Sunday, December 20, 2020

HSC a brutal and irrelevant way to define ‘intelligence’ in a world opening its eyes to other values

A rather silly article below tries to downplay the importance of your final High School results (the ATAR).

But it does a very bad job of that. It rather boringly says the ATAR does not measure intelligence. He is right. It measures APPLIED intelligence -- what happens when you combine IQ with hard work. Business-people have long hired on the basis of that. The ATAR gives them an indication of how likely you are to make a success of a difficult task in the workplace.

The claim that your ATAR ceases to matter soon after you got it is nonsense. He actually admits that it is nonsense, saying it matters in forming relationships and will matter when you have chidren

And he seems to think he is original in saying that IQ is not the only personal quality that is important. I know no-one who would disagree. To me a kind heart trumps most other qualities

On Thursday night, the ATAR was the be-all and end-all; by Friday lunch, it was on its way to being forgotten.

One of the great joys of leaving school is the discovery that the all-important marker of so-called intelligence, which school leavers feared was going to define them, was a mirage. It wasn’t quite a con job: the HSC, as a rite of passage and an educational journey, has a lot going for it and is often unjustly criticised. But the ATAR is only a functional gateway for entry into certain university courses. Like a ticket of entry for a long-awaited show, you might have kept it under your pillow and kissed it every night for months, but once you’ve used it, you screw it up and the next day you can’t remember where you lost it.

For those who shocked themselves by how well they did, their ATAR might provide a secret treasure of self-esteem – “I am a 90 person, even if everyone took me for a 70 person” – but they will have to keep it to themselves, because from today forward, there will be not a single thing more uncool than telling someone what you got in your HSC.

For those who were disappointed, or – horrible word – who “underachieved”, the end of the HSC will come as a blessed relief. They will no longer wear that mark on their forehead.

Whether your result was good, bad or indifferent, forgetting your ATAR starts the moment you receive it. Ranking intelligence is one of the many components of our colonial inheritance that is coming under an attack that is more concerted each year. There is a broad illusion in the brutality of a number to rank a person’s intelligence. Those two years of the HSC apportion intelligence as if it were money, handed out unevenly yet treated as a symbol of virtue. For many students, knowing where they stood in this hierarchy has offered the comforts of certainty and security. Some will proceed through their lives into workplaces that replicate this hierarchy – the professions, academia, the military, some of the rank-conscious remnants of the business world. Perpetual strivers will find a sequence of substitutes for the ATAR, so they may go to their grave knowing, or thinking they know, exactly where they stand. But that way of viewing the world is shrinking with each year.

Any agreed consensus on what constitutes “intelligence” is under assault on various fronts. Science is bringing us to the humbling understanding that “intelligence” is not an objective but a social measure, conditioned by circumstance, gender, race and dis/ability, just for starters. A quantifiable scale for “braininess” is as anachronistic as an IQ test, as mustily irrelevant as Mensa membership. The drive for diversity in workplaces is not based just on the notion that anyone can be just as “smart” as the white men who invented the rules; it is based on the suspicion that “intelligence”, and the hierarchies that flow from it, was a rigged game in the first place. The diversity movement has its excesses and missteps, which are generously well reported, but at its heart is the encouragement to think about brains differently, and to figure out that the greatest contributors to our social good are those whose qualities slipped the noose of the HSC markers.

My favourite Gary Larson cartoon is the one showing the student at the “Midvale School for the Gifted”, leaning with all his weight, trying to open a door that has a big sign on it saying “PULL”. For today’s school leavers, their parents’ and grandparents’ generation saw “intelligence” as a narrowly fixed quantity, a door for the gifted. But for the class of 2020, the paths of opportunity promise to branch out in a world that is finding many different things to value: emotional intelligence, kindness, empathy, understanding, intuition, commonsense, initiative, as well as countless exercises of brainpower for which there was no measurement at school.

For all that, the HSC will still leave a heavy after-trauma. Those students might think they have been liberated from the HSC, but they can look forward to a lifetime of waking in a cold sweat from nightmares in which they still have to do their HSC exams and are even less prepared than the first time, and probably have forgotten to wear certain articles of clothing.

