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Preparing for Paris in a pandemic

Probably the most important connection between tennis and politics was the declaration of the Tennis Court Oath in Paris on 20 June, 1789. Believing they were locked out of Versailles, France’s Third Estate Deputies met on an indoor tennis court and took an oath never to disband until a Constitution was formed for the Kingdom of France. This act of defiance forced the King to order the First and Second Estates, the clergy and the nobility, to join with the Third Estates in a National Assembly. The swearing of the Tennis Court Oath is seen by many historians as the beginning of the end of Louis XVI’s divine right of kingly autocracy.

The swearing of the Tennis Court Oath is also important because the more radical of the Deputies took to the left hand side of the court and the more conservative took to the right. This demarcation gave birth to the modern political language of being either “on the left” or “on the right”.

Some connections between those pre-revolutionary days and tennis remain. In a year free from a pandemic the French Open culminates in early June. In recent years Rafael Nadal has assumed a Bourbon like grip on Court Phillipe Chatrier winning twelve titles and only losing two matches from ninety five. These losses were to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals in 2015. Nadal also had to withdraw from the tournament in 2016 because of a wrist injury when playing Marcel Granollers.

Nadal is, in a country ambivalent about its recollection of regal matters, the King of Clay. A win in Paris will put him alongside the throne of the King of Tennis, Roger Federer, as the winner of a record-equalling 20th Men’s Grand Slam title. The swashbuckling left-hander has all the right stuff on the clay that will be decidedly cooler to play on over the next fortnight during Paris’ early autumn days.

However, just as people deserted the Bourbon monarchy, the pandemic has forced the organisers of the tournament to dispel potential crowds. Only a fortnight ago there were hopes of 10,000 spectators a day. Europe’s autumnal second wave of the pandemic has seen that reduced first to 5,000 and now to 1,000.

As Paris prepares to stage one of the nation’s major sporting events, the city of Melbourne had to reflect this weekend on the absence of the traditional “last day in September” AFL Grand Final.

For weeks on end, Melbourne’s residents have had no option other than to live their lives locked down in their homes. Usual social, working and cultural activities have been curtailed. There has been an enforced pausing of life as we knew it. The restrictive nature of this existence has been reinforced for families with children who are currently on school holidays and who are not allowed to participate in anything resembling diverting or relaxing activities. No doubt the Computer/TV/Streaming Services trinity has assumed even more domestic ascendancy as on-line lessons are temporarily suspended.

Maybe it is timely that Melburnians have had time to pause, especially during this past week. For frankly, we all need to reflect on the implausible political developments concerning the pandemic.

First, a refresher course in Westminster Principles of Responsible Government. It’s really quite simple:

1. In a representative democracy, which we should always remember is a modern blessing unknown to most over the course of history until events such as the French Revolution, people freely elect representatives to a parliament to govern a nation on their behalf;

2. The political party or aligned parties who obtain a majority of seats in the parliamentary chamber where governments are formed form a government;

3. Certain members of that government are members of the Executive . In Victoria the Executive comprises the Premier and the Ministers of the Crown;

4. Each Minister is responsible for the administration of an allocated Government Department or Departments. If there are failures of policy within a government Department, then the designated Minister is responsible for those failures. Serious failures of government policy require Ministers to resign. Westminster principles require that even if a Minister is not directly responsible for such failures, they must accept responsibility for them. Similarly, even if a Minister did not know of the policy failure, Westminster principles deem that they should have known.

5. Ministers are required under these principles to “fall on their swords” when faced with a failure of public policy to preserve public trust in the accountability of the governments they elect to govern on their behalf. President Truman was reminded on a daily basis of this responsibility with a wooden block on his Oval Office desk reminding him, “The Buck stops Here.”

This week in Victoria we have seen the implosion of these principles. Three senior Victorian Ministers- Martin Pakula, Lisa Neville and Jenny Mikakos- all gave evidence to the government inquiry into failed quarantine arrangements that proved to be the catalyst of Victoria’s second wave of Covid-19 deaths.

Under oath they all declared that they did not know who was responsible for anything when it came to the decision to employ private contractors to oversee the quarantine programme. They were aided and abetted in their ignorance by the complementary statements of senior Public Servants. Like Disney’s “Huey, Dewey and Louie” they heard nothing, saw nothing and were not prepared to say anything.

How extraordinary that something could have been authorised to happen when apparently no-one knew anything about it.

What made all this worse is that the Ministers truly seemed to believe that their ignorance exonerated them of any responsibility. The Premier concluded the week by appearing at the inquiry, confirming that he was also unaware of who made fateful decisions to employ ineffectual private contractors.

