Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Year 2014: Governments and Corporations – Are they Fit for Purpose?

Last year 2014 was one of the most difficult years Australians have faced in peacetime. It is a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing and the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.

So, the following constitutes a kind of end of year rave about Australia and the world at this time. It started out as a commentary on the response to friends about the article of last May by Warwick Smith in The Guardian on the budget: number of economists who agree with government economic policy? Nil.

This post was published on my website December 30, 2014 

The Abbott-led Opposition had consistently criticised the Gillard government as illegitimate and non-functional when it was in fact legitimate (as are many coalition governments around the world) and was able to pass substantial amounts of legislation, albeit not all representing the best that could be put in place. In government, Abbott faced trouble from cross bench Senators throughout the year, passing little legislation.

Government claims of a welfare crisis were undermined by a Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research report that has tracked more than 12,000 people since 2001. The Survey showed working age Australians have become far less reliant on welfare payments since the turn of the century. As Peter Whiteford,Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University pointed out, Australia has the most targeted social security system in the OECD and that total social security payments in Australia, at 12 per cent of average household income, are the third-lowest in the OECD. Strategies aimed at getting more people on welfare, including youth and those receiving disability benefits, into work have nothing to say about job creation!

The Prime Minister Tony Abbott ended the year in very bad shape and indeed Treasurer Hockey is said to have failed. Many have been the commentators giving vent to their views on that: I don’t need to here. I have in recent posts. Except it is worth recalling that, on gaining office on September 8 2013, Mr Abbott declared the  Nation “open for business”. Instead business confidence weakened, terms of trade declined and the deficit grew. There are multiple reasons which only shows the folly of making grand predictions about financial outcomes!

I do want to point out that the posts on this site have changed from ones that commented in a perhaps fairly staid manner on various issues to increasingly strident condemnation of trends in Australia and more generally. Apart from failures in education in many places the overwhelming failure has been in respect of climate change, though the outcomes of the meetings in Lima atd the end of 2014  perhaps give some hope.

It is fair to say that Australia is involved in conflicts in the Middle East which probably have nothing to do with Australia, or more correctly are unlikely to solved by our intervention or indeed the intervention of any outside power, hideous as the situation is.

Immigration has become a nightmare which decent Australians find appalling, policies based on lies, as pointed out by many including Julian Burnside, Malcolm Fraser and Sarah Hanson-Young, and a level of meanness which is hard to imagine.

Consider this contrasting decision: “Sweden has become the first European Union country to announce it will give asylum to all Syrian refugees who apply as reported by SBS for instance. “All Syrian asylum seekers who apply for asylum in Sweden will get it,” Annie Hoernblad, the spokeswoman for Sweden’s migration agency, told AFP. The agency made this decision now because it believes the violence in Syria will not end in the near future.” The decision, which will give refugees permanent resident status, is valid until further notice, added Hoernblad.”

The government has pursued energy policies totally at odds with any verifiable facts: carbon emissions were decreasing before the carbon tax was repealed and have increased since then with brown coal being burned in much higher amounts. Declines in household energy consumption and in petrol prices have delivered significantly much more financial gain to people than any action of the government. Energy retailers have been profligate – spending some $40 billions on infrastructure that will never be needed – and the Energy Regulator lacked discipline. The arguments for a reduction of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) are merely a sop to retailers and coal miners. (The actions of the Victorian State government in promoting urban transport infrastructure in a process which concealed the lies underlying the asserted outcome and unnecessary desalination infrastructure are similarly egregious.)

Government policies on health are utterly irrelevant. A co-paymdent has nothing to do with maintaining a healthy citizenry and the proposed $20 billion dollar research fund does not address chronic disease. Anyway the health minister was shoved off to Immigration in the December reshuffle whilst Social Services are to be subject to the discipline up to now imposed on Immigration. No hint there of increasing revenue other than further arguments about the regressive GST bolstered by ongoing assertions from Western Australia.

Proposals for funding education so that the major issue of disparities in advantage would be reduced have been trashed in a welter of lies and misrepresentations. Why hasn’t the media reported these two comments by the chair of the panel, the redoubtable David Gonski in his Jean Blackburn Oration to the Australian College of Educators?

“I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.

“To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.

Continuing to talk of what he saw, Gonski noted, “The outstanding professionalism of both the leaders of the commonwealth department involved in school education and a number of the equivalents in states.

“I confess that my un-researched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite. The people I met, who dealt with me, were on the whole open to change, experienced, intelligent and well-meaning. In my view we are lucky to have them.

“I should also mention that dealing with the representatives of the various sectors be they from the catholic system, the independent school sector, the education unions and others was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively. This I found very reassuring for the future – and I take the opportunity of this “postscript speech” to thank them.”

Despite evidence that universities are vitally important but that there are needs for improvement in teaching and that for reasons not explained large numbers of graduates have difficulty finding jobs, the government adopted policies for higher education that, like those for schools, had no basis whatsoever in evidence, were promoted by focus groups (which are relevant to what?) at great cost and advocated through an advertising program which did not mention the great cuts to research funding.

And the ABC and SBS had their funds further reduced. Like CSIRO, excuses were made and the issues ignored and the blame avoided. That any government concerned for education and an informed citizenry and future prosperity would of necessity generously fund scientific research and public broadcasting escapes these people. The ABC and SBS deliver an extraordinary array of material of extremely high quality. But as ABC’s Mark Scott has said the focus is on some small part of what they do. Skilled and experienced people left. Skilled and experienced scientists continued to leave CSIRO after a plethora of reviews over more than 25 years. In both places corporatisation has delivered exactly what?

