BBC BLOGS - Nick Bryant's Australia

Archives for January 2011

Prince Charles's Australia

Nick Bryant | 14:32 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011

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In the week that the son of a Yorkshire miner celebrated Australia's classlessness and egalitarian spirit, the heir of a reigning monarch did much the same thing. From the pit to the palace, Australia is getting rave reviews.

It was Sir Michael Parkinson who noted: "For someone brought up to conform to the strict boundaries of class and privilege in post-war Britain; to feel inhibited, shackled even, by the limitations imposed by accent, education and the fact of being a miner's son; for this person to encounter fellow human beings to whom none of these things mattered at all, was a joyous revelation."

But during a speech at an Australia Day reception in London, Prince Charles came close to ventriloquising precisely the same sentiment.

Reflecting on the two terms he spent at Geelong Grammar School in Australia in the mid-1960s - Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer are fellow alumni - he noted: "I was able to go around relatively privately and find out an awful lot about that part of the world. As you can imagine I have a huge affection as a result. I've been through my fair share of being called a 'pommy bastard' I can assure you! Look what it's done to me. My God it was good for the character. If you want to develop character, go to Australia. As I say I have a huge affection for it."

What both of them were essentially saying was that this is a country where your background does not really matter - or certainly nowhere near as much as it does in Britain, where I suspect there are still people who feel constrained by "the strict boundaries of class".

All of which brings us to "Cassandra", who has been playfully badgering me in the comments sections of the recent postings to reveal where I went to school. Before ending her suspense, it is worth pointing out that it's the first time anyone has posed this question since I arrived in Australia.

In certain circles in Britain - high society weddings, perhaps, or the editorial offices of Tatler - this is often something of a conversational ice-breaker. But like Parky and Prince Charles, one of the things I like most about Australia is that people tend to take you at face value rather than making judgments or even worrying about your social or educational background.

Perhaps it is because Australia is an immigrant nation, and thus a land of fresh starts. Perhaps there is a legacy from the earliest days of white settlement, when so many of the early settlers were convicts who wanted to wipe the slate clean. Perhaps it is because people here are less obsessed with education as a social indicator and more impressed by housing or money. Perhaps it is because character has more currency in Australia than class. Your thoughts please.

For what it's worth, I went to a comprehensive school on the outskirts of Bristol, and have never attended a fee-paying school in my life.

But truly, who cares? Few in Australia, I suspect, and an increasingly fewer number in my homeland, as well. In the crossflow of cultural and social influences, it is another way in which Britain is becoming more like Australia. Don't draw too many conclusions from our Old Etonian prime minister, take-me-as-you-find-me classlessness is in vogue. More Shane Warne than Hugh Grant.

Gillard's tax plan

Nick Bryant | 07:16 UK time, Thursday, 27 January 2011

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Presenting it as a communal act of national mateship, Julia Gillard has opted for a flood tax to help pay for the reconstruction after the floods. Most Australians will end up forking out between A$1 and A$5 a week, although low income earners and the victims of the floods themselves will be exempt. About two-thirds of the A$5.6bn reconstruction money will come from cuts in infrastructure spending and some flagship environmental programmes.

Usually, budgets frame the political year. Now, the floods reconstruction programme - a kind of emergency budget, if you like - will define Australian politics for the months to come. As we noted in Floods: The Fall-Out , its ideas and implementation has the potential to make or break Julia Gillard's prime ministership.

Ms Gillard is essentially arguing that every Australian should lend a helping hand, that the sums involved are affordable and modest - it's already been dubbed a "light-touch levy" - and that most of the money will come from savings from the federal budget.

In reply, the conservative opposition has complained that the government is imposing yet another tax, that many people who have already made charitable contributions are being handed the collecting plate for a second time and that it could depress consumer confidence at a time when retail spending is already flat. They argue that deeper savings could have been made from the federal budget, and that the levy is not necessary.

Politically, there are risks for both sides. The Labor government has what are euphemistically called "delivery problems": a reputation for botching the implementation of major spending schemes, such as the school rebuilding and home insulation programmes.

The Liberal-led opposition runs the risk of sounding heartless in the face of Queensland's suffering.

As the head of a minority government, one obvious question is whether Julia Gillard is capable of getting her proposals through parliament. Having deferred or killed off some of the government's environmental programmes, such as the cash for clunkers scheme, the Green Car Innovation Fund, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, the Green Start program, and the Solar Hot Water Rebate scheme, it will presumably be harder to secure the all-important vote of the Greens MP, Adam Bandt. The government says the best way to tackle climate change is to attach a price to carbon, but these were intended as remedial measures before an emissions trading scheme comes into effect, whenever that may be.

