28 August 2010

Alex Buzo on George Crosslé

In an earlier post I reproduced one of the fine obituaries that my classmate Alex Buzo wrote about former schoolmasters who had helped to shape our lives at The Armidale School (see Alex Buzo on Brian Mattingley).

Here is the other, a fine tribute to a colourful and much-loved Irishman named George Crosslé, which was published in The Australian following George’s death on 12 November 2000, under the headline Swashbuckling blackboard pirate.

R.W.L. (George) Crosslé
Teacher. Born Belfast, Northern Ireland, August 6, 1908.
Died Armidale, NSW, November 12, aged 92.  

On a grey and flood-soaked day in early February 1956, the class sat waiting for its first history lesson in secondary school. Suddenly the door was flung open and a figure exploded into the room, his academic gown swirling around, knocking rulers off desks and exuding clouds of chalk dust. He had a black eye patch, a swaggering gait and a voice that boomed, “Since 1945 England has had two governments, while France has had 17! Someone is going to learn the lessons of history.” History? Quite clearly this was drama.

Robert Crosslé, known variously as George, Lou, Ra and Ding, has died, but he struck sparks on that wet day and the fire has never gone out.

A long-time teacher at The Armidale School, Crosslé was a genuine eccentric who inspired hundreds of anecdotes and lent dignity to that hackneyed term, legend. Some of the more laconic country boys were awestruck at first by this barking, piratical apparition, but in none of the stories or pranks did he emerge as the villain his appearance suggested.

Paul Barratt, who went on to head the Business Council and the Department of Defence, was there on that day during the floods of 1956, but his jaw was not on the floor like the rest of us; he had already met Crosslé. “He was a friend of my parents, but he never showed any favouritism to me and never took a set against anyone, either. He had tremendous confidence in his religion and values, and never needed to play favourites,” says Barratt.

Those values began at his home in Northern Ireland, where he was the youngest son of an Anglican solicitor. Educated at Dover and Trinity College, Dublin, where he took arts and law degrees, the young Crosslé taught at a prep school in England and acquired many of the characteristics of his later reign at Armidale – the fatherly concern for any troubled child, the giving of presents and rewards, and the sudden outbursts of advice, solace and compassion.

It was at this time that he lost his eye – and nearly his life – in a motorbike accident.  After three days in a coma, he woke to find his parents staring down at him. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?” rasped the invalid. They sighed in relief.

Despite his rolling gait, Crosslé was in the army – not the navy – during World War II, working on the decoding of German cables at Bletchley Park. He had married an Australian girl in 1940, so it was inevitable that he would be unleashed on the Antipodes at some point. That came in 1946 and it was not a red-letter day for the forces of apathy.

He was to spend 54 years in Australia, 27 teaching at Armidale and 27 in alleged retirement, during which time he was able to double his output of letters to The Armidale Express on his favourite subjects – politics, history, the Adelaide-Darwin rail link, a new state for New England and amenities around the town where he became just as much a legend.

“Armidale might have thought it was getting a wild Irishman, but he was conservative in politics and a Union Jack Anglophile,” says his daughter-in-law Robyn. He was always fair, though, and this was disconcerting for those who value dull partisanship. “If Labor came up with a good idea, he would praise it,” notes Robyn. “For George, ideas were paramount and he was always happy in a debate.”

As a classroom teacher, Crosslé was never one to make a god of the syllabus, and he could occasionally be sidetracked into anecdotes about Trinity College. A cinema buff, he had the fatal weakness of the breed and left no plot untold, so much so that desperate students would try to get him back to the lesson. His great gifts were for arousing intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm and the desire for expression and achievement.

There were many changes at Armidale during Crosslé’s long tenure. For one thing, the school evolved from its lingering Victorian origins to become a member of the Round Square group, from the philosophy of Thomas Arnold and Rugby to Kurt Hahn and Gordonstoun. George appeared to go on just the same, however, a parade-ground Ulsterman who was a tough negotiator with the 20th century.

“He was a very modern man, actually,” says Jim Graham, who taught at Armidale for 45 years.  “He was never afraid to show his feelings, even back when that was frowned upon. He had genuine affection for people and a great memory for their characteristics.”

Barratt cites another modern quality not always associated with private boarding schools.  “George was an egalitarian,” he says. “He never abused his powers or used punishment as a weapon.”

