Thursday, 30 December 2010

Charter Schools

Today's Oz has a front page report that the Gillard government is planning to give schools more autonomy, particularly in regard to appointment and management of staff.

I've read elsewhere that Gillard herself developed an interest in the Charter School movement in the USA, and there is a body of opinion that she is influenced by this.

The model of Charter Schools used in the United States is based on primary or secondary schools that are publicly funded but are different from other public schools in that they are not subject to many of the rules, regulations, and statutes that usually apply in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, set forth in each school's Charter.  This freedom is primarily applied to recruitment and selection of staff.

They are an alternative to other public schools, are part of the public education system, and are not allowed to charge tuition. In the USA, enrolment in a charter school is allocated by lottery-based admissions are there are usually fewer places available than students wishing to attend.

The idea is that if schools are given more autonomy, they can improve the quality of staff and curriculum, and adapt better to local needs.

Sounds good - but I've always believed as an ex-principal that any fundamental change to the way schools are run needs to be based on sound research, rather that political whimsy.

So I decided to have a quick look at how the Charter School experiment in the USA has fared in regard to the results.

The most comprehensive review of performance of North American Charter Schools is contained in a study released in June 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University.

CREDO partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student‐level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin was created based on students who matched the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison was used to test whether students who attend charter schools fared better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.

The conclusions are interesting. To quote from the executive summary -

For what the Yanks call "Math" -

The Quality Curve results are sobering:
• Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
• Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant
amount account for 17 percent of the total.
• The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were
significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local
traditional public schools instead.

In other words, Charter schools generally perform about the same in this area as other public schools. Most are the same, some are better, and a large proportion (37%) are worse.

That went well, didn't it?

When Maths and Reading are considered together -

• Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.
• The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.
• Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multilevel schools have significantly worse results.
• Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins.

Again, the gains are patchy, and tend to be balanced by losses. Hardly a ringing endorsement - and this is to be the magic bullet that improves school performance?

The funny thing is, none of this is new, at least in Queensland.  

In 1996 - 97, the Leading Schools program to implement school based management was announced. The idea was essentially the same as that applying to Charter Schools. The initiative (introduced by a Coalition Government) asked schools to bid to enter the program. Being a consensus-based school leader at the time, I allowed my community (staff and Parents & Citizens) to vote on whether we joined the scheme. They rejected it by a small majority (60% against/40% in favour, as I remember). They told me that they were happy with the school the way it was managed.

My colleague in the other special school in town gave his community no choice, and volunteered his school without any debate.

In the wash-up, his school received some seeding money, but very little changed. When Labor was elected in June 1998, the scheme was dropped.

A few years later, a study commissioned by the Coalition when it was still in power and conducted by the University of Queensland (which was supposed to prove that school based management improved student outcomes) was quietly released.

It showed no statistically significant relationship between school management and results for kids - but a strong relationship between teacher competence and results. What a surprise!

Apart from the fact that the research shows that there is no connection between autonomy and results in schools, the unintended consequences of removing some of the checks and balances need to be considered.

I worked in Mt Isa in a regional management job in the mid nineties. One of the major challenges in that part of the world (including schools as isolated as Birdsville, Bedourie, Dajarra, Urandangie, etc) was recruiting teachers to work in these remote locations.

Imagine the principals of these schools competing with their colleagues in metropolitan areas to attract talented teachers without the backup of the regional infrastructure. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Believe me, this scenario will be one of many unintended consequences if we follow blindly down this track.


Wednesday, 29 December 2010


If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll remember this.

Apparently I'm not the only one.

Here's a riddle for you - What's the difference between a plaintiff lawyer and a multinational corporation?

Answer - Only one - plaintiff lawyers tend to work solo or in pairs - corporations hunt in organised packs, often involving hundreds of people called "staff".

Here's another one - What do they have in common?

Answer - They're both driven by the almighty dollar.

It's relevant to look at this again.

They deserve each other. The results will be entertaining.

Monday, 27 December 2010

It Can Be Done

BBQing in the rain that is.

The deluge we're going through at the moment reminds me of 1974.

For those of you devoid of wisdom as a consequence of lack of age, 1974 was the year when South East Queensland in general and Brisbane in particular was visited by catastrophic floods.

