“A savage servility slides by on grease.” — Robert Lowell
“Grease is the word. It’s got move it’s got feeling.” — Franki Valli*
Coming in to the south side of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre — Sunday morning in Brisbane, all sunny for the Liberal Party campaign launch, dazzling, shining off the river, and that smoky, perfumey air the city gives off, our most fragrant capital. I saw three girls in polka-dot poodle skirts, all lace petticoats and flounce, rayban shades and bettiepage hair, and had my mind blown, baby. Behind them, a quiffed boy trundling a double bass towards a stage.
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Roundabout, hipsters in a hundred versions of West Side Story clobber, red lips and fake tatts, garage shirts and two-toned shoes, cigarettes behind the ear. Twenty-somethings and fat Elvis dads, carnies selling retro summer dresses, a kitsch cake stand. Everyone milling around looked like they worked for a touring company of Happy Days. On the stage, a StrayCatsalike band was setting up, a tribute to a retro act. It was like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
My god, I thought, they’ve done it. They’ve finally done it. The boffins at the Liberal Party have finally found a wormhole — not Michael Kroger, another type of wormhole — and they’ve taken us all back to the ’50s. What John Howard tried and failed to do is happening right here. Well, at least it’s going to be chic. This was retro shading into burlesque, a little bit of David Lynch, a lot of sailor tattoos and Coronas at 10am, and the men were even worse.
“This can’t all be for the Liberal Party,” I said to a young woman who probably runs the HR department of Goldman Sachs Monday to Friday, but now looked like Rosie the Riveter as played by Lucille Ball. She looked at me in stark horror, incomprehension. “It’s for the launch of Grease. It’s all the Greasers.”
Course. Of course. For the miraculous birth, there always must be, children who did not specially want it to happen. Or, to put it otherwise, beauty school dropout, no graduation day for you. The Liberal Party launch entrance was around the other side of this vast concrete behemoth, one of those old-style arts centres built begrudgingly in the ’70s and ’80s, all brushed concrete and isolation from everything else. Joh Bjelke-Petersen opened this one in the ’80s and wouldn’t that have been an afternoon. He would have wanted to ban just about everything that went on in it for the first two decades. Now Grease is playing here.
The foyer’s full of blue, dark blue T-shirts, sky blue dresses, blue ties, a bit of Mediterranean-style blue depths, the eager kids rolling in, the boys gawky and buttfuzzed, a mix of ungainly overeager suburban gals, and sleeker creatures from the inner city and the unis. Middle-aged couples, women doing the blue, men eschewing it, in tan sports jackets, the women making it work. Tall and fat, mostly but in a Queensland way, not a US-get-the-forklift, big bellies built out of meat and butter. Only glitch is the arts centre uniform is a scarlet red T-shirt; it all has a sinister air as if folks are being directed to some set of rotating knives down the hall
There is, unsurprisingly, a pretty damn jolly air to the whole thing. Most of the people here are Queenslanders, therefore Liberal National Party, and the whole thing has the air of a country race meeting, even though we’re entombed in brushed concrete, and the arrivals are all passing through metal detectors. Maybe at the start of the campaign some feared that Labor had gazumped them — got Kevin back in, evened it up, and waited for Tony to come apart under pressure, which, in the first week, it was reasonable to suppository he was starting to. But now Kevin Rudd was being pounded by The Daily Telegraph in Sydney and The Courier-Mail in Brisbane, Labor’s first fortnight had been a meandering disaster, and a series of polls — based on robo-calls, to landlines — had cemented the idea that Rudd and Labor were on the slide. Clearly exhausted, Rudd and his team appeared to be making real missteps under pressure of the fake gaffes that the tabloids were ginning up. “Kitchengate” has been the latest, all but placed outside the hotel room door of attendees like coffee and scrolls in the morning, and though parts of the story are beat up — Rudd never said he was “suspending” his campaign, as was alleged — enough of it was true to reinforce the notion of pretence, and also a degree of ineptness; Team Rudd looking like they couldn’t even play the leader card.
