David M. Russell

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Capitalism vs Democracy

In Commentary on June 29, 2009 at 5:42 am

The relationship between capitalism and democracy is the central issue of our time, demonstrated by the current Global Financial Crisis. Both are systems notionally offering freedom. But do they? Which should have primacy and which should be subordinate?  Unquestionably democracy should prevail.  If  ‘the market’ (capitalism) is unregulated we are entirely at the mercy of something over which we have no control. It goes against the very notion of civilisation: that is, that we are sufficiently sophisticated to devise regulatory systems. But the notion of regulatory systems goes against the grain of unfettered freedom, doesn’t it? Aha! True freedom is not unfettered freedom. It never can be. That would be a reversion to neanderthal times.

Old farts – useful or useless?

In Snippets on June 28, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Governments around the world are facing a real problem: old farts. We just won’t die for them. They’d like us to pop off this mortal coil so they could save a fortune in pensions and other welfare subsidy payments. But we just won’t play the game and longevity rates continue to rise.

The Australian government has decided to get up the nostrils of old folks by telling us that we have to work longer. They intend raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 (sequentially from 2017 to 2023). Blue collar workers, in particular, find the concept challenging, arguing that their bodies are less able to cope with the demands of (generally) hard physical labour. They’ve accused government MPs of being ‘pen-pushers’ who wouldn’t understand the very concept of work (let alone hard work!).

The government won’t budge, though, saying most of us can expect a retirement period of 19 years compared to just 11 a century ago. Despite their protestations they have our best interests at heart, the fact that they can save $800 million a year in pension payments tells the real story. Mean bastards!

Weasel words

In Snippets on June 28, 2009 at 11:09 pm

In these tough financial times, governments are looking to save every cent so they are cutting-back on service delivery. Of course, they never like to admit that so they use the spin doctors to produce some weasel words to hide their real intent.

This is especially the case when that service delivery involves some embarrassment for the government. Such as performance measures highlighting how traffic congestion is forcing commuters to take ever longer to get to work.

That would explain how more than 20 performance measures appeared in the Budget papers with this notation: “This measure has been reviewed and it is considered that the measure should either be replaced with a more meaningful measure or discontinued”.

Liars! You just know that if they can’t find a way to produce statistics that make them look better, the whole thing will be scrapped. Why can’t they just be honest enough to admit they are as useful as leeches sucking the blood from hapless victims?

Fool’s gold

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:51 am

How did we get suckered by the notion that we could all suddenly become wealthy? I mean, what a fool’s dream! How much history do we have to choose from to know that most people don’t end up rich – only the very select few make it really big, financially. We have thousands of years of previous experience to quite clearly point out that real wealth is the province of the very few. Yet, we fell headlong for the biggest sucker punch in the history of humankind: we came to truly believe that we would be the first generation to achieve real and meaningful wealth for more than half the population. What were we thinking? How did we become so arrogant? How could we have been so stupid as to believe that we could overturn thousands of years of bitter-sweet experience that has one unchangeable lesson: only the very few amass real wealth?

Honestly, you have to shake your head in sad acknowledgement that we must rank as THE most naïve generation in history. We truly thought anyone one of us could make it really BIG. Sure, there were a lot of scumbags peddling false hope through a bewildering variety of suspect scams. But that’s been the case through all history. What has never happened before is that so many of the general populace actually got sucked-in. So many of us thought the stock market was simple and straightforward. We were so stupid we didn’t even kick the tyres. Fair dinkum, the clever dicks saw us coming and we just laid down, thought of England and surrendered our virginity. In any realistic assessment it would be called rape. But we were so arrogant and egotistical that we actually invited them to do unto us. We dropped our undies, bent over backwards and offered everything sacred we possessed.

Historians will debate for generations to come how we could have been so stupid. Did we really think stock prices would continue to rise FOREVER? Did we really think that the destruction of value could yield profits for the many? You may well ask: what is he suggesting? Let me be frank: we were stupid. We fell – hook, line and sinker – for smartarses who told us they could borrow vast sums of money to purchase companies and then make massive amounts of profit by smashing that company into little pieces and selling-off the splinters for way more than the original ‘vase’ was worth. Yeah, right! Come on. That’s what we were doing. And it wasn’t just a few of us. This was a whole world gone crazy. Mum and dad investors who had never in their lives bought a share were ‘leveraging’ their entire life savings and asset base to go into hock to a level that defied sensible assessment to reap returns that were – by any measure – simply too good to be true.

