“I have been bitter with you, my brother,
Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow
Was already on his face: ‘The emotions are not skilled workers.'”
— Ern Malley, Colloquy with John Keats
“It’s hard to see Abbott winning from here.”
— Bob Ellis, September 2, 2013
Flash forward: like in Mulholland Drive, all shiny surfaces and not knowing where you are in the diegesis. I’m so pissed I can barely stand up. Two bottles of white at the Five Dock leagues club at the end of the day while we waited to be decanted to a Liberal fundraiser, where there turned out to be a free bar, of which I appeared to have been the only journo to take advantage.
It’s the Lib fundraiser of something something at a resto called Le Montage near Balmain of all places. Everyone’s here — Abbott, Howard, Robb, Bishop, Bishop, Heffernan, etc, etc. And of course that arsehole Roger Corbett, that stooge, yukking it up at a Liberal function. A journo takes a photo of him. He beetles over.
“I didn’t give you permission to take my photo!” Gak. Torn between the gonzo ideal of dumping my free wine over him and the fact that Crikey would never get a press pass again. I restrain. The room — blue ’80s lighting, jellyfish chandeliers, like being inside Julie Bishop’s head, spins as I barrel towards Robb … and he tells me something very interesting …
1. That’s Amore (Flemington Markets, Sydney)
Forklifts everywhere in the mad ramjam of the Sydney markets, dozens of ’em crossing back and forth between the dozen or so long, low buildings, the enormous sheds and pitches the low hangars of fruit in boxes and boxes and boxes, crates of oranges, of avocados, pallets of green bananas and on and on. In the middle of it, there’s a shit band playing. Rock Around the Clock, Route 66.
Kerbside Attraction. OK they’re not shit, they’re pretty good, bunch of middle-aged guys rocking it out, the lead singer has either a bad rug or hair that looks like it. Not bad at all, but it’s 7am for chrissake, I do not want to hear this music now.
There are stalls and dancing of sorts, there’s a dancing giant banana and a dancing apple and of course what no such gathering is without, a Paedo-Bear, spruiking for cancer, or against it. I think it’s a bear. It might be a chipmunk. With its fat little outstretched cheeks, it might be Craig Laundy, Liberal challenger for Reid.
But oh no, Laundy is here, working the market. So’s Andrew Fraser. Premier Barry O’Farrell in a $9 top with Foster’s badges on it, like an OAP looking for discarded parsnips. John Sidoti, state Lib, Keatingesque, Joejacksonish, rocking out a black-and-pink houndstooth jacket, and anyone who can pull that off gets my vote anytime. And of there’s some joker in a Joe Hockey suit. Oh no, actually it’s Joe Hockey.
We’re all here, tired, shivering press, pollies, and the thousand souls who work here for today’s mango auction, an event in the calendar, when the first box of mangos is auctioned for charity, prostate and other s-x cancers, which are apparently in the tank for Tony.
The Sydney markets are the world everyone is here beneath these dull green shed roofs, Chinese-Australians here a hundred years, Italians speaking dialect, Vietnamese strivers and that mid-range folks you can only describe as wogs, Australian/Mediterranean, not the old SBS crowd, exuberant, and Oz-accented what Miami calls guineas, the Tsiolkas massive.
But man, it’s so Mafia. “This is like The Sopranos,” said someone, which is a solecism since it actually is what The Sopranos is based on, a lot of gold chains a lot of black hair dye and a lotta, lotta cash. Kevin Rudd was here a coupla weeks ago and was both cheered and also roundly booed, which any fool could have told them would happen.
And on Wednesday morning, in a parade of white comm cars that made it looked like he was arriving at a mob wedding, Tony Abbott motored into town to own this place, totally own it, and not only beat out Kevin Rudd and Labor, but make them kiss the whip. And as he got out of the car and strode through the crowd, you saw how easy it was to just give up and go with Tone. There’s an element of sadism here. Rudd was roundly abused when he came here two weeks ago. “Get out of our lives!”
