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Andrew Neil: Letter from Australia

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

No rest for the wicked. We touch down before dawn in Sydney after a 22-hour flight and by 7 a.m. I’m live on radio 2GB with Alan Jones. I’m aware talk radio is big in Australia — as you’d expect in a country full of refreshingly forthright people — and Mr Jones’s breakfast show is one of the biggest. Predictably, talk turns to the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Aussie commentators are a bit sheepish about it all. Only 15 years ago, supposedly informed opinion, on the left and the right, confidently predicted that Australia would be a 21st-century republic. They were confounded — disgusted, even — when folks voted in a referendum to keep the monarchy. Now the Australian media is having its tummy tickled by William and Kate — and, much to its embarrassment, it can’t help liking it. What on earth will you put on your front pages and newscasts when they’ve gone, I tease. Now is not a good time to be a republican in Australia, they reply, grimly.

I explain in all my interviews that I must take some share of the blame for this royal resurgence. When William went up to St Andrews University in the autumn of 2001 he began to wonder if he’d made the right choice, as the dreich Scottish winter — cold, damp and dark by late afternoon in an unforgiving November — set in. As Rector of the University, elected by the students to look after their welfare, I played my part in making sure William could change to whatever course would make him happier — anything to stop him doing a runner, which would have been disastrous for the University’s global reputation. He switched from History of Art to Geography (in which he went on to get a decent degree). Soon after, his relationship with Kate began to blossom. The rest, as they say, is history,  So if it weren’t for me, I tell (tongue firmly in cheek) my Aussie hosts, you’d probably be burnishing your republican credentials again. They are too polite not to believe me.

The real reason the monarchy has had a new lease of life in Australia goes way beyond William and Kate: it’s anti-politics. The country is awash with politicians at the local, state and federal level. They are at least as unpopular here as they are in Britain. Even those who win elections quickly sour: Tony Abbott’s centre-right government won convincingly last September but is already languishing in the polls, even though it hasn’t really done anything yet. The idea of having another pol as head of state just doesn’t appeal, even to those who aren’t cheerleaders for the monarchy. I suspect the public is also put off because Aussie politics are relentlessly tribal. Debates are conducted with a bitterness, vituperation and hyperbole that does little to enhance democratic discourse. It’s not just the politicians who’re polarised. The media is depicted as being divided into two huge warring camps, with Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and Sky News on the right, the Fairfax papers and ABC, the down-under BBC, on the left. The Fairfax papers are a shadow of their former selves, so the right now sees ABC as the real enemy. ABC was kind enough to interview me several times and had me on its two flagship shows, Lateline and Q&A, both hosted by the superb Tony Jones. For the record, I was treated with scrupulous fairness throughout.

The high point of my trip is hosting a keynote speech by the Treasurer of the new centre-right coalition, Joe Hockey, who is preparing his first budget for later this month. Mr Hockey paints a somewhat dire picture of Australia’s fiscal position. When it comes to the Q&A I point out that with, roughly, a 3 per cent deficit, 3 per cent inflation, 3 per cent growth, 6 per cent unemployment and a national debt of only 23 per cent of GDP, by international standards Australia is hardly a basket case. But there has been a deterioration in its fiscal position. It wasn’t long ago that Australia had little national debt and ran a budget surplus. Some of the Keynesian spending increases the last Labor government implemented to stave off recession after the 2008 financial crash have been baked into the budget while revenues have languished. So some sort of fiscal belt-tightening was inevitable, whoever had won the last election. But I can’t think of a European government, even Germany’s, that wouldn’t like to have Australia’s problems.

Work (see above, passim) deserves its reward, especially when you’re permanently jet-lagged. Ours is a trip to the Hunter Valley, 100 miles north of Sydney, source of some of Australia’s finest wines. The drive can take two to three hours but Philip, our distributor, kindly lays on his helicopter. Below us lies the visible wealth of the country — mile after mile of homes, some on land cut from the dense forest, others perched on coastal cliffs, nearly all with gardens and swimming pools — that makes the Australian Dream just as potent as its better-known American version. We lunch at Molines, run by Robert Molines, a French-Algerian chef, and his wife Sally. They serve the best food, with the backdrop of the best views, in the valley. We wash it down with the region’s iconic Semillon blanc. Only in the Hunter Valley could this be the house wine. The region is named after the second governor of the colony, a Scot. They usually were (Brisbane is called after another). More surprising, the Hunter Valley became a vineyard thanks to James Busby, another Scot who brought with him cuttings from some of Europe’s top vineyards. Who wudda thunk that? You just can’t escape us.

As I write these words in the Qantas lounge waiting for my long flight back to Blighty, I read that even Thomas Keneally, Australia’s greatest man of letters and most prominent republican, thinks the republican cause is lost for the foreseeable future. In a sense it hardly matters. Remaining an economy that is the envy of the world does.

Andrew Neil is a broadcaster and chairman of Press Holdings Media Group, which owns The Spectator.

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