When did we – and our generation is the only one in history to have been so across-the-board stupid – consign to the waste bin, the notion that if it’s too good to be true, it’s a dud? Honestly, adages have a place in our language and our culture because they are little snippets of truth that get passed from one generation to the next to save our children from getting hurt. But we baby Boomers knew better than any of our forebears – hundreds of generations of them. We blithely said they were shmucks: they didn’t know what day it was. Our view was that there was easy money to be made and we’d be fools not to help ourselves. Well, isn’t there a lesson in that, eh?

There is no such thing as easy money. Well, not without pain of some sort, at any rate. And that’s the point: in every previous generation in history, wealth has been the province of the selected few. Indeed, it’s actually an oxymoron to suggest that wealth can ever be accumulated by the masses. Yes, society as a whole can improve its living standard through the course of one or more generations. That’s sustainable. But the notion that all of us – or even most or just many of us – can achieve massive improvement in our comparative level of asset wealth, is a fool’s notion. It is simply not possible, Yet, we believed it as an article of faith. And, today, we are paying the price. Sadly, many will forfeit their lives in the crucifying realisation that they have been stupid. It matters not if they have been duped by unscrupulous swindlers. It matters not if they have been unfairly dealt with. It matters not if their intentions were as pure as the drive snow. They clutched at the straw that was too good to be true – and then many of them bet their houses on it. The consequences were disastrous.

Yes, we can play the blame game. There is a need to brutally and realistically assess the games that were played by the clever dicks that cost so many, so much. We need to determine how this madness came to pas and put in place regulatory mechanisms that prevent similar outrages for the foreseeable future. But let’s not delude ourselves: the blame doesn’t sit with the few: it belongs to the many. We all got greedy. We all got suckered. We all thought there was easy money to be had. Worse, is that many of us knew – deep in our hearts – that it was too good to be true. But we thought that if everyone else was getting in for their slice, we’d be stupid not to get some for ourselves. Like every teenage virgin who has sacrificed her greatest asset only to end up pregnant, we were all sluts. Is that too harsh? Don’t for a moment think I am placing responsibility on the female. No way! This whole shambles was a brutally male-driven, egotistical rape of sound societal values. Men should hang their heads in shame. It was not ‘The Women of Wall Street’ who seduced us. It was pathetically, self-obsessed, arrogant, lustful and greedy male bastards who conned us. They wanted their way with us and they had it.

And, do you know the worst thing? Most of those who created this sham market of illusory riches for all got out early and kept fortunes in safe harbours while those who were fairly or, indeed, even entirely innocent, are left to pay the price. That is where it is tempting to indulge in real anger. In many ways it would not be misdirected. Yet, it would be pointless. The inescapable fact is – and, until we learn this lesson, we can make no valid progress – the fault lies with us. We saw something that was too good to be true and we rushed in headlong. We couldn’t want to get ourselves pregnant. Well, now we pay the price. There is a baby to be raised and it is the opportunity we bequeath to subsequent generations. Do we leave things in a massive, horrible mess? Do we wash our hands of responsibility for rectification simply because so many of us have been so hurt? No, we must salve our consciences and the only viable way of doing that is to clean up the mess.

We must meaningfully acknowledge that greed got the best of us. We must put in place measures to prevent future abuses of the type that became so commonplace through the 80s, 90s and 00s. We must restore sanity to capitalism. The fundamental lesson that must be learned is that freedom can only thrive within a mantle of discipline. Wantonness will lay waste to it every time. The fool’s dream is that freedom is strong. It is not. It is the most elusive, will-of-the-wisp concept we can ever conceive. It exists – not as a right – but as a truly rare and fragile gift. We have a responsibility – yes, each and every one of our generation – to nurture this precious creature and restore it to a state of ruddy good health so that it can be bestowed upon our successors in a way that leaves a legacy of life able to sustain future development.

Swine flu scandal

In Humour on June 28, 2009 at 1:47 am

It has been revealed that the hysteria currently sweeping the globe due to the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico was actually triggered by a PR campaign instigated by beef producers. Angered by the Mad Cow Disease scandal several years ago which decimated sales of beef products in many countries, producers engaged global PR consortium Flack&Spin to rebuild their image.