“A centre-Left Australian polity is busy drafting a contract with Abbott at the moment, and that is, ‘we will support you to throw this mob out, as long as you keep much of what they’ve done’.”
So they were all pretty high yesterday morning, all spilling into the giant vestibule where once, decades ago, Brisbane’s outnumbered literati talked about angst in late Pinter. Hey, and now Grease is playing. Now it’s more like a country race meeting albeit one entombed in raw concrete, everyone gladhanding and guffawing over huge bellies, and introducing their kids as adults to each other. “Now this little lady is going to be the member for Oxley one day,” one huge man says towering over a wide-eyed six-year-old princess, whose future has just been mapped out. There’s a lotta gun-moustaches, just shorter than the Newk, Rotary pins, not a few schlubby student politician types, and, for reasons that escape me, a scattering of political kids in silk Nehru and Oriental smoking jackets. (Is that a thing now? Is Glee to blame?) All very old-school apart from that, plates of sandwich quarters laid out, ham and mustard, and egg-lettuce, none of this sushi nonsense.
And of course between all these enthusiastic amateurs thread the professionals, thinner, sharper-dressed, dark blue suits and none of this dress-up crap, women with clipboard and sharp heels, clip-clopping after people they have to speak to. “Could we talk about this, Steve? Are you Steve? I’m very sorry.” Into a headset clip: “I can’t find Steve.” There’s about 15 minutes till go time, and the party apparatus is getting everything in place for after. For let’s face it, if the rank-and-file couldn’t be happier about where things are at, the parliamentary party doesn’t feel that way. They elected Abbott by one vote, fearing that he would commit them to a religious crusade against legal abortion and the general availability of the works of Judy Blume. That didn’t happen, but something worse did — Abbott has now committed them to supporting much of Labor’s statist expansion — most of Gonski, DisabilityCare (formerly the NDIS), Fair Work, and most hair-raising of all, paid parental leave, which is so straight out of Stockholm it might as well be drafted with umlauts. Maybe he believes in it, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s run so strong on it that I don’t think that the old “oh, we found a budget black hole” will work this time.
Effectively, a centre-Left Australian polity is busy drafting a contract with Abbott at the moment, and that is, “we will support you to throw this mob out, as long as you keep much of what they’ve done”. The contract is akin to the one the public drafted with Rudd in 2007 — “You’re nice, you’ve got ideas, you keep these Labor gangsters in order, and we’ll back you”. He didn’t, and well, you know the rest. With Abbott it’s the same. The public is beginning to warm to him now he’s shucked the olde-time religion stuff, but they still remain wary of the revived United Australia Party he’s heading, the shoals of white puffer-fish, Sinodinos, Brandis, Minchin, Mirabella, Bishop et al, whose dearest aim is to lay waste to everything we’ve achieved as a country where working people can have a life and not live one payslip away from penury for the whole of their existence. For reasons best known to the general public’s self they would prefer Malcolm Turnbull rather than Abbott to play this gatekeeper (“yes, my gatekeeper”) role, but the strange and striking fact remains that the Australian public elects leaders to restrain the party they lead. Go figure.
