Friday, 27 May 2016

Discussing the Week in Politics with Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan on campaign stumbles

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra and Michael de Percy, University of Canberra

As the opinion polls remained tight between the two major parties, there were costly gaffes this week from both sides. University of Canberra senior lecturer in political science Michael de Percy and Michelle Grattan discuss the “flash of the old Barnaby”, Labor frontbencher David Feeney’s troubles on Sky, and the campaigning skills of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra and Michael de Percy, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Academic Insights from Literature

Professor B.F. Skinner. Photo: By-SA

I use the website Goodreads to set annual ‘reading for leisure’ goals and to write reflections and reviews of the various works I read. I aim to read a book each week. This week, I completed Aldous Huxley’s (1957) Brave New World Revisited.

I thought I might share some reflections on my ‘reading for leisure’ program and how that influences my view of the academic life. Huxley’s companion to Brave New World (1932), reflects on his predictions 25 years after the fact. My review on Goodreads is reproduced below:
Huxley writes about the world in 1957, 25 years after his most famous novel, Brave New World. This is more or less an academic work where Huxley considers numerous scholars of the period (in particular, psychologists and behaviourists) and comments on propaganda, marketing, and social engineering of the day (noting John Dewey and B.F. Skinner a few times). I took the time to write down all the names and works that appear in the book, as much of Huxley's commentary is lost to earlier memories. Nevertheless, his companion book to his major work of fiction is no less prophetic. I couldn't help but wonder first, how Brave New World could have such predictive power in 1932, and second, that he could do the same again in 1957. I suppose this particular work is somewhat lost because it is not a work of fiction. But it has opened my eyes to how the issues of the present are rooted in the past.
After following up on the late Professor B.F. Skinner of Harvard, I discovered that he had written a novel, Walden Two (1948), a utopian work based on his research findings in psychology. (Walden is a famous work from 1854 by Henry David Thoreau, a transcendentalist. Huxley focused on mysticism in his later writing. By way of explaining the numerous ‘connections’ that fascinate me in literature, I am currently reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confessions. Tolstoy, too, had his own moral crisis after labelling his 1877 work Anna Karenina ‘an abomination’, and then went on to found the basis for non-violent resistance as practiced by Gandhi and later Martin Luther King.) Skinner’s work extended that of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who focused on ‘classical’ or ‘respondent’ conditioning, which was to become the foundation for ‘behaviourism’ which is something some members of the School of Government and Policy at the University of Canberra have been interested in of late.

What struck me about Skinner was that he lost credibility with his colleagues after publishing Walden Two. While he went on to contribute significantly to what we now know as behaviourism, Noam Chomsky remains one of his most exhaustive critics (see ‘A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior’. In Jakobovits, L.A. and Miron M.S. eds. 1967. Readings in the Psychology of Language. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall: 142-143)

The above has led me to ask my colleagues the following questions: Do you read literature and connect it to your research? If so, how? And, does the writing of a novel reduce one’s academic credibility? How?

If you are interested in connecting via Goodreads, my profile is here: madepercy.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Canberra-Sydney High Speed Rail: Civic or Airport Terminal?

When it comes to constructing a high-speed rail link between Canberra and Sydney, where the link terminates doesn't really matter, right? Well, no.

When I travelled on the 300km/h high-speed rail service from Shanghai to Hangzhou (return) recently, I experienced two different terminal locations: An airport and a city centre.

The high speed rail station in Shanghai is based at the Hongqiao International Airport. This is not the main international airport (which is known as Pudong) but is an older airport that services domestic flights and various Asian international airlines. The airport and the rail terminal are huge. Waiting times for trains are up to 45 minutes. Although getting to the terminal took about 30 minutes in a taxi, from the time the gate opened until we were in our seats took only a few minutes. Security was the same as any airport.

When we arrived in Hangzhou, the terminal was located in the middle of the city. Exiting took about the same time as exiting from any regular train service. We were immediately in the middle of the city and were able to walk around to all of the locations we had time to see.

In a previous post, I examined the problems we had purchasing tickets for the return journey in a mini-ethnography. What I did not do was explain the return journey from the Shanghai terminal to our hotel.

