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Archives for December 2010

Revisting projections for 2010

Nick Bryant | 12:29 UK time, Thursday, 30 December 2010

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I think it is safe to say that Mystic Meg has little to fear from me. So masochistic as it is to look back on last year's predictions for 2010, here we go:

1 - The election: "If history is our guide, Kevin Rudd will win this year's federal election." Needless to say, history did not offer much of a guide. Far from it. Rudd became the first Australian prime minister not to survive a full first term. And he had the look of an "era politician".

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

"It will surely take some unforeseen, game-changing event or scandal to put his government in jeopardy," I added. Again, it is hard to pinpoint a single event, although his decision to delay the Emissions Trading Scheme was pivotal. And who would have thought the factional power-brokers, the so-called faceless men, would tire of him so quickly. But Kevin Rudd always traded on his popularity in the polls - they were his faction, if you like. So when the polls went south, so, too, did he.

2 - The election fall-out: "Tony Abbott might well prove a more formidable opponent than many expect." That was a better call, but I still followed the conventional wisdom in thinking the Liberals would lose quite a lop-sided election, and Joe Hockey would emerge as the new leader in that event. Abbott came close to winning, of course, and will surely take the Liberals into the next election.

3 - Most headline-making politician: I went for the former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull or the Nationals outspoken Senator Barnaby Joyce - he is, after all, a human headline. Both had a fairly quiet year by their standards. To everyone's surprise, the most headline-making politicians were the previously obscure "Three Amigos," Bob Katter, of boiling the billy fame, Tony Bishop and Rob Oakeshott.

4 - The wonder from down under: "The Australian economy is expected to continue on an upward trajectory, with the fourth quarter of consecutive growth likely in the months leading up to March. But the growth will be uneven, with the resources-based Western Australia and Queensland outstripping the older states of New South Wales and Victoria. The downside for property owners everywhere is that interest rates will continue to rise." Boilerplate predictions and borne out by events. The twin-track economy - the difference between the prosperous new, resource-rich states and the old - will be the big economic theme of the next year. Judging by retail figures, New South Wales feels as if it is almost in recession.

5 - Diplomatic problem areas: "With the surge in asylum seekers showing little sign of abating, and with the boat people issue expected to loom large in the federal election, relations with Indonesia, the home to most of the notorious people smugglers, will almost certainly continue to deteriorate." Actually, relations with Indonesia have not deteriorated that much, despite a continued surge of boat arrivals. Australia continued to have problems with China, especially over Stern Hu. Relations with East Timor were not that special either, after Julia Gillard announced the setting up of a regional asylum seekers processing centre in the country without first consulting her opposite number in Dili. Nor were they that good with Japan, after the Rudd government threatened to take Japan to the court of international justice over its support of whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Jacki Weaver

6 - The next Aussie big things: I went for Abbie Cornish thinking that Jane Campion's Bright Star would be more successful. Oddly, the big Aussie breakthrough star of the year has been a veteran, Jacki Weaver, for a mesmerizing performance in Animal Kingdom, the film of the year. She's just received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress, and there's already talk of a possible Oscar.

7 - The critics: I thought the Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya would probably attract rave reviews, a very safe choice given that its cast included Australian theatrical royalty, like Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. But the biggest critical success of the year was Animal Kingdom, the Melbourne gangland thriller. I thought it was superb, partly because it was crammed with fast-paced, salty Aussie dialogue. Five stars.

8 - Grand Designs: "Australia will enjoy more international architectural attention than at any time since the opening of the Sydney Opera House." The American star architect Frank Gehry has actually been in Sydney this month talking about his characteristically outlandish design for the city's University of Technology, UTS. It does look like it will be Australia's most talked-about building since the Opera House.

9 -Tricky Ricky: "If his form slump continues, the debate over whether Ricky Ponting should be replaced at number three for Australia by Michael Clarke will intensify, as will the discussion of whether he can realise his oft-stated ambition of leading his country to an Ashes win in Britain in 2013." His form slump has continued, and he has only been average in the mid-thirties for most of the year, which, by his standards, is appalling.

10 - Back Page: In the AFL grand final I went for Geelong. Collingwood won, after the rarity of a replay. Queensland was an obvious choice in the rugby league's state of origin. A sure bet. I thought a horse trained by Bart Cummings would win the 150th Melbourne Cup, and put my money where my mouth was by backing his colt, So You Think (didn't everyone?). But it was Americain, of course, that tromped home.

