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Archives for September 2010

Australia's new parliament

Nick Bryant | 07:06 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010


If out of nothing else than a sense of professional diligence, I feel that I should post on the new parliament in Canberra, Australia's 43rd. For hard though it is to summon much enthusiasm for Australian politics at the moment - earlier this month The Economist opined about the country's "desperately impoverished politics" - there are a few important things to report and to note.

Foremost amongst them, perhaps, is that after more than 100 years Australia finally has an indigenous MP, the Liberal Ken Wyatt (a "first" we have noted immediately after the election, but that surely bears repetition). Fittingly he took part in the traditional Welcome to Country that opened the new parliament draped in a kangaroo skin - and quite magnificent he looked too. Up until now, Australia has seen two Aboriginal senators. Finally, it has an indigenous member of the House of Representatives.

As an aside, during those long weeks when the country independents were making up their mind over whether to support Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, I occasionally found myself playing fantasy politics, and wondering what might have happened had one of them been an Aborigine. Is that what is needed for a government to make repairing the breach between black and white Australia an urgent national priority? As it stands, Aboriginal Australians are too small in number to be electorally significant at the national level.

The new parliament also sees Australia's first Muslim MP, who was sworn in with a hand on the Koran. Ed Husic is the son of Bosnian immigrants and represents a seat in western Sydney.

For the first time, a female Governor General, the regal-looking Quentin Bryce, opened a new parliament with a female Prime Minister. New South Wales and Queensland can also boast female premiers. But as we have noted before, the true gender test for Australian politics will surely come when women vie to become the factional chieftains who wield so much behind-the-scenes power.

For all the talk of "new paradigms" and a different polity, Aussie politics has reverted to type. After promising a "kinder, gentler" politics, Tony Abbott is now talking about leading a "ferocious opposition". He's already signalled his intentions by disregarding traditional rules about "pairing," which means that ministers, including Julia Gillard, will be expected to turn up for all parliamentary divisions. Ministers, including those holding the foreign affairs, trade and defence portfolios, will therefore find it hard to travel outside of the capital while parliament is sitting.

We have talked before about the brutality of Australian politics. We have spoken of its ugliness. But now it has reached the point of sadism. Surely keeping lawmakers under parliamentary arrest in Canberra is way beyond the pale?

PS Very much enjoying your responses to the last blog on globally obscure Aussies. I am very much in agreement on David Wenham and others, though not about Clive James, who for my money is Australia's finest writer. James, Greer and other cultural castaways still cop so much flack, a subject for another blog. In the meantime, I'd suggest that the last thread offers proof that the short ones are often among the best.

Famous Australians you've never heard of

Nick Bryant | 07:30 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


The big media news out of Australia at the end of last week was a story with negligible resonance outside of Australia.

Kerry O'Brien, the presenter of ABC's flagship programme The 730 Report, a former press secretary for Gough Whitlam and a long-time early evening fixture in many Australian lounge rooms, announced he would soon vacate his anchor's chair. For British readers, it is something akin to David Dimbleby finally hanging up his lapel mike, or, for Americans, Charlie Rose exiting his dim-lit studio on PBS.

But it got me thinking about other big-name Australians who have not made much of a global splash - often, it has to be said, because their homeland has been able to happily accommodate their ambition. Here's a quick, and by no means exhaustive, list:

1. Andrew Denton: it is tempting to describe the bespectacled chat show host as Australia's Parkinson, but, much as I love Parky, he's arguably a lot funnier and a great deal more probing. Watching his old show, Enough Rope, was a bit like attending a good funeral - a blend of raucous laughter, good anecdotes, personal reflections and occasional tears.

2. Peter Sculthorpe: Australia's Edward Elgar or Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composer whose music perfectly conjures up the Aussie landscape. Kakadu and Earth Cry are classics. He also did an orchestral arrangement that even made Advance Australia Fair sound good.

3. Ben Mendelsohn: a fabulous Australian character actor who appears to pop up in virtually every Aussie movie. Very strong in Beautiful Kate and Animal Kingdom, and in Hollywood he could surely have been a contender.

