28 November 2010

All slots for Rugby World Cup 2011 now decided

Romania defeated Uruguay 39-12 in a match played in Bucharest last night to become the last of the twenty teams to qualify for a position in one of the four pools in next year’s Rugby World Cup, to be played in New Zealand in September.

Romania will join Georgia in Pool B. For either of them to make it out of the pool into the elimination rounds they will need to defeat the other and two of Argentina, England and Scotland, a formidable task, but both these teams are worth watching and their match against each other, to be played at Palmerston North on 28 September, should be a good one.

The final composition of the pools is:

Pool A
New Zealand, France, Tonga, Canada, Japan

Pool B
Argentina, England, Scotland, Georgia, Romania

Pool C
Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia, USA

Pool D
South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Namibia

It will take a significant upset for any of the first two in the four pools to fail to make it into the elimination rounds; the best prospect of causing such an upset would have to be Scotland.

There will be many great games in the pool rounds: France-New Zealand will be a cracker, Australia-Ireland is always a tough slog, and games like Fiji-Samoa among the lesser lights are always entertaining.

After that the fun will really start – it’s sudden death, and four years before there is another chance to hold up the Webb-Ellis Cup.

25 November 2010

Nicholas Gruen on the infrastructure deficit

Public–private partnerships have turned out to be an expensive way of plugging infrastructure gaps, writes Nicholas Gruen in an article published in Inside Story, 23 November 2010 (see here).  He says, inter alia:

... the glories of unburdened balance sheets have been purchased at the cost of growing deficits in precisely the thing that higher government debt might have funded – infrastructure. Partly filling the gap has been private investment in some kinds of infrastructure, funded by tolls on roads and/or rent payments by government to investors. While superficially attractive, and almost certainly better than no investment at all, most of these public-private partnerships, or PPPs – in all manner of infrastructure assets, from roads and railway stations to hospitals and desalination plants – have been built at a higher cost to the public than would have been the case if they had been built the way they used to be, as government-owned assets built with debt finance.

and concludes:

As Kristina Keneally prepares for political oblivion, and John Brumby sweats it out wondering if he’ll get back in, it’s possible that the penny might drop. They should ponder this fact. Had New South Wales or Victoria funded the tollways that now thread their way through Melbourne and Sydney, those governments’ net worth would be billions higher with millions rolling into their budgets each year and debt attributable to the roads steadily falling.

To me Gruen’s article clearly demonstrates that governments need to get back into the investment business. The full article well repays a careful read. Access it here).

Bill Schofield to deliver Hargrave Lecture

This year’s annual Hargrave Lecture is to be delivered to the Melbourne Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society (Australian Division) by my friend and colleague Dr Bill Schofield AM.  Bill was in charge of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) labs at Fishermans Bend throughout my time as Secretary, Department of Defence.

The lecture

The subject of the lecture will be David Warren, the Scientist, the Black Box Saga and the lessons learnt.

The impact of David Warren’s invention of the black box flight recorder has been immense -  in a world where the volume of air travel continually increases yet the number of air accidents has gone down over the years because we can find out what causes aircraft to crash, David’s invention must have saved tens of thousands of lives. Not many scientists can say that about their work.

And yet he faced overwhelming opposition and indifference to the  introduction of his black box. Recognition of him and his  inventiveness came very late in life after he had finished regular employment and to this day there are many in Australia, let alone the world, who do not know that the black box was invented a few miles from the Melbourne CBD by a combustion chemist.

Soon after graduation Bill Schofield worked for David as an assistant, later as a colleague and became his admirer and friend. He was an extraordinary and unconventional man who went on to work on fuel cells and the world’s future energy supply long before others saw these as important scientific topics.

This lecture will recount some anecdotes that illustrate David’s unusual  attitude to science, work and authority. It will also draw out some lessons from the Black Box story about the acceptance of disruptive technology.

The lecturer

Dr Bill Schofield is one of Australia’s leading scientists with a career spanning forty years in the Department of Defence and as a consultant on aeronautical and defence technology for Australian Industry.

