You wouldn’t have guessed it from the fawning television coverage, but it was a pretty small turn-out for the royals down at the Sydney Opera House yesterday afternoon.
I arrived early, expecting a huge crowd, but quickly concluded that that there was plenty of space for people to stand and see William and Kate as they arrived. By 3.07pm, as the royal cars swept into view, the crowds ranged from only one or two deep to about four deep right at the vantage point. It all seemed a bit low-key.
In fact, one young bloke told me that the crowds for comedian Ellen de Generes’ visit last year were much bigger, as were the giant crowds for Oprah, who filled the entire forecourt.
Strolling around the Opera House concourse, trawling for a few hardcore royalists to interrogate, I formed the view that the spectators fell into just a few groups.
1. Hapless tourists who happened to be there anyway and thought they would stand for 30 minutes in case they saw something. I approached a few groups to ask them questions, and they all assured me they were there for an Opera House tour, and thought they’d stay.
2. Bored schoolchildren. Teenagers love to roam the city during school holidays, and there were several groups of girls hanging around yesterday, sitting in the sun and enjoying the fine weather. “Why have you come to see the royals?” I kept asking them. “Is that who it is?” several replied. “We wondered what all the fuss was about.”
3. Expat Poms, who had come to see their idols up close. A lovely English lady called Sarah told me that she was a “firm royalist” who had lived in Australia for 16 years: “I saw Princess Diana get married, and I’m the same age as Prince Andrew. My mum lives in the UK, and she was pregnant at the same time as the Queen.”
“So you feel that you are somehow connected?” I asked her. She nodded: “That’s right, we are!”
Sarah said that she thought it was marvellous that William had married a commoner, and that he was more in touch with the people as a result. On Sunday, she and her daughter would be heading to St Andrews Cathedral to catch a glimpse of the royal couple.
Another nice British lady said she was thrilled with her good vantage point. “In England you wouldn’t get anywhere near this close,” she said. “The crowds would be thousands.”
4. A few interstate Australian visitors, many of whom were waiting for the next jet boat ride, who thought they’d come and look.
Because yesterday was the first fine day in about a week, the cafes down on the western concourse were packed with people having a drink, basking in the sun and lapping up the view. As the royals approached, none bothered to put down their wine, pausing only to glance at the news helicopters overhead.
Finally, I accosted the closest security guard and asked him to guess the size of the crowd. “I’ve been here since 10 o’clock this morning, because we were expecting thousands of people.” he said. “And all day people have been coming up to me and saying, ‘what’s all the security for, who’s coming?’ I don’t think it’s been very well publicised.”
I watched bits of the commercial TV news, and they all reported that “thousands of people lined the Sydney Opera House” to see the royals, using angles to show the flag-waving front rows. Is there some sort of rule that says royal reporting has to be relentlessly positive? Can no one say, “the royals came to the Opera House; not many people noticed”.
Although my role as royal reporter only lasted an afternoon, the blandness of it all made me long for a visit from my favourite royal, Prince Philip, who once asked a group of Aboriginal dancers, “is it true you still throw spears at each other?” and commented to someone who had been to New Guinea, “so you managed not to get eaten then”.
Australian taxpayers, of course, are footing the entire bill for this 10-day visit, estimated to cost around $2 million.
It’s not as if our shared heritage now gets us any favours from the British. The UK is Australia’s sixth-largest two-way trading partner for goods and services, our seventh-largest export market and our seventh-largest source of imports. Our Asian neighbours are far more important to us economically and politically.
So it’s hard to know what we get for our money. Bread and circuses.