On arrival, we thought we would take a taxi and pay the extra to return to our hotel, rather than take a regular train and then walk the 2km at the end of a long day. However, we were in for a rude shock.

As we approached the taxi rank, numerous "unofficial" taxi drivers offered to take us home. We had read up on these characters and decided there was no point pushing our luck. None of the other people were engaging with these characters so we followed suit.

As we attempted to ignore one, he stated confidently, "Come with me or it will be a two-hour wait for a taxi!" The line for the taxi rank extended beyond the horizon. He was right.

Unperturbed, we about-faced and walked back to the Shanghai Metro, caught the regular train to within walking distance of the hotel and were home within the hour. We had options.

My point is that having a terminal for a high-speed train at Canberra Airport might be useful to overcome the problems of parking in Civic, but surely the Sydney terminal must be in or near Central Station. Otherwise, what is the point?

For Canberra, a train station at the airport would justify the extension of the Capital Metro tram from Civic. For Sydney, a train station at the airport would defeat the purpose of the train. Why not fly if you need to catch a taxi from the airport anyway?

With high-speed rail between Brisbane and Melbourne back on the federal government's agenda, it is important to know what purpose it will serve.

In the forthcoming ACT election, voters have clear choices between alternative transport policies. But the re-invigorated interest in high-speed rail adds another layer to the complexity of transport infrastructure design.

My experience of the Shanghai-Hangzhou service suggests two alternative approaches to terminal location. Given that Shanghai's population is greater than Australia's (yes, Australia's entire population), the trip to the Hongqiao Airport to catch the fast train is facilitated by extensive ring roads and elevated free-ways that make the drive from Sydney airport to the CBD feel like a caravan trip along the Silk Road. In Hangzhou, the convenience of a centrally located terminal was obvious.

If high speed rail is to solve air traffic problems in major airports (for example, Sydney is the 5th busiest airport in the world), then this is quite different to high-speed rail introducing an element of competition or choice in transport between the major metropolitan centres. 

Further, if high-speed rail is meant to improve travel times, particularly in the 300-450km distance range where train travel has the potential to be faster than air travel if the terminals are closer to city centres, then terminal location becomes an important issue.

Prime Minister Turnbull's current plan for a high-speed train between Sydney Airport and the proposed Badgerys Creek makes some sense, especially if the link passes through the CBD, which seems to be on the agenda.

But I wonder if the logic for a high-speed rail terminal at Canberra Airport makes sense? Saving a few dollars by avoiding a tunnel through Mount Ainslie while ignoring the much greater cost of tackling the Brindabellas seems rather pedantic. 

And if you have to catch a tram from Gungahlin to Civic, then from Civic to the Airport, then a train to Sydney, why not cut out all the middle-men and simply catch a cab to the airport and fly to Sydney as we do now? 

Whether such seemingly simple issues can be thought through and implemented well remains to be seen. But if the to-ing and fro-ing (or argy-bargy in contemporary parlance) between interest groups that beset the Gungahlin Drive Extension is anything to go by, the ACT Government, regardless of which party is in power, certainly has its planning work cut out for it.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Buses versus Light Rail: Finally, a Real Transport Policy Debate in the ACT

Adapted from ©
I lost faith in Action's bus service many years ago when the Gungahlin routes were changed, making my former suburb, Palmerston, a veritable public transport backwater. I am still confused as to how Capital Metro will solve the problems for those who do not live along the Gungahlin-Civic proposed light rail corridor, but now the Canberra Liberals have provided an alternative to the accepted wisdom of light rail.

The announcement by the Canberra Liberals is an important counter-point to ACT Labor's Capital Metro. Here, the proposal for major investment in light rail is brought into sharp relief by an alternative policy. This is what oppositions are supposed to do - provide alternative policies so that voters have some choice.

Kirsten Lawson's balanced comment in The Canberra Times on Thursday quite rightly questioned the Canberra Liberals' ability to detail individual bus routes:
The first thing that you wonder, though, is who are the Liberals in the realm of specialist transport planning? You can draw all the obvious lines you like on a map of Canberra, but shouldn't bus routes be devised by bus experts? If it is as simple as this, surely it would have been done already.
While I am not a fan of political parties getting too involved in the details of day-to-day management, given my experience of Action buses, it is high time that an alternative to an ongoing problem was proposed. Surely, if the bus experts had got it right then there would be less demand for a light rail service.

