BBC BLOGS - Nick Bryant's Australia

Archives for March 2011

Farewell Ponting

Nick Bryant | 12:45 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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"Major announcement at 1pm SCG TODAY involving a senior Australian cricketer." As soon as that not particularly cryptic email from Cricket Australia landed in inboxes around the cricketing world, everyone knew that Ricky Ponting's tenure as Australia's captain could now be measured in hours rather than months or even years. In truth, nobody needed an email. As soon as Australia crashed out of the World Cup at the quarter final stage - a disaster for a country that hoisted the trophy in the last three tournaments - it was clear that the Ponting era had come to an end.

Ricky Ponting

I'm in England, where the news of Ponting's resignation is a big deal. It's the headline sports story of the day. He's a figure who English fans love to hate, but sneakingly admire. A great batsmen, an extraordinarily tough competitor, though a tactically suspect captain.

As I've written before in this space, I've long thought that Ponting gets an unfairly bad press, not least from Australia's cricketing scribes. He was never a popular replacement for Steve Waugh, a legend among Aussie sporting legends, and his critics will claim that his success as an Australian captain came during the Warne/McGrath era when the team could virtually have run on auto-pilot. Certainly, as soon as Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist and co retired, we saw the end of cricket's unipolar world in which Australia was the sole superpower. Afterwards, Ponting's job was to manage his side's decline.

I first met Ponting at a fashion event soon after arriving in Sydney - we had both been dragged along by our wives - and he was charming, friendly and, best of all, extremely candid. Australia was just about to set about regaining the Ashes, and he was disarmingly honest about why his team had been beaten in England the year before. He was also confident they would beat England convincingly on home soil - not a bad call on the eve of a 5-0 series.

At press conferences, Ponting tended to avoid the dreadful "they gave it 100%" clichés and spoke much more intelligently about the nuances of the game. At those same press availabilities, however, he could be painfully thin-skinned, especially when he copped criticism from former players - and especially former captains - about his lack of tactical smarts.

His books, the Captain's Diary series, also revealed the good and bad. The supportive captain, who cherished the Baggy Green culture invented to a large extent by Waugh. The loving husband, and later devoted father. The dedicated pro who thought there was no better job in the sporting world than captaining his country.

But they also revealed him to be rather peevish at times. He used the books to settle quite a few scores, and once I remembering his complaining about the cost of laundry on an Ashes tour in Britain, which seemed a lesser concern for a multi-millionaire sportsmen. Recently, we've seen a few ugly outbursts on the pitch, which suggested he was buckling under the pressure of leading what by Australian standards was a fairly mediocre side.

Ponting has said he plans to keep playing at an international level. The great fear of Cricket Australia was that he would not want to play on unless he was the captain. And for my money he is still Australia's finest batsmen, even if his form has slumped alarmingly in recent series. Perhaps he will drop down the batting order.

So farewell Punter Ponting - a man who brought to the game much more of the good than the bad and the ugly.

Unfolding tragedy to Australia's north

Nick Bryant | 01:44 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

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Had our pictures of the destruction following the Christchurch earthquake been rendered in black and white, we could have been looking at something from the Blitz.

On a different scale entirely, the scenes from Japan have reminded us of Hiroshima. Cities, ports and coastal communities have looked more like the mouth of hell.

Japanese foreign language students were among the victims of the CTV Building in Christchurch, and we watched as a Japanese search and rescue team sifted through the colourless wreckage in bright orange uniforms.

On Friday night, those brave rescue workers prepared to return to Tokyo to perform the same gruesome mission in their homeland, albeit on a vastly bigger scale.

I am going to be off for the next few weeks - which is why I am not in Japan - and leave behind a news diary that seems entirely inconsequential given what is unfolding to Australia's north.

A big protest rally in Sydney in support of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. A pre-wedding royal tour by Prince William to Queensland, Victoria and New Zealand to visit the victims of the floods and earthquake. A state election in New South Wales, where the incumbent Labor government faces obliteration (even to use that word seems inappropriate at a time like this).