Back then the cyclone that did the business was called Wanda. The one meandering down the coast this time is Tasha. Perhaps two-syllable girls' names ending in "a" should be avoided by the boffins responsible for cyclone nomenclature.

So far, we haven't had a situation anything like 1974, mainly because this depression is taking a different track, but it's bloody wet.

There is a family tradition of inviting all my siblings (I'm the eldest of six) to a Boxing Day BBQ. It's grown out of a mixture of nostalgia (my parents, when they were alive originated the idea) and the necessity to create a bit of refrigerator space. The family fridges are crammed with Christmas Day leftovers, and the deal is - bring a selection of leftovers, steaks or snags for the BBQ, and your favourite tipple.

Given the dreaded breathalyser, the tipple has taken a bit of a hiding, unless those from afar crash overnight (not literally) or book a motel. There's always the "designated driver" deal which also works well once the short straw is drawn.

Over the years we've got it down to a fine art, even to the extent of designating different areas of the house for the different generations. Despite this segregation, the whole crew always get together when food is available.

It was our turn to host this year, and my bride and I got busy and set up a BBQ. Our four offspring, home for Christmas, were conscripted in roles as diverse as untangling party lights, buttering bread rolls, and removing their junk from public areas in the house.

Given the weather forecast, I took the precaution of setting the BBQ up under a very large outdoor umbrella, and I covered our Hills hoist and pergola with tarps. This would have worked had the rain been vertical, but it was, in fact, semi-horizontal, so in the end, the cars had to be banished, and the garage set up with TV (for the cricket), eskies, and party lights.

The MX5 sulked in the rain - it is always garaged. It's as well that the little Japanese assemblers in Hiroshima made such a good job of sealing the ragtop - not a drop got in after all day in a downpour.

We had a couple of no-shows as some roads were cut, but in the end it was a good day. I proved that you can BBQ in the rain. First the accumulated water on the hot plate had to be burnt off, but this was accomplished easily in clouds of steam.

After that, I needed an assistant to shuttle the cooked meat and sausages inside, and that assistant needed a second assistant with a brolly. Carrying a plate full of sausages one-handed and an umbrella cannot be achieved with stubby in hand. The assistant was OK - he had stubby in one hand and brolly in the other.

The rigged-up umbrella worked fine, and any drops were evaporated by the heat of the BBQ before they landed on the food.
After the first session of play, we stopped watching the cricket….

Now I have to drive to Brisbane this morning to return two offspring to the big smoke because they're going back to work - every dollar is precious to impecunious students.

I'm not looking forward to the journey. It's still raining cats and dogs.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The New Religion

As Bob Dylan once wrote, the times are a changing.

For about thirty years a mantra of greed and materialism has been inflicted upon us by the old political parties. 

It matters not whether they are Labor or Coalition, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal-Democrat; the heartfelt values once held by these parties have dissolved into an indistinguishable mush of pragmatic materialism.

The same phenomenon is obvious even in totalitarian countries - Doi Moi in Vietnam, and economic liberalism within a pseudo-Marxist framework in China.

This scourge has been given various names, including economic rationalism and corporate managerialism, and has been sold on the basis of efficiency and effectiveness. What has been most efficiently pursued is profit, and this pursuit has been characterised by an almost missionary zeal.

We have ceased to become citizens, and have been transformed, often against our will, and in some case our awareness, from citizens into consumers.

The concept of national sovereignty has been eliminated for the most part by the rise of multinational corporations, whose only allegiance is to their bottom line, and for whom national borders are a nonsense.

This efficient pursuit of profits has been at the expense of gross inefficiency and distorted values for society in general.

Despite its name, the neo-liberal ideology behind this mantra lacks a rational basis, theoretical or practical. It emanates from the deluded and falsely named "profession" of economics, which when subjected to any real analysis has as much credibility as the science of astrology. This pseudo-science conceives of human individuals as using only their lower brains, and interested only in what they can eat, drink, consume and discard.

This philosophy has made a tiny minority obscenely wealthy, but otherwise has performed poorly, then disastrously. The gap between rich and poor in all countries with a substantive middle class is expanding at an exponential rate. It is reducing our well being.

We should have learned during the GFC that markets left to run rampant and unmanaged, descend into catastrophe. The values of cooperation and compassion need to be regarded as highly as competition, as they trend to social harmony and development. Competition unaccompanied by these higher values inevitably leads to conflict and discord. The evidence during this century (two world wars and two depressions - the GFC was a global depression by another name) is available. 

