Australian politics and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story The Emperor’s New Clothes epitomises the phenomenon of the truth hiding in plain sight as a result of collective delusion or selective vision.

There is just such a collective public delusion at the heart of our current understanding of Australian politics and government. The expectations of Australians, particularly the Canberra Press Gallery, that our normal form of government is a two-party system with the government controlling a majority in the lower house and mostly able to get its legislation through the upper house without undue difficulty simply does not accord with reality and hasn’t for quite a long time.

Governments at federal level almost never control the Senate, and increasingly are forced to wrangle legislation through by negotiating and compromising with a disparate group of minor party and Independent Senators. Julia Gillard was quite good at this and Malcolm Turnbull is getting better, although Tony Abbott was hopeless.

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Posted in Political theory, Politics - national | 10 Comments

An email

This evening I received a highly significant email. It’s from National Archives with which I’m doing some minor business. I have no idea what it means, but I figure it could be of considerable use to someone. If that person is you, I commend it to you. It’s certainly a relief to be protected from potential evildoers with such relentless focus and determination. Please do not comment on this thread or your computer may blow up – well it probably won’t but you will not be able to benefit from Troppo’s standard insurance for exploding laptops – for reasons that I hope are obvious:

An email sent by you to ‘[email protected]’ with the subject ‘Accepted: Digital Excellence Awards Judges teleconference [SEC=UNCL… @ Thu 6 Apr 2017 15:00 – 16:30 (AEST) (Anne Lyons)’ had a protective marking that cannot be received.

The National Archives of Australia can only receive emails from non-Fedlink senders where there is either No Protective Marking or one of the following markings only:


Note: Emails with markings of type [DLM=…. can only be received from Fedlink senders.

These rules are set by the Australian Government and we cannot make exceptions.

Do not reply as this email address is not monitored.

Posted in Innovation | 6 Comments

Organisational culture and the generative commons: The ethics of buzzwords

Here’s a list of buzzwords. I want to make a quick point. Note that there are very few ugly neologisms there – or even expressions that don’t have clear meanings. Most of the expressions have very clear meanings. Indeed, some of them are quite compelling That’s their point. The problem is different. Unfortunately, a lot of people think complaining about this stuff is the same as complaining about punctuation or grammar or that kind of stuff. I think the real problem is very different. It’s not even that loose use of expressions facilitates loose thinking, it’s that it facilitates a particular kind of loose thinking.

The problem is that, having been coined these expressions are taken up as if saying them makes what they assert true. For instance, I like the term ‘dovetail’. It captures precisely something very worthwhile – to have a very well articulated interface or relationship between two parts of a system. But of course once the word gets ‘traction’ as we say in the trade, everyone starts simply using it – we’ve got to ensure that finance and marketing dovetail well together. Yeah – sure. I recall one Great and Fearless leader of mine frequently saying that we would “really think through” things creating all the affectations of thoroughness, rigour and self-awareness in our thinking, other than those qualities themselves.

From an excellent far reaching think piece by Aaron Maniam which you can read here. Has our equivalent of the Singaporese Civil Service College – I guess ANZSOG – published anything as insightful as this lately? 

So what’s happening here is not an aesthetic, but an ethical breach. As Adam Smith explained – though not using modern terms – culture is a public good to which we all contribute as we use and are part of it, or to use an excellent term of Aaron Maniam’s, it’s a ‘generative commons’.1 Such things are maintained by the ethical practice of the donors and beneficiaries of the commons – the carriers of the culture. So if the boss starts saying that we’re ‘really thinking things through’ when his whole purpose is to substitute the expression for the deed, then he’s degrading the culture, which is tied very closely to the capacity of the organisation to deliberate and act. It’s a much subtler affair, and as a result one needs much subtler methods to try to fight this kind of breach, but the breach itself is like unjust enrichment or breach of fiduciary duty.

Anyway, over the fold I thought I’d race through the words and colour code them. Red for ugly, dumb, buzzwords, blue for very useful clear and indeed compelling expressions.  Continue reading

  1. The only problem is that the term ‘commons’ implies something simple and physical – like a lake with fish in it – which is somehow unproblematically given, whereas I’d like to imply the notion of the progressive building of such an asset. But I can’t quite land the term. Generative edification is at least the name of the activity I’m after.
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Jeff Collins MLA is right about crime, but so what?


Experienced Troppo readers will be aware that I fairly frequently post articles about topics relating to crime and punishment, especially crime statistics and patterns. Quite often those articles consist partly of impassioned diatribes against sensationalist tabloid crime “shock horror” stories, usually but not always published by the local Northern Territory News.

I posted just such an article again on the weekend, but put it on The Summit blog published by Charles Darwin University School of Law rather than here at Troppo. The details of Territory crime statistics and debate about them are unlikely to be of any great interest to the great majority of Troppo readers. Nevertheless there are some more general issues that come out of this most recent discussion that I think are potentially of wider interest.

My weekend article was provoked by a NT News story ridiculing neophyte Labor MLA for the inner Darwin seat of Fong Lim Jeff Collins for having the temerity to suggest in the Legislative Assembly last week that tabloid stories about an out-of-control crime wave in Darwin might be just a trifle simplistic and exaggerated. Outrageous! the News thundered: “Perhaps he should look at the latest shocking statistics – Darwin commercial break-ins up 90%; Darwin house break-ins up 20%.” (They are referring to the latest NT PFES crime statistics summaries for the year to end January 2017).

