d e a n   f o r b e S                                                            w a l k i n g ,  n o t  r u n n i n g . . .

Making a Difference: Australian International Education

Edited by Dorothy Davis and Bruce Mackintosh (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2011)

MEDIA commentary 2017

Australia’s 2007 Foreign Policy White Paper. My interview with Bonita Carbone on The Wire on the 24th of November.

Planning Asian Cities: Risks and Resilience

Edited by Stephen Hamnett and Dean Forbes (Routledge, London,  2011)


eBook version

Sustainable Development in China edited by Curtis Andressen, Mubarak A.R., and Wang Xiaoyi (Routledge, London,  2013)

BLOGS 2017

Scroll down to read

  1. Bullet The last blog of 2017

  2. Bullet Thank you, Bonnie

  3. Bullet Brisbane art experience

  4. Bullet New foreign policy white paper

  5. Bullet A writer-moralist

  6. Bullet Creative city woes

  7. Bullet A Writing Life

  8. Bullet On Keating

  9. Bullet Making headlines

  10. Bullet Shanghai on Townske

  11. Bullet Changchun story

  12. Bullet Summer of love

  13. Bullet Changchun conference

  14. Bullet The art of innovative cities

  15. Bullet Subtle moments

  16. Bullet Clive’s Trump momemt

  17. Bullet Talking to My Country

  18. Bullet Farewell, 457

  19. Bullet Behind the Curtain

  20. Bullet The spy’s son

  21. Bullet Creative non-fiction

  22. Bullet East Asia’s innovation cities

  23. Bullet History as time travel

  24. Bullet Cities and innovation rankings

  25. Bullet Apocalypse now

  26. Bullet On Instagram

  27. Bullet Everywhere I Look

  28. Bullet Second Half First

  29. Bullet First day of 2017


New year resolution 1: write better. No excuses. I have to be able to write with more nuance, express more emotion, and unleash my inner humour.

New year resolution 2: 10 unfinished blogs will be finished and published. Being honest with myself another 10 I have in draft will probably never get completed. Coming up in the New Year is my review of Gareth Evan’s Incorrigible Optimist A Political Memoir and my nuanced, emotional and humorous thoughts on the recent Foreign Policy Whitepaper.

New year resolution 3: be a better person. I could go on, but best if I leave it at that. (24/12/17)


Bonnie Cothren came to Flinders University to take charge of the setting up of the Intensive Intensive English Language Institute (IELI). Flinders had just 770 international students in 1997, and Vice Chancellor Iain Chubb was keen to increase the numbers. Bonnie set about creating an IELI able to meet the needs of a diverse community of students.

Under Bonnie’s leadership IELI has grown in size, focused on the quality of its teaching and learning, and earned the respect of people at Flinders and across the ELICOS sector. The expansion of IELI into the city has enabled it to diversify the student intakes, to grow, and to strengthen its resilience. As a Board member since 2002, I have observed and admired up front the vision, rigour and sheer hard work Bonnie has applied to ensure that IELI continues to succeed and grow.

Looking to the future IELI’s new Director will take over the leadership and build on the solid foundations of IELI. Bonnie will continue to be a force of nature on the IELI Board, bringing to it her wisdom and extensive experience.

On behalf of Board members present and past, I thank her for her dedication and commitment to making IELI the success that it is.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 

Dean Forbes, Chair, IELI Board  (21/12/17)


I don’t get to visit Brisbane very often, but M wanted to see the exhibitions by Gerhard Richter and Yayoi Kusama. Both have huge international profiles and both exhibitions were on at the same time in the Gallery of Modern Art. It was a coup for Brisbane that must have ruffled southern feathers.

Richter, at 85, is spoken of as the world’s greatest living painter, and the most expensive; his ‘Abstract painting’, completed in 1986, recently sold at auction for $A 50 million.

I was very impressed by his early work using photography as a foundation for creative abstract images. It stimulated my thinking about the work that I have been doing using photographs, visual images, and written narratives brought together in concertina books. 

From the late 1950s he was influenced by Jackson Pollock and the expressionists. By the 1970s he was focusing on creating abstract works dominated by slurs of paint; he had realised that his attempt to obliterate a work had actually created a much more interesting painting. There is a 9/11 painting in the show that he had originally started to paint conventionally, but then ran the paint across the canvas as he came to understand that this was what he was trying to express.

Yayoi Kusama’s work spread across an equally impressive seven decades. In Life is the Heart of a Rainbow she includes her signature use of dots, bright colours, nets and pumpkins and various media. It attracted many parents and their children. M and I were in the queue for everything and got some photographs.

We also dropped into the QUT Art Museum in Georges St at the Queensland University of Technology. Well worth a visit if you are visiting central Brisbane. Overall the city was at its finest. Warm, but not too warm. It was a great few days. (17/12/17)


The Australian Government has launched its 2007 Foreign Policy White Paper. My interview with Bonita Carbone was broadcast on The Wire. (24/11/17)


Not many scholars use two different names for legitimate purposes. Pierre Ryckmans did. His other name was Simon Leys. Both would be familiar to those interested in Maoism and China or his work on history and society written from a rolling discursive conservative perspective.

A ‘writer-moralist’ (p 13), Ryckmans finished reading a final draft of Philippe Paquet’s book about his life and work shortly before he passed away in Sydney in August 2014. The book boasts a gushing Foreword by no less than Julian Barnes.

Ryckmans was ‘a young man from one of the great families of the Belgian bourgeoisie’ (p 5). He wrote extensively in French and English and was fluent in Mandarin. His most significant claim to fame was that ‘he was the first to denounce the imposture of Maoism’ (p 11).

He held a post at the Australian National University from 1970 to 1987. Among others he taught Kevin Rudd, whom he considered an exceptionally capable student. As a Research Fellow at the ANU during the 1980s, working mainly on Vietnam and China, I was aware of Ryckmans Chinese expertise but can’t recall ever seeing or meeting him. He was, I was told, a difficult man.

