July 26, 2012
Simply lecturing China will not help to change it.
TONY Abbott and Mitt Romney have more in common than a leaning to the right of the political spectrum. Australia's Opposition Leader and the man who wants to replace Barack Obama as president of the United States are both at present in travelling mode, with Mr Abbott having just visited the US and China and Mr Romney beginning a tour of Britain, Israel and Poland. Each man clearly hopes to demonstrate that he is concerned not only with domestic politics. In each case, however, their speeches abroad will mostly have domestic audiences in mind.
That is transparently so in the case of Mr Romney, even though he has said that he will not criticise Mr Obama during his trip. He doesn't have to do so directly - his choice of destinations has done it, at least with regard to Israel and Poland. Both are important US allies, but the President's relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been an uneasy one. As for Poland, it is a frontline state for NATO because it borders Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has increasingly contested the views of the Western alliance. Mr Romney is trying to send a message to American voters that if he were president he would vigorously protect American interests and stand by traditional allies.
Mr Romney is also known, like other leading US politicians, Democrat and Republican, to be concerned about the increasing assertiveness of China and its implications for US strategic dominance. Here too he appears to share much with Mr Abbott, who in Beijing this week made a speech that only an opposition leader could have the luxury of making.
Speaking to a business audience, Mr Abbott frankly criticised China's failure to embark on democratic political reform to match the liberalisation of its economy. The Chinese people, he said, ''still can't choose their government'', even though they were increasingly prosperous, educated and free to live and work where they wished. Mr Abbott also warned his hosts that a Coalition government would not approve the sale of Australian businesses to China's state-owned enterprises, though it would welcome Chinese investment in new industries.
Just what China's rulers might have thought about being chided by a man who is not yet a head of government may readily be imagined. But, precisely because he isn't prime minister, Mr Abbott does not have to bother too much about how his remarks would have been received in China. He is more likely to have been intent on reassuring Australian voters worried about China's emerging superpower status - and its possible interest in acquiring Australian farms and businesses. He has portrayed himself as a tough, principled democratic leader, who would not allow China to bully smaller nations, including, presumably, Australia.
Nor should we allow ourselves to be bullied. Those inclined to applaud Mr Abbott's truculence should consider, however, that the present Australian government does not bend with every wind that blows from Beijing, either. It does not rubber-stamp investment proposals from China, and has been willing to reject them on security grounds. Nor has it weakened Australia's alliance with the US while cultivating the enormously important economic relationship with China; much to Beijing's displeasure, the government has agreed to allow US marines to operate from a base in northern Australia.
Both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, have criticised China's human-rights abuses. But they did so in more diplomatic fashion than Mr Abbott chose to adopt, and in the knowledge that there is little Australia can do to influence China's domestic politics. Managing Australia's relationship with China is the diplo-matic equivalent of juggling: there are many balls to be kept in the air, and it is not easy. Mr Abbott will discover that if he becomes prime minister.
AS IS often the case with bold urban projects, the arts venue that would become Hamer Hall endured a long gestation in Melbourne's psyche. In 1943 the city's postwar reconstruction committee recommended a gallery and 1000-seat auditorium on the Swanston Street site that was home to the Olympia circus complex. A year later, the tenacious newspaper man Sir Keith Murdoch teamed with composer Margaret Sutherland to lobby for the development of a cultural centre on the site and, in the process, ignited a typically intense Melbourne debate. By the time construction began in the early 1970s, it had already been two decades since the circus last came to town. In the final phase of construction, arts minister Norman Lacy was forced to defend the Victorian Arts Centre Trust from attacks over the concert hall's design, project delays and cost blowouts.
Once it finally opened in 1982, the hall began to reshape the city's cultural landscape. Southbank sprang to life, Melburnians became re-acquainted with their river. This weekend Hamer Hall will again open its doors to a curious public, after a two-year $135.8 million makeover - the first step in a planned redevelopment of the Southbank cultural precinct. By all accounts, we'll see an arts venue that mirrors a more confident, more inclusive and more sophisticated city.
The facelift was a chance to correct errors in the hall's design, which was a curious marriage between architect Sir Roy Grounds' modernist purity and the tongue-in-cheek, Hollywood-style interior of set designer John Truscott. Gone is the cramped foyer with its slightly bunkered feel; concrete walls have been pulled down so that the complex addresses the river. Truscott's brassy flourishes have been toned down while his theatrical use of lighting has been accentuated. Most importantly, the less-than-perfect acoustic system has been replaced, which means Hamer Hall can operate in perfect harmony with the new Melbourne Recital Centre. The vision supports a less ''elitist'', more democratic and transparent cultural venue; there will be dance parties on weekends, and the foyer will be a more welcoming space for free performances and events.
Stay tuned for another typically Melbourne debate about the new design. A fair amount of chatter is expected about the geometric, raw-concrete cut-outs that decorate the lower level on the Yarra side: are they pedestrians crossing Princes Bridge, or stage curtains? Let the discussion rage, as the band plays on.