Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Let’s not make the same mistake twice
All day Monday the Harbour Bridge flags sagged to half mast and well they might. Joern Utzon’s death reminds us not only of the Opera House and our part in its downfall, but that it could happen again. Further, and this is the funny bit, that Jeff Kennett, once known in NSW only as the butt of satire, may be the last man standing between us and the swamp. So low are we sunk.
When I first set foot in London, I thought it the ugliest place on earth. The year was 1984, for which Orwell had given us great expectations but the horror was of a different kind.
It wasn’t just the Standard British Overcast Sky (I kid you not; it’s a technical term, the X-axis for lighting engineers that makes any daylight at all a plus) or the grey leafless sludge over which it hung. The mouth of Camden Town tube station was permanently clogged by hordes of Thatcher’s homeless, the IRA engaged regularly in the recreational explosion of Christmas shoppers and the streets were piled with Arthur Scargill’s smouldering body bags of uncollected class anger. (Arthur, you recall, pronounced Arfa, was chief executive of 1984’s miserable miners’ strike).
As it took hold, though, Thatcherism seemed almost to vindicate itself. Once she’d trounced the miners, thrashed Argentina’s “tinpot generals” and flogged every public asset she could find (with the single exception of Prince Charles who, Diana notwithstanding, seemed glued to the shelf), Thatcher looked shinier, grander, more American.
And to be sure, Thatcher and Reagan went together like scotch and ice. But while Spitting Image had its Reagan puppet fumble famously down the sofa back in search of his elusive pea brain (“I know I left it here somewhere”), Thatcher, filching money from every New Town and public housing program in the country, single-handedly exploited geography, politics and financial fashion to turn Canary Wharf into the sparkling new centre of global finance.
Later again, both leaders succumbed to Alzheimer’s (this must be coincidence, although latest theories do relate the disease to chronic neuronal overexcitement and some suspect Reagan at least of being under the influence while in office). But the bubble itself, constantly reinspired over 20 years, even under Blair, by tax breaks, development incentives and vast infrastructure investment grew, and grew, and grew, bigger, shinier. Until one day in September . . .
I happened to be back in London for black Monday, Lehmans’ Monday, when the bubble burst. It was a Princess Di moment. The air went dully electric, presaging thunder, as huge screens all over the city broke the calamitous news. As, slowly, the tears began to fall.
Now, less than three months on, the human iron filings that had flocked to monetarism’s magnetic field are flicking back to a lower energy state. Aussies, Czechs, even the Poles are heading home. Kangaroo Valley is now so empty that last week’s Times begged Australians not to abandon the motherland and yet the exodus continues, at a staggering 2700 a month.
Where are they going? Not Perth, it seems, which at least still runs the occasional job ad and where at least they used the fat years to build – not just talk about – a new railway line.
No. If rumour is right, most are heading here, to rust-bucket NSW, a state drifting so rapidly back into its daggy Askin dotage you’d sooner shove dried roo dung on your appendix than check in to hospital, which might easily excise your left ear instead. Where even the trains we have regularly get tired and flop off the tracks. Where you can’t even catch a decent art show any more because all the good stuff – think Warhol, Picasso – now goes to Brisbane instead.
Where for a piddling $150 million we toss this century’s chance at brilliance, code-named Barangaroo, to the camp dogs. Where ICAC finds fraud “virtually everywhere” in government, fingering 31 officers in RailCorp alone. Where things are now so bad people talk openly of Jeff “I’d need unfettered control” Kennett as a preferred option.
And you know, Kennett might not be so bad. If Kevin Rudd matched his promise of constitutional recognition for local government with the obvious next step, making state governments sackable instead, we could start next year with NSW Pty Ltd, and Kennett for CEO.
What would it mean? In Victoria, Kennett enjoyed a little mayhem himself but he also left a trail of Grands Projects, a la Mitterand. Some are dogs, such as Federation Square and Docklands, but some, such as the Melbourne Museum and the big red chopsticks of the Melbourne Gateway, are terrific. So, what would Kennett build here?
One thing he surely wouldn’t do is flog the $700 million dead horse of the Opera House renovation, an entire hospital worth of alterations and additions to convert a third-rate opera theatre into a second-rate one. More likely, given his record of crash-through flair, he’d buy into something breathtaking for Barangaroo, give Keating power and maybe a world-class landscape act like Beijing’s Kongjian Yu or New York’s Emilio Ambasz.
But whatever it is, dear God, let it be bold. Let the flags fly free.