A senior professor at Sydney University from 1987 until 1994, Ryckmans was forthright: ‘poor quality students, poor quality university’ (p 439-440). Having spent many decades as an academic in privileged university appointments Ryckmans ‘had iconoclastic ideas about the university’ (p 8). Which is an odd way of framing it.

Ryckmans wrote that ‘A university is not a factory producing graduates, as a sausage factory produces sausages. It is a place where a chance is given to men (sic) to become what they truly are’ (p 519). Rid the universities of 90% of their students, he said. Cardinal Newman’s classic The Idea of the University was his guide to what the modern university should aspire to.

This is a big book. A very big book. The ponderous text runs to 551 pages, with over 100 more dedicated to chronology, biography, end notes and index. It has an old fashioned feel, yet it adds layer upon layer of polish to Ryckmans reputation as it attempts to explain why politically conservative-minded European scholars rate his work so highly.

As Paul Keating may have said, albeit in a rather different political context: this is one for the true believers. (22/11/17)

Philippe Paquet 2017 Simon Leys. Navigator Between Two Worlds, Translated by Julie Rose, La Trobe University Press, Melbourne


Not all is well with the ‘creative city’.

Richard Florida built his reputation with books on the new creative class and the benefits it brought to American cities. Top of the list were innovation, new technology, high incomes and cool tech campuses for the youthful and digital-savvy workforce.

But mounting numbers of critics have highlighted the downside of tech wizardry. And Florida has taken note and revamped his story. In his latest book, The New Urban Crisis (Basic Books, New York, 2017), and in many public appearances, he has a new pitch.

In the 1980s the campuses of Apple, Microsoft and their ilk were in the outer suburbs of San Francisco and Seattle, and along the Route 128 Beltway of Boston. Now the key locations for venture capital investment are in the inner parts of New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.

Florida concedes that there has been a downside. The suburban campuses have become virtual parking lots without the cultural richness and diversity of the inner and middle areas of the large cities. 

However, the growth of new inner city premises for creative enterprises has pushed up the cost of inner city housing and pushed out the middle class, along with the remaining working class.

Florida believes that city governments and the tech firms need to support greater diversity in housing types, lobby for better public transport, and increase the wages of the low paid service workers.

Australia’s tech economy is building, along with the knowledge economy, both bolstered by a significant number of international students and graduates who have decided to stay on, at least for a few years.

Some challenges are different to those identified by Florida. Unlike the US, there are no home based behemoth digital enterprises and the footprint of Google et al are modest, as (…cough) demonstrated in their tax bills.

Nevertheless, the larger cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne, have absurdly high cost inner and middle ring city housing. And smashed avocado brunches are expensive.

Another challenge is signs of an emerging precariat composed of skilled young workers unable to find secure, long term employment, a trend that may well accelerate unless the economy manages to pick up.

These are compounded by slow internet speeds in major cities due to strategies prioritising rural and outer suburbs in the rollout of high speed fibre to the residence internet. (24/10/17)


Helen Garner is Australia’s most celebrated living writer. Or if not, she should be.

Bernadette Brennan’s book explores both Garner’s writing, book by book, and the emotional circumstances and dedication to detail and depth of understanding that inform her work. As she explains early on ‘Garner’s life and writing inform and shape each other to such a degree that it is not possible to understand one without the other’ (p 4).

While confessing to being ‘hopelessly bourgeois’ (p 30), Garner also acknowledges her bohemian side and its’ impact on her life. Brennan delves into her recognition that ‘part of the bohemian ethos back in the Monkey Grip days involved forming new configurations of family among friends and lovers’ (p 242).

Yet lying half-covered underneath her great public success and critical regard, ‘her powerful self belief is married to fragility fed by self-doubt’ (p 288). She is a deep thinker and, to her credit, a deep worrier. She also has a conviction ‘that life can’t possibly end at death’ (p 114).

Born and raised in Victoria Garner attended Melbourne University and became a school teacher. After being dismissed in odd circumstances she spread her time between Sydney and Melbourne and married and divorced several times.

Garner’s current residence and preference is Melbourne, a city ‘where dwellings are enclosing, curtained, cold-weather-resisting; more like burrows’ (p 94). She lives next door to her daughter and grandchildren and contributes to annual workshops ‘with judges and magistrates on legal writing and reasoning’ (p 276).

Brennan’s book is well written and deep. Her rigorous and honest approach reveals much about Garner’s thinking and writing and particularly the extraordinary depth of her research behind her fiction and nonfiction. Brennan’s chapters on The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief are deep and complex and insightful about Garner’s skills and methods.

This is a book for Garner’s true believers.

Bernadette Brennan 2017 A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, Text, Melbourne (21/9/17)

[Scroll down for my blog on Helen Garner 2016 Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing, Melbourne. (21/1/17)]


A new biography of Paul Keating can still pull a crowd, even though his Prime Minister-ship ended in 1996. Author and journalist, Troy Bramston, spoke about his new biography of Keating at the State Library of NSW.

Bramston attracted a good, if - cough - oldish crowd, and it included M and me.

Keating made it clear he would never write a memoir on the grounds that ‘if you are any good someone else will write one about you’, Bramston told us. Keating eventually gave his approval and when asked by Bramston whether he had any advice he said ‘mate, don’t fuck it up’. He reminded Bramston ‘he had sued his last biographer’ and that a previous author’s biography had to be pulped.

His observations about Keating were based on extensive archival research and about 10 hours of interviews with Keating and more than 100 of those in politics who knew him. Bramston’s insights were perceptive, dry and witty. It felt like he had a sound and balanced view of Keating. He regarded him as one of the better PMs of recent years, along with Hawke and Howard. None of the last four PMs – Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull (who he said ‘had shrunk into the job’) – have come close.

I valued Bramston’s views about the styles, merits and failings of the considerable number of biographies he had read in preparation.