In a ghastly moment of political expediency, Daniel Andrews, having the day before expressed confidence in all his Ministers, nominated the Health Minister as the person who, perhaps, should have known. The next day she had little option but to resign. The Premier must know that once you unleash a political train of bad karma upon others, the train is destined to return to central station.

Long before the tennis court oath the Bible had also introduced us to a slightly different perspective on left and right.“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. “ The phrase refers to doing good charitable works: just give when you can to help others and do not be perturbed about it. From this instruction has come the less flattering observation that someone is so inept that they do not know what their left hand is doing separately from their right. Victoria’s Ministerial parade of ignorance suggested not so much a lack of co-ordination between Ministerial hands, but a collective synaptic collapse between left and right frontal lobes.

When four senior Ministers, including the Premier, publicly admit ignorance about decisions that have haemorrhaged the society over which they preside, one is winded by disbelief and disappointment. This is only made worse by the predictably plastic and formulaic apology offered by the Premier. Dripping with confected empathy, the Premier’s “no one is at fault because no one knew what was going on” apology was based on the hideous misconception that he can sincerely understand the “hurt and pain” of all Victorians by simply saying that he does.

Many have argued that the tennis court oath concepts of the rival political ideologies and causes of the Left and Right have lost their visceral meaning since the end of the Cold War. Politicians are now, it is said, judged more by their “authenticity” and “trustworthiness”, than their ideological purity or credentials.

Well, is it little wonder that scepticism about the political process is as rife as it is? A pandemic is a time when the populace inevitably looks to their representatives more than ever. For Victorians to have their representatives display a blend of ignorance and contempt when asked to account for their failings is beyond galling. Let’s not forget that the public is seeking reciprocal trust from a government whose leader has suspended the operations of all State branches of his political party because of fears of systemic corruption. Daniel Andrews does not have to travel to Paris this week to find his feet of clay.

Melburnians waited and paused with anticipation this week to see if its falling numbers of Covid-19 cases and declining metropolitan transmission rate would permit further social relaxations. The anticipation was greater than the reward. From tomorrow, some industries will be allowed to increase their workforces including construction, abattoirs and food distribution centres. Nothing for small businesses, hospitality and tourism enterprises. Whilst many can now enter building sites, only five people can attend either a wedding or a funeral. People are still restrained within their 5km. precincts, no private visitors are allowed to homes and a two hour limit on exercise remains.

However, the Premier was delighted to announce the 9.00 p.m-5.00 a.m. curfew would end tomorrow. How wonderful it is that people can avail themselves of their two hour freedom at let’s say 1.00 a.m.-3.00 a.m. in the morning. Fringe decisions with very few benefits.

There were some other numbers and events to consider this week.

Westpac Banking Corporation agreed to pay the biggest corporate fine in Australian history of $1.3 billion for permitting a staggering 23 million illegal financial transactions. These transgressions have forced the resignation of the Bank’s former Chair and CEO: “if they didn’t know , they should have”. Quite literally, the buck stopped with them.

After presenting tens of thousands of pages of evidence, the Western Australian Director of Public Prosecutions secured the conviction of Bradley Edwards on two counts of murder after a judge-only trial that lasted seven months Edwards, forever to be known as the ‘Claremont serial killer’, was acquitted of a third count of murder on the basis that the failure to locate the body of the victim and the absence of required forensic evidence meant that a conviction could not be established “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Edwards’ murders took place in 1996 and 1997, nearly a generation ago, proving as the police often say that there are truly no entirely cold cases. Living in Perth at the time, I can instantly recall the terror and dread the crimes created.

For all of the evidence and all of the witnesses presented in court, Edwards’ fate was sealed by an extraordinary number, being one-fifth of one-billionth of a gram.

This infinitesimal amount was the the amount of DNA recovered from the fingernails of one of Edwards’ victims, Ciara Glennon. Initially, the minute quantity of the sample meant that it could not be tested. Indeed, the sample was labelled, “debris only, not suitable for analysis.”

Advances in DNA technology enabled testing to occur of the minute sample over a decade later in the United Kingdom in 2008. The DNA, of an unknown male, matched DNA recovered from the shorts of a rape victim who was abducted from Claremont and raped in Perth’s nearby Karrakatta cemetery in 1995, but no link to a suspect could be established.

In 2013 the chance testing of DNA left behind on a silk kimono of another sexual assault victim in 1988 established a match with the Glennon DNA. The 1988 crime was part of a spate of crimes committed by the so-called Huntingdale Prowler, who had crept through the Perth suburb at night sneaking into homes and backyards and stealing women’s clothing.

