Sydney Diary: Of water bugs and taxi bubbles

Robert Millken's Sydney Diary

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IN THEIR matching dark suits and patterned ties, they could have been a vaudevillian trio. But no, they were for real: Australia's last three Labor prime ministers were united last week in a rare public appearance in Sydney. As the photographers herded them together, it must have been hard for these three men to keep their egos in check. Bob Hawke adjusted his tie and his hair, as was always his wont. Paul Keating posed a bit sheepishly. And, towering above them both, like the patrician politician that he has always been, octogenarian Gough Whitlam looked slightly bemused by it all.

Labor's grand veterans had gathered for the launch of a biography of their successor, Kim Beazley. Mr Beazley is the leader of the Labor Party opposition and, if opinion polls are any guide, he could be Australia's next prime minister. He is also a mate of Tony Blair, whom he met when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Indeed, Mr Blair has given his friend's biography a leg up by writing its foreword on Downing Street letterhead.

"Even at university, Kim was streets ahead in terms of political savvy and intellect," Mr Blair writes. "Later, as I was still struggling to get on in the Labour Party, he made huge efforts to help me with advice, friendship and encouragement." For his part, Mr Beazley tells his biographer, journalist Peter FitzSimons, a former Wallaby rugby player, that Mr Blair once told him at Chequers: "Kim, I cannot believe that I am Prime Minister of Britain".

It may not be riveting stuff, but timing is everything in politics. Beyond a reputation for brightness and decency, Kim Beazley is still largely unknown to Australians. With the country on election countdown, and with disenchantment with the incumbent government mounting, HarperCollins, the publishers, have seized the moment.

ELECTION countdowns are nothing compared to the Olympics countdown that seems to rule daily life in Sydney. The host city of the 2000 Olympics is busy rebuilding and preening itself. So the city's four million people were brought up with a shudder last week when they were told that their water supply was polluted with parasites called Giardia and Cryptosporidium, and that they could no longer drink it unless they boiled it first.

Wait a minute. Isn't this the city that boasted it would stage the world's first truly "green" Olympics? And whose water company, Sydney Water, bragged that its product was so pure you could bottle it? Yes, it is, and you can imagine the blow to the city's ego that the unprecedented crisis caused. By Friday, Sydney seemed like a city besieged. At my local coffee shop, the Tropicana, which serves some of the best coffee in Sydney, they had turned off the water supply. At the supermarket, people made a run on the mineral water. Cats and dogs were declared to be as much at risk as their owners from drinking tap water. Newspapers published survival guides, splashed headlines like "CONTAMINATED" across front pages and drew maps showing the parasites invading from the west and engulfing the entire city, from Palm Beach in the north to Botany Bay in the south.

The authorities located the source of the bugs in a state-of-the-art filtration plant and announced that the war would be won in 48 hours. But all this is the last thing Sydney's Olympics' planners need, not to mention the rest of us who have been taking the sort of precautions normally confined to holidays in Third World countries. I couldn't help wondering what the New Zealanders made of it all. Sydney was so smug when Auckland's electricity supply collapsed a few months ago, but now I bet the Kiwis are laughing.

WHEN THEY get the water sorted, the authorities should turn their attention to Sydney's taxis. Getting around one of the world's most liveable cities by cab should be a laid-back affair, but my stress levels rise every time I step into one. Nowadays, many drivers speak little or no English, and you have to direct them to most destinations. Then they insist on playing radio phone-ins fortissimo from speakers located just behind your ear. And now, they are getting bubbles installed to protect themselves from an alarming increase in knife attacks.

The transparent, knifeproof bubbles are so bulky that they take over the whole cab, and they have killed the national, egalitarian habit of sitting up front with the cabbie. Only a midget could fit in the front seat now. All very un-Australian.

CAN PEOPLE have the same status as objects? The National Trust of Australia, whose task is to conserve heritage buildings and landscapes, thinks they can. It has compiled a list of 100 people whom it has declared the country's "Living National Treasures". Predictably, sporting heroes feature strongly - 15 in all - but they are outnumbered by 33 cultural icons, including Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. And what has happened in the nine months since, with great fanfare, the list was announced? Very little. Like the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House, they just go on being there.

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