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Class and climate drive Melbourne Cup hostility

  • 06 November 2019


'It is harder to imagine a finer representation of the Australian principle of the fair go ... Hope rides on each of the 24 runners at the starting gate, not because the horses or their riders are equal, but because everything possible has been done by the organisers to ensure they have an equal chance.'

That's Nick Cater, defending the Melbourne Cup by reprising an argument he previously made in his book The Lucky Culture. It's a perfect example of how out of touch the professional culture warriors have become. I can't imagine how anyone could look at the Melbourne Cup and see a vision of the 'fair go'. 

On the contrary, much of the new hostility to horse racing — and this year's Cup attracted the smallest crowd since 1993 — stems from a perception that its rituals celebrate grotesque inequalities. The top one percent of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent of us combined — and last year the 200 richest of them increased their wealthy by 20 per cent. 

But wait — who's that in the Birdcage? 'Resplendent in Ralph & Russo haute couture,' ran a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, 'with an equally elaborate headpiece in ruby and bridal white, billionaire [Gina] Rinehart was reminiscent of an exotic coral-encrusted creature from the Great Barrier Reef as she arrived at the Victoria Racing Club's 1 Oliver Street marquee on Tuesday.'

With the reef itself a grey shadow of its former self, we're asked to admire the tycoons responsible for bleaching it, as they clink crystal flutes with Lindsay Lohan, Bill Shorten, Kerri-Anne Kennerley and footballers' wives. George Groz himself could not sketch a more fitting tableau of class relations under late capitalism.

The growing contempt for the Cup doesn't just reflect the obvious social polarisation of contemporary Australia. It also expresses a related shift in attitudes to nature, in the context of a planet on the brink of ecological meltdown.

Cater and the other ideologues who associate the, um, 'Sport of Kings' with an authentic working-class identity, do so via tropes of class taken from the Great Strikes of the 1890s, back when a substantial proportion of the population worked in rural industries. In Europe, even the dimmest pundit knows the proletariat bears some relationship to modernity and the city. In Australia, where no new ideas have troubled the commentariat for at least a generation, 'class' invokes, now and forever, white