A traditional media campaign was developed and implemented across two continents but met strong resistance from vegetarian protest groups in non-aligned nations. Taste tests were sabotaged with samplers reporting many eaters found the beef to be chewy or stringy and not to their liking. Against the ticking clock of diminished revenues, beef producers decided on direct action. Realising that offence is often the best form of defence, they decided to take-out a major competitor: pork. Not wanting to damage a key outlet for their product – beef tacos – the cattlemen directed their focus on a skirmish campaign in Mexico. To bolster their available resources, the beef producers enlisted the help of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

After several strategy sessions, it was realised that WHO was sitting on a massive stockpile of surgical face masks. In a quirky twist of fate billions of these gauze protectors had been stockpiled just as the earlier Mad Cow Disease outbreak abated. Clogging massive storage facilities in strategic locations adjacent to major population centres the masks were draining WHO funds because of the high cost of storage. Details of what happened next are hazy but the cattlemen now testify that Flack&Spin went their own way, determined to show they could mount a global campaign that would capture the world’s attention. Investigators suggest a young schoolboy from a slum area on the outskirts of Mexico City who had a head cold was sent to school with instructions to tell his teachers he felt really sick.

WHO north American spokesperson, Dr Usapart Tildeath, denied poor initial diagnosis at the local hospital led to the hysteria currently sweeping the world. “Claims that nursing staff were somehow deficient by not washing their hands properly are scandalous. We know there is a drought in the area but suggesting staff were trying to conserve precious supplies by not washing is very inappropriate.” Dr Tildeath also refuted claims made initially in Mexican media outlets that Flack&Spin had approached WHO with an offer to provide a community education campaign. However, there were reports overnight European time that a graphic design agency in southern Texas had prepared a series of mock posters about swine flu for use in a student marketing assignment at a Houston university. Somehow, the materials found their way to a free weekly newspaper which decided to run them as a community service.

Local radio stations believed the mock ads were real and began broadcasting details as a precaution to listeners. Television stations then ran pointers to their evening news bulletins mentioning the flu story. It would appear network anchors in their rush to be first with the news began to report unconfirmed details from other stations which fuelled a cycle of intense speculation but no corroboration. It was not long before the story had gone national and then international. As government agencies desperately try to learn just how the scandal began to unfold, attention focused on the PR firm, Flack&Spin and a connection to the Texas design agency.

Flack&Spin northern hemisphere spokesman, Michael Smoothas, denied the designers were regularly subcontracted by his own organisation. “Any suggestion we would be involved in a deliberate fear campaign is outrageous,” he said. “Do people think PR is still in the dark ages?” Meantime, US President Barack Obama has ordered the FBI to begin a detailed investigation into the swirling claims and counter-claims about Flack&Spin and their connection to beef producers. “If there turns out to be any truth in this I will be as mad as a cow,” he told reporters at The White House yesterday.

A guilty verdict

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:45 am

Greedy and grasping are descriptive terms most judges would think beneath their dignity. Indeed, they might even consider them defamatory. Recent evidence, however, suggests many of them are guilty of these flaws. It stems from a submission by Judges of Australia’s Federal Court and Family Court for substantial pay rises. Their key argument appears to be that their colleagues still in private practice are earning much more than them. It may be true but boo hoo!

Just before you get ready to open your wallet or purse and prepare to sacrifice some of your own hard-earned to help them in their hour of need, you should get an accurate picture of their hardship. Quite a number of them earn more than the Prime Minister (closer to $400,000 a year than $300,000) and you can bet he works much longer hours and under infinitely more scrutiny. Given these judicial pay packets are 6 or 7 times the average annual wage in this country it’s far from a bad deal. Sure, senior partners in the big private practice law firms are said to earn more than $1 million a year but our beloved judges do get compensations. They get first-class travel for free, a luxury vehicle provided, and world travel each year to attend conferences. Not to mention an employment guarantee until they are 70 – a jobless rate soaring to 10% poses no problems for these guys. Then there’s a huge retirement pension for the rest of their days and remarkable status in the community. Hardly hard labour!

