Sunday, March 9, 2014

Feeling sorry for Australia? Yeah, right

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 7.)
IT MUST BE tough being Australian right now.

Think about it. They’re shutting down the factories that produce the Holden and the Ford Falcon – cars that, for generations, have helped define what it meant to be Australian.

The Holden and the Falcon are Australia on wheels, but the country’s guilty secret was that the two automotive brands were able to survive only with massive taxpayer handouts. Economically speaking, they were crocks.

Australian governments spent an estimated $30 billion over the past 16 years propping up the car industry and the workforce it employed. Now Tony Abbott’s government has decided the subsidies must end – a bold move, given the Holden’s sacred status in Australian culture.

It’s worth pointing out that New Zealand went through this painful process more than two decades ago, when our politicians realised it made more sense for cars to be built in their country of origin.

The phasing out of protection for the domestic vehicle industry is one reason why a new car in New Zealand now costs the equivalent of 30 weeks’ salary rather than 90 weeks’, as was the case in the 1980s.

In this, we were ahead of the Australians – but then we often are, though the average Aussie would sooner undergo multiple limb amputations than admit it.

Arguably even more traumatic for patriotic Australians than the collapse of the car industry is the crisis engulfing Qantas – Australia’s best-known brand internationally, and hence an even more potent nationalist symbol than the Holden.

Last week, on the same day as Air New Zealand celebrated a record half-year profit, Qantas was announcing a $271 million first-half loss and the shedding of 5000 jobs.

This was accompanied by renewed wailing from Qantas about the unfairness of competition. It seems the first instinct of the Australian carrier when it’s in trouble is to run to Mummy government complaining that the playing field isn’t even.

Australians are famous for their swaggering self-confidence, but you have to wonder whether, underneath that tough veneer, they are actually fearful and insecure. Just look at how they fought to keep New Zealand apples out of the Australian market on spurious pretexts, and how they recently stripped New Zealand products from their supermarket shelves.

Perhaps reality is starting to bite for the Lucky Country. The mining boom helped insulate Australians against the global financial crisis and may have convinced them they were invincible – a view to which the typical Ocker is highly susceptible.

Don’t you feel sorry for them? No, I don’t either.

* * *

WATCHING the rebirth of ACT, and in particular the performance of its new leader Jamie Whyte, is like watching a high-wire artist crossing the Niagara Falls.

Mr Whyte is an intelligent man who, unlike the impostor John Banks, believes in ACT’s original credo and promises to take the party back to its ideological roots.

His big problem is that he seems honest. Once journalists latched on to this novelty, they realised there was some sport to be had.

A question about incest, which Mr Whyte answered with the ingenuousness of a political novice, was quickly followed by one about polygamy.  Result: a media furore.

As long as he responds to questions like a philosophy lecturer (his previous calling) rather than a politician, the media will continue trying to trap him into saying outrageous things which can then be used to ridicule him. It doesn’t help that these are philosophical positions that can’t easily be explained in a sound bite.

Whether this will harm him politically is another matter. It’s possible the commentariat was more excited by his statements than the public, which very likely recognised it was Whyte the pointy-headed philosopher speaking.

To get back to the high-wire analogy, Mr Whyte has managed to stay upright so far. But each curly question is like a gust of wind that causes him to teeter precariously before regaining his balance.

Will he make it safely to the other side, or will he topple into the torrent below? Either way, ACT’s true believers may be in for a few more heart-stopping moments.

* * *

NEW ZEALANDERS drink to get drunk, declares the ever-censorious Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. “One of the ways Kiwis drink is we drink to get drunk,” he told the Dominion Post this week. “People plan their whole weekend around it – what’s the next drinking occasion and how much can I drink.”

Really? This doesn’t describe any New Zealander I know. Mr Bell’s description may apply to a small and troublesome minority of binge drinkers, but he didn’t differentiate. According to him, we’re all hopeless inebriates.

As long as the wowser lobby resorts to ridiculous hyperbole in an attempt to whip up hysteria over alcohol, it forfeits the right to be taken seriously.

1 comment:

Bill Forster said...

Nice piece as always Karl. Sometime it seems Australia's natural advantages let them stay ahead of us even as they do dumb things we can't afford. I'd add the remarkable duplication and waste involved in their over-elaborate system of government. One minor quibble;

"It seems the first instinct of the Australian carrier when it’s in trouble is to run to Mummy government complaining that the playing field isn’t even"

Actually I think they run to Mummy government complaining that playing field IS even !