The prowler had left behind fingerprints at the scene of one of those break-ins. Running those prints through the police system almost 30 years later finally, on 16 December 2016, produced a match with Edwards, who in May 1990 had pleaded guilty to assaulting a social worker while working on the phone system at Hollywood Hospital.

Police instantly begun surveillance of Edwards who since 1997 had lived the life of a suburban step-father. The pathology of a person who can conduct an ostensibly normal life whilst harbouring knowledge of such evil is beyond measure. Even Raskolnikov confessed.

On 20 December 2016 police collected a Sprite bottle Edwards had discarded when leaving a Perth cinema with his stepdaughter. Tested for DNA, the bottle provided the match that had eluded police for close to 20 years. Edwards was arrested on 22nd December, 2016 and has been remanded in custody since that date. Now facing sentencing for two murders and previous rape and sexual assault charges, Edwards is unlikely to see the light of a brilliantly blue Perth sky ever again.

One scrap of evidence. One Sprite bottle.

One has been a powerful number in history: one letter nailed to a cathedral in Wittenberg polarised Christendom; one bullet in Sarajevo convulsed the world and sent its most powerful nations lurching into its bloodiest conflict; one defiant iceberg struck down the Titanic; the splitting of one atom transformed the concept of humanity’s destiny; the reading of one telegram and ignoring another may have prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis leading to an atomic apocalypse; one High Court Justice ruling the other way would have seen Tasmania’s Franklin River flooded.

This week tributes continued to be paid to the work of one American Supreme Court Justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the only woman to lie in State in America’s Capitol.

Now attention turns to the one who will replace her, Amy Coney Barrett and her rushed confirmation hearing before the American Senate.

If Ginsburg’s life reminds us of the power of ideas and philosophies to change society, the untimely death of former Australian cricketer, Dean Jones, was a reminder of the cruel power of physiology with the 59 year old dying after suffering a major heart attack. Also passing away this week was former Senator Susan Ryan who was the one and only female Cabinet Minister in the first Hawke Federal Ministry of March, 1983.

Only one painter can win the Archibald Prize. This year’s winner, Vincent Namatjira, is the first indigenous artist to win the award in its 99 years. The grandson of the renowned, but socially ostracised artist, Albert Namatjira, won the coveted prize for his self-portrait alongside Adam Goodes.

There will only ever be one Harry Potter. However, his celebrated creator, J.K. Rowling, is now embroiled in the cultural wars. Having expressed views that the transgender community find offensive, some bookshops have refused to sell her latest book, Troubled Blood. Her post-Harry Potter oeuvre has been written under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, with the protagonist being a private detective, Cormoran Strike.

In Troubled Blood, Strike is on the trail of a male murderer who commits his crimes wearing a dress. Rowling’s critics have concluded that this characterisation is proof that she is prejudiced against the transgender community.

Does the obvious always have to be stated? Banning book sales and the posting of book burnings of Harry Potter novels by the outraged on Tik-Tok is exactly the type of rank prejudice, discrimination and incitement to hatred that has traumatised the transgender community for decades. There is nothing quite as odious as the self-proclaimed ‘progressive liberal’ seeking to deny the free expression of opinions of those who disagree with them.

So, let’s return to the tennis. Who wins in Paris? Top seed Djokovic, who, after his antics in New York, may wish to take an oath to behave on the tennis court, must fancy his chances after winning a record 36th Masters Title in Rome. Nadal, surprisingly beaten by Diego Schwartzman in Rome, must be hoping that he will develop his stamina and best form over the tournament’s fortnight. He is seeded to meet Thiem in a semi-final which will be a repeat of their Australian Open quarter-final earlier this year, which Thiem won in four sets, winning all of his three sets in tie-breaks. Outside of the top three male seeds, it is hard to see a likely winner. Medvedev is graceful and crafty, evoking memories of Miloslav Mecir, but like Mecir seems to lack the stamina and strength to capture a Grand Slam title on the enervating clay.

Simona Halep, like Djokovic, comes to Paris after having won in Rome. She is well placed to win a second French title. Naomi Osaka is absent, as is defending champion, Ash Barty. Maybe the mercurial Muguruza is a threat, but Halep at her best should prove too powerful for this year’s field. My caveat: Halep’s ability to mentally unravel can emerge as unexpectedly and quickly as her movement around the court.

This could be the one and only time that the French Open is played in October.

Whilst the two Number One seeds are well placed to win, Nadal will be relentless in his quest to prove he is the equal number one of Men’s tennis history.

Joueurs prêts? juges de lignes prêts? jouez!

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