After the federal election in 2007, at the start of what many thought would be the Rudd era, Labor was in charge in every state and territory and enjoyed a healthy majority in the federal parliament.

The most senior Liberal office holder in the land was the mayor of Brisbane. Now Liberal-led coalitions are in charge in Western Australia and Victoria, and Labor leads minority governments in Tasmania and, of course, Canberra - another sign of the party's speedy decline.

By the end of the month, a Liberal-led coalition will be in charge in New South Wales, the country's most populous state. Not that there is any great enthusiasm for the incoming government. Indeed, perhaps Australia is living through an era of least worst options when it comes to federal and state politics.

Just to think, many of the headlines midway through last week focused on Prime Minister Julia Gillard choking up as she delivered her speech to the joint session of conference and talked with great wonder about America's first Moon mission; and her choice of Australian music on an iPod she presented to Barack Obama.

At the moment the quake struck, I was just about to head to a footy match in Sydney - that's rugby league for the uninitiated - pondering how the change in the sporting seasons had once again been ushered in with frontpage scandals involving players and agents.

But again, the ongoing trials and tribulations of the National Rugby League, the NRL, now seem so utterly inconsequential.

I covered the last Asian tsunami from the ghostly shores of southern India and Sri Lanka, and have a sense of what is facing the rescue teams, the reconstruction workers, my colleagues, and, most of all, the victims.

I am sure I speak for all the regular readers of this blog when I say our thoughts are with them all.

Gangland Godmother made for movies

Nick Bryant | 04:09 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

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When it comes to The Sopranos-meets-Ramsey Street world of Melbourne's gangland, fact can often be way more outlandish than fiction; and hot on the heels of the critically-acclaimed film Animal Kingdom comes the made-for-the-movies trial of Judy Moran, the city's most infamous crime matriarch.

For the uninitiated, Judy Moran is a 66-year old grandmother, instantly recognisable for her designer sunglasses and blow-dried blonde hair, who has lost two husbands and two sons to gangland killings.

In June 2009, she was arrested in connection with the murder of her brother-in-law, Des "Tuppence" Moran, who was shot seven times in the head and upper body inside a café in Melbourne in broad daylight. The prosecution did not allege that Moran had pulled the trigger, but argued she had driven the gunmen, Geoffrey Armour, to and from the scene of the murder. The court heard that she had congratulated the gunman and patted him on the back when he confirmed that Tuppence Moran was dead, and ordered that he remove clothing and other items, including the murder weapon, so that she could dispose of them.

In what has the feel of a cinematic flourish, they were discovered later that evening by police in a safe hidden behind a bookshelf in her home. Moran was arrested as she walked back after dumping the getaway car, after a police surveillance team had watched her do it. The jury rejected her claim that she had been visiting the grave of her slain son, Mark, at the time of the murder. It was the anniversary of his death, which she presumably hoped would be a humanising detail that would help sway the jury.

Moran apparently commemorates her dead relatives with potted roses in her garden, and sometimes speaks to them over a cup of coffee. With her story almost certain to be dramatised, the scene almost writes itself.

Indeed, there are shades of Judy Moran in the character of Smurf in Animal Kingdom, who the Oscar-nominated Australian actress Jacki Weaver played with such chilling perfection.

Perhaps mindful of the media needs of the moment, Moran waved to cameramen as she was taken from the court in her electric wheelchair.

There's a good piece here about how the Melbourne underworld has provided Australia's second city with its main cultural export in recent years. Both Australia's best film of recent years, Animal Kingdom, and one of the more critically-acclaimed television dramas, Channel Nine's Underbelly, were based on real-life gangland wars.

The extent to which the crime culture in Melbourne and Sydney overlaps with the tabloid-driven celebrity culture is also another interesting area to explore.