Still thinking about whether to put his book on the ‘to read’ list. (20/9/17)

Troy Bramston 2017 Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader, Scribe, Melbourne


Since Rupert Murdoch’s broadsheet The Australian was launched in July 1964 it has been perceived as a mouthpiece of the political right. It remains the case if the paper is judged on the tone of the Letters page where conservative (and often nutty conservative) views dominate.

Yet as a reader of The Australian, and now mainly The Weekend Australian, for 30 years I think it is more accurately described as a paper of centre right persuasion with regular, but infrequent, stories from a centre left perspective. Regardless of the politics the newspaper’s investigative reporting alone makes it the most significant newspaper in Australia.

Making Headlines is a book by Chris Mitchell, a long-standing Murdoch manager and journalist and The Australian’s editor-in-chief for 12 years, beginning in 2002. The book is gossipy and self-congratulatory but it is interesting if you put aside the ego of the author. A writing stylist he is not. After the first 50 or so pages I realised that it is what it is and not to expect more; then I relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

Mitchell is not shy in repeatedly underlining the importance of the paper. He says politicians and bureaucrats all read the editorial opinion pieces ‘very closely’ and every day. I never read the editorials; perhaps I should! The paper has some outstanding journos: Paul Kelly, for instance, who better than any other is able to consistently analyse and explain the major political shifts in Australia.

The front cover of Making Headlines features Mitchell and Murdoch. A reader is left in no doubt. Mitchell sings the praise of Rupert Murdoch and the businesses he has created. And the politicians and newspaper professionals who feature in the book are overwhelmingly male.

As Editor-in-Chief the sources of information that enable him to set the papers’ national issues agenda includes the sworn enemy - ABC radio and TV - and the main capital city dailies. He rarely mentions any impact on the political agenda by universities or academics. He says the Walkley Awards mostly go to journalists writing ‘politically correct’ stories (p 152). He doesn’t believe in ‘industry awards’ (p 190) and dismisses the value of academic journalism courses (p 195).

Like all newspapers, the internet has resulted in declining subscriptions and only a slow, if steady increase in readers subscribing to the on-line paper. Mitchell claims The Australian has 80,000 online customers stumping up $8 per week and generating $20 million in revenue. This is dwarfed by print revenue of $50 million. Impressive as these figures are, the paper still runs at a loss. 

Mitchell is forthright and aggressive. He perceptively comments that ‘successful leaders in Australia move straight to the centre on election night’ (p 58); I’m inclined to agree. He focuses on PMs including John Howard and Paul Keating, the two he most admires, and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, those he least admires. He is adamant that Joe Hockey and Peta Credlin were the weak spots of the Abbott government (p 74).

Old battles with his then boss, Kim Williams, are described in detail. He was alert to ‘grinfucking’, the subtle opposition to reforms introduced by a new CEO (p 76). Mitchell frequently reminds the reader of how important he is (or was…).  He comes across as pumped up and just a little insecure. He has a bucket load of alpha male characteristics and a striking bouffant. He is a name dropper in the same exalted class as Phillip Adams.

All of that makes for a rollicking, if sometimes exasperating, read on a winter’s night. Much better than watching Game of Thrones.

Chris Mitchell 2016 Making Headlines Melbourne University Press, Melbourne (1/9/17)


My latest posting on Townske is on Shanghai!. (4/8/17)


Disembarking from the second of two long international flights well after midnight in a large remote Chinese city wasn’t my preferred way to travel. However, seeing two young people with a huge sign with my name on it waving from the distance meant that I wouldn’t need to negotiate with a taxi driver about the destination – the mysteriously named Jinguye Assembly – in suburban Changchun.

The government has blocked access to all Google products, including Google maps, along with Facebook, Twitter and several other social media sites. And to compound matters, I couldn’t find Jingyue Assembly on the web. It transpires that it is a hotel owned by Northeastern Normal University and, apart from the limp breakfast and poor room lighting, it was by the standards of a social sciences academic, passingly comfortable.

It didn’t take long to get to sleep. It didn’t take long to wake up, either. The sun rose about 4.00am. As I always leave the curtain a little open, I woke too, thinking it must be later than it was. Things were happening outside, as workers were up and about. School students ambled past on the way to their 7.00am class; school starts early in China!. Doesn’t happen like that in Pyrmont. Except, of course, for the garbo’s and those in cars and on motorcycles with adulterated exhaust systems.

Changchun is big. It is somewhere between 4 and  7.5 million, depending which boundaries are used. It’s called the ‘City of Science and Technology’ because it hosts 36 universities and colleges. A huge investment means many of the roads are generally good, although traffic jams were common. The frightening thing is that drivers drift across lanes at will and without signalling, and kamikaze like blithely turn in front of oncoming vehicles.  

The conference sessions attended by students and a few staff from Jilin University and Northeast Normal University were fine. The economics postgraduates seemed incredibly knowledgeable and committed to a future of many years of postgraduate study and thesis research, confident that there will be a flood of jobs available when they graduate. It’s a huge contrast with the outlook for postgraduates in Australia or the US.

Not being an economist I prefaced my paper by confessing that my approach drew on a version of political economy. Nobody left the room, which gave me some confidence. I put the case that a successful knowledge and innovation economy will not provide jobs for many redundant industrial workers and a significant proportion of the rapidly expanding knowledge workers who will become part of a precariat that pursues short term and poorly paid opportunities. It is probably less the case in China than it is in Australia. My short paper on innovative cities is available here. Afterwards one of the students said it was the best presented paper, which I took as a compliment.

Two of the volunteer students soon to start on a graduate program took me to a lunch of fresh dumplings and we chatted about their future prospects. One had an American accent that he had cultivated by choice, having never been to America. He thought the alternative – a British accent – sounded terrible. I thought it better not to suggest the possiblity of an Australian accent.