He was the Director of the Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory for six years where he was responsible for all science and technology for the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force. Before this Dr Schofield held the positions of First Assistant Secretary Science Policy, Chief of Air Vehicles Division and Chief of Flight Mechanics & Propulsion Division in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

He was a co-author of the ‘Kinnaird’ report to cabinet into defence acquisition practices which now sets the guidelines for all Defence acquisitions. Between 1996 and 2006 he has served on a number of advisory panels for the Victorian Government. He has led reviews of Australian defence industry for both the Federal and Victorian governments and was appointed by federal cabinet to the Board of the Australian Submarine Corporation [2006-2009]. He is Chairman of the CRC for Advanced Composite Structures and the board of another four defence and aeronautical related companies.

His achievements have been recognized by his appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia for “For service to the Australian Defence Force’s aviation capabilities as a research scientist and administrator, particularly through the Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory” and the award of a Centenary Medal for “outstanding contribution to science and technology particularly public science policy”. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a Member of the Institute of Company Directors.

Venue and timing

The lecture will be delivered at a dinner at the Crown Entertainment Complex at 6.00 for 6.30 pm on Monday 6 December 2010. Registrations close on Friday 26 November 2010.

Further details and details of how to register may be found on the RAeS Melbourne Branch’s website here.

23 November 2010

Fast rail for Laos?

One of the more interesting assignments of my public service career was to chair from 1988-91 the tri-national Australian-Thai-Lao steering committee which negotiated the agreements for the construction of the first bridge over the Mekong River, from Nong Khai to Vientiane, and which oversighted the construction.

Some recollections from that assignment will be the subject of a later post, but one aspect deserves a mention now.

One of the strong wishes expressed by the Lao authorities when we got down to detailed discussion of the project was that the bridge should be wide enough and strong enough to carry a standard Thai railway locomotive, so that in the fullness of time an extension to the Thai railway system could be built through to Vientiane.

The sceptics in Canberra laughed; the bridge itself was going to be a failure, and there was no possibility that it would ever carry trains. Laos would never have a railway line.

The Lao request seemed reasonable enough to me, and we did build the bridge to the appropriate specificiation.

So it was with considerable satisfaction that I learned in March last year that the new service was to be inaugurated on 5 March 2009 (see They said it would never happen ...)  

Against that background of scepticism it was with considerable interest that I read the article High-speed rail between Yunnan and Myanmar on the agenda in China Business News, 22 November 2010 (access the full report here). It begins:

Construction of a high-speed rail link between Yunnan province and neighboring Myanmar, part of a project to upgrade transport connections with Southeast Asian nations, will start in about two months, a top rail expert said.

The line, from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, will be 1,920 kilometers long, said Wang Mengshu, an academic of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Trains will run at about 170-200 km/h once it is completed, he added.

Wang, who is also a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, has been involved in Chinese high-speed rail projects from the outset.

Wang told China Daily that a high-speed rail connection between southwestern China and Cambodia is also under discussion. And an exploratory survey for another route that would link Yunnan and Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is under way.

The three new rail connections being developed, along with another linking China and Vietnam, will form a network that is likely to be completed within 10 years, Wang said.

“The project, which aims to boost cooperation between China and Southeast Asian nations, will greatly enhance the economic development of China’s western regions,” said Wang.

On this basis I would be prepared to wager a good bottle of red that Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world, and characterised by rugged terrain, will have high speed rail before Australia does. We have been talking about it for twenty five years and will still be talking about it in twenty five years’ time.

18 November 2010

Yitzhak Laor on the policies of folly

Defining the occupying state as the owner of "state lands" on the West Bank has been the greatest tragedy of generations, writes Ha’Aretz columnist Yitzhak Laor in an opinion piece, A gold nose ring, published on Monday 15 November 2010:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is crushing East Jerusalem, but he only pales in comparison to others: The late general and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and former general and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, preceded him in their policies of folly. The uninhibited sons of moshavim [villages or settlements] grew up among wars over land that were waged against natives, and each in his turn advanced an illegal policy of settlement without giving a thought to the future. Both, as we recall, inflicted military disasters upon us, since they were generals who thought like company commanders - only about "capturing the hill." But what is beyond it? We'll have to wait and see. Whoever survives, that is.

Laor makes very cogently the point that the colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967 are no accident, they are conscious acts of the Israeli State.

