of the Berndt Museum writes on ethnographic museums and Bernice Murphy, presently National Director of Museums Australia discusses Indigenous art and art museums whilst Michael Pickering of the National Museum and Phil Gordon of the Australian Museum review repatriation.

Discussions of History and museums are provided by Peter Stanley of the National Museum, Tim Sullivan of Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Margaret Anderson of the South Australian History Trust, Kevin Jones of the South Australian Maritime Museum and Viv Szekeres, formerly director of the Migration Museum in Adelaide.

Daniel Thomas, one time director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, provides an overview of art museums. Caroline Turner, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and the Arts at the ANU recvounts the expansion in international exhibitions and independent consultant Anne Kirker reviews paper conservation in art museums.

Natural history museums and their challenges are discussed by Doug Hoese, onetime head of science at the Australian Museum. Michael Gore, foundation director Questacon in Canberra, and Susan Stocklmayer, director of the ANU Centre for the public Awareness of Science review science centres.

Regional Museums are considered by Margaret Rich, former director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat and by museum and heritage consultant Kylie Winkworth. Representatives of various regional museum organisations consider developments in many of the states of Australia.

Lastly, education and the visitor experience in museums, one of the fields in which there have been significant advances, is addressed by Jennifer Barrett of Sydney University who describes museum studies at universities, Barbara Piscitelli, researcher on young children and museums, who focuses on the relationship that children have with museums, Janette Griffin of the University of Technology Sydney who reviews school students’ learning in museums and Lynda Kelly of the Australian Museum who discusses family visits.

Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), 2011, Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia.

The first part of a volume on developments in museums in Australia since the 1960’s has just been published as an e-Book on the web site of the National Museum of Australia.

Museums were established across many parts of the Australian continent during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. However it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that the greatest burgeoning of museums occurred. These decades also witnessed the consolidation of a sophisticated museum profession, the creation of a single national professional association “Museums Australia” and an active participation of Australian museum professionals in the international museum context. The essays in this section jointly seek to present a scholarly study of museums and museum practice that is also accessible to people outside the museum profession, who daily demonstrate their active interest in museums and their programs.

There are 11 essays in five sections.

Museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Conservation in Australian museums by Ian Cook et al.

Ethnographic museums and collections by John E Stanton

Transforming culture by Bernice Murphy

Repatriation by Michael Pickering and Phil Gordon

War and Australia’s museums by Peter Stanley

History in the new millennium or problems with history? by Tim Sullivan

Art museums in Australia by Daniel Thomas

International exhibitions by Caroline Turner

Collecting works on paper by Anne Kirker

Museums and the environment by Douglass F Hoese

The second part to be published in late June or July will include further essays on history and science museums. Additional sections will deal with education programs and regional museums and there will be essays on museums and digitisation and social media.

OWL’S HOOTS

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Hoots No. 1 – 26 March 2009: Museums have become “our home from home”, Barack Obama’s work schedule has large gaps in which he sets aside time to step back and think or make calls or read and the late Bill Stanner’s essays  published by Black Inc. Australia will support the UN Indigenous Rights Convention which the former government voted against in 2007.

Museums  are not much like museums anymore: In “Why museums have become our home from home” (The Times March 14, 2009) Hugo Rifkind writes that “People are visiting our galleries and museums at a startling rate. Is it the cafés, the absence of swearing… maybe even the art?”. Rifkind suggests some reasons: that museums “are the best public space we have” and that museums are safe places. Of course they are free but more people may be visiting “because people are getting cleverer”. But first of all he says it is because “quite suddenly, museums aren’t much like museums”!

Leadership lessons: Writing in the New York Review of Books (“The Thirty Days of Barack Obama”, March 26, 2009) Elizabeth Drew observes the following:

“As carefully as Barack Obama prepared for it, the presidency has held some surprises for him””some foreseeable, some not, and some of his own making. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the early Clinton era, Obama concluded that, unlike Clinton, he didn’t want to hold the numerous meetings that can chew up so much of the president’s time. Instead, according to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, Obama’s style is to drop by an aide’s office””a restless man, he roams the White House corridors””or stop an aide in a hallway and ask, “How are you coming on that thing we were talking about?” Gibbs says, “The worst thing is not have an answer.” Asked what happens then, Gibbs replied, “He gets that disappointed parent look, and then you better go find an answer.”

“Obama’s publicly announced schedules have large gaps; he makes it a point to set aside time to step back and think””sometimes going for a long, solitary walk around the White House grounds””or make calls, or read. A night owl, he usually takes work home, to be studied after he’s tucked his daughters into bed. Aides say he turns around paperwork fairly quickly, responding to and signing off on their memoranda.”

Stop Press: Barrack Obama is to read from his book “Dreams from my Father” on ABC Radio National’s First Person (weekdays 10:45am) which is part of the Book Show starting 10:00am, from Monday 30th March. (The readings can usually be listened to or podcast.)

Books: Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, persuaded Black Inc to publish the essays by Professor W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner (under the title of “The Dreaming & Other Essays”) by this distinguished Australian anthropologist and has written the introduction. An edited extract from it appeared in The Australian 14 March 2009 (doubtfully available on the web). There are other articles about Stanner and the essays including one by Professor Marcia Langton also in The Australian on March 4 (on the web).

Manne writes, “In 1968 Stanner was invited to deliver the ABC’s Boyer Lectures. In them he talked of the persistence of “the great Australian silence” concerning the Aboriginal dispossession; the belated recognition in Australia of the genius and the strangeness of the indigenous culture the British had so light-heartedly set upon destroying; the emerging possibilities of a racial composition if we could only see that our problem with the Aborigines was less important than their problem with us; the arrogance and certain failure of the policy of assimilation that was inviting the Aborigines to relinquish what it was that made them a distinctive people or, in Stanner’s biting phrase, was asking them to “un-be”; and, finally and tentatively, the question that came more and more to obsess him, the possibility of a historic act of reconciliation through a willingness to contemplate some new deal over the question of the ownership of land.”

Stop Press: Australia will next week officially back the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reversing the Howard Government’s vote against it in 2007. (the US, New Zealand and Canada also voted against it in the General Assembly.) Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin will make a statement on Australia’s change in position on April 3 at Parliament House in Canberra.

Music: Tapestry is a vocal ensemble founded in 1995 by Laurie Monahan, Cristi Catt, and Daniela Tosic. Based in Boston, the ensemble made its concert debut in its hometown with performances of Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The group has established an international reputation for its bold conceptual programming which combines medieval and traditional repertory with contemporary compositions. Their album “Faces of Faces of a Woman” weaves together a mix of tales, music and poetry to reveal the many faces of a woman, ranging from 12th century nun Hildegard von Bingen to 16th century Irish pirate Grace O’Malley to 20th century Russian poet Anna Akmatova together with music of female troubadours, traditional songs, and lullabies including “Careless Love”. Astonishingly wonderful!

Next week: A quotation about critics from someone who knew heretic and philosopher Giordano Bruno (whose biography by Ingrid Rowland has recently been published), burned at the stake in Rome in February 1600, and two amazing biological stories about caterpillars being welcomed in the nests of ants and the courtship of Bower Birds – if you haven’t heard them already on the Science Show with Robyn Williams. And an inquiry into Britain’s invasion of Iraq: what might the consequences be?

This page, which should appear weekly, is an addition to the blogs page.