This part of China has suffered badly in the past from cruel Japanese occupation and Korean bullying. The food in modern Korean and Japanese restaurants that our hosts took us to was superb. There is still deep animosity directed at Korea and Japan but it doesn’t extend to the food. The Chinese love a good spread and the locals are very pragmatic. (30/7/17)


Remember the summer of love? Haight Street, San Francisco, 1968.

The funny and perceptive main essay by Joan Dideon on the whacky, drug saturated community is still a delight to read, albeit approaching 50 years after the event. As she says ‘we were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum’ (p 106).

Whoa. I was a naïve 18 year old university student who thought he intuitively knew what was happening. Now reading Joan Didion’s brilliant essay, a modern classic, had me alternately chuckling and cringing as I raced through the book. It had sat on my bookshelves since 1974 when Janet purchased it second hand in a Port Moresby bookshop.

A few of the essays have not travelled well. But there was more than enough to keep me hooked. Her essay on Joan Biaz, for instance, who she thought ‘was a personality before she was entirely a person’ (p 52). Didion’s story about the eccentric Howard Hughes who would keep a hairdresser on 24/7 standby in case he wanted his hair cut. The barber was handsomely rewarded for his boredom and availability.

And I enjoyed her short essays on the craft of writing. She was like Tom Wolfe a believer in creative nonfiction. As Didion says, ‘the point of keeping a notebook has never been, nor isn’t now, to have an accurate, factual record’ (p 114). The reason is simple: ‘on the few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has … overtaken me’ (p 115).

I didn’t get around to reading Didion in 1968. But it’s never too late to read a classic. 

Joan Didion 1968 Slouching Towards Bethlehem  Penguin, Melbourne (5/7/17)


Here is the paper that I presented to the International Conference on Asia-Pacific Economic and Finance Development, Global Finance and Economics in Post-Globalisation in Changchun. (2/7/17)


Innovation and a vibrant knowledge economy are foundations of future economic progress. Asian cities such as Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul are ranked highly, with Sydney, Shanghai and Hong Kong not far behind.

The Japanese city of Fukuoka has been successful in supporting innovative enterprises, giving entrepreneurs with a ‘Startup Visa’ an exemption from the investment and hiring requirements and providing cuts in income tax. In Sydney young entrepreneurs are increasingly favouring the use of Kickstarter to get new enterprises launched.  

Access to educated, skilled workers is critical for innovation. Fukuoka has had an influx of people over the last five years. Kyushu University is a major factor in Fukuoka’s success. It is one of 13 Japanese universities chosen as a gateway for increased numbers of international students.

Sydney attracts innovative companies. Its’ weaknesses are a lack of an affordable city-wide fast internet, crowded roads and insufficient public transport. However, some small innovative companies outsource back-office functions to the Philippines where services are faster, cheaper and often more reliable. The Australian Government is to end the 457 Visa Sub-class that enabled workers in defined skilled areas with labour shortages to enter Australia for fixed terms. There are concerns that the replacement visa arrangements will limit skilled worker arrivals.

The digital economy has catapulted countries into a Third Industrial Revolution. The art of innovative cities will be to successfully ensure that the digital economy engages and benefits everyone.

Jobs in industry are in decline. Firms have moved overseas in search of less expensive labour or lower rates of company taxation. Governments and corporations encourage more flexible labour relations. The result is that workers end up in less secure forms of labour. These are the ‘precariat’.

Innovative cities have high expectations about creating economic growth, employment and a better lifestyle. To be sustainable they must embrace both the leading firms and their workforces and the precariat and the unemployed. The prospect of countries providing a universal basic income, once considered unlikely, is once again under discussion.

China’s Belt and Road initiative plans massive development of land and sea transport and infrastructure. It successful it will accelerate the integration of east and west Eurasia, eastern Africa and Oceania, and incentivise cities across Eurasia to boost innovation.

Some say we are on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial revolution where governments shrink or even collapse and individuals and communities, empowered by the digital economy, take responsibility for services previously in the control of government. This may be premature, but the impact of the internet and the digital economy is certain to have many more long-term consequences than we currently can imagine. (20/6/17)


Bruce Grant describes himself as a public intellectual, drawing on Camus’s definition of an intellectual as ‘someone whose mind watches itself’ (p 184).

I read Grant’s slender 1967 monograph on Indonesia (Penguin, Ringwood) in 1975. It was prior to me moving to Makassar to undertake fieldwork for my doctoral thesis. His work in and around Asia cropped up regularly over the following decades so when I saw that he had published an autobiography I keenly sought it out.

Born in the wheat belt of Western Australia in 1925 he is now in his early nineties. Subtle Moments is a substantial piece of writing (426 pages) and penned with considerable grace and elegance. There are, indeed, many subtle moments in the book. He clearly enjoys writing, whether as a journalist, university academic, author of fiction, or international foreign policy strategist.

Bruce Grant left Perth Modern School and became a journalist, before joining the navy and getting posted to Darwin in the latter years of World War 2. After the War he moved to Melbourne and enrolled at Melbourne University. He was influenced by Manning Clark and Macmahon Ball who both became friends. Throughout his career he travelled extensively but always returned to Melbourne. Despite the War and Japan’s activism he acknowledges that ‘we knew little of Asia then’ (p 58).

Bruce Grant joined The Age as a reporter, noting that he was the only university graduate among the reporting staff. He became a Foreign Correspondent with postings in the UK, Singapore (during the Vietnam War), Indonesia and Washington DC. Whilst in the UK he was dazzled: the ‘wit and brilliance were all around us’ (p 83). But not everyone dazzled: ‘The English upper-class voice became for me a caricature of itself, a symptom of inarticulate haughtiness, a national aversion to anything clear and explicit, a jigsaw mind overloaded with pieces that never matched’ (p 87).

Dennis Bloodworth, Denis Warner and Dick Hughes are singled out as significant Australian foreign correspondents of that period. Walter Lippman impressed him with ‘a sense of drama that touched his writing with emotion’ (p 138).

