Nick Folkes, chairman of the Party for Freedom and third-prize winner of the 1999 John Bunting Lookalike Contest, speaks to media during a demonstration against the “Chinese takeover of Australia” he convened in Sydney today. On the back of a sustained letterboxing campaign that linked property prices to foreign real estate investment, today’s crowd of five was a remarkable 25 percent larger in size than his last rally, held in Martin Place in support of one of the women shot during the Lindt Cafe siege back in December. Media responses have naturally taken a reproachful tone, albeit one that’s been absent from similar discussions in recent years: journalists may feel assured enough to tell Folkes that foreign investment is a fringe issue these days, but they don’t dare say the same to cabinet ministers.
Sitting on George Town’s Lebuh Chulia tourist strip, the Hong Kong Bar would look obstinate even if it hadn’t almost burnt to the ground a decade ago. It is beset by two reggae bars on either side and another around the corner, between them hoovering up the dregs of the Banana Pancake Trail before they’ve even wandered by. The Cantonese couple by the till have been running the joint since the mid-1950s and are systematic in their habits, thrusting the latest guestbook under the noses of patrons before they’ve taken their first sips. When we were there last month, the only other drinker was a British expat of 50 years’ standing who looked like he’d been singlehandedly holding up the bar ever since. His unit had been based in Penang during the Konfrantasi; he demobilised, went back to Leeds to pick up his old life, and within a few weeks thought better of it and booked the next ticket back.¹
Beginning its life as a shore leave hangout for the British Merchant Navy, by the 1970s Australian soldiers stationed on the other side of the Selatan Strait at Butterworth had claimed the Hong Kong Bar as their own. The British absconded from their military presence in Asia after they were slapped down to size by America during the Suez Crisis, and in 1957 Australia took over the Butterworth Air Force Base as their own. A defence pact with Malaysia was formalised in 1971, right when the policy of Forward Defence—threats to Australian territory were to be met on the soil of other countries—had reached its apotheosis… and right when arguments in favour of Australia’s force projection into Southeast Asia were being discredited by a certain military quagmire further to the north.
Change is glacial in any military bureaucracy, and Australia has a long tradition of ministers cowed and belled by the Defence Department. The ones that push back, or the ones that aren’t much chop, are never too far away from a few strategic leaks to the press and a trip to the knackery. It took more than a decade after the fall of Saigon for Australia to reconsider its force posture; it fell to Kim Beazley, with his raging boner for military hardware and unabashed Americophilia, to win the trust of the top brass and then whack the department with an external review. Published in 1986, a report authored by ANU academic Paul Dibb recommended disengaging from the Asia-Pacific region and repositioning the country’s combat capabilities towards fighting defensive engagements on Australian soil.
The government stopped short from a full endorsement of the Dibb Report. Australia pulled out its fighter squadron and handed over control of the base to the Royal Malaysian Air Force in 1988, keeping a legacy presence of soldiers to train in jungle warfare for three month stints. The fact that Australia has no jungle is as good an indication as any that the government was keen to have a bet each way,² as is this beer coaster left at the Hong Kong Bar by an Australian soldier in 1994:
The tradition of leaving memorabilia at the Hong Kong Bar goes back to the days of soldiers on R&R from Vietnam. By the time of the September 2004 fire, the bar was so firmly associated with its Rifle Company Butterworth clientele that the New Straits Times covered the event as an Australian tragedy.
Company plaques, visitor books and photo albums were all lost to the blaze and the outpouring of grief was immense. For a while, there was talk that the owners would pack it in, but they persevered. The three month rotations of Australian soldiers into Rifle Company Butterworth continue, and they remain dedicated patrons of the Hong Kong Bar, where the burnt plaques sit on one wall in memoriam, while the post-fire mementos line the other.
A new stack of photo albums sit under the counter; they’re instructive things, stuffed with innumerable polaroids of Sergeant X and Corporal Y with their arms around the thin waists of “German Tourist” and any other number of unnamed, sun-bleached European women. Peering into them is a glimpse into the little traditions that earned the Australian military its reputation for decency and fraternity. There are the pointless wars, the hazings, the ADFA sex scandals, the cheapening of every story of nobility, gallantry and sacrifice in the name of political capital and foundation myths—but in those photos and on those walls, you see the kid who would’ve otherwise spent the rest of his working life doing day labour in a dying country town, becoming the man who realises that everything he’s been told about the outside world is wrong. You see differences set aside and minds opening. You see young men, one arm clutching a beer and the other around the shoulders of their commanding officer, their faces brimming with the knowledge that they are custodians of a history that is bigger than themselves. It was Howard who made the Gallipoli pilgrimage the central plank of the new state religion—if you want to pay your respects without all the bullshit, go to Penang.
