A column about APEC #2

When you were a kid, and one of your parents’ bosses came over for dinner, it was always a nightmare. Mum and dad spent days sprucing the place up, and fussing over details like which was the best set of china, and whether the boss’ wife ate fish.

As for the children, our behaviour was expected to be impractically exemplary, and even the smallest of infractions attracted massive, and quite disproportionate, retaliation. Even leaving a toy on the kitchen table two days before the big event would be enough to get you sent to your room immediately.

And what’s more, you were distinctly unwelcome at your parents’ function. A brief appearance was mandatory, where you would politely greet the guests, but then you were to retire to your room and make absolutely no noise whatsoever. If you indulged in a little attention-seeking behaviour that made one of them come upstairs, painful retaliation was practically guaranteed.

Well, that’s what APEC was like. John Howard wanted to impress the big boys, so we all had to be on our best behaviour. The police were charged with ensuring that the public were not seen and not heard, and woe betide anyone who wanted to bang some pots and pans together – or perhaps squirt a little tomato sauce around – while we had company.

The security made the Olympic arrangements look like a Little Athletics meeting. And sure, when you have the leaders of the three most powerful countries in the world in town, and two of them have been directly targeted by terrorists over Iraq and Chechnya, you’re going to need some kind of security presence.

But it was a mistake to transform our city into a ghost town with all of the endless barricades and dour, tense police. It was a far cry from the party atmosphere of Sydney 2000, when our visitors would have actually felt welcome. And whereas the Olympics concluded with a wonderful fireworks display that gave everyone a chance to mark the end of a previous period of inconvenience, we were told in no uncertain terms not to come to the APEC ones. The Government even gave us a treat to bribe us to stay away, in the form of a public holiday.

I’m sure it was all very efficient, but if we were looking to give our guests a taste of Sydney, we failed. Because while the leaders may have broken bread at the Opera House, and sent their partners off to Icebergs for swanky drinkies, the city that the region’s leaders sped through in their heavily protected convoys wasn’t the city we know and love. The public were kept at arm’s length, not encouraged to come and say hello. It was the artificial Sydney of the Matrix trilogy, not the open, friendly place we see on New Year’s Eve. And it left a sour taste in the mouth.

And what was it all for, exactly? Photo opportunities with Driza-Bones, and a few scant political achievements. John Howard cited the “Sydney Declaration” on climate change as the greatest achievement, but all that meant is that while Kyoto’s name is now associated with efforts to control global warming, Sydney’s will be synonymous with token attempts to brush it under the carpet. Getting the leaders to commit to non-binding “aspirational” targets is about as useful as when your parents’ dinner guests used to ask you what you’d like to be when you grew up. It’s cute, but ultimately meaningless.

Oh, and Australia scored two pandas out of it. But for Adelaide Zoo. Come on – we had to put up with all of that hassle, and South Australia gets the cute bears?

When your parents’ bosses come to dinner, the real justification is that mum and dad will be able to suck up, and perhaps advance their careers. Well, John Howard dropped in the polls on the last day of the meeting, and it seems he’s about to be fired by his real bosses, the people APEC kept away. So his big show didn’t work even on that level.

It’s appropriate that APEC be held in Australia’s major city, and a bit of inconvenience is fine. But if the people who are supposed to be our representatives are so desperately keen to keep us all away from our own home town, then I’d rather ma and pa Howard had taken their guests out somewhere else instead of inviting them home for a meal.