About Me

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The Author Erik’s family emigrated from Britain to the island State of Tasmania then lived in the woods. The family home schooled, helping to pioneer the home education movement in Australia. The Blog …explores ways to create a sustainable and just community. Explores how that community can be best protected at all levels including social policy/economics/ military. The Book Erik’s autobiography is a humorous read about serious things. It concerns living in the bush, wilderness, home education, spirituality, and activism. Finding Home is available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble and all good e-book sellers.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Ferguson Shooting - what Russians and African Americans have in common

Ukrainian army advancing on rebel positions? No, US police advancing on unarmed protesters in Ferguson

Australia’s Prime Minister has said two things of significance in recent months. One, we can all expect less freedom. Two, we are at war with Russia. Meanwhile our closest ally appears to be at war with itself. Um…does anyone see a problem?

Let’s start with Russia. When a nation state seeks to force a change to the foreign policy of another nation state through sanctions this is a form of warfare. Australia has imposed $400 million worth of sanctions on Russia and appears eager to get involved in Ukraine. Abbott has been talking about giving them weapons. For Australia, a nation with 39 operational battle tanks, that’s pretty brave. As a Japanese defence official once commented “We have 500 tanks and call ourselves a peace keeping force. You have 50 tanks and call yourselves an army”. Translation: “shut up Australia you are not important”. It’s comical. Police forces in the US have more armour than the Australian army.

The crime of which Mr Abbott has, unilaterally and without parliamentary debate, convicted Russian eaters of Australian beef, is support for the Donetsk republic. Um…why does a small South Pacific country care about a small self-proclaimed East European/Russian/Eurasian republic? Perhaps Russia, the world’s second greatest nuclear power but deprived of Australian beef, will by these sanctions, be forced to disarm those naughty terrorists.

Now that my government is telling me who my enemies are I thought I should hear from them. Since I couldn’t find a reliable Western World news source I thought I would let them speak for themselves. This is a revealing interview.
You may need to expand the screen to get the subtitles http://vineyardsaker.blogspot.com.au/2014/08/watershed-press-conference-by-top.html 
Turns out the Donetsk guys don’t want their country fracked for shale gas, want control of their economy and natural resources, and want the freedom to choose their own future. They don’t want to be in debt to the West. They just want to be left alone. No wonder they are being shelled.

When I studied political science I was in a conservative faculty headed by an expat American liberal and I didn’t learn much. However in the course of development studies they did let slip that Western banks extract orders of magnitude more money from developing countries through interest payments on loans to various regimes than Western countries contribute in foreign aid. They also mentioned that the loans mostly came from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and that the IMF always imposed “structural adjustment”. That sounded interesting so I wandered off the official reading list in pursuit of the truth. Too bad for Ukraine they are about to be structurally adjusted.

Structural adjustment IMF style requires that all subsidies and most public spending be cut, public utilities sold off, national assets handed over to multinational companies, and open slather foreign investment allowed. Having been plundered and privatised the economy typically struggles and countries can be forced into a debt/povery cycle unless granted debt relief. Furthermore, all loan repayments and all trade must be made in US dollars. This creates an indirect form of taxation because poor countries can’t readily buy US dollars and the exchange rate is poor.
This ‘structural adjustment’ pushed many Latin American countries into poverty and rebellion during the '70's and '80's. The US then provided military aid to quash public unrest including torture training the in ‘School of the America’s’ as it was then known. Governments that resisted external control and wished to retain control of their national resources or trade in their own currency tended to experience coups – Venezuela, Chile, Argentina; or destabilisation –  Nicaragua; or support for repressive regimes against social democratic movements – Honduras, Guatemala, et al. Other countries have experienced bombing/invasion – Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Iran, (threatened and intended) for seeking to control their own economies. If these measures don’t work US foreign policy prescribes containment, sanctions, and demonisation – Russia.