Gough Whitlam appointed Grant as High Commissioner to India, around the same time that Whitlam sent Stephen FitzGerald to China (see my blog on 21/10/16). In later years he Chaired the Australia Indonesia Institute and worked for Gareth Evans during his period as Foreign Minister.

Marriages, relationships, children and hunting for houses in Melbourne and the surrounding beaches are all deftly included in the story. So too are his views of Australia’s recent foreign policy and his preference for a rules based international order rather than the more usually dominant realist approach in which sheer power is the determining influence on foreign policy.

He self describes his writing style as ‘essayish and literary’ (p 309). I call it informed, polished and generally aimed with surgical accuracy. It was an unexpected delight to read.

Bruce Grant 2017 Subtle Moments: Scenes on a Life’s Journey, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne (9/6/17)


Clive James had a genuine Trump moment in The Weekend Australian today. Some TV, a flick through the newspapers and a look at Gulliver’s Travels and straight into a debunking of climate science. Easy enough.

All those decades of laborious scientific surveys and analysis go out the window. It was all a hoax, Clive says. (3/6/17)


The author of Talking To My Country is not the smooth talking Stan Grant of television. It’s the hard talking, heart on the sleeve Stan Grant of the Wiradjuri Nation writing about the injustices done to aboriginal people, and the inevitable and ongoing impact on their lives.

His rage was sparked by the disgusting verbal abuse hurled at footballer Adam Goodes during the 2015 AFL season. But it goes back a long way to his reading of James Baldwin when he was young. Grant says his book is a ‘meditation on race’. He writes in short, punchy sentences that amplify the message.

Settler communities, such as in Australia, he sees as places without a past that have ‘left history behind’ (p 5). They don’t stack up against the 60,000 years of indigenous occupation and they maintain the lie ‘that no blood had stained the wattle’ (p 29). In Australia for the Olympics he delights in Kathy Freeman’s gold medal but complains the indigenous national flag should have been raised instead of the national flag.

He writes with great affection about his time with CNN, travelling the world and feeling proud, liberated and not pre-judged. The demands of the job, though, grind him down and he suffers from acute depression.

This is a powerful and confronting book. His attachment to the land and the Wiradjuri people is visceral. He excoriates white Australia for its failure to understand the enormity of the impact colonization had on his people, and their willful failures to address the core problems. But his background in journalism comes to the forefront and no systematic solution is offered. Where do we go from here?  

Stan Grant 2016 Talking to My Country, HarperCollins, Sydney (24/5/17)


The 457 Visa Sub-class is to disappear.

The Australian Government has announced its decision to end the 457 Visa Sub-class which enabled workers in defined skilled areas with labour shortages to enter Australia for fixed terms. Workers on 457 Visas currently number a little over 95,000 workers, or fewer than 1% of the national workforce. Workers from India account for 24.6% of the total 457 Visa holders, followed by the UK (19.5%) and China (5.8%).

A new arrangement will be put in place. The main changes include the introduction of a two-step process with a two-year and a four-year visa. The two-year arrangement will be more like work experience and there will be no permanent residence possibilities at the end. The four-year visas will require a higher level of English.

With 216 fewer eligible occupations, overall there is likely to be fewer workers on the new visa arrangements.

How will that affect universities? Not surprisingly, universities were quick to express concern about the possible impact of the new visa arrangements. Historians, for example, have been removed from the list, along with the life scientists, civil engineers and microbiologists.

Changing the visa arrangements will have no direct impact on international students in Australia. The current student post-study work rights have not been changed.

Who else in Australia might be affected? There is a chance, of course, that Australia’s reputation as a country accessible to those with appropriate education and skills will be tarnished. This could diminish Australia’s attractiveness for international students who are aiming to get permanent residency after graduation.

It will also be an irritation to entrepreneurs in Australia’s emerging knowledge economy, undermining the attraction of Australian businesses, especially in highly competitive digital fields. It is no surprise that Atlassian, a young highly successful Sydney based company has already expressed concerns, pointing out that around 25% of Atlassian’s Sydney workforce are on 457 Visas. 

There are already enough obstacles for Australian knowledge based companies. The National Broadband Network, for one, still has limited coverage and mixed quality of service delivery. We cannot afford to dilute our capacity to attract high quality knowledge workers to this country. (18/5/17)


My initial break-through moment came a few chapters into the reading of Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain. The essay on his father titled ‘Havoc: A Life in Accidents’ was emotionally moving and rammed home the skill and power of his writing.

However the clincher was the essay on surfing, ‘The Wait and the Flow’. It was the real break-through for me. He started surfing in the 1960s and 1970s, a romantic period influenced by surfers, rebels, beatniks and heretics. He withdrew from the 1980s surfing culture when the ‘dominant mode was urban, aggressive, localized, greedy, racist and misogynist’ (p 133), then returned to surfing in the 1990s after moving to a coastal hamlet. Winton now believes that ‘surfing is the one pointlessly beautiful activity they [men] engage in’ (p 134). And not just men, I would add.  

The coast and the ocean have a significant place in Tim Winton’s life. He writes of his role in helping to block excessive commercial intrusion into the Ningaloo Reef, and of his concerns about those who believe that the killing of sharks is the best way to solve the problem of shark attacks on swimmers. And this despite a close personal encounter with a bronze whaler while out surfing.

He confesses to a preoccupation with social class. Winton notes that many writers are from the ‘gentry’, Patrick White being one example. Class politics is always on his mind: ‘the boho bourgeois inner city has long been plagued with smugness’ (p 221) he says. Ironically his extended views on the plight of refugees could have merged from any inner city public meeting. He worries about the working poor and fairness, but assures us he enjoys a privileged coastal existence. 