1. Having seen the Red Riding trilogy, can’t say I blame the old mate.
2. The Australian military’s half-measures disengagement from Asia came to an end when Suharto was forced out of office in Indonesia and the machetes came out in East Timor. A few years later, George Bush II decided to have a crack at his dad’s unfinished business. Australia is back in hock to US military contractors, and Forward Defence is enjoying a renaissance, even if the foreign policy establishment considers the term to be frightfully passé these days.
Yeah, it’s slim pickings. If you want to listen to some desiccated smackie’s sonorous hymns to Elvis or a couple of fey Brisbanites recite a list of their favourite Godard films, the cultural cringe back catalogue will serve you well. With Australian musicians a little less abashed about where they come from these days, navel-gazing is the new order; odes to suburban minutiae were back in vogue in Sydney and Melbourne last time I was there,¹ and of course Gareth Liddiard fancies himself Henry Lawson with a distortion pedal.
Rare is the songwriter who considers Australia’s place in the region. The Presets’ last big hit was ostensibly about treatment of asylum seekers (which explains why the promo clip was set on the moon). We have our two seminal songs “about” the Vietnam Police Action, now de facto anthems in suburban RSLs the nation over; the first is really about visiting a knock shop in Hong Kong, the second is in keeping with the Oliver Stone school of historical revisionism, where tragedy is a young man’s lost innocence rather than two million dead civilians.
Jesus. Here’s most of what’s left:
1. Not Drowning, Waving: The Kiap Song (1988)
“And the Townsville men all own plantations here/
They drink at the club with their Filipino brides”
Backed by an ensemble from Rabaul, David Bridie scorns the second-rate businessmen and linen-suited expat club loungers making hay (and coffee) out of Australia’s former colonial possession, turning Papua New Guinea into an outsourced version of the Queensland sugarcane fields in the decades before the White Australia Policy. “The labour’s cheap and strong up here, that’s the way it’s done up here,” and that’s still the way it’s done up there.
2. Redgum: I’ve Been to Bali Too (1984)
“Got a ride out to Kuta in the back of a truck/
Cost me twenty dollars and it wasn’t worth a buck”
Easy to forget that white trash Bali holidays have a longer pedigree than the mining boom. Well before Kuta supplanted the Gold Coast as the end of year private school playground, well before Denpasar Airport began shuttling thousands of shift-workers to and from the Pilbara each week, Bali was still the destination of choice for a fortnight’s constitutional: magic mushroom milkshakes, motorbikes with bald tires, bootlegs, stomach cramps and ear bashing your hapless friends in the months after you returned home.
3. Australian Crawl: Chinese Eyes (1980)
“Chinese eyes: you know it wasn’t just a holiday fling/
Chinese Eyes: she’s no take away chow mein”
Released 16 years before River’s Cuomo’s paean to half-Japanese girls, this was Australia’s contribution to the Yellow Fever canon: a man looking at an escort’s sticker in a public telephone box, overcome with a case of the orientalist vapours. Certainly wouldn’t fly today, although how’s this for a fun fact: El Scorcho failed as a single in the US because radio stations refused to play it. Australian DJs had no such compunctions, and it eventually took out the ninth slot on the 1996 Triple J Hottest 100. Even though the single cover looked like this.
1. Not to mention songs about copping a midnight gobby in a kebab shop.
Ask anyone who knows: dogs are tasty as heck. I am a product of western taboos, I count several handsome dogs among my friends, and I probably wouldn’t get stuck into a plate of what the Chinese fondly refer to as “earth mutton” under ordinary circumstances—at least any more than I already have. I was also born into a generation that usually has the sense to avoid theorising about the provenance of certain meat dishes at certain Footscray restaurants. Apparently, the same cannot be said for Australia’s former foreign minister.