Certainly, Judy Moran was the country's most infamous female criminal celebrity, but no doubt someone will soon come along to fill her designer stilettos.


Barack and Julia

Nick Bryant | 09:57 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

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Julia Gillard has been in Washington, playing with a Sherrin Aussie Rules ball in the Oval Office with Barack Obama, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS military alliance and fielding questions from American high school students about "what is vegemite?"

Julia Gillard and Barack Obama

The President was generous with his time and praise. He ventriloquised Julia Gillard's line about the two countries being "great mates", and said that Australians and Americans were kindred spirits because of their common language, love of democracy, pioneer spirit and love of wide open spaces.

Like his close friend Oprah Winfrey, Obama pronounces the Australian prime minister's surname with the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first, but I dare say she will forgive both of them for that small transgression.

Obama not only gave Julia Gillard face-time in the Oval Office, but accompanied her on a visit to a high school in Washington DC - an unexpected addition to the itinerary.

Here, it is probably churlish to bring up Julia Gillard's famous statement shortly after becoming prime minister about being more comfortable in a classroom with Australian kids than at international summits.

During her visit, she will also address a joint session of Congress, an honour bestowed only on America's closest friends.

For a leader who vowed to spend more time at home than her predecessor, it has been a good week for Julia Gillard to be out of country. A new poll suggested Labor's primary vote had plummeted to just 30%, its lowest ever figure. The previous record low came in 1993, when Paul Keating was prime minister.

Her personal approval rating has also dropped on the back of her handling of proposals for a new carbon tax, where she is widely deemed to have broken a pre-election pledge categorically ruling one out.

"There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead," she said ahead of the election. Labor is also set to take a walloping at this month's New South Wales election, where the voters are waiting with baseball bats.

So the still warm glow of Obama's star power must feel particularly comforting at a time when she is experiencing such an Arctic chill at home, even if their joint photo-opportunity looked a bit like watching an Aussie soap alongside a mega-bucks Hollywood blockbuster.

It is not the first time that Barack has helped Julia, although the previous occasion was wholly inadvertent. For I've long held the theory that were it not for President Obama's scheduling difficulties mid-way through last year, Julia Gillard would not have become prime minister so early in her career.

In one of those strange accidents of history, Obama was due to visit Australia last June on the weekend before Kevin Rudd was ousted as prime minister, but cancelled at the last minute to deal with the oil spill off Louisiana and Alabama. Had Obama come to Australia and lavished praise on Kevin Rudd that weekend, as he no doubt would have done, could the powerbrokers have moved on the prime minister with quite the same speed and ruthlessness? Such is the deference towards Washington that I suspect not.

But I digress. Obama publicly identified Kevin Rudd as the global leader with whom he felt most closely aligned, intellectually and philosophically, but in the end it did not do much domestic good for the former prime minister. At a time when she is reeling in the polls, will the "Obama effect" help Julia Gillard?

PS Thanks for your thoughtful comments to the same sex marriage post. One of the best threads for a while.

Same sex marriage down under?

Nick Bryant | 02:13 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

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Outside of New Year's Eve and the occasional Olympics, Australia lays on no greater spectacle than the Sydney gay and lesbian mardi gras. From the famed Dykes on Bikes, who always begin the parade with the throttled roar of their Harley Davidsons, to the surf lifesavers in their skimpy Speedos, it is at once fabulously global and quintessentially antipodean. Leather, spandex, make-up, sequins, metal studwork, false eyelashes, feather boas and eighties dance moves have rarely been put to such creative use. It is like watching 100 Kylie Minogue concerts all at the same time.