"Rugby union will continue to lose fans to rugby league unless players and coaches rediscover the joys of the running game," I wrote. Well, thankfully, coaches and players did discover the joys of the running game, with the Wallabies in the fore of the game's revival. This has been rugby union's best season in years. In the NRL, I would have plumbed for the Melbourne Storm, and they produced what was arguably the biggest story of the year when they were stripped of two premierships and all of its points.

So over to you. What were the biggest upsets and surprises of 2010? And what was least surprising about the past twelve months?

Winner and losers 2010

Nick Bryant | 14:34 UK time, Tuesday, 28 December 2010

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Winners

Julia Gillard: Pulled off the political double of engineering the downfall of a once highly-popular prime minister, Kevin Rudd, and negotiated her way to victory after the deadlocked election in September. However, the fact that she came so close to losing the election, which would have been unprecedented for a post-war first-term government, badly undercut her authority and left her weakened in the eyes of a once admiring party. Critics suggest she has not yet imposed herself upon the country.

Tony Abbott: Though he ultimately lost out to Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott surprised the Canberra press gallery, the wider commentariat, his party and possibly even himself by coming so close to victory. In defeat, he emerged as something of a winner because he solidified his position as opposition leader and will be expected to lead his party into the next election. Indeed, next year he hopes to win over the two regional MPs who spurned him, which would bring down the Gillard government.

Two of the Three Amigos: Two previously little-known regional MPs, Tony Bishop and Rob Oakeshott, ended up deciding who should become the next prime minister. As a result, they got to deliver millions of dollars of federal largesse to their constituents.

The Australian dollar: Reached parity with the dollar for the first time since it was floated in 1983, which reflected the wider strength of Australia's seemingly recession-proof economy. But the strength of the dollar has been problematic for Australian exporters and the tourism industry.

The Australian Greens: The party saw its first elected MP, Adam Bandt, take his seat in the House of Representatives and will hold the balance of power in the Senate by the middle of next year.

The Mining Giants: BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto demonstrated their colossal corporate might when they took on the Rudd government over its proposals for a mining super profits tax and forced a climbdown. Their multi-millionaire advertising campaign, orchestrated by the country's most powerful lobby group, the Minerals Council of Australia, hammered the Labor government especially in Queensland and Western Australia and was a factor in the downfall of Kevin Rudd. After a brief hiccup in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it was boom times again for the resources sector.

The nation's farmers: The end of the Big Dry, Australia's worst drought in a century, brought relief to farming communities across Australia. Heavy rains in November and December, which brought flooding to parts of Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, had led to widespread crop damage. But wheat yields are still up on last year.

Laurie Oakes and Kerry O'Brien: In the year that new media like Twitter and the continuous news channels were expected to dominate the federal election, it was two journalistic veterans who set the pace. Channel Nine's Political Editor, Laurie Oakes, was the conduit for a series of leaks from the Rudd camp that were highly damaging to Julia Gillard. He also summed up the frustrations of many Australians at the choice put before them in the election when he described Gillard and the Liberal leader Tony Abbott as "political pygmies".

In his final year as the presenter of The 7.30 Report, Kerry O'Brien's tough line of questioning drew anger from Kevin Rudd over climate change. "It might be easy for you to sit in 7.30 Report Land and say that was easy to do," said Rudd, his voice rising in anger. "Let me tell you mate, it wasn't." He also exposed Tony Abbott's lack of fluency on broadband policy, which proved to be a factor in the post-election deadlock, since faster internet speeds were such an important issue for the regional MPs who held the balance of power.

Animal Kingdom: The Melbourne crime family drama was the finest Australian film in years, winning at the Sundance Film Festival and sweeping the AFI awards. Brilliant performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver. A stunning movie.

Masterchef Australia: Channel Ten's nightly cook-off was the ratings success of the year, offering proof that Australia is a nation of foodies.

Tourism Australia: Pulled off the coup of bringing Oprah Winfrey to Australia, an investment of $A6 million spread between the federal government, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland governments and Qantas, which is expected to deliver $A100 million dollars of global exposure.

Jessica Watson: Aged just 16, she circumnavigated the globe, but missed out on the record for the youngest sailor to do so because she did not sail far enough above the equator.

Mark Webber: Came runner-up in the Formula One World Championship and lost out to his Red Bull team-mate, but impressed with his driving smarts and bravery. He drove the final grand prix with a broken shoulder, though he did not tell anyone. He also became the country's richest sports star.