Even one of their own colleagues gave them a touch-up saying they have the chance to whinge about remuneration before they are appointed to the Bench but it’s poor form once they have been elevated. As this former High Court justice said: “If you don’t like it, you don’t take it”. Hear, hear. The point that seems to have been overlooked in this is that Judges take on the role as a form of recognition. It is seen as a reward not just another step in one’s legal career (though advancement options are still plentiful). It is also a role that is heavily oriented to public service. That is, they become judges in order to give something back to the community. They are supposed to be benevolent not avaricious

How sad that these supposed pillars of our community offer so little to admire. Judges are supposed to be living exemplars of values. As dispensers of justice they sit at the very top of the totem pole, looking down on all the rest of us, even our elected representatives. Yet if judicial values are so debased by greed, where do we turn for enlightenment and example? Frankly, where the responsibility always rests – inside each one of us personally. We can’t rely on others to set the tone, we have to do it ourselves. Our reward won’t be the big bucks – just the satisfaction of knowing we are decent human beings.

Bloody politicians!

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:43 am

Australians have a wonderfully cynical love-hate relationship with our elected representatives. It’s a very split-personality relationship, too. For instance, we usually wouldn’t trust them as far as we could throw them – but we elected them in the first place! Go figure.

Our jaundiced view of politicians traces right back to our convict settler days when the distrust of authority figures was well-placed. Our national psyche still has lots of scar tissue from the treatment meted out to innocent and guilty alike. Yet, even though a couple of hundred years has gone by our scepticism has barely lessened. And, given the way they still behave today, you can hardly blame us for thinking the worst of them. The latest scandalous outrage concerns that fine bunch of community leaders who guide Queensland’s destiny. There’s nearly 90 of these Members of Parliament and the snuffling of their snouts in the trough is enough to turn your stomach. They have a fine little rort going and it’s one that is no doubt replicated across our other states and territories so the issue concerns us all. The cause of this consternation is electoral allowances – sums of taxpayer money doled-out every year by pollies to themselves to help look after us. Well, that’s their cover story anyway. Truth be told, some are actually using this money as a second pay packet. Which is not a bad racket given these allowances can add up to $100,000 a year.

When you consider that MPs pay themselves way over $100,000 a year anyway, you can perhaps feel a tinge of concern creeping in. That concern might turn to annoyance when you learn that some MPs are using this double-dipping jackpot to pay credit card bills, council rates, and even – get this – hand-outs to family members. But annoyance will surely turn to anger when confronted by their brae-faced brazenness in refusing to tell any of us how they are spending their second pay packet.

From the Premier down they have – with one exception – told us to mind our own business. Can you believe that? They would have us believe that spending our money is wholly and solely a matter for them and the Tax Man. This is based on a shifty rort they pulled a couple of years back with – one could very easily argue – this veil of secrecy in mind. The stonewall defence goes like this: Anything that happens between me and the Tax Man is confidential. So bugger off! Goodness gracious – anyone would think they were dealing with a Freedom of Information application! How dare we upstart voters suggest we have a right to ask for justification of how our elected representatives are spending our money? Gee, we’re a dreadfully arrogant lot, aren’t we? Quite bolshie, really.

What’s that? You think it’s not us but them that are arrogant. Yes, well, I can see how you could think that. But they’re our political masters aren’t they? Due and entitled to our respect and loving adoration? Yeah, right! You know, the most annoying thing about this (and heaven knows how many other similar rorts our pollies are scamming around the nation) is the lack of respect and arrogance. I mean, we actually accept that they engineer great rorts. That stopped shocking or even surprising us decades ago. Equally, we have come to terms with the frustration of them being so hellishly overpaid. Just don’t treat us as fools, okay? You could choke on your Weeties when the Minister nominated to defend this rort says it would cost too much to check on all the pollies to make sure they aren’t being unscrupulous. Excuse me? This from a leader of a government which pays veritable armies of public servants and spends something like $36 billion a year!

So, dear politicians, please remember those virtues you espoused when seeking our votes: be honest, transparent and accountable. You demand it of us in response to all the laws you make to keep us in line, so just give us back in kind, all right?

Crisis? Which crisis?