I am not opposed to light rail, but it is clear that land tax - as part of value capture from improved land values in the vicinity of Capital Metro - is the unspoken motivation for light rail's role in achieving high-density, "buzzing" urban-ness in the National Capital. Social engineering if you will.

Capital Metro, however, does not provide a clear solution for Canberra's transport problems. Indeed, I would argue that higher density living is something that policy-makers desire more than citizens.

So the Canberra Liberals' proposal seems to me to be doing what the "bus experts" were unable to do. The plan is simple but it makes sense. It is also cost-effective no matter how you look at it.

But Australia certainly needs to invest in infrastructure. Travel anywhere else and you will know that for a rich country, our infrastructure is cheap and nasty. But whether governments should be doing this is another matter. There is also the issue of sovereign risk should the existing contracts be torn up if a change of government occurs. While some suggest that sovereign risk is not an issue in Australia, global businesses do not necessarily agree.

Yet these are the types of policy debates that we need here in Australia. The detailed type of debate where politicians do the ground-work and present down-to-earth solutions to everyday problems. The proposal is so simple it might just work.

The NBN (nbn) is another of my pet issues, but the problem is not the technology. Despite all the policy focus on and investment in broadband, Australia's poor showing in the global rankings is a bigger problem than whether we use fibre or not. Nevertheless, the debate is stuck on which technology we should or should not be using.

The Canberra Liberals have picked up on a major policy issue: Action is not providing the necessary transport solutions needed by the Territory. Until this problem is addressed, Capital Metro will remain an expensive side-issue. 

But the alternative transport policies offered by the Labor Government and the Liberal Opposition provide real choices for voters at the coming ACT election. That can only be a good thing, regardless of how clever the "memes" might be.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Mini-Ethnography: Shanghai-Hangzhou High Speed Rail

Photo by S370/CC BY-SA 3.0
1:28pm, 23rd March 2016

We leave the station slowly and pass under the spaghetti of roads just outside

Speed picks up slightly and the view changes to worn out fields of weeds

Up another gear and warehouses, more spaghetti, quaint houses, a freeway

This is a green, smoke-free train according to the hostess over the speaker

Another gear, beside an elevated freeway

Construction sites, across rivers, yellow flowers in worn-out and unkempt fields

A woman with a tray of who-knows-what. No time to stop and sell

Purple uniforms, 184km/h, 15 degrees

Market gardens amongst rubble, an excavator and construction

Some drinks and snacks, just so, pass faster than the train seems to move

Over another market garden, a creek, a slow train

Another gear and like nothing we reach 300 km/h

1:37pm, 23 degrees inside

Constant rumbling, the slight drone of engines

Barely notice the pace until a sound barrier careens past

With subliminal flashes of market gardens in the gaps

We're off and Shanghai dissipates as if into the perpetual grey sky

Or it would if it ever ended

Hangzhou to Shanghai, 8:18pm

Ticket office over there. No - construction.

Ask police. Downstairs.

Outside, 200m, walk the stairs to the ticket office

No signs for outsiders

Line-up behind the yellow line while nobody else does

¥75 for both but too cheap. First class?

Window 21 is the reply. Back in line, but longer

First class. All done.

Out of the ticket office and straight past where the cops told us to go downstairs

So near and yet so far

Welcome at the entry, passports waved off. But no gate number

Search for the journey number, not too difficult

Seat won't stay up - travelling backwards at speed. Seems to stop more often

Other classes more seats, good to have room to move

But hoiking, hoiking everywhere. A national past-time? The smog?

Hangzhou is quiet in parts. (Arm nearly ripped off by passing luggage!)

People dancing on the deck, old men singing and playing musical instruments

The crowd joins in. Chestnuts, squirrels (so friendly!), the West Lake (so happy!)

Then through the spaghetti and we're back

But then home to buses and slow trains, an airport where the traffic holds up the bus

On the tarmac trying to get to the other terminal. Not so in China

Rich country on the cheap. Poor country shows the way.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Connecting the Nation by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at Background image © @redshinestudio