Wayne Bennett: In rugby league, Bennet steered the St George Illawarra Dragons to the premiership title. It was Bennet's seventh grand final victory, thus removing any lingering doubt that he is Australia's greatest ever rugby league coach.

The budgie smuggler: Popularised by Tony Abbott, Australian budgie smugglers got more global exposure than ever before.

Losers

Kevin Rudd: Once thought of as an "Era politician" who could dominate Canberra for a decade, Rudd was dumped by a party that had never much liked him in the first place. Not long ago the recipient of the highest approval ratings since Bob Hawke in his pomp, his fall was remarkable for its speed and brutality. He became the first prime minister in Australian history not to see out his first term.

Malcolm Turnbull: He lost the Liberal leadership at the back end of 2009, but an unexpectedly strong showing from Tony Abbott in the federal election meant that his chances of returning one day to lead his party were greatly diminished. After going back on his decision to retire from parliament, he is the opposition's main point man on broadband, one of next year's hot-button issues.

Senator Steve Fielding: The Family First senator, famed for weird publicity stunts like walking the Canberra's corridors of power dressed as a recyclable drinks bottle, was swept from office in the federal election.

The Big Banks: This was the year the public and the politicians turned on the big four major banks, National Australia Bank, ANZ, Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank, for what are seen as overly high fees, overly high profits and the commercial opportunism of hiking interest rates higher than the level set by the central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia. Just before Christmas, the Gillard government announced a series of banking reforms

Stern Hu: The Shanghai-based Rio Tinto executive found guilty of stealing commercial secrets. In March, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Climate change as a top agenda issue: Climate change slipped down the political agenda in 2010, partly because of the failure of the Copenhagen summit to produce a stronger agreement, partly because Kevin Rudd decided to downgrade the issue, partly because Tony Abbott launched the Liberal fight back on the back of rising scepticism and partly because of the end of the Big Dry, the worst drought here in a century.

Melbourne Storm: The dominant rugby league team of the past few seasons had its two premiership titles stripped along with all of its points from this season for breaking the salary cap.

Winner or Loser?

Julian Assange: The 39-year-old founder of WikiLeaks became the world's most talked about after the release of the so-called "Baghdad video" which badly embarrassed the Pentagon and thousands of diplomatic cables. He remains, of course, a highly contentious figure: a hi-tech hero to his many supporters in Australia and elsewhere, or a cyber terrorist according to some lawmakers in the US.

2010: The Year of Indecision

Nick Bryant | 07:00 UK time, Monday, 27 December 2010

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America has just lived through the year of leak, whether it was oil in the Gulf of Mexico or the publication of once-secret diplomatic cables. 2010 will go down Australia as the year of indecision. The federal election ended with a hung parliament. Then it took more than two weeks for the trio of regional MPs, the so-called Three Amigos, to make up their mind as to who should emerge the victor. Even the leadership coup against the former prime minister was born of equivocation, since support for him started to fall off most dramatically when he demonstrated political hesitancy and retreated from his commitment to attach a price to carbon. Having called climate change the greatest moral challenge facing the world, Kevin Rudd had second thoughts and decided to delay the introduction of the emissions trading scheme.

Similarly, the Labor government announced a windfall tax on the super profits of the mining companies, and then backed down in the face of a multi-million dollar campaign from the resources sector, led by BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

In deciding whether to challenge Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard apparently agonised over whether to wield the knife. Then she apparently could not decide whether she should appear before the electorate as the "real Julia" or an alternative model dreamt up by her image-makers.

The former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull decided to retire from parliament, only to change his mind a few months later.

In state politics, as well, the whiff of indecision was in the air. The Tasmanian state election produced another hung parliament, with the Greens once again holding the balance of power. Polls in Victoria and South Australia were also knife-edge affairs.

In politics, hardly anything was clear-cut. The Greens ended the year in a more powerful position than ever before, with their first elected MP in the House of Representatives, the prospect of holding the balance of power in the Senate and genuine influence over the legislative agenda of the Gillard minority government. However, climate change, the party's signature issue, slipped a long way down the national agenda.

When it came to the economy, the Reserve Bank of Australia could not quite decide on the strength of the recovery, veering between worries about inflationary pressures, a sign of overheating, and slower-than-expected growth. It continued its policy of raising interest rates from their emergency, post-GFC levels, but haltingly and with great caution.

