BBC BLOGS - Nick Bryant's Australia

Archives for February 2011

Loving Australia...

Nick Bryant | 06:50 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


You will have to forgive me for being rather reticent on the blogging front, but I have simply been unable to tear myself away from Shane Warne and Liz Hurley's Twitter feeds.

Liz Hurley arrives in Melbourne

Was it a coffee table or a mattress that was delivered on the eve of her arrival? Where should Warnie take this English rose for a "sexy lunch?" And he doesn't mean "spaghetti on toast". Oh no, Warnie is a man of great culinary refinement. I have been able to think of little else.

Always with an eye on fashion, La Hurley has followed the recent British trend of heaping praise on the land down under, adding her name to a fan list that already includes Parkie and the Prince of Wales. "Loving Australia..." she tweets from inside Warnie's Melbourne "loveshack," as the tabloids have been calling his Brighton mansion.

But I want to talk about something far less racy - what to Australian business journalists are what Warnie and Liz have become to Australian gossip columnists. You know who I mean. That Anglo-Australian couple who are always hogging the headlines. Those corporate titans which have us hanging on every word. I speak of course of BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto (is that the sound of clicks I hear?).

Their recent profits are so whopping that they are attracting tabloid-style headlines. I'm half expecting to pick up the Australian Financial Review in the morning to find "Phew, what a scorcher of a half year profit" in bold letters across the front page. They are indeed huge.

BHP has just posted a half-year record profit of $10.5bn for the six months between July and the end of December, a rise of 71.5% which equates to $58m a day. Last week, Rio Tinto unveiled profits of $14bn for the year, a near tripling on the back of rising commodities prices.

This time last year, the big debate in Australian politics was whether the resources sector should pay super taxes on its super profits. Following a multi-millionaire advertising and lobbying campaign, the mining sector - always Australia's strongest lobby - managed to force a government climbdown. Some might even go as far as to suggest that they also forced a prime minister from office, since the campaign contributed heavily to Kevin Rudd's demise (indeed, the first policy shift from the new Prime Minister Julia Gillard was a compromise deal with Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton).

At a time when the government has introduced a controversial $1.8bn flood levy to pay for reconstruction in Queensland, it is being estimated that the government has foregone $60bn in revenues from the mining sector over the next decade because of the back down over the mining tax.

These record profits may well revive the public debate over the super tax proposals, but not the political debate. Having seen what happened to her predecessor when he took on the mining sector, Julia Gillard, the head of a minority government, would never risk the same fate. The Liberal Party is also against the mining tax, even in its diluted form.

No wonder the mining sector is enjoying such a romance with the land down under.

Were the chief executives of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, Tom Albanese and Marius Kloppers on Twitter, perhaps they, too, would be saying: "Loving Australia..."

Julia's tears

Nick Bryant | 13:21 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011


Tears from the prime minister and a profanity from the leader of the opposition. Parliament's first sitting day of the new year has not been without drama, some of it scripted, some of it off-the-cuff.

Facing criticisms about being wooden and strangely detached during the floods crisis in Queensland, Julia Gillard gave in to her emotions in parliament, where the day was spent remembering those who lost their lives and paying tribute to the emergency services who have worked so bravely and tirelessly.

With her voice already breaking, she found it particularly difficult to hold back her tears when she recounted the distressing story of a helicopter pilot, Mark Kempton, who rescued a pregnant mother from the floods. When he turned around to check on her condition, she was weeping uncontrollably.

"What Mark was witnessing was a young pregnant mother who, just seconds before the chopper had arrived, had had her young child wrenched from her weary arms by the floodwaters. She finally succumbed to the terrifying power of nature that night.

"How do you tell Mark to rejoice in thinking of the people he saved when that young mother can think of nothing except that child she lost?"

It was powerful testimony, and few would surely doubt Julia Gillard's sincerity in retelling it.

In the Spectator Australia, the former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote a nasty column claiming Gillard "is not a naturally empathetic person - displaying, for instance, noticeable discomfort around infant children".

Crueler still was his claim that this was somehow related to her decision not to have children: "The femocrats will not like this statement, but I believe it to be true: anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them."