By the early ’90s, Gareth Evans had already cemented his reputation as a sweary-mouthed headkicker. Word had leaked to the press about his office tantrums, and his propensity for throwing ashtrays and office stationery at ministerial staff. Contemporary press reports insinuated that he was off his face after negotiating the Timor Gap treaty with his Indonesian counterpart in 1988. His record in office is mixed,¹ but his charms, his wit and his sex appeal were formidable and remain celebrated.
In his parliamentary career, Chris Patten ate shit sandwiches for a living. Elevated to the British cabinet a decade into Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Patten was the public face of the poll tax, the ferocious public opposition to which precipitated the Iron Lady’s downfall. Her successor appointed him to oversee the 1992 election campaign; the increasingly clapped-out Conservative Party was reelected (topical!) but Patten lost his seat.
Had he held on, Patten would’ve likely been Britain’s next foreign minister. His consolation prize was a patronage appointment, three months after the election, as Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong—a role usually reserved for career diplomats. By all accounts, his media profile, fondness for urban strolls and abandonment of some of the stuffier conventions of protocol initially made him and his family popular figures among both the Sino-British commercial elite and the wider public.
In November, Evans was invited to discuss the future of the city with Patten, as the UK prepared to cede its last Asian dependency to Beijing. The day before his arrival, the Patten family lost their seven-month-old puppy, a diminutive Norfolk Terrier by the name of Soda. Patten, his wife Lavender, and their two daughters frantically searched the neighbourhood for hours, to no avail, and the family soon appealed for public assistance in the doghunt.
Evans was informed by the staff at Government House that the Patten family were in great distress over Soda’s disappearance. Following a press conference, he brought up the subject of the missing pup at a hobnob with local journalists, offering this theory on her whereabouts:
“The governor’s dog is probably a supreme delicacy. They’ll turn it into hors d’oeuvres for Deng Xiaoping—who, I’m told, eats four puppies a day.”
Evans’ insights into the culinary habits of China’s paramount leader were dutifully reported in the South China Morning Post and made their way back to Australia in time for his return to parliament.
The Labor government had spent much of its time in office using accusations of racism as a cudgel with which to beat the opposition; now the Liberals must have thought that the boot was on the other foot. Evans thought otherwise. When Liberal senators began to assail him in a Senate estimates hearing, he began to rail against the “breach of faith” arising from the publication of what he claimed were off-the-record comments, and insisted that an apology to Beijing was unwarranted:
“Someone at that stage made a tasteless remark—to coin a phrase—about the likely attractiveness of the Governor’s dog to those who might be minded to embark on some exercise in Cantonese cuisine as a result. I responded to that particular sally by saying that in fact I had heard in gossip in Beijing that Deng Xiaoping, who is a Sichuanese and for whom dog is a delicacy, did have some culinary tastes of that kind… It is not a matter of apologising to the Chinese because nothing has been said by me in any context that justifies an apology.”²
Indeed, no one in Beijing or Hong Kong—or elsewhere in Australia, for that matter—seemed altogether bothered by his remarks. The Chinese embassy in Canberra declared that it was “unable to comment on Mr Deng’s culinary habits, but four puppies a day seems a little excessive.” Patten called Evans “a very good friend to Hong Kong.” Rob Sitch paid homage to the incident in the opening minutes of that weekend’s edition of The Late Show:
…but the opposition had other, pointier sticks to beat the government with in the lead-up to the next election, and the incident was soon forgotten.
Evans and Patten evidently continued to hold each other in reasonable regard. The governor’s esteem in Hong Kong plummeted dramatically after he extended the country’s democratic franchise, earning him the title of “Whore of the East” in China’s state press and a stiff reception from the city’s British banking circles, who reliably privileged commerce over popular will. When Patten travelled to Australia in 1994, Evans expressed admiration for his reforms and received a public slap from Beijing in return.
At that time, the biggest shit sandwich of Patten’s career was still many years to come. Appointed BBC Trust chairman after the Conservative Party returned to office in 2010, he was the public face of the broadcaster when the Jimmy Saville scandal broke. The long-suffering Patten retired shortly thereafter; his legacy lives on in Hong Kong, where he did perhaps more than any other person to embolden the city’s democrats.
Soda was found by morning joggers four days after she disappeared. She was returned to a grateful Lavender Patten.