In sport, the Aussie Rules grand final ended in a draw for only the third time in history. The Australian cricket selectors took until the third test in Perth to settle on their best eleven to face England in the Ashes. And they still didn't seem to have a clue as to who should succeed Shane Warne as the team's frontline spinner. Australian athletes equivocated over whether to compete at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, and then ended up at the top of the medal when they got there.

In national affairs, the Big Dry, Australia's worst drought in a century, finally came to an end. But then farmers were hit by floods in November and December, causing enormous crop damage.

On the diplomatic front, Julia Gillard signalled that she would not be such a consequential figure on the world stage as her predecessors John Howard and Kevin Rudd, and be more of a stay-at-home prime minister.

But Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and the world's most talked about Australian, filled the gap. When it came to Australians punching above their weight, Assange was the undisputed champion.

Australia got its first saint, Mary MacKillop - to cheers of Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi at the Vatican - but lost its most celebrated singer, Dame Joan Sutherland, La Stupenda.

Some of the major stories of the year happened over the Tasman. There was the Christchurch earthquake in September, which mercifully did not claim any lives. Then, in November, came the Pike River Coal Mine disaster, in which 29 miners lost their lives.

Qantas, the Flying Kangaroo, had another difficult year with the ash cloud in Europe, the temporary grounding of its A380 fleet after an engine explosion outside of Singapore and, most recently, the snowfall in Britain.

In the year that the Melbourne gangster Carl Williams was killed in a high security prison in Victoria, Animal Kingdom, a brilliant movie based on a Melbourne crime family, became the Australian film of the year.

The Sydney Opera House played host to the teenage sailing sensation Jessica Watson after her circumnavigation of the globe, thousands of naked Sydneysiders posing for Spencer Tunick, hundreds of dogs for an open-air concert of canine music, and a bevy of Aussie A-list stars for the arrival of Queen Oprah.

Oprah helped fill a few news pages during her visit in early December, and so, too, did Shane Warne. His reported dalliance with the British actress Elizabeth Hurley was tabloid heaven both here and in Britain. How about that for an Australian punching above his weight?

Happy Christmas

Nick Bryant | 13:01 UK time, Friday, 24 December 2010

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A happy Christmas to everyone, and one, I hope, that will not be affected too much by the chaos at Heathrow and elsewhere in Europe.

I know some of you have already had your travel plans obliterated or curtailed, and, again, you have my sincere sympathies.

Forgive me if I am over-sharing, but we are celebrating the birth of our first child, who, much to my disappointment, did not arrive on Melbourne Cup Day.

I rather thought it might confer special powers, like those imagined by Salman Rushdie at the midnight unfurling of the Indian tricolour.

Presumably, the closer an Australian baby is born to three o'clock on the first Tuesday of November, the annual start-time for the race, the better their tipping skills, bringing both enormous riches in later life and a mantelpiece buckling under the weight of invitations to cup day luncheons.

Alas, the race that has such an immobilising impact on the nation had much the same effect on our baby boy, who waited another week before making his move. Still, for us his mere presence is magical realism enough.

In between nappy changes and other parental duties, I will obviously be keeping a very close eye on Australia's greatest sporting cathedral, the MCG.

The fourth test throws up so many questions. Will England be able to cope with Mitchell Johnson's swing? Will Ricky Ponting's little figure go the distance? Will Shane get back together with Liz? How many of the crowd will turn up sporting "Australia Loves Oprah" t-shirts? It promises to be a belter.

Part of me hopes the series goes all the way to the final test in Sydney, so as to build the drama, but that, of course, would require either a draw or an Australian win. My seasonal charity, and the spirit of goodwill to all men, simply does not extend that far.

Whether you are celebrating Christmas or not, have a super festive season. We will reconvene soon.

Travel chaos

Nick Bryant | 07:24 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010

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My sympathies to anyone caught up in the travel chaos. The newspapers and talkback radio here have been full of heart-wrenching stories of antipodeans, Brits and others heading to Australia and New Zealand who have been stuck in Europe.

The teacher hoping to come home for the first time in three years to see her sick elderly father, who can only get a seat on a flight that leaves on 29 December, and has to be back in Britain for the first week in January.

The Kiwi student interviewed over Skype on New Zealand television who, again, had not been home for many years and had been saving up for years to make the trip home.

One of my New Year's resolutions is not to use that dog-eared phrase "the tyranny of distance", but it must feel very real to those stranded so far from home with Christmas fast approaching - even if the true culprits are the tyranny of foul weather and the tyranny of my homeland's inability, now annual, to adequately cope with it.