Along with all the camp revelry, a political message usually runs through the parade. This year, it was the call for same sex marriage in Australia. Of the 130 floats that paraded through the streets of Sydney, over a dozen were centred on the theme of equal rights for same sex couples - "total equality" to quote that new Aussie hero, the speech therapist Lionel Logue at the start of The King's Speech. Many couples dressed as brides and grooms. Giant puppets of Julia Gillard wearing a wedding dress and Tony Abbott in a swimming costume were also carried through the streets. Both are opposed to same sex marriage: Abbott, a strict Catholic, on moral and religious grounds; Julia Gillard, an atheist, probably for political reasons. Same sex marriage does not play well in the socially conservative marginal constituencies of the suburban fringe that usually decide Australia elections.

The subject is particularly germane because the Greens are pushing for the federal government's power of veto over laws passed in the territories - that is to say the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory - to be watered down. In what The Australian newspaper has called a "stalking horse for gay marriage law reform", it would pave the way for same sex marriage in the Australian Capital Territory. The move from the Greens shows the power at the moment of its leader, Senator Bob Brown, Australia's most influential homosexual. It also illustrates the difficulty that Julia Gillard faces in appeasing her de facto coalition partners, the Greens, while at the same time shoring up Labor's blue collar base.

But let us stick to the ethics. Gay and lesbian groups claim that the present laws discriminate against them because they are predicated on the view that their relationships are, by definition, inferior. This, at a time when gays and lesbians have been granted a much fuller menu of economic and legal rights equivilent to those enjoyed by opposite sex couples. At the moment, civil unions are available in the ACT, Tasmania and Victoria, but campaigners want Australia to join the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and Canada, along with a number of other countries, in allowing sex same marriages.

Opponents believe that marriage is an institution only for heterosexual men and women, and that to extend it to same sex couples would undermine a sacred union. To many, it violates biblical teaching and would condone behaviour that they consider morally reprehensible. They would consider it a cardinal - and carnival - sin. Doubtless there are many who believe that a same sex relationship is inferior, and that this should enshrined in law.

Some of those who are sympathetic to the idea but nonetheless oppose it claim the Australian community simply is not ready to countenance same sex marriage. This seems to be the position of many Labor front-benchers, especially in inner city constituencies harbouring a large number of gay and lesbian voters, who are worried about remaining politically viable both locally and nationally.

Australia sets great store in its much-vaunted egalitarianism, but on this issue it collides with its social conservatism. In the same sex marriage debate, which will win out?

The King's Speech

Nick Bryant | 13:51 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

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Loved The King's Speech, and was delighted to see it triumph at the Oscars. It was the only film we've ventured out to the cinema to see since the birth of our baby boy, and we had the weird experience of hoping throughout that Colin Firth would speak fluently and that our son would not make a sound. Happily, as the final credits rolled, we could report success on both counts.

I cannot wait for the DVD to come out, if only to listen the audio commentary that provides more texture, context and an insight into what was going on in the director and writer's heads when they wrote the screenplay and filmed the scenes. What will they say of the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue's opening line: "I'm on the loo?"
"Here we wanted to convey that Australians are prime vulgarians with decidedly iffy manners," perhaps they might say.

Similarly, Logue's insistence on "total equality" in his consultations with Prince Albert is clearly intended to underline how the Aussies are far more socially egalitarian than the class-obsessed Brits. Ditto, his demand that the Prince agree to the use of his first name, Bertie, rather than the more formal HRH.

King's Speech actors Colin Firth and Jeffrey Rush

Throughout, the Brits are portrayed as snotty, emotionally constipated and ludicrously formal.

All of this provides a lovely sepia-tinted snapshot of a moment in time when the manners and social mores of the Aussies and Brits were miles apart. A real museum piece, and exquisitely-crafted cinema.

But any portrait of British and Aussie manners today - a Mike Leigh take, for instance - would surely focus on the similarities between us rather than the differences. In the cross-flow of cultural influences, have not the Brits become a lot more Aussie in recent times? Have we not come to share more of the same social mores and manners?

