The internment of friendly enemy aliens

MS Dunera, Troop Ship To School ShipThe Dunera Boys’ views of their own treatment separated very broadly into two camps which also had something of a geographic dimension. Some regarded their treatment – by a sadistic captain on board the Dunera and his not much better deputy – as a scandal and their incarceration as foolish xenophobia. Certainly they could be expected to be hostile to the Third Reich which had remorselessly demonised them to the point of rounding them up and removing them from Western Europe. The foolishness of it all was nicely captured in their delightfully oxymoronic classification as “Friendly enemy aliens”. This view of the Dunera saga was more typical of the Melbourne Dunera Boys.

The Sydney group – which my father would have identified himself though not in any self-conscious way - tended to see it all in a wider, more forgiving context. There was a war on and when their rounding up was announced (just before Churchill got to the “we will fight them on the beaches” peroration of his address to the House of Commons and the British people) in the wake of the evacuation of Dunkirk. It was a pretty tough and desperate time. And they weren’t too fond of playing the victim given their family ties to the real victims of the holocaust. They were indeed amazingly lucky in the circumstances.

In any event, I’ve just come across this piece by Dunera Boy Bern Brent of Canberra and thought I’d reproduce it here for the historical record as it were.

Dear Dunera News Readers,

As a Dunera Boy in Canberra I have attended Dunera reunions in Melbourne and Sydney irrregularly. But when I do, I am irritated by some sentiments that should not be allowed to become established unchallenged. One of them is the view that our internment was uncalled for, a disgrace, and a blot on British justice. Invariably Churchill is the chief villain of the piece. Continue reading

Crikey Crisis Shock: We need 20 more subscribers


Well folks, my bright idea of a link isn’t working. We need 50 subscribers to qualify for the lowest price subscription to Crikey and so far only 30 people have made their way to the link and subscribed.

And here’s the crisis. For everyone to get the lowest price, we need 50 subscribers. So if naked self-interest wasn’t enough, now there’s fellow feeling. We need you – yes you personally to get us out of a sticky situation. Just link through and pay your money so that other Troppodillians don’t have to pay more. Is that asking too much? I’ll answer that question for you – no it’s not. So don’t be a fool to yourself and a burden to others. Sign up. Sign up before it’s too late. Sign up before you and everyone else regrets it.

STEM, Part culture war, part cargo cult: My latest Fin column

The Future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)Here’s yesterday’s op ed for the Fin published as Technology education is about more than funding:

STEM is all the rage in education – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Part culture war against Australian mediocrity, part cargo cult, a principal goal is more money – for universities and school education. It’s hard not to agree. Lateral Economics’ HALE index of wellbeing values Australian human capital at $18 trillion – over three times all other physical and natural capital combined. Growing it puts every other means of enriching our future in the shade.

Still, I smell a rat.

We’ve nearly doubled educational spending per student in the last few decades. That’s funded popular measures with little impact – smaller class sizes – and politico/educational fads some of which have proven disastrous – like whole language learning. If STEM is simply cranked up and bolted onto the existing system, expect business-as-usual, expensive-as-usual disappointment.

Traditional STEM teaching often turns kids off. If they were ever invited into the debate, they’d see the STEM agenda as baby-boomer finger wagging telling them to eat their greens. They’d ask what exciting jobs will exist for STEM graduates. They’d ask what STEM skills will be in demand in ten or twenty years. And we don’t know.

The vast riches of Silicon Valley use STEM skills sure enough. However not only has old-fashioned entrepreneurialism been the dominant input, but the main STEM contribution has been computer coding. While that’s taught in universities, the valley is full of practitioners who’ve mostly taught themselves with the help of free internet resources and their own workplaces. Silicon Valley has embraced data science but no thanks to university courses. Even today, while they crank out stats grads, our universities barely teach data science.

The innovation we desperately need to get STEM right is institutional. In 2010 I proposed a different approach lunching with the secretary of a state Education Department followed by discussions with his senior managers. I suggested we tap into free resources all around. The net is brimming with free resources. Want to learn how to build a website or learn JavaScript? Head to

Second, while teacher training, support and specialisation in STEM should be better resourced, on its own that would achieve very little. The last thing we should do is insist on widespread STEM in-service training for existing teachers – for instance in teaching computer skills – who’d simply go through the motions.

Meanwhile an immediate human resource is students. We should find those already doing it for themselves and empower them to enthuse and teach their peers – not to mention reverse mentoring their teachers. And if we’re to do that, we must make room for it in kids’ timetables and in the recognition they receive – their marks.

However that requires some real transformation of existing routines and priorities. And incumbent organisations find that almost impossible. Much better to seek funding for some new, bolt-on initiative. As we’ve loaded the curriculum with recent enthusiasms and political correctness, what priorities have we jettisoned? Stats was more useful than trigonometry even when I was a kid: Much more so now. But the relative weightings in the maths curriculum haven’t changed in 30 years. I learned more about computer coding in school in the the early 1970s than my kids have done in today’s schools.

