Pyongyang, Queensland. Donning a white lab coat, Dear Leader Kim Jong Rudd and wife Professor Doctor Elena Ceaucescu graced with their presence the grateful scientific cadres of the Translational Research Institute yesterday to give juche instruction on best practice for the growing of new organs.

Holding up a 3D printed model of a double-helix, the Dear Leader praised the cadres as a “smart bunch of guys”, and promised the government would do what it could to to help the earnest, white-coated nerdy masses there gathered to do what they did best, to attract Australian scientists back to Australia, and to keep Australian discoveries back in Australia.

New daughter number one Tanya Plibersek, looking as fresh as if she’d been grown that morning, was then instructed, by Dear Leader’s mindwaves, to announce a $125 million, 50% government contribution to a commercialisation development fund. That announcement provoked, from the scientists gathered around — jammed into the spacey, futuristic-for-2005 cubicles and thoughtspaces of the glass and plastic pomo interior of the TRI — a vague sigh of disappointment.

Because, of course, compared to the huge waves of capital going into biotech in the US and elsewhere, $250 million is chump change, a lunch-bill. But that wasn’t really the point of the event. The details of the arrangement would go well over the heads of 95% of people seeing it from sentence two onwards. This was all about the visuals, and the TRI provided as excellent a backdrop as you could want, with the gleaming lab behind glass separating it from the offices.

The place was full of flasks and tubes and cool coloured liquids, which nerdy young scientists were syringing in and out of autoclaves. I have no idea what I’m talking about, I just scribbled down words. There were about 60 scientists roaming the lab, all in gloves and coats, working beneath signs of cytotoxic waste management — “if you touch anything, wash your hands immediately,” said the PR flack, a young woman who, am I allowed to say this in the new Abbott era?, looked like she’d been grown by bored Big Bang nerds in their off-hours.

Having said her piece the door opened, and 30 sweaty pollies, journos and techs piled through in a flying wedge formation, probably creating a level five toxic event. The place was a mini-UN — later, it would turn out that most of them were on 457 visas, none of them really threatened by Labor’s crackdown on them, but a couple said they’d been made apprehensive and uneasy by the campaign — all taking shots of the PM as the Dear Leader’s caravan bustled through the lab spaces.

Research leaders with nine PhDs were held at bay, and then summoned like flower-bearing children to come into the purview of the cameras. We’d already spotted one Rudd-alike, a thinner version of the Dear Leader in a suit, and now here was a tall blond hippie in big specs, who looked like a copy of Rudd. Dear God, they were cloning him already! No wonder Bruce Hawker was in attendance, following the caravan with hands behind his back, ‘stache drooping like Deputy Dawg. He was supervising the process whereby 150 Rudds would be grown and released into the wild, to contest every seat.

“This is a substrate for a cell-growing culture for bone and cartilage regeneration which when slotted in will transmutise the organ base to hypercollify the whackness,” the dude said, or something. Dear Leader nodded, and scarfed up the lingo. The upshot was you could grow prostheses in here, which could be bespoke tailored to individual bodies, and then, as the tissue regrows around them, the substrate gradually disintegrates. Further down the line, Dear Leader was told about some other feature of this process and played it back — “so this will transmogrify the culture cells regrown on substrate to hypercollify the whackness,” he said, as three people nodded while he told them what they did.

Kinda impressive, but also a little spooky. I think it would have been better TV if he’d just aped the average viewer reaction: “F-ck! Can you believe this shit? Terese, you’ve got to come and see this shit! This is f-cked up, man! What, you can really grow like a kidney one day, dude? F-ck!” I think that would have sold it a little more. It was hard to feel that this whole event did not have an imperial, processional quality.

“Dear Leader spent five minutes at one point standing beside a machine shaking samples fast on a moving tabletop, the closest any Labor PM has come to an agitator in two generations.”

Two young female scientists in headscarves are held at one end, as Dear Leader listens to an explanation of Ponsonby electro-suturing that started long and became interminable, as Dear Leader explained to them about whackness hypercollication. “I can’t shake the PM’s hand,” said one, prompting a minor minder panic about Islam, multiculti, etc, before she held up her gloved hands and pointed out that if she did, the whole planet would be take over by zombies 28 days later.