As a committed surfer in the 1960s and early 1970s I acquired a life-long appreciation of coastal environments. Now I live in the inner city with aspirations to be a writer and part of the ‘boho bourgeoisie’. I previously read Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (my Island Home review is here). I thought that The Boy Behind the Curtain is the standout of the three memoirs. It is an honest, revealing and beautifully written book to read over a cappuccino and smashed avocado.


Tim Winton 2016 The Boy Behind the Curtain, Penguin Books, Melbourne (9/5/17)


Mark Colvin’s Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son was reprinted three times in 2016 and once thus far in 2017.

Why did MUP underestimate the likely demand? Colvin is well known for his radio and television work, has a huge Twitter following, and has lived an exceptionally interesting life. And his writing is polished and subtle.

The book is badged as a memoir, not a history. But at times his story is written in exceptional detail, such as when he describes the area he lived in as a child before he was five. That he wrote Light and Shadow whilst staying with his 94 year old mother may be the explanation.

Colvin’s descriptions of his travel through Outer Mongolia are also incredibly detailed. It reveals the influence of being able to access declassified official records and written and filmed news files. His father, the MI6 spy, published a memoir titled Twice Around the World; it undoubtedly provided a useful resource. 

Colvin always had a desire to hear about the world through the eyes and words of journalists. An Oxford graduate, his favourite broadcast reporter is Alistair Cook. There are very few references in the book to scholarly research and then mainly to people with a media profile.

During an intense visit to Iran in the post-Shah era Colvin reported that an Iranian judge had developed the concept of ‘obvious guilt’ at the beginning, not the end, of a trial. After returning to Sydney from one of his visits to Iran he laments that nobody really wanted to listen when he talked about foreign places such as Iran. It has been a recurring experience for many of us who periodically work overseas.

Mark Colvin is best known for hosting ABC radio’s PM program. Apart from his time as a foreign correspondent, Colvin was on the staff for the launch of the 2JJ radio station, and had a stint with Four Corners. As a true ABC man he has a few snipes at the Murdoch press, such as when he thought it underestimated the crowds protesting at the dismissal of the Whitlam government. 

On the plane back to Australia after a challenging experience abroad Colvin relaxed with a ‘fuck you gin’. You don’t need a gin and tonic to enjoy reading Light and Shadow.

Mark Colvin 2016 Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.  (24/4/17)

Postscript. Vale Mark Colvin, who passed away on 11/5/17.


I could never warm to the term ‘creative non-fiction’. I had the simple-minded opinion that writing is non-fiction or it isn’t; end of story.

When I discovered that the ‘new journalism’ of Tom Wolfe, one of my all-time favourite authors, is regarded as a leading creative non-fiction writer, I realised I may have been missing the point. And how better to think this through than by attending The Creative Non-Fiction Festival put on by The NSW Writers Centre?

As the blurb said ‘creative non-fiction is the search for more eloquent and elegant ways to tell the truth’. Wikipedia calls it ‘a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives’. 

The Festival was fun. Mark Dapin was a witty MC, and the line-up of presenters, dominated as it was by journalists, were mostly concise and entertaining. It was a huge contrast to the standard academic seminar.

The opening speaker, Clare Wright, is an historian at La Trobe University. In her impressive research on the Eureka Stockade and later on Ballarat during the gold rush she ‘shut up and listened’ to the descendants of those people. It enabled her to tease out the deeply human stories and emotional underpinnings of times and places. When it came to publication she removed the academic scaffolding and concentrated on expressing the stories she had heard. Her work, it appeared to me, had both academic rigour and deep insight. She is an ARC Future Fellow; academia agrees.  

And to finish, a few quick insights:

• Publishers want books of around 75,000 words;

• Publishers are looking for something different, something new;

• Successful books make you feel you are there and involved;

• Publishers avidly read the weekly list of book sales for trends in the market;

• A book has about a six week life on booksellers shelves, and must sell in the first 2-3 months;

• The book market is capricious.

Happy writing. (1/4/17)


Asian Pacific cities account for 65 of the 500 listed in the 2thinknow Innovation Cities Index 2016-2017.

City rankings are based on 150 measures clustered in three categories: cultural assets, human infrastructure and networked markets. Every ranking has its weaknesses. Their usefulness turns on the kind of thoughts and discussions that they stimulate. There are surprises.

The top ranked East Asian Nexus cities include Tokyo (3), Singapore (7), Seoul (11), Shanghai (32), Hong Kong (35) and Osaka (50). No argument about the inclusion of these cities. Whether the order is right is more difficult to determine.

Hubs, the next level down, are primarily East Asian (10); Southeast Asia accounts for just two. Shenzhen (69), Kyoto (70), Taipei (72), Busan (78), Kuala Lumpur (92), Guangzhou (97), Incheon (117), Bangkok (118), Nagoya (119), Yokohama (154), Sapporo (160) and Daegu (174). In any measuring of cities in East and Southeast Asia I would expect the East to blitz the top spots. It is interesting, but no surprise, that Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are the sole Southeast Asian cities in the Hub category.

The are 42 Node cities identified. The top 10 in this group include the Korean cities of Daejeon (186) and Ulsan (192), and two Japanese cities (Nagasaki 187; Hiroshima, 226). The balance is Chinese including Nanjing (223), Tianjin (249), Suzhou (262); Chengdu (263) and Dalian (299). Altogether Chinese cities comprise 17 of the 42 Node cities. A few Southeast Asian cities also have a place in this group, including Jakarta (218), Ho Chi Minh City (306), Manila (326), Petaling Jaya (331) and Hanoi (354),  

The Upstarts and Others category included Bandung (457), Yangon (460) and Phnom Penh (481). Bandung’s low rank is a surprise. It has always been a major Indonesian centre for technology and education. It is curious that it is clustered with Phnom Penh and Yangon. 

I remain skeptical about rankings, particularly the proliferating number of rankings of universities. The release of the rankings is treated with great seriousness and solemnity, whereas they are basically a cash cow for the organisations that produce them. However, if considered critically and in context, they can facilitate new insights and ways of thinking about cities (or universities). So what does this innovation cities exercise tell me?

