Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:12 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:12 | SYDNEY

The 2012 OOPS! Award


Graeme Dobell

17 January 2012 19:12

 With a raucous honk of horns and a skate across random banana peels, we slip on stage to make the annual OOPS! Award.

The OOPS! is a minor award in every sense. It's a prize for misunderstanding, mistake, mishap, bungle, blue, blunder...well, you get the idea. The OOPS! is the preliminary event (and opposite genre) to our annual Madeleine Award which is all about the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs. This year's contenders for the OOPS! are...

A strong early entry came from the Chinese protocol officer who asked the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his party to remove red poppies from their lapels before going into the Great Hall in Beijing for a formal welcome.

The Chinese official said the poppies would be taken as a reminder of the humiliation China endured during the Opium Wars. Cameron refused, noting that the poppy he was wearing was remembrance of a different conflict altogether: the Great War. This rates as a cross-cultural misunderstanding of OOPS!-winning proportions, with lots of blunder mixed in.

However, the OOPS! is a bit of January ephemera, and the symbolism on both sides is just too heavy for this award to carry. For much the same reason, the Chinese PLA missed out on the gong in last year's Madeleine finals for staging the first flight of China's new stealth fighter just as the US Defense Secretary touched down in Beijing to defrost a rather icy period in military relations.

As always, the OOPS! has to have a few members of the politico class just getting it wrong. This is such a rich field, we take a less-is-more approach (and just think, you have the year-long run to the US presidential election still to enjoy).

High marks for timing and judgment to France's Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, (nickname MAM)  for offering French security forces to help with crowd control in Tunisia just a few days before the regime fell, becoming the first flower of the Arab Spring. Wham went the MAM as she exited the ministry.

The cut-and-paste award went to Germany's Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, after the discovery that he'd plagiarised chunks of his doctoral thesis. Goodbye, Guttenberg.

Rather than poking fun at the pollies, however, this year's OOPS! will remember a great man who often saw the funny side of politics, even when the regime shunted him off to jail. Any man who could appreciate the political significance of Frank Zappa surely had a dry sense of humour. And Vaclav Havel's love of a joke was nearly as strong as his need for a smoke.

Some wonderful moments are recounted in this piece by the Oz lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, remembering the time when Havel was mustering both style and substance to pierce 'the Stalinist miasma that had wearily settled over Czechoslovakia'. With the secret police monitoring their every move, Robertson and Havel head to a Prague cafe. The US dollar is trading on the black market at 30 times the official rate, so Robertson pulls out some greenbacks to get the bill:

But when I tendered them to pay for our meal, Havel stopped me and explained (I kick myself for not realising) that he would immediately be rearrested by the watching police as an accomplice in black marketeering. 'This is the first rule of being a dissident,' he instructed me. 'You must scrupulously obey the law.'

A rare confession of error from G Robertson QC, and a wonderful lesson from the author of The Power of the Powerless: the man who proclaimed the need to 'live in truth' knew you had to choose carefully which laws to break.

Here is another moment, at the end of the trial of a dissident, when the secret police qualify for an OOPS! because of their attention to detail:

When we emerged on the steps of the court for Havel to announce the result to several hundred waiting supporters, they struck up a ragged chorus of We Shall Overcome. 'You can always tell who are the secret police on these occasions,' explained Havel with a tight grin. 'They are the ones who know all the words.'

The crowning OOPS! moment, though, was when President Havel paid a visit to Australia as an official guest of government. The relatively rare itinerary request from Prague was that the President would like to see the Rock.

Getting to Uluru in the centre of the continent is a major test of time and logistics, well beyond the schedule of most visiting presidents and prime ministers. Usually, the VIP gets Canberra and Sydney and a quick trip up to the Barrier Reef if they can squeeze in a couple of extra days. For Havel, though, the schedule was upended so that he could get to the Northern Territory to gaze at one of the great wonders of Oz. Granted, Havel didn't look all that awe-struck in the pictures, but perhaps that was just the jet-lag.

As he was leaving Oz at the end of the tour, Havel set the record straight with a wry smile. What he'd actually asked to see was some great Oz rock (and roll), not the Rock. Vale Vaclav. We reckon you would have enjoyed the OOPS!

Photo by Flickr user Black Glenn.