What I’m proposing can’t simply be ‘rolled out’. Just as a manufacturer wouldn’t release a new product without extensive design, prototyping and testing, that’s what should happen here. We should draw out in-system entrepreneurs, fund experiments and pilots, fixing or jettisoning the failures, identifying, tweaking and growing successes and rewarding those behind them.

After speaking with the Education Department, I attended a showcase of students’ achievements in IT projects. There I met Ben, a year 8 student. He’d built an iPhone app to hone his brother’s mental arithmetic.

“How do you find maths” I asked.

“Boring! We keep doing the same stuff.

“How’d you like to teach other students to write iPhone apps?


“Wait right there.

I fetched the Departmental Secretary. Here was an opportunity to get going with what I’d proposed. Excited, he summoned his Innovation Chief saying “I want to start on this tomorrow!”

The next year I asked Ben how things had gone. I still have his reply: ”Nothing really went anywhere with my school, didn’t really surprise me”.

The STEM agenda could handsomely enrich our future, but only if it’s part of wider transformation which, though it would cost nothing, offers a richer prize than any amount of new STEM funding.

Public goods morphing through the ages: the case of Abbotsford Convent

Restoration work at the Abbotsford Convent is ongoing. Picture: Derrick den HollanderThe people at Abbotsford Convent asked me to pen a ‘shout’ for their fundraising campaign. I’d recently been on a tour of the place, and though I’d been there before and wandered around curiously, on the tour I was transported by a Big Idea, though those who’ve read my stuff here will know that the Big Idea is just a variation on my general way of looking at the world – as an ecology of public and private goods. So I told them I’d write them a bit more than a ‘shout’ and write them a ‘foreword’ length piece which, having been published in Their fundraising brochure, Heritage Reinvented – Let’s Finish The Job, duly appears below.

I’ve already given to the fundraising campaign, but would be happy to match anyone else’s donation up to an additional $1,000. Just email me on ngruen at gmail and I’ll send you instructions.

From economic textbooks to informal popular usage – public goods are supposed to be provided by governments, private goods by the market. But that’s never been true.

Though he never used the term, economics’ founder Adam Smith put public goods at the centre of the good society. Smith asked where social mores came from – for they’re the glue that holds together groups of people from families, firms and football teams right through to the family of nations.

His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments answered that social mores were an emergent property of life itself. Culture in this schema is an emergent public good. So too is language. And governments built neither.

Another emergent public good is religion. It binds its adherents together. And particularly in Europe, religious institutions provided all manner of public goods from arts patronage and the preservation of learning and heritage to poor relief, from schools to hospitals.

And so when I went on a tour of Abbotsford Convent I saw miracles of translation – across continents and across the millennia. The French Order of Our Lady of Charity reached across the oceans investing some of its vast reserves of capital – of treasure and knowhow – to build a public good institution for the nascent colony of Victoria.

Yet before long that investment was stranded, increasingly anachronistic in a changed world in which religion had declined and governments were dominating public good provision.

As Abbotsford Convent’s potency in providing public goods atrophied, a burning question arose. What would we make of its legacy?

The site made a promising investment for private property development. But privatisation would also compromise much – though not all – of its public good value. Or it could continue in the ownership of a proud community, eager to rebuild and reinterpret its role as provider of public goods.

Ten years on, how thankful we all are that the latter, more immediately difficult course was chosen.

I don’t know about you but I’ll be giving generously to this appeal, grateful for the vision and love of others stretching back through 2004 to the founding of the Order of Our Lady of Charity in seventeenth century France.

Lentil as Anything: a good name for a very delicious vegetarian café inhabiting some buildings from the old convent.

This offer can’t last: in fact it won’t last and is off after Friday 20th Feb. NG

Observations on a possible Grexit

After two weeks of a new government in Greece, a Greek exit from the Euro (termed a ‘Grexit’) looks more and more likely. The betting markets give it about 30% to happen this year, and Greece is the out and out market favourite to exit the Euro before any other country.

Though I have not followed it super-closely the last 2 years, I have some observations to offer:

  1. Greek politicians are very used to being in the situation of owing other countries money and negotiating more favourable terms. In a way, their hand is the easy one to play as they can credibly claim not to be able to pay back the debts and then offer to promise to pay back something, with the alternative being open bankruptcy for which they would then blame the lenders. If the lender is owed enough money, the lender often reluctantly plays along in the hope of getting something back. This strategy has worked well for the previous Greek governments, which have quite successfully in the last 7 years gotten 3 bailouts, and the current government should be favourite again in the current situation to come out with an even better deal than before.
  2. The political imperative to pretend that Greece will pay back its loans is diminishing on both sides of the loan relation because of increased concentration of debts. The Greek state now directly owes the rest of the EU in that 80% of its debt is mainly to tax-payer owned entities outside of Greece (EU governments, the ECB, the IMF, etc.). This puts Greece into a great position to get a better deal as the Greek state has taken over many of the debts owed by Greek banks (meaning bank collapses are less of a worry), and European tax-payer institutions can rationally hope to simply have the ECB print the equivalent amount of money that they would have to write off as lost Greek debts. This printing-to-cover-debts is already starting to happen as the ECB has announced it wants to buy up government bonds, effectively a form of money printing for governments. For Greece, this means that an official bankruptcy would save the Greek state close to 150% of GDP in terms of liabilities, without the Greek banks being as exposed as in 2007 (Greek banks owe the ECB around 75 billion euro in fairly low-interest loans).
  3. Previous Greek governments have successfully sabotaged many reforms they agreed to. Continue reading

Lost the party leadership? Consider yourself lucky …

Amidst all the depressing events of last week’s failed leadership coup in the Northern Territory, there was at least one redeeming feature, at least for constitutional lawyers. Adam Giles’ refusal to resign as Chief Minister, despite losing the confidence of the majority of his party room (albeit in a dodgy unofficial meeting), gave rise momentarily to an occasion for exercise of the Administrator’s reserve powers.