1. “An aberration, not an act of state policy.”
2. Less convincing was his rebuttal to another quote in the same SCMP article, in which he characterised the current battles withing the Chinese politburo as a process of “kicking against the Marxist pricks”. He claimed that his words were inspired by Biblical phraseology and proceeded to quote from Acts 5:9. (“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”)
On this day in 2012, the Malaysian daily New Straits Times issued a hasty clarification: “We hereby retract all the statements contained in the article against Mr Xenophon and unreservedly and unconditionally apologise to him for any distress or embarrassment caused by the article.” It was an unedifying end to a week in which the South Australian senator had been teargassed, accused of insulting Islam and subjected to death threats.
Adelaide, home in sickness and in health to the last superannuated holdouts of Australia’s bunyip aristocracy, is also the spiritual home of liberalism’s disaffected moderates. Steele Hall left the Liberal Party after his tenure as South Australian Premier, founded the Liberal Movement and went to Canberra, voting in support of the beleaguered Whitlam government’s supply bills during the 1975 constitutional showdown. The remnants of the Liberal Movement formed the nucleus of the Australian Democrats—lifelong South Australian Janine Haines was the first party member to gain a parliamentary seat upon Hall’s resignation from the Senate.
Nick Xenophon, the current custodian of this tradition and an eminently more likeable media tart than many of his contemporaries, deflects questions of his past political associations by pleading a wayward youth. “Some people do drugs when they are young, I was in the Young Liberals,” he told The Advertiser; my encounters with student politicians suggests that the two are rarely mutually exclusive, even if the double-barrelled surnames didn’t get their gurn on quite so hard as the lefties.
He ditched the boat-shoe brigade after they rigged the student union’s elections, which inter alia made him at 17 the youngest ever editor of On Dit. After a spell as a workers’ compensation barrister, Xenophon wound up in state parliament in 1997 on the back of a gimmicky campaign to oppose poker machines, introduced earlier in the decade as state governments across the country broadened the legalisation of gambling to combat revenue shortfalls during the recession. A decade later he was in the Senate, re-elected in 2013 with the largest first preference vote out of any independent since Pauline Hanson in 1996.
Xenophon might well have been content to remain the ambassador of liberal Adelaide parochialism, had a 2010 meeting with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim not led the senator to make a decisive break with the politics of his Athenian forebear. A one-time Deputy Prime Minister, the power struggle between Anwar and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis led to a coordinated campaign to discredit Anwar on allegations of sodomy, a practice punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment and a deeply inflammatory accusation under the country’s prevailing cultural mores. His supposed sexual partners recanted after the subsequent trial, saying they had been coerced into giving false statements; Anwar spent six years in solitary confinement before his verdict was partially overturned.
At Anwar’s invitation, Xenophon travelled to Malaysia in April 2012 as part of an international fact-finding mission into the country’s electoral system. The study tour’s conclusions mirrored those documented by international rights groups and the local opposition: postal vote fraud, discrepancies in the voter roll, an overwhelming predominance of pro-government opinion in the media, and gerrymandering by the Election Commission at the behest of the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which had controlled the federal government since the country’s independence in 1957.
Towards the end of the scheduled activities, the delegation attended a mass demonstration in Kuala Lumpur held by Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections), a civil society coalition backed by the opposition, international democracy endowments and many of the organisations the group had met with in the previous days. As in previous Bersih mobilisations, the response was violent: the Malaysian Bar Council’s report into the crackdown claimed that the demonstration was peaceful until mid-afternoon, when police began an arbitrary attack on the procession. Xenophon’s faceful of tear gas was captured on video.
Facing a PR debacle, Barisan Nasional went on the offensive. After smearing Beriseh, its constituent organisations and the protesters, it fell to a young ethnic-Chinese reporter by the name of Roy See Wei Zhi to smear the delegation. Roy was a staff writer for the New Straits Times—a paper owned by the UMNO, Barisan Nasional’s senior coalition partner. On May 2, the paper carried an article by Roy which questioned Xenophon’s credentials as an observer to the rally and purported to quote the senator during a parliamentary speech: “Islam is not a religious organisation. It is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.”