The greatest tragedy of the budget, though in this sense the present government is not completely different only much worse, is the way it has ignored the major challenges facing humanity. Those will always be argued about but inequality, addressed by CEO of the IMF, the Governor of the Bank of England and French academic Thomas Piketty as well as a host of others, immediately comes to mind.

Of the many excellent reports of those challenges, the Oxford Martin Commission, “Now for the Long Term”, chaired by former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy (and including an astonishing array of internationally respected economists, specialists and political leaders) can be mentioned. And there are several insightful reports from the United Nations and the OECD. When Lamy visited Australia mid-year the Commission’s report received media attention only from the ABC and he met no government Minister! I don’t know if he met any business group. His talks in capital cities were booked out. (The visit was promoted by the Centre for Policy development.)


Here are three recent tweets of mine, relevant to the above, that those who do not tweet will have missed (no doubt to the relief of some):

Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates astronomy would hardly have advanced beyond Galileo. More

Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates we wd b drawing blood 2 cure illness. DNA search wd b 2 risky!

Advances gain f prev unknown knowledge & skills. Instead of colonisation & takeover try join w others 2 leverage knowledge Mkt econ model NO

If the meaning of these ravings are not clear, I can explain. I consider that banks and too many (not all) other corporates are engaged, not in innovative solutions to advance society, but simple behaviours merely to enrich a few people who fund them.

After all banks have gotten into trouble because they did things like decide to reward people for lending money without any regard to whether the loan would likely be repaid; they could have decided to reward only those who had made successful loans. Even better they could have engaged with a multiple of reinforcing goals such as “advance economic performance whilst encouraging innovation in pursuit of improving the health of minorities (or even the middle class)”.

Consider the recent behaviour of the ANZ bank (whose chair is a climate change denier) which bought an investment vehicle at a knock down price and then pursued the debtors, closing their mortgages if they missed one payment. These are farmers: what were National Party politicians like Barnaby Joyce doing? Answer: nothing!

The chair of the National Australia Bank Michael Chaney recently said that banks had a duty to fund the mining of coal! This is even more stupid than Abbott’s comment that coal was good. Banks have no obligation to fund anything other than what is consistent with their goals and prudent. Chaney was once chair of the Business Council and advocated then, as the BCA still does, nonsensical views about financial incentives driving teacher performance and test scores representing teacher competence.

The behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank is well known.

For the rest, consider corporate failings and illegal behaviours. I have a list.

As to colonisation and takeovers. The first thing to recognise is the huge cost over time. Most of these ventures are loss-making.  Consider Vietnam and Algeria, not to mention French and British interests in the Middle East. (The British betrayed those who gave their support to the defeat of the Turkish forces in WW1 and British and French representatives divided up the land as they had in Africa to suit themselves.) The present insurgencies in Syria and Iraq represent the ongoing return on investment by those powers.

All colonised peoples have knowledge and skills of great value which are completely ignored and supressed so that the people can be applied to the simple tasks of working at little or no wages in enterprises which the colonizers have dreamed up as appropriate to achieving their own ends. Such as ground nut farming in East Africa. (See the history of pioneer ANU anthropologist Bill Stanner whose writings were recently edited by Robert Manne, the novel and play “The Secret River”, Bill Gammage’s book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and “Into the Heart of Darkness”, etc, etc)

Most company mergers in the end benefit only the lawyers who arrange the mergers and a few people who get “success fees”. What generally follows is downsizing or, in other words in not a few cases, at least temporary unemployment sometimes leading to worse. The simple solution to “wealth generation” is followed: cut the costs by increasing the margins which results in increase in the stock price which, since the “investors” leverage their borrowing against stock, represents a considerable gain for them. When they have made enough they sell on the company which by now is diminished. All a result of companies considering the main role to be generation of wealth for their shareholders rather than providing needed goods and services to a specific market.

The boards of such merged companies often contain no person who actually knows anything about the business; the directors are rewarded with large fees, a process which makes virtually no difference to performance as has been demonstrated by research on behavioural economics. Employees are hired by another company so the principal company doesn’t have to worry about the workplace conditions. And employees are engaged in whatever country pays the lowest wages with little or no regard to conditions of employment or any sense of decency. (See ‘Why Work Is More and More Debased’ by Robert Kuttner in New York Review of Books October 23, 2014 reviewing ‘The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It’ by David Weil and ‘Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street’ by Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt.)

The very much more productive alternative would be for companies to merge when each recognises the other has experience and skills which the principal company, or both, lacks but has identified as critical to its progress. What would follow is not sackings but a period of considerable training and development of all staff in the new company in the areas critical to success. Those asked to leave are only those who reveal that they are not comfortable with the nature of the new business. (IR policies rest on best practice as revealed by best research and law.)

If this seems too much like naïve and ignorant nonsense answer this question: how has the European Space Agency managed to land vehicles on a moon of Jupiter and a comet, a process which in each case involved hundreds of scientists from many different countries over a very long time? And how did they get the Hadron Super Collider to “discover” the Higgs particle? In the latter case the machinery broke down at one point: 3,000 scientists and technicians worked at fixing it! How have the hospitals which are expert at managing the most critical medical problems got to be that way? (This year’s Reith lectures by Michael Gawande give a clue about managing complex problems such as bringing back to life persons severely injured and seemingly dead after accidents. A clue: the answer isn’t money or competition. You guessed it, it is cooperation!)