4. John Bell: a brilliant Shakespearian actor, who founded the Bell Shakespeare Company 20 years ago. A contemporary of Germaine Greer and Clive James at Sydney University in the 1960s, who, like them, was drawn centrifugally to London, but, unlike them, chose not to stay.

5. David Malouf: has the novelist got the global recognition he deserves? Probably not, although his 1993 novel, Remembering Babylon was short-listed for the Booker.

6. Margaret Fulton: long before Masterchef came along, and long before Matt Preston learnt how to tie a cravat, Australia's first food guru was changing the country's rissole-centric food culture.

7. Norman Gunston: the comic creation of the actor Garry McDonald, Gunston was way ahead of his time. A kind of Aussie Ali G in the 70s.

8. Chris Judd: the Aussie Rules football star, who claimed this year's Brownlow medal, is representative of hundreds of Australian rugby league and AFL stars who would be global names if their sports were truly global.

What a grand final, by the way. I can't remember watching the mood in a stadium change so immediately, from the frenzy in the stands at the MCG in those final riveting minutes to the anti-climactic near silence when everyone realised they would all have to come back on Saturday to do it again. Couldn't they have decided it on Saturday with overtime, a shoot-out or a competition on which team has the best tattoos?

Like I say, the list is by no means exhaustive. And, arguably, it invites another one: "Australians who have made it abroad but who should really have stayed at home"...

Should the Aussies go to Delhi?

Nick Bryant | 07:29 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


"Shame Games" was how the news magazine India Today previewed the forthcoming Delhi Commonwealth Games on its cover in early August, illustrating its story with the Tiger mascot suffering terrible stage-fright when caught in the international spotlight and realising it was naked.

An Indian worker walks in front of a collapsed bridge next to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium

Bemoaning "missed deadlines, bloated budgets, multiple agencies working at cross purposes" (21 at last count), the magazine editorialized that far from being a showcase for modern India the games "threaten to be our fortnight of shame".

I happened to be in Delhi that week, and witnessed for myself the frenzied, round-the-clock preparations, the half-complete buildings and the unopened new roads. It is not as if Delhi and chaos are complete strangers. But the notion that the city was about to host the biggest sporting event in the country's history just three months hence required an almost Rushdie-esque flight of imagination.

On the plus side, the revamped Jawaharal Nehru Stadium was enshrouded in its new high-tech super-structure, which looked very New India. On the negative, it was surrounded by construction site rubble and open drains, which recalled the old.

If things looked pretty inauspicious then, they appear to be even less auspicious now, as my friend and colleague Soutik Biswas reports from the Indian capital.

A week after smug old Sydney held 10th anniversary celebrations marking "the best ever Olympics," there is talk of more Australian athletes pulling out of what threatens to be the worst ever Commonwealths.

Already the world discus champion Dani Samuels has withdrawn, citing security and health concerns. The Australian Sports Minister Mark Arbib - who, for the uninitiated, is one of the powerbrokers who conspired to oust the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - is predicting that more athletes could follow suit.

The Australian government has already warned of a "high risk of terrorist attack" in Delhi during next month's games, and Kevin Rudd, the new foreign affairs minister, has enjoined people to take careful heed. Certainly, security concerns add an extra layer of complication and fear.

As we reported last week, pre-Games knocking stories are as familiar a part of the build-up these days as a torch relay, ticket scam or doping scandal. If you had read the press in the lead-up to both the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the Melbourne Games in 1956, you would have expected both to have been complete disasters.

But there is something qualitatively different in Delhi, because the knocking stories ring so very true. Perhaps things will come good, as they so often do in India, at the last-minute and in the nick of time. But a simple question: should Australian athletes, or indeed those from any other country, take that chance?

Standstill Australia

Nick Bryant | 04:32 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010


Australian politics has entered a kind of off-season, which feels rather like the lull you get in football after a scrappy World Cup tournament that was decided ultimately by a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out. Everyone seems a little weary, a few players are nursing injuries, and some of the supposed stars have seen their reputations badly battered. It is as if everyone is in desperate need of a break before the new season begins, and limbering up for it without any great enthusiasm, energy or motivation.