Libya was destroyed as a nation state after its leadership proposed a pan African currency and trade zone. Iraq was destroyed as a nation state after its leadership began selling oil in Euros. Russia also refuses to sell its oil and gas exclusively in US dollars. Suddenly there are destabilisation operations, nuclear missiles and NATO military bases on its door step, and sanctions. Donetsk meanwhile has committed two crimes unforgiveable to the US. First it refuses to hate Russia, and second it wants to control its own resources. Unsurprisingly it is at war.
For a primer on how this works see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC3tINgWfQE   

For some informed commentary on this from a former Reagan administration staffer see here: http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2014/09/14/washingtons-war-russia-paul-craig-roberts-2/

Funny thing is, lots of towns in the US are being structuraly adjusted too; most notably Detroit.

Ukrainians meanwhile seem to have forgotten that IMF loans are not aid, they are loans. The really sinister aspect though to the IMF package in Ukraine is the insistence that Ukraine open its borders to GM crops. This lays bare the US foreign policy agenda. The Ukraine/Russian plains and the mountain grasses of the other nations of the 20/40 window are the genetic seed store of the world. It is from here that most of the world’s genetic diversity in grains comes from. The US wheat belt was first sown with Russian wheat. Ukraine was formerly the breadbasket of the Russian empire. It is one of the reasons Hitler was keen to conquer it. GM crops pose a direct threat to the food security of those countries within pollen blowing/bee flying distance of anywhere that has GM cereal crops. It is for that reason that Putin has banned them in Russia. Monsanto is more dangerous to Russia than any Ukrainian nationalist.

Russia has threatened nuclear war.

Can’t see the Donetsk boys accepting Monsanto and can’t help feeling that Australia is well out of its depth here. Which brings us back to the other thing our Prime Minister said; that we can all expect less freedom. Nice of him to at least let us know. If this has something to do with the USA we should have a look at the USA.

So what about our closest ally? Since 9/11 US police have become incresingly militarised. This has included handing over large volumes of ex Iraqi military equipment including heavy weapons, armoured vehicles, and resistant vehicles. In other words, stuff custom made to crush a violent insurgency/uprising by people armed with the stuff American citizens have at their disposal. Regular police are increasingly being trained and armed for full scale war on civilian populations with essentially all legal niceties removed. Coincidence?

So in what civilised not tin pot dictatorship/third world/Islamofascist state is it OK to shoot an unarmed teenager and leave his body to bleed on the street for four hours? Oh, that would be Ferguson USA, or pretty much any town with a significant non-white population.

For some commentary on this from a conservative Republican see here:http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2014/06/10/john-whitehead-guest-column-washington-arming-public/

US police are being trained and equipped to treat citizenry as insurgents. Meanwhile Abbott tells Australia to expect less freedom. Note the graffiti.
If Australia wants to support freedom we might usefully become an example of a civil society that does not live in fear of its own government. Like a friend who stops a friend getting into a car drunk, Australia can start talking truth to the American people. This does not mean breaking with the alliance (which we don’t actually have). It means actually caring enough to be authentic. While we are at it, let’s kick out Monsanto and share seeds with Russia.


This is a mine resistant vehicle of the Ukrainian army. Used for defeating the Russians.


This is a mine resistant vehicle of the local US Sheriff's Department. Used for defeating persons suspected of possessing marijuana and persons who object to being shot by their government.








Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Bob Brown - 'Optimism' a review of his memoir

I like optimism. It’s one of the reasons I bought and read former senator and national Greens leader Bob Brown’s book ‘Optimism, reflections from a life of action’. That, and the fact that I got to know Bob a little while working as an activist in the 90’s.

Optimism is not a political memoir and those looking for political intrigue, expose, or detailed history will need to look elsewhere. Rather it is a very humane and deeply personal account of how a confused young man came to terms with his sexuality and found his place in the world. The fact that this young man helped found a national movement, a political party, two NGO’s, became the voice of left wing resistance in Australia, and went to jail at least twice along the way, is incidental to the story.

Each chapter is a complete account of a person or event that impacted the author. All are engaging and some are surprising. There is a good deal of humour and irony. Bob doesn’t preach and while his passion comes through only once does he get angry, describing the apostle Paul as an “ancient sociopath” for his condemnation of homosexual activity. Mostly the reader will encounter his sensitivity. ‘A young person is as likely to ignore their sexuality as a butterfly is to keep its wings folded, and I was 30’ he says of a time before he came out publicly.