Compare the ESA achievements with the relatively simple tasks of rolling out the NBN, installing pink bats, putting in place a universal ticketing system for Sydney’s public transport system and – yes I know that is very much more difficult than putting a decent education or health system in place against the wishes of entrenched privilege) – transiting to a low carbon economy!

The fact is that the politicians and the corporate boards we have in place are not fit for purpose, mainly through intellectual laziness and an overwhelming belief that what they have been brought up to believe is the eternal truth. The influence of those in leadership positions is followed almost unquestionably until they are found to be no longer of use! Sensible decision-making requires constant challenge and exposure to alternative views!

Almost none of these people would dare to consider the proposition that we would all be better off if there was a substantial reduction in inequality, if those on the margin, especially indigenous people*, were granted the dignity and recognition to which they are entitled including equitable access to the judicial system, if the poor were adequately housed rather than living on the street and the seriously disadvantaged cared for, if drug addiction were treated as an illness and not a crime, if children were encouraged to play by themselves unsupervised as part of their learning, if test scores at school were abandoned because all that can be measured is of little consequence, if investment in childhood education was considered the key to the future, if health care were paid for through taxes because the net gain to the community at large is positive over the longer term, if public transport, urban planning and health were recognised as fundamental to a just society and to gains in other areas, if industrial relations were recognised as constituting the processes for mutual satisfaction of competing wants in the alternative village that workplaces are, if investment in scientific research, certainly not economic growth or population growth, was recognised as the principal driver of future prosperity broadly defined. And if the military had to run cake stalls to generate the funding for their weapons!

I believe these are amongst the most important and critical issues. The economy is not the principal issue, at individual, family, local or national or international level. Writers like the Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay have been saying this for some time and so have many people who have pointed to the importance of issues beyond the economic.

In his commencement address at American University Jine 10 1963, President John F Kennedy said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal…”

I finish with some of my favourite quotes. They come from the 2010 Deakin lecture by Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey. (Jackson is featured on TED. One of the first actions of the UK government of David Cameron was to dismiss the UK Sustainable Development Commission: the parallels with Australia will be obvious.)

The concept of prosperity as an ongoing drive for growth is inconsistent with human nature. … prosperity has a meaningful sense that isn’t directly about income growth. It’s about the health of our families. It’s about the trust of our friends. It’s about the security of our communities. It’s about participation in the life of society. It’s about some sense perhaps of having a meaningful life and a hope for the future…

“We evolved as much as social beings as we did as individual beings. We evolved as much in laying down the foundations for a stable society as we did in continually pursuing novelty…”

Some of these ideas are explored in my book “Education: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity” (published early this year by Springer) and in other posts on this site.


Indigenous Australians fought in both world wars: they enlisted only by concealing their racial background. When they returned they were granted no benefits accorded to non-indigenous returned soldiers, not even able to enter RSL clubs. Their names are not inscribed on the honour rolls of the Australian War Memorial. (The huge turnout at a ceremony arranged by descendants of these people gives the lies to the proposition that symbolic gestures are of no significance and that what matters is practical reconciliation, in other words assimilation!) This was revealed in a Summer Special program on ABC RN on December 31 2014, and enterprise which as I have said, like most other things of value is being trashed by the present government.

Indigenous Peoples: Closing the Gap in the  Face of Resilience, Courage and Humour

The following post was first published on the website of Civil Liberties Australia under the title, Aborigines: resilience, courage and humour. The post is a response to the Report by the Productivity Commission Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage published 19 Nov 2014.

This is also posted on my website.  

As the lights go down at the Belvoir Theatre, an elderly man with a wonderful white beard leads other actors in a recalled presentation to a Royal Commission.

In 1874 the Victorian government moved to close an economically successful enterprise at Coranderrk, near Healesville. Nearby farmers protested the land was too valuable for Aboriginal people. The people resisted. But anyway the area was closed in 1924 despite protests from Wurundjeri men, returned soldiers from the Great War: people were moved to Lake Tyers. There are scores of similar stories, hardly known.

Uncle Jack Charles, now 72, was taken from his mother at Cummeragunja mission as a one year old and raised in a boys’ home at suburban Box Hill. He was the only Aboriginal child there: they ''thrashed the living bejesus out of me’’, and worse. Jack was in and out of jail for minor crime and substance abuse. Reunited with some family at age 17, it was two more years before that included his mother. Jack is considered a founder of black theatre: he now helps young Aboriginal people.

As I watch Uncle Jack Charles perform, I perceive the resilience, courage and humour permeating every performance, comprising cultural achievement in spite of a life lived against the odds. (The play Beautiful One Day, also performed at Belvoir, has the same characteristics.)

Indigenous people are still here, teaching us cultural lessons, as we who are not indigenous have passed from hideous assimilation to integration through policies based on arrogance and now ignorance.

Denial, exploitation, removal of children, murder and rape, suppression of language. Refusal to acknowledge the past. Refusal to acknowledge a unique relationship with land with all its meanings, and managing the land through ice-age and desert periods. Refusal of equal rights despite judgements of the High Court, despite legislation, despite Royal Commissions, despite so many statements from elders white and black, despite increasing achievements in every field, not only music, painting and literature.

Disadvantage: Closing the Gap?

The extraordinarily comprehensive and, in some places, terribly disturbing Productivity Commission Report of late 2014 reveals trends that are a disgrace of international proportion against global standards. The report is comprehensive and detailed: every aspect of Indigenous disadvantage explored. It contains numerous examples of “Things that Work”. And it received about as much media attention as the chime on a time clock.

