In the dim dark ages when I was starting in journalism, Sydney had two afternoon newspapers — well, the first editions actually came out mid-morning and calling them newspapers may have been a bit of a stretch, but there were certainly two of them: The Sun and the Mirror.
They were fiercely competitive, especially when it came to a front page screamer to attract the passing shoppers, and they were not exactly scrupulous about how they got one. The news editor of The Mirror, a veteran fabulist from way back, had developed a ploy for a day when nothing seemed to be happening. He would order one of his young cadet journalists into swimming togs and send him to Bondi Beach to mingle with the surfers.
At precisely 15 minutes before deadline the cadet would rush from the water screaming “shark! shark!” and well before the ensuing panic subsided the Mirror was on the streets with its horror-shark headlines. This not only served to increase the Mirror’s circulation, but was also a welcome distraction form whatever more serious, but more mundane, crises might be occurring.
Last week brought an unmistakable sense of déjà vu. The mass media discovered that sharks were actually quite common around the Australian coastline. One enterprising sub-editor described them as a plague, suggesting that the fish were swarming like locusts. Bathers were advised to avoid the water, or, if they must swim, to carry a large blunt instrument with which to strike ravenous sharks on the snout.
Nowhere in this Monty Python style scenario was it noted that you are more likely to get killed by a lightning strike than by a shark attack. And of course, you are far more likely to get severely injured by the economy than by either. It says something about the Australian character that the populace is more worried by the unlikely possibility of marine predators than by the certainty of recession.
And it is now a certainty. Even before Access Economics pronounced the budget buggered, it was clear that the twin props on which we had been relying to save us from the fate of the rest of the industrialised world had been pulled from under us. The Chinese miracle was well and truly over. While the billions to our north would still need out raw materials, they would need far less of them, and would pay much lower prices. And as a result the great mining boom was also grinding to a halt. Indeed, not only were the big diggers cancelling planned new projects, they were cutting down on existing ones and laying off large numbers of employees.
No one is any longer pretending that deficits can be avoided; it is simply a question of how big and for how long. The same will apply to the rise in the unemployment rate and the collapse of our balance of payments. Things may not look quite as grim as they do in Europe, but they till look very grim indeed — certainly grimmer than they did at the start of Paul Keating’s recession we had to have.
Yet the general public is treating he approaching disaster with quite remarkable insouciance. Wayne Swan’s bigger and better first home owner’s grant has been snapped up as if worries about repayments were a thing of the past; obviously the buyers believe that their jobs are safe. Similarly, Harvey Norman and its competitors are still urging their customers to cart the goods out the front door and pay nothing for a year and a half.
Perhaps they think that in a year and a half everything will be back to normal. Well, it might, but not too many professionals share their optimism, and even the deliberately upbeat rhetoric of the politicians is developing a hint of desperation. Kevin Rudd may well have spent his holidays honing an oration involving positively Churchillian quantities of blood and toil, sweat and tears to come.
But if the confidence can endure, it will in itself significantly shorten the recession and lessen the pain. Of course, this week that confidence gets a mighty fillip with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Obama is not the messiah, but he is a powerful symbol of change and hope. Perhaps the punters have got it right: things aren’t quite as bad as they seem, even if it’s not safe to go to the beach.
Indeed, even the National Party of Australia is in a buoyant mood — or at least its New South Wales branch is. The Nats have decided to experiment with American-style preselections, in which all their supporters, not just party members, can vote to choose a candidate.
The idea is to avoid the increasingly common situation where the party’s candidate had been beaten by a more popular rival standing as an independent, which makes a bit of sense. But it also carries risks. The obvious one is the possibility that if a maverick gets the nod — and goes on to play the role of an independent anyway — the Nats could end up with a party room full of Barnaby Joyces, only more so.
But the other risk is that the membership will simply melt away. After all, they have no input to policy; that’s the prerogative of the parliamentary leadership. The only reason for enduring the meetings is to have a say in preselecting their own candidate. If they can’t do that, what’s the point? And without the troops to stuff envelopes, man polling booths and stack talkback programs, even the most popular candidate is going to look a bit bereft.
Still, it’s worth a try; the state the Nats are in anything’s worth a try. The worst it can do is accelerate their inevitable demise. And it’s something else to take our minds off the economy.