And then, years after putting it all behind them, they will meet their life partner and, over a bottle of wine, the old zombie will stir from its grave. “What did you get in the HSC?” And neither will want to confess to their number, because the last thing they want is for love to be polluted by memories they have succeeded for so long in burying. Their ATAR need not be tattooed onto their arm.

In time, they in turn will have children, and will love them to bits through their infancy and primary years. But then those children will enter secondary school and the nightmare of classification will become real again. As parents, today’s school leavers will make enormous sacrifices so that their children will have an opportunity to get that golden ticket. Is the ticket worth such sacrifices? You will have forgotten. Your children will ask, “What did you get in the HSC, Mum? Dad?” And back you plummet into the embarrassment of either having done better or worse than your family had you pegged for, and now you’ll get scared all over again, this time that your children will see you differently if they know your secret number.

And then those children will enter year 11, and before you know it, the HSC is the be-all and end-all again, and you’ll have forgotten the most vital lesson out of all those 13 years of schooling you did, which is that the day after your children have received their results, it will have ceased to matter. Until you become a grandparent. Onwards … and upward

China’s aggressive fishing fleet heading for Australia amid trade war

Beijing’s monster fishing fleet has long since stripped its own waters bare. Now it is aggressively prowling the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans for a catch. And it is coming to Australia.

It grabs as much as it can. As fast as it can. Wherever it can. Not that there is anything entirely unusual about this.

What makes China’s fishing fleet different, however, is that the Communist Party officially sanctions its behaviour. It is organised and overseen by the Communist Party. And it’s used to assert the territorial ambitions of the Communist Party.

It’s also huge. It’s now the world’s largest fleet. Its operations span the globe. One count places the number of deepwater vessels at its disposal at 12,500.

Beijing claims only 3000 boats operate in international waters.

But the full extent of its operations came to light earlier this year when Global Fishing Watch released a study based on satellite data and tracking analysis.

Australia’s rock lobster industry is just one of many targets of Beijing’s punitive economic acts. Now Australia’s fishers are worried Beijing’s fishing fleet may come for them: The site of a proposed new $204 million Chinese port is right in the middle of the Torres Strait rock lobster fishery.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne was quick to reassure that Border Force vessels would monitor the region to enforce territorial boundaries and joint-fishing treaties.

But if China claims the Papua New Guinea port gives it access to Australia’s fisheries, that could cause problems.

Former government foreign policy advisor Philip Citowicki says the proposed port is a demonstration of great-power wedge politics.

“The reality is that it continues to seat PNG at the centre of a tug of war, where the presence of China’s authoritarianism is increasingly imprinting itself on the fledgling democracies of the Pacific,” he writes.

“Rarely driven by altruism or regional responsibility, it places both the resources and security of the region at risk.”

It’s not a new threat. In 2018, the Lowy Institute foresaw Beijing’s fleet “may soon create new security headaches for Australia”. “The impact of Chinese fishing has important strategic consequences for Australia’s region in several ways,” David Brewster wrote at the time.

“There is a good chance that fishing will become a key locus of disputes and incidents involving China.”

Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) Indo-Pacific analyst Blake Herzinger says international governments are starting to wake up to the damage done.

“Globally, economic losses from illegal fishing are difficult to quantify, but there is little disagreement that the overall economic loss totals tens of billions of dollars yearly, encompassing lost tax revenue, onshore fishing industry jobs, and depletion of food supplies,” he writes.

The small South American nations of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are worried their fisheries are in the process of being looted.

In November they issued a joint statement asserting they would combine their limited resources “to prevent, discourage and jointly confront” any illegal fishing operations.

They did not name China. But the presence of so many of China’s large, modern fishing vessels off their shores is hard to miss.

And this particular fleet has been the focus of world attention since July when it was caught within the international marine reserve surrounding Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Ecuador doesn’t have the strength to enforce international law. And its government is heavily indebted to Beijing and struggling to pay back infrastructure loans.


Beijing’s fishing fleet is not just a commercial operation. It is a party-political one.