Horrendous statistics overshadow small gains and losses. Health, education and housing, which characterise Indigenous peoples’ problems worldwide, remain major issues. Australia is worse than anywhere: 78% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households lack acceptable access to water, sewerage and electricity service, but that figure is 5 points down from 2008…so overcrowding declined!

There is no progress in employment (likely affected by changes in the Community Employment Program), or in disability and chronic disease at 1.7 times the incidence for non-Indigenous people.

An increase in the non-Indigenous rate of family and community violence means the Indigenous rate remains 2.2 times the non-Indigenous rate. Over the nine years to 2012-13 the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders increased almost five times from 11 to 49 per 1000 children; for non-Indigenous children the rate was between 3 and 6 per 1000 children.

Rates of children aged 0-17 years on care and protection orders, at 30 June. Figure 4.10.3 ODP report p4.82

Adult Indigenous jailing increased by 57% in the past 14 years. Youth imprisonment increased sharply to 2008 and has since remained at about 24 times the non-Indigenous rate. Repeat  offending is 1.5 times the rate of 55% for non-Indigenous prisoners, as in 2000. 

The over-representation of indigenous people in prison in Australia is 10 times that of the USA!

The suicide rate in the five years to 2012 was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm increased by almost 50% to more than 400 per 100,000 in the past eight years; for other Australians it remained relatively stable.

Adult imprisonment rate, at 30 June 2000 to 2013. Fig 4.12.2 p 4.103. Note the virtually horizontal line at bottom, while Aboriginal jailing continues to rise.

In education, the figures are also far worse than for Indigenous people in other countries. In New Zealand, 85% of Maori have post-school qualifications and in the US it is about 65% of Native Americans: in Australia less than 20% have such qualifications.

Decades of continuing discrimination

Gough Whitlam, on election as Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, directed one of his first two major initiatives at Aboriginal people: no more grants of leases on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, appointment of Justice Woodward to commence an inquiry into land rights, and establishment of special schools.

Before and since Whitlam, any moves to advantage Indigenous peoples have been opposed by special interests in pastoral and mining activities and by state governments, except South Australia. In Western Australia discrimination continues as Premier Colin Barnett does his best to remove Indigenous people from remote areas, refusing allocation of mining royalties to support them and maintains mandatory sentencing for minor crime.

In 2006 Prime Minister Howard and Minister Mal Brough established the Northern Territory Intervention or National Emergency Response (NTER) to address alleged high levels of child abuse and neglect, with some allegations later found to be fraudulent and invented by an employee in the Minister’s office. The army was sent in, social security payments were managed, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended. Contrary to recommendations from a government-commissioned report, action was centralised.

Delivering the 2007 Vincent Lingiari lecture, Reconciliation Australia co-chair Fred Chaney expressed shock: the Intervention was contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights and the principles of non-discrimination, authorised micro management of lives, forced people into towns with devastating social consequences likely returning people to dependence, crushing the engagement essential to progress.

The Intervention has produced no gains. In the five years to 2011 Indigenous hospitalisation rates increased by 14%, income support recipients by 20%, reported child abuse by 56% and school attendance declined by 2 percentage points according to emeritus Professor Jon Altman.

Professor Larissa Behrendt says trying to change behaviour through welfare quarantining in an already dysfunctional situation likely exacerbates the stress on households. Improved attendance would be better achieved by breakfast and lunch programs, bringing the Aboriginal community, especially elders, into schools; teacher’s aides and Aboriginal teachers; a curriculum engaging for Aboriginal children which blends development self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture as well as academic excellence.

A failure of policy: What could have been

Dr Christine Nicholls, now at Flinders University, was principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu for almost a decade. In Quarterly Essay 36 (2009), she points out that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change.

People visited from government agencies out of town but nothing happened! The kids have otitis media (a disease of the Third World!) and can’t hear properly: If you can’t hear, you muck up in school, and don’t learn. It is ignored.

Few ESL teachers are employed, the value of teaching in language is denied, housing construction is appalling (and successive governments have done nothing about it). There is nowhere at home to do homework, overcrowding (with its attendant problems of potential child abuse), compromised health and hygiene. Lack of work for parents. Successive governments come to power wanting to be the one that fixes “the problem”. None do, small successes are not built on.

Many programs to advance Indigenous people are supported by private donations, corporate philanthropy, some together with government. Several help young people particularly. What on earth persuaded the Howard and Abbott governments to force on to Indigenous people wholly ineffectual policies that simply repeat all the mistakes of the past, are based on colonial and assimilative policies and in the end waste money and destroy people’s lives?

Governments could have decided to be far more engaged in ensuring proper housing, education and health programs. They could have ensured a substantial funding component of every initiative went to training Indigenous people. They could have stopped trying to justify policy by lying! And the federal government could have rejected the sometimes racist and backward looking objections of many provincial governments. Almost none have the courage to face down critics wanting to solve it all through rational economic solutions like private ownership and put everything in the “they need to adapt to our society” basket. 

The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales and Victoria. The situations revealed in the Aboriginal-directed and -produced, award-winning TV dramas Redfern Now are situations of all people in towns and cities on the margin: difficulties of employment and daily living: health issues flowing from bad diet, cheap fast food, substance and alcohol abuse, poor housing.

There are three fundamental requirements: Self Determination, Financial Security, and support of Women/Early Childhood and Parenting

Self Determination

The right to self-determination must be embraced completely. Sovereignty matters! The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has run hundreds of research studies over more than two decades in Native American communities. When Native Americans make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental forms, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision.