Essentially it spotlights and hence reinforces awareness of the steadily increasing significance of knowledge based societies and economies. More specifically it places the East and Southeast Asian cities in a global context. It reveals, in an imposing way, the rising prominence of China’s innovation cities. The sheer number – 36 of the ranked cities are in China – underlines the growing strength of the Chinese economy in general and its accelerating focus on innovation, backed up by big-time investment in universities, especially top-end institutions.

What will the picture be like in 10 years time? That China’s cities will be even more prominent is almost a given. Will Taiwanese cities benefit, or be hindered, by China’s economic growth? Will Japan’s aging population enable it to maintain its number of high rankings? Will South Korea be affected by the interminable arms build up and posturing of North Korea? Will Singapore remain the only standout in Southeast Asia, or will Malaysia, Thailand, or possibly Indonesia make significant progress? Can Vietnam or the Philippines make a serious effort to find a niche for their lagging innovation cities?  (24/3/17)


The Art of Time Travel is a snappy title for a book about historians. As if a memorable title isn’t enough to provoke reader interest, Tom Griffiths’ book also won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History.

Each of the 14 chapters is devoted to an historian. Some are professional historians from within the academy such as John Mulvaney and Geoffrey Blainey. Others are poets or writers (Judith Wright, Inga Clendinnen, Eleanor Dark) or farmer/writers (Eric Rolls). For all of them history is an organic ingredient in their lives and craft.

It is warming to see a serious social scientist bend the rules by blurring the hard-edged disciplinary categories that have been a recurring feature of 20th and 21st Century social sciences.    

Graeme Davison is an urban historian influenced by the Chicago School of urban sociology, the ‘street walker’ Robert Park and British historian Asa Briggs. In a chapter titled ‘Walking the City’ Griffiths identifies Davison’s strong sense of place and need for ‘strong boots’ with which to negotiate the city.

Time and place, and acquiring knowledge through the boots, underpins modern geography as well. The fascination with time and place has led to significant overlaps between modern history and geography, but surprisingly the two disciplines have relatively few points of contact. Griffiths concentrates on urban sociology’s influence on urban history but not the overlap with urban and historical geography.

When Davison moved to Monash University his interest shifted from the inner city to the suburbs; the places where ‘the Sunday drive … was quickly supplanting the Sunday church service’ (p 237). He became a ‘pioneer of public history in the 1980s’ (p 238), and later became interested in his family history which he published as a book.

Griffith’s book is as well written as its eloquent title would suggest. It is a beacon for historians and an example of what those of us in the social sciences should aspire towards: a scholarly analysis that is eloquent and accessible to an informed readership beyond the social sciences.

Tom Griffiths 2016 The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft Black Inc, Melbourne (6/2/17)


Not another ranking of cities! Yes, but I’m interested in how it positions Australian cities on innovation. I want to get a sense of its verisimilitude. Find whether it passes the pub test. So I’m having a glass of wine as I write.

The 2thinknow Innovation Cities Index 2016-2017 lists 500 cities. It characterizes them as Nexus cities, of which there are 53; Hub cities (125); Node cities (260); and Upstarts and Others (62).

The measures are lumped into three categories: cultural assets (over 60 including galleries, climate and weather, web censorship), human infrastructure (over 70, airport, university breadth and commercialization, broadband) and networked markets (more than 20, including tourists, population, social media). It sounds like a lot, probably under the assumption the more measures used the better the ranking.   

Many of the cities I expected to be in the top ten or 15 Nexus cities are, but some aren’t. New York (ranked 2nd), San Francisco (4th), London (1st), Tokyo 3rd), Singapore (7th), and a Scandinavian city (Amsterdam 12th). The surprise inclusion in the top group is Vienna at 10; that is a shock…I had no idea. I expected an Israeli city in the top 15 but Tel Aviv was ranked surprisingly low at 37.

Three Nexus cities are Australian: Sydney (ranked 14th); Melbourne (25); Brisbane (59). No arguments there. They are the three largest cities in rank order, all have quality universities, and all are vibrant cosmopolitan centres. So them being the highest ranked innovation cities makes sense.

Overall there are 125 Hub cities. Three are in Australia: Perth (82); Canberra (169); and Adelaide (177). Canberra is something of a surprise, and I say this having lived and worked in Canberra for a decade and defended its qualities to many skeptical Australians.

Some 260 cities are listed in the third Node category. Australian cities include the Gold Coast (222); Hobart (284); Geelong (334); Newcastle (336); Ballarat (355); and Bendigo (366). Again it seems a reasonable group of strong regional urban centres. From my point of view there maybe could have been a case for Townsville or Armidale, or perhaps Albury.

The final category is the Upstarts, of which there are 62, but none from Australia.

Getting back to the pub test, 12 cities in the top 500 seems about right for Australia, and the only areas  for argument are a handful of regional cities in the middle of the rankings. So it more or less passes the pub test. I pour another glass of wine to celebrate.

As a footnote, there are 65 Asian Pacific cities ranked, led by the Nexus cities of Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul (11), Shanghai (32), Hong Kong (35) and Osaka (50). For another blog. (1/3/17)


It is becoming a ritual. End of January I move my tray of writing tools onto the deck. I stay until the sun intrudes in the early afternoon. Then it’s back inside to a space downstairs.

Last Saturday we visited the open studios of David Collins and Anna Pollock on Dangar Island at the mouth of the Hawkesbury. Their tiny house and two studios are embedded in the richly vegetated upper reaches of the island. It is a fabulous location for those inclined to the artistic life. We drank wine and watched a green tree snake move across the path between the two studios.  

The consequence is I didn’t manage to read The Australian (yes, I read a Murdoch paper). I did today and one piece caught my eye.