He concludes:

The State of Israel continues the irreversible colonization of the last piece of land that is left the Palestinians for establishing their state. They will not have a state without a Jerusalem of their own. In order to destroy the chances of that, Israel built Ma'aleh Adumim east of the city, and is now encouraging the disintegration of East Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a disaster in-the-making - thanks to a minister of public security from a fascist party and a prime minister who converses with the "minister of history": Until there is a bloodbath, he will not enter the national pantheon.

Read the full article here.

15 November 2010

The Jerusalem of Lies

Under this heading Ha’aretz’s chief political columnist and editorial writer Akiva Eldar recounts, in a hard hitting article published in today’s edition (see online edition here) the lies that have been perpetrated by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu concerning the status of Jersualem and the potential for action in East Jerusalem to impact on the prospects for peace.

He writes

Since the dispute broke over the settlement freeze, hardly a day has gone by without Netanyahu or his spokesmen issuing another legend glorifying the myth of ‘the eternal capital that will never be divided.’

and disposes comprehensively of three Netanyahu-propagated myths:

-  Construction in Jerusalem will never disrupt the peace process

-  Jerusalem is united, the capital of the Jewish people and its sovereignty is incontrovertible

-   All Jerusalem residents can acquire homes in every part of the city.

He concludes:

Even in Jerusalem, lies that are repeated too often do not become true. The truth has been and remains: either Jerusalem will become the capital of two peoples or Israel will become the state of two peoples.


Akiva Eldar’s columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition. In May 2006 The Financial Times selected him among the most prominent and influential commentators in the world, "whose comments inspire callers from across the political spectrum".

He is the author of several books on Israel and the Middle East, including The Ambush on Jerusalem, which deals with U.S.-Israel-Jewish community relations, and Lords of the Land, an exploration of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In 2007 he received the annual "Search for Common Ground" award for Middle East journalism.

14 November 2010

Climate change: Ross Garnaut’s Cunningham Lecture

On the evening of 9 November 2010 Professor Ross Garnaut delivered the 2010 Cunningham Lecture to the Academy of Social Sciences. In it, he laid out an update case for action on climate change.

Most of the paper is a technical economic discussion about discount rates and their interaction with uncertainty and with the relationship between Australian and global mitigation. As such it is not an easy read, but it well repays close study.

Garnaut concludes his lecture by asking in very persuasive terms, “What if the mainstream science is right?”

I will conclude the lecture by answering briefly a simple question: what if the mainstream science is right? What if the science supported by the overwhelming majority of scientists who are qualified in the various disciplines related to climate, is broadly right? What if all of the Academies of Science in all of the countries of scientific achievement, are not deluded, or enticed into error by the availability to their members of certain types of research grants?

If they are broadly right, we would probably see a threat to our prosperity rather larger than any of the issues that do the rounds of public discourse on long-run economic development. The threats would manifest themselves in large problems in a few decades, and as the dominant problem well before the end of this century. The challenges beyond this century are difficult to reconcile with continuity in modern human civilisation.

If the mainstream science is broadly right, later in this century we will probably not be squabbling about whether a 37 per cent reduction in allocations to Murray-Darling irrigators is too much; but rather working hard to improve the chance of there being any water at all to allocate.

If the mainstream science is broadly right, defence and immigration would probably have radically different contexts. Probably, because there is uncertainty. It may be worse than this, or better. There is no reason to think the chances of better are higher than the chances of worse.

We should think about it, because there’s a chance that the mainstream science is right. When we think about it, those of us who are not climate scientists would need reasons beyond the current state of knowledge to think anything except that they are probably right. Certainly more likely to be right than people who have not spent the months and years and decades learning the subtleties of this complex area of knowledge. I hope that we here at least — members of this other learned academy that takes seriously the development and testing and accumulation of knowledge — can agree that there is enough of a chance that the mainstream physical and biological science is broadly right, to invest in understanding the implications for human society. After all, ours is the Academy that Australians look to for knowledge on how the immense pressures that we are in the process of placing on our societies may change human life on earth.

If we thought about the respective credentials of those who line up with the mainstream science, and those who are prepared to take their chances with information from other places, we would think that this issue was at least one of the fateful public policy matters of our time.

Nevertheless, as Professor Garnaut observes earlier in the lecture, notwithstanding the strong basis of community understanding and support, when push came to shove, the private interests seeking to block, blunt or slow down action prevailed over well developed community views. As he observes in the concluding phase of his remarks:

If there is to be success in the second attempt to introduce efficient, economywide approaches to substantial reduction in emissions, there will need to be a stronger and clearer message from the independent centre of the polity. 