Self-determination is a constant theme in every speech by Indigenous people. It is an expression of control over one’s own life. Many, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, have pointed out that redressing disadvantage in the longer term depends upon people having the power to make decisions that affect them, to be responsible for the programs designed to meet their needs, and accountable for the successes and failures that follow.

Michael Dockery (photo) of Curtin University has found these same outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia. But no notice is taken. What is axiomatic for white groups in society is seen as a threat if given to black groups! Capable institutions of governance, adoption of stable decision rules, establishment of fair and independent mechanisms of dispute resolution and leaders who introduce new knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and propose change are recognised as essential by Harvard.

Financial security

Second is equitable funding as the bottom line, and more beyond that as success builds. Under-funding has typified programs for more than 100 years. Except for the Whitlam government, almost every federal government has strenuously failed to adequately fund Indigenous programs. Wages and social security payments have been withheld and compensation ignored. The funding must acknowledge the right to determine the nature of projects directed to community improvement.

Under the government of Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott:

•        $43 million will be removed from legal aid over four years;
•        $160 million is being cut from health programs;
•        language support has lost money; and
•        funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was eliminated.

Recently Prof Altman has pointed to the success of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme which began in the 1970s: it increased earnings, provided more time for ceremonial activities, and crime decreased. Howard cancelled the increasingly demonised scheme because it wasn’t “real work”. In December 2014 the Abbott government announced a work for the dole scheme for remote Australia. Utterly pointless!

Early childhood and parenting

Australian and international understanding of early childhood, mother–child relationships, cognitive development and the impact on later life has increased significantly. These relationships are critical. The stimulation and warmth of the relationship contributes to a successful later life. Young children learn how to behave, and about human relationships and self-control which is a greater predictor of later “success” than any other indicator. And they learn self-confidence which helps manage the stress of later life better.

Recalled experiences in early childhood carry over to later parenting situations. So a potential cycle is developed. Therefore maximum support must be given to women and young families. Preschool staffed by qualified teachers and before that maximum effective support. Later, while Indigenous parents may not be clear about what school has to do with education, because of their background, that does not mean they have no interest in education. On the other hand intervening at school age will not likely undo the damage of early life. And availability of jobs after schooling is completed is essential.


The Productivity Commission and many people working and studying in the area have identified successes. But generally governments have not addressed the causes of problems, they have not co-ordinated the policies across significant areas and have not recognised the obligations to First Peoples whose right to the land was denied for 200 years. The invidious comparisons with the Indigenous peoples of other countries testifies to that.

There is a crisis of intellectual laziness combined with arrogance. In particular, the critical importance of cultural issues have not been attended to, nor has the impact of removal from land and of forced removal of children from families, which continues. Nothing has been learned from elsewhere.

The paternalistic approach which denies people any sense of control over their own lives leaves them more than marginalised. A friend points to the fact that many Aboriginal people have little understanding of white institutions and the implications of such things as court judgements.

But they know very well what denial of liberty means. Anything approaching racial profiling, failure to deliver in the judicial and police arena, criminalising minor crimes, mandatory sentencing and imprisonment produces more destructive behaviour and undermines progress elsewhere. It should be stopped immediately. Everything should be geared to developing a sense of self-worth grounded in a unique culture so that Indigenous identity is genuinely valued by the whole Australian community. Surprising as it may seem, many Aboriginal people regard all white people as of greater value than any Aboriginal person.

David Gulpilil won best lead actor for his role in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie’s Country at the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) event in January 2015.  There are lessons in that if we only think about them.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Education of Christopher Pyne

The approach to education reform intended by the new Government, as enunciated especially by Education Minister Pyne, is based on serious misunderstandings of the nature of education and the latest contribution to knowledge about it. "People need to understand that the government has changed in Canberra, that we're not simply administering the previous government's policies or views”.

The National Plan for School Improvement passed by the Parliament in June represents substantial advances over the existing school education system. Save Our School’s Trevor Cobbold points to the priority given in the Plan to reducing disadvantage.

The Plan breaks the link between government and private schools which allowed that every time state governments increased funding for disadvantaged students in government schools, a portion of it flowed through to private schools. The funding for disadvantaged schools is unfortunately spread more broadly than the Gonski Panel recommended. The reduction of funding to universities in order to fund the Plan is very unfortunate.

Five areas of concern arise from the statements by Minister Pyne about school education. They are first, the proposition that ‘the present model is not broken’, then the influence of standardised testing, the nature of school leadership, the nature of effective learning and teaching and the nature of the disciplines which form the curriculum, especially history, and the ways they are taught.

The present model is broken! Gonski Panel member Kathryn Greiner said that strongly in an interview on ABC’s RN. The evidence is clear: the disparity between the achievement of Australian kids in well resourced city schools and those in less advantaged schools and from less advantaged backgrounds, especially in remote areas and in indigenous communities, is amongst the highest in OECD countries and is growing.

Standardised testing does not improve student achievement. The main argument is that the tests help improve student achievement. However, variation of scores within a school is substantial so that comparison of schools is near meaningless: scores vary from year to year and subject to subject. School league tables are meaningless!

Attempts to link test scores to teacher performance: a survey of over 200 New York City public schools by Roland Fryer of Harvard University’s Department of Economics in 2011 found no evidence whatsoever that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, graduation or teacher behaviour. Study after study and commentary after commentary have strongly criticised the emphasis on test scores. They have negative effects on student health and wellbeing, as found by the Whitlam Institute. Standardised tests narrow the curriculum. The US group Common Core found a rich curriculum to be the distinguishing feature of school systems in countries whose students did well.