With 10 minutes to go, I was trying to. Back in the “media room” — a widened corridor behind a curtain — the travelling press were arriving after a body-search at the door so intense that I was quizzed on the drugs in my pocket, a packet of foil-wrapped Panadol. Behind me, the ABC’s Mark Simkin was being made to unzip all of the eight or so compartments of his travel luggage. The final one was a day bag. “Really?” he hesitated, and then unzipped a small make-up kit with a tiny, tiny towel in it. Standard issue for an on-air presenter, but in the clear light of day, it turned him into a Down Under ladyboy of Bangkok. OKed, he zipped up and continued, innocent but shamed, on his way. Inside, the big beasts had staked out their territory. Paul Kelly in one corner, looking like Gene Hackman playing Harry Call in The Conversation (or better still, the delayed reprise in Enemy of the State), wise, weary, dispensing thoughts through one corner of his mouth. Dennis Shanahan, at the bar. “That’s sparkling, that’s still,” the bartender says. “I’m a flat man!” Um, Dennis, mate … And above all, Laurie Oakes, silent, on a small sofa, huge as Asia, junior radio hackettes circling him like moons round Jupiter. Staring out at another election through those sad ’80s glasses, mournful, inscrutable, knowing terrible things.Pretty soon, we’re herded to the auditorium, shunted into a side balcony, in the standard cavernesque main theatre auditorium, where generations of the tropical middle class have endured realist Australian theatre, all the while wishing they were at Sizzler’s on tequila night. There’s confusion. Lyndal Curtis and crew have the whole balcony and are doing standups, Lyndal standing there like a hostie waiting to show us how the oxygen mask works. Below, the great and the good are filing into the main auditorium. They’re cheerful, chatty, expectant of good things. Last time I was here I saw a late Louis Nowra play, so it’s a pretty different experience. Oakes files in above. Kelly takes a seat behind him. It all looks like an FBI mugshot from the ’30s. In front of me, Shanahan and Sid Maher file in behind the ABC camera and take their seats. He and Sid, the Oz‘s political brainshub, become the Waldorf and Statler of this particular Muppet show. “How do I send a message from my address book,” says Shanahan, fiddling with his 2004-era phone, as they set up on stage blue skrims, blue flooring, blue blue blue. (It’s close to Klein Blue, more on that later). “Blind leading the blind, mate.”
Suddenly, the lights are up and we’re away. Premier Campbell Newman comes out to welcome us to Queensland and announces coming into the auditorium, “John and Janette Howard”, and the place erupts. They come out of the side door, like mice smelling cheese — not a reflection on them, it’s just how the place looks — and make their way to a place on the front room that has three empty chairs either side, halfway between respect and entombment. For most of the folks I know, the front row looks like a parade of defendants. For them, it’s wise elders — Philip Ruddock, shrunk like a frog in a tequila bottle. Erica Betz, Nick Minchin, and er, that’s it. No Peter Costello, no Alexander Downer, no Andrew Peacock, and of course, no Malcolm Fraser. Later on TV, the Kroger wormhole will open, and he will point out that Howard was feted, how the Libs can honour their own in memory etc — except they have a memory of about eight minutes. You wouldn’t know this party had a history before 1996 from this launch.
“Please stand for the national anthem,” the auditorium leaps to its feet, the journos all look at each other like Mods at a cinema in the ’60s “You gunna” “You gunna”? There’s Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, the Libs death-ray robot, driving out on the whirring microwheels carefully concealed beneath her feet pods. She’s wearing, what the hell ….? Later will turn out to be a silver blue suit of sorts, from the peanut gallery it looks like acid-wash denim. They really are going all out for western Sydney. Bishop is the closest the Libs get to a larrikin these days, and she starts a routine about Rudd being on his first day out campaigning, and some bloke asking “is that the Prime Minister” — she approximates proley vowels — “and when someone says yes, he turned around” — she mimes it, gaaack how far is this going to go — “and he pulls down his trackies” … and the hall kind of explodes in kind of laughter. “The first crack appeared in Kevin’s campaign.” Good god, she’s working blue. In their heads, half of the attendees are still vetting the joke, “is this proper”, so it’s sort of a delayed wave of laughter. Honestly, it’s a bid of a low, odd, start to what should be a triumphal occasion. Warming up a crowd by working blue is more appropriate to the matinee spot at the Lucky Oyster Casino ‘n’ Slots, Atlantic City than it is to Australia’s dominant governing party in the post-war era.