Zvi Bar’el on the Palestinian state

Zvi Bar'el is the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Ha’aretz Newspaper. He is a columnist and a member of the editorial board. Previously he has been the managing editor of the newspaper, the correspondent in Washington and has also covered the Occupied Territories.

In ‘Palestine? Yes!’ in today’s edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz he writes that today, it is not Israel which is dictating the international consensus but the Palestinians; this is their opportunity to establish the Palestinian state.

...why should the Palestinians not demand international recognition of their state? In such a move it could shake the peace process and extricate it from the strangle hold in which Palestine and Israel are caught.

International recognition of a Palestinian state should not undermine the negotiations. Except that under the new circumstances the negotiations will be between two states of equal status. If Israel announces that it will cease negotiating as punishment, well, that is already what has been happening for a while. Israel will annex the settlements, as further sanctions? In any case they function as an inalienable part of Israel and even without official annexation they are part of the whole, at least according to the prime minister.

Read the full article here.

The trouble with Presidential rule

I had another of those “here we go again” moments when I read here in yesterday’s Weekend Australian that the Agriculture Minister, Joe Ludwig, is going to fast track a review of a pilot scheme for drought assistance that is currently under way in Western Australia.

The aim is “to force farmers to improve business models rather than simply rely on interest rate subsidies and cash payments” and thereby “reduce drought assistance payments to farmers the next time the nation is gripped by crippling drought”.

The article quotes Executive Director of the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute Mike Young as saying that taxpayer-funded drought assistance schemes need to be overhauled.

"The rationale to going to (drought) preparedness is to create a level playing field between those who do preparation and those who don't," Professor Young said.

"One of the biggest criticisms is that the previous approach created policy-induced drought.

"People who otherwise would have conserved feed, put funds aside to carry them through a drought, decided instead not to do that, to go for assistance in times of hardship."

All very well and good, but we have been around this track before. When I was Secretary of the Department of Primary Industries in the first two years of the Howard Government (1996-97), under National Party Leader John Anderson, we undertook as a high priority a thorough review of drought (and other natural disaster) assistance policy with the aim of putting it on a more business-like footing. The philosophy, strongly backed by John Anderson, was that people in the farming sector had to understand that as far as the Federal Government was concerned farming is a business, not a lifestyle choice, and the aim of policy will be to shift much more of the responsibility for risk management from the taxpayer to the individual farming enterprise.

One of our particular targets was to get rid of interest rate subsidies, which were seen (correctly) as thoroughly bad policy – the most assistance goes to the most indebted farmers.

Many smart people worked on the new policy framework for many months, and when finally Cabinet signed up we and all the troops had a cup of tea and a sticky bun in the office to celebrate. We had got some good policy up, we had really made a difference.

That difference lasted about five minutes.  If memory serves, not long afterwards there was a flood in the Namoi Valley. John Howard put on that ridiculous Akubra, his moleskins and his elastic-sided boots and went up to Narrabri or somewhere to get himself on television looking caring and concerned. A farmer gazing out over the flooded fields looked him in the eye and said, “Mr Howard, we are going to need an interest rate subsidy to get through this”, to which Howard responded, on the spot, “Done!” And so months of work was blown away in an instant.

I had another such experience when I was Secretary to the Department of Defence.  I was involved in the first face to face meeting with my PNG counterpart since Sandline, so this was an important meeting and we were keen to re-establish an appropriate defence relationship with our nearest neighbour.   This necessarily involved getting the Australia-PNG Defence Cooperation Program back onto a sound footing.

When we came to discuss this my counterpart (whose last assignment had been Deputy Secretary to the PNG Ministry of Finance) requested Australian financial assistance for uniforms and rations for the PNG Defence Force.

I responded that I did not think it appropriate for PNG to be dependent upon us for such basic running costs as feeding and clothing the troops. I noted that there were funds in the PNG defence budget to pay for various capital works and for training, and said that we would be prepared to fund some of this expenditure to free up funds from within the budget to enable the PNG Defence Ministry to pay for uniforms and rations itself. It wasn’t about the money, I said, our main concern was to get the principles right. I said that part of the deal would be that my counterpart would have to persuade his former colleagues at the Finance Ministry not to respond to our funding by withdrawing funding from the PNG defence budget. All this was amicably agreed.