Adults reflecting on their positive recollections of schooling talk of teachers who inspired them by the genuine concern for their individual achievement! How much of Minister Pyne’s policies reflect that, the fact that teacher’s views of student performance are in fact superior to the results of standardised tests and that in countries whose students do well in international tests, teachers are trusted?

School leadership is not management or administration. The Abbott government and its supporters have praised the emergence of ‘independent’ public schools scheme started recently in Western Australia. This and policies of several state governments announced in the last year or so intend to give school principals greater control over budgets and hiring of teachers. The PISA reports make clear that the independence for schools which raises student achievement is not achieved by increasing the administrative burden. Effective school leadership is the same as for leadership in any organisation: strong support for teaching staff including setting high performance standards and developing good relations with the community as is shown in longitudinal studies in disadvantaged south Chicago.

The support for independent schools has led to greater homogeneity in classes as schools better resourced by federal government, student fees and private support attract already advantaged students leaving less advantaged to the meanness of struggling public schools and their dedicated but struggling teachers.

That the average scores of students in the highest quartile in the international tests administered by the PISA program have declined is surely evidence that the reforms of the Howard Government and its support for independent schools have not worked. Socioeconomic background of the class can make a difference of two years or more to the achievement of a child.

Effective learning is student-centred. Mr Pyne favours replacing student-centred learning with a ‘more didactic approach’ to teaching and said so on ABC TV’s Q&A . It ignores the evidence from studies by Stanford’s Jonathan Osborne together with Deakin University’s Russell Tytler and by University of Pittsburgh’s Lauren Resnick about genuine engagement of students in discussion: argumentation and ‘accountable talk’.

That teaching has been didactic and devoid of any human element is a significant reason why history and science teaching so often fails. It ignores the importance of meaningful feedback, as opposed to indiscriminate praise, by teachers to student as revealed by Melbourne University’s John Hattie and Helen Timperley of Auckland University and research in England. And it ignores the importance of intrinsic motivation revealed by University of Sydney’s Andrew Martin. 

A challenging and engaging curriculum is essential. Minister Pyne, like Prime Minister Howard, criticises history curricula for promoting ‘left-leaning’ views.  

History and science and every area of knowledge are evolving all the time, new themes and new views emerge, older theories are overturned. If curricula are to be alive and engaging new understandings from new research must be incorporated.

In areas considered difficult special efforts must be made: distinguished mathematics educator Celia Hoyles from the UK, speaking at a conference on curricula two years ago, recommended an extra specialist math teacher in every school. Australian students don’t do all that well in mathematics as shown by the latest OECD study of adult literacy and numeracy: Hoyle’s comments went unreported!

The traditional approach to education results in school leavers being able to repeat learned facts but cannot engage in analysis of the issues involved in those domains of knowledge. Those qualities are considered to be essential by many employers outside the fast food and similar industries.

The overall approach of the Coalition’s education policies completely ignores the critical importance of early childhood, relationships of the very young child with the mother and the vital importance of the education of girls and support for mothers. The latest Human Development Report, for 2013, from the United Nations points out that a mother’s education level is more important to child survival than is household income.

The single greatest contribution to improving educational achievement would be support for early childhood including preschool and interventions such as equitable access to parental leave. The gains are particularly strong for children from disadvantaged backgrounds: provision of qualified preschool teachers is essential. It is not child-minding.

By next year, according to the 2008 National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education every child should have access set a target of all children in the year before they attend formal schooling should have access to pre-school delivered by a university qualified early childhood teacher for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year. Support for these agreements is essential.

Education does not, by itself, diminish poverty!

Actor and comedian Tim Minchin said much more interesting things about education at the University of Western Australia. Like, “life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running(!), being enthusiastic”.

Much of this education reform is just the unwinding of intelligence and creativity!

Mr Pyne could learn a great deal just by listening to ABC RN programs.

This post is also on my website. A longer version is on On Line Opinion

Thursday, 7 November 2013

John Howard, Climate Change Denier and much more!

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.

Lots of people take seriously what John Howard says. His speech has gained a lot of media attention, a media which for the most part has given scant attention to the overwhelming scientific evidence for human induced climate change and its likely damaging consequences, as pointed out by Wendy Bacon of the Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.

Unfortunately, to respond to Howard’s remarks is likely to only reach those who already consider the science of climate change to be valid and the Fifth IPCC Report just released to be further evidence of that. Stephan Lewandowsky, now of Bristol University, like others, has cogently argued on numerous occasions why climate change science and science in general faces scepticism. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have done so specifically pointing to similarities with the campaign against action in cigarettes in their book Merchants of Doubt. 

But one must go on! Several of Howard’s statements are gratuitous, several are misrepresentations. That is not to say that the contribution of innovation and advance of technology, on which he relies, are to be put aside. Tristan Edis at Climate Spectator has sensibly paid attention to that.

But Howard’s principal statements must be identified for what they are.

He casts the science as another religion. We have been there before. It is a conscious and complete misrepresentation of the nature of science and of terms like consensus and belief. We should remember that Howard presented numerous annual Prime Minister’s science prizes. We would be straining credulity to concede that he does not actually understand the basics of science. Unless he never read the speeches he had to make beforehand. To suggest that the climate scientists’ statements are “sanctimonious” and that the term “denier” has some overtone of intimidation 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!

“Global warming is a quintessential public policy issue. Understanding the science is crucial; so is understanding the economics ...”

Indeed! Good public policy requires clear understanding. Global warming is indeed quintessential public policy issue. Understanding the science is crucial; so is understanding the economics; the argument cannot proceed in the absence of that. Howard does not understand the nature of science just as he does not understand the nature of history in his criticism of Australian history in the Australian school curriculum. In fact he does not understand the nature of truth as it is used in science.

