Opinion- 30 August 2007




Harry Robinson: And Another Thing! 


pdf file-available from Australasian Science


Some things make one spit. As a frinstance, the statement that the video game industry is now bigger than film making. Gamers say it's not only for slot-eyed teenagers. Average age is around 35 and four out of ten players are female.

Knee-jerk reactions won't do. Carping over percentages won't rub out the fact that the intellectual effort to create games is big, big, big. And the effort to play them is likewise. So Australia should be doing pretty well out of the V-games? We're a bright lot, smarter than most, surely?

No. We are limping along. Players say our Web connections don't allow us to interact with offshore opponents. Probably more to the point, no government has tried to create a business environment for game makers to flourish.

One more missed opportunity to exploit our own citizens.

Another thing to make you spit: our railways and ports cannot keep up with overseas demand for coal. Mining companies saw the demand rising, sent their sales forces out to win orders, lifted output, tried to send an avalanche of the stuff to buyers overseas only to find inadequate infrastructure put a choke on the flow.

Government? Where was government when the need for rail lines and port machinery was arising? The federal government was obsessed with bookkeeping and budget surpluses -- with sprucing up the national passbook. As though money in the bank does much for national wealth.

Another thing: Kevin Rudd says he will establish a string of GP clinics in country areas. One owner/operator of a GP clinic in a country town snorted at that. "There aren't enough G Ps to go round now, let alone staff new clinics." Why? "Because the coalition government failed to fund our universities properly years ago."

One could go on and on about our tardy broadband, lame efforts to put a shine on solar energy applications -- but enough is enough. We are wallowing in cramped vision. Governments cannot do everything, nor should they try but only governments have access to quality data in all fields. It's up to them to keep a gallery of potential winners. Universities cannot do everything but they do have a dual role of promoting scientific research while teaching right out to the edge of education.

Forget about governments and political parties for the moment. Those parties are flat failures when it comes to thinking for the nation, soaked as they are in petty power ploys, tricks for winning votes, scrums of faction against faction. The nation can go to hell for all the parties care. One result is that the outcome of the coming federal election is unlikely to be a satisfactory government. It looks certain that the Howard Government will lose many seats but the required 16? That's a big ask. The Rudd Opposition needs to take more than 16 for a working majority. What is the good of a majority of three, or four or even five seats to either side? Such a government -- ALP or Coalition -- would be nervous, prone to trifling tactical decisions, scared to attempt any major policy drives.

(Of course the result could be a landslide for the challengers, as polls are predicting. Polls deal in bland overall percentages, not in seat-by-seat counts. Still, landslides have happened before. Rudd is not looking for one. He says it will come down to a nail biter.) Neither of the major parties presents a clear picture of what it hopes to achieve for the future of Oz. The ALP wants to be kind to workers and to its own members. The Libs want to be kind to business and to its own members. As for visions which might produce enough doctors and other health providers, or an infrastructure to anticipate rising demands, or a climate for video game producers to win their way in a great big world -- they are silent.

There's a role here for the Ed-Sci establishment. Not a formal outfit to lobby for funds, or a committee to push for legal freedoms on research, not an agency to wrestle against existing strictures but rather an out-reaching force to engage the public imagination, to put up possible lines of action, to illustrate ways of using our brains for our national good. It need not be expensive. It could begin with a website, it could extend to seminars, exhibitions, competitions and more and more.

This column is getting carried away with itself. How about a little light relief -- a video game anyone?


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.