We need to elect governments that govern for society, not just the economy.

To paraphrase Maggie Thatcher - There is no such thing as "the Economy".

Happy Christmas…..

Thursday, 23 December 2010


The title of this post may appear a bit obscure, but it represents the rate of successful projects based on "Value for Money" in relation to the Building the Education Revolution initiative.

Surely not? Hasn't the Fart of the Nation been telling us for about ten months now, that the scheme (to use their favourite word) is a "debacle".

Given that complaints were received from only 294 schools across the entire program — 3% of the 10,000-odd school projects - it's reasonable to assume that the remainder (97%) had no complaints. That 99.1% figure represents the projects that reported satisfactory value for money.

These figures come from  the the report of the Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce which was set up specifically to hone in on faults or inadequacies in the scheme. Funny that - an independent  taskforce set up specifically to find fault, and to which any person who had a grievance was free to make a submission, finds a rate of failure so insignificantly low.

Can this mean that the orchestrated campaign run by the Oz for so long is a very good example of media spin? Fraid so, and it indicates the level of bias embedded in the editorial team.

There are a few other points worth making about this "debacle".

It has supported and will support, all up, about 120,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the building and construction industry. The impact of the BER was most pronounced in its first year, when it was needed most.

The new infrastructure is, in the review team’s opinion, “sorely needed, particularly in government schools”. I can vouch for that from personal experience. I visit scores of schools every term, and the positive outcomes of BER are very obvious - particularly as they relate to physical access for my clientele, students with physical impairments.

Some states (Queensland for example) and some systems (the Catholic system) made a better fist of it than others - NSW in particular, but even on the worst situations the outcomes were positive. The total complaint rate even for NSW government school projects, which attracted more than half of all complaints, was 7%.

If you won't take my word for it, read the report.

It might take a while, but if you value the truth over lazy media spin, it will be time well spent.

For me, the sweetest aspect of all, is that no matter how much wailing and gnashing of teeth we hear from those who believe that schools are undeserving of public money, these facilities will be available to kids all over the country well into the future. Whether the schools they attend are wealthy or otherwise makes not a jot of difference.

It brings a smile to my face every time I visit a school.

Bernard Keane's  piece is worth a read.

Made in Dagenham

I haven't  reviewed a movie in yonks - so it's time to change that.

Made in Dagenham is a fictionalised account of an industrial dispute that took place in 1968 on the Dagenham UK assembly line of the Ford factory.

187 women machinists were employed to assemble and stitch the upholstery for the popular Ford Cortina. Without the finished and upholstered seats being available, the assembly line would grind to a halt, which was the best weapon the women had in their armoury.

They were paid much less than the men working in the factory, partly because they were classified as "unskilled", despite the fact that the work was intricate and complex. Their conditions were poor, and the section of the factory that they worked in was unbearably hot in summer, and it leaked when it rained, a fairly frequent event in that part of the world.

The union that represented them didn't take their claims seriously because they were, after all, women, and tried to fob them off.

The women, led by Rita O'Grady (played by Sally Hawkins) were supported by a sympathetic shop steward (Albert Passsingham; played by Bob Hoskins) who generally stayed in the background and offered advice at crucial stages.

They called a strike, which eventually brought the plant to a standstill. Ford tried to discredit the union, but this strategy failed when the women broke ranks with their own union, and refused to knuckle under to a meaningless compromise. Eventually, Barbara Castle, the Labor cabinet minister at time, came to their support. Despite threats from Ford that the UK factories would be shut down, she introduced legislation which guaranteed them 92% of the male wage, and led to a series of equal opportunity reforms that changed the status of women in the workforce in both the UK and Europe.

The team that produced Calendar Girls is also responsible for this one and the same gentle genius in terms of screenplay, character development and cinematography is evident,

It also provides an interesting insight into the values of the time, a time that I can remember pretty clearly. I can certainly remember the small Fords of the time.

Back then, my Polish next door neighbour owned one as her first car, and she was silly enough to let me behind the wheel occasionally. It was enjoyable to drive, and had a sweet direct gearshift and light and accurate steering.

I can't remember the upholstery.