While Bob describes himself as an atheist I have never really been convinced and after reading the book I am less convinced. ‘God is a God of love’ Bob records himself saying to a member of the Exclusive Brethren who threatens him with hell fire. Elsewhere he clearly rejects his Presbyterian upbringing but speaks positively of Jesus and of Christian social justice activists. However his Presbyterian background shines through with his intuitive grasp of materialism as an essentially religious belief system in the tradition of the pre-Christian pagan gods who must be appeased. This is the only place he delves into theology and he is, in my opinion, absolutely correct. Here is the core of his belief system and this is really the message of his book, with relevance to believers and non-believers alike.

On a final note, Bob founded The Wilderness Society with fellow ex Presbyterian Helen Gee Decades later he was MC at her funeral where we sang some beautiful old hymns. The wilderness that inspired them exists beyond human reason. It seems that when sensitive people spend bulk time in the wilderness it is hard to believe that there is nothing out there.
Optimism is available from all good bookstores.






Thursday, 4 September 2014

Getting the Most out of Public Service in an Time of Austerity

There are two basic truths about the public service. First, the demand for government services is ever growing and insatiable. Second, the willingness and ability of governments to finance the public service is finite. In the end, we have the public service we can afford. The service lives in the tension between these two things. How then to get best value for money?

First, what can the public service do well?

If enough intelligent people are given enough job security to feel comfortable speaking truth to power, then the public service is capable of long term strategic thinking. The same is true of Universities, and of think tanks that are actually about thinking rather than pushing an ideological agenda. That is why job security matters.

The service is capable of objectivity in a way that politicians are not and consequently is better equipped to moderate competing demands and deliver good policy on a range of issues.

If the right people are in the right positions, the service is also capable of understanding science. This is hugely important because politicians generally don’t understand science, particularly in this country. They tend to be lawyers, business people, ex unionists, or persons with a background in community service. There is almost no one in the Federal Parliament with a background in engineering, medicine or environmental science. It’s one of the reasons why our government is just plain dumb when it comes to things like coal seam fracking, climate change, and defence procurement.

Finally, the service has a long history of delivering defined services to defined groups of people in specific ways. It’s like a big train that, once on track, just keeps going. The introduction of the GST, the change from Imperial to metric measurement, and the change from the sterling to the dollar were singular triumphs.

What does the public service struggle with?

Anything technical. Once upon a time I worked for the Commonwealth Environment Department writing management plans for marine reserves. Essentially that meant making rules to restrict certain fishing methods and gear types in various bits of ocean. Of the 20 or so people on the team one was a recreational fisherman. None had ever worked on a commercial fishing boat and most had never been on one. There was no relevant induction or training – like spending a couple of weeks working with the guys in industry. I was one of only four people with a background in compliance. After a 10 year process (I was there for six months) one of the bosses suddenly realized that compliance was going to be an issue – like for example in the entire Coral Sea. Hmmm, maybe Queensland could look after that… State governments are better on the whole because of Australia’s odd constitutional arrangements, they do a lot of the actual service delivery.

So what works?

Small focused expert teams

It is a common story that a large well funded government organisation failed to deliver powered flight but a couple of bicycle mechanics working at the same time did. There is an energy that happens in small teams that can’t be replicated any other way. Plus they are more efficient. While the Wright brother’s story is often cited as an example of why business does it better, the fact is that any organisation that grows beyond a certain size will require more bureaucracy and operate less efficiently. For that reason large organisations work best as collectives of smaller groups.

Clear lines of accountability

The message coming out of the inquiry into the national home insulation scheme (which led to several home fires and deaths) is that everyone is sort of responsible but no one is really. That lack of accountability is common in large Departments and is something that bedevils Defence. It is the reason why Australia was unable to maintain its submarine fleet in state of operational readiness. Accountability has to stop with an individual who is resourced intellectually and materially to understand what is going on and to ask the hard questions. That person will never be a government minister. Ministers are too busy and have too many competing demands. They rely on those under them to manage risk. That means that if there is a stuff-up, the person accountable needs to be sacked because they had it in writing at the start that it was their responsibility.