Only a few weeks later John Howard went to Port Moresby to meet the new PNG Prime Minister, Sir Mekere Morauta.  During their meeting, Morauta said to Howard words to the effect, “Mr Prime Minister, we need your financial assistance to pay for rations and new uniforms for the PNG Defence Force”. “Sure, no problem”, replied Howard, so we ended up paying for the rations and uniforms as well as the capital items and training, and were no further forward with putting the Defence Cooperation Program on an  appropriate footing.

The underlying problem with both of these episodes was that Howard’s style was Presidential, not Prime Ministerial. He was the boss, not primus inter pares leading a group of colleagues in Westminster style Cabinet Government, and so could decide things on the spot.

The great strength of Cabinet Government is that, when it is working, it is systematic and orderly, everyone with a stake in the issue is consulted before a decision is made, and when a decision is made it sticks unless Cabinet decides to change it. It sounds unexciting, and often it is, but it offers the prospect of erecting and maintaining a coherent framework of public policy. The Cabinet colleagues are important not just because they are senior people in the Government, but because they represent at the Cabinet table important domains of Government policy and administration  that need to be considered every time a decision is made.

We lost the art of Cabinet Government during the Howard era, and don’t look like getting it back. Rudd had no idea, Gillard thinks she wants to run proper Cabinet processes but neither she nor anyone around her has any idea what they would look like because it is so long since they have been tried that the institutional memory has all but vanished.

Travelling North

About three weeks ago I had occasion to visit the nation’s capital for the launch of Australia 21’s book Resilience and Transformation: Preparing Australia for Uncertain Futures (see Australia21 book launch and forum), preceded by a forum on the application of resilience to public policy, and followed by a board meeting.

I then headed off to Armidale for a meeting of the members of the non-profit company that has been since the start of the year a part of the new governance framework of The Armidale School (TAS).

The Qantas excursion from Canberra to Armidale via Sydney was a window on two very different Australias that rub along happily enough. The B737 from Canberra to Sydney was full of politicians, lobbyists, military people, all the sorts of people who have occasion to travel between the nation’s largest city and its capital. I was sitting next to a naval officer who was talking to his civilian travelling companion about this and that, including some very favourable commentary about the Chief of the Defence Force (with which I happened to agree).

A short walk from the main domestic terminal to the regional terminal in Sydney and I am sitting on a Dash-8 surrounded by country folk, sitting alongside fit, bronzed men chatting quietly about the characteristics of stud sheep they own.

I had decided while I was so far north of Melbourne and back on home turf I would take advantage of the opportunity to drop down to the North Coast of NSW and catch up with an old university friend who has a macadamia farm outside Macksville. “Drop down” is not as easy as it might sound – public transport between the Tablelands and the Coast is a pretty scarce resource, certainly nothing on a Sunday.

My friend kindly offered to come up to Armidale and collect me, and over the next few days we took in a few touristic experiences that are worth sharing.

The first was the series of exhibitions at the New England Regional Art Museum that I described in NERAM’s Gruner Exhibition. I had heard about the Gruner exhibition in chit-chat the night before, and thought it worth a look, which is was.

Our journey to Macksville then took us along the “Waterfall Way”, the road that takes one via Dorrigo down Dorrigo Mountain to Bellingen.  Close to the main road are the Wollomombi and Hillgrove Gorges, and Ebor Falls, and we decided to take the time to have a look at Wollomombi and Ebor Falls.

According to the World Waterfall Database of the 100 best waterfalls (see here), Wollomombi Falls, about 40 km east of Armidale in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, drops a total of 424 metres (1392 feet), its highest single drop being 260 metres (852 feet).  Directly across the gorge from the main viewing point is the less well known Chandler Falls (220 metres). Together these falls flow into the Chandler River which is part of the Macleay River system, which flows through Kempsey and meets the sea at Southwest Rocks.

A few hundred metres along from the main parking, picnic and viewing area is Checks Lookout, which provides a different perspective on the falls and is well worth the walk. For the fit, a walk that is allegedly 1.4 km from the main parking area takes you to the Chandler River at the bottom of the gorge, but be warned, this is very steep, winding its way back and forth across the face of the gorge, so distances on the map do not have much meaning.

