Friday, August 28

We're a more civilised society

Take a look at this graph – it shows that Australians now oppose the death penalty by an overwhelming margin.

In a recent Roy Morgan poll, only 23 per cent supported the death penalty for those found guilty of murder, while 64 per cent supported imprisonment. When the question was asked in 1947, some 67 per cent supported the death penalty and 24 per cent imprisonment.

The poll also showed that those who believed in a mandatory life sentence for murder are now outnumbered by those who believe judges should have some discretion in sentencing.

It's cheering data for those of us who believe no society can execute criminals and still call itself civilised.

Back on November 9, 2008, worried by my lack of emotion about Indonesia's executing three of the Bali bombers, I put up a long Grumpy Old Journo post examining my opposition to the death penalty. I've just re-read it, and my views are as firm as ever.

First, the post enumerated rational arguments – for example, that now and again innocent people are judicially murdered in countries which carry out executions – but also the more difficult examination of how we form our moral attitudes.

So it's good to learn that two-thirds of Australians would now agree with me. Last November, I wasn't so sure. I wrote:

I'd assumed the fight against the death penalty had long been won in civilised societies like Australia.
But a bit over a year ago, I was at the monthly meeting of a club for retired business and professional men. Our speaker was a retired police inspector, and when he said he still believed in the death penalty, a murmur of assent went around the room. Out there, support for the death penalty remains, although it's hard to assess how strong it is.

So I thank Scott Steel (Possum Comitatus) for cheering me up by outlining the Roy Morgan data in this Crikey blog post (from which I've lifted the graph). You can read Roy Morgan's own report here.

Those interested in the development of anti-death penalty policies in a civilised nation – Australia – will find this NSW Council of Civil Liberties timeline useful.


Monday, August 24

Neighbourly concerns

The market for villas and townhouses must be looking up in my neighbourhood. People are moving into units which had been empty for a year or two since construction. At the same time, redevelopment notices are starting to appear in front of shabby little fibro cottages on big blocks – of which there's no shortage around Woy Woy.

The other day, we received notice of a plan to demolish the little place next door to build two big villas.

Not long after, a near-neighbour popped a letter into our box. Would we support her objection to the redevelopment because it would take out a magnificent jacaranda tree? We replied by email:

We read your note with mixed feelings. We have lived here for 35 years, and it's where we brought up our four children.

We will be sad to see the removal of the big jacaranda next door. It was well grown when we moved in here.

We know you were fascinated as you watched a pair of currawongs raise three offspring in it last year. We'd been wondering whether we'd see the same this year, but it seems that won't happen now.

However, we went on to say:

So you can see we have an attachment to the old trees. But it would not be in our best interests to support heritage orders preventing their removal.

Ian is almost 71 and Merry turns 68 this month. We have no plans to move, but ill health or an inability to maintain the garden could force us to do so. Perhaps it will be in a few years, perhaps it would be another decade. When we have to move, we too will expect to receive a price which reflects the redevelopment potential of our block – and a tree preservation order would diminish that value.

The quality of the final years of our lives may depend on the price we receive.

Please do not take offence at our refusal to support you.

In reply, our near-neighbour emailed:

Thanks very much for your reply. I totally understand your situation.

I will be lodging a complaint on my own behalf as I love looking out at the jacaranda tree when I am at the kitchen sink, in my dining room, or just passing through my villa. It's actually my only view
because of the high colorbond fence. I love the way the sun reflects on the leaves, and of course I love watching the currawongs in spring. It's one of the reasons I purchased my villa.

Unfortunately too many trees have been removed in Woy Woy in recent years, and I would prefer that this one stays.

After such a polite exchange of views, Merry and I didn't have the heart to tell her about the tree which once grew where her villa now stands.


Monday, August 17

Appalling politicians

It's been bad enough having to pander to the Rev. Fred Nile for the past quarter-century. I believe his hard-line fundamentalist views are supported by only a minority of Christians – and a minuscule percentage of Australians at large – but since 1981 he has been a member of the Upper House of the New South Wales parliament, thanks to a preferential voting system.

For much of that time he has held the balance of power with his vote deciding the fate of legislation put forward by NSW State governments. To win that vote, governments have had to withhold many socially progressive measures supported by the general public.

The Rev. Fred is a bit of a worry. But worse is upon us – to get its legislation through parliament, the NSW Government now has to suck up to people who shoot animals for fun.

Here's the story from this morning's Sydney Morning Herald.


Monday, August 10

Congratulations, Justine Ferrari

It's a pleasure to report that The Australian's education reporter, Justine Ferrari, has won the Australian College of Educators' annual award for excellence in journalism.

John DeCourcy, NSW president of the organisation, said:

"While Justine is critical of many aspects of what may be considered 'accepted wisdom' in some educational hierarchies, she both intelligently argues a case and gives a fair representation to alternative positions.
“Above all, her principal focus, which she shares with the college, is on quality and equity for all children, in all schools and in all systems."

Ms Ferrari was an outstanding young reporter when your Grumpy Old Journo was nearing the end of his working life on the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and a few months ago I presumed on that acquaintanceship to send her an email.