Hugh King, a leading Sydney lawyer, recalls a prank: “Two boarders put pebbles in the hubcap of George’s old Anglia during prep and he thought he’d broken an axle; he got out and walked home. The next morning the car was there in the school drive, but no one was punished.”

As Addison de Witt might have said, for most of the School’s boarders, Armidale was a stretch of sidewalk from the Memorial Gates to Nick’s Cafe, surrounded by what looks like a medium-sized country town.

The school was anxious to dispel any idea that it was an elitist enclave and George was its trump card. He became day boy master, taught Sunday school, coached junior rugby and was an active member of everything from the Masonic Lodge to Meals on Wheels. Long Inured to “Crozzle”, he explained to wide-eyed locals that his name was pronounced Crossly and that the accent over the “e” was Irish, not French. Crosslé never sidled into a room, he made an entrance, and he was happy in spotlight jobs, such as compering a dance at the Armidale Tennis Club: “Azzz the gentlemen have been back-ward in coming forward, the next dahnce will be ladiezzzz choice.”

His wife had a business in the main street, Roma Crosslé Frocks, and she made the costumes for the school’s annual Gilbert and Sullivan production, for which Crosslé did everything, including a memorable night on tour in Inverell where he began as a prompter and ended up singing a duet. Does every school have a Crosslé, a teacher whose influence and inspiration extended way beyond classroom progress and occasionally impeded it? If so, then that must be a large part of its soul.

At the funeral, Graham delivered the euology and described Crosslé as a larger than life character. He was also larger than fiction, being much more rambunctious than Mr Chips or The Crock in The Browning Version.  Another play with an educational background opened in Sydney a week before Crosslé died. It is about a dedicated history teacher and is called, appropriately, Life After George.

There will, in fact, be life after George Crosslé, as he has endowed the Ulster Bursary, and he leaves Roma, son Rob and daughter Louisa, plus two grandchildren who knew him as Grandpa Patch.

Alex Buzo
Alex Buzo is the author of Big River and Armadillo.

27 August 2010

The real Tony Abbott

It did not take long for the real Tony Abbott to re-emerge. Just a day after talking about a “kinder, gentler polity” and asserting that “a consultative and collegial culture” was in the Coalition’s DNA, there was the Commonwealth Parliament’s champion headkicker, fulminating about Julia Gillard “trashing the Westminster conventions” and her “desperate attempts to cling to power”.

All of this because she is indicating a pre-disposition to respond to the perfectly reasonable requests of the regional independents to be given access to the policies and costings of the policy portfolios of the two main political contenders  for government.

Meanwhile, in support of Abbott’s position, his sidekick Andrew Robb was intoning about the importance of public servants being able to give free, frank and fearless advice. After the way the Howard Government cowed and bullied the public service, and the private sniggering that went on at the very notion of “free, frank and fearless”, that is more than somewhat rich.

 I think several attributes of the real Tony Abbott are on display here:

(1)    Apart from the combativeness, he is, like his political mentor and hero John Winston Howard, a very slippery and tricky fellow, able to say one thing one day and quite another the next, and believe each of them implicitly at the moment of utterance.  As Groucho Marx once remarked, “Sincerity is the most important thing in life. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

(2)    The Howard Government traduced the reputation of Andrew Wilkie when he resigned from the Office of National Assessments, a fact which Tony Abbott has belatedly recognised by apologising to him.  Scant regard was shown also for the reputation of Mohamed Haneef, who was treated in a manner that is unconscionable in any society that has a regard for the rule of law.  Now the Coalition’s leading spokesmen are justifying withholding their costings on the grounds that “the process is corrupt” – code for “the Treasury is corrupt”, a phrase which they cannot quite bring themselves to utter.

(3)    During his time as a Minister in the Howard Government, Tony Abbott had a reputation for submitting sloppy and poorly thought-through Cabinet Submissions, but being indulged by his mentor John Howard. I have no doubt that the costings he is so anxious to protect are dodgy in the extreme, cobbled together for the purposes of the election, but never intended to see the light of day or withstand any professional scrutiny. If he were defeated they would go into the shredder. If he won, they would likewise go into the shredder, and any blow-out would be based on a confected “budgetary black hole” left behind by the departing government.

