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Julian Dowse
15th January, 2020

When Rod Laver and Margaret Court won their respective Grand slams in 1969 and 1970 three of the four Grand Slam tournaments were played on grass. White Dunlop and Slazenger tennis balls were scorched with green marks as these two champions created history with their wooden racquets. At this year’s Australian Open the only thing green on the tennis court will be the shirts worn by the ball boys or should that be an inclusive “ball kids”?

Yet green remains the colour du jour of politics and culture, precisely because of its absence in most of Australia. There I was thinking that nothing needed to be written until after the Australian Open and that I could enjoy the summer haze and stupor of Australia. How wrong I was! For as I write today from Melbourne, the city is shrouded in an eerie haze of smoke generated by Australia’s rampant bushfires. The following picture taken yesterday of Melbourne’s CBD tells it all:

In 1969 and 1970 the term ‘Green Politics’ did not exist. Those were the days when Prime Ministers could take long holidays, and no-one seemed to care. More of that later. Those were the days when there had been no divorces in the House of Windsor since Henry VIII. Divorces now seem to be the least of their problems. More of that later. Those were the days when the geo-politics of the world fell neatly into a bi-polar-a term rarely applied to humans back then-Cold War between West and East. 

Today it is a multi-faceted fulcrum of tension centring on the Middle East, where once again tensions between East and West have seen tragic events cascade into each other: the assassination of an Iranian General begets crowd deaths at a funeral and the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane killing all of its mainly Iranian and Canadian passengers. More of that later. 

Returning to Green. I can tell you that the world is not devoid of the colour. Having just returned from ten days in the North Island of New Zealand, it is remarkable that there is a land, only three hours away by flight, which  is the geographical and antithesis of Australia. It is hilly, verdant and replete with lush pastures where contented livestock graze on rich pastures. In particular, the Friesian and Hereford cattle seem to be freshly painted and washed! 

Once touted as the seventh state of the Australian Federation, New Zealand mirrors many of Australia’s recent experiences. Whilst in recent times New Zealanders have elected left-wing governments when we elect conservative ones-think Ardern vs Turnbull/Morrison, Key vs Rudd, Clark vs Howard-it is a nation that, like Australia,  was economically restructured in the early 1980s. For New Zealanders it was Rogernomics, for Australians it was Keating and Hawke. Like Australia, it is a nation dominated economically and politically by its largest cities, with Auckland almost being a primate city. New Zealanders living outside its largest metropolis refer to its residents as ‘Jafas’ and I can assure you the phrase is not as sweet in its meaning as the orange flavoured chocolate ball! Like Sydney and Melbourne, Auckland has experienced ridiculous increases in house prices in recent years. As in Australia, New Zealand’s regional towns offer sensibly priced real estate, but not enough of either employment and/or turmeric lattes for the millennial generation.

Both countries have become increasingly cosmopolitan and as their populations have increased their governments have had to provide the infrastructure needed to transport the citizenry and care for their ageing baby boomers. New Zealand, lacking the abundant mineral resources of Australia, still rides on the cow’s back as its largest company is the dairy producing behemoth, Fonterra. Although a nation that prides itself of its environmental purity, one of its other largest industries still remains the logging of plantation timber. Like Australia, it is a mecca for overseas tourists, especially when the nations’ exchange rates remain low by comparison to Europe and the United States.  

The ANZAC experience unites both countries, even if arguments about who can lay claim to the nationality of Phar Lap and Russell Crowe, who invented the pavlova and Australia’s lack of sportsmanship on the cricket field divide us. 

Both nations are constitutional monarchies, whose populations occasionally wrestle with the need for greater formal independence. In recent years, New Zealanders voted against changing their flag a la Canada in 1965. Both nations, as British colonies, have indigenous populations whose relationships with the conquering culture are still developing, with New Zealand seemingly having a far more harmonious and productive experience in this regard.

 As noted, although a constitutional monarchy, New Zealand is neither a Federation, nor does it have a bi-cameral national parliament. It used to, but abolished its Upper House, the Legislative Council, in 1951. It should also be remembered that New Zealand, then Australia, were the first two nations to enfranchise women to vote in national elections in 1893 and 1903 respectively, remembering that Australia’s indigenous women could not vote until 1962, whereas Maori women were granted suffrage in 1893. Seats are reserved for Maori representation in New Zealand’s parliament and New Zealand also preceded Australia in having female Prime Ministers and Governors-General and indigenous Governors-General.

