I knew from reading his book that Bob Carr was colossally vain. But still I’m stunned when, 90 seconds before Q&A goes to air, he barks: ‘Brendan’s chair is higher than mine! Is this a conspiracy to make me look short?!’ Cue the arrival of a flustered member of the production staff to lower my seat, cutting this uppity Pom down to size next to the lean-stomached, oats-scoffing godking that is Carr.
My barney with Bob about Israel — in which I take him to task for parroting the age-old prejudice about Jewish lobby groups being the puppetmasters of politics — wins me some fans among Aussie Jews. At a Sydney Institute dinner I can’t so much as nip to the loo without being stopped and back-patted by a smiling Jew or two. I’m invited to address the Zionist Federation in Melbourne, those pesky ‘Likudniks’, as Carr called them. I discover that many of them aren’t Likudniks, none of them are lizards and all of them are uncommonly nice, constantly checking my cup has enough tea in it. They tell me I’m a ‘mensch’. I won’t tell you what they say about Bob.
The Zionists give me a bottle of shiraz and at Melbourne Airport I robotically go to dump it in the bin at security on the basis that it contains more than 100ml of liquid. I’m grabbed by the arm by a frantic-looking security guard, yelping: ‘Mate, what are you doing?? You can take that on board! Never waste a drop of booze…’ I love this country.
I’m touched by the letter-writer to the Australian who says, ‘If only we had leaders blessed with the common sense of Brendan O’Neill, Australia would be a better place.’ But it’s Greg Lindsay of the Centre for Independent Studies he should thank. It’s Greg who took a punt on this loudmouth libertarian Marxist from Blighty, inviting me to be scholar-in-residence at CIS and to do public talks on everything from nanny statism to the ‘Endarkenment’ — the smothering of the values of the Enlightenment by a new green-hued, mankind-mauling Dark Ages vibe. Greg is that rarest of creatures in the think-tanking world: a man of depth and nuance, who genuinely wants to work out who switched off the Enlightenment’s lights and how we might switch them back on. When someone like that invites you to trek 10,000 miles to talk about Locke, Bacon and Kant, to speak in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane on why freedom is so essential to a well-lived life, you have little choice but to up your game.
I head to the Lindsays’ farm in Gloucester, with Greg and his wife Jenny, and I’m blown away. Visit a farm in Britain and you get copious cowshit and sideburn-wearing farmers moaning about the modern world in accents so grating they could shred whole blocks of cheese. Here, I’m enveloped by impossibly green hills, covered by skies bright blue one minute and pregnant with greyness the next, and entertained by the non-stop singing, squawking and serenading of birds of every hue. But it’s hard going for a nature-dodging Londoner like me. My eyes turn red, my throat starts to close. If I were one of those modern hysterics who believes Nature is sentient, and angry, I might think she had turned on me for so often badmouthing environmentalism.
My father is tickled pink when I tell him Peter Coleman described me as a ‘wild Irishman’ in his piece on my talk on ‘Nannies, Nudgers and Naggers’. ‘Not only are you not wild’, Dad says in his thick Connemara accent, ‘but you’re not even properly Irish. You’re a Plastic Paddy.’ Do you think I could sue my father under section 18C?
I’m gobsmacked by how cavalier Oz’s chattering classes have become about freedom of speech. At one shindig I argue with some worthy woman about section 18C — I say it’s censorship, she thinks it’s the only thing preventing the masses from becoming a fire-wielding mob — only to discover later that she is a human rights lawyer! Please heed my warning from Europe. Hate-speech laws are not only an affront to freedom, allowing the state to determine what individuals may say, but they also don’t work, as amply demonstrated by France, where Holocaust denial has been banned for 20 years and yet where anti-Semitism currently flourishes. If you want to challenge prejudice, you need to be able to see it, to know it, to confront it with superior arguments. Pushing it underground only allows it to fester, to spread unchecked. Censorship is the worst tool imaginable for combatting backward ideas.
My boozy Spiked interview with George Brandis at Machiavelli’s causes the eco-clerisy to choke on their macchiatos. At the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Guardian, there’s outrage that Brandis dared to suggest that greens have become censorious and that climate-change sceptics deserve a fair hearing. ‘Ohmygod how dare he say such a thing?!’, they effectively all demand, rather brilliantly proving his point.
Peta Credlin is even scarier in the flesh than she is in those photos in which she always looks like she’s about to punch someone’s lights out. I arrive at the Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne for what I think is an interview with Tony Abbott, only to be told by Ms Credlin that it isn’t an interview, ‘absolutely not’. ‘Sorry Brendan, she’s the boss’, says the PM. No matter — switching off my recording device gives rise to what Abbott calls a ‘profoundly off the record’ gab over coffee during which he says some brilliant, inspiring things about freedom, growth, environmentalism and more. I long for a world where politicians feel they can say such things publicly. Let’s make that world a reality, one in which intellectual daring becomes fashionable again, and where the intolerant silencing of anyone judged to be un-PC is frowned upon as the assault on free thought that it is.