Saturday, 17 January 2015
Of class, diplomacy and a bit of Downer
One of the great things about being an expatriate is that you can observe the society and city you live in with fresh eyes - but at times, you can apply the same prism of distance to really 'see' your own culture, its politicians and artists outside their natural context and in an international environment.
I remember very clearly as Herald Europe correspondent, seeing both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard speak in big, global political gabfests (G20s etc) and understanding in an instant significant aspects of their characters, their strengths and weaknesses. Penny Wong was one politician who is widely lauded at home and yet outside the home ground, underwhelming is the only word I can think of.
Anyway, this ain't a report card for Aussie politicians, but rather a musing about Australian attitudes to class, to accents and the realization that living here in the UK, I can clearly see that there is an anti snobbery in Oz I've always perceived but could never put my finger on. So here, I'll try.
On Thursday night, the British-Australia Society held a party at Australia House in the rococo folly of the Downer Room to farewell and laud the outgoing British politician and former Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
Hague is a fantastic speaker, funny, relaxed, utterly uninhibited in his remarks about the relationship and was visibly delighted to receive his plaque, thanking him for reviving the Oz-Brit political relationship. Lord Carrington, British High Commissioner to Australia in 1956 to 59, now in his 90s, spoke with humour and a twinkle in his eye, reminding people that before Hague, no British Foreign Minister had bothered to visit Australia for 16 years! Shows how high we figured on the priority list for so long!
But my interest is in Alexander Downer, now the High Commissioner in Australia. A figure of fun most of the time at home (plummy accent, Billy Bunter jokes, never lived down donation of his fishnetted legs to that 'whose are they' competition in the Women's Weekly), Downer is in fact the consummate diplomat, one who can speak off the cuff with both aplomb and wit and is as much at ease with old ladies who have been coming to Brit-Oz society do's for decades as he is chairing a meeting of the awkwardly named AUKMIN (Oz and UK foreign affairs and defence ministers meeting).
(The fact that we meet about defence when we barely share anything really is madness - perhaps an AUKMIN about climate change might be more appropriate, but that's another story).
Anyway, the truth is that Downer's a diplomat who doesn't make you cringe, who holds his own amongst the Brits without fawning but sans gaffes, with a self confidence born of being utterly Australian and himself as well as the clear, cultural understanding of his host nation and its mores.
He is eloquent and well read.
In his speech, he made fun of himself (failed PM, i.e. party leader in Opposition never in Government), fun of William Hague (also a failed PM), the long time spent in Opposition (more jokes about failure as leader), the fact the British Tories may soon be in Opposition (risky but very funny), potential for Liberals to be in same position (very risky but funny), lots of history (and the neglect by the UK of Australia for so long), pisstake about how one of his first acts on arrival to London was to rename the room we were in to the Downer Room (named for his father) and so on. (FYI his accent here, by the way, sounds happily Orstraylian, but with 'eyes' 'ohs' that obviously come from private school, not the back of his nose).
In my mind, all the attributes that have made him a figure of fun in Australia appeared to me to be skills and peccadillos that define a certain kind of politician/diplomat - one who represents my country with style, dare I say class - and didn't make me cringe.
In my book, that's a bloody good thing. So there, I've said it (and if he does end up making us all cringe, okay, okay, I'll eat crow. In public.)