InvestSMART

Nothing that a little time travel wouldn't fix, Prime Minister - just ask these young oldies

The ABC has been screening a marvellous British TV documentary that took a group of ageing, rather lovely but slightly grumpy characters who had once been successful in their various fields and transported them back to 1975, a year in which they had lived high and fine.

The ABC has been screening a marvellous British TV documentary that took a group of ageing, rather lovely but slightly grumpy characters who had once been successful in their various fields and transported them back to 1975, a year in which they had lived high and fine.

THE ABC has been screening a marvellous British TV documentary that took a group of ageing, rather lovely but slightly grumpy characters who had once been successful in their various fields and transported them back to 1975, a year in which they had lived high and fine.

The documentary makers plonked them together in a country house furnished in classic 1975 style - ghastly multi-hued carpets and wallpaper, lots of burnt orange - provided music from the era and even arranged a cocktail party with such tasty and near-forgotten nibbles as cheese and pineapple on skewers.

All of the participants were in their late 70s and 80s and not at all happy with what the years had wrought upon their increasingly limited lives.

They were left, by and large, to their own devices for their week in faux-1975, forcing them to work out everything from how to carry their heavy bags upstairs to organising their own breakfasts and learning how to get along within a houseful of strangers. The idea was to measure whether a week in a time-bubble might not only remind them of what it had been like when they were younger, but whether such an experience might actually change them. Medical scientists, physiotherapists and psychologists studied the largely sceptical experimental group from start to finish.

And praise the gods of youth: before the viewers' very eyes, the years peeled away. Every one of those human guinea pigs became fitter and more amusing. They grew perceptibly more contented, confident and self-sufficient, episode by episode. In the end, when the scientists had done their measuring and testing, all of the group had become, by just about every scale, younger. Several of them were told they had effectively dropped 20 years from the way they had presented themselves just a week previously.

And when the cameras followed them home and back into their lives, all of them were - and remained - dramatically rejuvenated. A woman who had allowed herself to become all but wheelchair-bound took to walking the beach front (slowly) a man who had lost the confidence to look after his loved dogs decided he was once again capable of owning a pet an old newspaper editor started giving rollicking lectures to journalism students and Dickie Bird, the famous cricket umpire, shrugged off the isolation that had consumed him since he had suffered a stroke and he rejoined the regular jolly round-table of his mates at the pub.

Almost everyone, you would suspect, would dearly like their own time capsule, though not many of us are ever going to be able to transport ourselves to our favourite year of yore by such well-resourced means as those afforded by the documentary team.

The message, however, remains constant and its lessons widely attainable.

The calendar doesn't necessarily dictate your age. You are - serious illness aside - capable of thinking yourself younger and living a happier and more productive life.

All you need to do is remember who you were when you were vital, or not to forget it in the first place.

The Gillard government could do with a dose of that sort of thinking. Here is a government that has become geriatric in its mere infancy, so lacking in confidence that parts of it have regressed through self-doubt all the way to self-loathing.

You wouldn't recommend that it take a time journey to 1975, however. That was when the Whitlam government, incapable of making a major decision without it turning into a fiasco, was given the heave-ho, first by the governor-general and then by the voters. It would be depressing for the Gillard government to visit the last days of Whitlam, because it would serve as a reminder of what can happen when a government finds itself so out of tune with the electorate that a large proportion of the voters just wants to see it gone, whatever it does.

Julia Gillard's government doesn't, of course, have anything remotely like the Loans Affair on its hands.

But it has a carbon tax that it hasn't been able to start selling successfully, even though much of the world has moved beyond even debating the need for some form of climate action it has turned into a debacle the business of exporting live cattle to Indonesia without the consequence of those animals being tortured it pretends that pursuing a war in Afghanistan remains worthwhile, even though the US and just about every other Western nation involved has made it clear there is no point in doing anything but withdrawing and months after announcing it would deport asylum seekers to the tender mercies of Malaysia, it still hasn't been able to seal what always looked like a dodgy deal.

The only sense of relief this government might feel in comparison with the doomed Whitlam outfit of 1975 is that it has the support of the Greens, who will protect it from destruction in the Senate, though at an escalating price.

The Gillard troop wouldn't want to flick its time-travel capsule a little further back, either, lest it find itself staring at the government of Billy McMahon and mulling over comparisons of incompetence. There are those unkind enough to say that the McMahon period was actually superior to that of the Gillard era because it had the benefit of giving everyone a belly laugh at its preposterous lunacy.

No. If the current government wanted to rejuvenate itself through a little time travel, it could hardly do better than to choose the Hawke-Keating years of the 1980s and early 1990s. That Labor administration, when it decided to tackle reform or a political difficulty, simply explained to voters what it wanted to do and why, and then did it. Deregulate the banks? Open Australia to international competition? Privatise big moribund government-owned entities? Get the unions to limit wage demands in return for a ''social wage''? Introduce compulsory superannuation?

Imagine Bob Hawke faced with the cattle export mess. He would have gone on TV, wept a bit over the abuse of livestock, flown to Jakarta, got an agreement that things would improve immediately and the trade would have continued with barely a hiccup. Gillard minister Joe Ludwig, in comparison, has proved utterly out of his depth, Australian-Indonesian relations have taken a beating, cattle producers have lost millions and the government, effectively, has washed its hands of responsibility for the trade's rules now that exports are to be resumed.

If this government wants to stay out of a premature grave, it could do a lot worse than thinking itself young and optimistic again. Try 1983.

Tony Wright is national affairs editor.


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