Blair and the World Stage


Last week it was the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso visiting our land girt by sea. This week it’s British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and next week it’ll be Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Australia is clearly the destination du jour, for international frequent flyers. Even the Rolling Stones are coming to town soon, to give us all a ‘bigger bang’.

Blair and Howard in Canberra

I remember the days when people bemoaned the insignificance of Australia on the world stage. You’ve got to hand it to Howard and Downer, they’ve certainly managed to put us right in the middle of many of the world’s biggest stories: the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, the not-so-civil war in Iraq, the coming ‘incident’ in Iran, Japan’s military and diplomatic expansion, China’s modernisation. Maybe a better way of putting it is that Howard and Downer have managed to put us right in the cross-hairs.

So far, it’s been the Blair visit that’s made the most impact. His speech in Federal Parliament this week has seen the usually very reserved members of the Canberra Press Gallery almost climbing over each other, like love-struck teenagers, to praise the man’s vision, intelligence, eloquence, and his nuanced grasp of history, the world and everything!

Coming barely a fortnight after the Murdoch commentariat went bananas over how absolutely and mindbogglingly wonderful John Howard was (remember The Howard Factor and the 10th anniversary hosannas?), it was interesting to read Paul Kelly on the front page of 28 March’s The Australian leading with:

Tony Blair yesterday offered eloquence, vision and guts that has no match in Australian politics. Blair’s speech was the best in the national parliament since Bill Clinton, but its impact was more meaningful. Australia doesn’t have such a leader, so Blair is a symbol of the chasm in our political life.

Greg Sheridan, in the same issue of the paper, praised Blair’s ‘magnificent speech’ and said that the British PM ‘showed himself yesterday as the most articulate neoconservative in the world’. High praise indeed from Greg.

And then Matt Price nailed it:

Blair left his hosts Howard and Kim Beazley in the shade. In introducing the VVIP visitor, Howard banged on about Australia’s British inheritance, the Westminster tradition and Winston Churchill. Beazley was briefer but both fawned over Blair with near religious fervour. For a while it was like being in church The British leader’s speech was a cracker. [It] was serious, never boring; wideranging but not rambling; persuasive, never hectoring. He ducked nothing, mentioning differences with Beazley on the war and Howard on the Kyoto Protocol. It’s comfortably the best speech [I have] heard in the House of Representatives, a depressing reminder that uplifting oratory is as foreign to the parliament as politeness and manners are to the modern cricket field.

And there you have it. Even as a lame-duck PM, Blair blows our allegedly ‘best PM ever’ and Bomber Beazley out of the water.

Sure, these are all broadsheet journalists and their colleagues in the Daily Telegraph were more restrained.

And sure, eloquence isn’t everything. Real, pragmatic effect and longevity are just as important. But Blair’s been PM since his own electoral landslide in 1997 and, whether one agrees with his policies or not, he hasn’t exactly been sitting on his hands.

Let’s face it, when Blair talks, his audience feels like we’ve been invited into an important, historic moment of global significance. When Howard addresses us, it feels like a speech during a local council meeting in Canterbury or Camberwell. And when Beazley opens his mouth, we quickly switch to the cricket and marvel at Warney getting another six-for whatever against the South Africans.

This is not the return of a repressed cultural cringe. It’s not what Gerard Henderson in the Fairfax Press dismisses as Howard-hating or Beazley-hating. It is the truth.

Let’s have more visits from people of the stature of Condi Rice, Bambi Blair and the rest. The quicker Australians realise we’ve been sold a pup for years now, the better.

José Borghino

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.