He was playing it straight, wise white-coated Panda PM, peering expertly into the hellknows what. Missing a lot of lines, too. “Could you grow Mr Abbott a spine so he could deal with the candidate for Charlton?” — a hapless grinning fatneck up Newcastle way, whose personal website was full of r-pe jokes, and who Abbott was, that morning, humming and haahing about disendorsing. “Could you grow Joe Hockey in a vat? Have you done so already?”

Too many jokes, really. Dear Leader spent five minutes at one point standing beside a machine shaking samples fast on a moving tabletop, the closest any Labor PM has come to an agitator in two generations. In every corner, there was a handpull shower. “I haven’t seen so many douches in one room since we last met with the NSW Right,” Plibersek said, in my imagination.

After the long tour and the field guidance, Dear Leader and train disappeared into a room for half an hour while we set up for the morning’s press conference. Maybe everyone knows this, maybe they don’t, but here’s how it works on the press caravan: the PM will do two to three events a day, one of them ending in a stand-up presser at a podium, answering all questions; the other two events are pure visual wallpaper, meet and greets, most recently in rock-solid Labor places, providing man-of-the-people coverage. Rudd isn’t bad at these things — better than Paul Keating ever was at the “walking ’round shopping centres tripping over TV cables” — but he’s no Bob Hawke, either.

At Condong bowls club on Monday, for example, inveigled into a game or two, he looked like your awkward second cousin being taught to play totem tennis on Christmas afternoon (now I think about it, I was that awkward second cousin). Some little 10-20% held back. Hawkie would have stripped down, organised folks into teams, got someone to select Eagle Rock six times on the juke and angle it out the window, and then left with the mayor’s daughter, and increased the Labor majority. Rudd could never do that, but their team could turn these into something more than dutiful processions.

Tuesday morning, before the Dear Leader moment, we’d all been dragged from our soft beds at the Stamford Plaza — your taxes pay for this campaigning until the party launches, but the meeja orgs are billed by the party for travel and accom — to head out to Salisbury, a leafy somewhereville in the Brisburbs, where the local high school, Ayanda, is under threat of closure from the Campbell Newman state government, which Rudd is more or less running against up here. The state government would later dispute that it was defunding education, saying it was increasing it, and that Ayanda was running at 33% capacity, but there was none of that here.A hardcore Labor crowd had also been got out of bed for a rally, a pile of pallets had been set up as a makeshift stage — couldn’t help but think they were from Pallets R Us for all your true-believer political accoutrement needs — and the inevitable sausage sizzle under a tent. The place was Salisbury High until the ’90s — “Billy Thorpe went here! Lobby Lloyd!” says local MP Graham Perrett, a former Rudd foe, sitting on 1%, and a man who looks like the crash test dummy version of Christopher Pyne, a mild case of premature multiple shock. It doesn’t get more old Anglo-Oz than Thorpie and Lloydie, but the school was then combined with another school to give it a significant Torres Strait Islander population, from Acacia Ridge.

The crowd is fervent Labor, blood red Labor T-shirts flowing among the blue-green — gaaak! — school uniforms, and this morning Rudd’s doing his Kev of the People act, wading the crowd, selfies selfies selfies, making his way to the sausage stand to do a thing with the big sauce bottle. “Fair suck of the sauce bottle Tony, where’s the money coming from?” or something. Holds it up three times so the photographers can get the best angle. Back to photos. “Let’s do a sharpie,” he says to general bewilderment. Brainfog moment, the nerdy kid is thinking back to the ’60s/’70s Anglo youfculture, tight denim and number-one clips with rat-tails, the kids who undoubtedly stole a young Kevin’s lunch money, a sudden moment of anxiety surfacing from the distant past.

