These days, a trip to Sydney is a great adventure for me and, as our all-wise government has abolished the travel entitlements of ex-MPs, ‘except for former Prime Ministers’, it is something not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, unless you want to go bankrupt. Accordingly, I sallied forth to the emerald city last Friday with the cheapest ticket I could wrangle from Jetstar, to attend The Spectator Anglo-Australian Forum. It was also a celebration of 10 years of the magazine itself. Star turns were John Howard, Tony Abbott, Nigel Farage and Andrew Neil, the He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed of Spectator circles. It was a great conference, stimulating and provocative. It was no surprise that Howard gave a spirited speech on our debt to the British tradition and the importance of good Anglo-Australian relations, especially as Brexit staggers on to whatever final form it might take. We look back on Howard’s time as a sort of golden Elizabethan age, and whenever you hear him speak, you cannot help but reflect on the mediocrity of the current crop of politicians. There was also something new, however, at least for me. His point was that the British agonising on which way to go with Brexit is due to the fact that Theresa May held that early election, stuffed it up and lost her authority; when the authority of a leader has evaporated, real reform is impossible. Howard was also frank about Donald Trump, that he has had some great achievements, but also made some bad moves; the worst was not eulogising John McCain, a national hero. Brexit is a difficult subject for Tony Abbott, as he had originally argued that the UK should stay in the European Union. But he carried off his mea culpa well enough and Brexit is for him an entrée to a new era of British prosperity if it gets its act together and enters into independent trade deals with Australia and others.
There was one blemish on the conference and that was the way that some of the press reported it. The most absurd report was in the Australian Financial Review which reported that it was a Liberal party ‘love-fest’ for Nigel Farage, the doors were locked to keep out ‘undesirables’, there was ‘a large Union Jack’ and the audience worshipped God Save the Queen. This is complete nonsense; it was not a Liberal party event; no-one who heard Andrew Neil’s cross-examination of Farage could write it off as a love-fest; no-one invoked God Save the Queen; the doors were not locked and there was no Union Jack (it was an artistic logo for the Anglo-Australia Forum).
Friday turned out to be Nigel Farage day for me with his attendance at the forum in Sydney and then the Melbourne leg of his separate speaking tour that night, which I just caught with my el cheapo flight. I had to admit that the crowd outside the Sofitel hotel when I arrived did not look very forbidding or intimidating, and certainly nothing like as ferocious as some mobs I have had to put up with up over the years, including the time I was hit by a flying drink can at a campaign rally with Malcolm Fraser. And it really was letting the side down a bit to present such a half-hearted mob with a threadbare banner or two when the Left had been portraying Farage as the devil incarnate. If you find the devil incarnate is in town, I think you have an obligation to get serious about it and put on a good show to prove how much you hate him. But not this lot. Far from being a marauding mob, hell-bent on rape and pillage, they were more like a rally of snowflakes from Melbourne university in a non-judgmental safe zone guarded by a committee of trauma counsellors. Things only got worse when we were inside and Nigel reported that one of the claims being levelled at him outside was that he was responsible for ‘the aboriginal genocide’. As that would be a gymnastic feat of Olympian proportions even for our hero and as it had absolutely nothing to do with Brexit or anything else, it was not surprising that the audience erupted with laughter at this astounding news. You have to give it to Nigel; he is a good mob orator, speaks without notes, has a great repertoire of jokes to show how silly the EU is, and an amazing story of starting a political party from nothing, arguing for it up and down the UK, and winning a thumping victory for Brexit. But the really good news is that, while the British elites are trying to undo the overwhelming ‘Leave’ vote, and as Mrs May has proposed the ludicrous compromise of her Chequers’ declaration, Nigel has formed a new force and is going back into battle; from now on, the motto will be ‘Leave Means Leave’ and the vibe will be ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’. After an hour’s speech and another hour of questions, we girded our loins for confronting the mob again on the way out. But the supine performance of this mob throws up one surprise after another; they had simply faded away into the night without putting up a fight. Your modern rioters are such a pathetic lot. Demonstrators are just not what they used to be.
Finally, from Day 1, I have criticised the concept of Special Envoys. Scott Morrison’s elaboration on these creations has given me even greater concern. He observed that the great virtue of Special Envoys is that they are ‘not confined by the usual constraints of ministers’. That is the whole point. Our constitution deliberately imposes constraints on ministers to limit the power of government and create a balance between the executive and the parliament. Special envoys destroy those restraints. That is why they are much loved by tin-pot principalities, republics and dubious bodies like the United Nations. Activist judges are bad enough; activist governments are worse.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free