Friday, August 08, 2008

To the back of Bourke: a 'road trip' exploring experiences of 1958

I recently went on what one friend described as a 'road trip' with my brother and nephew. At his invitation I joined them to visit Enngonia, north of Bourke, where he and I had lived in a caravan with our parents for about three months. It was in 1958 when I was six and he was three. This was his first visit to 'Bourke and beyond' since 1958 and the very first for my 13 year old nephew. In contrast I had been back in the early 199os though not to Enngonia.

Nether my brother or I could remember the name of the place where we were camped at Enngonia though I could remember how to get there. I sent an email to the Bourke Shire Council with the following request:

'we are retracing steps that we covered as young boys when our father had road building contracts in the Enngonia and Ford's Bridge areas. For about three months we camped in a caravan with the families of men sub-contracting with trucks to my father, Clive Ison (of Bathurst). This was just outside Enngonia at a shearers quarters/shearing shed complex - one turned right near the hotel and went out just past the race course. We have some photos of that time but very few details or records. '

Within hours the proverbial bush telegraph was functioning. I soon received emails with the following information:

' We think the place you are referring to is called ‘Thurmylae’. It is about 7 miles from the town to the turnoff and you go past the race course to get to it. The road from town to Thurmylae was completed in 1950 and the road extended to Glenalbyn in the later 1950’s. At present it is owned by the Cullen-Ward family. In the 1950’s it was owned by Kate and Richard Egan who would have passed it on to Val and Shirley Egan. Shirley now lives in Dubbo.'

Then from Shirley via her daughter who just happened to work in the Shire office:

'Mum is certain it would have been the Thurmylae huts, a lot of people came and stayed in the 50’s and 60’s. The owner of the property back then was Richard and Kate Egan (mum’s parents), they then handed the property Val and Shirley Egan. The Current owner is Mick Cullenward.'

They were right. It was Thurmylae as can be seen from the then and now photos. It was good to return but of course it seemed much diminished to that experienced through six year old eyes. Where there was once one station the need to remain viable, meant there were now three amalgamated into one. The racecourse still functioned - the annual picnic races were the weekend after our visit. It would on one day transform a sleepy village into a vibrant centre of far west social life least for some of the inhabitants. On the road back into town travellers are greeted with the sign: 'Slow down. Drop your dust before entering the town'!

I am not sure where the name of the property came from. There are records in 1895 for

BYRNE John Joseph of Bourke - Culgoa - Enngonia, Thurmylae for 5204 acres with a rental of £19-10-4.

I used memories of my time in the area in 1958 to open a chapter I wrote for our book 'Agricultural Extension and Rural Development. Breaking out of Knowledge Transfer Traditions'. Our visit brought these back and exposed more - highlighting the importance of context, particularly place, in our ways of knowing. Here is the extract:

West of the Darling where crows fly backwards
'I had not been to the Western Division of New South Wales since I was seven. At that time we were camped near Enngonia, north-west of Bourke where my father was building roads and sinking tanks, large earthen dams, with his dozer and truck and aided by a group of sub-contractors. We were camped in a cluster of caravans around a local shearing shed. I remember stories of mythical shearer's cooks and other characters of the sheds - but no stories of the road builders or tank sinkers. And our pet kangaroo, a baby or joey, the result of an evenings spotlight hunting, an event both enthralling and appalling to a young boy. Also the moving sea of kangaroos that we regularly encountered on the racetrack on our way to town. The only green grass for miles. The Enngonia pub, since burnt down [1959], was the social centre of the district. Its verandah was designed for the dangling legs of a boy, on the edge, ever eager to be part of an adult world. It provided a vantage point for watching every detail over a sarsaparilla and lemonade. Some events moved me from my vantage point - it was around the back for the pig's demise and transformation into ham: the sharp squeal, the blooding, the boiling water, razor sharp knife and scraping. It was a time of good humour; we had a 1927 Overland car, something of an antique even then but at a time when "antique" meant "old". In other words we could afford no better. We suffered the dust and corrugations of the unpaved roads. The car had to be hand cranked. Experiences were always filtered by the context; distance, dust and with rain, the thick mud which clung to boots, made it impossible for small boys to lift their shoes and for vehicles to move. Rain and mud gave yet another meaning to distance. Our research project in the Western Division, and planned visit, drew these memories to the surface and shaped my anticipation. We were concerned with the so called "failure of graziers to adopt technology" which had been developed by research funded partly with their money. This was a major concern of researchers and extension people, particularly in the local NSW Department of Agriculture. This explained the location of our project. As a group of researchers we had been critical of much of what had been done in agricultural R&D because, as with much of science, it was conducted out of context. We felt it necessary therefore to immerse ourselves in the context of the semi-arid rangelands, where our research was to be conducted. This explained my presence on Murtamena station, not far from Wilcannia, early in December 1990. It was over thirty years since I had been west of the Darling or into "the outback".