This is Judith Wright country – the famous poet’s childhood home, Wallamumbi Station, is just opposite the entrance to the falls, on the left hand side of the Waterfall Way heading towards the coast.  This is all Wright country.  Philip Arundel Wright, Judith’s father, was born at Wongwibinda a little to the north, on the edge of the escarpment, and Wallamumbi was his headquarters. Wallamumbi and Jeogla had been in the family hands since 1900 and 1901 respectively, and “P.A” as he was always known around Armidale loved that wild gorge country – so much so that he led a successful campaign to have 14,000 ha of State Forest gazetted as the New England National Park in 1934.

About another 40km from Wollomombi Falls is Ebor Falls, only about 500 metres off the road, at the edge of the Guy Fawkes River National Park.  Ebor Falls is a gem, actually two gems about 600 metres apart. The upper falls take the form of two “blocks” – cascades that are wider than they are high – and the lower falls is a classic “plunge” – a direct drop without contact with the rocks.  You can walk between the two segments along the edge of the gorge, and get wonderful views of the falls, of the gorge, and of the Guy Fawkes River valley running north through its deep gorge, ultimately flowing into the Clarence.  I have been through that country on foot, in 1959, when a party of 15 cadets from The Armidale School, led by the redoubtable Des Harrison (see Remembering Des Harrison) and Jock McDiarmid (see On the trail of Jock McDiarmid), marched overland from Armidale to Grafton.

Beyond Ebor is Dorrigo, on the top of the escarpment, and a drop down a steep winding road through the rainforest which takes you from the Tablelands to the coastal strip alongside the Bellinger River in about seven miles.

After a day mooching about on the farm we drove to Nambucca for a look at the wonderful view up and down the coast and a walk along the beach. We went to the Captain Cook Lookout to take in the view, and really cracked the jackpot – there were two or three pods of whales close inshore, large numbers of them regularly breaking the surface.  Regrettably my trusty Canon SLR and 80-300mm lens were back in Melbourne – for reasons of carry-on baggage management I had decided to leave them behind for a trip to familiar haunts and just rely on my Samsung WS500 which is a wonderful utility camera but lacks the capabilities of a digital SLR, and in bright sunshine the LCD screen is a bit of a tragedy – all one could do is point and shoot and hope for the best. I am posting here the best of the near misses, plus a severe crop of one photo in which I did manage to catch a fin breaking the surface. Oh for the SLR on high speed and high resolution – never again will I leave it behind.

I had however brought with me some pocket binoculars, so was able to get a good view of the inshore pods. More exciting, with the aid of the binoculars we could see that there was a mass migration of great whales taking place further out to sea, spanning at least a 120 degree arc of the horizon. Watching that great natural event take place was truly breathtaking, especially as I am old enough to remember people wondering what ever would become of Byron Bay with the closure of the whaling station for lack of whales.

On the third day, we went back up the mountain for a walk with my friend’s bushwalking group in the Dorrigo National Park.  This is a substantial remnant of Gondwana Rainforest, in real rainforest country – Dorrigo receives on average 2000mm (80 inches) of rain per year. Far-sighted locals had been keeping the loggers at bay since about 1903, and the 6.8 km circuit of the Wonga Walk on which we did our walk was first laid down as an unemployment relief project in the 1930s. 

Within an hour of the Rainforest Centre just off the Waterfall Way on the coast side of Dorrigo you can visit four types of rainforest – subtropical, warm temperate, cool temperate and dry.

Wonga Walk, in the subtropical zone, is a beautiful way to spend about 2½ hours. There are magnificent old tallowwood trees, staghorns and elkhorns, giant stinging trees, strangler figs, various fungi and two lovely little waterfalls – Crystal Shower and Tristania. Crystal Shower is a “plunge” type waterfall and you can walk in under the fall. Tristania is a beautiful little cascade. There is a lovely background silence, the main sounds being the call of the whipbirds and the tinkling sound of the small waterfalls. Occasionally, through a break in the trees, there is a breathtaking view to the coast.

At the top of the circuit is one of the most attractive picnic areas I have seen, and you will probably not have to wait long there to catch sight of a scrub turkey on the edge of the forest.

