22 May 2012

Labor, Mining and Scandals

A week or so ago I was interviewed on the telephone by Keri Phillips of ABC Radio National for a Rear Vision program which was to explore the parallels between the efforts of the 1970s Whitlam Government and the Rudd/Gillard Government to secure for the public a greater share of the economic benefits of Australia’s mineral wealth.

The program went to air on Sunday 20 May, with the title Labor, Mining and Scandals, and it contained quite substantial slabs of that pre-recorded interview. More importantly, it is a good piece, well worth a listen.

Live audio of the broadcast, or a download of the podcast, are accessible here.

For direct access to a transcript, see here.

05 May 2012

Ship suitability trials of F-35B

The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant of Lockheed-Martin’s Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter completed ship suitability testing aboard the amphibious assault ship USS WASP off the coast of Virginia in October 2011. Combined, F-35B test aircraft BF-2 and BF-4 accomplished 72 short takeoffs and 72 vertical landings during the three-week testing period.

See video of the trials here.

Something to look for: sailor standing on the bow of the ship as the aircraft rotates – an intentional part of the sea trials.

04 May 2012

You can't stop the music

Both personally and as Chairman of Australia21, I am disappointed to hear that there is to be a spill of full-time positions at the Australian National University’s wonderful School of Music, so that the 32 full-time staff have to apply for positions in a reduced establishment of 20.

Disappointed because I think we as a society should be moving in the other direction – more engagement with music as high art – and I have begun considering how to frame an Australia21 project that could examine the social wellbeing benefits of the Venezuelan program known as El Sistema (“the system”) and how the lessons from that might be applied in an Australian context.

El Sistema is a publicly financed music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu under the name of Social Action for Music.

El Sistema is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela's 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras and 270 music centres, and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. While the organisation has 31 symphony orchestras, its greatest achievement is the 310,000 to 370,000 children who attend its music schools around the country where it is estimated that 70 to 90 percent of them come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.  The program is known for rescuing young people in extremely impoverished circumstances from the environment of drug abuse and crime into which they would likely otherwise be drawn.

Interestingly, it has always been located under the wing of social services ministries, not the Ministry of Culture, a fact which has helped it to survive several changes of government, and political persuasions of government, over a period of more than 30 years.  We are talking about classical music as a positive force for personal development and a benefit to society, not simply as recreation, important as the enjoyment aspect is.  As Abreu himself puts it:

Music has to be recognized as an ... agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values -- solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.

A detailed account of El Sistema’s achievements and history, including its spread to the United States and the United Kingdom, may be found in the relevant Wikipedia entry.  A video of Abreu talking about El Sistema on the TED website on the occasion of being awarded the TED Prize may be accessed here, and a June 2010 TED Blog post on the graduation in Boston of 10 young musicians from the the El Sistema USA program at New England Conservatory may be accessed here. These young musicians were to spread out to seven centres across the United States and establish “nucleos” – programs and centres that will “teach children to play music, believe in themselves, and reach for their dreams”.

I would like to see Australia as one of the next to take up El Sistema, but sadly, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. To mix the metaphors, we seem to see music as the icing on the cake, not as core business.  But for people “doing it tough”, and especially their children, music offers great benefits and opportunities.

01 May 2012

What does it cost to run Australia21?

Many readers of this blog will know that I am currently Chairman of Australia21 (www.australia21.org.au), a non-profit research organisation which I helped to establish in 2001.

Australia21’s objective is to establish new frameworks of understanding of complex problems that are relevant to Australia’s future. We are an approved research organisation which receives Gift Tax Deductibility status from the Australian Taxation Office.

People contemplating donating to a non-profit organisation quite reasonably want to know not only that their donation will be tax deductible, but how much of the money they donate will be applied to the purpose for which they make their donation, and how much will be expended on overheads. Many of them will also wonder what other sources of support the organisation might have, because they want to know whether their donations will make a difference.

To deal with the second question first, we have sometimes encountered in personal conversation and in the media an assumption that Australia21 receives government funding. For example, one media commentator who was hostile to the findings of our report on illicit drugs policy described us as “a government-sponsored think tank”.  There is no foundation whatever in this claim, and in fact while we have on occasion managed to secure funding from government agencies for specific projects that were of particular interest to them, we have never sought government support for our running costs because of the potential for our independence to be compromised. In order to ensure our independence our preference is for our running costs to be derived from a widely dispersed group of contributors.

Regarding the running costs themselves, we keep them to what we regard as the irreducible minimum:

-  Because we are a registered non-profit with Gift Tax Deductibility, as a matter of law our Directors receive no remuneration for their efforts in running the company, fundraising, or representing the company at public events.

-  We maintain a small secretariat: a part time Executive Director who works a nominal two days a week and routinely contributes extra time, for which we are grateful; a part time office administrator who comes in for a few hours a week, and a part-time book-keeper.

-  Our office is a single room in the former Weston Primary School in the Australian Capital Territory, which the ACT Administration has renovated as a centre for NGO offices. Our monthly rental is currently $295.

-  We conduct our Board meetings by monthly teleconference: face to face meetings are a rarity.

-  Our accounting and audit costs are provided at concessional rates, but in order to be permitted to raise funds in some jurisdictions we are still required to have a full annual audit of our accounts, notwithstanding recent changes to the Corporations Law.

Averaging all of these costs over the year we need about $4,000 per month or $48,000 per annum to provide the infrastructure which enables us to undertake our projects and communicate the results to the public.

We also do our best to keep project costs to a minimum.  We can usually find a university willing to provide us at no charge with a venue for our conferences and roundtables, as the Australian National University and Melbourne University have done on several occasions, and as the University of Sydney did for our recent roundtable on illicit drugs.

We encourage participants in our roundtables to meet their own travel and accommodation costs where they are able to do so, but always budget to meet the costs of some participants as we do not want capacity to pay to be a limiting factor on participation.

Our directors participate in these events without fee. On occasions we pay a suitably qualified person to write a discussion paper for a roundtable, or to prepare a major research report.  Usually we can identify a person with very high level expertise who can prepare a top quality review paper quickly and who is prepared to do so for “mates’ rates”. Where that suitably qualified person happens to be a Director of Australia21 we will pay them a modest fee, but many of our Directors waive their right to the fee, or donate it to Australia21.

When all is said and done, the cost of running a roundtable including preparation of a commissioned paper, and write-up and publication of the report, typically comes to around $25,000.

The above figures will illustrate why small donations are important to Australia21.  We get a lot of bang for the buck, and depend upon private donors for our running costs.

To illustrate the point: within a few days of the release of our report on illicit drugs (see here) over 3000 visitors downloaded it from our website. If each of these visitors had donated a tax-deductible $10 to Australia21, that would have covered over 60% of our running costs for a year, or alternatively have funded a new project, such as the studies we are seeking to finance on Regreening Australia (see here) or a roundtable on the applicability to Australia of the Portuguese experience in the decriminalisation of drug use.

So be assured that small donations really do matter, and will be appreciated by Australia21. If you want to support our work, please visit www.australia21.org.au and hit the Donate button to make a tax deductible donation. And tell your friends about us.