He shows that with these statements. “The flood of emails coming from the University of East Anglia, the admitted errors regarding the Himalayan Glaciers, as well as the nakedly political agendas of some of those allegedly giving impartial scientific advice have degraded the image of the IPCC as the unchallengeable body of scientific experts on global warming.

“And the most recent IPCC Report has produced a grudging admission that the warming process has been at a standstill for the past 15 years. But we are assured that is only temporary.”

There have been eight independent enquiries into the leaked (hacked) emails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit: all show there was no evidence of scientific misconduct. Howard’s statement is disingenuous!

The IPCC has admitted that the statements that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035 was based not on peer-reviewed science but on a media interview in 1999: the large Himalayan glaciers could not melt in a few decades. But the evidence now is absolutely clear: there is substantial retreat, just as there is of Arctic ice.

And the latest IPCC assessment is not grudging, it is as cautious as always: the probability that climate change has been caused by humans has now been ramped up to 95%. Anyone not understanding the high level of certainty involved in that needs to “go have a ear examination” as jazz man the late Roland Kirk would have said. 

The statement, “the warming process has been at a standstill for the past 15 years” is standard denier talk and relates to very high temperatures in 1998: this has been grabbed hold of to assert that the earth is cooling, not warming. Wrong! Research by Judith Lean, of the US Naval Research Laboratory, and David Rind, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies published in 2009 shows the relative stability in global temperatures in the last seven years is explained primarily by the decline in incoming sunlight associated with the downward phase of the 11-year solar cycle, together with a lack of strong El Niño events. These trends have masked the warming caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

David Karoly at the University of Melbourne, an internationally recognised expert on interannual climate variations due to El Niño-Southern Oscillation has pointed out that at short time scales, natural variability can offset that warming influence and cause short-term cooling. Global average temperatures have fallen over the six years to 2008 due to natural variations, with the warmth in 2002 and in 1998 due to El Niño events and the recent La Niña causing colder temperatures in 2007 and 2008. The long-term warming trend is unequivocal.

And Mr Howard's economics itself amounts to a mantra based on a naive view of the world and bad math. He draws upon the probable growth in the world’s human population and the trends in prosperity to envisage that a quarter of the world’s population will be lifted out of poverty. By economic growth!

Ongoing economic growth will not deliver ongoing economic benefits to the general population. The only people who believe that are fools and economists. (Not my words.) The world’s resources are limited and significant resources can continue to be exploited unsustainably only to the detriment of humanity. That is in fact what climate change is all about!

Howard ignores distinguished economists including Nobel prizewinner George Akerlof, Lord Stern, Ross Garnaut and a host of other economists around the world. Interestingly Akerlof years ago pointed to sensible risk management as had others: if climate change does not occur then taking the steps now will nevertheless not cost very much. But if it does occur and we have not taken steps to mitigate the effects, the costs will be horrendous.

More to the point, lifting of people out of poverty is not achieved simply economic growth! The proposition that general prosperity results from economic growth is a fallacy promoted by the adherents of neoclassical economics. United Nations Human Development Reports make it abundantly clear that where poverty has been alleviated it has been through cross border transfer of ideas and government intervention through carefully management strategies!

John Howard, like many who rail against the science of climate change, is defending his preconceived views developed over many years, views which are the basis of his political views. To accept contrary views would lead to political isolation, he would be left wandering about in an intellectual and emotional desert.

Howard, like some of his colleagues such as former Senator Nick Minchin are not agnostics, they are deniers. They might not like the term but that is not relevant. For a person in his position, John Howard’s statements are not just personal opinions. The are statements of a person held in high regard by many: the statements are grossly irresponsible and should be seen as such. The future of humanity depends on ignoring them. As ABC commentator Jonathan Green points out Howard’s and the new Government’s, view propel us into a realm propelled purely by political necessity.

The latest analysis by Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) reported by principal consultant Walter Gerardi shows that we have to work hard at diminishing emissions, including replacing carbon fuels in energy generation, if Australia’s emissions target is to be reached. Assuming no mitigation policy is in place emissions are expected to grow by 15% on current levels by 2020. “Fugitive emissions are expected to have the most rapid growth, around 58 per cent, due to expanded coal mining and increased production of LNG.” Gas prices are rising which acts as a barrier to entry of new gas-based energy generation. A large share of the abatement would have to occur in the energy generation sector, according to SKM.

Meanwhile the BBC reports that warming gases have reached a record high and the largest storm in three decades is this week hitting the Philippines. The change of government in Australia has seen several bodies concerned with climate change disbanded as legislation to abandon the carbon price is being prepared for tabling in the Parliament.

The Australian government cancelled the traditional briefings given to businesses, diplomats and environmental organisations before the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change annual meetings in Warsaw; Australia will be represented at the meetings by the Ambassador for Climate Change. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister will attend a government heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka. (Canada will not attend that meeting and India will be represented at Foreign Minister level because of concerns about human rights practices of the Sri Lanka government.)

Large numbers of staff in CSIRO, those on temporary appointments, are to lose their jobs as a consequence of the Government’s freeze on replacing staff in the public service. There are those who claim that the future of humanity depends to a significant extent on ongoing scientific research. However, Prime Minister Abbott said in his interview with Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post recently that defence expenditure would be increased to 2% of GDP when the budget is stronger!

