Preparing my visit to Sydney for three speaking engagements I undertook painstaking research, wrote copious laptop notes and grew my hair to a rakish length. Doug Anthony, the former deputy prime minister and a near-neighbour, sent me south with a piece of advice on public speaking: ‘Don’t leave your audience feeling down in the dumps about the economy or politics — give ’em hope.’ Reincarnated as a Hope Whisperer I spoke to the Sydney branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, whose president is Colin Chapman, an old chum from the London Sunday Times circa 1968. But instead of following Doug’s wise counsel I drew on a text from an old manifesto published in the 19th century and delivered an alarming account of the spectre haunting the Eurozone where I have just spent three months with my partner, Judith White. Not everyone was frozen in fright: Sydney University academic Dr Bob Howard, a veteran of the institute’s board, bounced up and offered warm compliments. He is the brother of John.
In his current professional life, Chapman is Asia-Pacific vice president of Stratfor, the Texas-based global private intelligence consultancy founded by George Friedman in 1996. Early this year Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks released five million emails hacked from Stratfor’s computer. Would I tell my host that I met Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge in August, sharing stories about Townsville, where he was born in 1971 and I started my 50-year career in journalism in 1959? Being caught between the gamekeeper (‘Chappers’) and the poacher (Assange), both of whom I admire, was a trifle discomfiting, so I kept schtum.
My next engagement was the annual dinner of the Ryde-Macquarie Teachers’ Association, a gathering of hard markers who, by reputation, have little time for journalists. I began by wondering why federal and state governments are slashing education budgets by billions of dollars, at the dawn of what Labor spin doctors are calling ‘The Asian Century’, the key to which is education. Doesn’t NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell remember the grief of Terry Metherell’s education ‘reforms’ and their destructive impact on Nick Greiner’s Coalition government between 1988 and 1991?
Why wasn’t the ‘Asian Century’ white paper tabled in federal parliament, followed by a full-scale parliamentary debate? Instead, it was released in Sydney at a privately funded think tank, the Lowy Institute, to an invitation-only list of guests. A year ago a similar thing happened. Julia Gillard announced that US Marines would be stationed in Australia and US aircraft and navy ships would start operating from Australian bases. This was announced at a Canberra press conference for US President Barack Obama. No debate in parliament, no details of the treaty or how long it lasts and no mention of any Australian veto over US military operations launched from Australian territory. I suppose we will all have to wait for WikiLeaks to tell us.
The following night it was off to the annual dinner of the National Parks Association at the Bowlers, the mid-city club now inexplicably renamed 99 on York. The topic was the media’s reporting of the environment. I broke the distressing news that the environment is a second-tier consideration in the media (with the exception of the ABC). Furthermore it is an unglamorous career option because it involves a stressful and unrelenting battle for space in the news cycle. As a News Limited sub-editor once explained to me: ‘Basically, we aren’t interested in giving publicity to loonies.’ If we continue polluting the atmosphere at the current rate it will distort the weather and start to choke nature. When that happens the environment will become a front-page issue. I tried to present this as a message of hope but it didn’t quite come off.
I felt a huge sense of relief following my final podium commitment. I should explain that I recently suffered a medical misadventure on the island of Andros in Greece whereupon I lost the ability to speak. On arrival home I found myself consulting a speech therapist. ‘We can give you a whole new voice,’ she told me with evangelical earnestness. I replied that I would be very happy with a Sean Connery or, failing that, a Richard Burton would be acceptable. She patiently explained that the science of speech therapy was in its infancy and that the best she could offer was an Alex Mitchell, only slower than before. I accepted under protest and friends say I now sound like Marne Ferson, a.k.a. Martin Ferguson, minster in the Laba gummint in the Feral Parmint of Ostraya.
In moments of wistful self-delusion I compose speeches that I would dearly love to hear. For example, Tony Abbott announcing to the Canberra reptiles: ‘Today I informed the party room of my resignation with immediate effect. I called on my colleagues to elect Malcolm Turnbull as my successor to win the next election. I intend returning to the seminary to complete my studies of the church’s teachings on humility and charity.’ Or Mark Regev, the Melbourne-born Israeli government spokesman: ‘I can no longer serve a government which pursues a narrow path of religious fundamentalism, bigotry and racial discrimination. I will now devote my life to reconciliation and peace with our Palestinian cousins by advocating a single state for Jews, Christians and Muslims with Jerusalem as our capital.’ And broadcaster Alan Jones: ‘This is my final day as a radio broadcaster. I leave my millions of fans on Struggle Street to start a new career with the Doug Moran Foundation entertaining angry people in nursing care.’ Dream on, dad, as my children say.
Alex Mitchell is a journalist and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir, NewSouth Books 2011.