It’s so over. It’s not merely over by the numbers and the issues, it’s over by the energy, the glamour, the style. Tony Abbott, tight and muscular beneath a blue suit, still with the simian look about the face, strides into the market like he owns the joint, which he clearly does. It’s like finding yourself in a Weegee photo, for goddsake.
“Abbott making his way towards the stage looks like a crooner at a mob wedding, singing his way out of a lot of debts. Kevin Rudd, at Flinders Street Station, looks like one of the puffy comic suits dancing to old Phil Spector tunes here, the apple, the banana or the Hockey.”
Advisers behind him — Peta Credlin, every Toorak/north shore arts/law student you ever met, at the parties she shouldn’t have been at or you shouldn’t have, a little wild but the brain going like a Cray supercomputer. Phil Ruddock, aged sage, sshrrinking into his own bones, his skin like an overpriced deli cheese, following Tony a few places behind. The Abbott massive part pretty much adoring market traders and power towards the stage.
He has, does Tony Abbott, with his simple message — stop the waste, stop the boats — pure futurismo, the energy of audacity. Abbott making his way towards the stage looks like a crooner at a mob wedding, singing his way out of a lot of debts. Kevin Rudd, at Flinders Street Station, looks like one of the puffy comic suits dancing to old Phil Spector tunes here, the apple, the banana or the Hockey. As Abbott, daughter in tow, takes the stage. The content is simple enough. This election is about the carbon tax. It was about the debt but that has gone. Abbott, confident of victory is now going to wedge Labor in the post-election hot mess.
The auction starts. Abbott in total confidence, holds up the box of mangos as the bids rise. “These are worth more because Tony Abbott touched them,” says the auctioner. “In that case they should auction off DELETED DELETED DELETED AND DELETED,” says a journo behind me. Afterwards, and with Kerbside Attraction back to give us more retro hits before we have had our second coffee, Abbott and Co take a tour go deep into the refrigeration unit. “Are they reshelving Ruddock,” I ask. No one laughs. No one. Save Mark Riley, of course. Always save Mark Riley.
Nothing about this feels like campaigning. He’s not even exerting himself. They all love him here. This is the new king, come from elsewhere, touring the fiefdom he is soon to inherit.
Then Abbott is gone in a blizzard of comm cars, and we all scramble back to the bus.
Interlude. On the Bus
A Liberal adviser has come aboard for a short hop. Working the phones, doing the important stuff.
“Hello hello. Hello darling. Darling, would you pick up some fake tan for me? Because I’m going to wear this white dress to the party and I can’t decide whether to go shoulder out or in. OK, love you. Bye.”
“Hello, hello, listen, I booked to rent a white dress for Saturday. Now I have some concerns …”
“Which daughter was Abbott with, Bridget or Frances?”
“Yep — Bridget shoulders, Frances face.”
And on we go.
2. Mitre Ten Matraville
An hour’s driving, the vast no-space of Sydney offering no clues, the camos desperately trying to text clues to the broadcast vans following, and eventually we dock into a damn Mitre Ten in Matraville. Good god, what the hell. Is this just grinding the heel in? Therese Rein said fondly of K-Rudd that he went to Bunnings to get a mozzie candle and came back with half the store.
Is that going to be some sort of tie-in to that. “Kevin uh Rudd uh went to a surplus and came back with a $300 billion debt. We’re here in Mitre Ten because we are building the infrastructure for the new Australia.” Jesus, by now there must be an app for this. Philip Ruddock, having avoided the freezer, is trailing behind. A woman, who police reports might later say was “in possession of brown skin and ethnic hair”, approaches him, to ask about bringing out her sister from Peru. Boy, oh boy, was that a bad object choice.
“I want to get her out for a year.”
“Well, they will want to know if she’s going to leave.”
We’re here with Brownyn Bishop, who is as small and shrunken as Ruddock, like travel versions of themselves. Like pieces from a bespoke chess set. Like the couple from the top of a cake of the strangest wedding you’ve ever seen. I’ll stop now. Bronwywn, here because this is a seniors event, keeps getting swept behind. No one appears to be wrangling her. She has to clack clack clack over concrete to catch up. Was this woman once a threat to the Hewson leadership? How strange, how strange.
