Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the twilight years of Victoria Regina and in many ways the last patrician, distrusted democracy for its tendency to split “into a bundle of unfriendly and distrustful elements”. The danger was that those elements would be swayed by emotion rather than impartial reason.

It is unlikely, then, that Lord Salisbury would have been heartened by the sight of thousands of schoolteachers filing into Melbourne Park’s Vodafone Arena for the purpose of being pumped and primed by the leaders of their industrial union. Mind you – and this despite the prescribed red attire – neither would mad, bad Vlad Lenin have been greatly impressed.

For it had to be said that as a revolutionary class we were rather unconvincing. As one descended from the railway footbridge, there was more the atmos of the Carnie as knots of teaching folk hooked up to form a macramé of middle class discontent. It might have looked dramatic from the hovering news chopper but all that red made it a bastard to find anyone.

The mobile phone network approached meltdown as chalkies frantic for connection screamed into their Nokias “no, no, to the right of the main entrance – we’re wearing red”. For those who were unable to unearth something in the crimson or puce line, the union had thoughtfully provided red plastic ponchos. Not flattering to the fuller figure, the impression was one of a sea of Teletubbies.

So into the arena we filed like Dante’s damned. Punishment first came in the form of a singing combo called New Educators Network (Michael Gudinski is not returning their calls) who were less agit-prop in their rendition of something called We See a New Moon Arising than Playschool. This was reinforced by the panto protocol whereby we were encouraged to boo at every mention of Victoria’s parsimonious Premier or his education minister.

Had Mr Brumby been gifted with a sense of occasion, he might have crept up on the delegates giving us the atavistic pleasure of screaming “Behind you!” It wasn’t all hoopla, naturally. At least one functionary (the same who later fulminated that teachers were “overworked, overpaid and – er, did I say overpaid?”) acknowledged the traditional owners of the land. The cynical in our midst wondered whether every event would now be preceded by this formula. “I’d just like to acknowledge the Gundjeri before we chuck a few chops on the barbie and sink some serious p-ss.”

And perhaps it was the acoustics of a venue more accustomed to the patented Sharapova orgasmic grunt but I am nearly certain guest speaker and Fairfax columnist Catherine Deveny railed against “John Brumby and his bum boys”. Then before you knew it, it was time to vote on the resolution to stick it to JB and the BBs. Arms shot heavenward, placards were flourished and the floor stomped in the approved manner of rock concerts.

Some members hadn’t had such fun since the last last Eagles tour. But as we debouched preparatory to holding up the lunchtime traffic and shouting lame-o slogans to the profit and delight of the city workers, an unquiet spirit hovered beneath the retractable roof. Democracy, sighed the ghost of Lord Salisbury. He knew it would come to this.

Peter Fray

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