No rest for the wicked. We touch down before dawn in Sydney after a 22-hour flight and by 7am 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 Andrew’s 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 wasn’t for me, I tell (tongue firmly in cheek) my Aussie hosts, you’d probably be burnishing your republican credentials again. They were too polite not to believe me.
The real reason the monarchy has had a new lease of life in Australia goes way beyond Will 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: the centre-right Abbott 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 are polarised. The media is depicted as being divided into two huge warring camps, with Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and perhaps 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.
I’m in Sydney as chairman of The Spectator to promote our Australian edition. Spectator Australia is already a succès d’estime under Tom Switzer, who has imbibed all of the mother-ship’s irreverence, originality, humour and fine writing — and given it an Antipodean accent. I’m tasked with raising its profile and commercial game. I start (on the same day I arrived — see above ‘no rest for the wicked’) with a lecture to the esteemed Sydney Institute on the geopolitical consequences of America’s pivot to the Pacific, kindly hosted by the veteran Aussie commentator Gerard Henderson. My theme is the largely troubling consequences for the Middle East and Europe. The distinguished audience doesn’t disagree. Indeed, there are no challenges to it. But, of course, why should they care? For them the pivot is largely beneficial. As I speak, President Obama is on a tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines entirely designed to show they can count on America as China flexes its muscles. The Abbott government announces — at a time of budget cuts but with Labor support — that it’s buying 70 US Joint Strike Fighters, the most sophisticated and expensive fighter jet in the world, to enhance not just Australia’s defence but its status as a key US ally. Welcome to the Pacific Century.
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 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.
The fundamental purpose of my trip is to entice some Aussie dollars from advertisers and sponsors. Our Australian distributor, Philip Greader, makes his luxury boat available for a trip round Sydney Harbour. We set off with some likely prospects plus a handful of Spec Oz cheerleaders for allies, including former prime minister John Howard, who I find in excellent form. He agrees to do my BBC show Daily Politics when he comes to London in June. As darkness falls we look back on Harbour Bridge and the exact spot — Sydney Cove — where Captain Phillip’s First Fleet landed over two centuries ago to begin the British settlement, having rejected Botany Bay, of what we now call Australia. There is, in my view, no finer city harbour sight in the world — and yes I’ve been to San Francisco. And Cape Town. If this can’t get people to part with their money, I think to myself, nothing can.
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 Moline’s, run by Robert Moline, 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 sémillon 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 chairman of Press Holdings Media Group (publisher of The Spectator) and presenter of several politics television shows on the BBC.