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:36 am

Hundreds of thousands of Australians in every corner of this country are suffering real emotional hardship as they watch their retirement nest eggs dwindle. Others have lost even more and they are suffering the cruel fate of physical hardship as their lack of income curtails the lifestyle they had thought was theirs forever. Both groups are no doubt bewildered by why fate has been so unkind to them and what, if anything, they had done to deserve such a slap in the face. There are no easy answers – but quite a few lessons to be considered. At face value you could suggest the global financial crisis (GFC) and all its attendant business failures was simply fate and that all those caught-up in the maelstrom were merely unlucky. Who knows: it might be true. But if we probe a little deeper some other interpretations might emerge.

The most inescapable characteristic of the GFC is greed. Too many people tried too many ways to get too rich. Pure and simple. Now, there are many who would argue that our capitalist system encourages – perhaps even depends on – people maximising their wealth. Doing so is certainly legal and, in most circumstances, it is also ethical. So, where does this notion of greed come in? There are many examples. We can start with the Flesh Eaters. These nasty creatures crawled out of the woodwork some two decades ago with a credo that they could maximise the value of under-performing conglomerates. It was a seductive spiel and captured the world’s imagination by the sheer volume of capital they were realising. It was done by acquiring large groups of companies and selling-off what were termed under-performing subsidiaries. The corporate raiders as they became known were nothing more than pirates: macho braggarts swaggering around boasting that they were wealth creators. In fact they were nothing of the sort. Like piranha, they stripped all flesh from the carcass and left the bones to bleach as sad reminders of what once had been.

The silly thing is, we should have known. After all, these corporate raiders were attempting to overturn a venerable adage: that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. These financial jackals, however, wanted everyone to believe that the sum of the parts was worth way more than the whole ever had been. Tragically, it appeared initially as if they were right because the entities they flogged-off brought astounding prices. The doubters were quickly shunned as the rest convinced themselves that, at last, lead could truly be turned into gold. Hordes of eager investors started to line-up behind the raiders and commit their investment capital to plundering more and more established giants of industry and commerce. With the wisdom of hindsight we can now see that not since the mindless slaughter that characterised trench warfare in the World War I has so much needless damage been caused to the fabric of our society.

Excitement became exuberance became excess as a new and even deadlier phase of this game came to light. By now, this was starting to resemble a global Ponzi scheme where ever-more investment capital was needed to keep the game going. Breaking-up the engines of wealth creation required vast sums of capital to purchase the discarded offshoots – at valuations far greater than when they formed part of the original business. Yet it was becoming obvious that corporate break-ups could only be implemented so many times. After all, there were very many large conglomerates but the number was still finite. The plundering and pillaging continued until the landscape of the world’s  industrial, commercial and financial infrastructure was changed beyond recognition. Think of how many major companies – global businesses – have now disappeared forever. The smart guys by now knew that this rape of productive resources was ultimately unsustainable and some started cashing-in their chips. These were the really clever ones and the payouts they gouged still leave mere mortals shaking our heads in amazement. Despicable, perhaps, criminal in some cases and verging on evil in others, given the untold suffering they would cause to employees, shareholders and investors, many of them got away with it. Not all, but enough to provide a parallel with the shadowy remnants of Hitler’s Nazis presumed to have flitted into the jungles of South America.

The original sinners were dubbed Masters of the Universe and their type was immortalised by Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel, Bonfire of the Vanities and the character Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street. Like salmon spawning in the spring they ensured their progeny would live on by sheer weight of numbers and so we became accustomed to the second wave of these creatures. They were the traders and screen jockeys until they, too, ensured the survival of the species by procreating until they were as numerous as krill. And we called them investment advisers and financial planners. As the game unfolded, the insiders knew something had to give or the music would stop and there were far too few chairs to seat everyone. To keep the game going required a truly sinister innovation. It came in the form of derivatives. There is no strict definition of what this term means in respect of financial instruments or the kinds of investment products that started to flood the market. However, they are sometimes referred to as synthetic derivatives and therein lies the key to this conundrum. Synthetic means not genuine and it surely is an accurate definition for the kinds of ‘opportunities’ that were starting to be offered to an unsuspecting public.

