The MT Diary - Howard Davies

Cracked mirror of Aussie press and politics; hell over the Pacific; my old pen pal Flight

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's not surprising that the Australians have a jaundiced view of the Poms. A week's concentrated exposure to the Sydney and Melbourne press gives you a peculiar view of the mother country (as they don't call it). The Royals get blanket coverage – especially so in the run-up to Charles and Camilla's wedding. The guest list for Windsor register office was on every front page. David and Victoria are given full value, too.

Otherwise, there's prurient interest on the back pages in which 11 no-hopers will be served up to be eaten by the all-conquering Australian cricket team this summer. And you'll find a daily gloat about the England rugby team's hopelessness without Jonny. That's about it. Very little on Blair or Michael Howard – perhaps because they have their own composite of the two in the form of John Howard, a master at winning elections, who had an outstandingly successful charisma by-pass in his youth, and does exactly what George Bush tells him.

But though UK politics have disappeared from the radar down under, they have nonetheless left their mark. On my first night in Sydney, as my body clock tried to work out what time it was supposed to be, I watched a small-hours digest of Parliamentary Questions from Canberra.

The Aussie variety is like a touring panto version of Westminster's. The big issue that week turned out to be the price of sausage rolls at Sydney University. Education minister Brendan Nelson, flushed with a new majority in both Houses, has taken aim at the Australian students' union, one of the last redoubts of collectivism and Old Labour attitudes. The Government argues that the A-NUS has become a home for Dave Sparts (after Private Eye's kneejerk revolutionary), and has lost sight of its historic mission to provide cheap, unhealthy food to members. Hence the startling revelation, delivered with due fanfare, that sausage rolls are 30 cents dearer in Sydney SU than at the neighbouring greasy spoons.

Game, set and match to Nelson, who is not prepared to turn a blind eye to the scandal. This is the sort of imaginative policy that could re-engage our own Conservative party with its lost constituency of young voters.

Oddly, the other big political story that week in Canberra was a quirky re-run of the Blunkett affair. A cabinet minister, big on family values, 'discovered' that a love-child he had fathered 25 years earlier was now working as a cameraman – in parliament. Tearful reunions all round. (Aussie men may not eat quiche, but they are softies underneath.)

Then another forgotten casual squeeze of the mother in question noticed that the cameraman looked a bit like one of his sons. DNA tests all round, and the minister's love-child turned out to be the one-night-stand child of someone else entirely. Fortunately, he is too old to need a Filipino nanny, so everyone has stayed in their job – for now.

To move from Sydney to California, as I had to do, you have to take your life in your hands and travel on a US airline. That is never a happy experience, but this flight plumbed new depths. The seats were out of the Ark, everything ran out, including peanuts, and (a new one on me) they had forgotten to load the menus. Hardly a disaster, you might say, but it was surprising how many people, presented with an imaginative choice of beef, chicken and fish, had forgotten the first when they got to the third. So the grumpy stewardess began again. Oh, what fun we had. There must be a good explanation as to why the famous American service culture has vanished from United Airlines, but I'm afraid I don't have it to hand.

There are at least a thousand LSE old boys and girls in California. Most are doing well, almost all of them in industries that barely existed 20 years ago: games software, internet radio, affinity travel, hedge funds and affirmative action private equity funds. I'm amazed that what we teach prepares them for all this, but it seems to.

To close the loop, we have to persuade them to hand back a portion of their well-gotten gains. It's a pity the dollar is so weak.

Back home, to see that Howard Flight has vanished like a United Airlines menu from the Conservative front bench. There are surprisingly few people in today's Conservative party leadership with active links to the City. For those of us who think this unfortunate, it was sad to see Flight ousted.

He was, for a while, the Conservative spokesman on financial regulation, among other things. It was a tricky brief. Tories are bears of red tape, of course, but it's risky for politicians to be resolutely hostile to the FSA, given the propensity of financial firms to play fast and loose with their constituents' cash from time to time. At that point, the much reviled regulator must act, and fast. Flight recognised this and steered a careful path – never denying the need for a firm hand, but watching for over-zealous implementation.

He was a regular and always cheery pen pal when I chaired the FSA, telling me off for real or imagined crimes.

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