He climbs on the boutique palette platform and starts giving a fire-breathing speech about what you can look forward to if there’s an Abbott government. “Like Campbell Newman here! Fifty schools closed down! Jeff Kennett in Victoria! Three hundred schools closed down! The schools we need, you need,” etc, fist-in-palm pounding action. “I see the next great molecular biologist here!” he says, pointing to a kid. “The next great entrepreneur! Australia’s best doctor of the future!” He points at me, I think. “Australia’s next best vet.” Me? I don’t want to be a vet, though I would totally watch that reality show. “Australia’s next best PE teacher!” The press cranes to see what poor kid got that life curse handed down to him. Soon, after more flesh-pressing, he’s back in the car. The crowd is solid Labor, and most of them pass the Gonski test — know what it’s about, know the structure, will not be drawn on whether Rudd fulfilled expectations of the report. The press corps have to file online, no one’s got time to hunt for a story, a reaction, another version of this morning, so the event has served its purpose, a poster in real-time motion, a few funding announcements, a repeat of the cut-cut-cut lines.

Looking desperately for anyone who’s just wandered along out of curiosity — I get tangled up with the Population Stabilisation Party, leftie Malthusians, and then with a furry freak brother, wildman beard miller shirt and stretch pants who for all I know was the Coloured Balls’ bassist. Will he say something about fluoridation and lizard-men? “Just tell ’em I know Kevin’s cousin, Kev’s a good man, we’re gonna win this.” Good crowd management, when even the crazies can spout the party line. Respect.

The only counterpoint comes from the folks across the road, watching from the gates of their houses. One a solid Labor guy, a train driver, what’s the big issue for him? “Cross-rail, Kev’s got to get that built.” But that’s a state issue, all the federal government can do is match funds … “Even so.” A little further down, a bloke dressed as if in need of public assistance, but with two LandCruisers in the garage behind him. “Why do they want to save that school? It’s a terrible school. They’ve let it run down for years now they want to save it? They won’t tell you that, but it’s half-empty. No one wants their kids to go there.” Is that, speaking plainly, a race thing, since it was combined with the old Acacia Ridge school? “No, it’s just a bad school. Bad leadership.” Swinging voter; “I vote for the best local member”. But really, when does a local member have a role? We have the most lockstep political parties in the world … “Hmmmm, yeah I guess.”

Out beyond the well-organised crowds, people, even sympathetic ones, are working off totally different principles, frameworks, evaluations. You could call them disengaged, but they’re not. It’s the political-media process that has become disengaged, the breakneck accumulation of visual events, living posters, Red Rudd before breakfast, Dear Leader mid-morning, good ol’ Kev in the afternoon. Maybe these guys know what they’re doing, and maybe they are missing the opportunity to really take the fight to Abbott by avoiding anything that might look like a real encounter with the undecided, the wavering, the willing-to-be-argued-around. The press corps are, by and large, bewildered by the strategy, by Monday’s meandering through safe seats, by the low temperature. But none of that makes it into the reports.

When, at the end of the morning, Dear Leader holds his presser — most of which starts to come around to Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, and the further ramshackle collapse thereof — he spends half of it handing over to Prefabricated Daughter Number One, Tanya Plibersek, to answer the details. I watch as he stands beside her, as he takes a moment to power down, and relax into his flesh. He looks older and tireder than he does when in full motion, and stares straight ahead to the middle distance. But it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking — whether he believes he is slowly accumulating credits on being a responsible leader of moderate and steady national development, waiting to go in hard in the last fortnight, and somehow nudge enough seats hither and yon over the line? Or whether, looking at the polling in marginals, the — should they be correct — looming western Sydney wipeout, he thinks it’s all over, and there is now that most bitter of tasks: three weeks of carnival and pretence, the energy doled out in half-hour grabs, the overlong lingering in the labs, the immersion in dreams of a future leadership, where the visions of human advancement, or betterment — such as fire up all but the most ascetically venal politicians — can be indulged in fantasy.

I don’t know which. Maybe he doesn’t, either. Maybe, in that half-hour between the lab tour and the presser, he was replaced by FleshRuddbot 2.0 to handle the rest of it, and the real Kevin Rudd is now kicking back at the Condong Bowls Club. Whoever’s running the show, they’ll need a stroke of genius or two in the next weeks if the Dear Leader is to return to rule us, sharpies and scientists all.

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Peter Fray
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