Xenophon’s quote was actually in reference to the Church of Scientology, during an adjournment debate on the religion’s tax-free status in Australia. Paired with a suggestive quote about the senator’s stance on same-sex marriage, Roy’s piece was clearly a hatchet job designed to discredit Anwar through clumsy innuendo.¹ Xenophon threatened to sue and the paper pulled the article with a full apology the following day; he was undeterred, promising litigation after he was told that the article’s publication constituted a threat to his safety.
Had the senator not been embittered by this experience, he might not have become such an outspoken advocate for democratic reform in Malaysia. As it was, he decided to return to the country the following February, once again at the invitation of Anwar. After passing through immigration and reaching the customs desk at Kuala Lumpur International, he was approached by police and informed that he had been deemed a security risk; he was detained for 16 hours and sent back to Australia on a 2am flight.
“I just find it extraordinary,” he told the ABC from the airport’s immigration detention. “I’ve been here before [and] I’ve made statements about the state of Malaysian democracy previously. But on this occasion clearly someone high up in the Malaysian government doesn’t want me here.”
Three MPs set to join a delegation to observe the run-up to the 2013 general election cancelled their trips in protest.
The biggest shill in Australian journalism, Greg Sheridan, felt compelled to offer his own verdict on the saga. There is so much to loathe in Sheridan’s Wikipedia assessment of Malaysia’s polity,² but some offences against logic and empiricism are egregious enough to render other frustrations irrelevant. The Murdoch stable’s S.O.P. is to charge the advocates of the causes they oppose with hypocrisy for failing to dedicate their passions to causes deemed of greater moral urgency. Sheridan wonders, in the aftermath of his deportation, why Xenophon hadn’t instead campaigned for electoral reform in Cambodia, a more deserving recipient of democratic advocacy. (This, of course, didn’t lead him to withhold his endorsement of Australia’s refugee resettlement deal with Phnom Penh the following year.) The New Straits Times, evidently still smarting from the previous year’s legal threats, gleefully quoted Sheridan’s column at length.
The next Malaysian general election was held less than three months after Xenophon’s last trip to KL. Amid fresh claims of electoral improprieties and continued protests against the Election Commission’s gerrymander, Anwar’s opposition coalition won more than 50 percent of the vote while Barisan Nasional took 60 percent of the seats.
Barred from Malaysia, Xenophon’s case against the Times appears to have stalled. In October 2014, he travelled to Jakarta to meet with Anwar once again. Since his return to parliament in 2008, the opposition leader had been facing fresh sodomy charges. The 61-year-old was accused of overpowering and assaulting an aide 37 years his junior; when this was disproven, the charge was amended to “homosexual conduct by persuasion”.
With a looming court decision all but certain to convict him, Anwar used a joint press conference to criticise Australia for failing to speak out against his politically-motivated prosecution, in spite of private overtures from former foreign ministers Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith. “It’s an incredibly melancholy meeting today because it might be the last time I see him,” Xenophon told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Anwar returned to prison this February to begin his five year sentence. He will be 72 by the time he is released, and 77 before he is permitted to stand for office again. A motion calling on the parliament to convey its concern over the verdict to the Malaysian High Commissioner was tabled by Xenophon and carried unanimously in the Senate. Australia’s diplomatic, trade and defence ties with Malaysia continue unabated.
Far from receiving any official reprimand, Roy See Wei Zhi remained on the Times staff list for another two years, where it appears he was eventually promoted to columnist. His most recent contribution to the public sphere, dated July 2014, was an admonishment of the Road Transport Department’s proposal to introduce automatic transmission drivers’ licences. Laden with incisive prose—”first, let us define a car” is a quote that will resonate with me for some time to come—it seems the free press is enjoying a resurgence in Malaysia.
1. In your endo.
2. For one, his characterisation of PAS, the smallest party in the opposition coalition, as having a decisive influence over its peers and prosecuting a hardline Islamist agenda. Whenever Sheridan needs to pad out his columns, he pretends to be the antipodean Daniel Pipes, possibly the only other neo-con that rivals his own vacuity.
Fear and suspicion of Tokyo was a reliable mainstay of Australia’s cultural landscape for nearly a century. This is the story of Australia’s last boilover of anti-Japanese hysteria.