At the tail end of last week, ABC's AM programme broadcast as its lead a slightly bizarre report from one of its political reporters essentially saying that Canberra was so eerily quiet that it seemed almost ghostly. Briefly turning the idea of news on its head, the report effectively relayed there was nothing to report. But even in its weirdness, the piece was rather useful, because it captured some of the emptiness and listlessness that has temporarily crept into national life.

This week, Julia Gillard was officially sworn in as prime minister, as was her new ministerial team. But again, other than the re-emergence of Kevin Rudd as foreign affairs minister, it did not create much of a stir.

New Australian cabinet with PM Julia Gillard, Canberra, 14 September 2010

Perhaps everyone is still recovering from Rob Oakeshott's "And then there was one" speech - a 15 minutes of fame affair that seemed interminably longer. Perhaps it is just the inevitable consequence of an election that dragged on much longer than everyone thought?

But might it be part of wider malaise?

Even before the election, as they remarked upon the lack of vision from either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, some commentators asked whether Australia's great reforming age had drawn to an end. Starting with the opening up of the Australia economy under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and continuing with the economic reforms of the Howard era, such as the introduction of a goods and services tax, Australia has gone through a period of fairly rapid and major reform. But is that now petering out?

Other than its proposals for a national broadband network, which it seized upon during the campaign as its big idea for want of any others, the new-look government could hardly be said to have campaigned on a thrusting reform agenda. Julia Gillard is not regarded within Canberra as a particularly innovative policy-maker, and nor is the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott.

Julia Gillard will not commit to a timetable on any new emissions trading scheme, she has said that Republicanism will not be on her agenda until there is a change of monarch in Britain, and has no plans for a major shake-up of federal-state relations, which some regard as an impediment to national development.

What is also striking about this enervated interregnum is that its most energetic performers are Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, two former leaders who were effectively sidelined by their parties and have now been handed front-line roles (Turnbull is heading up the opposition to the government's broadband plans). Both of them have always been highly ambitious and motivated. But another thing they have in common is that they are both regarded as creative policy innovators and reformists.

After the rigours of the campaign, it is only natural that Julia Gillard should pause to draw breath and regain some energy. But she has emerged from the campaign a diminished figure within her party and within the country, and the fragility of the parliamentary situation may well exacerbate her cautious political instincts and underscore her reputation as a numbers politician rather than an ideas politician. Other than her oft-stated belief in the transformative power of education, she does not convey the impression of being particularly riveted by policies or "programmatic specificity," as her predecessor memorably put it.

Her first few months in office, you suspect, will be more about consolidation than change. But what then? Could there be stasis? Indeed, has Australia already have entered a phase of national standstillism?

Australia's Olympic effect

Nick Bryant | 09:19 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Invited to compose a programme note for the opening ceremony of his hometown Olympics, Clive James served up an absolute beauty: "Mount Olympus, meet Sydney harbour: you belong together."

Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman

Perhaps the same could be said of the Olympics and Australia. For just as Sydney swiftly established itself as the superlative Olympic venue, Australia is arguably the superlative Olympic nation. Certainly, it is hard to think of another country that has embraced this quadrennial sporting festival with quite the same devotion or enthusiasm. It is almost as if Olympism has now been hard-wired into the national psyche.

Other than Greece itself, Australia claims to be the only country to have attended every modern summer Games, an assertion contested fiercely by Great Britain that presumably has fuelled the boast.

No other event, forum or theatre, whether military, diplomatic, commercial, cultural or sporting, has presented such an opportunity for the country to assert itself so unambiguously in terms of its own choosing.

In a sparsely populated and occasionally neglected country, with a sometimes fragile sense of self-esteem, few aspects of national life have delivered more uncomplicated joy than the sight every four years of a group of athletes heading abroad and returning with a haul of gold, silver and bronze - international sport's highest currency of success.

Yet for all this green and gold pride, the story of Australia's hosting of two Olympiads has left only a faint trace in Australia's history books. In a curious contravention of the per capita principle, a large national story has been reduced to something rather small.

With Sydney this week celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 2000 games, perhaps it is worth another look.

