Monday, June 13, 2011

Australian Diary: The Second Week

Sitting here basking in 32 degree heat, looking out over a balmy Darwin sunset in northern Australia I am wondering why anyone would ever leave this heavenly place. I’ve been in Australia for nearly two weeks and have loved every minute of it. It’s a truly fabulous country and it’s easy to see why so many Brits come here to live. It’s a very optimistic country and you get a sense of the optimism just by looking into people’s faces as you walk down the street. Strangers smile at you. They chat to you with ease. There are none of the scowls you get if you ever make eye contact with anyone on the streets of London. There’s none of the scepticism so prevalent in our society in the UK. This is a can do country with a positive attitude.

The political part of my trip ended a week ago – I was here to deliver a number of speeches for Microsoft Australia, two of which were in Parliament House in Canberra. So with that part of the trip over with, it was time to do a little relaxing and sightseeing.

On Monday I took train ride up the coast to Newcastle, and very scenic was too – the train ride, I mean, not Newcastle. I got to Sydney Central station early in the morning and bought my ticket, which was unbelievably cheap. Bearing in mind it was a 320 km round trip it only cost £8. I took comfort in the fact that it was about the only cheap thing I had encountered on my trip so far. I then asked how much a first class ticket would be. “Sir, all our seats are first class.” That put me in my place,

The journey through the Hawkesbury River was stunning. The train never seemed to break more than about 50mph and it took three hours before we arrived in Newcastle. I had been warned that it wasn’t exactly a beautiful town, and so it proved. I wandered round the harbour area and up to Nobby’s Beach (yes, honestly) before waiting to catch a trolley bus tour of the town at 1pm. The trolley bus duly arrived and I turned out to be the only customer. The driver said he couldn’t take me on my own but would drop me at the town’s new maritime museum. Which he did. And it was closed.

Buses in Newcastle are free, and all of them run virtually empty. There’s a lesson there somewhere. I was amused to see that the buses were going to outlying town suburbs called Morpeth and Wallsend! So back to Sydney I went, and enjoyed the scenic railway for a second time.

In the evening I met Alice Wright for dinner in a wonderful Italian restaurant in Surry Hills. Alice was the floor manager at 18 Doughty Street and is now living in Sydney with her Aussie boyfriend. She is a speechwriter for the New South Wales minister for tourism. It was great to see her again and reminisce about all the programmes we made together.

It was another early start on Tuesday. I was picked up shortly after 7am from my city centre apartment by a tour company who were taking me on a tour of the Blue Mountains. James, the tour guide, immediately told me the bus would be very full. “There are two of you,” he joked. And there were. Me and a Canadian girl called Angela. The advantages of travelling in the Australian winter. We started off by visiting an Aboriginal Cultural Centre and then headed up into the mountains. Stunning scenery and more than a little of the Grand Canyon about parts of it. We even saw some kangaroos. I know it’s pathetic, but that was the highlight. “Whatcha say, Skip? Grandma’s fallen down a mineshaft?” Readers of a younger generation won’t get that, but those of us who were brought up on Skippy the Bush Kangaroo will!

On Thursday I flew up to Darwin to spend the weekend with Shane Stone, a friend of mine who is a former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. It’s a four hour flight from Sydney. To give you some geographical perspective, Darwin is further from Sydney than London is from Moscow. It’s the dry season in Darwin at the moment and a very pleasant 30 degrees. We were joined by two of Shane’s colleagues and were immediately driven to Crocosaurus Cove where we saw some very big crocodiles indeed! On Friday morning we headed out to Channel Point, which is a 140 mile drive, mainly on dirt roads. It’s on the coast, opposite the Peron Islands and is a compound of about 20 properties. It’s totally isolated from anywhere. You walk along the beach and you feel as if you are about to star in an episode of LOST. I’ve never been fishing before, but that’s what people do here. All the time. All day. Except that the wind was too strong, thereby preventing us from going out on the water. But we fished in a creek and laid crab traps. I eventually learned how to cast a rod, but didn’t end up catching anything. But I did catch crabs. There’s a joke there somewhere.

We headed back to Darwin this morning. I had to laugh at the start of an article in the local Darwin newspaper today. “Darwin is in the grip of winter. Temperatures descended to a chilly 25 degrees centigrade yesterday...” You have to laugh.