Chronic travel disruption has become as much a fixture of the British winter as the Queen's speech, the midnight chimes of Big Ben, the Pools Panel and George Michael. One would have thought we could do better.

No doubt there are many English cricket fans hoping to get to Melbourne for the Boxing Day test, whose thoughts right now are on stationary aircraft rather than open-top buses.*

Believe me, I feel your pain and at least some of your frustration. My parents were hit by the first wave of Heathrow cancellations on Saturday night and are now scheduled to arrive here on Christmas morning itself.

As I write, more family members are heading to Heathrow in the hope of boarding a flight. To deploy another distance-related cliché, the world is getting smaller, what with the ease of mobile telephony, Twitter, Skype and Facebook (just ask Shane Warne). But it is still not an adequate substitute for face-time.

From a deadlocked election to a drawn Aussie Rules grand final, this has been Australia's year of equivocation. Yet for many air travellers it will also be remembered as the year of cancellation, whether caused by a billowing ash cloud, the grounding of Qantas's fleet of A380s or the present yuletide turmoil.

If it is any consolation - and I suspect that it won't be - the weather here has been decidedly iffy, too. Some parts of south-east Australia have looked a little like parts of south-east England these past few days, with the unusual and unseasonal sight of towns and landscape covered in snow.

This, of course, is supposed to be the height of the southern summer, and the start of the bushfire season, but the Snowy Mountains received snowfalls of 10cm, as did the alpine region in Victoria's winter ski-fields.

Elsewhere, Canberra has just experienced its wettest spring in 25 years, crops in New South Wales have been devastated by flooding, and in the Western Australian town of Carnarvon a police helicopter had to rescue 19 people from the roof of a local pub because of rising flood waters.

So my best wishes and sympathies to anyone who has suffered the misfortune of being stranded. And to Sarah, Rod, Ellie, Katie, Milly and Rory, if, by chance, you are reading this, then I hope it is off a computer screen in Bangkok.

* Australian cricket had its Mark Twain moment in Perth. Reports of its death, etc, etc. Certainly, English fans finally got to see what Australian supporters have witnessed for the past couple of southern summers: the ability of an in-form Mitchell Johnson to bamboozle even the finest batsman with full throttle swing. So bring on Melbourne, the original home of that coveted terracotta urn - another thing, much to the consternation of the Aussies, that will remain grounded in London.

Asylum debate

Nick Bryant | 09:20 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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I have written a long piece here about the Christmas Island shipwreck and its possible impact on the Australian asylum seeker debate. But I wonder whether it is worth opening up its first few paragraphs especially for comment:

Australia's asylum seeker debate is often conducted as if the people heading for its shores are an abstraction, with the term "boat people" almost shorn of its human meaning. With such harrowing images from Christmas Island broadcast on early evening news shows millions of Australians would have seen the anguished faces of those seeking to reach its shores, and witnessed the lengths they would go to get there. Put simply, it was shockingly real.

Tabloid sensationalism in Australia is normally turned against the asylum seekers, who head here from countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq. They are often regarded as "queue jumpers," unwilling to go through the normal channels to seek asylum. Asylum seekers arriving by plane do not attract the same attention, nor what refugee groups would call the same paranoiac reaction. In July this year, Sydney's tabloid Daily Telegraph reported that up to 800 asylum seekers could arrive in Australian waters during the election campaign. It published the report under the headline "INVASION." The banner headline today offers a more sympathetic take. "HELPLESS."

Refugee groups here complain that Australian politicians regard the asylum seeker issue primarily as a political issue rather than a policy issue, and that the debate is not animated by a great deal of compassion towards the boat people themselves.

So a simple question: will this awful disaster alter the character of the debate?

The Oprah show

Nick Bryant | 06:38 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010

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A massive "O" shines out from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, like the bat sign illuminated over the skies of Gotham City. But rather than call for the caped crusader, Tourism Australia has sought help from the Queen of Chat. It is an exaggeration to describe Oprah Winfrey's "Ultimate Australian Adventure" as something of a mercy mission, but only a slight one. The tourism chiefs who have helped bankroll her visit are definitely hoping it will boost a sector that has pretty much been stagnant for the past 10 years because of a series of setbacks: the soaring Australian dollar, the Sars outbreak, bird flu, 911 and a feeling that Sydney in particular dropped the ball after hosting the Olympics.