Chief Minister “elect” Willem Westra van Holthe asserted to the assembled media at Government House that Giles’ refusal to sign a resignation letter was just a momentary glitch in his plans to be sworn in as the new Chief Minister by Administrator John Hardie.  They would simply need to prepare an “instrument of termination” for the Administrator to sign.

Unfortunately for van Holthe and his majority coup plotters, the Administrator didn’t agree. He indicated (no doubt after consulting the Solicitor-General) that it was a matter for the Legislative Assembly. In the circumstances that existed last week, that was clearly the case. The conventions of responsible government indicate that an Administrator/Governor should only exercise his reserve powers by dismissing a Chief Minister/Premier/Prime Minister contrary to the incumbent’s advice and appointing a successor in his or her place if it is completely clear that the incumbent has lost the confidence of Parliament and that the claimed successor now enjoys that confidence. Usually that will require the contenders’ numbers to be tested on the floor of Parliament. However, what happens if the claimed successor is able to produce clear written evidence that he/she now enjoys the support of a majority of members of Parliament? Wouldn’t that be sufficient justification for exercise of the reserve powers?

Of course that wasn’t the situation in the Northern Territory last week. Van Holthe had the support of only nine out of the 25 members of the Legislative Assembly i.e. a clear majority of the governing party but not of the Parliament itself. Accordingly, there is no doubt that the Administrator was correct in his interpretation of reserve powers. The only way to resolve the situation was for the contenders to test their support on the floor of the Assembly.  The Administrator no doubt would have exercised his reserve power to recall the Legislative Assembly urgently had the CLP Parliamentary Wing not resolved its leadership dispute (in however bizarre manner) a few hours later.

But what if the situation had been that Giles was refusing to resign but it was clear that the other 13 government MLAs supported the claimed successor van Holthe?  Could the Administrator properly have terminated Giles’ commission and appointed van Holthe without a Parliamentary motion of no confidence? It appears that the question has arisen in several Commonwealth nations with a Westminster system, including Malaysia, India and Fiji. However, the most entertaining example of such a situation is one that occurred in Nigeria. It suggests that the Queen and her advisers do not necessarily regard a no-confidence motion as being an essential requirement for dismissal. The story is recounted by prominent constitutional law academic Anne Twomey:

Continue reading

Yanis Varoufakis travels economy class

Embedded image permalinkI’ve occasionally raised the issue of the class people travel on planes on this blog – and business class as conspicuous consumption. Anyway, I have just been made aware that Yanis Varoufakis’s shuttle diplomacy is being done economy class. Good on him. (I’m naturally disposed to give him a weekend with the Troppo Mercedes, but, apart from the irony fuse blowing on the Troppo dashboard at the mention of the Mercedes and Varoufakis, winners of this honour always travel first class to take possession of the vehicle – in this case fresh from the Kazakstan panelbeaters - so Rooter the hotted up FJ is being made available – Yanis is a former New Australian in any event, so he will almost certainly be more simpatico with Rooter that with the Merc. But I digress.)

Others in the politicians’ hall of honour include Barnaby Joyce, [an incredulous reader draws my attention to this story which rather undercuts Barbaby's economy credentials] John Hewson (as I recall at least during the 1993 election – in which he also took taxis rather than Commonwealth Cars) and Peter Walsh. There are no doubt lots of others – including me – flying economy when they’re entitled to business. This is the place to mention them. It’s also a place where we can note that that apostle of poverty, chastity and obedience, Cardinal George Pell, travels first class.


The Imitation Game: See it if you can (And Keira Knightly is a bit of a dud)

I saw The Imitation Game last night and enjoyed it very much. Engaging and really well paced. Go see it if you can.

Keira Knightley was a disappointment. Her fate is a little like Helena Bonham Carter’s. Spectacular looking Young Thing HBC ended up parlaying her prim young ingénue routine in Lady Jane Grey and A Room with a View into prim older thing as the Queen Mum in The King’s Speech and endless baddies and weirdos all played in a similar way – for instance as Mrs Havisham in Great Expectations. As far as I could see she played pretty much the same character in Harry Potter and Les Miserables.

Keira’s problem is similar but somewhat different. She isn’t typecast by casting agents. She gets lots of different roles requiring a much wider range. But her most distinguishing physical feature, a certain aspect of her mouth and cheeks now seems to dominate everything she does like Louis Vuitton logos on Louis Vuitton luggage. She wasn’t much chop in this movie.