By the middle of the 1980s, Japan had emerged as the world’s largest creditor nation. Its automotive and tech industries were unparalleled, it had the second-highest GDP in the world and there was serious talk that its economy would eclipse that of the United States by the end of the century. With America’s manufacturing industries entering their era of structural decline, the rapacious and amoral Japanese businessman was beginning to emerge as the trope du jour in that country’s culture industry—the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and (a year or two behind the zeitgeist) the Kanemitsu Corporation in Robocop 3, which deploys ninja androids and buys a controlling stake in Omni Consumer Products on the back of the latter’s failed attempts to “revitalise” Detroit.
Australia’s attitude to Japan at the time had more of an antebellum flair—the likes of Bruce Ruxton, the Victorian secretary of the Returned and Services League and World War II veteran, never missed an opportunity to fulminate over Japanese atrocities in Burma and the Pacific. At the same time, Australia was not immune to the same vicissitudes of global capital and migration that were fuelling a backlash elsewhere in the first world. The arrival of large numbers of Asian immigrants—some forty percent of the annual migrant intake throughout the eighties—was leading to increasingly public expressions of resentment. On the back of booming property markets in both Japan and Australia, a cohort of wealthy Japanese investors were forking out for massive resort developments on the Gold Coast. As in the US, Australia’s automotive industry had entered its terminal phase, and the local production arms of Japanese manufacturers had begun their domination of the roads. Though it was a full decade before Pauline Hanson’s “swamped by Asians” maiden parliamentary speech, the spooky ghost story of the federation era—a feckless Australia sleepwalking into an Asian cultural and economic takeover—was re-emerging from the fringes.
It was in this inauspicious climate that the Japanese government attempted to elevate overseas real estate investments to the status of national policy in 1987, following a ministerial summit between the two countries in Canberra. Seeking to offset the effects of what had become a burdensome trade surplus, the Japanese delegation proposed the development of a mixed-use residential and high-tech industry site with special trade concessions, to be built in Australia and populated with and utilised by the employees of companies from both countries.
The “Multifunction Polis” proposal came at a time when much of the current architecture of global trade was in its infancy. Shenzhen, China’s flagship special economic zone, was less than a decade old. The North American Free Trade Agreement would not come into effect for another seven years, and the World Trade Organization wouldn’t commence for another year after that. As governments around the world made their first tentative steps towards the New World Order,¹ both the public and private sectors fell into the age-old pattern of irrational exuberance.
So it was when Industry Minister John Button began to champion the project in cabinet. A joint steering committee was formed to explore the proposal, headed by ANZ bank chief executive Will Bailey, one of the many recurring figures in the long boom of Australia’s eighties and one of many more to escape criminal prosecution when the country hit the wall. Soon more than 100 companies from both countries had signed on, eager to get a slice of the tax concessions and public infrastructure outlays on offer—firms covering the gamut of biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, aerospace industries, defence manufacturing and higher education all committed to the proposal. At the heart of the emerging vision was a development where workforces from both countries would live, work and play in an outsized gated community—a low-rent preamble to every urban planner’s wet dream, the arcology.
Every mainland capital bar Darwin announced their intention to compete for the eventual tender. By the end of 1990, all but one would drop out. When Premier Wayne Goss resolved to distance himself from the gaggle of white-shoe-brigade spivs who had dominated the latter years of the Bjelke-Petersen government, the preferred Japanese site at the Gold Coast was nixed. With the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria’s investment arm putting the state on the brink of ruin, Melbourne declined to submit a bid. Public servants in Western Australia were reportedly instructed to scrap their tender at the eleventh hour, when the minister responsible decided not to risk what was shaping up as a community backlash.
By then, the backlash was most certainly on. Alf Garland, the national head of the RSL, labelled the proposal as an “Asian enclave”. Ruxton, his offsider, was less polite, referring to the MFP as a “Jap City”. Public meetings were held in bid sites across the country, characterised by one campaigner as “a political movement in Australia which turned back the tide of Japan Inc in Australia.”
