Premier speeds to unpopularity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2008, 12:00am


Bread and circuses. Or should we say 'panem et circenses'? Since the days of Julius Caesar, political leaders have always known that the best way to distract attention from their own flaws is by putting on crass spectacles for the populace.

New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma - known to his critics as Morris The Dilemma - must have thought the ancient gods of Rome were smiling on him when a group of speedboat enthusiasts asked to stage a race across Sydney Harbour last weekend.

With his Labor government mired in a sex and corruption scandal, Mr Iemma's personal popularity had recently fallen to 34 per cent. Even his own backbench MPs were in revolt, joining a noisy rally outside Parliament House against plans to privatise Sydney's power industry. The 'little emperor' of Macquarie Street no doubt imagined that the sight of sleek, sexy 'muscle boats' charging down the harbour at 250km/h would be just the thing to distract public attention. Even the weather forecast was promising.

Sadly, the omens were wrong. The Sydney Superboat Grand Prix turned out to be an unmitigated public relations disaster after one competitor, Peter Eagle, was killed and his companion, Geoff Burgess, was badly injured while testing their boat. The men's 7-metre craft flipped over, disintegrating on impact with the water.

But instead of cancelling the spectacle, organisers held a minute's silence and did a quick lap of honour before firing up their engines for the big race. The typically genteel parade of yachts, pleasure craft and ferries was replaced by a cloud of spray as 25 speedboats charged down the harbour.

Sydney, normally a city of enthusiastic sports fans, was aghast. Former prime minister Paul Keating went on the radio to express his disgust that a bunch of 'crass boys with their toys' had been allowed to monopolise the harbour and destroy the weekend peace.

'All these millionaires now with their big Tupperware boats want the right to push through the harbour at 30 to 40 knots at the expense of everyone else's quiet enjoyment,' he fumed. 'This harbour truthfully should have a speed limit of about eight knots for everyone's enjoyment.'

For good measure, Mr Keating took a swipe at other equally 'crass' events held around the harbour foreshore, such as outdoor rock concerts, which he said should be consigned to less sophisticated parts of Australia, such as the Gold Coast.

His emotional outburst became a rallying call for other Sydneysiders equally appalled by the weekend spectacle.

The radio station's blog was inundated with messages of support. 'Paul's not often right, but this time he is,' wrote Jeremy.

Mr Keating's 'ban the boats' campaign also won the support of Sydney's lord mayor, Clover Moore, and leader of the state opposition, Barry O'Farrell, who called the event 'a fizzer' - instead of the expected audience of 10,000, less than 1,300 turned up. This was especially bad news for Mr Iemma, who had agreed to meet the A$50,000 (HK$358,800) cost of temporary toilets, fencing and security.

As the son of Italian migrants, Mr Iemma should know that bread and circuses, no matter how generous, do not guarantee a long and untroubled reign. Just ask Julius Caesar.