This post was last updated 11:12am 12 November 2013

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Leading Museums And Botanic Gardens Is Not Project Management

The report in the Sydney Morning Herald of October 10th of the departures of Frank Howarth from the Australian Museum and of David Mabberley from the Royal Botanic Gardens and National Herbarium (“Museum director joins public service exodus” by Anna Patty and Andrew Taylor) contains some statements from senior government persons that reveal profound misunderstandings of the business of these two enterprises and promotes some unfortunate interpretations.

The issues raised are ones for government, boards and executives. They are matters of leadership and governance. For more than 30 years the Museum, like its counterparts, has been successful in generating many millions of dollars from outside government, equal in proportion to most other comparable organisations from grants, sponsorships and major exhibitions. This seems to not prevent the ongoing efficiency dividend drive of Treasury, which we have seen rewarding Edmund Capon’s efforts at the Art Gallery.

A significant problem, very relevant to the Australian Museum which Mr Howarth is about to leave, clearly exists at the Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust as revealed by Chairman Ken Boundy : “the position [of executive director at the Botanic Gardens] has become more of a project management role”. That enterprise undertakes  research and collection management as well as important horticultural research, plant conservation and display, in Sydney and two sites in western Sydney and the Blue Mountains. The professional staff from the many disciplines are entitled, as at the Museum, to competent leadership and governance which understands, advocates and encourages the full range of work.

Leadership of professional people in scientific and related areas requires superior attention to recruitment, encouragement of performance to the highest standards, a challenging environment which rewards and coaches staff and so on. That is true whether we are talking about the leading biomedical and other scientific institutions around the world such as the Perimeter Institute near Toronto studying quantum physics or the major scientific and educational institutions in Sydney. Leadership of ‘knowledge organisations’ is absolutely not simply project management.

The boards of these institutions must understand the role of the institutions which they govern and the prerequisites for effective leadership of them. That includes persuading government to provide appropriate support. Not a simple task: many governments in Australia have adopted superficial and largely irrelevant practices which they wrongly see as the features of successful business. For instance, an obsession with financial matters and unreasonable demands for the raising of funds. Financial success flows from effective leadership, not the other way around!

By the way, what would one say about the successful launch of the Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe by the European Space Agency in 2004 and the work which went into the eventual discovery of a Higgs particle at the Hadron Supercollider by CERN compared with the development of the Dreamliner or the management of Sydney Rail? Are scientists really just a bunch of boffins pursuing their own glorification or do they in fact have important lessons for us about how to achieve success? Lessons which governments might need to take on board.

Then there is the matter of the collections at the Australian Museum and the theft of some of its specimens by employee Hank van Leeuwin.

Contrary to what is said by Patty and Taylor, the Australian Museum was not “in turmoil” after van Leeuwen’s thefts were revealed. It is a gross exaggeration to say that ICAC berated the Museum for “management failures”. Whatever ICAC said the upshot was that the proposition, advanced after the investigation of the theft, that every specimen in the collections had to be registered led to vast expense for no good purpose. This continued the silly notion that the collections should be financially valued, requiring vast amounts of time to estimate the replacement value or sale price. Another government promoted ridiculous exercise in the name of accountability and transparency. As if the collections could be sold. Which they can’t. As silly as valuing land under roads.

The claims paid little attention to how effective natural history museums conduct their business including the management and care of millions of specimens. Collections are vitally important for understanding evolution, ecology and environmental change. Most specimens are invertebrates including insects, worms, crustaceans and similar creatures. Unlike mammals, birds and reptiles, the numbers of species of invertebrates are vast and the majority still await description and naming. That is common knowledge!

Most natural history collections are in “lots”, kept perfectly safely in storage awaiting further study and registration when they are named by an expert. The actual registration of every specimen, even of mammals, birds and reptiles, would make no difference to whether or not their removal by a person on the staff of the Museum intent on stealing them would find it easy to do so. Staff are trusted. The exceptions when they should not be unfortunately cause problems, like all rare events, in financial institutions as well as in museums.

The greatest contribution to the security of the collections and to the increase of our knowledge about the fauna and the natural environment would be to ensure that there are adequate fully trained staff at the Museum led by executives fully committed to the pursuit of scholarship and effective management of the collections and communicating the resulting knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, the ongoing severe reductions in State Government funding of the Museum over the last 20 or more years has seen declines in the numbers of senior research people and other staff at the Museum and curtailment of many programs in all areas including public programs.

The departures of large numbers of executives hardly seem consistent with “normal operations of government” which was director-general of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles’ reported response to the departures. That four major cultural and scientific institutions have lost their CEOs in the last 12 months suggests systemic problems perhaps related to government’s demands for revenue. Hardly indicative of stability or ‘team NSW’. More Kookoburra-like – noisy and inconsequential – rather than like the Platypus, very clever but not often seen.

Organisations like museums and public gardens and herbaria, like art galleries, require the best and that means understanding by government and by boards. And yes, that will lead to economic gains also. If Australia is to continue to be a clever country we need the best, not severe misunderstandings and superficial excuses such as leadership of scientific and cultural enterprises amounts to no more than “project management” and that departures of four senior executives in one year is the “normal business of government”.

There are lessons from the best research and development organisations. They  are typified by leadership which encourages frequent interaction of people from different disciplines, even in one case, requiring presentation of seminars on topics outside their area of expertise. They ensure that as far as possible that they recruit the best possible people and provide a challenging and supportive environment. Some of these features are shown by some research organisations and some universities in Australia. It is by no means clear that governments have understood any of this.

More articles on leadership in scientific and cultural organisations can be found here, here , here and here.

This post was drafted after the article in the Sydney Morning Herald, to which this is response, was published.