As anyone in Australia these past few days would have found almost impossible to ignore, Oprah Winfrey surprised 300 audience members by announcing that she was flying them to Australia. The Oprah juggernaut has now thundered into town.
While here, she's recording two shows at the Opera House, which of course has been renamed the Oprah House. Then there is the O sign on the bridge. Thankfully, her hosts stopped short of carving her profile into the side of the Blue Mountains, a la Mount Rushmore, but you get the idea.

Since arriving last week, the talkshow host has been on a whirlwind tour, already taking in Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne and the bridge climb in Sydney. Tourism Australia is confident the exposure that Australia receives when the shows are aired in 145 countries will boost visitor numbers by 300,000.

The economic argument for hosting Oprah and her huge entourage seems clear-cut. There's been a $6m outlay from the federal, New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland governments, and Qantas. In return, it is estimated that Australia will receive $100m in international exposure. Not a bad few days' work.

More complicated is the Aussie response to her visit, which has been like a presidential, royal and papal visit all rolled into one. Of course, much of all this is the usual media hype (what was it that Walter Cronkite once said about Australia having too many journalists and not enough stories?). But politicians have been tripping over themselves to appear alongside Oprah, and have helped give this the feel of a state visit. Prime Minister Julia Gillard was even on hand in Melbourne on Friday afternoon, when Oprah appeared in the city's Federation Square.

It all creates the impression that Australia remains still a country that craves international recognition, and continues to suffer from the occasional spasm of cultural cringe, an ingrained feeling of inferiority.

"There is a huge underlying cringe factor to her trip," writes the journalist Judith Ireland on ABC's The Drum opinion site. "It's embarrassing that we care about Oprah like this and need her so much."

I usually argue that Australia's cultural creep is more significant than any lingering sense of cultural cringe. After all, others countries look with envy on the land Down Under, whether it is the strength of its economy or the liveability of its major cities. It is a lifestyle superpower.

So Oprah's visit has felt like a throwback to an era when the tyranny of distance actually meant just that and when the country's national self-esteem was much more fragile than it is today.

Oprah is the unrivalled Queen of Chat. But should her Australian hosts bowed before with quite such bended knee?

PS Heartfelt apologies for the continued inability to comment. The latest word from London is that the comments section was shut down while I was away on paternity leave, and restoring it remains a work in progress. Again, my apologies.

Julian Assange

Nick Bryant | 09:04 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

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Setting to one side the rape allegations against him and focussing solely on the release of the so-called Wikileaks cables, should Julian Assange be seen as a dangerous subversive who has recklessly imperilled global security or a possible candidate for Australian of the Year? Is he a muck-raking troublemaker bent on embarrassing America or a kind of Robin Hood of the information age, who has leaked from the richly endowed, namely the United States government, for the greater public good?

At a start of the year, I dare say relatively few of Julian Assange's compatriots would even have heard of the Queenslander who founded Wikileaks. Twelve months on, however, he is rivalling Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for the unofficial title of the world's most famous Australian. Clearly, he is the most talked about and consequential. This week his face peers out from the cover of Time magazine, always a useful measure of global significance.

Up until today, the Gillard government has been fierce in its condemnation of Assange for his part in revealing the Wikileaks cables. Julia Gillard stopped short of saying that he had broken any Australian law, but said that the "foundation stone" of the Wikileaks affair was "an illegal act". She also claimed that the release of once-secret information, such as the critical infrastructure list, was "grossly irresponsible".

But the foreign affairs minister and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has now offered something of a defence. In an interview with Reuters, Mr Rudd said that the Wikileaks founder was not himself responsible for the unauthorised released of the documents from the US diplomatic communications network, and that the Americans were responsible for that.

He raised questions over the adequacy of security in the US government, especially the level of access that people had to sensitive material over a long period of time. Crucially, he added that those who originally leaked the documents were legally liable, not Mr Assange.

Mr Rudd's comments came on the very day that diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Canberra were released to the media, which were highly critical of his performance as prime minister. They described him as a "mistake-prone control freak", especially in the realm of foreign affairs, his supposed area of expertise.

In the view of the then US ambassador Robert McCallum, Rudd's diplomatic mis-steps were largely the product of "snap announcements without consulting other countries or within the Australian government". A prime example was Mr Rudd's ambitious goal for a Asia-Pacific community along the lines of the European Union. A surprise to virtually everyone, it came completely out of the blue.