(4)    Tony Abbott has a short attention span and is bored by detail.  He loves combat and needs constant excitement.  In an op-ed piece in today’s edition of The Australian Financial Review, senior political columnist Laura Tingle says that Abbott’s behaviour reeks of the intent to force another election, and she is probably right.  If Abbott does win government, it will be, like the Howard Government, a government of alarums and excursions, a government of constant confected crises. It will not be a period of the sort of stability the regional independents are looking for.  If Abbott does not win government this time around, expect behaviour like that of the Coalition during the Whitlam Government – intent from day one on causing such disruption that the Government is forced back to an early election.

None of the above is to be taken as a statement of admiration for Julia Gillard and the creatures who hover around her, desiring political power as an end in itself. It ain’t; see A plague a’ both their houses.

25 August 2010

Tony Abbott on the Coalition’s political DNA

In his increasingly manic attempts to persuade the three regional independents by loud hailer that they ought to put the Coalition into government, Tony Abbott has said some truly remarkable things, of which by no means the least is the following as reported in yesterday’s edition of The Age (see here):

"Only the Coalition is capable of offering the country a consultative and collegial political culture," he said.

"This is very much in our political DNA...”

This would be the same Coalition that:

-  Lied to us from at least July 2002 until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 about whether or not a decision had been taken to accompany the United States into an illegal war

-  Never had an honest debate in Parliament about why we were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan or what we were trying to achieve

-  Opposes the Parliament having any say in decisions to commit the Australian Defence Force to warlike service overseas (a position it shares with the Labor Party)

-  Over-rode the Northern Territory  euthanasia legislation

-  Vetoed the ACT heroin trial after all the arrangements were in place

-  Reduced the Senate Committee system to meaninglessness once it gained control of the Senate in 2004.

-  Ruthlessly guillotined debate in the House of Representatives and the Senate throughout the Howard years, and

-  Made a farce of Question Time, a farce that Labor has been happy to perpetuate and harness to its own purposes.

Apart from the shamelessness of his claim, along with the claim from one of the most combative people in Parliament that the Coalition he leads could show us the way to “a kinder, gentler polity” (does he really believe that stuff?), no-one could call Tony Abbott quick on the uptake on this matter. These preposterous claims came just a day after one of the three Independents, Rob Oakeshott, the Member for Lyne, told the ABC’s Lateline presenter Leigh Sales (see here) that these sorts of interventions were:

“...unhelpful, unwelcome and unnecessary...”

23 August 2010

Governing for all Australians

On the evidence of the last fourteen years, when John Howard and Kevin Rudd assured us that they would govern for all Australians, what they meant was that they would govern for the people in the western suburbs of both Sydney AND Melbourne.

Now, horror of horrors, they have discovered that there are people outside those hallowed regions, people in the leafy suburbs (doctors’ wives etc.) and people in rural and regional Australia who think they should have a say as well, and that their say should be listened to.

Rather impertinent of them, but there it is.

In praise of mavericks

Election day 2010 produced exactly the result I had hoped for – a Greens-dominated Senate, and a “hung Parliament” in which whoever formed a government would have to deal in the House of Representatives with the three country Independents, and now, as it happens, Greens Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne and perhaps Andrew Wilkie as an Independent in the Tasmanian seat of Denison (see A plague a’ both their houses). I wanted neither side to be able to claim victory and press on with a business as usual approach in the grotesquely deformed caricature of a Parliamentary system which currently graces the nation’s capital.

The focus is now on the three rural independents Bob Katter (Kennedy – Far North Queensland), Rob Oakeshott (Lyne – Mid-North Coast of NSW) and Tony Windsor (New England, taking in Tamworth and my old home town of Armidale where I cast my first vote, in a NSW State election).

This is not an entirely welcome development amongst the urban commentariat.  On the front page of today’s edition of The Age, Michelle Grattan worries about the fact that “a few MPs decide who should be PM” (see here). On the same front page a headline writer adorned national affairs editor Tony Wright’s sensible and balanced piece (see here) with the title Mavericks saddle up for some old-time wrangling.

Mavericks? These are experienced political practitioners who are deeply in touch with the communities they serve – otherwise they wouldn’t be in Parliament.  They have no Parliamentary machine backing them, no Party elders dropping by to help raise their profile, and no Party budget to help finance their campaigns. They do it on their own, and at their own risk. They are fighting for their jobs every day of their lives, and they all command very solid majorities. The benefit they bring to our Parliament is that they are beholden to no-one except their electors; as Tony Wright commented in his piece, these are very independent Independents.