In a blog post on May 8 headed, “At last, The Australian shows how education should be reported,” I had praised her long, detailed front-page report about the introduction of a grammar curriculum as balanced, fair and comprehensive – particularly in its description of other grammars, such as those labelled “transformational” or “systemic functional”.

But in a comment which could have been seen as critical of Ms Ferrari (but wasn't meant to be), I contrasted the article to The Australian's treatment of the debate on the use of phonics in teaching reading. In a post on April 30, I had said:

. . . when the Oz reports only one side of an argument, it's not because the editors are biased. The editors know children should learn to read by phonics alone – they know every other approach is discredited. Me? I'd like to make up my own mind by evaluating the differing arguments. I'd like the news reports to lay out those arguments, even briefly.

Ms Ferrari replied with a courteous email. I hope she won't mind my quoting part of it:

On your point about balance of reading and phonics, in my defence I would argue that the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of explicit and systematic phonics as the first necessary step in learning to read. The debate is over the place at which phonics is taught, not that it isn't taught altogether or that it's the only skill required to be taught, as is often presented.

As a grumpy old fellow, I sometimes put my two bob's worth of opinion into the blathersphere. But perhaps two bob is all it's worth. I'm an outsider peering through the fence as traditionalists and progressives clash on the battlefield, wielding impressive armaments of research data.

That's why I welcome Justine Ferrari's skills to help me make sense of these complex issues. And why it's pleasing to note John DeCourcy's praise, “she both intelligently argues a case and gives a fair representation to alternative positions”.

Justine Ferrari's grammar report drew an interesting range of comment.

As evidence of her views on “quality and equity for all children, in all schools and in all systems", may I point to a paper Ms Ferrari prepared for an Australian Council of State School Organisations forum last March. What's the ACSSO?

"Literacy educators are becoming increasingly demoralised and frustrated at the relentless, simplistic, headline-grabbing attacks on their professionalism" – Dr Beverly Derewianka, Director, Centre for Research in Language and Literacy, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong. (to read more). And to see the views of other academics and teachers on what they see as attacks by conservatives, try this.

A Wry Side columnist to The Australian, Emma Tom, recounts her university experience of an intellectually demanding non-traditional grammar. She also mocks people who nit-pick their way through misplaced apostrophes.


Wednesday, August 5

“Manners, none; customs, beastly” – a depiction of Aboriginal people

“ In mental qualities they stand very low, having no fore-thought, prudence, self-restraint, or sense of decency.”

How widely held was this view of indigenous Australians in the latter part of the 19th century? Too widely, must be the answer. The quotes above come from an impressive, encyclopedic reference work which would have been used by many settlers to understand their new country.

Published in 1884, the Australian edition of the Universal Self-Instructor and Manual of General Reference (pictured against a mobile phone to show its size) carried the article reproduced below in full. Today we are appalled by its claims, but at the time of publication many settlers would have accepted them as justification for forcing this “primitive race” off their land to be “superseded by higher tribes.”

Publication came at a time when the dispossession of Aboriginal people and their removal to missions and reserves was at its peak.

(This article was run without paragraphing, which I've added for easier reading.)


The native blacks of Australia are as distinct and peculiar as are its vegetable and animal life. They belong to the group of tribes known as the negritos or Austral negroes, being entirely distinct from
the Malays, Papuans, and Polynesians.

In physical appearance they are of height little inferior to the European, but of small muscular development, and inclined to corpulence. The cranial formation is, on the whole, long and narrow; the color varies from coffee color to black.

In mental qualities they stand very low, having no fore-thought, prudence, self-restraint, or sense of decency. Marriage is merely a form of slavery, and chastity is unknown.

These aborigines dwell in caves, rock shelters, and rude huts, in winter wear skins, and in summer go altogether naked, and live upon every form of animal life, including snakes, insects, lizards, ants, frogs, and occasionally human flesh.

In the construction of their weapons they show some ingenuity, and they wield the spear, boomerang, and throwing-stick with great dexterity.

The only form of government is that of the family ; the only law, the club. Summing up their manners and customs, we may say, "manners, none; customs, beastly" Dread of ghosts and demons forms the only religious belief.

The languages of the tribes are numerous, but closely connected. In sound they are harmonious and polysyllabic, but are incapable of expressing abstract ideas, and evince no sense of number. Most
tribes can count only to three, a few to five.

It is believed that the Australians represent a primitive race, superseded in other lands by higher tribes. The number of natives at the time of settlement by Europeans was about 150,000 ; it is now
supposed to be from 70,000 to 80,000.

Grumpy Old Journo is indebted to a fellow book club member who bought the Universal Self-Instructor in a carton of old books, and brought it in to show us. It's almost 700 pages, and it would have been a fine example of the bookbinder's trade.

It is bound in leather over hard boards, and the front and spine are embossed with gilt lettering.

The book appears to be an Australian adaptation of a similar book published in New York in 1882, and no doubt it retained many of the features of the US book. Within its covers, the user could refer to articles on writing, bookkeeping, business practice, household management, physical exercise and rules of games, etiquette, geography and history, quotations, selected poetry and lots more.

Let's hope those topics were better researched than the article on Aborigines.

Title page of the book