“I must go to Brisbane! Brisbane will broaden my mind!” — Steele Rudd, On Our Selection
“Circus Quirkus”, the roadcase said, standing beneath a truck at the gaping mouth of the Brisbane Convention Centre yesterday morning. Comic sans writing, Leunig-esque graphics and standing outside, amidst the palms and just-opening cafes of Southbank, I gave thanks to the gods of local colour. Labor campaign launch later this morning in this glass and steel behemoth, a Beattie-era addition extravaganza about as striking and original as a knock-off Alessi kettle, and it looked at first sight as if was going to be as safe, boring and devoid of real character as just about everything Labor has done this trip, a campaign devoid of a single memorable image, real Labor moment, or striking comeback.
So far the most cutting line came from the questioner at the final people’s forum, who asked why a forklift driver in Mt Druitt should pay for the baby of a “pretty lady lawyer” on the North Shore and more on that later. But hey, it was about to get better. Labor was launching and the circus was in town. Around the media entrance it felt more like a church service before the firing squad for some fellow troops. Changing hotels anyway, I got there ridiculously early, i.e. within the time specified by the four interlocking security services for the media to arrive. Thought there’d be no one, but of course there was Mark “Dorian Gray” Riley, his tousled magnificence, outside the venue doing a stand-up. I have about as third as many deadlines as he does, and I’m wearing a shirt that I have made smell better by using mustard, mustard as a cleaning agent, and I am wearing a BWS 4kg ice bag as underwear. Riley looks like he slept in cellophane
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Man, South Brisbane. I recall it just before it was planed flat for Expo 88, the event whereby Brisbane would show that the Joh years were over, that it was open for business. Working class houses and factories, streets of Edwardian buildings, and terraces, Queenslanders set further back, had it been saved it could have been one of the world’s great urban heritage areas like the art deco zone of Miami, or Savannah, Georgia, or further away, the Rocks in Sydney. Hipsters would have creamed their jeans and emptied their wallets. Instead it is what it is, second rate boosterist glass and steel. Brisbanians wonder why they missed out on one the world’s most liveable cities beanfest. This is why folks. And this is where Labor is launching.
Journos start to arrive, but there’s no spark, no jump in ’em today. Launches don’t matter, there’s a week to go, and the aggregate polls all suggest the state of play is the same as it was in the first week: Rudd jumped it to 51.5/49.5, and then it widened out to 52.5/48.5 or slightly worse, and the morning after all this it would be out to, gaak, 55-45 again; it’s Newspoll but even allowing for that. Barring the death or incapacitation of Tony Abbott — no, I am not calling for that — and a Rudd v Hockey choice, we’re all just vamping now.
In this chill, characterless mall-without-shops, we’re waved up three escalators by volunteers wearing “Kevin Rudd” branding, “Labor” so small you can barely see it. Nice people, but lumpy, chubby, a little corrugated. The Libs shils look like they’re eating seaweed, while waiting for the call from Goldman Sachs, or the producers of The Batchelor. The joint is as empty as a regional airport lounge, the second level spin managers appear to be vaguely sinister fatboys, Feeney-pods, looking out over the world for the angles. The catering consists of lamingtons and sweet biscuits, so at least there’s a sugar rush on the way. In the meeja room, everyone’s watching Tony Abbott on Insiders on iPads, but there’s all sorts of microdelays, so it’s like a weird Abbott echochamber. The journos look tired, a little starchy. Two women and one man overdressed, obvious walk-of-shame stuff.
Barrie Cassidy: “On climate change, we’ve just had the warmest east coast winter ever. Evidence of climate change.”
Tony Abbott: “Evidence that the weather changes. But for the record, I believe climate change is real, is happening …”
It’s all like that for 15 minutes. He never puts a toe wrong. Abbott sounds like the PM already, no doubt about it. This is the weekend after it all happened, when Labor tried to slam the Libs with Treasury costings, which turned out not to be, and senior public servants broke the omerta and clarified that they weren’t in fact costings. That sank it most likely, either because the public servants in question were being quite proper, or because they were torpedoing Labor again, and Abbott has now won and is PM, and shows it. He’s lost that sideways head tilt, that poker “tell” that he’s about to lie, and he’s calmer, stately, measured. He’s already prime minister, and Rudd has become the leader of the opposition. That happens, but Rudd hasn’t been able to use it to his advantage. If the strategy is still what I think it is — a micro-publics thing — then it isn’t working and can’t work now unless, unless, unless there is such a poll-public disjuncture that Rudd is sneaking it in. But having seen the sad desperado act of the Romney forces in ’12 — “the polls are skewed”, Peggy Noonan’s remark in The Wall Street Journal: “I think that Mitt Romney is winning this. I think he is sneaking in ‘like a thief in the night with good tools’ …” — I’m not going to go there. These are rags and veronicas of Laborist hope, kissed hard to produce miracles.
