What would Sir Robert have done? It’s hard to image Sir Robert Menzies in the 1950s rushing out to the scene of a bushfire no matter how tragic. In those days before television, what would have been the point? There’s nothing the great man could actually have done — more likely he would just be getting in the way of those who actually did have a job to do. Nor did Joe Lyons spend his days in 1938 going to the funerals of the 438 Australians killed that year by a heatwave.

Things are different these days when the cameras are all pervasive and the ratings indicating the viewers at home watch scenes of tragedy with a morbid fascination. Prime Ministers now have the job of public mourners in chief with the role of consoling the suffering and advertising the relief appeals with a tearful eye. Gough Whitlam probably marks the turning point in the change in the prime ministerial role. He was off surveying the ruins on Rhodes when Cyclone Tracey struck Darwin in 1974 but could see no point in returning from his Mediterranean idyll. He knew there was nothing he could actually do any differently to his deputy, Jim Cairns, who, if my memory is correct, mobilised a national relief effort. What Gough overlooked was the impact that pictures of him on a “working holiday” had when juxtaposed with the devastation in the Northern Territory. Television had changed the game and after a few days he was persuaded that the reputation of the Labor Government was being so seriously damaged that his expressions of regret needed to be made from Australian, not foreign, shores. Since then the normal form of behaviour is for leaders to approach each tragedy as if they personally have taken charge. Kevin Rudd with his pen out writing in his lirttle notebook has even taken it to the point where he probably is! An impressive list of natural disasters. Over in the Attorney General’s Department there is a body called Emergency Management Australia that keeps tabs on Australian natural disasters going back to 1622 when 92 sailors died in a shipwreck on Monte Bello Island. The list on the Authority’s website helps put the events in Victoria in to some kind of perspective with 300,880 lives being lost although some 274,000 of those were were outside the country with the Idian Ocean tsunami.

A wonderful weekend for political journalism. A leadership challenge AND early election speculation! The egg beaters were beating away with force in the Canberra press gallery at the weekend as the lads and lasses speculated about Liberal Deputy Leader and Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop being challenged for both jobs while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was supposedly preparing the way for an early election. These two subjects — leadership challenges and elections — are the perennial and normally-meaningless favourites of political journalism. Their emergence shows that our respectably serious and responsible political journalists have had enough of covering grieving politicians.

The madness of sports sponsorship. The madness of business spending on sports sponsorship has been well and truly exposed as a by-product of the world financial crisis. Banks and insurance companies which have had to be bailed out with billions of dollars of taxpayers money by governments throughout the world are now revealed as having paid millions of dollars so that chief executives could big note themselves in corporate boxes at sporting events.

The London Sunday Times reports that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) hired top sports stars on “reckless” contracts to entertain clients as part of a £200m sponsorship binge. Sir Fred Goodwin, the bank’s former chief executive, agreed contracts of up to five years just weeks before he was ousted last October. The RBS website says its global ambassadors such as Sir Jackie Stewart, Jack Nicklaus and Sachin Tendulkar “represent our commitment to high-profile sport. Rugby’s RBS 6 Nations Championship and cricket’s RBS Cup are major events on sport’s global calendar, while the Williams F1 team, tennis ace Andy Murray, and golfer Paula Creamer are among others who help promote our brand internationally.”

According to The Sunday Express, the failed Royal Bank of Scotland is using £25million of tax-payers’ money to wine and dine clients at Formula One races. “The shamed bank admitted last night it was continuing to pour cash into the world’s richest sport through sponsorship of the Williams Formula One team,” the paper reported, “despite needing billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to stave off collapse. “

Not just spending a government handout. It was not just a government handout that Australians went spending with in December — we did a fair bit of borrowing as well. In further evidence that the people are not yet at the same panic stations as the economists, the value of total personal finance commitments increased 4.1% in December compared with November. There was an increase in fixed lending commitments of 8.9% while what the Australian Bureau of Statistics calls revolving credit commitments were up slightly (0.7%) for the month.The total value of owner occupied housing commitments excluding alterations and additions increased in trend terms (up 1.7%) and the seasonally adjusted series rose 7.1%.

Commercial financial lending in December was also stronger than the experts had predicted. While in trend terms lending is declining, the ABS reports the seasonally adjusted series for the value of total commercial finance commitments increased 1.8%, due to a rise in revolving credit commitments (up 40.4%), while fixed lending commitments fell (down 13.0%). Lease finance commitments (trend) decreased 0.4% and the seasonally adjusted series rose 5.1%. 

These results will give heart to Wayne Swan as he endeavours not to be the first Treasurer for 15 years to preside over a country in recession. 

Peter Fray

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