The Guardian 14 December, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

What a grand system capitalism is

I arrived back in the country last week after a short trip to Europe and was immediately reminded of what a grand system capitalism is. Our plane was forced by violent weather in Sydney to divert to Melbourne, where the airline put us up at the Rydges Hotel.

A reasonably posh pub, Rydges had everything you could want in a hotel room. Besides a well- stocked mini-bar, there were two prominently displayed bottles of "sparkling Australian mineral water".

Considering what the room would normally cost, I foolishly assumed the two little bottles of mineral water were a complimentary gift (they would cost Rydges about $1.50 each).

I was wrong, however. A label announced that they were $3.50 each.

I did get a complimentary newspaper in the morning, a paper that devoted half of page three to an account of the difficulties Rose Porteous, widow of mining magnate Lang Hancock, is having squeezing her collection of hundreds of shoes and 3,500 designer party frocks into a $3 million pair of town houses.

Well, of course, we all know how that can be a problem!

Poor Rose used to live in a $40 million mansion that Hancock built for her in Perth, but it seems that financially her current husband, Willie (who is in real estate), is not in Hancock's league.

She has had to move from Hancock's mansion to a modest "six bed-room, six bath-room" townhouse property in Melbourne's Toorak. According to the Melbourne Herald Sun, the new property is "crammed with antiques and modern furniture, two grand pianos, paintings and the latest in appliances".

Sounds like Prime Minister Howard's rosy image of the average Australian home, doesn't it?

There's no denying that there are hardships, however. Rose and her husband have to make do with only a "handful of staff".

And among the sacrifices consequent upon moving into a smaller property are "foregoing a wine cellar". Oh, don't you just feel for this poor woman?

I know I do, in fact I am so choked up I can't go on. I shall have to change the subject.

The bourgeois media, especially the tabloid media, has a lot to answer for. To sell their papers and thus secure advertising they foster stereotypes and pander relentlessly to the lowest common denominator.

The Herald Sun of November 30 ran a small story on page 10 about Victorian school leavers going to the Gold Coast and Byron Bay for their end-of-school holiday. I suspect that without the accompanying photograph of five 18-year-old schoolgirls in bikinis cavorting in the surf the story would not have run.

The girls, from Notre Dame College at Shepparton, were obviously full of youth-full high spirits, laughing and happy. They have just finished high school, so no doubt they have hopes and even fears about the future.

They will soon be going to university or into the workforce; what are their dreams and worries about life after the end of school? You won't find out from a tabloid like the Herald Sun.

For the tabloids, all teenage girls are airheads, and that's the message they relentlessly convey to their readers.

It is certainly the way these five girls (and by inference the thousands of other teenagers celebrating on Queensland's beaches) are portrayed. "Our main aim has been to spend as much time as we can on the beach and meet boys", one of them is quoted as saying.

If the reporter tried to get anything more substantial from the girls and into the story it did not get past the sub-editor.

On the facing page were two tiny "fillers", one above the other. The first, with the headline "Oi! Arrest that bozo", was about an employee in the US of the Wendy's hamburger chain who was caught red-handed robbing the safe.

The only thing that made this mundane item "newsworthy" was the culprit's name: Ronald McDonald.

Immediately underneath it was another item, given identical space, about the imminent destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

Beneath a miniscule and somewhat cynical headline "Reef set for grief" three tiny paragraphs noted that heating of the oceans by global warming could kill all the coral by 2050.

The item then reported a call by Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland's Centre of Marine Studies, for "scientists and tourism" to agree to measures to "fight the threat".

This very important item barely made it into the paper at all, but I have no doubt the girls from Shepparton, if asked, would have had strong views on the need for action over this issue.

But that would have spoilt the "airhead" image the tabloids cultivate for teenage girls, so of course they weren't asked.

Finally, did you see the reports of the latest push for a "flat tax"? It comes, predictably enough, from the right-wing think tank, "The Centre for Independent Studies", and includes abolishing the Medicare levy (and presumably Medicare along with it).

Speaking in support of this latest proposal from the political right, author John Humphreys said, "The level of taxation [in Australia] is simply too high."

He illustrated this with the curious comment: "Our top marginal tax rate is higher than the rate in Communist China". Now there's a comparison you don't see very often!

And we don't get free health care or abundant public transport, either.

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