The independent MPs, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, have already been non-committal.

A couple of quick, further observations. Many of these environmental projects being delayed or axed were Kevin Rudd's pet projects. Indeed, the former prime minister stood alongside Barack Obama at an international summit in Italy to announce the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. This may come to be viewed as the true end of the Rudd era, according to ABC's political commentator, Annabel Crabb.

Some readers might be interested to learn that the government has promised fast-track approval for temporary skilled migrants who wanted to go to work in flood areas.

So should Australians lend a helping hand by putting it further into their pocket?

UPDATE: Deploying the "M-word" once again - her frequent mentions of "mateship" are presumably designed to give the proposals a measure of political immunity - Julia Gillard set out today to sell her flood reconstruction programme. In a radio interview this morning, she was given one of the tougher cross-examinations I have heard an Australian prime minister subjected to.

It came from Neil Mitchell, a Melbourne radio talkback host famed for his hard-hitting style of interviewing. At times ill-tempered, you can listen to an excerpt from the 20 minute interview here, and it's bruising stuff.

And here's something to set the cat among the pigeons. The state premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, who faces a tough re-election campaign in March, is calling for the tax to be adjusted for Sydneysiders to reflect their higher costs of living.

"The Commonwealth, before they lock this levy in stone, may do well to consider some fine tuning... what we know is that mortgages are higher in NSW on average and other costs of living are higher than other capital cities like Adelaide and Perth," she told reporters.

"Families really are doing it tough... many in NSW have already given so much in charitable giving and will have to pay more through rising food and other costs as a result of the floods."

Sir Michael Parkinson's Australia

Nick Bryant | 16:02 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

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Since it is the Australia Day national holiday, I am taking a day off, and handing over the blog to the King of Chat. We were treated to Sir Michael Parkinson's Australia on Monday night, when he became the first non-Australian to deliver the Australia Day speech before an audience in Sydney.

Always a great raconteur, there was much to enjoy. From someone who has obviously thought deeply about Australia, and been a regular visitor for the past 30 years, there was also much to ponder. Parky was particularly good on the classlessness of Australia, the umbilical relationship that the Ashes have come to exemplify and the attractiveness of the Aussie sense of humour.

His concluding thought was also interesting: "Curiously for a nation not lacking in confidence it seems to be awaiting inspiration from someone or something." But frustratingly perhaps, he did not probe further.

Anyway, I'll leave you in the hands of Sir Michael. You can read the oration in full here, and below are some of the edited highlights:

Michael Parkinson

"My association with Australia started the day I was born. Upon being told my mother had given birth to a baby boy, my father said he would like to add another name to the agreed Michael. He said he wanted to celebrate a recent event in Australia where England had won a Test match. Therefore he would like me baptized, Michael Melbourne Parkinson. My mother, aware she was married to a cricket tragic, said she too had been thinking about another name. Her choice would be Gershwin to commemorate her love of movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by celebrating the composer of some of the great music they danced to. Fortunately, they agreed that the chance of bringing up a child named Michael Gershwin Melbourne Parkinson in a pit village in Yorkshire without incident might prove a problem. So they changed their mind, and thank the lord they did......"

On Australia's egalitarianism: "For someone brought up to conform to the strict boundaries of class and privilege in post war Britain; to feel inhibited, shackled even, by the limitations imposed by accent, education and the fact of being a miner's son; for this person to encounter fellow human beings to whom none of these things mattered at all, was a joyous revelation.

"Indeed I think I truly fell in love with Australia when years later I watched the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, put his arm around the Queen. Those who believed it was a terrible lapse of protocol, that Mr Keating should be sent to the Tower and tried for treason, completely missed the point. Mr Keating wasn't being disloyal, he was merely reaching out in friendly gesture, as one human being to another."

On the Ashes: "At the same time as exposing the worst of animosity between our two nations, the game also promotes the best examples of familial love. It has allowed our countries to express their rivalry, but more importantly their mateship, through displays of sportsmanship and unexpected kindness..."

On humour: "[The] droll sense of humour is what I find most attractive in the Australian character. This was never more evident than when Australia achieved the impossible by putting a smile on the face of the Olympic Games. The Sydney Olympics nowadays are regarded as the shining example of what the Games should be. Why? The journalist Simon Barnes gave this explanation in The Times: 'Australia had the guts to debunk the twaddle that goes with the Olympic Games, to take away the pomposity and celebrate a concept that means far more to us than the banalities about world peace - that is to say humour.'

