Opinion- 02 March 2008



pdf file-available from Australasian Science




The Economic Kit and Caboodle -- Harry Robinson


Kit and Caboodle

Let's begin with a tiresome definition.

"Pertaining to the management of a household or estate" -- the primary meaning of Economy.

It follows that the meaning of a national economy is the management of all the nation's working assets -- the farms, mines, trucks, trains, ships, factories, telecommunications, stores, banks, ports, cranes, working people -- the whole box and dice, the kit and caboodle. Not only the banks, not only the money. Money helps all the rest flow but money by itself is a lot of useless scratches on metal, paper or screen. It does what blood does as it circulates through our bodies, it acts as a vital catalyst. But it is neither the kit nor the caboodle.

Yet the Coalition government of yesteryear loudly and persistently claimed to have provided good economic management. As evidence, then Treasurer Costello pointed to the money piled up in bank accounts. So many billions in this and that account. It seemed we were rich. The nation's universities might be on short rations but we had good economic management (GEM). Our ports were screaming for infrastructure but we had GEM. So said Mr Costello. Our hospital system was limping from failure to failure but we had GEM , or so said Mr Howard.

One could make a laundry list of retarded industries suffering from GEM while money sat inert in various accounts, but the lily needs no gilding. Good economic management was the government's loud boast and it was never challenged. Not by the Labor Opposition for perhaps tactical reasons but, more importantly, not by media commentators for no reason at all.

Collectively called the Commentariat, they failed to demand a distinction between money in banks and a healthy, living national economy. In particular they failed to say that higher education and research were being short changed.

What do people of the Commentariat look like? If you want to spoil the ease of your Sunday mornings, tune to 'Insiders' on ABCTV at 9 am or catch the 11 a.m. audio-only replay on ABC Newsradio.

In the chair is veteran journo Barrie Cassidy who does his best to bring out the best in his team. First there is Murdoch editor Paul Kelly who pontificates. Kelly frequently uses the word important perhaps because it reflects on him. Then come commentators drawn three at a time from a big stable including Piers Akerman, puff master for geriatric ideas; Malcolm Farr of the Sydney Tele, earthy bystander; Lenore Taylor, moderate opinion writer for the Oz; Annabel Crabb, up and coming scribe from the op-ed page of Sydney's Granny Herald; Andrew Bolt, well spoken Tory of the Melbourne Press.

What do they talk about? Policies and polls, electoral analyses, spin and spinners, the minutiae of machine politics. Rarely do they mention such crucial questions as 'How come our national engines are running down while we have so much money in the bank?'

One question the Commentariat is failing now is the choice of a front-line fighter/bomber to replace the F111. It goes into the too-hard basket because it is very complex for a reader to assess on the run.

Briefly, Four Corners some weeks ago showed a flaw in the Howard government's decision to buy the Super Hornet plane from the US for $6 billion. The Super Hornet has a poor reputation among air forces of the world. Our choice was made before France had a chance to present its own super fighter/bomber, one which would probably outperform the Super Hornet. It seemed the old government was determined to choose American no matter what.

Cut to the present. The new government is showing signs of wriggling out of the Super Hornet deal and is begging the US to let us have its absolutely super-dooper Strikeforce aircraft when it comes on line ten years or so from now. Never mind that it has not yet flown and might turn out to be a dog. Never mind that Congress has decided the US will not sell it to anybody but the USAF. The mindset of the Rudd Government seems to replicate the mindset of the Howard Government -- buy from Uncle Sam and forget the French and other competitors.

You can see why the Commentarial might fight shy of raising the matter: it's a can of worms.

But that is one reason for employing commentators -- to sort out cans of worms on behalf of the voting public.

Compared to the knot of puzzles in the fighter/bomber debate, the need to foster higher education in Australia is clear and simple. Universities are under nourished. Spend more on them and rewards will flow.

Fortunately, the Commentariat does not represent the media as a whole. There are ways to bypass op-ed commentators and to engage the public through mass media. One of which is to admit that unis need their own spin doctors, distasteful as that idea may seem.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.