Corralled two hours earlier than necessary by a psycho paranoid media call, I cabbed it to West End, kept it waiting and slammed down a couple of breakfast screwdrivers just to make this bearable, with a dirty look from the barmaid. Fifteen men sucking XXXX Gold around me at 10am, and I’m getting disapproval. In Queensland. “You following the election?” I ask one old bludger. “Nahhhh.” Support any side? “Labor!” Gonna vote? “Nahhhhh.” Why not Labor this time? “‘Cos they’re all pooftas!” Let’s hope he’s in a safe seat, supposing those still exist. Cabbed it back, the cabbie dirty on me, god knows why, I’d waved to him from the bar. Back in the meeja room, they’re doing bag searches. “Anyone who wants to take a bag in, put it down there,” says one of the securicorps, indicating a long floor space. Everyone complies. Then the sniffer dog is brought in. It’s only a sandy lab, but it’s scary enough. He works the length of the bags, comes back down again, stops at a few. Journalists’ blood freeze, hoping that you can’t train dogs for both dope and explosives. I study Mark Riley’s face. The man has gone pale. Four jars of monkey glands in his holdall, the key to his youth, downed like oysters every evening; will the lab find them? Will he scoff them and be a puppy for ever? Luckily he is passed by. The dog gets, as reward, a play and a hug from its handler, which is all it wants, all it could ever want. Fifty journos look on hungrily. I want a hug and a play, their faces say. I want to be off the leash.
“The last launch was here,” said m’colleaugue Bernard Keane as we were herded in. “Actually,” looking round the media centre, “it was in this room. It was so low rent.” We went into the main room. It was very low rent. Labor had gone town hall, a little too much. Big flat room with a raised level in the middle, about 500 true believers brought in, solid folks in check short-sleeved shirts and plain dresses, about two thirds of them in red Labor T-shirts, which are a step up from the creepy “Kevin Rudd” ones. Less interesting than the mildly freakshow LNP crowd at the Abbott launch, which was a strange mixture of Kiwanis and bandidos, they’re decent rank-and-file types, old Labor timber, in the city of the world’s first Labo(u)r government. The true believers occupied five of the six sides of the room, with the sixth occupied by members of the current government, who looked like the defendants in those mass show trials the Chinese used to like to have. They didn’t look too happy to be here it must be said, but everyone else did.
Later, any of them asked would tell me that the polls were bullshit, that people were coming up to them everywhere and telling them how scared they are about an Abbott government. They were convinced that next Saturday would show an upset, and they were loving being here for the final burst. They cheered the room to the rafters as Hawkey came in, a little bent now, but still as tight and wirey as a sphincter, with golden Blanche by his side. And then Keating, getting a fresh cheer, coming in with John Faulkner who, vis a vis Blanche, is definitely the consolation prize. Everyone had been working hard, and this was their reward. And good luck to ’em, but god it was boring. Was it just me, or did it have a perfunctory quality? Albo was the warm-up act, charged with the task of going Abbott, after a welcome to country — by Lara Watson and her daughter Shania Watson, Birri Gubba women, which was good given the Libs’ had been done by Campbell Newman (“I acknowledge the traditional owners, most of whom are in the audience,” he did not say that) — and the national anthem by the whitest person I have ever seen, a sort of albino albino woman.
“Abbott had already done two daughters, and Rudd only has one, which is lack of foresight typical of the worst government in history — I can hear the lines now.”
He had a few good lines, did Albo — “there is no issue too big that Tony Abbott cannot show how small he is”; “Turnbull’s fraudband policy” — and true, the occasional weird one: “Broadband. Do it once. Do it right. Do it with fibre.” But by and large, I mean why haven’t any of these lines been IN THE ACTUAL CAMPAIGN? Why didn’t they rock out “fraudband” a week ago? Or anything like that. FFS. Then we had Therese, and I got the whole Galactic Empire thing again because my god what was she wearing, some sort of red robe with a neck halter, the princess empress from Proteus VII. I thought the speech was fey and blah and dutiful, but what could Labor do? Abbott had already done two daughters, and Rudd only has one, which is lack of foresight typical of the worst government in history — I can hear the lines now. “This is a man,” Therese said, “who can go to Bunnings for a ratchet and come back with potting mix, Blu-Tack, a bandsaw, three Kirsten Dunst DVDs and a dinghy.” I made her list more interesting, but I could see the ads now had it been close: worst PM in the world can’t even shop properly.
Albo had done a big referencing of Hawke as our “great prime minister” and then Keating as “our greatest ever treasurer”, which had PJK sitting there seething fit to burst, and there was no reference to his greatest political achievement of winning 1993 and seeing off pure noeliberalism in Oz for ever. Mmmm, why ever would that stunning victory be omitted? Was this a launch, or a bunch of people gathered to get their alibis straight? No Gillard of course, and when Rudd finally came in, he and Faulkner greeted each other in an embrace whose duration would need to be measured with a caesium atomic clock.
He wasn’t much higher than the rest of us — the TV feed showed him as surrounded by a forest of folks. I understood the demotic point, but it looks sinister, Friday the 13th-style as well. Thinking as he took to the stage he needed to, he needed to … what? What could he do now, what possibly? The launch is too late and doesn’t matter anyway, and even if it did Rudd just isn’t the bloke who could pull it out. What was needed 10 days ago was a reassessment, and then a going-in-hard, a real fear campaign, “these bastards are liars … that’s why they won’t tell you what they’re going to cut … they lie and lie and lie … they hate you”. Yes, or maybe no. Anna Bligh tried that and well.
