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.

To truly prosper in the 21st century, Murdoch argued, Australia needs to focus on three areas. First: defending Australian values; rejecting elitism and snobbery — a message that went down well with the cashed-up high fliers in the crowd. Australia is well on the way, Murdoch argued, to becoming an “egalitarian meritocracy” where anyone who works hard can rise to the top. Self-made men James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch and Ryan Stokes no doubt raised a silent toast.

Second: expanding Australia’s immigration program so we become the most diverse nation on earth. And who could say Murdoch doesn’t lead by example — just look at the “table of power” including Daily Tele editor Whittaker, News Corp editorial director Campbell Reid, finance guru Alan Kohler, South Australian editorial boss Melvin Mansell, and columnists Piers Akerman and Terry McCrann. One couldn’t hope for a more diverse group of middle-aged, high-powered, well-off male media types. Some even opted for white over red.

Third: the need to embrace the disruption inherent in capitalism. One need only look at News Corp, Murdoch said — rather than a potentially fatal blow to its business model, the company sees the growth of the internet as a “shot of adrenaline”. If you listened closely enough you could hear the ghost of ousted CEO Kim Williams howling in protest.

One of the most fascinating parts of the speech was learning about the “jaw bone” Murdoch wears on his wrist: a bracelet tracking how he eats, moves and sleeps. This allows him to take personal responsibility for his health, rather than rushing to the doctor every time he feels sick. Tonight, the mogul is off to the in-house News Awards in Brisbane; then the future beckons. Anyone banking on this 82-year-old falling off the perch any time soon better think again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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