Go see it - it's down to earth, reflects the times, and is well crafted - a bit like the Ford's British cars back then..

Monday, 20 December 2010

James Hardie

The James Hardie compensation case provides an accurate commentary on the moral vacuum in which many multi-national corporations operate.

In its simplicity, the history goes like this -
James Hardie has been mining, manufacturing and distributing asbestos and its products since before it was listed on the Australian stock exchange in 1951.

These products caused many people to develop asbestosis and or mesothelioma.
Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory and fibrotic medical condition which affects the lungs. Sufferers experience severe shortness of breath. They often develop malignancies including lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma, (also called malignant mesothelioma) is a form of cancer that develops from the protective lining that covers many of the body's internal organs, the mesothelium.

Malignant mesothelioma is always fatal. It destroys quality of life, as the sufferer becomes increasingly short of breath until a point is reached where normal activity is impossible. There is no cure.

The total number of claims made against James Hardie for asbestos-related diseases is estimated to be more than 12,500, of which 8103 will be claimed after 2006.
Individuals continue to be diagnosed, and these diagnoses are expected to peak in 2010 or 2011 at 250 per year.

Hardie had been reluctantly providing compensation for victims since the 1980s. The multiplication of cases from the 1980s onwards forced the acknowledgement that it had known asbestos to be dangerous. However, it wasn't until 1978 that the company began putting warning labels on its products explaining that inhalation of the dust could result in cancer. They stopped manufacturing asbestos products in March 1987.

Think about it. Hardie continued to make and sell a product which killed people slowly. They did this for at least twenty years in the full knowledge that it was dangerous. Tens of thousands of people have been affected.

Now that is a tragedy - but Hardie compounded it by issuing a press statement in February 2001 claiming that a compensation fund that they had set up was fully funded, giving victims hope. 

It wasn't.

Subsequently, Hardie moved its operations offshore (to the Netherlands) to avoid the possibility of Australian civil action targeting its corporate assets for compensation.

ASIC took them to the NSW Supreme Court on the strength of this false statement, but due to incompetence on the part of the ASIC legal team, an appeal against the previous verdict - that the executives involved knowingly made these false statements - was overturned.

So what's the moral of the story? Essentially, that if your corporation is big enough and wealthy enough, you can get away with murder. You can also move your assets offshore so that they are safe from legitimate compensatory action on the part of victims.

We have tabloid junk-peddlers like Bolt frothing at the mouth about the tragic death of asylum seekers at Christmas island, but nary a post about 12,500 Australians killed by a multi-national.
The only time he's posted about James Hardie was in an attempt to discredit Labor because one of its advisers did some contract work for Hardie - kind of three levels removed - but the direct connection between Hardie and the asbestos deaths have been ignored by right wing commentators.

But then, commerce is sacred. Human life? Well, it depends…..

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas Music

This has to be one of the great Australian Christmas Songs.

A song about heat humidity and gravy is a lot more meaningful to me than music about reindeers and snow. The prison reference is also relevant. 

When this country was first settled, that's where the bulk of the population would have been at Christmas.

This video is also an example of an Australian musical genius at his best.

Friday, 17 December 2010


The staccato metallic rattle of hail on the roof is something I haven't heard for years in this neck of the woods.

We had a short, but fairly intense burst at about 5.15pm yesterday, and about 40mls of rain, although the accuracy of the reading was probably compromised by the lumps of ice in the mouth of the gauge.

I watched it approach on the weather radar, but just as it was almost on top of us, the power went off for a short time, and we lost the internet. Strangely enough, 3G coverage went at the same time as I discovered when I tried to use the iPad as a backup.

The dog has no brains and gets confused by rain. Hail is something else. We put her in the laundry, but she was terrified by the noise, and spent the time scratching on the door to be let into the interior of the house.

The BOM is forecasting more today. If it eventuates, we will have had three consecutive days of severe storms, which is typical for this time of the year. The pattern - that is. The intensity is unusual.

We could be in for an interesting wet season.

Video is brief and of poor quality, but it gives you an idea of the intensity of the storm.

Monday, 13 December 2010

It's Not News

A story in The Catholic Leader got me thinking about the issue of sexual abuse by teachers, or more accurately, the mainstream media's treatment of it. Click on the title for more information.

