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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: 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 NO. 10

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10 – June 20th, 2009

The new Acropolis Museum opens in Athens, the British Museum should change its name and appoint a board representing the nations whose ancestors created the collections it holds; the education system is anaethsitizing children and stifling creativity, according to Sir Ken Robinson, educator and expert on creativity. And in New South Wales, more pointless reorganisation of the public service.

The tenth “Hoot” gives me the opportunity to talk about two issues of the greatest interest to me, cultural property and its contribution to our past and our view of ourselves, and education and learning and creativity.

Parthenon sculptures and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens: The new Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, looking out on the Acropolis and the Parthenon, opened 20 June. The third floor features a reconstruction of the entire Parthenon frieze, the plaster casts of the sculptures (removed by Lord Elgin) held in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery differentiated from the genuine sculptures by their white colour.

In “Majestic in Exile” in the New York Times of June 18, 2009 Nikos Konstandaras (managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus) writes, “I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum….

“Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

“This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.”

In a report on the opening on ABC Radio’s Correspondents Report on 21 June Helena Smith reported on the opening. Introducing the report Elizabeht Jackson observed, “Activists, including David Hill, the former managing director of the ABC who heads the Sydney-based Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, hope the new museum will reinvigorate the campaign to bring back the Elgin marbles – the artworks that have been displayed in the British Museum since Lord Elgin removed them from the Acropolis over 200 years ago.”

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Creativity and Education: Sir Ken Robinson, former professor at Warwick University and speaker on creativity and education, has just published a book (authored with Lou Aronica and published by Allen Lane) entitled “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, stories of people who found passion in areas of life that were not the focus in traditional schools. In 1998 Robinson chaired a Committee which produced the report, “All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (the Robinson Report)”. The Times said: ‘This report raises some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century. It should have every CEO and human resources director thumping the table and demanding action’.

Robinson argues that current education practices stifle creativity and are a “turn off” for thousands of young people very much because they don’t give enough attention to subjects in the arts. Education is founded on two premises, the enlightenment idea of (rational) economic man and the need for cultural identity. It’s value is seen in how well it prepares people for work.

Robinson was in Australia in the last couple of weeks and was interviewed extensively on the ABC (730 Report on TV1 on 16 June and 17 June , Margaret Throsby’s Interview on ABC Classic FM  and “Life Matters” on Radio National) ; several other interesting people with innovative approaches to education were also interviewed on “Life Matters” in the week starting 15 June.

In one of Robinson’s celebrated lectures, available on the web at TED, he makes a number of points common to all his talks.

“What’s it for, public education? I think you’d have to conclude — if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this … who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it?”

“Children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue .. what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.

“Every person’s intelligence is distinct.”

Referring to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the environmental crisis, Robinson talks of an education crisis. “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.'”

In a more recent talk (at the Royal Society of Arts) Robinson quoted anthropologist Robert Ardrey, “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

In the second part of the interview with ABC TV1’s presenter Kery O’Brien, Robinson said the following: “What I find is that head teachers are critical in schools, like college presidents are essential in universities and in political systems. Leadership is really important from every point of view. I mean, look what’s happening in America at the moment: that shift from the last presidency to the current one. There’s been a total change of mood because people take their cue from the tone of the leadership. And it’s true in every system I know. If you find a school where a head teacher gets it, anything is possible, and I mean that literally.”

___________

In New South Wales, Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the departments of government will be amalgamated into eight “super departments” with the aim of delivering better services for the people of NSW. dollars.

“I am determined to have the best structure to deliver better services for the people of NSW,” Mr Rees said. “These changes are designed to ensure a greater focus on our clients, better integration of public services and to cut internal Government red tape.”

The reforms will, according to Premier Rees, “Improve service delivery, better align a sprawling bureaucracy; and ensure the best value for taxpayers”.

All this ignores the evidence that restructuring achieves little benefit unless a lot of effort is put into explaining t he benefits and justifying them and providing resources to see thought the adjustments which will have to be made. It remains true that what makes the difference is how decisions get made and how leadership is practised. Coordination and ‘alignment’ require oversighting which carries with it al the problems of restricting innovation and suppressing dissent.

In 30 years governments almost everywhere have failed to understand best practice as seen in the most successful organisations and have merely created an unsustainable level of inaction and confusion.

Numerous articles on this site deal with this.

Remember this quotation, usually (but wrongly) attributed to Petronius: “We trained hard … but every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised.  I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising … and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralisation.” (1)

More quotations are to be found here.

(1) According to Wikipedia, the actual author of this piece of wisdom was the American writer Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1957 which recounted his experiences as a junior officer in the famous WW2 US Army unit known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders’, and the quoted passage referred to his somewhat chaotic early training.