There were a multitude of strange new creatures that investors had the chance to check out. Like exotic animas in a zoo, these creatures had names like Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs), Credit Linked Notes (CLNs) and Credit Default Swaps (CDSs). While they were all strange they shared a couple of characteristics. They were new (they had never existed before); they were complex; and they most assuredly were not for the unsophisticated investor. Yet, the worst of all these characteristics was that these financial instruments were not only tolerated but were in many ways actively encouraged by those we mug punters trust to keep our world safe: the stock exchanges, the banks, the credit ratings agencies and even our governments. Yes, they were all complicit. As guilty as sin. Even if governments did not endorse these derivatives, they condoned them. And, worse, they stood idly by while scams such as short-selling and other contrivances proliferated. So, we watch with horror as the carnage of the global financial crisis continues to unfold, and ask why did all these ‘protectors of our freedoms’ – the regulators in whom we were supposed to have faith and trust – stand idly by while Rome was set alight? The answer is the same one for all those who participated, either willingly or unwittingly. The ineffable sadness of this whole ghastly escapade is that it was constructed entirely from greed.

It is easy to point the finger at those whose guilt and complicity are beyond reasonable question. Not so straightforward is considering the role of mum and dad investors. Many will argue long and loud that they were – at worst – suckers. But if we are honest – and, yes, this is painful – we may find that an alternative viewpoint is valid. This view suggests that those who committed their available funds or, worse, borrowed to reap even greater perceived rewards, share a portion of the guilt for all this. These people willingly gambled to earn rewards that just a skerrick of commonsense suggested were unsustainable. And even if the rewards were predicted at a reasonable level, many of the investments skirted the cliff-top edge of legality by exploiting tax loopholes. If the aim is to salve a conscience then there are a million shades of grey to accommodate fragile sensitivities. Unfortunately that won’t rebuild our world. It was one-eyed self-deception that created this mess and we can only claw our way out of it by frank appraisal.

Where were the values of thrift; of contentment with ‘enough’; of prudence and probity; of decency and commonsense? They were rudely cast aside as whole societies grasped greedily for a larger slice of the pie. That we didn’t check the pantry to realise there were insufficient ingredients certainly makes us look foolish. Yet pretending it didn’t happen at all is far worse. The core lessons from the saga of financial foolishness that has defined the past two decades are brought into sharp relief when we consider how many sound values were set aside during that period. We used to smile when the term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ crept into our lexicon but while it amused us we did not learn its essential lesson: contentment cannot come from comparison or contrast. It can only come from within. Our happiness can never be sustainably dependent on our possessions. Sure, they can provide us with satisfaction but that’s not happiness.

We set aside commonsense and were seduced by a series of snake-oil salesmen who conned us that exceptional returns on investment were readily available as a matter of routine. Yet, as the saying goes: if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. Nor can we blame capitalism. It is a deeply flawed system but it is the best one we have been able to evolve. Our challenge is to understand and acknowledge that none of the mess we all find ourselves in today could have happened without the complicity of most of us. Accepting that our societal and personal expectations have become unrealistic is the key to discerning the ways forward. Being satisfied with our lot does not mean we sacrifice the pursuit of achievement or advancement. It simply requires a tone-up of our values.

Off-key singing sensation

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:31 am

Why do so many people think fame is so wonderful? The latest victim of this syndrome is Scottish signing sensation, Susan Boyle. This is the frumpy spinster with the voice of an angel who took the world by storm after an audition for UK TV show, Britain’s Got Talent. The clip of Boyle’s warbling made it into cyberspace and within days had attracted millions of hits. People were sucked-in by the remarkable beauty of her voice in marked contrast – it has to be said in fairness – to her rather plain appearance. But the world loves a battler making good and Ms Boyle became an overnight global sweetheart. With the world as her apparent oyster, Ms Boyle charmed most people who saw her on-screen appearances. It hasn’t taken long for the bubble to burst, however.

On the eve of the talent quest grand final, Ms Boyle was reported to have collapsed many times in tears. Indeed, she is sad to have packed her bags ready to walk away from the whole thing. Leaping to her defence was her older brother who wailed that she lacked the support given to major celebrities. Wow! How woeful have we become? Now when someone achieves a degree of fame they are supposed to have – actually be entitled to – a fully-fledged support system whatever that might entail. No doubt it includes a publicist to maximise the advantage of all that media attention, a personal trainer to help overcome any physical deficits, a manager to keep things running according to schedule, and a lawyer to keep the critics in check and negotiate fabulous deals to ensure this Warhol-like 15 minutes of fame becomes a major money-earner. But what remains a complete mystery is why people chase fame and fortune if they’re not ready to handle it if and when it happens.