Tragically, smoke currently hangs over both countries. On 9th December the eruption of the White Island volcano off New Zealand’s East Coast killed many Australian tourists who were visiting the island at the time of its unpredictable eruption.

For Australia, the smoke of bushfires in the Eastern States is the aftermath of fires that have claimed close to thirty lives, destroyed hundreds of properties and devastated the economic resources of town upon town. 

Yet these two environmental tragedies have created entirely different political winds on either side of the Tasman Sea. For New Zealand’s Prime Minister, the White Island eruption was another chance to demonstrate her much lauded compassion and perceived empathy.

For Scott Morrison, the bushfires have become the first serious political inferno of his leadership. It all started to go awry when he took a long-planned family holiday to Hawaii when the fire crisis worsened. In politics, timing is everything. The timing of his vacation was at worst ill-considered, at best unfortunate and unlucky. However, even more unfortunate was the shrill reaction to his absence, albeit for only a matter of days. Remember when Menzies had extended sojourns to England? Ah, I must remember that the past is a foreign country. 

In our delicious present world, the Prime Minister was pilloried as if his absence alone somehow made the bushfires worse. And, even worse, he was ridiculed for not displaying sufficient degrees of empathy, whatever that entails. Give me policy and substance over ephemeral emotional displays any day of the week. Bob Hawke used to boast of his “love affair with the Australian people”. Sadly, our love for our politicians seems to have become highly conditional. If all is as it not should be, someone has to be blamed and usually a politician at that. Too many Australians seem to have remained as angry adolescents, raging about the unfairness of everything.  Too many Australians seem to have forgotten that whilst they live in a wide and wild brown land with its attendant natural disasters, they also live in a country whose prosperity and political stability enables herculean rescue efforts and generous support of those affected by natural disasters. It was impressive of Elton John to donate a million dollars to the recovery efforts after singing his golden oldies to Australia’s golden oldies at a series of recent concerts.

I imagine our Prime Minister must be hurt by the slings and arrows. I do not lay claim to knowing Mr. Morrison, but my sense is that there are fewer Prime Ministers who have been more quintessentially Australian than he is. His uncomplicated love for Australia is never far from the surface in his public pronouncements and thoughts. President Kennedy reminded us that no leader is either “omniscient or omnipotent”. Today we seem to expect such prescience mixed with appropriate lashings of empathy and gushy, breathless apologies through which people who do not know those about which they speak claim to understand their feelings. The idea that a seventy-two hour absence proved that Mr. Morrison had somehow spurned Australia is preposterous.

It is equally bizarre that at the same time that  the world clamours for “mindfulness” and “emotional authenticity” we are witnessing a collapse in the standard of public debate and discourse and the general level of civility. I have previously written about how debates about effective policy responses to climate change have become a contemptible mess of acrimony and personal allegations about one’s relative virtue, rather than an appropriate and knowledgeable investigation of policy options.

This week’s death of England’s pre-eminent conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, was a reminder of this phenomenon. Scruton devoted his life to arguing the need for civility and rationality and his passing is at a time when his pleas are needed more than ever. The day after his death Australian media promoted a story concerning a protest by conservative students from the University of Queensland against a speech at a municipal library on the topic “Rainbow Families” by a drag queen. Phone footage of the protest was shown. One of the protesters took their life that evening, probably because of the torrent of personal abuse he received on social media. The past may be a different country, but fewer and fewer people seem to be cultivating Voltaire’s tolerant and democratic green garden.

Just as we have had Green protests about our unfeeling Prime Minister, there will no doubt be rainbow hued protests at the forthcoming Australian Open about the presence of Margaret Court at the tournament. Her achievements in the world of tennis are, for the moment, unsurpassed. Her personal comments about gay marriage and related topics are not accepted by an overwhelming majority of our society. Cannot we leave it at that? On every occasion when a zealous majority has sought the excoriation of a minority viewpoint-witness Court and Israel Folau-the only indisputable outcome is a further erosion of the limits of free speech and a loss of tolerance of minority viewpoints. The hunt for political correctness becomes so strenuous that the whole virtue of liberal, robust democratic debate becomes lost.