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Posted in Law, Media, Politics - Northern Territory | 5 Comments


I’ve known Victor Perton since he was a lively Liberal MP interested in approaches to regulation that were more promising than the standard reg review boilerplate of the time. Neither of us made any progress on that score and reg review remains its ineffectual self.

Now comfortably out of Parliament and doing various things, he asked me to be a guest on his website Australian Leadership, something I was a little apprehensive about. The term has a bland positivity about it – the kind you use in media releases alongside words like “enhance”, “sustainable” – and yet it’s a political word. Leaders are generally given the things that politics needs to be about – power, money and social prestige. I guess that’s inevitable – and in that sense good – but if that’s the case then our notion of leadership should come very closely associated with how it’s held to account – which it doesn’t seem to me it is. There’s also a growing practice of leaders as insiders. Monash Uni picks the three kids from every school in their catchment area that they determine are best qualified to be part of an insiders club which is given special offers to study at Monash complete with their own club – where they can meet …. each other. It’s a strange idea, particularly in an educational context, that the people at the front of the queue should get additional and exclusive help.

The Henley Club is a self-started operation of a similar kind. Here’s it’s blurb:

The Henley Club is a private social club based in Melbourne, Australia. Our members come from diverse backgrounds with the shared values of being interested and interesting, and represent the future of Australian leadership. Members are connected through other members to all of the major clubs, groups and associations around the world. For emerging leaders, membership enables rapid growth of personal and professional networks.

I think you get the drift here. A groovified old boy’s network ideologically updated with diversity, self-starting and interestingness. I was invited to the Henly Club for a function (I’m too old to be a member if I wanted to be.) and I met some fun, indeed interesting people. In many ways a big improvement on the old boy’s network, but that’s pretty academic if you’re not in the club. I’m broadly supportive of Groucho’s approach to clubs.

In any event, I didn’t want to burden my answers with all this freight so set about answering the questions as best I could – trying to avoid cliché. In case you’re interested, the result is below the fold. Continue reading

Posted in Business, Cultural Critique | 2 Comments

Two types of strategy Part Two: Apex Statements are eating our brains

We need leaders who get up and out, are close to global megatrends and consumer behaviour, and understand leading indicators for changes to how people will work and live.

A self described “leadership consultant”

Continued from Part One.

Starting sometime – I’m thinking late in the 1980s – organisations started changing their weekend team-building retreats – where everyone went canoeing and abseiling – to strategy retreats. At strategy retreats the idea is that everyone empties their minds and the group starts with clean sheets of paper. Often a retreat begins and ends with attention to metaphysical questions like “What is our mission?”. Another fave was “Where to we want to be in ten years time?”. The very question blasted away all those cobwebs of short term thinking and you could Think Big. Megatrends were discussed. I’d love to know the history of this transformation from abseiling to Big Thinking as it seems a massive cultural shift in many, many ways.

One story that stuck out for me, and that was often told as some kind of illustration of the importance of the apex questions being posed was the company that made carpets and eventually realised, though this astringent process of navel gazing, starting with a clean sheet of paper, thinking long-term, gettingout of the weeds, looking to the heavens for deeper insight, that it was in fact supplying its customers floor covering needs. Don’t laugh – this actually had a point. The upshot was that the firm reconfigured its offering as a flooring services solutions company. Still sounds like a joke I know, but that’s because it’s become a cliché. This was a genuine and valuable corporate reinvention. They made a lot more money and, by taking responsibility for the end of life of its products improved both economic and environmental efficiency. But I suspect this was real strategy – brought about by some smart people, perhaps some strategy people and if not some research capacity and testing before the strategy was ‘rolled out’ as we say.1

In any event, by the naughties this approach had become pretty much a business monoculture. Virtually all organisations in the private, public and, following not long after, the not-for-profit sector, had ‘mission statements’. 2 As you know the ‘mission’ of the organisation would be summarised in some short pithy catchphrase. This could be a little embarrassing because what they did was run a particular organisation – say a newsagency, or a TV station or a government department, but that wasn’t the answer to the question “what do we do?” or “what is our mission?”. They were after an answer that might do a number of things.

The same article I’ve just cited outlines the many functions of “mission statements”.

  • To communicate a sense of the direction and purpose of the organization.
  • To serve as a control mechanism for keeping the firm “on track.”
  • To aid in making day-to-day decisions.
  • To inspire and motivate employees.
  • Mission Statements as a Communication Tool

The fact that there are so many purposes for mission statements gives the game away.  Continue reading

  1. I’ve now checked out this story and I’ve got the moral right, but the facts completely wrong. Turns out that a nasty run-in with accounting standards rendered the whole exercise a waste – of time and no doubt a lot of money. But at least the documented case study suggests that none of this came from a corporate retreat in search of mission and vision statements. It seems to have came from the CEO’s inclinations, his reading of business environmentalism, presumably pursued by the firm’s strategy and other senior executives.
  2. “A study by Boston-based Bain & Company and the Planning Forum (Krohe 1995) found that nine of every ten of the 500 firms surveyed had used a mission statement sometime in the previous five years”, Barbara Bartkus, Myron Glassman, and R. Bruce McAfee, 1997, Mission Statements: Are They Smoke and Mirrors?, Business Horizons, November-December 2000. 23-8 at p. 23.
Posted in Business, Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Employment | 17 Comments

Magnus Magnus Clever Clever

Black to play
Stefansson vs Carlsen

21. …?
See game for solution.
Difficulty Scale

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