If this is maverick behaviour, consider the deal that is on offer from the political mainstream. The deal is, in effect, “If you elect me, I promise you that I will always vote the way my party tells me to, and that I will always put the interests of my party first, even if I think that they are contrary to your interests, the national interest, or common human decency.”

Where this strictly disciplined approach to party politics leaves us all is that Bob Windsor is a maverick, but the deplorable Mark Arbib, fresh from helping to reduce NSW to what it is today, and secure in a Senate seat bequeathed to him by his NSW Right faction, never having to face the electorate in any meaningful way, has the Queen’s commission to be a Commonwealth Minister.

I’ll take the maverick any day.

My sentiments are much more in tune with those of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenore Taylor, who writes here that at last everyone might have a say:

After three years of a government where even the full cabinet wasn't let in on policy debates, the prospect of ideas being debated with independents in the lower house and with the Greens in the Senate is tantalising.

Instead of everyone - even ministers - finding out about major reforms after the arguments have been had and the brochures printed, non-kitchen cabinet members might actually get some say.

Instead of the executive imposing an idea upon the government and Parliament, it might have to make a case, think about alternative views - accept some of them even.

Saying a policy had tested well in focus groups, or had been promised to a special interest group, or was sure to win over a particular demographic at the next election, might not pass muster as a convincing reason to implement it any more.

After an election campaign in which both major parties ran largely negative campaigns, with bits and pieces of policy rather than any coherent vision, it could even mean politics went back to being a contest of ideas, rather than a battle of multimillion-dollar budgets for scary attack advertisements by men with deep voices.

Who knows, it might even bring on reform of the parliament so that it is lively and informative and engages in actual debate, rather than being bone-numbingly boring most of the time.

 Let us hope so.

21 August 2010

Milestone: 25,000 page loads

Australian Observer reached a new milestone a couple of days ago: there have now been 25,000 page loads since I started this blog on 25 February 2009.

Thank you followers, thank you regular and occasional readers, and those who have found my posts through Google and other search engines, and thanks to those running other sites who have marked my contributions as worthy of their readers’ attention.

20 August 2010

A plague a’ both their houses

The choice that faces the Australian electorate tomorrow is a dire one: neither of the major parties deserves to win government. We are offered a choice between

(1)     A man who thinks of himself as prepared to take tough decisions but runs away from most of them and is a classic political weathervane, who has a short attention span and lacks the basic general knowledge about economics, critical technologies, foreign affairs and defence to even know what questions to ask, and

(2)    A woman who has a touching faith in the redemptive power of her own personal narrative and thinks that running for the highest political office in the land is a matter of running 150 local government elections at the same time.

The best outcome that we can hope for is a hung House of Representatives controlled by the Independents and a Senate in which the Greens have the balance of power. The more people that whoever forms government is obliged to negotiate with the better off we will all be, and we cannot afford to have either party emerge from the low-rent campaign of the last five weeks feeling vindicated.

Look in more detail at the offering:

-  The main points of agreement are that we should treat asylum seekers harshly, that we should give reflexive obedience to the wishes of Israel, and that we should all share in the cost of redeveloping the AFL stadium in Geelong.

-  Julia Gillard mischievously conflated the asylum seeker question with the propositions that the Western suburbs of Sydney are overcrowded and that therefore the whole country should suffer a reduced migration intake. Tony Abbott matched this squalid line of argument, so we have a commitment to reduce immigration without any thought for the long-term consequences.

-  Julia Gillard has dotted the landscape (or at least the marginal electorates thereof) with nice little bribes about sports and other community facilities – promises which the outcome of the case which University of New England academic Bryan Pape took to the High Court suggests might be unconstitutional in the absence of a head of Commonwealth power.

-  Tony Abbott is not much better.

-  Tony Abbott confects huge alarm about the nation, in response to the GFC, running up the lowest net public debt in the OECD.

-  With the exception of the National Broadband Network – one of the few clear reasons to back Labor – neither party has anything to say about productivity improving microeconomic reform.

-  Neither party will take effective or timely action on climate change. What action they do take will give minimal results at high cost.

-  Ditto for the Murray Darling Basin.

-  Both parties would maintain the nation’s longstanding chronic under-investment in tertiary education, research and development and infrastructure, all of which they regard as a cost rather than an investment.

-  Both are utterly committed to middle-class welfare, neither has anything to offer the genuinely poor.

