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February 13th 2013 print

James Allan

It doesn’t rain in Southern California

The Golden State's economy is in a tailspin, but a sunny cheerfulness continues to animate my new neighbours. Mine, too, as news from home confirms that demise of Julia Gillard's petulant and incompetent government draws closer


My wife and I are a month into our year away from Australia. We’re in San Diego, having driven down here in a borrowed car from Toronto, Canada. And after these few weeks of living in southern California, one of the first things I really ought to do – but won’t be doing – is to apologise to both my children.


Let me explain.   I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty co-ordinated guy. I’ve played tons of competitive sports in my life, from Canadian varsity university basketball, to competitive tennis and golf, to being on the New Zealand and now Australian national curling teams. Forget anything else in life, where I’m susceptible to flattery (and as my dad once told me, we all are susceptible to this), it’s in the sporting realm.

So when I was teaching my kids to drive back in Brisbane a year or two ago I perhaps wasn’t the most patient instructor when it came to parallel parking. I mean back in Brisbane I could pretty much manouevre into any spot going in a flash.

But learning drivers? Well, not so much. At times I couldn’t help wondering how they couldn’t get it and if their brains needed a bit or re-wiring.

And that leads to the apology I should give my two kids on this front, but won’t. You see in most of the US and Canada there is next to no parallel parking. It barely exists. But by pure happenstance and chance where we live in Coronado, across from downtown San Diego, it’s everywhere. All the parks are parallel parks.

‘Great’, I thought to myself when we got here 3 or 4 weeks ago. But here’s the thing. After living in ‘drive on the left’ jurisdictions of Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong for over the past  two decades, it turns out that parallel parking in ‘drive on the right’ roads is, well, really, really hard. At least for me. I’ve been feeling a bit like an uncoordinated buffoon.

The old Brisbane me would just parallel park while thinking about any number of other things ranging from what a couple of puffed-up, pompous, self-satisfied  and awful politicians those two rural socialist ‘independents’ in our Parliament are, on to what a centralized, bureaucratic mess our Aussie universities are, all the way over to wondering whether Roger Federer will ever win another Grand Slam.

But those days of parallel parking without thinking about what you’re doing are gone for me here in southern California. Doing this manouevre sitting on the other side of the car seems to have eliminated all the ‘feel’ of the thing for me. I’ve had to resort to those stupid rules you teach your kids about when to turn the wheel etc, etc. Frankly, I’ve become a parking embarrassment here in southern California.

But don’t tell either of my two kids. Please.

Meanwhile my wife, Heather, and I opted to rent a place that is completely different to the old, wooden Queenslander house we own in Brisbane. We went for the small condo near the beach, with access to pools and tennis courts.   Now how can I put this politely?  Well, the thing is that in this complex where we are living in San Diego we have brought down the average age. Perhaps not by an order of magnitude. But noticeably.

That means, alas, that we won’t be forming any lasting friendships here in San Diego, as it doesn’t seem too likely that many of our neighbours have all that many miles left in the tank. In fact our first night in the new digs, Americans being so wonderfully friendly as they are, we met a few people in the front lobby and immediately got invited to a birthday party. For someone named ‘Treasure’. Turns out she was turning 93. Great lady. Very funny. And she still drives a newish model red Jaguar.

Whether you’d want to be on the road when she is I’m not so sure. But old Treasure probably does parallel park better than I do here in Coronado.

Which brings me to rain and southern California and the title to this little piece which I purloined from the song. Of course, if you’re talking about drops of water that fall from the sky, it does rain in southern California, though not much and hardly at all, save for about two months of the year (this being one of them).

But if you’re talking about an underlying optimism about the future, even when the underlying fiscal and financial facts don’t seem to warrant it, then that’s California. In some ways it is now not much better than a basket case – to the point that you can turn on the radio here and hear the Governor of Texas urging California businesses to relocate to his home state because the taxes and overall business environment is so much better.

And some do go. Indeed the flow of those going is increasing. But many more stay. And they stay, I think, at least in part, because there is such a powerful sense of optimism about Southern California.

Of course, in my own personal sense, it doesn’t rain here in Southern California. And that’s because a fortnight or so ago I woke up, logged on to The Australian, and saw that Newspoll had finally caught up to every other poll in Australia and was showing this Labor government to be in such a dire position that it may be looking at defeat later this year of Anna Bligh proportions.

And of course that would be nothing other than it deserved. As I’ve said before, having lived in a bunch of other countries and seen lots of governments of a host of political stripes, this Gillard one is the worst I’ve ever seen. And I mean that both in the sense of its lack of competence (so whatever one’s first-order political preferences) and of its putting its own survival over all else, especially the national interest.

Who knows? Julia Gillard might have been an okay Prime Minister running a majority government. But as the leader of a precarious minority government her partisan, factional skills have made her so awful, so lacking in any sort of judgment, that I think it’s now clear that my former choice for worst-ever Prime Minister – Kevin Rudd – has lost that title.

So this present Labor Party team has the dubious distinction of having produced two of the worst Prime Ministers, not just in Australian history but from all over the English-speaking Commonwealth.

Who remembers Mr Rudd assuring us that he was an economic conservative? Assuming that this sort of claim will matter in future elections, and I think it will, what can any future Labor leader say that will ever convince voters such assurances are anything other than prevarication, pure and simple?

And how long will it take to make voters forget Labor’s ruination of a working policy on boat people? Its inability (despite the greatest government revenues ever and the best terms of trade in eons) to run a surplus is also a big hostage to political fortune.

Here’s a bet that I think worth taking. Come later this year and the election loss of this Labor government, I’d bet the next Labor Prime Minister would be someone not now or later this year in Parliament. That’s how badly Ms. Gillard and Mr. Rudd have trashed the brand.

Of course that counts as a sort of political prediction by me, which is always a dangerous game to play. But on the other hand, no one on the planet could be worse at that sort of prognosticating than the journalist Peter van Onselen. So with that in mind, I’ll go ahead and chance my arm at those two predictions: this Labor government will get slaughtered, and that the next Labor Prime Minister after whomever it is that takes them to the slaughterhouse, will be someone not yet in the Parliament and thus able to disassociate him- or herself from the ruinous legacy.

Oh, and I also predict (though this one is a no-brainer) that after six years of giving the government virtually a free ride on every single bungled policy, that the ABC returns to tough-minded journalism that holds the new government to account. (Note to Tony Abbott:  do something about this patently biased broadcaster as soon as you can. I suggest a requirement that every big show have one presenter or commentator from each of the two broad sides of politics, not just the usual ABC ambivalence between a Labor worldview and a Greens one.)

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland (and on sabbatical at the faculty of law, University of San Diego)