Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A view from down under (Part I): Initial observations from Queensland

I arrived in Queensland, Australia a few days ago, where I have taken up a short visitorship at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, a regional center about 120 kilometers west of the state capital, Brisbane.

I had the pleasure of spending about 30 hours in Brisbane before heading out to Toowoomba, and I got a tiny sense of Queenslander culture from its capital city.  Two impressions stand out.  One is in the sign I saw every time a surface street meets a motorway--prohibiting animals and tractors among other things.  Since I have seen very few animals here--not even domestic ones, let alone farm ones--the sign seems a bit out of place.  Ditto the prohibition of tractors.  I haven't seen a one in the great conurbation that is Brisbane.  Can't help wonder if this prohibition somehow echoes the state's agricultural history--and the significance of agriculture in the state's hinterlands--and by that I mean places not too far from Brisbane.

The man who sold me my cell phone told me that Brisbane had a reputation as the "largest country town in Australia."  When I asked what he meant, he referenced the early closing hours.  I noted that the Telstra shop we were in was closing as we spoke, at 6 pm, with all other shops in sight already shuttered for the evening.   I have also noticed that people seem to get up early here.  Lots of folks were on their way to work in the Central Business District by 6 am.  I also note the public sculpture, pictured left, on King George Square.  This tableau depicts an English family, the Petries, who lived in what became Queensland.  The father is preparing to depart for a journey as his wife hands him supplies and the children look on.   One of the Petrie boys depicted in the tableau, John Petrie, later became Brisbane's first mayor.

In my initial read of The Australian newspaper on July 31, I found two references to rural and regional issues.  ("Regional" is roughly the equivalent to "micropolitan" in the U.S.; it refers to a regional center that serves surrounding, smaller cities and towns).  The first was in a front-page story headlined "Blueprint to lift teaching standards," which reported on New South Wales' proposal to reform the education and credentialing of teachers.  The challenge NSW is addressing is "to lift standards and address the lack of maths, science and language teachers and the oversupply of primary and secondary teachers."  The proposal would "attack the practice of universities using teaching courses as a cash cow by enrolling as many students as possible to subsidize other more expensive to teach degrees."  The NSW proposal responds also to the shortage of teachers in rural and regional secondary schools by proposing that universities "offer training positions only in areas of need, such as high school maths and science and in rural and remote areas, and reduce the number of places in primary schools and metropolitan areas."  

The second was in a story headlined "Tax pinches small hospitals."  It reports on the disparate impact the carbon tax is having on "private and community not-for-profit hospitals," which are apparently mostly located in regional and rural places.  While the federal government has increased funding to the states for public hospitals, in an effort to minimize the impact of the carbon tax, these groups of hospitals serving smaller communities have been left out.  The cost of the carbon tax--which raises electricity rates--is about $1200/bed for hospitals, and no government relief is currently in sight.

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