It is organised as a militia. Key factory ships have Communist Party commissars watching over the captains and their operations. Selected crews are trained to work in concert with the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

In return, Beijing pays its fuel bill – the fishing fleet’s single greatest expense. It’s a massive subsidy that allows it to undercut its international competitors significantly.

Some vessels do no fishing at all. Instead, their job is to monitor the active fleet, intimidate fishers of other nations, or simply sit provocatively inside another nation’s territory.

This makes them a diplomatic weapon, part of Beijing’s determination to wage “hybrid war” – the use of every means available short of kinetic weaponry – to assert its will.

They’ve recently been highly visible off the Philippines and Indonesia.

Beijing’s fishing militia also receives unprecedented military support. Wherever the fleet goes, armed coast guard ships usually follow – no matter how far from China’s coast the fleet may be. And China’s coast guard is not a civilian police force. The People’s Liberation Army operates it. And that dramatically escalates the implications of any confrontation.

Herzinger says international fishing regulations are being enforced – but only against weaker nations such as Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

China escapes criticism because of the power of its potential economic and at-sea backlash.

China’s 1.4 billion people love seafood – each reportedly consuming an average of 37.8 kilos a year. That’s some 38 per cent of the total annual worldwide catch.

But Beijing’s fishing fleet also sells huge quantities to markets such as the US, Europe and Australia.

Exactly how much it takes from the oceans is unknown. The militia does not report its catch to international authorities. Only the Communist Party gets that data.

Greenies do something positive

Ecological “arks” will be created in the Great Barrier Reef under a new Federal Government funded program that for the first time links island health as critical to saving the coral.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley will today announce $5.5 million for a new island restoration program, starting with Morris Island off Cape York.

She said Lady Elliot Island on the reef’s southern border was the first regeneration project ever attempted at scale and its success could be replicated elsewhere.

“There are 1050 islands along the reef ranging from the pristine to former mine sites, disused tourism destinations and those that have been damaged by introduced pest species,” she said.

“As part of the Reef Islands initiative, Dr Kathy Townsend of Sunshine Coast University is leading new ‘leaf to reef’ research that follows the nutrient trail between islands and its importance to corals and marine life, as well as researching the importance of Lady Elliot’s reefs as a biodiversity ark in the region.”

Reef manager for the marine park authority Mark Read said overseas views particularly under-appreciated the complexity of the issue.

“For context the world heritage area is 348,000 square kilometres; it’s bigger than Italy, bigger than Japan and can sit Victoria and Tasmania within its boundaries. It stretches over 2000km and at its widest point is 250km, it’s 1050 islands, 3000 reefs – so trying to categorise that whole system within a single category, ultimately it fails and doesn’t do the system justice,” he said.

Lady Elliot Island is a genesis of what the Federal Government yesterday branded an “ecological ark” carrying the essential ingredients to rehabilitate the in-crisis reef, critically affected by natural and man-made climate change.

Gash and a dedicated team of scientists, backed by a string of Federal Government funded initiatives, are in part driven by a sketch discovered in archives drawn from a sailor aboard HMS Fly in 1843 of what the island sanctuary looked like then and could again.

“So many people say ‘oh but it’s hopeless, there is nothing we can do and it’s all going to die’ and I hate hearing that, it’s never hopeless,” Island custodian Gash said as he looks out over the turquoise waters on the southern point of the reef, 80km from the Queensland mainland.

In 1973 Lady Elliot Island was a dead 42-hectare coral atoll that after almost a century of mining for guano fertiliser was left barren, with no bird or sea life.

Now it boasts more than 1200 species of marine life including turtles and manta rays, whole forests of native Pisonia trees and grasses and the second highest diversity of breeding birds of any feature in the Great Barrier Reef after Raine Island on the reef’s northernmost tip.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley visited Lady Elliot this week to see first-hand the spectacular restoration result which she now hoped will be replicated elsewhere along the reef island chain starting with Morris Island, under a new $5.5 million investment.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden said without a doubt there were “dark days” ahead for the climate but Lady Elliot was a shining light in what could be achieved within our life times.

“The idea is these arks, these climate refuges, will carry the reef forward,” she said. “The habitat will be able to be the ones to go, before the dark days, then when the world gets its act together and the balance restores these are the places that will reopen the doors and repopulate.”

