Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Symbolism isn’t substance: it’s symbolism

Simon Cowan

06 October 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

SC australian flagOn Tuesday, former acting Liberal Party director, Andrew Bragg tweeted a photo of ABC headquarters in Ultimo that showed both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags — and observed that the Australian flag was missing.

Obviously, flying the Indigenous flags makes a symbolic point. Not flying the Australian flag could also be seen as making a symbolic point — although perhaps less intentionally — about whether the organisation values what the flag represents.

But the substantive issue is not whether the ABC flies the Australian flag. If the bulk of the population feels the national broadcaster adequately reflects the values of Australians, it would matter little whether the ABC flew the Australian flag, Indigenous flags or the Jolly Roger.

It is easy to knock the ABC for not flying the Australian flag; as if that alone proves it doesn’t reflect Australia. It is far harder to demonstrate the ABC is actually overly-representative of the issues of the progressive, urban middle class and — as they increasingly consolidate in cities — is losing the perspective of more socially conservative views in regional areas.

The problem is that on far too many issues, debate focuses entirely on the shallow or symbolic and ignores or obscures the substantive issue. And, as can be seen from the (not) Closing the Gap reports, however important symbolism may be, it is no substitute for substance.

Another good example is the oversimplification of the current debates over the direction of the Coalition in government. There is a real tension on the centre right, in Australia and throughout much of western politics, with a series of potential fault lines running through the compact between the social conservatives and the classical liberals.

A fracturing would have profound economic, social and political consequences — yet instead we see constant speculation on Abbott vs Turnbull Round 3 … as if the issue was limited to the clash of the symbolic leaders of the two camps. On the deeper issues, precious little thought can be found in mainstream political discourse.

There are a number of reasons for this — not the least of which is the hollowing out of the media and political parties. But it may not be a coincidence that as this is occurring, people are steadily losing faith in democracy.

Digital devices and development

06 October 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

JM child ipad reading tabletOn her recent visit to Australia, neuroscientist  Maryanne Wolf spoke about the impact of digital devices on the development of the reading brain.  Wolf is not against technology for teaching reading; she argues it has many benefits for society, including the “stunning progress in communication.” Her research asks the question: Will changes in attention and the expectation for constant, immediate information from external platforms of knowledge threaten the formation of deep reading in young digital readers?

Deep reading is where we take time to critically reflect, give ourselves time to think new thoughts, and take on the essential human skill of considering the perspectives of others.  Will children develop the cognitive capacities, or the motivation to think through the layers of meaning and insights in what they read? Joseph Epstein admonishes, “we are what we read but Wolf argues that how we read is just as important.

Other cognitive researchers have studied our changing reading habits, and concluded that skimming is the new normal, and so is distraction, attention switching and exposure to voluminous information.  These changes are happening in older brains that were taught to read using the traditional non digital way, so what about the developing reading brain of our digital natives?

Devices are in the hands of children as young as two, at a time when they are building critical early language, cognitive and social skills. Research tells us interactive and responsive human interaction is more effective than technology for developing rich early language skills that underpin early reading development, therefore parents and caregivers play in an essential role in speaking to, listening to, and reading to their children every day.

The Early Development Census found one in five Australian children are starting school developmentally vulnerable in language, cognition and communication. Given our ever-increasing appetite for digital devices, we must understand the research and the impact of new technology on the developing brains of our children. Wolf cautions, “we obviously cannot go back to pre-digital time; but we should not lurch forward without understanding what we will lose, and what we will gain.”

Indigenous corporations' governance confusion

Charles Jacobs

06 October 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

CJ compass direction guidance GovernanceInternal misunderstandings are threatening to undermine genuine efforts to develop economic independence on Indigenous lands. Community members in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjnatjara (APY) area are frustrated with the management of their land. At the heart of the issue is a dispute over the way cattle grazing is managed, with claims little of the returns are flowing to the region’s Indigenous people.

The APY corporation is required to publicly report only how it uses its $2 million per year of government funding. It does not have to provide details about its revenue from private commercial enterprises. This lack of transparency is unfortunately common among Indigenous organisations.

More than $1 billion of federal funding goes to 1000 organisations annually to undertake social and economic development projects. Competing objectives within organisations can create misunderstandings and disagreements, with community interests and business needs not always aligning.

In some remote townships, English is often a second or third language and board members have low levels of literacy and numeracy. Notions of ‘conflicting interests’ and ‘stakeholders’ are not always understood. Consequently, governance issues are the primary cause of failure in Indigenous corporations.

Underpinning the lack of governance understanding is the complicated structure and dynamics of Indigenous organisations.  Instead of registering with Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Indigenous corporations have a separate regulatory body — the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC). The reason for the separate regulatory body was to provide additional governance support for Indigenous organisations. This has caused confusion, with ORIC often criticised for not maintaining the same standards applied to normal corporations.

Ongoing governance problems and the lack of transparency have resulted in an increasing loss of trust in these organisations by Indigenous communities — with complaints more than doubling in the past six years.

It is important to build greater clarity around the functions of Indigenous corporations. If these problems are to be resolved, ORIC must fulfil its obligations as both a trainer and a regulator or risk becoming irrelevant.