-  Neither side has anything sensible to say about what we are doing in Afghanistan or what we should do about it in the future. As far as one can tell Labor might withdraw without giving the matter much thought, Tony Abbott might put more troops in at American request without giving the matter much thought.

-  Both are so domestically focused one would hardly know that there is a great big world out there, and a not particularly reassuring one.

These people insult our intelligence. Neither of them deserves to be taken seriously.

I shall vote Green.

Tony Abbott turning the boats around

Tony Abbott’s statement on Monday 16 August that he would personally decide which asylum seeker boats would be turned back from Australian waters seems to me to fly in the face of three legal frameworks by which Australian Governments are bound:

(1)    The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which makes it lawful for people with a well-founded fear of persecution to seek protection from states parties to the Convention (“Contracting States”), and imposes an obligation upon Contracting States to afford them protection.

(2)    The 1974 Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Chapter V of which imposes a general obligation for ships’ masters to proceed to the assistance of those in distress and for Contracting Governments to ensure that all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned from a safety point of view.  Chapter IX requires a safety management system to be put in place by anyone who has assumed responsibility for the ship, a responsibility which, along with other safety related responsibilities specified in the Convention, would no doubt fall to the Royal Australian Navy once it has apprehended a vessel, whether it escorted it to port or directed it to turn around.

(3)    The Defence Act 1903, which makes clear, and for good reason, that the power to command the Australian Defence Force is vested in the Chief of the Defence Force. The Defence Act gives neither the Defence Minister nor the Prime Minister the power to issue commands to individual defence personnel.

Section 8 of the Act provides that “The Minister [for Defence] shall have the general control and administration of the Defence Force” and that the powers of the Chief of the Defence Force “shall be exercised subject to and in accordance with the directions of the [Defence] Minister”. 

This power to direct the Defence Force is of course limited to a power to give lawful directions, which is a problem in relation to any direction which is non-compliant with Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Also, the power of direction is a general power to instruct the CDF, by written order from the Governor-General, regarding what the Government wants the Australian Defence Force to do. How to do it, and what assets to use, is a matter for the CDF, based on his expert military knowledge and that of his subordinate commanders, and on the other demands on the ADF.

In making his announcement on Monday Mr Abbott stated that “it is for the Prime Minister to make this kind of call”, but that he would take the advice of the naval commander on the spot (see ABC Online News report here).

This is rubbish, and shows that Mr Abbott has no idea about how the relationship between the Government and the Defence Force works. The Defence Act does not contemplate that the Prime Minister would conduct indirect telephone conversations with individual commanders and then give orders to them.  What next? Conversations with individual Army company commanders about whether or not to attack a Taliban redoubt?  About the only lawful and sensible course for Mr Abbott to take in relation to asylum seeker boats would be to ask the Minister for Defence to direct the CDF that the Government expects all asylum seeker boats to be detected, apprehended, and taken safely to a port within Australian territory where their claims can be registered and determined.

This episode tells us something deeper and more disturbing about Mr Abbott than just his lack of understanding of the issues involved. It demonstrates that he shoots from the hip without doing his homework, and lacks the judgement to identify an issue on which he might need to take some advice.

Taken to together with other comments he has made during the election campaign – in particular his comments about not being “rolled” by his Cabinet colleagues if he becomes Prime Minister – suggests that he has only a tenuous grasp of how the Westminster system works.  He appears to believe that, as he would put it, having been “elected Prime Minister” (itself a nonsensical notion in our political system, he is elected by his party, not the people), he becomes a kind of elected dictator and it falls to him to give orders to everyone in sight about anything that comes into his head.

What actually happens when a party wins government is that the Ministers are given the power by the Governor-General, on the advice of the Government, to administer the various enactments of the Commonwealth Parliament. This is done by means of the Governor-General issuing a dry-as-dust document called the Administrative Arrangements Order, which specifies which Acts or parts or sections of Acts are administered by which Minister. The powers of any Minister are limited to the powers conferred on him or her by the legislation which he or she administers. Mr Abbott is not the first senior Parliamentarian in my experience who does not seem to understand that, but thinks “I’m the boss, everyone has to do what I say”.  

15 August 2010

We need to talk about Kevin (yet again)

Former Labor leader Mark Latham has done his credibility enormous damage over the last few days by his behaviour on the election campaign trail as an accredited journalist for Channel Nine.

This does not alter the fact that there is a lot of worthwhile information and insight about the political process and the interior workings of the ALP in his weekly columns for The Australian Financial Review.

