11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 8


Will Australia become the world's vineyard or Asia's golf course


andering around Sydney under the hot summer sky in a daze of love, I came upon a street artist who had set up his stall in the harbour. He was playing tunes on some white glasses filled with different levels of water. Recognising the 'London- derry Air', I found myself spellbound by the beauty and strangeness of the scene, joining a crowd of Australians who stayed to listen, chattering cheerfully among themselves, as is their manner.

It occurred to me then that for the Englishman of conservative inclinations, Australia is probably the closest one can get to a taste of heaven on earth. If Gibbon were alive today, he would have to revise his famous opinion that the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous in the period which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the acces- sion of Commodus. Greater happiness and prosperity are available now in Sydney. The people — intelligent, ugly, open- minded, humorous, talented, self- deprecatory — have a simple pride in their country and a joy in their good fortune which make them a race apart. Visiting American businessmen, with their solemnity, their preoccupation with status and their boastfulness, seem scarcely hu- man by comparison.

One can have no conception of the glories of this race from studying Austra- lians in London: the ineffable Clive James, his sinister, Cook Islands look-alike Paul Halloran, Charles Osborne, the terrible `literary expert'. They have nothing to do with this Garden of Eden except that they have chosen to expel themselves from it. Perhaps the role of the Mother Country, which once populated the place with its convicts and sent out its most tearful sons to govern New South Wales, is now that of a poultice, to draw off the poison from Australian society. There are plenty of villains around, but amazingly little of the bitterness or venom which seems normal equipment in Britain.

So it becomes necessary to find flies in the jam, thorns in the flower bed, cracks in the surface. Australians themselves are for ever making films about how disgraceful it is to have quite so many of the good things of life when more than half (or perhaps 99 per cent) of the world is starving to death. They agonise about the Aborigines. Last year, in pointing out at considerable length how wrong they were to agonise about the Abos, I feel I may have missed the point They enjoy agonising about the Abos. It is one of the consolations which life in Australia has to offer, along with surf- riding, macadamia nuts and the wonderful shellfish from Queensland called Moreland Bay Bugs.

Raw sewage has invaded Bondi Beach, the wondrous ocean resort within ten minutes of the centre of Sydney where once John Pilger stretched his sun-kissed limbs and Clive James disported his revolt- ing body, barking like a dog. This develop- ment seems to have cheered everybody up no end.

The Muirhead Commission on Abo- riginal deaths in prison or police cus- tody — there were 58 of them between 1980 and 1988, which does not seem a particularly surprising number to me — has disappointed everybody in its interim re- port, on the first four deaths to be investi- gated, by failing to recommend that any policemen or prison officers should be prosecuted. It is hard to see what they could have been prosecuted for. Instead, it proposes one ingenious way of reducing the number of Aboriginal deaths in prison: send fewer Aboriginals to prison. Then they will have to die somewhere else. If drunkenness were decriminalised, and night shelters for drunk Aborigines sup- plied, they could go and die there. Then, in ten years' time, we could have another commission to enquire into the incidence of Aboriginal deaths in night shelters.

But all are agreed that the Muirhead Commission has done wonders in revealing the Hogarthian horror of so many Abor- igine lives. It is useful to be reminded of their existence. Three years ago, on my first visit to Australia, I spotted two in a park in Adelaide. This year I have not spotted any.

In fact the purpose of this, my third visit, was to launch the 1983 vintage of Penfold's Grand Hermitage. This wine, too expen- sive and too rare yet to have been offered through the Spectator Wine Club, is the flag-ship of the Australian Wine industry, made from the national grape of Australia, Shiraz.

But the real purpose in having Grange Hermitage there, up among the five or ten great wines of the world, is to force people to take the medium-range wines, in which Australians really excel, as seriously as they should be taken. It is my belief that with a little effort Australia could become the vineyard of the world in the same way that south-east Asia was once described as the world's rice bowl, and the American Midwest is the world's corn belt. Room for expansion is almost infinite; ungrafted vines can produce fruit within two years of planting; mechanical harvesting, weeding and pruning make nonsense of the old world's wine economy. And the final pro- duct is better than anything the rest of the world can produce at the same price.

Two things militate against the realisa- tion of this dream for Australia's future. In the first place, the stupidity of the Federal Government insists that wine should pay tax at the point of production rather than the point of sale, which, while bank rates hover around the 17 per cent mark, means that production is held back and wine is always sold too young. The new editor of the Adelaide Advertiser, Mr Piers Aker- man, has been running a strident campaign against this obvious error, but there is little sign that anyone in the finance department appreciates its gravity.

The second problem is less easy to solve and may prove to be, like the Aboriginal problem, something which is inseparable from the Australian condition. For no reason which anyone can explain, the price of grapes has jumped by 120 per cent this year. Growers have simply decided to ask the higher price, and the wineries have no choice but to pay it. The laws of supply and demand within a greedy domestic market mean that middle-range Australian wines will have lost their competitive edge in the world market. Add to this a high dollar, and I fear there will be no Australian wine offers featuring in the Spectator Wine Club for some time after the next six months. Just when I was beginning to discover some seriously excellent examples! The other alternative is for Australia to develop as the golf course of Asia. Once again, the room for expansion is endless. A year's membership of a Sydney golf club and there are four or five really good ones — costs less than a tenth of the fee for a single round in Japan. One by one, they are being bought by the Japanese. Austra- lians are priced out, and reduced to work- ing as caddies and groundsmen. Mind you, they make very good caddies and grounds- men: cheerful, friendly and efficient. They also make excellent hotel servants, nannies and tourist guides. But I am not sure that any of these roles can really be said to fulfil the nation's promised destiny.