Britain is a far more egalitarian society than it was when I grew up. Class is not such a factor. Post-Diana, we are not so emotionally constipated. In fact, arguably we've become a country of exaggerated emotional responses. Like the Aussies, we love underdog success. The public reaction to the Scottish songstress, Susan Boyle, offer proof of both.

Perhaps there is something of the Aussie influence in the increasingly tie-less workplaces. Certainly, there's a lot of Aussie influence in how we entertain at home, with the success in Britain of Australian cooking and lifestyle books.

Perhaps we Brits use the word "mate" a lot more. Within BBC News, I've long thought that we greet each other with a cheery "mate" all the time because so many of our cameramen are Aussies. Within Britain as a whole, perhaps it is because we all spent so much of our formative years in Ramsey Street.

Tony Blair was sometimes called Britain's first Australian prime minister because of his classlessness and breezy informality. Ahead of the British election, it was also interesting to hear David Cameron's response on morning television when he was asked which he preferred, Coronation Street or EastEnders. "Neighbours" came his instant reply. The King's Speech also provided an illustration of the influence of soaps back home. After all, Mike from Neighbours - aka the actor, Guy Pearce - played the part of King Edward VIII. In recent years, The Sun has even launched a campaign to have Kylie Minogue's bottom heritage-listed.

If ever there were a modern version of The King's Speech, perhaps it would be scripted rather differently. "I'm on the loo" might come from the mouth of the actor playing the British monarch, temporarily indisposed on his porcelain throne.

PS: While we are on the subject of Anglo-Australian ties, a very happy birthday to Claude Choules, who is thought to be the world's last surviving combat veteran from the Great War. British-born, he know lives in Perth, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him about eighteen months ago. He was an absolute delight. It's his 110th birthday today. Well done, sir, or perhaps that should be good on ya, mate.

Christchurch quake

Nick Bryant | 06:33 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

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At 12.51pm New Zealand time, I dare say the thoughts of many in this region would have turned to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake. A two-minute silence was observed not only in New Zealand's second city itself, but across the country, from Invercargill to Auckland.

On the lawns outside parliament in the capital, Wellington, lawmakers remembered the dead. In a symbol of trans-Tasman unity, the parliamentary day in Canberra also came to a halt. Rarely has The Ditch that separates New Zealand and Australia, as the Tasman Sea is popularly known, seemed narrower.

The New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, wore a sombre dark suit, while the Mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, was easy to spot in his trademark orange anorak. Both face extraordinary challenges in the coming months and years as they lead the effort to rebuild this broken city. The country's Earthquake Minister has estimated that a quarter of the buildings in the Central Business District face demolition, and that it will be off-limits for months to come.

Certainly, I have never witnessed such destruction in a first-world city. Nor so much bereavement. Had the pictures been in black and white, we could have been looking at something from the Blitz.

Cathedrals with toppled steeples and wrecked facades. Parish churches with no roofs. Office blocks, like the CTV building, that were completely unrecognisable. Cars that had been almost completely flattened under the weight of falling bricks and concrete. The heart of New Zealand's famed Garden City is now strangely colourless. A grey clutter.

The sight of the half-destroyed Anglican cathedral in the geographic centre of the city was particularly affecting. A party of tourists had scaled its tower to see the view from its observation platform when the earthquake struck. They would not only have been showered by tumbling masonry but the cathedral's one-tonne bells. Horrific.

In front of the cathedral stands the empty plinth once occupied by a statue of the founder of Christchurch, John Robert Godley. It now lies face down by its side. Mayor Parker says it will be one of the first things to be restored.

This has been a summer of disasters for the people of this part of the world, and in Christchurch we saw the same human qualities that were in evidence in Queensland during the floods and the cyclone: extraordinary physical bravery, compassion, resilience, an uncomplaining self-sufficiency and the selflessness of survivors.

In Lyttelton, the small port above the epicentre of the earthquake, the war memorial was damaged. But as this southern summer has demonstrated on both sides of the Tasman, the ANZAC spirit that it enshrines is still very much intact.

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