Rudd got under the Libs’ skin, even though they now think he is now less mosquito than mere prick. But they can’t get enough on paying out on him. Both sides of politics have their native vices, which the other side can play on ceaselessly. Former PM Paul Keating noted that the Libs were “mean little people”, when he launched Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten’s campaign last week, and that worked because deep down Libs know they are mean little men and women, a party founded on Robert Menzies’ image of “The Forgotten People”, an appeal not to gratitude and bounty, but to envy and a notion of love deprived. So they can home in on the Left’s vice, easily, that of a certain narcissism, an overinflation and self-preoccupation. True Believers, gah. So Bishop can do the full routine about all the Kevins there are, the “fair suck of a sauce bottle” Kevin, and the “ohhhhh soooooo sophiiiiisticaaaaated Kevin”, and if I’d driven in from my Mitsubishi dealership in the heartland to hear this, I’d be loving this as well.
But I’m not, I’m in basic black and sitting four seats in front of Paul Kelly, who has a look mild persistent pain, like a Mr Blowie slowly losing air and folding down the forecourt. And Bishop’s routine sounds like every bourgeoise living room routine I’d every heard growing up, that middle-class suspicion of anything broader or more expansive, of any effort not devoted to self-improvement, of any intellect not devoted to gaining qualifications. Rudd’s an easy mark for that because he is something of a fantasist and an egomaniac, so fair game, but my fists clench and I hate it. It’s enforcement of small-mindedness, and it goes over like a storm. But as with any act, you put the worst one on before the headliner, so after Bishop, we get Nats leader Warren Truss, found wandering confused in regional Australia — or campaigning, as he likes to call it — rushed to QPAC, and a sign pinned to him “this is Warren Truss”, just as nurses paint a big X on the leg to be amputated. Warren’s … well, I drifted off and only came to when he was talking about roads. Roads that are going to be built. The completion of the Pacific Highway upgrade. Some thing through some pass. Fix the Bruce. “We’ve got to fix the Bruce in Queensland,” he yells to applause. What can this mean? Gender anxiety? God knows, but I’ve been saying it ever since, just as I’ve been humming the Libs theme song, the single worst composition in history, and if you read the verse below, imagine it as done by the Nolan Sisters, or Bucks Fizz before they sold out:
We believe in hope
We believe in reward
We believe in opportunity
For one and all…
Reward/one and all? Lady lady/be my baby.
Thought we would go to Tony then, but no, a surprise, it’s the daughters, tall as raptors, stalking out onto stage, Frances and the other one, one of them in Sunday best, the other in a shoulderless white top and nudie orange slacks, which looks like either she came straight from netball or a very bad sci-fi movie. Bishop’s already told us that ‘Tony’s authentic, he’s a leader, a boxer, a firefighter — it’s like flipping through the CV of a hardcore porn actor — but now the daughters are going to dial it down a bit. Their anecdote about Abbott as a “netball dad” — “he thinks it’s just rugby with a net” I think was the near-gag — and then how, when they played for the team of Forrest, he would barrack with regularity — “run, Forrest, run … every week” would later be seen as the day’s sweetest moment, though I found it excruciating at the time. Front of me, Statler and Waldorf loved it, snorting and giggling. Kelly was now clasping the side of his head like he’d been shot and was staggering to A&E. And then they were gone, and it was ladies and gentlemen, Mr Tony Abbott!
He works his way through the crowd, with wife Margie making her first major appearance, both of them gladhanding and kissing their way along the front row. Good to know the Firzroy double airkiss hasn’t hit the burbs yet, or we’d be here till nightfall. There’s less of an exchange with Howard than you’d expect, but Erica Betz won’t let go. What’s he saying? “Please don’t sack me, please. I know I let the cat out of the bag on IR, but this is all I’ve got …” Abbott escapes his grasp and takes the stage.