"Dame Edna Everage once said - and we must never tire of quoting the classics - that Australians are good at sport because of "the sun, the diet, the healthy outdoor life and the total lack of intellectual stimulation." In doing so the Dame was merely explaining the cultural cringe which existed in Australia 30 years ago. How different now..."

On the national spirit: "Writing this speech trying to convey the humour and good nature of the Australian people, and searching to explain why this is still the lucky country, has been difficult at a time of terrible disaster in Queensland. And yet to the outside observer nothing becomes your people more than the way they respond to the horrors of flood and fire. In 2009 the bushfires of Victoria, today the floods in Queensland have reminded the world of the resilience and courage of the Australian people.

"It is reassuring to the rest of us - helpless spectators that we are - to be reminded that such appalling tragedies bring out the best in human nature, demonstrating that the notion of community, the principle of being a good neighbour are not merely slogans but the practical means by which communities survive in desperate times. It also reminds us just how a penal colony became a great nation. The history of this place is the triumph of a few who by common purpose and strength of necessity built a prosperous nation in a remarkably short time...

"Curiously for a nation not lacking in confidence it seems to be awaiting inspiration from someone or something. When it finds whatever it is looking for, nothing will stop it.
In trying to sum up what I feel about my second home, I keep coming back to Scott Fitzgerald's observation that America was a land commensurate with our ability to wonder and so, I believe, is Australia.

"If we think for a moment of those 11 ships arriving in 1788 with their forlorn cargo and then look around us and then think what the next 200 years might bring it is surely not stretching our sense of wonder to imagine Australia as one of the most powerful and progressive nations of the world. Ah! You say, that would indeed be a miracle. Well think back 200 years and then look around you now. Is not what you see miraculous?"

The derivative country?

Nick Bryant | 14:01 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

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With the national day fast approaching, I've been enjoying the debate on ABC local radio about which country Australia most closely resembles. I have never lived in a country where the conversation about national identity is so lively, anguished and continual, and the very fact that this kind of question is asked at all speaks volumes in itself. More than 100 years after federation, one would have thought that the answer "Australia is like Australia" should have sufficed. Indeed, the seemingly immutable notion that Australia is inherently and slavishly derivative seems to be why the question remains unresolved.

The debate has been led by the ABC presenter and author Richard Glover, who suggested that Australia most closely resembles Italy when it comes to food - Spaghetti Bolognaise is apparently now the most popular dish here - Britain when it comes to sport, politics and high-end literature, and America when it comes to film and some other aspects of popular culture.

Curiously, many of his listeners cited Canada, because it is a resource-rich country with sentimental ties and monarchical links with Britain that has become richly and successfully multi-cultural over the past few decades.

As for America? A few people mentioned Ricky Gervais' edgy performance at the Golden Globes movie awards ceremony in Hollywood, and the fact that it caused such upset in the States and so much merriment in Britain and Australia, as incontrovertible proof of the Pacific-sized gulf that still separates Aussies and Americans.

Had one asked the question 60 years ago, when Australia was so unimaginatively mono-cultural, the question could have been answered with a single word: Britain. But successive waves of post-war immigration have made Australia so culturally rich and diverse that generalisations are becoming increasingly difficult.

Still, let's go ahead and make some.

When it comes to national institutions, Australia obviously most closely resembles Britain, from its parliament (don't be fooled by the House of Representatives and the Senate, Canberra takes its cues from Westminster) to its armed services, from its courts to its prisons. The political culture also has heavy British overtones, from the vaudeville of Question Time to the stenographers of Hansard. But I would suggest it is also becoming more Mediterranean, as Italian-, Greek- and Lebanese-Australians gain greater prominence, especially at the state level. There has long been a strong Celtic influence, too.

I would tend to agree that high-end literary types continue to look to Britain, as well, although there's much more pride in home-grown voices like Tim Winton, Steve Toltz, Murray Bail and Christos Tsiolkas.

ABC's national broadcaster, again, is influenced most by the British, and puts to air a surprising amount of BBC programming. However, the commercial networks are the home to a glut of American shows, and their style of fast-paced news and current affairs, presented by correspondents with near perfect teeth, is also mid-Pacific.

With its mix of broadsheets and tabloids, the newspaper culture could be described as British. But with Rupert Murdoch exercising so much influence in both countries, it could be argued that both are faithfully Australian, or even Murdochian.

