It wasn’t so long ago that Australia’s gentlemen clubs were regarded as havens of privilege, power and money. As late as 1994, the Liberal Party anointed its new leader in a private room at the Melbourne Club on Collins Street, where party president Tony Staley told Alexander Downer the job could be his.
Not that the blue-blooded South Australian, who belongs to the exclusive Adelaide Club, was able to hang onto his prize for long.
Even though the clubs’ power has ebbed away in the past two decades, The Power Index was still thrilled to score an invitation to lunch at Melbourne’s Australian Club, in its gorgeous sandstone pile at the heritage end of William Street.
Venturing up the steps beneath the pillared portico and through the big double doors, I am ushered into a huge marble hallway by a man in a long, black frockcoat and light-grey waistcoat — dressed as he might have been when the club was founded in 1878, two years before Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol and 22 years before the first motorcar arrived in the city.
Before me is a magnificent marble staircase, rising three floors to the ballroom and billiards room above. Members say it’s one of the best in the world.
A handful of other diners dribble in as I wait, some old and shrunken in dull grey suits, others younger and more corporate. Once I’ve been kitted out with the compulsory necktie — yes, they still insist on such things — my host leads me into the dining room, which is large enough for tennis (some 30 metres long and 15 metres wide) and guides me to a table in front of a log fire (one of two) that is roaring away in a vast Baroque oak fireplace (also one of two).
I’m instructed that mobile phones are banned, I’m not allowed to bring a notebook and we can’t talk business, because club rules forbid it. So what on earth are we supposed to discuss? Naturally, we start talking about the club.
My host points out “the BHP table” across the room. The Big Australian’s headquarters was a couple of doors up William Street until it built a shiny new tower at 600 Burke in 1991, so most of the company’s old top brass are members. There’s a couple of them there tucking into pies today.
But the huge room, which could probably seat 200-300, is almost empty. Four or five tables are occupied, with maybe 20 diners in all. Which is odd, because it’s a cold day, the food is good and it’s warm, comfortable and welcoming.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
I’m told it costs around $2000 a year to be a member and that you have to be nominated, seconded and supported by four referees to get in. So, for the sake of accuracy, I make a call later to the general manager, Kenneth Coomes. I leave a message but he doesn’t return my calls. When I catch up with him eventually, I ask if it would be possible to check a few basic facts …
“We’ll see,” he warns.
“Well, could you tell me how many members you have?” I ask.
“No, I can’t,” he answers quickly.
“Well, could you tell me how it costs to join?”
“No, I can’t.”
“Could you tell me the names of any of your members?”
“Why is this all so secret?” I ask.
“Because it’s a private club and that’s the way the members like it,” he fires back.
Clearly, none of the members work in PR.
Coomes does remind me, however, that membership is by invitation only, so I obviously don’t need to bother applying.
But who are these members? I am told they are “younger and more active” than their chums at the Melbourne Club, up the other end of town, where the members work (or worked) in farming, real estate, stockbroking and insurance.
At the Australian Club they’re more likely to be businessmen and lawyers (the courts are nearby) and to be still making a quid. I’m told they also are “more from northern Victoria than the Western District”, where the Melbourne Club’s old squattocracy hails from.
“It’s a social club,” another member tells me. “People come here for good food and company. The idea that people are plotting or running things is folklore and rubbish.”