By now in his 50s, with the cartilage growing and the musculare shrunk by his ludicrous training regimes, Abbott has lost his good looks. Once chiselled, he now looks simian, his huge ears suggesting he is of a different species that has evolved to consciousness by an alternative route. Watching him clutch the lectern amid this vast concrete and modernist space, the sci-fi thing continues. It’s like an ’80s Star Wars knock-off in which the Sirius II monkey-emperor is addressing the Galactic Federation, mostly Klingons (yes, yes, no letters please). “Our enemies are vast and ranged across Parsec sector 12,” the monkey god says, and the Klingons murmur, “still wondering whether we can trust this guy”.
“Why does Abbott’s rather ordinary speech feel like water struck from rocks?”
Because as Abbott’s speech — a well-crafted and cogent piece whose large themes of a strong Australia, a responsible Australia, one that leaves no one behind and thereby restores trust between government and people, all fit together, though the details don’t even begin to add up — unrolled, it became clear to me, if it did not to the assembled masses, that this was the takeover. This was Santamaria’s last disciple, at the heart of the Liberal Party setting out a policy — whether it is honoured or not — that owes more on many fronts to Labor than it does to the traditions of classical liberalism. Carbon tax and mining tax abolished, that got big applause, as did of course, “fixing the Bruce in Queensland”. But then there was paid parental leave, which got a big shout our huge applause from the blue army at the back, fading to just about zip at the front. And when he announced that indigenous people would be recognised in the constitution — his pitch to Noel Pearson for support, but also something coming out of a modernised religious notion of irreducible cultural difference, of being and identity in grounded culture — there was applause from literally only half the audience. Howard banged his hands together twice, and when Abbott, almost looking at him, said, “We should have done it a century ago”, Howard didn’t clap at all. Maybe it’s all sham, maybe I will be proved a fool in years to come, but if you want to see the epistemic break in Australian politics, it was at that moment.
To be honest, Abbott’s speech was the first moment in this campaign, when something I would recognise as politics — a fusion of policy and philsophy — actually occurred, piss-weak though it was — this polymath never quoted a book, a thinker, a moment in our history, never talked about his own journey, or the one we’re all on in a world hurtling towards a high-tech nihilism and the forces against that. Everything that surrounded his speech was hideous, dead and bourgeois, an event run as if Balzac were being used as a guide to event management, but there was something in that speech that at least sparked by interest. Not only has he more or less conceded the social market case on economic and social management — as m’colleagues Keane and Dyer note — but he has conceded, by omission, the end of the culture wars. Maybe, once in power, he’ll start up nonsense about abortion, etc, again, battles that he and his side lost and we, the Left, won decades ago — but if he does he’ll split a party that is already going to rend at the rivets over paid parental leave, deficit budgeting and free money for apprentices (1. become an apprentice; 2. get your 20 grand for tools etc; 3. sell your tools for 10 grand; 4. go to Bali and suck on weed for a year). He’s trapped. The tragedy of Abbott is that he is about to win the power he has sought for decades in a country that has truly become the “kingdom of nothingness”. Driven by the desire to re-Christianise a fallen world, the monkey-emperor will preside over mall-land, a people Howard understood but Abbott doesn’t begin to.
Thus I thought as the thing ended and I spilled out into the lobby with the smiling crowd. Every journo then rushed for the media room to file an identikit summary of the speech, demanded by their news editors, one that other journos could do from the newsroom. Thus a thousand people who had come on a Sunday morning to an event more boring than a speech night because they believed in what was being said here went by and large uninterviewed, unasked, unencountered. People like Dave and Sarah, about as classic Liberal as I could find, slacks and jacket, but a button-down shirt, blue dress — “yes, I made the effort” — he a real-estate agent, she was once a teacher, now raising three girls. They live in Caboolture, Brisbane’s vast no-space I’ll never know. “I just love the idea of getting this country back on track,” he says. Is business bad? “Everyone I speak to in my job says business is bad.” Is his business bad? “Well, no, business is good for me at the moment.” He looks a little suddenly surprised. What did they think about constitutional Aboriginal recognition? “Well, I’d prefer not to say, nice to talk to you”, and they are gone out the glass doors.