After all, it was Ms Boyle’s personal choice to enter the competition. She may not have had faith that she would be as successful as it turned out but, having effectively won the jackpot, she can’t now complain that her life has changed. It’s a familiar refrain these days: as soon as something goes wrong we look everywhere but inside ourselves for someone or something to blame. It’s always somebody else’s fault. It’s fair enough to have some sympathy for Ms Boyle’s predicament – it would catch any of us off-guard – but, when the world is worshipping you, don’t stamp your feet and complain that it’s not fair. Spare us!

Ugly Aussies abroad

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:28 am

Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, it used to be fun sniggering at American tourists who wandered the world causing angst because they were so self-centred, loud and embarrassing. Sadly, they have lifted their game while many of us have raced to fill their shoes.

Some of the antics of Aussies abroad are just appalling. There are regular reports from overseas of loutish behaviour accompanied by childish whines of indignation when something goes wrong. This is sad on many levels. For a start, it tells us that our national culture is under siege. Once we used to take pride in how we were perceived. The world did not know much about Australia back then and those of us who travelled used to see ourselves as ambassadors with a national reputation to uphold. Not these days, though. The general demise of good manners across the globe has infected us, too.

It must be admitted that not all of us were little angels in days gone by. We had a reputation in many corners of the globe for larrikinism but most of those high-jinks were cheeky rather than boorish. Yes, there was that particular breed of ockers who would make anybody cringe but their numbers were few. Modern media seem to have demystified so much of life and that new familiarity has bred contempt. We are no longer over-awed when we visit other cultures because we have seen it all before on the telly. Familiarity has robbed us of a sense of wonder. It has made so much seem passé. So, now when we travel we are jaundiced before we’ve even left the loungeroom. Not all of us, of course, but enough for it to be a concern. We have idiots who treat tourist traps with cynical disdain until it all unravels in tears. Take the case of a barmat placed in a handbag. The ‘victim’ may well have been perfectly innocent – as pure as the driven snow – but reports of screaming at local officials, fleeing the scene and then trying to bribe police suggest someone who badly needs to grow up.

That kind of stupid behaviour indicates complete disdain for local customs, beliefs and sensitivities. No-one doubts the truth of reports that in some places scams are run to secure additional income for local officials. The conniving and bribery involved may be abhorrent to our sense of justice and fair play but it has to be realised that these places are not Australia and that we visit them by choice. As the saying goes: when in Rome . . .  Even worse is the assumption that because a particular suggestion is aired in a television program or a newspaper article, it is unarguable fact. Yes, there IS corruption in parts of Indonesia but to assume that it is the norm everywhere across that nation and that some 200 million people are all crooked is absurd. But our compatriots wander abroad and behave in just this way.

What is particularly galling is the tendency these days for Aussie tourists to scream for government help whenever things go awry. Like when many were stranded inside Bangkok airport during the recent political revolt. It’s not just that they plead for government assistance but that they demand it. They actually believe that it is their right as Australian citizens to be rescued by their government from any adverse consequence or unforeseen circumstance. What do they expect Canberra to do: despatch troops and stage a hostage rescue mission? Gunboat diplomacy was rarely an ideal policy response in days gone by but it is simply not a viable option in the modern world. It is the same with natural disasters. Anyone can sympathise with tourists caught in a calamitous event but to suggest the government has an automatic responsibility to rescue these people is outrageous. Supplying assistance to those whose neighbourhoods or homelands have been devastated surely takes precedence over personal discomfort. But what is truly galling is the arrogant presumption of many Aussie tourists. They think that if they wander off to see the world there is some sort of automatic safety net in place to protect them from any adverse consequences.

Even if they paid some extraordinary insurance premium to cover the massive cost of such rescue missions, their cheek is outlandish. That they think you and I should burn taxpayer dollars like they were going out of fashion to prevent them suffering inconvenience and discomfort is either stupid or arrogant or both. Where did this belief in government as some sort of massive security blanket come from? Whatever happened to assuming personal responsibility for our circumstances? If you want to go see the world, have a wonderful time. But our responsibility to you pretty much ends at our shoreline. If you don’t like it, stay home!