At the end of the walk it is a visit to the Skywalk at the Rainforest Centre to take in the view, then back down the mountain to the coastal strip where the plentiful jacarandas are in full bloom,

Next day it is up the coast to Coffs Harbour for the flight back to Melbourne.

13 November 2010

NERAM’s Gruner Exhibition

If you have any intention of visiting Armidale over the next couple of months, leave yourself time to drop into the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) to see the exhibition Gruner: Light and Landscape. Or if you are within reasonable reach of Armidale, this is worth a special trip.

According to the gallery’s own promo:

According to Norman Lindsay, Gruner was “perhaps the greatest painter of pure light the world has ever seen”.

Apart from the Gruner works in the Howard Hinton Collection that is the jewel in NERAM’s crown, there are other Gruner works belonging to NERAM, and several works from the Art Gallery of NSW, including the iconic Spring Frost, which is magnificently displayed at the entrance to the exhibition, which was curated and opened by Barry Pearce, Head of Australian Art at AGNSW.

As well as the Gruner paintings the exhibition contains several paintings by people who influenced Gruner – Julian Ashton, Hans Heysen, Norman Lindsay and George Lambert.  And just off to the side of the exhibition you can see another of the great icons of Australian impressionist art, Tom Roberts’ Mosman’s Bay (1894), donated to Armidale Teachers’ College by Howard Hinton in 1933.

When I was a primary school lad at the Armidale Demonstration School in the 1950s, the Howard Hinton bequest was hanging on the walls of the nearby Teachers’ College, to which we went reasonably frequently because the “demonstration” part of the school’s name denoted that we were part of the practical experience of the trainee teachers.  We looked at the wonderful paintings and I think we all assumed that every public building had paintings like that – we didn’t know how privileged we were.  I might add that state education departments don’t build many buildings as grand as the old Armidale Teachers’ College anymore.

Apart from the Gruner Exhibition, virtually the whole of NERAM has been given over to professionally curated exhibitions for the period 20 October 2010 – 6 February 2011. There are four others:

Inside and Out: Landscape in all its Forms. Various interpretations of landscape from the Chandler Coventry and NERAM Collections.

Looking in the Mirror: New England Self-Portraits. Five local artists create their own self-portraits, using works from NERAM’s permanent collections as inspiration. Some very fine works here.

Black and White: Treasures from the Howard Hinton Collection. Prints and drawings highlighting the beauty and impact of black and white media. Some wonderful items here – pencil drawings by Lloyd Rees, some pen and ink by George Lambert, even a pencil drawing by Rodin.

Alarming Bras: From the Museum of Printing. Lingerie advertising blocks from the 1930s to 1960s and their original newspaper ads are displayed alongside objects loaned from the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

The NERAM webpage for the five exhibitions may be found here.

Here we go again – doubts about the science

If there is one thing I have learned in forty years in public policy it is that raising “doubts about the science”, as well as being the first resort of the naïf, is the first, second and final resort of the scoundrel. They teach it in Defending Vested Interests 101.

So here we go again; there is a report entitled Holes in science of Murray plan in today’s edition of The Weekend Australian (see here) which informs us that:

In technical volumes published with the guide, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said the complexity of hydrologic modelling made it difficult to consider a large range of scenarios on sustainable diversion limits in a timely way. Hydrologic models have been developed for all major rivers in the basin in conjunction with the states and the CSIRO.

"Overall, about 80 per cent of current surface water use under current diversion limits in the basin is explicitly represented in the hydrologic modelling framework," the guide says.

The technical volume concedes the authority had developed another analytic tool to examine the numerous water flow scenarios in a timely way as it developed recommendations on diversion limits.

In response to this

NFF chief executive Ben Fargher said he would challenge how the plan had identified environmental assets for protection and the modelling for environmental water requirements.

"They are saying because of the complexity of all the hydrological models it has been difficult for them to do the modelling, and so they've used analytical tools," he said. "We are not confident in that. In our view it is not robust, not good enough and we are going to challenge it."

NSW Irrigators Council chief executive Andrew Gregson said the guide's modelling "has holes in it" and the authority needed to be 100 per cent certain, given the enormous ramifications for the communities along the river.

Never mind that Wentworth Group Chief Executive Peter Cosier says that the science underpinning the analysis is “some of the best in the world”, and that MDBA itself says that the 20 per cent of water flows not represented in hydrologic models would not affect recommendations about water allocations or environmental flows because it had been accounted for by an additional analytic tool. If you are not “100% certain”, there are “doubts about the science”.