Not that it was intended as such, Julia Gillard's speech in parliament was a teary rebuttal, and will probably help rehabilitate her battered image. Australians, after all, are not unused to seeing their prime ministers cry, with Bob Hawke turning it into something of a political art form. More recently, when Kevin Rudd tearfully bullet-pointed his legacy after being removed as prime minister, it won him a good deal of sympathy.

The same will probably be true of Julia Gillard, and this speech may come to be seen as marking something of a turning point in her beleaguered prime ministership - the moment, perhaps, when the "real Julia" reasserted herself.

As for Tony Abbott, he has become embroiled in a row over comments made on a trip to Afghanistan last October, when he was discussing the death of an Australian digger, Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney, with an American commander.

"Sometimes shit happens," he was heard to say, earnestly rather than flippantly.
You can watch the exchange here - along with his 20 second non-response - to Channel Seven, which broke the story.

Tony Abbott claims that the comment has been taken out of context and that he would never seek to make light of the death of an Australian soldier. Again, few would surely doubt the sincerity of that statement. You can read more here.

My hunch is that in both these instances we saw glimpses of both the real Julia and the real Tony, and that neither the teary speech nor the salty exchange in Afghanistan will do either of them much harm (Tony Abbott's mute response to the question from the Channel Seven reporter, on the other hand, might be more damaging). After all, authenticity is what voters say they are craving.

Cyclone Yasi

Nick Bryant | 07:18 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011


Thank goodness. Many people in Australia would have feared waking up this morning to Hurricane Katrina-style devastation along a stretch of coastline reaching from Townsville to Cairns in northern Queensland. Happily, the trail of destruction was not nearly as bad as predicted or feared. Not for the first time during this floods crisis, officials presented Queenslanders with worst-case scenarios that did not ultimately eventuate. The same was true with the floods in Rockhampton and Brisbane.

Warned to expect the worst storm in Australian history, a category five cyclone with winds nearing 180 miles an hour, the fear was of a significant loss of life. Remarkably, however, there have been no reports as yet of fatalities or even serious injuries. Instead, the story of a baby girl born in an evacuation centre in Cairns as the cyclone thundered overhead - delivered with the assistance of British midwife in Queensland celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary, no less - has become powerfully emblematic. In the early morning hours, it came to symbolise the feeling of profound relief.

Destroyed house in Tully, Queensland on 3 Feb 2011

A string of smaller communities including Innisfail, Cardwell, Mission Beach and Tully have been very badly hit. There, the cyclone winds ripped roofs off houses, wrecked buildings, brought down power lines and palm trees. Many of the region's banana plantations have been wiped out. But the cities of Townsville and Cairnes were largely spared.

Once again, Cyclone Yasi demonstrated the remarkable, round-the-clock stamina of Queensland's emergency services and its leaders. It is strange now to think that the year started in controversy for the state premier, Anna Bligh, who decided to travel to Sydney for New Year's Eve rather than remain in Queensland, where the floods had already reached crisis proportions. Now no one would surely begrudge her a holiday, while they would probably urge her to take it outside of the state.

A few years ago, Queensland got an inordinate amount of free publicity for a clever tourism marketing campaign offering The Best Job in the World - the chance to become a caretaker of a tropical island, and to be paid handsomely for the privilege. For the past month, Anna Bligh has had one of the toughest jobs in the world, and the widespread feeling is that she has risen to the challenge. Certainly, her command of fast-changing situations and her retention of so many facts and figures has been impressive. As for Julia Gillard, I think one of our commenters, Nancy, put it best. Her public pronouncements throughout this crisis have sounded like a primary school teacher reading a sad story to her class. In contrast, Bligh has come across as a natural leader.

We have spent a lot of time talking about the resilience of Queenslanders. There's been talk of Queensland's exceptionalism, not least from Queenslanders themselves. But the fact that Cyclone Yasi passed without loss of life points to their preparedness, as well. Modern buildings are constructed now to withstand category five gusts, and people have the good sense to heed the warnings of officials, first to evacuate when they had the chance and then to hunker down when these towns and cities were in lockdown.

Let us hope that Queenslanders will not be tested again. They, like Anna Bligh and her team, thoroughly deserve a break.

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