The Americans were seriously miffed that Mr Rudd allegedly leaked a private conversation with the then US President George W Bush in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In it, President Bush reportedly asked "What's the G20?" when Mr Rudd suggested that it should be convened. The Sydney Morning Herald has the full story here.

In response to the American slurs, Mr Rudd said he didn't "give a damn." But his comments in support of Mr Assange have already been dubbed "Rudd's revenge". As I write, it is hard to know precisely what is quite going on here and who is the true voice of the Australian government on this matter, Julia Gillard or the man she deposed.

As for the man at the centre of this diplomatic imbroglio, Mr Assange has always struck me as the quintessential global citizen rather than being a kind of "true blue" Aussie. Moving from country to country, with seemingly no fixed abode, he leads a peripatetic lifestyle and clearly spends much of his time on the borderless worldwide web. For him, Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing website that he established in 2006, appears to double both as domain and realm. With his mop of silver hair and pale complexion, he even has the look of an avatar.

So it was interesting to read an op-ed piece by Assange published in this morning's Australian newspaper, where he traces his present campaign, which he describes as "fearlessly publishing facts that need to be made public", to his childhood in Queensland.

During his formative years, Queensland was an Australian Louisiana, a state renowned for its notorious institutional corruption. For 18 years, the then Premier, Sir "Joh" Bjelke-Petersen, ran Queensland as if he were a potentate and regularly used the threat of litigation against journalists and news organizations to prevent them probing too deeply into his government's dealings. Eventually, investigations into high-ranking police corruption by Brisbane's Courier Mail and ABC's Four Corners programme led to a public inquiry, the Fitzgerald Inquiry, which ultimately led to the downfall of Bjelke Peterson's government. Now, as others have written, much of Queensland has transformed itself into a California.

The thwarted muck-raking of the Bjelke Peterson years is the journalist tradition which Assange claims to be tapping into. "I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly," he writes in The Australian. "They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. The dark days of corruption in the Queensland government before the Fitzgerald inquiry are testimony to what happens when the politicians gag the media from reporting the truth. These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values."

Some are already drawing parallels with the detention of an Australian, David Hicks, at Guantanamo Bay. Hicks, who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, was found guilty of providing material support for terrorism by an American military tribunal. But he became something of a folk hero for many Australians, because of the widespread feeling that he was treated unfairly by the Americans after being detained at Guantanamo Bay without trial.

Legal action against Julian Assange is now active in Britain, which means the moderators are going to have to be even more stringent than usual - assuming our technical problems are ironed out, which is frustrating for all of us. But if he does return to these shores, what sort of reception should he receive?

Selectors in the dock

Nick Bryant | 08:30 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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Is it too early to hire the open-top bus or to the warn the gardeners at Downing Street that a victorious England cricket team might soon be on its way with its own ideas about how to irrigate the flower beds? Just two tests old, this Ashes series is far from over. But England could be forgiven for making the journey from their hotel to Adelaide airport, a trip that will take them down Sir Donald Bradman Drive no less, with at least a couple of skylights open and Jerusalem at half volume. This is England's first victory in a live Ashes on Australian soil for almost a quarter century, and a lop-sided one to boot. Cause for celebration.

"Are you England in disguise?" has been the taunt of the Barmy Army, while scribes in the press box have called Australia the new England. The problem for Ricky Ponting's men, however, is that at times they have looked more like the new Bangladesh: a side against which visiting batsmen look to fill their boots and inflate their averages.

When England was last here in 2006/7, cricket was still a unipolar world, in which Australia was the sole superpower. Given the depletion of its playing resources since then - any team losing legends like Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer was always bound to suffer - the Aussies were never going to retain such complete dominance. But what has been surprising to outsiders, and depressing for Australian fans, is the speed of the team's regression.

Put simply, Cricket Australia has been poor in managing its post-imperial decline.

For a selection policy that has been erratic at best and completely incoherent at worst, the Australian selectors led by Andrew Hilditch must surely shoulder some of the blame. Since the retirement of Shane Warne in 2007, they have played eight different spinners. Then, when they appeared to have settled on Nathan Hauritz, who performed well against Pakistan this time last year, with two five wicket hauls in consecutive tests, he was dumped on the eve of the Ashes.

In his place, the selectors opted for Xavier Doherty from Tasmania, whose record in first class cricket is modest, and who only recently fought his way back into his state side. As his performances at Brisbane and Adelaide suggested, his talent seems better suited to the Sheffield Shield rather than the test arena.