We caught the afternoon flight back to Sydney. I’m now gearing myself up for the final week of my stay here, which will be dominated by broadcasting my LBC show every day from 4am-7am from the Today FM studios.

And I am going to meet some long lost relatives in Sydney, I never knew I had. More of that another time.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Australian Diary: The First Week

I last came to Australia twenty years ago, in September 1991. Last time Australia was in recession was in 1991. The week I arrive here the country goes into negative growth for the first time since 1991. Sorry, Australia, I seem to bring recessions with me. I didn't mean it. Honest.

There are very few countries in the world I could live in. Australia is one of them. When I came here twenty years ago, I had expected not to like Australia. I have no idea why I thought that, because I fell in love with the country. Unfortunately, on that trip I only had about 2 days free time so had little opportunity to have a proper look round. We went to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, but spent all our time working. We were advising the Australian Liberal Party on reforming laws governing the employment of dock workers. On our first day in the country we were warned that if the dockers' unions found out we were here, our lives would be in danger. Nice. There was no such warning this time!

I never intended to wait twenty years to return, but time somehow just slipped by. So, why am I here? Well, those nice people at Microsoft invited me to do a week long speaking tour, and frankly, who was I to refuse? I then thought that it was rather idiotic just to spend one week here, so tagged on another week, and then had the bright idea of broadcasting my LBC show for a week from Sydney, and I will be doing that from 13-18 June. Unfortunately I miscalculated the time difference and I will actually be broadcasting my normal evening show from 4am to 7am in the morning.

I arrived in the country on Sunday morning and had a day and a half before my first speaking engagement. On Monday morning I recorded a 30 minute podcast interview with one of Australia's leading bloggers, Stilgherrian, which you can find HERE.

On Monday afternoon I switched on the Australian version of Sky News (same graphics and music as the UK version, interestingly) to watch Question Time from the House of Representatives in Canberra. More of that later. Ahem. One thing though, I was rather captivated by the Australian Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, who I had never encountered before. I tweeted...

"Loving the hairstyle of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in Australia. I hear she was Krystal Carrington's stunt double in Dynasty"

I didn't realise I had so many twitter followers here in Australia, as this appeared in most of the newspaper diary columns the next day. As you're about to see, I didn't learn my lesson...

My first speaking commitment was at the Sydney Institute on Monday evening, where I gave a talk on the world of political blogging and new media. It was a very engaged audience, who seemed well versed in British politics. Sajid Javid MP had been there the week before. Later that evening AMP hosted a dinner for me at the top of their harbourside office block. The night views over the Opera House and Harbour Bridge were stupendous. But it really was singing for my supper. There were about 20 guests and they grilled me between courses for a good couple of hours. Still, liking the sound of my own voice has never been a problem for me!

On Tuesday it was up early for the flight to Canberra. Very early. We got to the Hyatt in Canberra at about 10am. I had two speeches to complete writing, but I was so tired I thought I'd have a quick zzzz before getting down to it. Quick zzzz. Hmmm. I woke up at 2pm. Bugger. But luckily just in time to watch Question Time again. In Australia, the House of Commons sits for only 80 days a year - an innovation we should copy - and on each day there is a 90 minute Question Time session in which all government ministers partake. The behaviour in the chamber on this occasion was even worse than the day before. And that's saying something. I like adversarial politics. I would hate to have a sterile chamber like the US House of Representatives or the German Bundestag, but the Australians take adversarial politics to ridiculous levels. The pure hatred and loathing on the facts of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have to be seen to be believed. And the others take their lead from them. The Speaker, a gentle soul called Harry Jenkins, seems powerless to call order. Every few seconds he murmurs 'Order' but few take any notice. He names people. Still they take no notice. He can send people out of the chamber for an hour to cool down, and does. He can ban people. But they see no shame in being named or sin-binned. Indeed, it seems to be a badge of honour. The Speaker doesn't ever seem to stand. He just sits there and every 20 seconds or so, says 'Order'. To me, he is part of the problem. He's not an authority figure, and boy does that chamber need an authority figure. Anyway, during Tuesday's session I tweeted this...

"The UK House of Commons is often accused of behaving like a playground. It has nothing on the Aussie House of Reps. Unbelievable behaviour."