World renowned marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend said the correlation between land life and reef marine life was now only being understood.

“The connection between coral cays and the island has been undervalued,” she said.

“The current dogma is where these coral cays are getting their nutrients but new research is showing these coral cays are creating nutrients for the reef in a balanced way. It’s not a dump but a pumping action … it’s like growing an island. Without healthy islands you wouldn’t have the same level of growth and biodiversity you see around the reef.”

She said there had been a 125 per cent increase in turtle habitat and they again were the primary herbivore about Lady Elliot which was keeping coral killing grasses down.

The cultural truth about Australia

Darryl Kerrigan was right. There is something special about suburbia. Not just any suburbia but Australian suburbia. It is much parodied even ridiculed and especially by those who live in the “sophisticated” but congested inner city. So what does life in the ‘burbs actually look like? And does it vary from city to city?

Come with me in search of Australia’s great suburban heartland.

Australia’s largest cities invariably trail off into long tendrils, corridors, of McMansions extending 50km and more from the city centre. Here is a world of big houses, of big mortgages and of long commutes.

But this is not the suburban heartland; this is a new suburban frontier being formed and styled and built every day.

I believe the heart and soul of middle Australia sits squarely amid the expanse of a vast suburban savanna, where separate houses on separate blocks of land dominate the landscape to the horizon in every direction. Finding the middle suburban heartland is an issue of geography and demography and of trial and error.

And it’s not as simple an exercise at it sounds. At what point across each of our five largest cities is there unfettered access to the greatest number of Australians within a 10km radius?

This kind of information is vital to big-box retailers, but I think it also nurtures and celebrates Australia’s suburban culture.

The epicentre or centroid of the largest 10km-radius salami-like slice of the Australian people is necessarily positioned between 13km and 20km from the central business district. Any closer to the city centre and pure suburbia gives way to density’s apartmentia. Any farther afield results in part of the slice-of-suburbia taking in non-urban bushland or farmland. No, the epicentre of Australia’s middle suburbia sits more or less midway between the cool inner city and the Nappy Valley edge.

After some trial and error I have identified what is possibly the largest expanses of the suburban life form in each of the five biggest cities in Australia. The resultant population thus scooped up in this 20km diameter circle ranges from around one million in Sydney and Melbourne to less than 500,000 in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.

The epicentre suburbs are Burwood for Melbourne, Parramatta for Sydney, Runcorn for Brisbane, Leeming for Perth and Green Fields for Adelaide. These places offer access to what is possibly the greatest number of suburban Australians in every direction for a radius of 10km. If there is a ground zero, a genesis point, a suburban Garden of Eden, it is these places for they lie at the demographic centre of Australia’s deeply suburban way of life.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics breaks down the metropolitan area into a series of suburbs.

There are for example 61 suburbs comprising Melbourne’s suburban expanse centred on Burwood and which converts to around 16,000 people per suburb. Melbourne’s middle suburban heartland is a bit like 61 country towns the size of Horsham all jammed together.

Sydney’s heartland is much the same: 59 suburbs the size of Grafton all jammed and connected together.

Middle Australia may be the largest single cultural group on the Australian continent but, at its core, it comprises smaller communities (of, say, county-town size) all raising families, paying off mortgages, commuting to the city, holding traditional values (see evidence later), and very much interested in beautifying and embellishing the family home with the help of Bunnings and Harvey Norman.

Parody it if you will but it is also a cultural truth about Australia and the way we live. And when I consider how people live in other developed-world cities, I think our suburbia is a pretty good way of life. There are questions of sustainability, but with some effort and especially with more workers working from home this way of life can be made more efficient (that is, less carbon emissions).

What strikes me about the suburban slices is the consistency in how we live. At the last census there was roughly one local job per two local residents in each slice. About one-third of the sampled middle suburbia population was born overseas. About a third hold a mortgage.

More than half believe in a god; they hold traditional values. Interestingly, the Parramatta slice is the most devout and contains the highest proportion of the population born overseas (49 per cent). These figures are skewed by the Indian community that dominates Harris Park near Parramatta.

