Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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'I always cheer up Down Under'

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Spectator, 15th September 2007

As the ten-foot steel fence which fenced off the heart of Sydney for the whole of the recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting is at last taken down, all eyes are once more focused on the Australian Prime Minister. Will he go for an unprecedented fifth electoral victory? Or is this Howard’s end?

By most measures, John Howard has had a good week. Helped by some heavy rain, the great protest march which was meant to take place last Saturday fizzled out. Most Sydneysiders, indeed much of Australia, appears to have enjoyed the monumental prank played by a popular TV show called The Chaser’s War on Everything. Organizing a fake cavalcade of limousines, complete with outriders and Canadian maple-leaf flags fluttering from the bonnets of the vehicles, the show’s mischievous presenters managed to breach successive levels of security to deposit an Osama bin Laden look-alike with yards of President Bush’s hotel.

As far as substance went, China’s President Hu Jintao, together with President Bush and other other 21 members of APEC who together account for 41% of the world’s population, signed up to ‘Sydney Declaration’ agreeing to ‘slow, stop and then reverse the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions.’ Predictably, the agreement was panned by environmental organizations for not going far enough, but to be fair to Howard, this was the first time China and other developing nations in the region had actually agreed to cut back on their emissions, even if the goal itself was carefully defined as “aspirational”.

Will his APEC ‘success’ encourage the Prime Minister to continue to ignore the calls for him to step down?

Objectively speaking, Mr. Howard’s chances do not look good. With an election due to be held by the end of the year at the latest, the polls indicate that only 39% of the electorate would prefer Howard as PM, against 52% for Labour’s Kevin Rudd.

Ironically, the APEC meeting played well for Rudd as well as Howard. The Labour leader scored something of a personal triumph by welcoming President Hu with a long speech in Mandarin, a language he apparently learned during a diplomatic posting in Beijing. Some linguistic experts pointed out that when Rudd proclaimed he wanted to ‘develop the closest possible links’ he had actually used the Mandarin for ‘achieve simultaneous orgasms’ but, if that was so, President Hu seemed totally unfazed.

APEC aside, the issue of most concern at the moment here seems to be equine flu. On all the motorways in Queensland and New South Wales flashing signs warn that any movement of horses is banned. En route to Sydney my wife and I spent a few days near Scone, Australia’s horse capital in the Upper Hunter valley. In normal times a stallion at stud might expect to service 200 mares a season, earning over $A300,000 (around UK £150,000) per ejaculation. Today, in the area around Scone, there may be as many as 200 stallions champing at the bit. We are talking financial melt-down here.

At the moment, it looks as though the Melbourne Cup itself, the prime event in Australia’s racing calendar traditionally scheduled for the first Tuesday in November, may be cancelled. (It was at the Melbourne Cup meeting in 1965 that Jean Shrimpton scandalized Melbourne society by arriving for the Victoria Derby race in a daring white shift dress, the fore-runner of the mini-skirt.) From Mr. Howard’s point of view it would be hard to imagine a worse start to an election campaign.

I have been to Australia five times in the last 67 years. In so many ways, this is still God’s own country. On this most recent visit, my wife and I visited Perth and Fremantle, Broome and the Kimberley in West Australia before heading east across the ‘top end’ to Northern Queensland. Over the last two or three weeks we have flown in a helicopter over the Bungle-Bungle, an extraordinary and recently-discovered geological phenomenon now classified as a World Heritage site, West Australia’s equivalent to Ayer’s Rock. We have snorkeled with coral fish on the Great Barrier Reef. We have had an herbal massage in an ‘eco-lodge’ in the Daintree rain-forest. We have learned from an aboriginal hunter how to deal with box-jelly fish stings. (‘Get a wild potato-vine, peel off the bark, mash it all up and apply it to the skin, leave it for an hour, then scrape it off.) On Thala Beach, where the rainforest meets the reef, we watched an osprey chase a sea-eagle out of the sky.

What other country, I ask myself, offers so much? If the powers that be manage in due course to reach an international agreement on climate change that still leaves some scope for long-distance air-travel by the average punter, then I shall come back to Oz as often as I possibly can before that osprey in the sky finally comes for me.


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