Cinema is mainly American, right, although the big hit of the moment is Anglo-Australian, The King's Speech.

The food culture is a wondrous mélange of Italian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, British and all manner of other culinary influences. For all that, my personal favourite is modern Australian, which is often a fusion of all them. The fact that Australia has such good coffee is down to the Italian influence.

Sport is predominantly British, what with cricket and the rugby codes. But Aussie Rules is obviously indigenous, and the popularity of soccer owes more to immigrants from southern Europe than the Brits. Basketball has never really taken off here, and neither has baseball, even though Melbourne up until recently held the record for the most highly-attended game (an exhibition match at the 1956 Olympics). The popularity of swimming is distinctly Australian. Nowhere else in the world does the sport have such a popular following, which kind of makes sense given that 80% of the population lives within 50km of the sea.

For all that, there is also a long list of things that are emphatically Australian: the beach culture, the sense of humour, the dialect, the indigenous culture, modern architecture, the wine (which is excellent), the beer (which is not) and the preoccupation with lifestyle (although here there are echoes of southern California).

I suppose many would agree with the person who called into the ABC saying that Australia has cherry-picked the best and weeded out the worst. Others would argue that that Australia's imaginary national harvester has not worked anywhere near as effectively, still less its national filterer. That said, I dare it is with that upbeat assessment of their own country that many people here will be celebrating Australia Day. They will not be worrying too much about which country Australia most closely resembles, but instead performing their usual genuflections in front of the national altar: their trusty backyard barbies.

Floods: The fall-out

Nick Bryant | 12:10 UK time, Friday, 21 January 2011

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Many foreigners with only a cursory understanding of this country might have been mightily impressed by the performance these past few weeks of Australia's new female prime minister. But those who follow events more closely will have realized they were watching Premier Anna Bligh rather than Prime Minister Julia Gillard - Queensland's Giuliani rather than Canberra's Julia.

Julia Gillard (rear) and Anna Bligh in Bundaberg on 31 December 2010

The crisis has illustrated how, more than six months after taking the top job, Gillard struggles still to find her prime ministerial voice. Throughout, her statements have sounded weirdly over-rehearsed and emotionally artificial when all that was required was authenticity.

Canberra insiders who have known Gillard for years say that the prime minister is almost unrecognisable from the fun-loving politician whose personal charm, combined with her factional smarts, helped explain her rapid rise through Labor's ranks. There is something unnatural and robotic about her public pronouncements right now - or, put another way, something Ruddesque - which again is fiercely at odds with the chirpy self-confidence of the pre-prime ministerial past. It has been rather like watching a Sheffield Shield cricketer, known for aggressive strokeplay and the occasional flamboyant shot, making a very uncomfortable test debut in which he struggles to hit the ball of the square and is interested only in dogged survival. Certainly, she has been scratching around for runs.

The paradox is that the floods crisis presented an opportunity for Julia Gillard to assert herself as a strong national leader, much like John Howard in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But she has been overshadowed by Anna Bligh, whose position as Queensland premier looked fragile before the waters started rising, and another Queenslander, Kevin Rudd, who has also been a high-profile presence in the low-lying suburbs of Brisbane.

The conventional wisdom is that Julia Gillard's prime ministership will now come to be made or broken by how she deals with the reconstruction of Queensland and the towns in Victoria which have also been hit by flooding.

Determined to meet her election commitment to balance the federal budget by the 2012-2013 fiscal year, Gillard has said that spending cuts are inevitable and that the imposition of a one-off flood levy to taxpayers is a real possibility. The conservative opposition is against a flood tax, and argues instead that the savings should come from scrapping the proposed national broadband network and replacing it with a much cheaper alternative.

Gillard's unswerving commitment to balancing the budget may well be based on politics rather than economics. To avoid the charge of being old-style tax and spenders, modern-day Labor Prime Ministers often like to present themselves as deficit hawks. Some economists claim, however, that Gillard is far too obsessed with the surplus and that the national priority should be rebuilding Queensland, even if it means maintaining a public debt for a few years longer. What do you think? If you are Australian, would you be prepared to pay a one-off flood tax?

Yesterday in the grocers, I had my first post-floods "goodness that's expensive moment", and we are starting to get a much clearer sense of the economic cost of the floods. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences reckons it will cost the agricultural sector A$500-600m, with consumers bearing some of the cost through inflated fruit and vegetable prices. Coal exports could be hit to the tune of $2.5bn, because of the inundation of mines and disruption of the rail services leading to Gladstone, Queensland's biggest coal port.