Since the end of the McGrath/Warne era, Mitchell Johnson has been Australia's only regular match winner with the ball, and yet he, too, was dumped after just one test of this series through lack of form. Johnson has 166 test wickets to his name, and in 2009 was the world's top wicket taker. To tread the dark path of sporting cliché, form is temporary but class is permanent, and many experts think he should have been allowed to play his way back into the wickets.

On the batting front, the opener Phillip Hughes, who is the youngest player ever to have scored centuries in both innings of a test match, has surely been treated harshly. Dropped during the last Ashes series in England because of a technical deficiency against short bowling, he has been badly out of favour with the selectors when he is clearly Australia's best long-term prospect as an opener.

Instead, Shane Watson has been sent in at the top of the innings, even though he appears to belong in the middle order in the place presently occupied by Marcus North. The adopted Western Australian, who seems to start virtually every game with his place on the line, has a test average of 35.48, which offers further statistical proof Australia's decline.

North's possible replacement, Usman Khawaja, was taken to England for the series against Pakistan, not given a game, and then not invited to tour India a few months later. Again, weird.

Ricky Ponting has clearly lost faith in the selectors, as evidenced by his very public disavowal of their decision to drop Johnson. Clearly, he does not think he is taking to the field with Australia's best and most balanced side behind him.

We have spoken before about the departure of the greats, the uneven captaincy of Ponting, and even the dilution of the Baggy Green culture nourished by Steve Waugh, in particular.

This time, however, it is the selectors who might find themselves in the public stocks. They can only hope that the fans and cricket writers hurling the rotten fruit have the accuracy and menace of their favoured Australian attack.

PS There appears to be a problem with the Comments function, as on the last blog. We are trying to rectify it.

Fifa rejects 'turbo-charged' Australia

Nick Bryant | 11:18 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

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Even with the combined antipodean might of a kangaroo with kleptomaniac tendencies, Paul Hogan, the Governor General, Elle Macpherson, Cathy Freeman and Hugh Jackman, Australia failed in its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. In fact, even if it had packed a Qantas A380 with Kylie Minogue, Dame Edna Everidge, The Wiggles, Lillee and Thomson, Kath and Kim and Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who decided against making the trip to Zurich) it would not have made much difference. Australia mustered just a single vote from the Fifa executive committee and, like England, did not progress any further than the first round of voting.

Australian football fans at a live telecast event in Sydney, 02/12

As with England, nobody surely ever doubted that Australia would stage a magnificent tournament - that had to be a given after the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. What Fifa appeared to be rejecting was the economics of the bid (of all the applicants, Australia stood to generate the least revenue), along with the time difference (which would have been problematic for American and European viewers).

Above all, however, it seemed unimpressed with the galvanising idea behind Australia's bid: that it could "turbo-charge" football in the Asia-Pacific region.

From the mandatory aerial shots of Uluru, to the plane skimming over the Great Barrier Reef, much of the bid was boilerplate stuff. The kind of thing you would see in a Qantas in-flight video or a Tourism Australia advert. Australia also played on its happy-go-lucky image. "What we would like to do is invite you to bring the World Cup to the world's greatest playground," said Hugh Jackman as part of the video presentation. Again, predictable stuff.

Instead, the most interesting aspect of the Come Play! campaign was how Australia attempted to turn the old tyranny of distance idea on its head, and to place itself at the heart of the emergent world. As Julia Gillard pointed out in a radio interview ahead of the vote: by 2022, 75% of the world's population will be in "our region". Far from being remote, Australia stressed its centrality.

The centre of sporting gravity is certainly starting to shift, and Australian sports administrators are alert to it. Aggressively evangelical, Aussie Rules recently held an exhibition game in China between Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions. A Rugby Union Bledisloe Cup game between the Wallabies and the All Blacks always take place now in either Hong Kong or Tokyo. The Socceroos are now part of the Asia federation of Fifa rather than the Oceania Football Confederation.

The traditional sporting ties remain strong and unbreakable. Of course, Australia is currently celebrating - if that is the right word - its longstanding cricketing rivalry with England in the Ashes series. The Wallabies have just returned from their annual winter tour to Europe. But the failed Come Play! campaign was part of a shift, as Australian sport increasingly turns its gaze to Asia.

PS. Many thanks for you good wishes. My wife and I have been blessed with a beautiful baby boy.

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