From: Ison, R.L. (2000) Technology: transforming grazier experience. In Ison, R.L. & Russell, D.B. eds Agricultural Extension and Rural Development: Breaking out of Traditions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. pp. 52-76.

The photos are (i) the entrance to Thurmylae off the Enngonia to Walget Road; (ii) what is left of the old shearing complex; (iii) the Warrego River just outside Enngonia; (iv) sitting on the shearer's hut veranadah; (v) the Darling River at Bourke - water held back by the local weir.
'Blue Covenant': A review of Maud Barlow's book

For those interested to follow-up my earlier posting about this book there is a review, somewhat critical, in the August issue of Australian Literary Review. It was written by John Langford who is an internationally recognised water expert with 35 years of experience in the public sector water industry, including 15 at chief executive level. He is director of Uniwater, an interdisciplinary strategic water research centre attached to Melbourne and Monash universities.
Are there cracks appearing in the neo-classical stranglehold on Australian policy development?

I would like to think the answer is yes but it may be too early to tell. On a recent trip to Canberra I met up with a scholar, recently arrived in Australia, whose work I knew. I had not met him before and naturally enough the conversation turned to how he was faring in Australia. I had genuine concerns, well-founded it seems, that he as an individual and his form of economics might not be receiving a warm welcome! It turns out he was receiving a warm welcome but not in the sense of Australian friendliness and conviviality.

He told me how he, as a heterodox economist, had been subjected to harassing emails, phone calls and letters from a group of young liberals who were systematically attacking academics who taught or embraced alternatives to the neo-classical or rationalist economic position. This I felt was totally unacceptable, but it was only part of what was happening. The following national advertisement to recruit a heterodox economist attracted an attack by a former Treasury Secretary in a letter to the Canberra Times:

We are seeking an enthusiastic researcher with a strong background in heterodox institutional economics to work as a part of an interdisciplinary team on the application of institutional analysis to the understanding of markets, their spread and the articulation of environmental values.

You will apply old institutional approaches to the impacts which market institutions have on environmental and social values. Non-price making markets would be analysed using an anthropological-historical-institutional economic approach. The development of new institutions for articulating environmental values in the policy process would be explored with empirical testing expected as part of team work. History of thought research would also be conducted with respect to ecological economics.

I interpret the action by the former Treasury Secretary as symptomatic of the gate keeping behaviour of many in the economics profession in Australia. It is also a reflection on their ideological commitments to particular orthodoxies.

I was frankly appalled by the story told to me, particularly given how different it is in Europe. I am gratified that this week a few chinks in the armour of the mainstream view are becoming apparent. David Spratt in today's Age explores why we should not be seduced by the modelling outcomes that will be used to inform climate change policy. Modelling, particularly econometric modelling is one of the main tools within the neo-classical paradigm as practised in Australia. He makes the point that:

'The nature of the modelling process means many issues that should be part of rational decision-making will be excluded, because only market events with strictly quantifiable prices will be included.

Garnaut has recognised the "conventional economic effects that are not currently measurable, the possibility of much larger costs from extreme outcomes, and costs that aren't manifested through markets". For example, Garnaut explicitly says the multibillion-dollar impact on the tourism industry in northern Australia from the loss of most of the Barrier Reef (now inevitable) and of Kakadu (through salination) will not be modelled.'

Earlier in the week in The Australian, Luke Slattery in an article entitled 'Abstraction to application' explores the divisions within the economics profession which are strangely similar to that of the Systems field i.e., ' between the soft and the hard; between economics with a social orientation and economics that aspires to the status of value-free science'. He goes on to make the following well-founded observations:

'...the discipline's mainstream appears vulnerable to criticism of a disconnect between its scholarly enthusiasms and real-world economic ills.

Mark Dodgson, director of the University of Queensland's Technology and Innovation Management Centre, argues, along with McKinsey & Co economic adviser Eric Beinhocker, author of The Origins of Wealth, that the intellectual field of economics is on the cusp of a big transformation. "Mainstream economics is increasingly being seen to be detached from reality," Dodgson says. "It's assumptions about equilibrium, rationality in human behaviour and the primacy of market forces that are mysteriously asocial make its predictive power extremely limited.'

"The way many academic economists are concerned primarily with the mathematic purity of their models, rather than their usefulness, and economic policymakers are so tied to an orthodoxy that fails to answer the important problems that confront them, are sure signs of a failing discipline.

"New approaches, such as evolutionary economics and the study of economies as complex, adaptive systems, are much more useful in addressing the big economic challenges of generating growth and productivity through innovation in ways that are sustainable and socially equitable." '

Slattery engages with a set of important issues that are vital to how Garnaut and the government respond to climate change. From my perspective I see little heterodox economic thinking informing either. Given the story at the beginning of my post I cannot share Slattery's conclusion that 'these interdisciplinary disputes suggest that the discipline of economics, despite appearances to the contrary, is enjoying a period of robust good health'. He seems to me to miss the point - it is our health and wellbeing and that of the planet that is at stake - not the future of economics!