Meanwhile, economists from ANZ bank reckon the clean-up bill could top A$20bn, which equates to about 1.5% of national GDP. Some 28,000 homes will need to be reconstructed, which will cost some A$8bn alone. The figures, like the scale of the flooding, are staggering.

It may be that the economic effect is nowhere near as catastrophic as once feared. Indeed, some economists believe that the Australian could do with another stimulus package, which is essentially what the flood reconstruction programme will be. Again, I'd be intrigued to hear your thoughts.

Ending the diplomatic neglect

Nick Bryant | 03:06 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

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I have heard it said, by Sir Michael Parkinson I think, that an Australian is a Yorkshire man with a suntan. This may explain why William Hague looked so much at home during his trip this week to Sydney and Brisbane. Not since 1994, when Douglas Hurd was responsible for foreign policy, has a British foreign secretary paid a visit down under. And, as William Hague openly admitted, its comes in recognition of Australia's enhanced standing in the region and the world at this, the start of the Asia-Pacific century. From a diplomatic perspective, Britain has neglected Australia. This two-day visit was intended as a corrective.

In another example of the new-found premium that Britain attaches to its relationship with Australia, bilateral talks between the two nations - given the awkward acronym, AUKMIN - will take place annually. Australia has what are called in diplomatic jargon "2+2" relations with only three other countries: America, Japan and more recently Indonesia.


Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague at a barbecue with flood victims in Brisbane on 19 January 19 2011

This has the feel of a pivotal moment. Certainly, it is interesting to contrast the diplomatic relations of Britain and Australia between this century and last.

For the first 40 years of federation, British foreign policy was essentially Australian foreign policy. When Australia's second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, wanted to complain about the French deportation of convicts to New Caledonia, for example, the message was conveyed by the British ambassador in Paris. When Deakin wanted America's Great White Fleet to visit Australia, again the official invitation was sent via Whitehall to Washington. As Donald Horne pointed out in The Lucky Country: "Even when these colonies federated it was believed that Australia was still not a true nation. Economically, strategically and culturally Australia was defined as part of the British Empire."

Remarkably, it was not until 1944, when Australia signed a security treaty with New Zealand, that the country forged its own, independent foreign policy. Similarly, it was not until World War II that Australia established full, independent diplomatic relations with America, with the opening of an Australian embassy in Washington.

Now, of course, the balance of power has shifted rather dramatically. Asia is the world's great economic powerhouse, and Australia is providing much of the fuel for the engine room, in the form of coking coal and iron ore. Economically, geographically and strategically, the country is very well placed to greatly enhance its regional influence - or to "punch well above its weight," in the much-favoured diplomatic argot - over the coming decades. Of course, one of Kevin Rudd's big ideas as prime minister was to attempt to institutionalize this influence through the creation of an Asia-Pacific community modeled on the European Union. Even though Julia Gillard has downgraded this as a national priority - and signalled that she is not much interested in foreign affairs - moves are already afoot to create what Richard Wolcott, the former diplomat tasked by Rudd with promoting the idea, calls a "small-c" community.

Worried about not wielding great influence in the most populous and economically active part of the world, Britain is being forced to play catch-up. That is one of the reasons why the new coalition government is placing new emphasis on the Commonwealth, this loose historical alliance of 54 nations. In a speech at Sydney's Lowy Institute, Hague noted: "We are consciously shifting Britain's diplomatic weight to the east and to the south." He argued that "new sources of opportunity and prosperity" required Britain "to look east as never before".

Ever the diplomat, Hague tried not to mention our cricketing heroics during his short stay. But what if there was a diplomatic version of the Ashes. By mid-century, which country would be holding aloft that terracotta urn?

Queensland floods: The spirit down under

Nick Bryant | 22:06 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

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There are times when you just have to give in to the national stereotypes, and these past few weeks in Queensland has been one of them.

Regular readers of this blog know that I think outsiders commonly get a lot wrong about the land down under. For a country that prides itself on being so laid back, it can be surprisingly and infuriatingly authoritarian and nannyish. It is strongly state-orientated when the tendency is to think of a shoulder-to-shoulder, fiercely unified nation. For all the national mythology about the bush and the outback, it is also hugely urbanised. Aussies have even slipped a long way down the world drinking ladder.

Flood water surrounds Kurilpa bridge in the suburb of South Brisbane on 13 January 2011 in Brisbane, Australia.

The misappropriation of the phrase The Lucky Country always serves as a useful reminder of the misunderstandings. It started life in the early-1960s as a term of disparagement - it was coined, of course, by the journalist Donald Horne - and only later became a boast.