Not surprisingly it was by Paul Kelly, the standout political commentator in Australia. He based last Saturday’s article on the work of American academics Mark Lilla and Jonathan Haidt. Kelly bemoans the rise of ‘identity politics’ in Australia with its’ strong focus on race, sex and gender. It is becoming an increasingly important feature of Labor politics, and is core to the Greens.

Lilla termed it ‘identity liberalism’, driven by a strong and expanding American ‘progressive class’. Haidt argues a parallel case, identifying six groups of ‘victims’. The strength of their demands has diverted the Democrats from other issues, and enabled Donald Trump to zero in on the working class whites (predominantly males) who feel their needs have been ignored and their standard of living is static, if not in decline.

Kelly’s article is unlikely to create alarm in Labor ranks, where Bill Shorten is riding high on his transformation during the last electoral campaign. And the struggling working class males in the US are, I’m guessing, worse off and angrier than the equivalent in Australia.

However, the rise of Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon and Clive Palmer, before his dismal departure from politics, not to mention the other minor party aspirants, suggests there are a significant number of voters looking for an alternative to the major parties.

Who in Australian politics will give it a go and model their approach on Trump? Will it be one or the above, or perhaps a disgruntled member of one of the major parties? (30/1/17)



I’m now on Instagram! Have started with a small collection of my best arty pics from 2016. Enjoy. (29/1/17)


When I ordered Everywhere I Look from the City of Sydney Library the website indicated I was 47th in line to get a copy to read.

Yes there were rave reviews by Peter Craven in The Australian, but more important is the very high regard for Helen Garner in Australia. So I bought a copy. 

The book’s structure is unusual. Three new essays, the remainder reprints. As a result, there is an unexpected unevenness, essays jumping all over the place like a frog in a bowling alley. But, to be fair, most are broadly diary and memoir and that brings coherence to the volume.

Garner’s writing is fluent and spare. Not overdone, even though we know she devotes enormous effort to achieve her stylish elegance and simplicity. And I do like the simple elegance. Her short stories are both beautiful and revealing of the essence of her thoughts. Garner’s candour is admirable.

Her writing is rarely judgmental. She confesses her close friendship with Tim Winton and his wife. But as a minimalist she has been mildly critical of his overdone and overworked metaphors (p 35). And similes, I would add.

I loved the essay on her teacher, Mrs Dunkley; her admiration for Elizabeth Jolley; her empathy with Elena Ferrante’s expression of feeling ransacked at the end of writing a book.

Helen Garner’s writing is the genuine thing. It raised my spirits; and after the events of the last 24 hours in DC I needed something.

Helen Garner 2016 Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing, Melbourne. (21/1/17)


When I discovered a new book from Drusilla Modjeska I instantly added it to my urgently-must-read list. Getting around to actually reading it took longer. Just under 12 months.

Two motives drove me to read Second Half First: A Memoir. First, I enjoy Modjeska’s literary style and in particular I was interested in how she went about writing a memoir. Second, since reading Modjeska’s novel, The Mountain (my reflections from 20/1/14 are here), I have followed with interest her recent engagement with Papua New Guinea.

Confessing to being ‘book-broody’ (p 15), she offers the reader glimpses of what was going through her mind as she wrote the memoir. We share academic histories so I intuitively understood her ‘abhorrence of the first person’ (p 17) but fully embraced her inner need to avoid the memoirist’s obsession with ‘me, me, me’ (p 140). It’s a balancing act that remains difficult to get right.

In contrast, it puzzled me that she ‘didn’t like the current tell-all genre of memoir’ (p 19); I just assumed this was a given for serious writers of memoir. Instead she takes a line that I am more comfortable with, recognising the need to ‘write of those who’ve shaped my life without exposing what was not mine to expose’ (p 19).

She subtly creates a space for memoirists marked by good, nuanced memoir writing. ‘Rather than catching a woman out, couldn’t there be a way of writing her life that honoured – rather than excused – the inconsistencies, the confusions.’ (p 59). She quotes Grace Cossington-Smith’s opinion that ‘knowledge without emotion is cold and sterile’ (p 240).

Modjeska’s accounts of living in a house in inner Sydney and engaging with writers such as Helen Garner, Sophie Watson and Hazel Rowley provide a peephole glimpse of Sydney’s bohemian writers scene. I did not know, or perhaps had forgotten, she edited a book on Inner Cities: Australian Women’s Memories of Place.

Drusilla Modjeska was in Papua New Guinea from 1968-1971. She and her husband, an anthropologist, lived in the highlands and connected with people in Port Moresby and the University of Papua New Guinea. As a tutor at UPNG from 1972-1974, her descriptions of that time resonated.   

PNG had a significant impact on her, as it did to many living and working during the years immediately prior to independence. Modjeska returned to PNG in 2004, travelling with a friend looking at art in the lakes region of Papua. More recently she has been the driver in the establishment of a Sustain Education Art Melanesia (SEAM) Fund. Late in the book she reveals ‘There are times … I still wish I was an artist’ (p 336).

As it might be said in Tok Pisin, this is a gut buk, namba wan.

Drusilla Modjeska 2015 Second Half First: A Memoir, Knopf, Sydney (3/1/17)


It was a late night with two highlights. A lingering dinner of fine Indian curries from Vrindavan Indian Restaurant relaxing on the deck, followed by the brilliant spectacle of Sydney’s New Year fireworks.

The only (extended) sour note was the decision by a resident from the block opposite to play very load music continuously until 3.35am. Words fail me, and not just because I am tired.  

This morning I’m confronting foggy reality. I am not alone in fearing that we enter 2017 with more than the usual level of uncertainty about the years ahead. It is bad enough to have an incompetent in the White House; to have someone so apparently unaware of his knowns and unknowns, or the depth and breadth of his ignorance, someone so easily seduced by the simplest of ideas and casually disdainful of the opinions of experts, beggars belief.

I hope I am wrong. (1/1/17)

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