Where have we heard this before?

The example of climate change is too obvious to need labouring, but I mention it here for the record. If you cannot tell me the exact date on which the last glacier in the Himalayas will disappear completely, there are “doubts about the science”. Of course the central question is, as Professor Ross Garnaut reminded us in his Cunningham Lecture at the Academy of Social Sciences on 9 November, what if the mainstream science is right?

Another area in which “doubts about the science” is a constant refrain is the area of quarantine risk assessment, as I discovered in 1996-97 when I was Secretary, Department of Primary Industries and Energy and, ex officio, Director of Quarantine, the person who exercises all the statutory powers relating to plant and animal quarantine.

Australia has treaty obligations under the World Trade Organisation’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement not to use quarantine measures as a barrier to trade: we are obliged to work on the basis of a scientific assessment of the quarantine risk.  The quarantine risk assessment is not an on-off switch yielding an answer as to whether we will or will not permit imports; it is intended to establish the basis on which the risks can be managed, while allowing trade to take place, with imports being prohibited only in the cases that present a very high risk of unacceptable consequences.

In my experience, just about every time we put out a draft report for industry comment the comment was that we had got the science wrong.  When we responded that the assessment had been undertaken by an independent panel of scientific experts we were told that they were the wrong experts and that they weren’t independent because at some stage in the past they had undertaken work for someone who, it was alleged, had a vested interest in the outcome of this enquiry.

We decided to overcome these endless scraps about the independence of the scientists and the quality of the science by introducing new procedures under which we would consult the relevant primary industry sectors about the panels we proposed to appoint for any given quarantine risk assessment, in the interests of clearing away any issues about the appointees before the work was done.

I then led a round of consultations with the various industry associations to brief them on the proposed new procedures and obtain their reaction. 

Most of these bodies were mature and constructive in their response to the proposals, but some of the most passionate resisters to import competition were utterly recalcitrant.  Most notable of these was the Grains Council of Australia, with which there was a long-running issue about the importation of feed grains.

When I started to outline the proposed new procedures to them the leader of their delegation cut me off with a question: “What are the appeal provisions?” I suggested that he might like to hear about the procedures before discussing what remedies were available if the industry felt that the assessment had not been conducted appropriately.

“I am not interested in the procedures, just in the appeal provisions”, he replied.  When I asked how come, he replied with words to the effect that “you people” will lie and cheat your way to whatever outcome you want, “so I am only interested in the appeal provisions”.

Leaving aside the offensiveness of his conduct, his bottom line was that he was not going to compromise the Grains Councils’ ability to say that we had got the science wrong by getting drawn into the process of agreeing on a suitable panel to conduct a quarantine risk assessment.

So when you hear someone say "there are doubts about the science", reach for a lump of 4"x2".

10 November 2010

New milestone for Aussie Observer

A short while ago Australian Observer reached another readership milestone – 35,000 hits since it began in February 2009.

Thank you readers, both faithful followers and incidental visitors.

07 November 2010

Andrew Farran on the War Powers Bill

The following letter to the editor by Andrew Farran on the proposal that Parliamentary approval be required for the deployment of Australian forces overseas was published in The Age on Saturday 23 October 2010:

The Editor,
'The Age'

Dear Sir,

The private members Bill now before Parliament that would require prior Parliamentary authorisation before Australian troops could be deployed in armed combat abroad is opposed by the major parties essentially on two grounds. First, because of secret intelligence and diplomatic contacts the Executive would know best and should be allowed to commit the troops regardless. Secondly, because critical decisions about war could be left in the hands of just a few people in one or both Houses (i.e. minority parties and independents).

One would think, when it came to war, that if the issue were not sufficiently clear cut to warrant bipartisan support the case for deployment would be weak, and being so, not worth risking the lives of troops in combat. If the issue were clearly divisive then justification on national interest grounds would need to be demonstrated and assessed in the Parliament. In anticipation of a situation where the two Houses might be deadlocked, a requirement for a Joint Sitting in such cases should be considered and submitted for Constitutional amendment.

In the light of contentious deployments to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the case for Parliamentary debate and approval before future deployments, other than in circumstances of extreme national emergency, has already been made.

Yours, etc.