In Sydney, like Melbourne in 1956, Australia was confronted with a national test, and was racked with self-doubt that it would suffer stage-fright before a watching world. The 2000 games were preceded by months of knocking stories about Atlanta-style transportation stuff-ups, ticketing problems, divisions within the organising committee, SOCOG, and even cultural faux pas, such as the minting of medals which featured a Greek Goddess perched in front of a Roman colosseum ('I Still Call Australia Rome," chided one gleeful sub-editor).

On the Monday before the games, Sydney airport recorded its busiest ever day because of the stampede to leave town. Stunned by the city's nonchalance, Susan Orleans of the New Yorker reported that Australians had brought cynicism to new heights in their evident lack of enthusiasm, while a Canadian visitor observed that touching down in Sydney was a little like arriving for a party where the host was still in the bath.

Then came the mighty success of the games themselves, which was accompanied by an orgy of self-congratulation. "Take a bow Australia," trumpeted the once-sceptical Bulletin, which only a few weeks earlier had asked reproachfully, "Is Sydney Ready?"

Along with the confidence-building came the nation-building, for the 2000 games aroused and stirred the patriotic soul. Struck by the new-found prominence of flags and face-paint nationalism, the journalist Jennifer Hewett pithily observed that Australia's traditional "mute stoicism" had been replaced by an "open patriotic eagerness".

According to James Curran and Stuart Ward, the authors of an excellent new history, The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, Sydney suggested that Australians "had shelved their traditional suspicion of overt nationalistic behaviour by revelling in frantic flag-waving".

Then there was Sydney's fabulous opening ceremony that presented a unified history in a fun, spectacular, seamless and rancour-free way. Never before had the national story been presented with such lavish panache and so little pain.

Still more important was the social impact of the games, with both the 1956 and 2000 leaving an imprint in areas where Australian politicians were either fearful of treading, or deliberately chose not to do so. Melbourne, for instance, produced an early experiment in multiculturalism, as the city welcomed the most diverse melange of people that had ever assembled on Australian soil. Sydney arguably produced what at that time was its most intense burst of reconciliation.

It came, of course, courtesy of Cathy Freeman, whose famous "400 metres of reconciliation" was greeted with such joy across the country. At a time when the Howard government determinedly refused to apologise for past injustices, the Olympics allowed many Australians to partake in their own kind of communal reckoning.

Perhaps the simple fact that both the Melbourne and Sydney games took place during a period of extended conservative rule partly explains their punchy impact. For Olympism lent itself to national imaginings that were often beyond either Sir Robert Menzies or John Howard, even though both were ardent backers of the games. Indeed, in a country where politicians on both sides have often steered clear of "the vision thing," the planning of two mightily successful Olympiads provided it in spades.

Often, the Australian story has been a cautionary tale, but Australian Olympism offers a much more adventurous narrative. Not just gold, gold, gold - as the commentator Norman May came close to saying, as he described the 4x100 metres men's medley swimming success at the Moscow Olympics - but bold, bold, bold.

You can read about the 2012 London Olympics here

From Canberra to the world

Nick Bryant | 03:40 UK time, Sunday, 12 September 2010


Lyndon Baines Johnson had a typically lavatorial take on whether he should retain J Edgar Hoover as his director of the FBI. No doubt you have all heard the famous quote on the respective merits of having Hoover inside or outside the tent. In deciding on where to place Kevin Rudd in her new cabinet, Julia Gillard has offered her own variation on that theme: she would like him outside of the country.

Around 80 days after being sacked as prime minister, Kevin Rudd has been given the world as his portfolio. He will serve as foreign affairs minister in the new Gillard government. It comes as no surprise, of course. Julia Gillard repeatedly said during the campaign that she would offer him a front-line post, and Kevin Rudd had made no secret that the job he had in mind was foreign affairs. Moreover, after she enlisted his help midway through the campaign to bolster the Labor party in Queensland, it made him a virtual shoo-in for the post.

