BillWatch Day 2: Money and a meal

Published on,
March 16 1998

Dateline: Monday March 16, 1998

Venue: Grand Hyatt Hotel, Melbourne

Event: The World Economic Forum's 'Australia in the Next Millennium' dinner

Guests: Prime Minister John Howard, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, 300 of Australia's political and business leaders and one jaded hack, who will be your host for the evening

6:55pm That cream pie in Belgium must have really been a fluke.

Security is unobtrusive here at the Grand Hyatt, but it is everywhere. We journalists -- an assembled throng of 30 or so, mostly general and financial reporters rather than computing specialists -- have been given strict instructions as to our behaviour. We may take photos when Mr Howard and Mr Gates enter. We may photograph Mr Howard's speech. We may not photograph Mr Gates after the first few minutes of his speech. If we leave the room, we may not be readmitted. No transcripts of Mr Gates' speech will be provided. There will be no press conference. We may not ask questions from the floor. Surprisingly, we are allowed to eat the food.

The military touch is also apparent in the schedule. Dinner begins at 7:30pm. Howard speaks for 20 minutes at 8:18pm. Gates speaks at 9:31pm for 20 minutes. Oddly, his 20-minute Q&A session is not scheduled until 9:56pm.

Microsoft is a part of this event, so I suspect it will run late.

7:05pm The first guests are beginning to file in. When I last heard Gates make an entrance to music, it was 10,000 Maniacs. This time, as befits his new-found status as a world economic guru, it's some extended classical piece which, ignoramus that I am, I can't recognise.

7:18pm The room is gradually filling with some of the most powerful people in Australia and so far I haven't recognised anyone. I should get out more.

On the other hand, they all look fairly dull. And Advanced Hair Studio could make a killing in here.

7:26pm The crowd is beginning to bristle with excitement at the impending arrival of our VIP guests.

7:30pm Surprise, surprise, we're running late.

7:35pm The doors have been shut. This means someone is coming.

7:36pm Someone turns out to be Jeff Kennett.

7:38pm A burst of synthesiser music signals the arrival of our VIP guests. When I've seen Bill Gates speak before, he hasn't succumbed to the urge to wear black tie. Frankly, it doesn't suit him. He is taller than John Howard, and he looks less awkward in the face of a barrage of cameras.

The audience sits politely as WEF officials make the customary opening remarks. Some of the guests look longingly at the wine.

8:05pm The entree is in full swing. Waiters circulate elegantly, pouring wine. I am crouched in a corner, furiously writing news stories by hand. Oddly, I don't feel like I'm missing much.

8:20pm Selected to introduce the PM (two minutes behind schedule), Merill Lynch senior advisor John McIntosh can't resist mentioning the fact that $US1,000 of Microsoft shares purchased when the company went public in 1986 would be worth $US300,000 today. The audience responds positively, a useful reminder of their common bond. I can't see Bill, but I bet he's grinning.

8:27pm Howard sticks largely to the circulated draft of his speech, although he dumps quite a bit of material and makes a few predictable changes ("my government" for "the Australian Government", "the third Christian millennium" for "the next century"). The audience listens politely, and even laughs at Howard's joke that when the rest of Telstra is floated, it will outstrip Microsoft's growth.

8:48pm It is announced that we will be linking up with a dinner in Singapore for Gates' upcoming speech. Apparently they don't care what our Prime Minister has to say.

The speech over, everyone tucks into the first course.

9:16pm What's the bet Bill won't start on time?

9:31pm Bill is being fitted with a mike. The man obviously likes a schedule.

9:39pm James Graf, the vice-president of BT Global, introduces Bill with a mild promotional spiel for his own company, before describing Gates as "the man who needs no introduction". No introduction takes five minutes.

9:44pm If you've ever read a transcript of one of Bill's speeches, you'll know what this part was like. Gates only works from pointers, but still ends up saying much the same thing most of the time. He is a better public speaker than Howard, although his right hand moves up and down like a buoy throughout his presentation. Any resemblance to Kermit The Frog is purely coincidental.

10:01pm Shock horror! Bill hasn't spoken for his allocated 20 minutes. There'll be trouble at the WEF, I fear.

10:07pm Although we journalists have been warned not to ask questions, the first one from Singapore is from a writer from the Business Times. This is followed by questions from the floor from staff at The Australian and BRW. I guess, as ever, it's a case of who you know, especially since the questions aren't that intriguing.

10:38pm The Q&A session finishes, having run for twice its allocated timeslot. Everyone dives on the dessert.

10:40pm Gates and Howard haven't left yet, but we've already been warned that the CEO's "exit plans" are "not for public disclosure". It looks like the night is over. I hail a cab.