Some of what we have witnessed in Brisbane these past few days offers proof of all this. The state premier, Anna Bligh, spoke tearfully, and with great Queenslander pride, of the people who live "north of the border," as if the residents of this state are a breed apart. Super-Australians, if you like.

I dare say there were a few people in the bush who, while sympathetic, had a wry smile when they pondered how Brisbane's latte-drinking city dwellers would cope with such massive flooding. Perhaps there are even a few officers in the Queensland police who have rather enjoyed having even more latitude in telling people what to do.

And I know for a fact there were a few New South Welshman who delighted in seeing the Suncorp rugby stadium under water, having been pummelled there so often in the State of Origin rugby league (a producer in London suggested I say that the stadium had been "marooned," not realising the Queensland side are known as the maroons).

For all that, the public reaction to the floods conforms much more closely to how the rest of the world prefers to think of Aussies. Assumed Australia has been very much in evidence.

There has been an extraordinary grittiness in evidence. Yesterday, I reckon I ran into about six or seven Allan Borders. People have shown extraordinary resilience and stoicism. There has been a wonderful laugh-out-loud humour. People have, on occasions, been extraordinarily laid back. Even in Brisbane yesterday, the "No worries mate" and "she'll be right" spirit was strongly in evidence as people mopped out their homes.

Anyone worried about the demise of the Australian larrikin will have hopefully have been reassured to see our pictures yesterday of a bunch of surf dudes, as if out of central casting, taking to the muddy waters with beers in their hands. This, after all, is the home of Castlemaine XXXX - in fact, the area around its main brewery has been flooded. I've lost count of people we have filmed kicking back on the verandas of their Queenslander homes, these bungalows on stilts, while the waters have risen underneath them.

People have mucked in. Yesterday when we filmed home-owners mopping up their homes, they were helped by dozens of volunteers who the residents did not even know. So many were wearing Aussie clothing, from Akubra hats to ball-crushing shorts that seemed to hail from the era of World Series Cricket. Needless to say, many turned out in the dress of urbanites across this land: tight-fitting Lycra.

I will long remember the site of a barista wading through the waters clutching his coffee machine; the man who emerged from the floodwaters with a box full of top-notch wine (most of it came from New Zealand, curiously), and the kid who rescued his surf board. I enjoyed the mayor of Ipswich, an uncomplicated bloke in an uncomplicated sort of place, who suggested that looters be used as floodmarkers.

And we have not even got the bullsharks.

This has been an awful week for the people of Queensland, and especially for those living in Toowoomba and Grantham. But the response and spirit has been a marvel to witness.

And stereotypes are sometimes a little like floodwaters. Sometimes, there's no point in trying to hold them back.

Predictions for 2011

Nick Bryant | 14:30 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

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Not yet two weeks old, 2011 has already made a mockery of predictions. Who would have thought that Queensland would have experienced such awful flooding? They have continued this week, of course, with some especially violent and frightening flash floods in Toowomba. Now the rising waters are rolling south towards Brisbane, the country's third-largest city, although the Queensland capital is much better equipped to deal with them than it was in 1974, when 14 people were killed and 6,700 homes inundated.

So here are a few predictions for the next 12 months:

The political cringe: Of the changes to have overtaken Australia in recent years, two are by far the most glaring to the international eye. The first is the decline of Australian cricket. The second is an equally steep fall-off in the quality of Australian politics. Just as the Australian test team was never going to withstand the loss of so many world-class players, nor has Canberra. John Howard, Peter Costello, Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. Retirement, retrenchment and relegation has taken out some strong performers. So I suspect the debate will intensify about the quality of Australia's polity, and the performances of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Is it now possible to talk of Australia's political cringe?

Political battle royal: The roll out of the National Broadband Network will be the hot-button political issue of the year, and a highly emblematic one at that. Labor will point to it as proof of an ambitious reform agenda, while the Liberals will argue that it is a colossal waste of money and that cheaper technologies would be adequate. Malcolm Turnbull, one of the Liberal party's most effective communicators, will lead the charge.

Safest political bet: The deeply unpopular Labor government in New South Wales will be ousted from power, although the Liberal-led coalition will fail to generate much enthusiasm from voters. The election will offer more proof of Australia's political cringe.

Secession: Given that the Queensland economy will take months to rebound from the floods, Western Australia will race even further ahead than the rest of the country as Australia's most economically vibrant state. Could talk of secession move from the fringes to the mainstream in WA?

