Viewpoint-30 June 2005




Harry Robinson on Spin, Scruples and the Costello Future Fund


Where did the Future Fund go? Born along with the last budget, it was all the go for a week or perhaps ten days. Then the infant idea --pfui!-- vanished, sank without

Treasurer Peter Costello.
Detail from Don Lindsay's Budget Day

trace, dropped off the radar screen.

It must be living somewhere in cyberspace, waiting for a call back to the real world. We shouldn't let it go. The idea has possibilities.

As outlined by Treasurer Costello, the Future Fund (the FF) was to soak up some of the government's current surpluses and hitch them to a good chunk of money from the eventual sale of Telstra. Presto! Thirty or even forty billion dollars devoted to securing the nation's future, to making it safe to live until 2040 or thereabouts.

Few politicians are as kind, caring and generous as Peter Costello.

He also had an idea for how the FF could be put to work -- form a trust directed by totally brilliant and superbly honest men and women and have them invest the money in securities .. shares, debentures with maybe some gilt edged bonds thrown in. The FF was bound to grow and grow for the benefit of the good citizens of 2040.

There were some critics. There always are some carping nigglers. This lot pointed out that if so much money were injected into the stock exchange the effect would be to inflate share prices and thus, in time, to devalue the FF.

That was the point at which the infant FF floated off screen.

Curiously, no sector of the public came out to lodge a claim on Costello's golden casket. Not even farmers who have a great thirst for public money. Nor did health funds ask for a slice. And especially not the intellectual end of town. Universities, strapped for cash as they are, kept mum. The scientific community let the FF pass. As for the people of the arts, writers, painters, film makers, theatre producers, actors -- all those scaly fringe dwellers who bewail their lot to a continuo in the key of p for poverty -- they sat on their hands.

The most surprising absentees were the knowledge people, the mind people, the teaching institutions, the researchers; surprising because they can offer high returns to a nation all too used to the low returns of commodities trading.

Four Corners in its last program for June tore into the short changing of universities, their declining reputation for teaching students from abroad. Killing the goose that had, at least, been keeping the unis going, said Four Corners.

Education minister Dr Brendan Nelson was unmoved. With a face as cold as any stone, he said more changes were on the way and they would not be popular but they had to come. Like all good authoritarians Dr Nelson knew all that anybody needed to know.

One change was flagged pretty well while Four Corners was going to air -- future research funds were to be tied to commercial outcomes. The consequences hardly need spelling out.

So we have a Philistine government determined to sit on a heap of money and damn all pointy heads with their airy fairy stories about what they might find if they were allowed to waste enough treasure.

The other side of politics offers little hope. When Bob Hawke was prime minister he made Barry Jones Minister for Science but dropped him when he began to talk of actually doing things with and for science. PM Keating gave John Dawkins the order to take an axe to universities. The main opposition party is now too troubled to think of setting the nation off on adventures of the mind.

And yet, and yet . nothing in politics is written in stone. Persistent public argument can move dense politicians and change lumpen policies. The argument must be carefully designed and expressed not in the flat style of academia, not in the prolix style of philosophers and certainly not in the frozen prose of university senate pronouncements.

A campaign to capture a slice of the Future Fund would need to be designed by a practised manipulator of public attitudes -- oh, to be frank, a spin doctor. Not all spin doctors are evil geniuses. Some are filled with good intentions -- these cannot be trusted. Others are amoral and hungry for success in manufacturing consent, to steal a phrase from that wizard of words Noam Chomsky. Such are fine candidates for isolating a few billions to advance the cause of the intellectual end of town.

It may be that many Mind People would shudder at the idea of hiring a spin doctor or getting into the dust of public campaigning.

Scruples when faced with a Philistine government?

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.