Dinner with Rupert and dreams of an egalitarian meritocracy
Australia’s business, political and media elites converged on Sydney Town Hall last night to hear Rupert Murdoch deliver the annual Lowy Lecture on international affairs. It was a gathering so high-powered that rubbing shoulders meant risking an electric shock.
The night was a name dropper’s wet dream: Treasurer Joe Hockey, Premier Barry O’Farrell, Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens, Crown Casino chairman James Packer, Australian Olympic Committee boss John Coates, Rio Tinto managing director David Peever, News Corp Australia CEO Julian Clarke and Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein all attended. So did Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Coalition colleagues Mathias Cormann, Bronwyn Bishop, Arthur Sinodinos and Warren Truss. It says something about the night — perhaps our country — that the deputy prime minister was one of the more obscure people there. The Left was represented too, in smaller numbers: Labor comrades Sam Dastyari and Mark Dreyfus both made the pilgrimage.
Tickets for the event cost $300 each, and quickly sold out; nabbing a spare seat was trickier than finding a pro-Labor yarn in The Daily Telegraph during the election campaign. Luckily, a friend with a table had room for Crikey. This allowed us to chow down on crispy skin mulloway and “deconstructed lemon tart” served with butter crumbs and lemon balm (surely it won’t be long until some bright spark finds a name for the iron law of dining: the longer and more elaborate the name of the dish, the blander the taste).
While the invited guests wined and dined downstairs, working journalists without a ticket were consigned to nose-bleed seats in the dress circle and only allowed in only for Murdoch’s speech. “It’s a shame they were treated as second class citizens,” sighed one attendee.
Other journalists lucky enough to score a seat downstairs were The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen, ABC Lateline host Emma Alberici and business media power couple Michael Stutchbury and Ticky Fullerton. Australian Financial Review gossip hound Joe Aston — looking fashion-forward in a maroon suit — was spotted on the phone talking to a Fairfax lawyer (both, presumably, have each other on speed dial). Gerard Henderson was there too, as was Sunrise host David Koch.
According to a Holt Street heavy, Murdoch has been in fine form during his visit down under: as sharp as ever and in good spirits. “It’s impossible to meet the man and not to like him,” the News insider said.
As the night continued, and the cab sav kept flowing, moving around the room became ever more enjoyable. Daily Tele editor Paul Whittaker was overheard railing against Clover Moore’s bike lanes; Col Allan and Miranda Devine were locked in discussion about how Tony Abbott had been unfairly castigated by the Left for his volunteer fire-fighting.
The official proceedings kicked off with a video spruiking the Lowy Institute. Judging by the presentation, accompanied by pounding drums and soaring strings, the think tank has solved all major geopolitical disputes of the past decade. But, hey, when you’ve got the most powerful Australian in history as your guest of honour, why talk yourself down?
After a generous introduction from institute founder and shopping centre mogul Frank Lowy, Rupert Murdoch took to the stage. Suddenly, there he was before us. The power and glory in flesh and blood. Truth be told, he looked positively tiny compared to the giant organ looming behind him.
The consensus was Murdoch hit the right notes in a cleverly constructed, if cautious, speech. His message was simple:
“The 21st century is Australia’s for the taking. Australia should not be angst-ridden over its place in the world. Australia should seize its place in the world. We are not hapless victims of circumstance — we are people who define our own destiny.”
While his tabloids may be famous for fanning conflict and stoking anxieties, this was Rupert the bridge builder, the optimist, the relentless dreamer. And a patriot too, despite ditching his Australian citizenship to buy up media assets in the US. “I’m glad he didn’t come back and pour shit on Australia,” one relieved confidant said. Not a word was uttered about the phone-hacking scandal engulfing his UK operations. At times, the contrast between the speech and the surroundings was simply surreal.
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