Melbourne’s biggest migrant enclaves are located outside the Burwood slice.

Australia is an extraordinarily multicultural community even at the everyday suburban level. At the last census 17,000 overseas visitors spent the night in Burwood’s middle suburbia. These aren’t high-end tourists staying in five-star city hotels; these are, in all probability, friends and family visiting new migrants and probably marvelling at the suburban abundance of the Australian way of life.

Again in the Burwood slice — containing 4 per cent of the Australian population — 23,000 visitors from within Australia spent census night in this most suburban part of Melbourne. Then there are 37,000 foreign students, perhaps attached to any of the three local universities namely Deakin, Swinburne and Monash.

I am not getting the feeling that this example of middle suburbia is some disconnected cultural backwater. Indeed, the metrics suggest otherwise. middle Australia may hold traditional values, it’s people may commute, raise families and take an inordinate sense of pride in their home — indeed, their castle — but this community is also deeply connected into their extended families.

Local residents are immersed in the cultural influences of visitors flooding in from intrastate, from interstate and from overseas. The multicultural youth presence (students) — no doubt somewhat subdued by the pandemic — delivers a pulsating energy to otherwise quite quiet places within striking distance of university campuses.

Of course the Parramatta slice sits at the centre of the Greater Sydney Commission’s grand vision for Sydney whereby Parramatta emerges as the Harbour City’s second CBD. And that plan very much makes sense, although in due course this may push Sydney’s pure suburban culture even further to the west. (A bit like the way the Celts were pushed to the edges of the British Isles.) We will know that this cultural transformation is under way when black-clad Surry Hills hipsters begin to surface in Parramatta’s cool laneways.

Brisbane offers two versions of unbroken suburban expanse: northside and southside. The southside’s Runcorn choice offers more population within a 10km radius and it includes the demographic influences of Griffith University positioned at Mount Gravatt. Like some grand demographic recipe, the addition of the vital university ingredient delivers zest and the vibrancy of youth to Brisbane’s middle suburbia.

I must admit to never having heard of Perth’s Leeming until undertaking this exercise. But its 10km slice takes in the youth influences of Murdoch and Curtin Universities, both based on the city’s southside. Perth’s urban form tends to elongate rather than bunching up, thus creating the kind of incubator necessary to bake a big suburban pie.

Adelaide’s Green Fields scoops up much of the city’s northern suburbs. But the 10km radius includes the thinly populated port as well as nearby industrial and air base precincts. This explains why Adelaide’s slice contains the fewest people of the five slices examined.

All things considered, the single slice that offers what I think is the best example of middle suburban culture — in a single salami-like slice — is Melbourne’s Burwood. Indeed I would argue that Australia’s cultural history agrees with my assessment. And that is because within this circle of suburbia centred on Burwood there is evidence of a suburban lifestyle that is much loved, greatly celebrated and vigorously projected to the rest of the nation.

Barry Humphries conceptualised his parody of middle suburbia Edna Everage (and whom he would place in distant Moonee Ponds) from his Camberwell home, 5km from Burwood.

The middle suburban cul-de-sac in which the soap opera Neighbours is filmed is located in Vermont, 8km from Burwood. The 1974 pop song Balwyn Calling by Australia’s Skyhooks chose to recognise the genteel suburb of Balwyn, 7km from Burwood. I don’t think that song would have worked citing Narre Warren or Parramatta or Caboolture.

The conclusion that comes from all of this is that the way of life in middle suburbia, or at least in the slices sampled, is pretty much the same. Harvey Norman and Bunnings and others have got the model right. Suburban Australians appear to have much the same values and behaviours. Most want a backyard gazebo and a flatscreen television. There are differences but only substantially in densities.

The similarities, I think, are far greater, such as the cosmopolitan population base, the coming and going of friends and family from within and beyond Australia, the radiating influence of universities and their youthful energetic zesty cohorts.

I don’t see a staid and provincial middle suburbia in these suburban slices. I see an energetic, connected, aspirational people wanting to build a better life for themselves and for their families.

And when you think about it, that’s not such a bad aspiration.




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