After someone close to the steering committee leaked a wad of documents to the ABC, the 7:30 Report threw a bunch of shit at the wall to see what stuck in the most egregious muckraking traditions of gutter journalism.² In a 13-minute feature interspersed with the opening scenes of Blade Runner, the reporter asserts that the MFP would host a radioactive waste dump (presumably a matter of indifference to the eventual residents), fronts a sociologist from Melbourne University to say the site would develop human RFID implants to be used for crowd control, and claims the Japanese funding commitment would be bankrolled by the Yakuza with money laundered through gambling.³
On an episode of Channel Seven sketch show Fast Forward, one segment cast Marg Downey as a Play School presenter, building a model MFP out of construction paper and toilet rolls. Proudly surveying the end product, Downey cues the customary jaunty piano music and breaks into song:
“A Multifunction Polis or an M-F-P,
We don’t know what it does but it’s good for you and me.
It’s high-tech fun, and everything is free,
But you won’t get in the door unless you look like me.”
By the time a site had been selected at a vacant tract of land at Gillman, in Adelaide’s northern fringes, what meagre political capital the project possessed had already been expended. The project’s scope was changing every couple of weeks as companies with a stake turned their R&D pipe dreams into phonebook-sized briefing papers. The Hawke government, determined to push ahead, thought they could allay community concern by coming up with a less-threatening name, even though no one in cabinet seemed able to articulate what the final development would look like. When opposition leader Andrew Peacock said during the 1990 election campaign that he would shelve the project if the Coalition won, the Prime Minister accused him of cashing in on anti-Japanese feeling, telling the press that his opposite number was “tapping into the worst elements of Australian thinking.” As a measure of how heated the subsequent debate became, Paul Kelly, the journalist and later editor of The Australian, criticised Peacock’s stance, prompting this response from the Liberal Party leader: “I’ll get you after the election. I’ll deal with you in another forum, you bastard, because I don’t deal with cowards.”
The final project was scaled down to a golf course, shopping complexes, medium-density housing and international standard education—hardly contentious these days, when every university in Australia depends on full-fee paying international students to remain solvent. Yet public opposition remained strident.
Appalled at the community response, and disappointed by the shelving of the preferred site at the Gold Coast, Japanese investors began to cool on the project. On an organisational level, Japanese members of the steering committee were aghast at the conduct of Clem Doherty, Bailey’s deputy and a consultant at McKinsey. One source said that Doherty’s negotiation style was “both offensive and ill-informed”, at one point presenting a 350-page interim report to the Japanese project representatives and demanding an immediate response to the issues raised. The Japanese delegation could not read English.
South Australian Premier John Bannon attempted to steamroll local opposition, insisting that the project was vital to prevent the state from becoming a backwater. Then in 1991, the State Bank collapsed. Adelaide has never recovered, though the rest of the nation remains fond of Margaret River wines. Japan’s property bubble burst, the nation began its descent into 25 years of economic torpor, and fancy cyberpunk theme parks no longer seemed like a prudent investment. After the government attempted to spend its way out of chronic stagnation, Japan’s public debt is now more than two times the size of its annual GDP.
Work stopped on the MFP in 1992, and the project was officially terminated in 1997. More than $150 million was spent without a sod being turned, though the publicly funded Technology Park stands on a small part of the allotted land.
Will Bailey was forced out of the ANZ bank at the lowest point in Australia’s last recession, and on the back of the Australian property market’s collapse, the bank immediately announced a $600 million loss arising from a surge in bad debts. His retained his position on the board of Coles Myer, until he left ignominiously amid a four-year investigation into the company’s attempts to conceal an $18 million dollar loss on a share trade in a shelf company. As was the fate of all prominent McKinsey alumni, Doherty was last seen on the NBN Co board.
In 2013, the state government sold the vacant 407-hectare site at Gillman to a developer without an independent valuation. Earlier this year the decision was the subject of a damning Auditor-General’s report, days after the Supreme Court of South Australia found the deal to be unlawful. Echoing Bannon’s trenchant support of the MFP two decades earlier, Premier Jay Weatherill came out full bluster: “We are going to have to do some incredibly controversial things if we are going to turn South Australia around.” A Royal Commission into the Gillman deal is a reasonable prospect after the next election. With the Japanese economic ascendancy quashed, China has returned to its traditional place as Australia’s Asian bête noire—a few dead whales notwithstanding.
1. To borrow the term first coined by Ministry.
2. I don’t believe it’s very often that the phrase “reminiscent of a flock of imperial concubines” is used to describe the disposition of state governments when considering investment decisions (2:10), but then it’s been a while since I could watch Australian current affairs shows without voiding the contents of my stomach.
3. Perish the thought.