The possibility that a child could be at risk of abuse from a person in a position of power and respect, such as a teacher, is every parent's worst nightmare.

I have some understanding of the feelings it generates, as one of my daughters was the victim of a sexual assault earlier this year. The offender who lives in a different city was convicted and punished, but I deliberately avoid him, because I could never be sure that I would remain in control if we met.

Putting parental anger aside, I wonder whether there is a connection between the dearth of males in the teaching profession these days, and the media sensationalism around child abuse by teachers.

A quick examination of the statistics reveals that sexual abuse in a school (a cataclysmic betrayal of duty of care), is very rare. Children statistically are in far greater danger of being abused at home than at school, but I guess a headline saying "Twenty Thousand Teachers Didn't Abuse Their Students This Year" wouldn't sell many newspapers.

The case quoted in the Leader is a good illustration. A principal of a Catholic school in Toowoomba was dismissed after he badly mismanaged a case of abuse in his school which led to the teacher being charged, convicted and jailed. The principal reported the abuse to the diocesan authorities, but not to the police.He was sacked, both from the principalship and as a teacher.

Years later, he was given some teaching work (as a casual supply teacher) in another city, and the media reporting of this verged on the hysterical. This person had never abused a student, and there was no reason to believe that he was a risk to children. He was simply a poor manager who made a serious mistake. You would assume that given what he's been through (including his loss of career and reputation) he'd probably be the person least likely to offend in the future.

The article in the Leader was a defence of his casual employment. I think they're about right.

I began teaching in 1968 in a primary school with a staff of ten, six of them being male. These days, the sight of a male in a primary school is comparatively rare. As a principal in the eighties, I remember parents often requesting that their children be assigned to a class with a male teacher. By the time I'd retired after the turn of the millennium, this attitude had turned full circle. Parents (always mothers) were obviously nervous about a male teacher being assigned.

I couldn't find any stats about the percentage of males in teaching positions in Queensland, but these Irish figures are worth a look.

I doubt that the position in this country is much different.
My opinion after forty years in teaching is that there are many kids who need male models at specific periods in their development. Unfortunately many of them come from single parent families, the majority with absent fathers. I believe these kids are at risk of developing anti-social behaviours because they often model themselves on male peers, sometimes in the gang context. I know this is a generalisation, but I could rattle off the names of a whole series of delinquent boys I've encountered who are prime illustrations.

How should the gender balance be restored?

Education Queensland has affirmative action strategies in place designed to even out the ratio of males/females in administrative positions. In practice this means that if a male and female applicant has equal merit for a position, the female should get it. 
Why can't a similar approach be used to attract males into the classroom?

Suggestions that scholarships for young men to be trained as teachers should be offered have been rejected as sexist, but perhaps more important issues emerge, such as the future of our boys.

What do you think?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

I Have No Enemies

I am posting this man's words without comment - none is needed. Text is from Beinformed (Click on the title for the link).

Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo was honored in absentia at Oslo earlier today with this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Since Liu could not attend the function, as he is serving an eleven-year prison sentence in a Chinese prison, actress Liv Ullman, read out selected passages from Liu's last public speech, given last December in a Beijing court at the time of his sentencing. The speech, titled 'I have no enemies: My final statement', is published by the HRIC (Human Rights In China) online. Here is an excerpt from Dr Liu's remarkable speech, which showcases not only his passion for his work, his kindness and his unflinching commitment to fundamental human rights, but also his literary prowess:

"In the course of my life, for more than half a century, June 1989 was the major turning point. Up to that point, I was a member of the first class to enter university when college entrance examinations were reinstated following the Cultural Revolution (Class of ’77). From BA to MA and on to PhD, my academic career was all smooth sailing. Upon receiving my degrees, I stayed on to teach at Beijing Normal University. As a teacher, I was well received by the students. At the same time, I was a public intellectual, writing articles and books that created quite a stir during the 1980s, frequently receiving invitations to give talks around the country, and going abroad as a visiting scholar upon invitation from Europe and America.
What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity. After that, because I had returned from the U.S. to take part in the 1989 Movement, I was thrown into prison for “the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement.”

I also lost my beloved lectern and could no longer publish essays or give talks in China. Merely for publishing different political views and taking part in a peaceful democracy movement, a teacher lost his lectern, a writer lost his right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the opportunity to give talks publicly. This is a tragedy, both for me personally and for a China that has already seen thirty years of Reform and Opening Up.