Relevant expertise

The person responsible must be qualified or have relevant other expertise. I wager there were very few electricians managing the home insulation scheme. At both State and Federal level the service needs far fewer BAs and LLBs and lots more engineers, scientists and people from industry. In the home insulation example there were obvious rorts but nice middle class university graduates just don’t think like that. A lot could be gained from a program that gave bureaucrats first hand industry experience.

Allowing initiative

In the Second World War no one came even close to the tactical brilliance achieved by the Germans and Japanese. On the eastern front the kill ratio was seven Russians to every German. There are many reasons for this but one seldom discussed is that forward commanders were allowed to take their own initiative and respond to the battle without getting permission from the higher ranks. The British only really every achieved the same level of initiative with commando units.

In the public service initiative is frowned upon.  It is seen as insubordinate and risky. Those on a fixed salary have no incentive to take risks because they will likely not be rewarded for success. However they may be penalized for failure, so it is safest to stick with whatever makes the hierarchy happy and keep plodding. In the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in India it became a talking point that those at the bottom were working hard, those at the top were brilliant, but there was complete paralysis in the middle. People need to be given explicit permission to fail, and assurance that they won’t be penalized for trying.

Empowering managers to sack underperforming staff

Machiavelli observed that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Having worked with underperforming staff I know the frustration of dealing with inept people who know they won’t be sacked. There is no reason why, if the job description is clear, that work goals cannot be set and long term underperformers cannot be got rid of. The sad fact is that while many worked hard, even heroically, too many people did too little for too long and now the entire service is being hammered. Output managers who sack staff should be thought well of, not looked at askance. Would that result in unfair dismissals? Yes in some cases, because incompetent managers feel threatened or because they are on a power trip. On the other hand capable people will pick up work elsewhere. Overall it is better to shed the dead wood. 

Providing incentives for initiative and productivity

Which brings me to the other side of the same coin – good workers are not rewarded, they just tend to get asked to do more. Productivity can be a hard thing to measure. How to you measure policy advice, research or financial analysis, or staff management? However a lot of front line service can be measured. There is no reason why incentive bonuses shouldn’t be paid were practical in the public service.

Beware outsourcing

Outsourcing is often held up by the pro-business crowd as a panacea of many of the ills I have mentioned. Sometimes it is cheaper to hire outside expertise but there are also risks. First is that if key services become dependent on contractors those contractors gain a lot of leverage in price negotiations. Second, relationships can become too cosy by far. Third, you risk losing important in-house expertise. Fourth, public servants have to do pretty much whatever they are told. Contractors don’t have to step an inch outside their contract terms which means everything has to be negotiated.

Consulting internally first

Governments often get criticised for spending too much money on consultants. However there is often a wealth of freely available knowledge within the ranks of the organisation that doesn’t filter up, and a wealth of open source knowledge that just needs time to access. University graduate staff are very good at this and they don’t charge $100 per hour. I have yet to work in a place that had a knowledge/skills register but I have been reprimanded for approaching a subject matter expert in my (then) own Department and talking to people outside.

Expert boards are value for money

Highly qualified specialists seldom work for government. They can make more money, have more fun, and achieve greater career satisfaction elsewhere. However one thing they like to do, particularly in semi-retirement, is sit on boards and committees that look into interesting things. Expert boards thus provide a cost effective way for government to purchase independent expertise across any issue. Further, if they report publicly or to the Minister, they can break the deadlock created by self-seeking agency heads advising unqualified ministers on the basis of advice from uniformed underlings. This is an obvious way of addressing the lack of internal technical expertise in areas such as health, defence, and natural resource management. Indeed, one of the things the Department of Defence steadfastly resists is independent expert boards reporting to the Minister.

There seems to have been a time, perhaps in the 1970s and 80s when a person on graduating university could get a public service job, underperform for 40 years and look forward to a generous retirement. Those days are over and increaslingly the service will have to justify its existence and do more with less. There needs to be a generational culture shift.
I am sure I am not the only one with good ideas so feel free to make comment.


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Tasmanian State Budget 2014 - Reflections

If the spin doctors are to be believed this was the budget we had to have, and they are sort of right. We can’t keep borrowing, and that’s not about political colour. GST revenues have gone south (actually they went North to NSW and Vic), the Federal government is cost shifting on health, and their policy of declaring war on science and renewable energy is causing Tasmania real problems. There is very little room to move and we have to cut.

