Opinion- 30 April 2008




Harry Robinson Asks: "Where are the Head-Kickers"?


pdf file-available from Australasian Science


Who would like to be Wayne Swan in this budget month of May?

He will have the exhilaration of standing at the dispatch box in brilliant light while the House listens in decent quiet and even the Prime Minister sits mute. He will deliver his document, his claim to arrange our money for the best. It will be his hour.

Later he will have to endure slings and arrows from critics, some well informed, some dopey, some muddled, some fair and hurtful. Not to mention the howls of rage from those who have to lose jobs or income.

Which will prevail -- the glory of the hour or the slings and arrows and howls of rage? He will probably keep his feelings to himself.

This treasurer has come to his job from Academe: he used to teach Government/Public Administration at QUT in between assisting Wayne Goss and pushing policy notions to the Queensland establishment. He seems well prepared for federal treasurer -- well, sorta kinda. Better than some earlier treasurers at any rate.

He has tangled web to sort out. To help him are the cashed up dollops of money piled up by Peter Costello -- some billions as starters. Then he has a buoyant export market for iron ore and coal with China apparently willing to order the stuff even in the face of rising prices. From exports flow corporate profits here and consequently tax in big dollops for the lucky Wayne Swan. Sad to tell, not everything is hunky dory. Spoilers come from the frightening uncertainties of the US-caused sub-prime mortgage debacle with horrible uncertainties for global banking. Into the tangle comes the knot of rising inflation at home.

No force is plain, nothing is simple. It would be easier to pick the trifecta of the next Melbourne Cup.

In the background stand the mandarins of the
Treasury Department who urge the treasurer to grab every possible cent of public money and spend not one cent more than absolutely necessary.

To further bedevil Swan's way come the special interest groups each of whom claims priority on the spending side of the budget.

The Australian Defence Association will be pressing the idea that the armed forces are crucial to our continued existence, without them we are doomed, therefore the services must have first call and a loud call on billions. The ADA has former military notables to spearhead its attacks on our cash. Wayne Swan will have to listen to them.

Farmers have a handful of special interest groups to state their claims. If they don't get some subsidies, some help with the water business, some relief from diesel tax .. If they don't get their teeth into consolidated revenue then Austrlia's exports will fail, farming families will have to go on the dole, millions of people around the world will starve and start food wars. It takes a strong man or woman to stand up to the cockies.

More discreetly but also more powerfully enter the special interest lobbies for big business, big miners, big industrialists, those friendly folk who talk in billions and think in trillions. Give them tax cuts or give the nation a fit of depression.

ACOSS joins in the pressure game to speak up for the clients of CentreLink, the millions of people who benefit from social service payments and tax breaks. Each client is a mere dot, all the clients add up to millions of voters. Can Swan resist the force of votes by the million?

Most articulate are the arts people. They don't amount to much in numbers or in monies demanded but what a noise they can make! They practice rhetoric on stage and in print. They know how to embarrass and they pull out all stops at budget time -- deny us funding and Australia will suffer spiritual death. Swan might well be tempted to give them a hundred million or two to shut them up.

Perhaps worse than the formal armies of special interest are the opportunists. We have one running at present in the person of Steve Price of the 2UE radio network (now part of Fairfax). Price sits in the time-slot previously the home of John Laws. It's a power point in media land.

It's also a power place for a campaign in favour of pensioners. Steve Price all but chokes when he talks of pensioners doing it hard, too scantily paid to 'buy a bit of steak for dinner.' He is running a campaign for more money in pension pockets, a plea likely to win support from 2UE listeners. They don't do their sums or they'd see that an extra $10 a week for more than a million recipients would cost Treasury oooooohhhhh, well, it would run into $billions a year. Wayne Swan cannot splurge on pensioners but he will feel hard pressed to make some gesture their way.

So many bunches of voters who want big slices of the cake. This list is not exhaustive. Frinstnce, Sharon Burrow, president of the ACTU, argues cogently for work safety expenditure.

We could go on but why re-invent the wheel? And what is the point of this poor prose? To raise sympathy for Wayne Swan? No. He wanted the job and now he must do the best he can with it. We need shed no tears for him.

What we do need to do is consider the position of higher education and scientific research -- the Ed-Sci community. Very little has been heard for Ed-Sci in the run-up to Mr Swan's first budget. Has Ed-sci come to understand the kind of market it is in? That it is a babble of voices shouting that they come first, they must have grants and great gobs of money? That decency and morality and logic are non-starters? That guile and noise prevail? That the scramble for dollars is a boots and all, a hoplessly undignified scrum? That sober and reasonable statements by university vice-chancellors have little chance of being heard?

In short, is the Ed-Sci community ready to see that it needs; repeat needs, a force of head-kickers to do the nasty noisy work?

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.