In Our Cups


A cursory scan of papers and screens yesterday proves that Tuesday, 7 November 2006, was a big news day — perhaps a gala day in Australian and even world history.

Here’s a list of the biggest stories: Murray-Darling Summit and the 1000-year drought; the International Energy Agency calls on world governments to go nuclear; the Reserve Bank of Australia meeting to decide on an interest rate rise; US mid-term elections; the Australian Senate voted to allow stem cell research; and the running of the Melbourne Cup.

Clearly, if column inches are anything to go by, the most important thing that happened in Australia yesterday was that a large number of people in our nation’s former capital, Melbourne (1901–1927), stayed away from work, got drunk, wore idiotic clothes and watched a group of nervous anorexic midgets who were wearing equally idiotic clothes perching on the back of some in-bred, highly strung, dumb vehicles running around in a circle.

This is called, without a trace of irony, the ‘Sport of Kings’.

(If you don’t believe me that horses are dumb, then please explain how the pre-race favourite Tawqeet managed to step on itself!)

Otherwise normal humans bet money on this. In fact, $138.8 million was bet by Australians on a race that ran for 3:21.42 minutes (a lazy $680,000 per second). This amount is equivalent to the combined GDP of a number of small Pacific Island States including Nauru (Senator Vanstone, please note). And the total amount bet at the Flemington race meeting could probably run Kiribati and Tonga for a year.

It was also significant, apparently, that of the first four animals to cross the finish line, three were Japanese: Delta Blues, Pop Rock and Yasunari Iwata. A number of these were not geldings. And another horse came third.

It was less significant, but quite sweet, to see the two jockeys of the first and second horses holding hands after the finish not in an inappropriate way, mind you, but in quite a manly way, symbolising the very ‘hands-across-the-water’ relationship we have with our natural ally in the Pacific (always has been, always will be). There are rumours that Katsuhiko Sumii, the trainer of Delta Blues and Pop Rock, is contemplating bringing over three new stayers for next year’s race: Sandakan, Changi, and Burma Choo-Choo. The RSL was unavailable for comment.

Much of Australia reportedly stopped for the full 3:21.42 minutes. Melbourne couldn’t help itself, though, and got into a terrible lather, managed to step on itself and therefore had to stop for the whole day. This happens a lot.

Meanwhile, over in the Western Hemisphere, the USA (which has the common sense to have most of its days happen 14 to 17 hours after they happen here so as not to clash with Melbourne Cups, no doubt) had a whole bunch of elections.

Next week, when the results of the various House, Senate and gubernatorial elections are finalised, New Matilda will analyse their significance, but this American connection reminds me of a tale once told by the then Arts Minister, Bob McMullan, at the launch of Creative Nation, back in the days of the Keating Dreamtime.

McMullan was trying to highlight two things: Australians’ robust and innate sense of national identity and the need for us to tell our own stories. He did this by telling a story about Aussie screen icon Jack Thompson. Apparently, Thompson, who was living on a farm in the bush at the time, was heading overseas to the USA to do some filming when he bumped into his next door neighbour (let’s call him ‘Bruce’) at the bottom of the driveway. Now, Bruce was a true-blue, dinky-di, Aussie bloke of the bush — laconic, stoic, taciturn to the point of aphasia — but always happy to give a mate a bon mot of advice. Henry Lawson would have loved him (in a manly way).

On hearing of Jack’s impending American adventure, Bruce turned to him and drawled: ‘Careful with those Yanks, Jack. Remember what they did to Phar Lap!’

I knew the reference — how Phar Lap, 1930 Melbourne Cup winner and icon extraordinaire for all Aussie battlers, went to race in the USA but was killed (allegedly) by organised crime figures.

I knew, of course, what McMullan was trying to say about the endurance of myth, the power of memory and the great unifying force that a commonly held belief can have for a people. How we need to make sure that all Australians share in the stories that define us. How those shared stories allow us to assume a shared identity (or at least overlapping ones). And how this mysterious process of storytelling cum identity formation works best when it’s done outside of government regulation: under the radar, so to speak.

But as a Spanish-born migrant of Mediterranean appearance and little interest in horse-racing, I also knew that there were other, less convenient, sides to the Phar Lap story. For instance, I knew that the equine Aussie icon was actually a New Zealand gelding and that its name was Thai for ‘lightning’. I don’t think these were part of Bruce’s (and Bob’s) shared storyline, but I loved the fact that at its core this ‘quintessential’ Australian figure was foreign in both essence and name.

This unwitting acknowledgement of the importance of Australian multiculturalism made much more sense to me than any clichéd inanities about the bush or battlers, cups or blokes.

But as both John Howard and Kim Beazley start tweaking the definition of what it means to be an ‘Aussie’ in the lead up to the next Federal election, it seems that multiculturalism as we’ve known it for 30 years is on the way out under the combined pressure of fear (the war on terror), ignorance (Muslims’ supposed otherness) and political expediency (to win an election: identify the prey and whistle for the dogs).

I fear our race days are not over yet.

Thanks to Bill Leak

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This week’s issue of New Matilda looks at some of the non-Melbourne Cup stories. Julie Macken tells the real story behind the Prime Minister’s (impending) conversion to nuclear power for Australia; while Ryan Heath puts a different spin on the Stern Report on climate change.

Michael Connors agrees with the Pope that Saddam Hussein should not be hanged; and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja explains why she campaigned to allow Australian scientists to work with embryonic stem cells.

Emma Dawson and Anthony Ashbolt decry the recent attacks on the ABC by the Government and its sympathisers in the commentariat.

Shakira Hussein tries to find a way through the various competing oppressions of Muslim women in Australia; while Jane Caro argues that for Christians, Jews or any other theists to criticise Sheik Hilali is totally hypocritical.

Tim Soutphommasane pronounces the death sentence on Australia’s form of liberal multiculturalism — the type that McMullan unwittingly evoked for me and which Howard is now trying to strangle.

Finally, in our weekly Satire segment, ‘A Modest Proposal’, we include an extract from Jonathan Biggins’s recent book about satire and Australia’s new sedition laws.

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Human Rights Act Campaign Update

Brendan Kilty is the International Patron of New Matilda‘s Human Rights Act for Australia campaign. Brendan argues that the recognition of human rights in domestic legislation in his native Ireland has had a huge impact in the positive development of its jurisprudence there: making Irish society come of age. He says there are now over 20 million reasons for having a Bill of Rights in Australia as ‘Australians are humans too’ and he throws down the gauntlet to our leaders to make a parallel move in Canberra.

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.