 Twenty years have passed, but the ghosts of June Fourth have not yet been laid to rest. Upon release from Qincheng Prison in 1991, I, who had been led onto the path of political dissent by the psychological chains of June Fourth, lost the right to speak publicly in my own country and could only speak through the foreign media. Because of this, I was subjected to year-round monitoring, kept under residential surveillance (May 1995 to January 1996) and sent to Reeducation-Through-Labor (October 1996 to October 1999).

But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed in my “June Second Hunger Strike Declaration” twenty years ago—I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments, and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity, including those of the two prosecutors, Zhang Rongge and Pan Xueqing, who are now bringing charges against me on behalf of the prosecution.

Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.
It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. 

For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme. 
If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. 

My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.

My dear, with your love I can calmly face my impending trial, having no regrets about the choices I’ve made and optimistically awaiting tomorrow. 

I look forward to [the day] when my country is a land with freedom of expression, where the speech of every citizen will be treated equally well; where different values, ideas, beliefs, and political views . . . can both compete with each other and peacefully coexist; where both majority and minority views will be equally guaranteed, and where the political views that differ from those currently in power, in particular, will be fully respected and protected; where all political views will spread out under the sun for people to choose from, where every citizen can state political views without fear, and where no one can under any circumstances suffer political persecution for voicing divergent political views. I hope that I will be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech.

Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth. In order to exercise the right to freedom of speech conferred by the Constitution, one should fulfill the social responsibility of a Chinese citizen. There is nothing criminal in anything I have done. [But] if charges are brought against me because of this, I have no complaints. Thank you, everyone."

Friday, 10 December 2010

The American Psyche

The Wikileaks saga brings into stark relief the phenomenon of American self-image. There is a national conviction that any threat to national prestige must be quickly and ruthlessly eliminated.

This mindset has endured for so long, that it's obviously part of the American psyche.
I wasn't around at the time of Pearl harbour, but listening to the stories my father told, it appears that the blow to American prestige caused by the attack was a major factor in the US response.
Here's an extract from Roosevelt's Day of Infamy speech on December 7th 1941 -
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.
In other words, the fact that America was enormously embarrassed because they were caught unawares was as significant to Roosevelt as the losses of men and ships. He was well known for understanding his country's soul at critical moments.
George W Bush was not in the same league as Roosevelt when it came to leadership, but he was equally conscious of national embarrassment after 9/11. I'm sure we all remember well the Mission Accomplished banner on USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003.
In his speech he said -

In the images of falling statues, we have witnessed the arrival of a new era.

We have not forgotten the victims of September the 11th -- the last phone calls, the cold murder of children, the searches in the rubble. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got. (Applause.)
Paraphrasing, Bush was pushing the imagery (falling statues) and revenge (the victims).
The fact that the war had at least five more years to run and thousands of US soldiers would die in those five years was not foreseen, or apparently its likelihood even considered.

And now, we have an issue about embarrassment over sensitive material leaked (by Americans - it should be noted). The disproportionate response, including hysterical calls for the death penalty, and unsubstantiated claims that it will cost lives, demonstrates clearly the USA's glass jaw.
I have enormous personal respect for American values, especially as they pertain to free choice and individual rights, and I acknowledge their contribution to our security, particularly the history of the Pacific campaign during WW2.
Even during those tumultuous times, however, there were incidents which made clear that many Australians took strong exception to some uniquely American characteristics. During the 26th and 27th November 1942, one Australian was killed, and six wounded during street battles with American MPs in Brisbane. The digger killed was a Ted Webster who came from Milmerran and had enlisted in Toowoomba.

By all accounts, alcohol and boredom were factors, but there was an underlying tension between the allies, and its origin can be traced back to this same American characteristic of arrogance and hubris.
This is never as clearly illustrated as in the contemporary pic I've posted above. Can you imagine how the average Aussie digger of the time would have reacted to the aggressive pose demonstrated. It is obviously designed to intimidate - which may have worked with GIs. I'd suggest that a pose like that would be taken as a challenge by (say) a member of the 7th Division who were in Brisbane at the time.

No wonder there was a stoush or two.