Economy: The Reserve Bank will continue its policy of hiking interest rates from their post global financial crisis emergency levels. Australian retailers will be badly hit, heightening demands for the GST, the Australian sales tax, to be levied on internet shopping. It could become the business lobby's cause of the year, although Julia Gillard has already indicated that she plans to leave internet shopping alone. Organic food is apparently slated as the big growth industry of 2011.

Tourism: With her Australian shows to be broadcast early this year, the much-vaunted "Oprah Effect" will vie with the "Strong Aussie Dollar Effect."

Jacki Weaver

Culture: The veteran Australian actress Jacki Weaver will win a major Hollywood award, perhaps the Golden Globe, for her mesmerising performance as the matriarch of a Melbourne crime family in Animal Kingdom. Geoffrey Rush will no doubt win his second Oscar for his role as an Australian speech therapist in The King's Speech.

Sport: After last year's disappointment, St Kilda will win the Aussie Rules grand final. Queensland will win the State of Origin yet again, while the Melbourne Storm will rebound to take the NRL grand final. The Wallabies will lose out to the All Blacks in the World Cup, but play some very attractive rugby in the process with the youngsters Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor emerging as three stars of the tournament. I have a strange feeling that Ricky Ponting will survive the year as the captain of the Australian cricket team, partly because Cricket Australia will want to blood his possible long-term replacement, Tim Paine of Tasmania.

On that front, thanks for all the responses to that last Ashes blog; a real Matt Prior of the genre, a quick-fire century on the comments front, in the wake of a few Michael Clarkes. A highly entertaining thread, and some fiercely divergent responses.....

Aussies will absorb defeat

Nick Bryant | 06:35 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011

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So another of this country's great sporting cathedrals has been turned into something resembling a mausoleum. I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground this morning, having been given the task of finding crestfallen Aussie fans. Yet on the road outside, which on test match days is normally crammed with Aussies wearing green and gold, with zinc cream smeared across their faces like tribal decorations, brandishing inflatable marsupials and waving boxing kangaroo flags, there was hardly a local in sight.

This, for us Poms, is cause for double celebration. The taste of cricketing victory is always sweet, and never moreso than when laced with Australian suffering.

Australian team at the Ashes

Of course, we, as Brits, are almost pre-programmed to gloat. We have also come to expect that Australia experiences great national convulsions whenever it loses to the English. Ideally, we would like to see news anchors breaking down, Walter Cronkite-like, on-air, flags at half-mast atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House not only enveloped in darkness but hosting concerts funereal in tone. In Austerity Britain, perhaps we not only like to think that is how Australia reacts, but almost need to think it.

Alas, we are dealing here with Assumed Australia rather than the real thing: a kingdom of the mind where the historical arithmetic is always being recalculated on some imaginary tally board, where ledgers perpetually need to be balanced, and where wrongs always need to be righted.

True, Aussies never enjoy losing to the English. For some, it hurts bad. But the truth is that the country will absorb this defeat without sinking into a nation-wide funk. Its self-esteem, buoyed by an almost recession-proof economy, simply isn't that fragile. And then there is the beach.

So in the absence of streets filled with weeping women and newspapers edged in black, what should we be telling London about Australia's response to England's lop-sided Ashes victory?

For a start, it is worth pointing out that the present side has not got a particularly enthusiastic home following. This is partly because when Australia lost its best players like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist, it also lost its most likeable stars. After Shane and his technicolour dreamcoat, the present crop are vanilla in comparison.

Ricky Ponting is not hugely popular, though I have long thought he gets an unfair press. He is much better than his headlines would suggest - although, as with his outburst in Melbourne, he sometimes brings them on himself. Certainly, he does not have the standing of Allan Border, Mark Taylor or Steve Waugh, his three predecessors. Nor does his temporary and perhaps long-term replacement Michael Clarke. In a country that has always respected workhorses, I suspect many think the New South Welshman is a bit of a show pony.

Sports fans here are also realists rather than sentimentalists or fantasists. After the retirement of Warne and McGrath, they knew cricket would no longer be a unipolar world with Australia as its sole superpower. Even if the sharp gradient of its downward trajectory has taken many by surprise, the national team was never going to withstand such a heavy depletion of resources.

My hunch is that Aussie spectators are more sporting than we give them credit for - although the mass evacuation of the MCG last week when England started to get on top adds weight to the counter-veiling view. "Well earned" reads the headline on the ABC News website this afternoon, and I do not think that there is a single serious-minded cricket follower in this land that thinks that Australia deserved to win. Other than a couple of days in Brisbane and the Test match in Perth, England were by far the better and more balanced side.