Away from the loss of life in New Zealand and Australia, England was also facing a ‘crisis’. Was it the negotiating of a trade deal with the European Union, now made imperative by passing of legislation confirming Britain’s exit from the Union on Men’s semi-final day on 31st January? No, it was the final episode of ‘When Harry met Meghan’. History may be bunk, but it does teach us some lessons. When an American divorcee infatuated with the trappings of Royal society took the heart of a restless Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, in the 1930s all hell broke loose. So, here we go again. 

Never mind the benefits of a sumptuous Royal wedding ( who will ever forget the evangelical, or was he hallucinating, preacher?), or the Queen stumping up a mere 2.4 million sterling to renovate the couple’s English home, all bets are now off, and the burdens of royal life are to be foregone. The idea that the couple will somehow be able to lead their ‘alternative’ life as part-time Royals in exile is fanciful. Just as Harry’s mother became more famous because of her ostracism from Court, so too will it be for Harry and Meghan. However, Harry has the trump card: on many levels I suspect he blames his immediate family for the travails of his mother and now the worm has turned. 

Now, for a real crisis. In 1979, Prince Charles was still two years away from marrying Princess Diana. However, in that turbulent year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at year’s end and earlier in the year a radical Islamic revolution took place in Iran. The Shah’s Persian Peacock throne was overturned, and he lived in exile until his death a year later. Every ruling Ayatollah since Khomeini has seen American as the temporal Satan. 

President Obama brought the nations to the negotiating table to reduce the risk of Iran developing a nuclear arsenal, which the West fears could be used against Israel, which is Iran’s prime foe in the Middle East, being seen by Tehran as the illegal creation and delegate of America.  Those recent days of rapprochement are long gone. The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane on 8th January,  shortly after taking off from Tehran airport by the Iranian military, evoked some of the darkest memories of the Cold War, especially when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean passenger plane in 1983.

Many Canadians were on the plane. Justin Trudeau, now hirsute, ( I wonder if this is a subconscious response to his ‘blackface’ scandal?) has made clear his outrage over the loss of Canadian life, speaking in  “woke” breathless, affected, halting tones that Scott Morrison could only dream of! 

True to form, the Canadian Prime Minister could not resist a swipe at President Trump, suggesting that his drone strike on the Iranian General was the indirect catalyst of the plane crash. Has there ever been an icier relationship between a Canadian Prime Minister and an American President?

So, have we time to think about the forthcoming tennis? Well, if we did we would have to say that it will be a surprise if anyone conquered Djokovic on an Australian hardcourt over the best of five sets. Novak’s victory over Nadal to secure the inaugural ATP Cup for Serbia over Spain, confirmed his favouritism for the Open. Federer has won 8 Wimbledon titles , Nadal 12 in Paris and Djokovic will be keen to make it 8 in Melbourne and edge closer to the top of the Grand Slam champions’ tally board. 

As ever, there will be perennial questions- will this be Federer’s final Grand Slam year, will the new guard led by Tsitsipas  and Zverev storm the citadel built by the Great Three? Can an Australian of either gender win? Trivia question- when was the last time Australians won the Men’s and Women’s singles titles at the same Grand Slam tournament?  Answer- John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1971 which followed the Newcombe/Margaret Court double at Wimbledon in 1970!

The Women’s event is predictably wide open. Remarkably, Serena Williams won her first WTA title in three years with her recent victory in Auckland. Barty lost in the first round in Brisbane, but is currently playing in Adelaide. Pliskova defended her Brisbane crown with impressive wins against Osaka and Keys, but for too long she has been the female Zverev, threatening greatness only to capitulate in Grand Slam events. Let’s hope she can show greater resilience, because she is a very skilled player. I’ll stick with Halep, hoping that Darren Cahill can keep her composed.

Yesterday Melbourne’s air quality was judged as the worst in the world. This led to fears that unless the smoke haze dissipates quickly, it may affect the ability of the Australian Open to uphold its status as one of the best sporting events in the world. How ironic that in the year of perfect vision-2020 - it is currently difficult to discern Melbourne’s skyline. 

Composure, judgement and discernment - we could all do with more of them on and off the tennis court.

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