M’colleague Keane has crunched the policy and he was doing god’s work because I could barely pay attention. The true believers seemed to like it but Rudd could have played the bandsaw and they would have stood to applaud. There wasn’t a single striking line, there wasn’t a through line argument, nothing persuasive, no big joined-up picture. OK, it wouldn’t change anything now, but the absence of it makes things rather worse I think. The stuff was all jobs and Labor creating them, and all very good, but very light on on attacking WorkChoices, or the WorkChoices II that might be coming. The biggest policy point was a commitment to TAFE, and to run a federal TAFE system if the states wouldn’t, and that was it. They cheered the TAFE thing to the rafters, a standing ovation, but seriously is that it? That’s what’s going to turn it ’round? There was nothing there, not a dram.
Then it was over, and everyone was gone, in about eight minutes. At the Lib launch everyone hung around to gladhand, meet and greet, plan to annex the Sudetenland, etc. Here there was nothing, no bar, no hospitality, people ran for the exits. Except for the pollies who ran for a VIP room closed off by a phalanx of T-shirted Kruddites, about as creepy an image as you can get. The Lib pollies mixed; Labor made it very clear that you either went to the VIP room or you went down the escalator and home. I don’t even, what? How does this party pull lame shit like this, this apparatchik nonsense? What do they not get about how they piss people off? Within 15 minutes, it was like the event never happened. True, some were heading for a Hawke-Beattie event down in Forde, but the lingering emptiness of the upper floors of the Convention Centre was something awful to behold. Crews were roaming, doing stand-ups with a couple of the spinners — the ghost of Bill Shorten being most prominent among them — trying to manoeuvre them into standing beside the “Circus Quirkus” banners all around.
Downstairs, as Labor folks were disappearing, people were arriving for the circus part of something organised by a fire brigade from a place called, true to tell, Closeburn. True to tell, too, it was hard to tell the circus from the crowd. “We sell tickets to businesses, they give ’em to underprivileged people, groups that sort of thing.” Labor’s launch had been filled with the old Labor aristocracy, and here were the others they have to get on side, the riot of colour, Jim Beam T-shirts and flowering, billowing rose tattoos up the calves, skinmetal and kids in princess costumes, and tiny Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts. Folks upstairs were beefy but solid with middle-aged spread. Here they were large, outspreading women in too-tight dayglo tops, thin men who hadn’t eaten since Wayne Goss was premier. And lest I be once again slated for noticing what the world looks like — not that there’s anything wrong with that. These folks, 3000 of them filling the Grand Theatre beneath Labor’s boutique launch, were having a lot better time. I pretended to be doing a story on the circus, which at least meant people would speak to me, but almost no one wanted to talk about politics. They will be marched to the polls on Saturday I guess, and vote Labor — or vote Clive Palmer, ‘cos hell I’m half thinking of doing that for shits and giggles, and not realise that their vote has flowed through to the Libs.
Is this why Labor is losing once-safe seats? Beneath them are a whole public they do not see, people who do not go to political parties for an identity, they go to a tattooist. Of the eight I speak to, three refusals to talk about politics, two anti-politics — “They’re all the fucking the same mate.” But what about …? “I said they’re all the fucken’ same.” — a neat young Nepalese-originated couple who earn between them $800 a week, and tell me they are voting Liberal, with the air of announcing something obvious. Two Labor waverers from a group excursion by Parents without Partners, in the chain-store clothes and homemade haircuts you get if you’re raising kids solo without being a pretty little lady lawyer from the North Shore of Sydney. “I’ll probably vote Labor, but they haven’t done much,” says Barbra, her name picked out in a diamante nametag round her neck. On what? “Education. We need more money on education. More money in the classroom more teacher attention to students.” Well, that’s Gonski. Do you know about Gonski? “Yes,” she says with that slight flinch you do, caught in a lie. The Gonski trap, summing up all Labor’s failures to widen its active base, its failure to speak not down to people, but across to them, in plain language, to come out from behind the phalanx of Kevbots protecting the VIP room.
And what if he had done it this day, Kevin? What if he had leaned into a microphone, from a real stage, and said “these arseholes want to take away everything you’ve got. Labor saved Australian from the financial crisis that trashed the world, and we put money in schools and health, and there’s going to be more. If you let these bastards in they will strip the skin off you and leave you in the dust. Don’t trust them. Don’t trust them. They were bastards once and they will be again.” Would that turn around west Sydney — or turn it off disastrously? I dunno, but I’m willing to say I would have liked to see a go at it yesterday, and I am not convinced it was any sort of strategic decision.
I think Labor has simply lost the ability to rouse a base and at the same time gather up the waverers for a victory. Better — than preparing for resurrection in the upper room of an empty place on a dead Sunday — to go down screaming that way, to go downstairs into the roiling, boiling mess of the circus.