I for one share completely his view that the disruptions to Julia Gillard’s election campaign caused by well-timed leaks and revelations were all orchestrated by and on behalf of Kevin Rudd.  "Cui bono?” is always the question to ask, and it is hard to see any benefit to anyone in these antics, except for an opportunity for Kevin Rudd, having played the pyromaniac, to ride to the rescue on the fire engine.

Rudd’s apologists argue that Rudd cannot help it if he remains newsworthy.  For my money his appearances on centre stage were too well timed to be the product of coincidence – this is Kevin the villain, not Kevin the victim.

I think it is particularly significant that it was Kevin Rudd who announced that Julia Gillard had asked him to go beyond campaigning for his own seat and campaign nationally.  After this pre-emptive strike she presumably felt it impossible to deny it, but I have never seen any statement or sign from her that I regard as a convincing confirmation that she had sought his help.

In not denying the proposition she missed a golden opportunity; she would have been far better to say “He has taken it very hard, and now the poor fellow seems to be losing the plot”.

If Julia Gillard follows through on her plan to appoint Kevin Rudd to a senior Cabinet post she will rue the day.  She exposes herself to the risk of being constantly undermined by leaks, and to insider gossip in the media that she really doesn’t “get” foreign policy.

On the ABC’s Stateline three weeks ago I said that this was one promise that Julia Gillard ought not to keep, and I remain of that view. There would be a price to pay in the short run, but she really would be better off to have this man outside the tent. The public would soon tire of his attention seeking behaviour, as they have of Mark Latham’s.

14 August 2010

Taking a breather

Julia Gillard says that we must slow up the rate of immigration because the western suburbs of Sydney are too crowded.  “Let’s pause”, she says, “Let’s take a break”.

My questions are: how long is this pause going to be, and what are you going to do with the time?  How much are you going to invest to ease the congestion, and when?

To judge by the fact that funds will not begin to flow for the Parramatta-Epping line until 2014, it sounds as though the answers to those last two questions are “Not much”, and “Not soon”.

So explain to me the reasons for taking this break?  

John Quiggin on Abbott and carbon taxes

Respected economist John Quiggin, ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland, had a column in the 5 August edition of The Australian Financial Review that explored Tony Abbott’s claim that a $40/tonne tax on carbon would double the price of electricity. In the process Quiggin had a swipe at a compliant media that permits politicians to get away with such claims. The column is reproduced on Quiggin’s blog. He begins:

It’s often said that a country gets the government, and the media, it deserves. Looking at the current election offerings of the major parties, and the coverage presented by the media, it’s hard to see what we could have done to deserve this. The parties have offered gimmicks like cash for clunkers and unverifiable immigration targets. The media have eagerly focused on leaks and manufactured scandals, with no attempt to inform us about the choices before us.

A striking example is the free pass that has been given to Tony Abbott on his repeated claim that a $40/tonne tax on carbon would ‘double the price of electricity, on top of recent 35 per cent increases’. Five minutes with a calculator and a recent electricity bill would have shown any reporter who bothered to check that this claim is nonsense.

Read the full article here, and access John Quiggin’s home page here.

Repealing the second law of thermodynamics

Tony Abbott is going to eliminate waste in government.

The Labor Government is going to re-equip the Australian Defence Force by eliminating waste in the Department of Defence.

If anyone tells you that they are going to eliminate waste, your correct response is to ask them whether they can also convert base metals into gold, because the latter does not involve any greater violation of the laws of physics than the former.

The idea that it is possible to conduct any activity without waste is tantamount to violating the second law of thermodynamics.

There are many ways of expressing the second law of thermodynamics, but they all connect to the fact that without other interventions heat always flows in the direction from hot to cold.

Without going into all the physics of it, what that means in practice is that it is not possible to build a machine that is 100% efficient – otherwise we could build a perpetual motion machine.

We accept this fact in our everyday lives.  When we fill up our car’s petrol tank, we accept the fact that only about one third of the energy of the petrol will be converted into useful work (propelling the car forward), and two thirds of it will be converted to waste heat and noise.

We accept it because the petrol allows us to drive several hundred kilometres at a price we are prepared to pay. We would be delighted, of course, if the car could be made more fuel efficient, but we accept things as they are.

