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Ford brave to tie it on

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford


Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

Brisbane -- Frankly, it's none of our business but Australia was transfixed this week by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the question on all lips Down Under is this: How, in the name of all that is holy, can the mayor of a major municipality front a news conference wearing a tie suggesting the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is underway across his shirt front.

How can an elected figure in a liberal democracy mirroring our own in so many ways adopt an article of clothing giving the impression a drunken Jackson Pollock has been doodling on him?

How is it possible that a man in charge of one of the great cities of the Americas stands straight-faced before an audience looking like the finale of a fireworks display?

Canada, in truth, that tie has unearthed all sorts of emotions among your Commonwealth cousins who are wondering if perhaps we don't know each other as well as we first thought.

A young Australian man-about-town may wear that tie. Even a middle-age dad may be permitted such an indulgence at a family wedding, provided he's willing to bat back a variety of witty comments questioning everything from his sexuality to his sanity.

But a politician regardless of position in state, federal or local government does not, by some ancient government fiat that almost certainly exists in a Canberra vault, wear a tie that hints at happiness, frivolity or, God forbid, individuality.

Stripe it, dot it, but make sure it has a blue hue and in no circumstances allow creative expression anywhere near an item of clothing that started life as the exuberant cravat, but has been pared back to represent sombre formality.

But, in truth, amid all this wonderment at Ford's audacity there is a sprinkling of envy that an overweight, middle-aged politician can be so magnificently flamboyant and not suffer on-the-spot impeachment.

And here we may have the nub of the issue. Australia has been rightly criticized for decades for suffering a malady known as the "cultural cringe."

It's a phrase neatly capturing our lack of confidence in our own abilities -- the residue of our beginnings as a colony of criminals far removed from the "real world" which in the 18th century was Europe.

And so, like the uncool kid at high school, we've spent the last two centuries suspecting other countries were setting trends way ahead of us in politics, arts, science and literature.

And now, we timidly suspect, neck ties.

Ford's international exposure as a living spaghetti sauce explosion is giving us diffident souls anxiety attacks, wondering if perhaps this is the "new look" and it's us in the staid blue ties looking silly.

Some are even harkening back to the days of a long-ago federal immigration minister, Al Grasby, who exhibited a sartorial flamboyance that still leaves elderly Australian men shaking their heads in reverential awe.

Billed as the only Australian male capable of being taken seriously while sporting a pink and yellow suit, Al, much like Ford, challenged old conventions and opened up a world of fashion possibilities to his more staid brethren.

Al reportedly wore a tie so obviously unique, Queen Elizabeth, while on a national visit in the 1970s, asked if she might take it back to Buckingham Palace so she could give it to her then-teenage son Andrew.

But, like disco, flared jeans and hairy chests, Al's unique fashion sense, which breathed so much life into the national capital, disappeared into obscurity.

Any Australian politician who dares venture back into that dangerous territory risks the censure of his colleagues, and a media merciless in its commentary on male dress sense.

The politician brave enough to wear a Ford replica tie to a public event will be greeted by that sniggering aside so often heard when anyone dares challenge conventionality.

"What's he been smoking?"


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2013 A1

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