…which is why it is hard to understand why the Liberal (supposedly free market) State government feel it necessary to spend big on racing and a footy team while cutting the heart out of basic services…

Apart from that there haven’t been mass sackings or massive borrowing and that is a relief.

So what does it all mean? Mostly I can’t tell you because as a public servant the State Service Act 2000 and the State Service Code of Conduct prevent me talking about what I know. I am also not allowed to protest about anything, or ask for a pay rise. I can apply for a redundancy but there are no jobs to go to afterwards. According to one Mercury columnist I am “bloated, inefficient and debt laden.” What the columnist has no comprehension of is the extent to which basic services are propped up by industry funds, ad hoc Commonwealth grants, vanishing incentive payments, and the administrative equivalent of gaffe tape. There is a real naivety in this budget – which clearly reflects the business view that public service is about front liners – teachers, firies, ambos’, and the rest is a make work program for unemployable shiny bums. Perhaps they should look at their own organisations. Try running BHP Billiton without an HR department, an accounts department, an IT department, contract managers, project managers, oh, and did I mention records? When one of the 100 new coppers hands out a fine it clearly doesn’t occur to people that someone designed and printed the ticket, that the form fields in the ticket go into a database, and that the database links to other important things which mean that the authorities actually know if the fine isn’t paid. Meanwhile someone is maintaining the police vehicle and managing the officer’s workplace health and safety issues. Without this, that police officer can achieve very little.

So my real concern with the budget is that rather than actually making a principled decision to close specific services the government is simply pushing those services to the point of collapse. They may exist in name and on paper but they are not really there. A better approach would be to do what Bob Hawke did federally and bring the parties into the tent. Tell the unions, Department heads and NGOs how much money we don’t have and have an authentic conversation about what to cut. Union members were willing to talk wage restraint in return for fewer job losses. It’s more difficult but history shows that the results are better, and they are accepted better by the community. Instead we have anti-protest laws.

The comedian in me really hoped that someone would protest against the people who were protesting against the anti-protest laws –which come on top of the anti anti-abortion protest laws from the previous government, and the anti-protest gazettal provisions which have been used for arresting green protestors on Crown land since 1983….but the anti-protest laws were drafted by my Department so I can’t talk about them.

However I can probably say that my union representative stated that new provisions will remove the right of the Tasmanian Industrial Commissioner to arbitrate a public service wage dispute in a manner which differs from government policy. In other words, if it is government policy to have a $5.00 minimum wage and I put in a wage claim for $5.50 the Tasmanian Industrial Commission cannot increase my award. The Crown Employees (Salaries) Bill 2014 states:
"The regulations may restrict the performance and exercise of the functions and powers of the Tasmanian Industrial Commission under the Industrial Relations Act 1984 and may override any provisions of that Act in the manner specified in the regulations."
This appears to be a blatantly ideological act which has Eric Abetz’s finger prints all over it. If rolled out beyond the public service it could lead to a collapse in wages which would in turn collapse the economy – it’s that simple. Small business will suffer the most. This is the American model and it is a proven disaster. The last time I looked up any stats the US had twenty percent unemployment, a vast underclass of working poor, real hunger particularly among the elderly, and twenty million people homeless….but the rich are very rich, the police are militarised and the prisons are full. A university degree can mean a lifetime’s debt and lifesaving surgery can cost your life savings. Australia needs this like it needs a punch in the face. The only reason why we have a budget crisis at a national level is because multinationals pay very little tax on the wealth they export from our country.

It is in the nature of investigators to be suspicious and so am I. Those with longer memories will recall the Burnie paper mill union blockade. At the time management urged on by the HR Nichols Society and supported by Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz tried to break the union movement, collapse enterprise bargaining, and effectively abolish trade unions as a form of social organization. They failed but they never gave up.

So Tasmania may be ground zero in an ideological push to roll back enterprise bargaining across the country. If so the Tasmanian State Budget 2014 will be remembered for more than hiring more police.


Note: the HR Nichols Society openly advocates abandoning the minimum wage. See here: http://hrnicholls.com.au/category/youth-wages/