Opinion- 28 June 2008

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Harry Robinson Admonishes: "Vanity Unfair"


pdf file-available from Australasian Science



Not long ago we suddenly began to say, 'We are a rich country.' Rich became a buzz word. Peter Costello encouraged us in our vanity by building up bags of money and labelling them Future Funds and such.

With all that money set aside, we could stay rich no matter what. Wayne Swan took Peter Costello's place and talked of more surpluses, more funds, more riches.

Lots and lots of citizens who felt rich shouted 'Yipee' and couldn't buy big heavy 4WD vehicles, plasma TV screens, Mac Mansions in the 'burbs fast enough. Some even took out a handful of credit cards to help them spend their riches. O the vanity of it all.

Mr Rudd came in on a euphoric wave, signed Kyoto, apologised to our Indiginees, even held an Ideas Summit in King O'Malley's city. It seemed no rain could ever fall on our Vanity Fair.

Nasty reality began to cast dark shadows. First came the Yanks (always good for a dash of blame) with their sub-prime loan disasters. They caused us a little pain here and there, particularly on those who'd run up piles of debt. But withheld, luxury cars kept on selling, wide screen TVs kept on selling, fancy restaurants kept on charging much for a little food. House prices turned spongy.

Worse, the skies refused to rain and rivers ran all but dry. Food prices began to rise and rise.

Worst of all and this seemed totally unjust, petrol prices -- well, they jumped, leapt, hurdled over themselves to flatten our Vanity Fair.

We responded poorly. Talk back callers knew who was at fault: the government. That old Australian cry 'The Gummint Orta' filled the air.

But the gummint couldn't orta. For Mr Rudd and his troops Vanity Fair had turned into Vanity Unfair.

Opposition leader Brendan Nelson was certainly unfair when he proposed to cut fuel excise by 5c a litre. A trivial gesture of no interest to anyone who could compare 5c with 140c. But Prime Minister Rudd was unfair to the nation when he went into a flap and responded with 'Fuel Watch'\ An even more futile gesture. Later, Mr Rudd thought he'd make a big gesture and gave $38 million to the poor little Toyota company to hurry up and build hybrid cars in Oz.

What difference could 10,000 hybrid cars make when millions of ordinary old cars are on the road already? How would that help diesel truck owners?

It was time to think not of gestures but of big big solutions.

How unfair of Mr Rudd to be Kevin the Unready!

The natives became restless and loudly so. They wanted a share of yesterday's riches. Nurses pushed for more money. Teachers began to talk strike. As did flight controllers. Qantas engineers rolled out stoppages and passengers bore the brunt.

An infrastructure virus infected gangs of commentators. What this country needed was upgraded ports, railroads, dams, hospitals, water schemes, broadbands and more.

And would you believe some academics put in demands for a 25% catch-up stream of dollars to bring university installations up to scratch? Some people have no modesty, no shame.

Vanity Unfair has turned into a dog fight for funds.

(Yes, I know that funding has become a euphemism for money, our money, public money. F-u-n-d-i-n-g sounds soft and smooth; but it means $s in multiples.)

There are many dogs in this fight and most of them know how to fight hard. If academe is to get a fair share of funding, it will need to hire big dogs, clever dogs, furious dogs. R & D people cannot do it themselves. They don't have the fighting instincts. Ask yourself how many scientists, R & D experts, are in the nation's parliaments. Precious few compared to lawyers, farmers, union secretaries, party functionaries. They are men and women who thrive on debate and disputation.

Fortunately, the scientific and teaching people don't need to look far for dog fighting experts. They're on the premises. Most universities these days teach communications, journalism, political science. They breed spin-doctors.

Dear Vice Chancellors, you are too sober, too measured for this kind of work. Enlist your own fighting dogs for the job of winning funds for the cause of higher education and research.


PS. We are not stuck in Vanity Unfair. Our prospects can still be rich if only we play our parts well. Our future needs biologists, geologists, marine experts even mathematicians. One could go on but it is enough to say the Oz of 2030 needs highly educated minds more than any other commodity. You know where they come from.

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.