The foreign affairs portfolio works for both of them. Rudd was one of Australia's most outward-looking prime ministers, and his penchant for international travel earned him the nickname Kevin 747. He clearly loves diplomatic summitry, and would one day like a job very high up in the United Nations. For Julia Gillard, the travel demands of the new post will mean that Mr Rudd has less time for mischief-making in Canberra, and will be less of a destabilizing figure. It also limits his interaction with other government departments, since he will head up a fairly isolated fiefdom.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

A Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, who enjoys a very close working relationship with Barack Obama, Mr Rudd certainly has the curriculum vitae. However, although he strengthened Canberra's relations with Washington through his personal chemistry with the new president, he was regularly accused of letting other important relationships fall into a state of disrepair.

Japan, Australia's one-time biggest trading partner, felt neglected by Rudd in the early days of his prime ministership, and then fell out with Canberra over whaling. China did not take kindly to Rudd bringing up the always sensitive issue of Tibet during a speech before university students in Beijing, although Rudd's admirers might regard it as one of the bravest speeches he made. The relationship with India suffered because of what Delhi diplomats thought was a slow governmental response to the student beatings in Melbourne and Sydney. All this raises the question of whether Rudd is the best man to repair and renovate these relationships.

Julia Gillard has yet to deliver a major foreign policy speech, and, other than her strong and longstanding support for Israel, she does not convey the impression that she has given the rest of the world much deep and serious thought. The insularity of the campaign partly reflected the insularity of her political outlook. One of the interesting things to watch will be the extent to which she outsources foreign policy to Mr Rudd. Indeed, managing this tricky relationship might become a test of both their diplomatic skills.

Gillard sneaks home

Nick Bryant | 09:50 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


So an election often compared to a national soap opera ended like the finale of a television reality show, with the winner kept a closely-guarded secret until announced live on national television.

Julia Gillard

The final judges, of course, were country-based MPs, "the three amigos," as we've come to know them, who'd been negotiating, deliberating and rather enjoying the national limelight for more than two weeks.

There was rich drama right to the very end. Shortly after lunchtime, one of the kingmakers, Bob Katter from north Queensland, announced he'd back the Liberal leader Tony Abbott.

Explaining his decision, he said he was angry with the treatment of his fellow Queenslander Kevin Rudd, who was ousted as Prime Minister by his Labor colleagues on the eve of the election, and believed that Tony Abbott offered, among other things, a better deal for indigenous Australians.

The three amigos, it seemed, had gone their separate ways.

Then, an hour later, came proof of that, when Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott appeared together at a press conference in Parliament House to deliver their own verdicts.

Tony Windsor, who represents Tamworth, the country and western capital of Australia, said that the Labor government's plans for a National Broadband Network were crucial, and was one of the reasons why he was backing Julia Gillard.

Then he handed over to Rob Oakeshott, who evoked a line from one of his favourite movies, Highlander: "And then there was one." With that, the member for Lyne launched into a rambling and meandering speech which felt at times like a filibuster. But finally he announced that he, too, would be supporting Julia Gillard, confirming her position as the head of Australia's first minority government since the Second World War.

For Julia Gillard, it was an act of political escapology that saved her government and, presumably, her career.

Australia's first female prime minister was deemed to have "lost" the election campaign. After all, first-term governments are usually expected to be returned for a second term by the Australian people, an unbroken run that goes back to the Great Depression. The post-GFC national economic success story should have worked in her favour.

But, crucially, she won the post-election phase by first cutting a deal with the Greens, then wooing the Tasmanian independent, Andrew Wilkie, all the time building up momentum, and creating the impression that Labor would stand a better chance than the Liberals of forming a stable government.

This helped her win over two of the three amigos, despite the fact that Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott represent fairly conservative-minded, regional constituencies, where polls showed that electors favoured Mr Abbott as PM.

Last week, Tony Abbott was describing his Liberal-led coalition as the "government-in-waiting". Perhaps that displayed precisely the kind of hubris which was off-putting to independents who all said they wanted a new style of politics. Similarly, the repeated claims of winning more seats and more votes than his Labor opponents might have had an adverse effect.

In defeat, he delivered a gracious enough speech which said that Australia's longest election had finally come to an end. For many Australians, whatever their political persuasion, that alone, I suspect, will be met with some relief.

Over the next few days, we can ponder the chances for stable government, and ask whether this result brings Australia's reform era, which has stretched back over 30 years, has come to an end. But for now, the simplest questions: did two of the three amigos do the right thing?

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