One of the reasons that the car is not more fuel efficient is that a well designed and properly tuned engine will be operating at about the point where diminishing returns set in; efforts to capture the waste heat and convert it into useful work will have impacts on the performance of the engine that make the exercise self-defeating.

So it is with large organisations. Decrees that waste is to be eliminated of necessity involve diverting people from the real business of the organisation (what we might call useful work) to establish and monitor the savings program, measure its outcomes, and regulate the behaviour of the rest of the organisation in ways in which they were not previously regulated. The people who are being made more efficient have extra work to do, responding to a constant barrage of well-meaning interventions from the people running the savings program.

The "savings"process usually involves the withdrawal of normal managerial delegations (the people further up the line have to satisfy themselves that money is not being wasted). It usually involves quite absurd levels of micro-management, like Department Secretaries deciding they will personally approve all Senior Executive Service travel, thereby taking up time that would be better spent on things that really matter.

It also invariably involves reductions of things that really matter in the long haul – maintenance, staff training, and proper record keeping are things that spring to mind. When the Fraser Government in 1976 was drawing up its first budget with a view to showing how profligate the Whitlam Government had been, the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Resources were instructed that there was to be no maintenance of overseas property. We had Commonwealth owned houses in tropical environments and we were not permitted to do the sort of routine maintenance that saves money in the long run – repairing leaky rooves for example.

To go back to the program that is going to save $20 billion in Defence to pay for the re-equipment of the ADF, my guess would be that most of the savings that are being delivered consist of reduced activity, deferred maintenance and deferred capital investment. None of that represents a saving in the plain English meaning of getting the same amount of capability for less money. The Government has forced upon Defence a devil's bargain: if you reduce the maintenance of the kit you already have, we will buy you some new kit and you can under-maintain and under-utilise that too.

The bottom line is that all large organisations should have a culture of continuous improvement, the improvements being identified and implemented locally, which can only be established by having the right people with the right motivations. Grand across-the-board savings programs are a maddening distraction that are almost always counter-productive.

12 August 2010

Tony Abbott’s policy laziness

Tony Abbott’s abysmal performance concerning the Coalition’s broadband policy in his interview with Kerry O’Brien on the ABC’s The 7.30 Report last Monday 9 August demonstrated that, for an aspirant to be the political leader of one of the world’s larger and more modern economies, he is intellectually ill-equipped and lazy in his policy thinking and preparation.

It is possible to be an effective Leader of the Opposition by developing three or four attack lines on a range of subjects and repeating them at every available opportunity, but when it comes to presenting oneself as an alternative Prime Minister, much more is required. It requires a capacity to argue for new or alternative policy, and in order to do that it is necessary to be sufficiently familiar with the subject matter to be able to make the case for the policy and weather a probing interview on prime time television. On Monday evening Tony Abbott demonstrated, and acknowledged with refreshing candour, that he was not on top of it, that it was all beyond his ken.

The episode betrayed a remarkable lack of political judgement. Why would anyone want to choose as a key political battleground in an election campaign a subject matter domain in which he has not even the most basic competence to engage in discussion or debate?  This was supposed to be one of the key issues that distinguished the Coalition from Labor, and Mr Abbott simply had not done the homework – nor could he, one cannot get up to speed on issues like this in a couple of days.

 Tony Abbott protests that it is not necessary to know in precise detail how a car works in order to drive one. The analogy is a false one. We can all agree that it is not necessary to know how the information and communications infrastructure works in order to send emails or access the internet. But in order to make the case that one technical solution is better than another, it is necessary to have at least an intelligent layman’s knowledge and understanding, and perhaps some sign of having taken expert advice.  To go back to his analogy, he is not just driving the car, he is telling us why a Holden would be better than a Lamborghini, and to be credible making that case would require some technical knowledge.

The episode told us something deeper about Tony Abbott.  He protested several times that he was not “a tech-head”, for which read “geek” or “nerd”. My take on that is a sub-text that real men don’t have time for these quaint matters, they are far too busy riding bikes, battling the waves and filleting barramundi.

11 August 2010

NBN: Better is not good enough

Yesterday the Opposition unveiled its alternative approach to Labor’s $43 billion fibre-to-the-premises National Broadband Network.

The Opposition is offering a $6 billion program based upon the existing copper wires, hybrid-fibre coaxial cable and wireless technology.

The Opposition is very proud of its handiwork. It considers that it has the superior offering because the outcome will be better connectivity than we have now, and the program is much cheaper.