Aussie sports fans can spot mediocrity a mile off, and have witnessed it for years in its now highly fallible cricket team. After losing to South Africa two years ago, last summer they struggled even against the West Indies and Pakistan.

To put the Ashes into some kind of wider sporting and cultural context, perhaps it would be worth pointing out that Australian sports administrators are increasingly looking to establish a bridgehead in Asia. Aussie Rules has just held an exhibition game in China. The Bledisloe Cup is now contested in Hong Kong and Tokyo. The Australian World Cup bid also tried to turn the old "tyranny of distance" argument on its head by trying to persuade Fifa that Sydney and Melbourne were gateways to Asia.

Indeed, the Ashes are steeped in so much tradition that we all fall for the trap of describing the old, mono-cultural Australia rather than its new, multicultural and increasingly Asia-centric incarnation.

For all that, the sporting relationship with Britain, and especially England, remains by far the most important and defining. It is also an indicator of how the Old Country retains its permeating influence in sport, culture and the national life. No wonder the Barmy Army never tires of its favourite anthem: "God Save Your Queen."

At least Australians can take solace that the chant from previous tours down under about A$3 being roughly equivalent to £1 is no longer available to England's travelling hordes. This takes us Poms into trickier territory, for it is a reminder of how the world's economic centre of gravity has shifted eastwards, which, in policy circles especially, is a source of unease.

After the Melbourne test, the ABC cricket commentator Glenn Mitchell, whose analysis and wit always brightens the southern summer, said that Australian cricket had reached its nadir. He surely spoke a week too soon. I doubt whether he would have anticipated another thrashing in Sydney.

So the rebuilding process, already three years in the making, will now become more urgent. And who would have thought that its foundation stone could be a Muslim batsman born in Pakistan with the name Usman Khawaja?

Miserable New Year

Nick Bryant | 02:09 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Comments

I want to wish you all a Happy New Year, but that doesn't quite fit the mood here in flood-stricken Queensland. As you know, the state is dealing with the most widespread flooding in its history, making a mockery of Queensland's famous boast: that it is beautiful one day and perfect the next.

With its aquamarine seas, inviting beaches and tropical feel, the Sunshine State so often provides the stock footage of tourism advertisements. Picture postcard Australia, if you like. Proof of the country's status as a lifestyle superpower. But the most striking images these past few days have been of muddy brown waters covering vast expanses of land - "Germany and France combined" is the yardstick de jour.

 Partly-submerged signs in Bundaberg, Queensland

From flooded homes to ruined crops, from mines swamped by water to families separated from their loved ones by flood plains, this has been the most miserable of starts to 2011.

We have been here for the past few days, and have shared, in a very minor way, some of the frustrations. The closed roads. The intense heat and humidity. The mosquitos. The threat from venomous snakes. The uncertainty of not knowing where you are going to spend the next night, or whether we will get to power the gear we need to broadcast. Needless to say, these inconveniencies do not even merit the slightest quiver on the gauge of human suffering compared to what Queenslanders have been confronting.

A colleague once described reporters as being like the storm-troopers of globalisation, descending, like a flash mob, on people caught in the clutch of awful circumstance, and then leaving the scene as quickly as the story slipped from the headlines. Largely because of the advances in satellite technology and the internet, news organizations have become adept at providing real-time coverage of these kinds of disasters. What we are not particularly good at conveying, quite frankly, is showing the extent to which these events blight peoples' lives for months, and often years to come.

Interest will probably peak with the floodwaters. So farmers rueing the loss of their crops or people with inadequate insurance trying to figure out how to rebuild will probably do so out of the global glare.

There will be ramifications across Australia, of course, way beyond the flood zone. It will mean increased grocery prices at supermarkets and lost revenues from the mining sector - estimated at A$100 million a day - which will have knock-on effect of the state and federal coffers.

In this face of this disaster, various national character traits have come to fore. After all, clichés often start out as truisms. There has been the grittiness and self-sufficiency one would expect. The love of home, which partly explains the reluctance of residents to leave. A strong community spirit, especially in the bush. The acute understanding, long-held in this part of the world, that nature can be furious and overwhelming. Then, of course, there is the gallows humour.

I write from a boat trying to make it as close to Rockhampton as we can get. You will forgive me my wry chuckle when, amidst families loaded with must-have luggage, a young bloke came on board clutching a box of Castlemaine 4X.


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