Spectator Diary

NICK CATER

Diary, Spectator Australia, May 18, 2013

Rupert Murdoch’s omnipresence in News Ltd is exaggerated by his critics. Securing two minutes of the chairman and chief executive’s time on his visits to Australia is no easy task. I resorted to crash-tackling him between meetings during his visit in April, a feat that required chutzpah as well as agility. In an octogenarian Olympic sprint, Mr Murdoch would be favourite for gold.

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As it happened, the boss liked the book and asked HarperCollins to rush ten copies to New York. I’m told he gave one to John Howard over dinner, along with a copy of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Niall Ferguson’s Reith Lectures. Mr Howard told Mr Murdoch he had already read The Lucky Culture and had agreed to launch it in Sydney.

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Indeed he did, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which houses Tom Roberts’ ‘The Golden Fleece’, an image recording the industry and ingenuity of Australians barely a century after European settlement. One member of the arts community was incredulous when I told her the venue and the speaker for the launch. ‘John Howard?’ she asked. ‘In the Art Gallery?’

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The notion that Labor is the friend of the arts and the Coalition is the party of philistines appears to persist despite all evidence to the contrary. In one of many unsolicited emails in response to my book, Mark Latham seized on my admission that I had given up soccer to barrack for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as evidence of elitist tendencies. On the Chifley Research Institute website he claimed: ‘By any objective test, classical music, opera and ballet are insufferably boring.’ One cannot say the same about the former opposition leader, who may be insufferable but is rarely boring.

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Keeping out of the culture war trenches was never going to be easy even if John Howard had not agreed to launch The Lucky Culture. There was a further setback when The Spectator Australia published a favourable review by Tony Abbott. In jumped Miranda Devine with a flattering column, followed by my old boss Piers Akerman. Why on earth had I agreed to my publisher’s suggestion that the cover should be blue?

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Fortunately, Labor’s Chris Bowen came to my rescue, agreeing to launch the book in Western Sydney. My friend Michael Thompson recommended the Revesby Workers’ Club. I rang club president Daryl Melham. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘But just remember I’m doing this for Chris and Michael, not the Australian.’

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After John Howard’s speech at the Art Gallery, I recounted an incident in 2006 when the prime ministerial motorcade emerged from Kirribilli House to find its path blocked by a cyclist. In Australia, even the prime minister has to take his turn; he cannot pull rank, even when the cyclist realises who is behind him and deliberately slows down. It was time to own up. The boofhead on a bike was me.

It was nothing personal: I was merely reveling in the egalitarian moment. Indeed only the other week I was cycling home to my Kirribilli apartment when I looked over my shoulder to see Julia Gillard in the back of the Comcar. Sadly I was never able to slow down Kevin Rudd, although I suspect even he would now admit I might have been doing him a favour if I had.

I repeated the anecdote that evening in my speech at the Revesby Workers’ Club. ‘It’s a pity it wasn’t Bob Askin,’ heckled Daryl Melham. ‘He would have run you over.’

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Jack Snelling, South Australia’s Health Minister, hosted the Adelaide launch at Parliament House. ‘I’m glad that at least you have given Mark Latham something to do,’ he said. Snelling told the gathering that The Lucky Culture was ‘a necessary read for those of us in the Labor party’ with one qualification: ‘You take too much of a Whiggish view of history, without a Tory awareness of the crooked timber of humanity.’ A reprimand from a Labor minister for lacking ‘a Tory awareness’ was a moment to treasure.

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‘This book has had more launches than Nasa,’ Henry Ergas told me. And why not? Many within the beltway find its thesis puzzling. On the ABC’s Q&A, Tony Jones pressed me to define the insider class more clearly. Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne 774 insisted that cultural power was no match for wealth. Was I suggesting, he asked, that a humble radio presenter had more power than Gina Rinehart? ‘Yes,’ I replied, although it was plain he was not convinced. In suburban and rural Australia, however, the concept needs no explanation at all.

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I am told by someone who subscribes to Crikey that Guy Rundle ran out of invective after a mere 2,000 words. That’s the problem with the cultural progressives this days: no stamina. Janet Albrechtsen’s column on The Lucky Culture gave him second wind, however. ‘The vaguely North Korean festival of journalist Nick Cater continues,’ he wrote. Peter Coleman told me Bob Ellis has called for the book to be pulped. For a first-time author, it was a proud moment.

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The Lucky Culture was launched for the fourth time in Woy Woy, in the finest Thai restaurant on the Central Coast, where Goong served a magnificent feast for 60 or so guests. H.G. Nelson, aka Greig Pickhaver, told the audience that the good news is that there are 12 more launches to go. ‘I know Engelbert Humperdinck when he tours in July will be saying a few words. Wayne Swan’s offered to say a few words before the budget speech on Tuesday night. I think Prince Harry will be saying something at the christening of his nephew. And the big news, the breaking news is that Kevin Rudd — that’s right, Kevin Rudd — will be launching the book in Brisbane.’

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