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 4

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Owl’s Hoots No. 4, 3 May 2009: Human origins, new species of animals from Papua New Guinea highlands, President Obama speaks about returning science to its proper place. And advice from Delta Airlines CEO: a matter of judgment, an essential skill in short supply. Two important birthdays!

Human Origins: In the AAAS weekly magazine Science for 1 May 2009 (Vol. 324. no. 5927, p. 575) an international team of scientists led by Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania reports on a study of genetic material from 113 populations of Africans from across the continent. The study finds Africans to have been descended from 14 ancestral populations, which often correlate with language and cultural groups. All hunter-gatherers and pygmies in Africa today shared ancestors 35,000 years ago. East Africa was the source of the great migration that populated the rest of the world. The team also found that African-American individuals, on average, to have mixed ancestry from all over western Africa, which will make it difficult to trace roots to specific ethnic groups.

In BBC News Online 1 May 2009 Victoria Gill gives a brief summary.

New species of animals found in Papua New Guinea: Numerous reports summarise a Conservation International (CI) led Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expedition to Papua New Guinea’s highlands wilderness by scientists from Papua New Guinea and the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Montclair State University. The expedition discovered numerous new species amongst the 600 species collected. Included were 50 spiders new to science including a new Jumping Spider. The three new frogs include a tiny brown frog with a sharp chirping call (Oreophryne sp.), a bright green tree frog with enormous eyes (Nyctimystes sp.), and a torrent-dwelling frog that has a loud ringing call (Litoria sp.).

President Obama speaks to the US National Academy of Sciences: Here are a few extracts from President Obama’s speech of April 27; there are several sources for this speech. (Obama honored a special education teacher and former police officer at the White House on April 28 as the 2009 National Teacher of the Year.)

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

“I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow. It’s our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. So I’m here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.”

“The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years. That’s how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

“This work begins with a historic commitment to basic science and applied research, from the labs of renowned universities to the proving grounds of innovative companies.”

“… scientific innovation offers us a chance to achieve prosperity. It has offered us benefits that have improved our health and our lives — improvements we take too easily for granted. But it gives us something more. At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it.

And some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long-held views. Science can’t answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help put those values — these moral sentiments, that faith — can put those things to work — to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth.”

Lessons from US Airlines: One would not generally look to US airlines, many of which are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, for lessons. Unless it is Southwest Airlines. However, in “He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects“, Adam Bryant (New York Times April 25, 2009)  reports an interview with Richard Anderson, chief executive of Delta Air Lines. Some extracts:

The most important leadership lesson learned: “I’ve learned to be patient and not lose my temper. And the reason that’s important is everything you do is an example, and people look at everything you do and take a signal from everything you do.”

Other things learned: “You’ve got to be thankful to the people who get the work done, and you’ve got to be thankful to your customers. So, I find myself, more and more, writing hand-written notes to people. I must write a half a dozen a day.”

Hiring: “Typically, when you’re hiring a vice president of a company, they already have the résumé and they already have the experience base. And so what you’re trying to find out about are the intangibles of leadership, communication style and the ability to, today, really adapt to change.

“I like to ask people what they’ve read, what are the last three or four books they’ve read, and what did they enjoy about those. And to really understand them as individuals because, you know, the résumés you get are wonderful résumés. Wonderful education, great work history. So you have to probe a little bit deeper into the human intangibles, because we’ve all seen many instances where people had perfect résumés, but weren’t effective in an organization.

“So it’s not just education and experience. It’s education, experience and the human factor. The situational awareness that a person has and their ability to fit into an organization and then be successful in the organization. It’s a whole series of intangibles that are almost gut instincts about people.”

Recruitment, like everything else that is important, is a matter of judgment!

Judgment: It’s in extremely short supply! I keep a list of poor judgments concerning people who have turned out to be successful, like J.S Bach. The latest two on my list are author David Gutterson (“Snow Falling on Cedars” and “East of the Mountains”) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Gutterson’s book “Snow Falling on Cedars”, about Japanese Americans in a small island in the US in World War 2, was turned down by many publishers: it has sold millions of copies and been translated into many languages.

Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 6 was described by a critic as sounding like an elephant dragging [something across a tiled roof]. But, along with his Sun Music, the piece led to a contract with Faber Music, a rare honour! (Sculthorpe is interviewed by a number of people including Phillip Adams on “Late Night Live” and Andrew Ford on “The Music Show” as he approaches his 80th birthday!)

Pete Seeger turns 90 today (3 May). Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress ““ he refused to sing for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in August 1955 and he remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s, but the verdict was reversed in 1962. At the conclusion of the concert for the inauguration of President Obama, Seeger performed, “This Land is Our Land”.

Next week: More nonsense about the “International Museum” and global climate change: what value are the governments of nation states?