This led to quite a strong reaction on Twitter and gained me about 200 extra followers. Remarkably virtually everyone agreed. In retrospect I suppose I might have got a lot of tweets accusing me of being a whinging Pom, but there was only one blogger who really took issue with me and that was because of a bit of a misunderstanding. As a result of the tweet the BBC World Service rang and asked if I would expand on my view on their World Update programme with Dan Damon, which I duly did. Unfortunately they then posted a heavily edited transcript of my remarks, which they made out was an article by me. It wasn't.

And so it started. Radio interview after radio interview about what I had said. This afternoon I did a half hour phone in on Sydney's ABC 702AM station, which is their equivalent of ABC. Remarkably every caller agreed with me. Tomorrow I am on with Andrew Bolt on the Melbourne Breakfast show and then a station in Perth. It's remarkable what one tweet can launch!

If you think I am exaggerating about the Australian Parliament read THIS superb article by the FT's Matthew Engel.

That evening I met a dozen Aussie bloggers for dinner, along with several people from Microsoft.

Next morning, it was showtime! I delivered the keynote speech at the Microsoft/Open Forum Politics & Technology Forum at Parliament House. My speech was to be on Openness & Transparency and was scheduled to last 40 minutes. I have to say I don't think I have ever given a 40 minute speech before. I reckon that unless you're Martin Luther King or Barack Obama, people tend to switch off after 20 minutes no matter how good you are. So I deliberately timed a vicious attack on Julian Assange for the 25 minute mark. It worked. I think.

I then took part in a 90 minute long panel with top Aussie blogger Stilgherrian (that's his real name. He doesn't have a second one), Gianpaolo Carrera from Microsoft, Professor Eric Clements from the US, Shadow Chancellor (or Treasurer as they say here) Joe Hockey and Sentator Kate Lundy, PPS to the Prime Minister and Sarah Palin look-a-like (and I mean that in an admiring way, Kate!) and an expert in social media. It all seemed to go off well. I wasn't sure if my speech had worked, but all the twitter reaction seemed positive.

Later on, over lunch, I delivered a second speech to the All Party UK/Australia Friendship group of Senators and MPs. It was good to meet so many of them, especially the redoubtable Bronwyn Bishop, who I hit it off with - she's Australia's answer to Ann Widdecombe! I talked about the role of technology in the 2010 election.

Later in the afternoon we flew back to Sydney. I was due to have dinner with my old colleague from 18 Doughty Street days, Alice Wright, but I was so tired I put her off until Monday.

Today I had breakfast and lunch with Shane Stone. Shane is on the board of the holding company which owns Biteback, and he is the former Chief Minister of the Northern Territories and also a former Liberal Party President. Next week I am going to Darwin to stay with him. We're apparently going fishing in crocodile country, 300km west of Darwin. Apparently the boats have to have reinforced floors to stop the crocs biting through. I shall try not be a wuss.

I also went to the Microsoft offices to talk to 30 or 40 of their staff. I did it all off the cuff today, which is my favoured method of speaking and we had a really good Q & A. And that was the final part of the working bit of my trip.

I now have 6 days in Sydney to do as I please. I reckon I shall take a few day trips out of the city, maybe to the Blue Mountains one day and the Hunter Valley another. I also want to do a Sydney Harbour boat trip.

And I also need to start thinking about inviting guests to appear on my LBC show. The question is: will I be able to persuade people to come to the studios for 6am!

Just a final word about my first impressions of Australia on this visit. The one thing that has struck me so far is that it is an incredible optimistic, cheerful nation. People actually smile at you. You don't get many smiles to the dozen in London, but here, it's as if people are enjoying life and are not letting problems get them down. Sydney is a very cosmopolitan city and on the outside at least has coped very well with integrating a huge number of migrants from fellow Asian countries. But the prices! My God, this is the most expensive place I have ever been in my life. It's far more expensive than Scandinavia and Switzerland. A Mars Bar costs £2! A can of coke in the hotel is £5. I ordered a club sandwich, a cranberry juice and a cherry strudel desert. The bill came to more than £55. Breakfast is £30. Madness. Luckily, it;s those nice people at Microsoft who are paying, but after Saturday I am on my own!

Anyway, I have rambled on for long enough. I'll write another blogpost next weekend, assuming I haven't been eaten by crocodiles in the Northern Territories by then...