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Boats and plaints, bindis and budgets have Aussies atwitter

A teenage girl sails into a national storm. A Prime Minister fighting for his political life takes the battle to the high seas. Twitter sparks a storm amid a censorship debate. And Russell Crowe leads a fresh charge on Hollywood glory.

Top news: Australians are water people. Despite the Crocodile Dundee image of a land that is large, arid, and dusty, roughly eight in 10 of them cluster by the coast, thus living up to another stereotype — that of the bronzed Aussie, at home surfing and sailing, sun-bronzed and sand-loving. It’s that latter connection that helps explain the recent obsession with the deeds of teenage round-the-world sailor Jessica Watson – and the possible misdeeds of her management team.

It comes down to this: Watson set out more than 200 days ago on a bid to circumnavigate the globe — and in the process become the youngest person ever to do so. Her expedition is due to end in the shadow of Sydney’s famous Opera House on May 15. But her nationally televised arrival, and her claims to that record, have been in danger of a being swamped by a wave of negative coverage, based largely on expert assessment that her route has not met the standards demanded by the governing body for round-the-world journeys.

It’s a little arcane for landlubbers. There’s no doubt Watson has traversed the globe. But in doing so she hasn’t precisely abided by the rules of the World Speed Sailing Racing Council, which among other things require a sailor to travel a certain distance beyond the equator to contest record status. Critics, including those who blew the whistle on her shortfall, say they are not out to rain on the parade of a gusty teen; rather they accuse her money-driven management team of using a naive girl to build a lucrative brand that will generate millions in endorsements, book sales and TV deals.

The natural native inclination is to snort at the critics. Her voyage is of a piece with the image Aussies have of themselves: independent, adventurous and inclined to snub their noses at authority, especially rulebooks when it comes to sailing. Witness the famous and stormy America’s Cup victory on 1983, which ended the longest winning steak in sport. Watson’s management say they don’t care what the rules say, they’re just celebrating her amazing feat. And Watson herself? She professes to find the national controversy “a giggle.”

Its sea-faring arrivals of another stripe that have caused a national debate of a different kind. The country has long been torn by the issue of asylum seekers. It’s a problem that has dominated political debate for a decade, most notoriously in 2001, when conservative prime minister John Howard rode hysteria over Muslim boat people and concurrent anxiety over the 9/11 attacks to election victory. His successor Kevin Rudd, nominally a more liberal politician, swept to office promising a more humanitarian approach to the arrivals.

But reality bites, especially in an election year such as Rudd is facing. The PM has opted to rewind the clock, announcing that Australia will no longer process asylum seekers from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan. That was a bid to shut down a resurgent people-smuggling trade, as well as to shut down a resurgent public backlash over a new stream of illegal arrivals as voters prepare to go to the polls.

But can Rudd shut the world out? That’s a question front and center in a fierce debate over his plan for a mandatory internet filter to block child pornography and other menaces from every home, office and smart phone. It’s a family-friendly policy that has provoked an unfriendly backlash from, among others, Google, the US Government and free-speech advocates, who say it will put Australia in the same category as censorship fiends such as a China and Iran. The result? Politics intervened again. The legislation has been shelved until after the looming election.

Coincidentally, the media immersed themselves in a debate over just what constitutes online obscenity. This time after a newspaper columnist used Twitter  to post some less-then family-friendly observations during broadcast of a TV  awards ceremony. Most contentious: Catherine Deveny’s tweet about the daughter of late wildlife icon Steve Irwin. “I do hope Bindi gets laid tonight,” wrote Deveny as the 11-year-old girl walked the red carpet. Deveny, a comedian by trade, was sacked by broadsheet The Age. She says she was merely cracking wise about the way in which such Oscar-like events trade on the overt sexualisation of women.

Few Australians approved. But public opinion is fickle here. Just ask Kevin Rudd, who only a year ago was basking in ratings that said he was among the most popular leaders in history. Not any more: recent polls suggests he is in danger of setting new records, this time for the swiftest plunge in public affection in decades. It all sets the stage for a fascinating electoral contest before the year is out.

Money: It’s a global sport, and a long-loved past-time in Australia: bank bashing. Now two men are leading a legal charge against the four financial behemoths that most Australians use to manage their money. It’s being billed as the biggest class action in history – an attempt to recoup hundreds of millions in fees and charges the banks charge for such trifles as an overdrawn account. The accusation is that such misdemeanors reap them as much as $40 Australian per error in fines, but cost them less than $1 to deal with. It’s a populist crusade that has attracted huge media attention. Little wonder: the men behind the crusade reckon customers have been overcharged about $5 billion in six years.

That latest bank-bash is in keeping with a new policy that falls into the same Robin Hood category: the Rudd Government’s tax on the so-called  “super profits” of mining companies, which have helped generate Australia’s economic boom in recent years, while at the same time generating massive incomes for themselves. The announcement – a plan to quarantine a certain amount of mining profits for the government over and above a set profit level – sent resource stocks into a tailspin. But PM Rudd is hoping the scheme, as well as a restrained election-year budget, will convince voters to give him another three years in charge of the economic levers.

Elsewhere: Robin Hood, the redistributor of economic wealth par excellence, is not just figuring in political debate here. Not when two of Australia’s biggest international stars have taken the lead roles in the latest cinematic incarnation of the folklore hero. Russell Crowe (sans tights) and Cate Blanchett were the toast of opening night at the Cannes Film Festival as Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the tale took the spotlight.

The early reviews were not encouraging. That’s a knock to Australians who have grown used to homegrown stars punching above their weight in Tinseltown, particularly with Crowe and Blanchett, both Oscar winners, who have led the local charge on Hollywood in the past decade. But  both stars may well profess to not care too much: in a change from days past, when Aussies making good in the U.S. had to live there to succeed, this pair still call Australia home and have other things to keep them busy. Crowe owns a Sydney rugby team, and Blanchett manages the Sydney Theatre Company, business interests that keep them both focused on more local box-office concerns.