Confirming the gloom. If you read the British magazine The Economist you would surely be among the worriers. It concludes a gloomy assessment this morning of world factory output plunging at its fastest pace in decades with advice to policymakers that they need to do more to prop up demand:

Fiscal stimulus packages that seemed sufficient two months ago may be too small, and too slow to take effect. Much of the infrastructure spending in the package that China announced in November will not kick in until later this year. This week’s decision by Germany’s government to add a second €50 billion ($66 billion) stimulus package is a step forward, though at barely more than 1% of GDP it is still far too small. For the time being, the biggest and quickest fiscal boost is likely to come from America, as the Obama team seeks speedy passage of an $800 billion package of tax cuts and spending. That sort of money may put a brake on the global industrial collapse, but it will not set the world economy on course for a sustainable recovery. Others still need to do far more.

Time to worry. When they start running those little polls on websites asking if people think you should be sacked it is probably time for a politician to start worrying a little bit. When Victorian Transport Minister Lynne Kosky notices that 88% of Sun Herald readers think that “after the latest public transport fiasco” sacking is appropriate, then the worrying should begin in earnest. While such polls are a poor guide to the actual state of public opinion, for a state government, trains that do not run on time are a real vote loser. Luckily for Ms Kosky an election is still some time off — plenty of time for her to be shuffled sideways if and when a fall gal is needed.

And another little poll danger sign. Vox pop polls that show a racial or religious bias are even more predictable than those showing anger over poor public transport. Thus there is no surprise in these findings this morning from the tabloid sites after the stories based on the Brisbane radio babbler who expressed his concern about women wearing “naqibs”

What is more significant is that the stories about Muslim head gear featured well up on the most read lists of the tabloid websites. Front pages like that of the Melbourne Herald Sun are designed to play on the emotions of people and they achieve their purpose. Fear of foreigners did not die with the passing of the official white Australia policy.

What, me worry? There is almost a Mad Magazine aspect to the way that Australians seem to be taking the world financial crisis in their stride. The latest weekly Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence rating was up 3.1 points and the first time the rating has been above the long-term (1973-2009) average of 106.5 since March 2008. It was the seventh week in a row that the rating has increased although it is still 11.4 points lower than in January 2008.

On the weekend of January 10/11, 2009, 42% (up 6%, and the highest figure since December 2007) of Australians expect their family to be “better off” financially over the next 12 months, while just 17% (down 3%, and the lowest figure since March 2008) say that they expect to be “worse off” and 41% (down 3%) expect their family to be “the same” or don’t know. Meanwhile the country’s economic pundits are finding bad news everywhere and the prediction of tough times ahead, like this morning’s Melbourne Age front page, just keep on coming.

Lower mortgage payments and falling petrol prices are clearly having more impact on Australian public sentiment than the very modest increase in unemployment reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week. I fear the day will come when Alfred E. Neuman actually does start to worry.

Peter Fray

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