The trouble is the Opposition is not asking the right questions. Apart from all the problems that its policy leaves unanswered concerning competition (they will leave Telstra owning the connection between the exchange and the premises), scarcity of spectrum and the need to repeal the laws of physics (they may not know it but they cannot do that even with the cooperation of the Senate), the aim of the game is not simply to make an improvement on what we have now. The aim of the game is to establish national connectivity as comprehensively as possible and to the highest feasible quality, which means wiring the country up with optical fibre except in the most remote regions.

The trouble with the Opposition’s thinking is that, not understanding the potentialities of the technology and apparently being uninclined to ask, they see the National Broadband Network primarily in terms of games and entertainment – they see us as spending $43 billion to enable country people to watch Big Brother in high definition.

The real point about transformative technologies like this is that once everyone has them they change the way we live.  When only a handful of people owned a car they just had a faster horse that didn’t eat hay. Once almost everyone had one, our whole way of life changed. Similarly with fixed line phones, mobile phones, passenger aviation, the household computer and a host of other things.

The thing to be considered once the NBN has been rolled out is all of the potential applications that might arise from the availability of that bandwidth to connect any two premises in the nation at very high speed.

And bandwidth is important, because it does not simply speed things up; the faster transfer transforms what is possible. You can move a pile of sand from one place to another with either a ten-ton truck or a wheelbarrow – the function is the same. The wheelbarrow is cheaper; the truck is more efficient.

But you cannot move frozen foodstuffs far in a wheelbarrow – it is too slow. And if you want to move a shipping container, the truck is better. No matter how many wheelbarrows you have, you cannot move a shipping container.

And so it is with fast broadband. The high resolution video that will be possible at 100Mb/s will transform medical practice, distance education, the gathering and exchange of scientific information and the way commodity and service markets operate, to name just a few. We can be sure that, once it is known that this level of connectivity will be in place, some very clever people will be turning their minds to smart ways of using it.

Perhaps the most important reason for committing to the rollout is the opportunities it will create for additional investment, because this is a technology that has increasing returns to scale.

Economics 101 teaches us about a world of diminishing returns to scale, a world in which there is effectively a fixed number of investment opportunities.  In this world, every time someone makes an investment in a factory or a power station or a hotel they use that investment opportunity up, and there are only less profitable investments left.

Sophisticated theories of economic growth teach us what the United States Congress understood in the nineteenth century – that many forms of investment create additional, not reduced, opportunities for investment. It was with that knowledge that they were able to incentivise the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad by making land grants to the proprietors as they rolled out the line. The railway line made the land valuable, and huge investment took place in its wake. The prime purpose of the Union Pacific Railroad was not to make money by selling tickets to passengers; it was about what the railroad would do for the United States at large.

In the world of Economics 101 few would want to invest in the United States – all the good opportunities would have been taken up already. People would instead be flocking to countries like Somalia, where all the good opportunities remain untapped.

In the real world, of course, everyone wants to invest in the United States and almost no-one would want to invest in Somalia, even if it were peaceful – the lack of infrastructure makes it a very unattractive investment proposition.

Finally, in a world in which technology is moving as fast as it is with information and communications technology, a whole-hearted commitment to the best that money can buy is the only approach to take.  And the Opposition is talking nonsense when it says that its proposed reliance on a suite of old technologies avoids the risk of putting all our eggs in the one basket by committing to optical fibre. The last time anyone thought like that was the American record company that sent away the man that came to them with the technology to make long-playing records; they said that LPs would never catch on and opted to stay with the 78rpm format. When a  new technology makes an old one obsolete, it is time to move on.

10 August 2010

Vale Tony Judt

Sad to read of the death of the courageous historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) aged only 62. Although the disease left him within months paralysed and able to breathe only with mechanical assistance, he continued to lecture and write.

There is a major tribute to him in The New York Times, 7 August 2010. NYT says of him:

Mr. Judt ... who was British by birth and education but who taught at American universities for most of his career, began as a specialist in postwar French intellectual history, and for much of his life he embodied the idea of the French-style engaged intellectual.

An impassioned left-wing Zionist as a teenager, he shed his faith in agrarian socialism and Marxism early on and became, as he put it, a “universalist social democrat” with a deep suspicion of left-wing ideologues, identity politics and the emerging role of the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

His philosophy of history is described thus:

“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly,” he told Historically Speaking. “A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”

Read the full obituary here.