My home city of London is famous for producing two of the world’s longest-standing and best-written political magazines. You are reading one of them and then there’s the Economist. I’m worried it has the wrong name. During my fortnight in Australia to cover the general election for London’s Times I didn’t meet a job creator (my preferred name for business people) who wanted the Rudd-Gillard soap opera to continue. Yet the Economist recommended another term for Mr Rudd’s Labor party. It did so because it cannot tolerate any socially conservative candidates even though the greatest of economists, Adam Smith, would recognise that all successful markets depend upon strong and stable social institutions and the values they generate. The Economist makes a habit of backing high-spending Democrat politicians over socially conservative Republican politicians in the US. Britain’s Financial Times — the Economist’s sister publication — repeatedly backed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It even backed Neil Kinnock in 1992. It’s not called the pink ’un without good reason. Perhaps it’s time the Economist had a new masthead title? I suggest the Progressive.
I was spotted reading The Spectator Australia on a flight from Melbourne to Sydney by the lady sat next to me. She complained that this was a Murdoch rag and was poisonous to political discussion in Australia. My attempts to persuade her that The Spectator was actually owned by another member of the vast, global right-wing conspiracy fell on deaf ears. I finally got some respite after I asked her why she had been in Melbourne. She told me she’d been campaigning for the Green MP, Adam Bandt. I asked her if the carbon footprint left by her 2,000 kilometre round-trip had been worth it. Suddenly she was lost for words and I got some peace and quiet.
Not only did I spend some time with one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do Greens, I also had dinner with a champagne socialist. I suggested we meet up and I’d pay for dinner. He booked a table at one of the most expensive restaurants I’ve ever eaten in. The food was delicious and my friend’s company was excellent but as a Brit who has noticed that the pound does not go very far in Australia I left the restaurant feeling a little poor. Reflecting on the experience I note that it is nearly always my left-wing friends who book the expensive restaurants when I offer to take them out for lunch as part of my employment for that Murdoch rag, the Times. Perhaps they see it as their opportunity to get something out of Rupert, or perhaps the metropolitan elite really does have elite tastes.
My favourite meal was enjoyed in Melbourne. The kangaroo steak was delicious but the evening was memorable because I spent a wonderful two hours eating and talking with Tony Abbott. It was a private occasion and so I mustn’t reveal its contents. What I think I can report, however, is that your new prime minister seems the real deal. I’ve been fortunate to meet him on a number of occasions before, when he’s travelled to Britain. A quality I admire in him is his inquisitiveness. Most politicians I meet spend 90 per cent of the time telling me what they know and what they want me to write about. Tony spent most of our time together asking questions and seeking to learn from what I knew. I don’t know if I was useful to him, but the prime minister who would never shut up has been replaced with a listening, intellectually curious leader. Australia really is the lucky country.
The funniest moment of my time in Australia came at a Sydney market when I joined 40 or so members of the Australian media pack for one of Abbott’s campaign events. He was touring the stalls and getting a hero’s welcome, but suddenly a middle-aged man pushed his way to the front of the mêlée around Abbott and got down on one knee. Rather than proposing a same-sex marriage he simply kissed Abbott’s hand, then rose to his feet to kiss his forehead. At one point I wondered if he might be about to head butt the Liberal leader and I caught the terrified face of a security officer, who must have feared something similar. In Britain our politicians kiss babies. I can’t see the Australian alternative catching on.
One complaint about my time here (other than the exchange rate and cost of living). When did the f-word become so common? It’s hardly underused in Britain but on the campaign bus with Australian journalists and even at a book launch the word was dropped into almost every other sentence. An expletive that might occasionally be justified as a way of emphasising something awful has become a part of everyday conversation.
Let me end where I began — with the subject of naming things correctly. In reflecting on Tony Abbott’s win I wanted to use a colloquial Australian expression to hint at the scale of victory. Various words were suggested to me including stuffed, thumped and clobbered. They didn’t quite do the job as we use those words in England, too. After consulting my followers on Twitter I decided to tell my readers that Kevin Rudd had been ‘stonkered’ and ‘wombattered’. I’ve since been told by Australian friends that they’ve never heard of the word ‘wombattered’ although they readily concede it sounds as though it should exist. I certainly think it should. As I set off back to the United Kingdom — wishing we had a prime minister with the conservative credentials of Abbott — I leave the word as my parting gift to the great country of Australia. I expect all Spectator readers to start using it when England’s cricket team arrives in November and again starts wombattering the Ozzies.
Tim Montgomerie is editor of the Times opinion page in London.