There is a fundamental difference in the way Australians and Americans see themselves, and this is highlighted when they're in uniform. I well recall a number of incidents when I was in Vietnam in 1970.
We didn't have much to do with the Yanks, but there were times when we shared space and time. During R & R I travelled in a bus sitting next to a Yank GI in Bangkok. The journey lasted 20 minutes, so we had time to talk. I'm a petrol head (was then - still am now) and made some passing comment about "Yank tanks", which showed my disdain of large, overpriced, American automotive iron.

He took severe umbrage - to the point where I wondered if he was going to take a swing at me. When he settled down a bit, he gave me a ten-minute lecture on the history of Henry Ford, and how he had (amongst other things) invented the assembly line. All of which was true, of course, but the vehemence with which it was delivered was disproportionate.
One of my Aussie mates sitting behind me was still talking about this incident a week later when we flew back to the Dat. The lesson was simple, you never criticised any American institution or belief to a Yank. They simply couldn't abide it.
On another occasion, when a few mates and I were attempting to souvenir some stray bits of wood and corrugated iron from an abandoned pile of American junk at the Horseshoe, we were confronted by a sweaty and overweight Yank Staff Sergeant. This wouldn't have caused concern, except that he was waving an M16 around which had a magazine attached, which we assumed was loaded.
As we retreated with as much dignity was we could towards our own lines, I remember the remark - "bloody Yanks - why are they so up themselves?'
That same question seems relevant today. 

(Click on the title to find out more about the "Battle of Brisbane"). 
Photo courtesy of Ozatwar.

Monday, 6 December 2010


There's really nothing new under the sun.

An insightful comment from Cav on Kev Gillett's blog has reminded me of this - not that I needed reminding.

I found the book illustrated above at Uralla in a secondhand bookstore in the main street - can't remember its name. (The bookstore, that is - the book's called The Palace File).

I bought it because I'm fascinated by what was going on behind the scenes around about the time I was in Vietnam in 1970 ostensibly fighting for freedom and democracy. The more I research this particular conflict, the more I understand that our participation in it fits into a well-worn historical pattern. Our involvement was driven by lies, deceit and cover-up. As Cav observed, the pattern is evident - Watergate, Climategate and now Wikileaks.

The most recent example is of course, Iraq. Where were those WMDs?

The Palace File  is a collection of letters written during the years 1973 - 1975 when the co-author, Nguyen Tien Hung, was Minister of Economic Development and Planning in Nguyen Van Thieu's government of the Republic of Vietnam.

What they show is the absolute duplicity of the Nixon administration who were telling Thieu that that they would defend South Vietnam to the end, whilst at the same time, clearly deciding that the Republic of South Vietnam was dispensable.

This is an example of a letter from Nixon to Theiu on January 17th, 1973 -

I must repeat what I have said to you in my previous communications:
The freedom and independence of the Republic of Vietnam remains a paramount
objective of American foreign policy. I have been dedicated to this goal
all of my political life, and during the past four years I have risked many grave
domestic and international consequences in its pursuit. It is precisely in order
to safeguard our mutual objectives that I have decided irrevocably on my present
course .... Let me state these assurances once again in this letter:
-First, we recognize your Government as the sole legitimate Government
of South Vietnam.
-Secondly, we do not recognize the right of foreign troops to remain on
South Vietnamese soil.
-Thirdly, the U.S. will react vigorously to violations of the Agreement.

Richard Nixon

I wonder how much of the words -
freedom and independence of the Republic of Vietnam
Nixon and his cronies understood.

But of course, that letter was hidden from the public eye until Hung published it in 1979, four years after the fall of Saigon.  Likewise, the deception around WMDs in Iraq didn't become completely apparent until long after thousands of US soldiers had died on the basis of a lie.

The point of departure for Wikileaks is that the process is happening in real time, which allows scrutiny which will hopefully effect decision-making once those in power - whether in Iran, the USA, or Russia think twice before attempting to continue to lie and deceive. The funny thing is, this level of deception is so ingrained in international relations, that it's doubtful whether those involved know any other behaviour.

It's obvious that Assange's releasing of this information is a game-changer, given the level of vitriol directed at him, and the clumsy attempt to discredit him by trumped-up charges that the Brits are ignoring. They'd have to arrest every third or fourth adventurous male in Britain if they were fair dinkum, on the basis of what the Swedes have produced.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...