from the memory hole

Gareth Evans on the Deng Xiaoping diet: “Four puppies a day”

Like all Norfolk Terriers, we can safely assume the governor's dog sported the "old man sitting on a park bench while lost in his own memories" face

Like all Norfolk Terriers, we can safely assume the Patten family dog sported the “old man sitting on a park bench while lost in his own memories” face

 

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.”)

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from the memory hole

What was the Multifunction Polis?

"Right... and the Gold Coast is definitely off the cards?" — Japanese investors inspect the MFP site at Gillman, near Port Adelaide

2nd from left: “I see… and the Gold Coast is definitely out?” — Japanese investors inspect the MFP site at Gillman, near Port Adelaide

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.”

Buzzfeed Australia’s Top 17 Signs You Were a Nineties Kid: You remember when Christopher Skase used his TV assets to shore up his Gold Coast property portfolio

Buzzfeed Australia’s Top 17 Signs You Were a Nineties Kid: You remember when Christopher Skase used his TV assets to shore up his Gold Coast property portfolio

Yep.

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 noirea 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.

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