Leila, a black woman, who’s rocked out a blue dress in magnificent trad African style, a design someone wore on the Nile banks 6000 years ago. Somalian, Australian now, spent six years in a refugee camp in Kenya. “Everyone can get a job in Australia. Anyone who can’t is lazy. The Greens don’t know what they’re talking about on refugees … most Somalian-Australians agree with me.” “Where do they live?’ “Oh in Moreton where I live, also a lot in Griffith”, and there is one clue to Kevin Rudd’s problem right there. Multiculti unity under Labor cannot be assumed any more. I want to speak more to her, but party apparatchiks drag her away to be photographed with Bronwyn Bishop, so ice-white, you could carve a swan out of her. Leila looks discomfited, aware she’s being used, smiles uneasily. Arseholes. Arseholes for doing that to someone who believes in your cause. Sid Maher — Statler or Waldorf — is scarfing round, getting info. “Which daughter spoke about netball?” he says to three separate flacks before a young woman — in the manner of all young women handling middle-aged men taking an interest in other young women — says “I’ll find out. DAUGHTER INFO FOR SID,”‘ she enunciates loudly while writing on a pad.
Howard charges into the room, and towards my space. I tower above him, yet he towers over me in my mind. So neat, shrunken, purposeful. “Hello Bruce,” he says to someone, striding up to him hail fellow well met, clasping his hand in both of his, a bit of chat, and then he breaks away and swivels, crossing a piece of empty room, sees me and diverts — either ’cause he knows it’s me, or far more likely, ’cause I look like some mature-age MA student writing for a student newspaper — and locks onto someone else, and two metres away it’s “hello Dave/Maisie/Rihanna” and the arms go up, but in that travel across the dead area he looks blank, on powersave, a null set.
But finally I find my golden couple. Modern Liberalism. Bettina and Steve, he in corduroy casual, she pomaded like one of the Grease girls below, now swing dancing to rockabilly bands, me itching to get down there. “We run an aromatherapy clinic,” they tell me, bored daughters round their legs. “We just think you know it’s about the economy, you don’t spend more than you earn.” And should complementary therapies be on Medicare? “Oh yes,” Steve says, “I mean, a doctor can do a do a weekend course in what we do and charge for it. We should be able to bill.” But isn’t that big government? “Oh yes, it should be in government.” No, I mean, isn’t that a reckless expansion of government spending? “Yes, government should pay for it,” Bettina nods earnestly, and somewhere in Melbourne John Roskam falls to the floor with a disabling migraine. The monkey emperor has won! Who is the modern Liberal Party? Aromatherapists who want bulk billing and paid parental leave. God, I like these people too much. I like the polite helpful girls on the media desk, the dorky boys, the Asian-Australian candidates. I need mean before I go, and luckily Steve “slit Gillard’s throat” Ciobo and wife hove up to me and a journo I won’t name. “Great event,” he says. “Weren’t the daughters fantastic! Didn’t you love that outfit?” “Yeah,” says Ms Ciobo, licking her lips. “I bet Jess wishes she’d thought of that one.” Mean girl, thank you, you have restored my anti-faith. I leave as Sid Maher gobbles curried egg sandwiches and asks about the daughters.
Back downstairs, Grease is still in full swing. Bettina and Steve have stopped for a drink, to show the kids the music, the costumes. Everyone around here is retro, and she fits in, a French wave in the blonde hair, make-up that would rock out Mulholland Drive night at a West End pub. Retro and literal fuse. The election so far has been pure unpleasure and duty. The Grease folks get up at six in the morning to do their beehives and fake tatts and polish their Caddies for the day, real passion for some interstitial fantasytopia. Why is it so absent from Australian politics at the moment? Why does Abbott’s rather ordinary speech feel like water struck from rocks?
Grease, grease is the word.