Then it’s the set up before the blue “For a strong Australia” scrim, taken everywhere and unfurled. Brotherhood of the travelling scrim. Though he’s won, Abbott is still trotting out the triad of line that has become his mantra: Scrap the tax. Fix the waste. Stop the boats. At the market. Scrap the tax. Fix the waste. Stop the boats. Here. Scrap the tax. Fix the waste. Stop the boats.
There’s some piddling announcement on money for companies who hire seniors who are post-50 and — what? Seniors are post-50? Jesus. Mainly we’re here to support the candidate Michael Feneley, going for the seat that Lurch Garrett is vacating. “Mr Fenely is a professor of cardiology, etc, etc.: Now would be a good time to move that sudden coronary forward I think, not knowing that one day later, Joe Hockey will be doing just that as he announces the costings.
Pointless announcement over, thrown open for questions. No one gives a shit about anything other than the hapless Greenway candidate Jaymes Diaz, who had, as one reporter put it “gone into a candidate protection program”. “Look, all our candidates are good candidate,” Tony says. “Dr Feneley is a good candidate, Jaymes Diaz is a good candidate …”
Feneley, who has most likely saved hundreds of lives, has no doubt been propelled into politics by seeing the bureaucratic clusterfuck that is Australian hospital administration and spent 12 years training to the point where he could begin his profession, looks like he’s just had one of those heart attacks he knows so much about. Welcome to politics, pal.
The whole thing is going too long. No one knows how to wind it up. No one knows why we’re here. Tony could go off the road for two days and still win. Feneley’s either going to win or not. Round the edges of the crowd, Credlin is circling, Abbott’s shadow/anima at a distance, boxer’s chin jutted out, strange dayglo beads, New Orleans souvenirs. Girl who went to the Mardi Gras on the day Margaritaville was closed for Jimmy Buffett’s birthday. Or something.
Back to the bus. “That’s an interesting pin, Mr Ruddock,” a journo says. “It looks like French Foreign Legion?”
“No it’s from Lebanon.”
“Hezbollah,” I say. “Life member. Twinned with Ryde Kiwanis.”
He elects not to hear me. And on we go.
3. Penrith Council Chambers
Even the boyish press wrangler looks embarrassed. “This is a local story. A very local story.”
Off the bus into the bunker-like council chamber. A chart on an easel. “The Jane Street Extension” and a map. Jesus, you have got to be kidding. And, oh, it’s Fiona Scott, local candidate we have just detoured an hour to drop in on. What a surprise. Prancing around like the pony chosen by the birthday girl. Our Little Fiony.
“The Jane Street extension will allow the bypass of Mulgoa Street near the roundabout,” Abbott says in this absurd farce where something a candidate learnt 10 minutes ago is recited, as if Syria, a $300 billion debt and Jane Street is all he has been thinking about. The pony quietly grunts and flutters beside him.
Questions? On Jane Street? “Yeah, is Jane Street congested because of asylum seekers as Ms Scott seemed to suggest on Four Corners on Monday?” Good on the Oz travelling press. I mean that. In the States they wouldn’t say boo. “Well, I think we’ve dealt with that …” The thing is wrapped up early. Tony strides out, Fiona all but wrapped in him. She, doorstopped by ABC.”‘Do you stand by your comments …”
Flash of anger from Tony. “Look, we’ve answered all that …” He is now in power-mode, no supplication.
“Excuse me, Mr Abbott, I’m talking to Ms Scott.”
The pony falters.
“I, uh, reiterate what Tony said.” She uh, reiterates reiterate.
Good get. And on the bus, sandwiches. Carbs infantilise everyone.
“You don’t believe that, do you? Gonski, NDIS, FairWork, NBN, PPL, there’s been no stand against collectivism. You’re just modified statists.”
4. St Mary’s, Corinthian Door Factory
The whole procession now. Abbott, Ruddock, Julie Bishop, Fiona Scott, Credlin. Get the set.
The factory seems to slabs of wood they call doors. They come in as slabs of wood, and they seem to go out untransformed. I can’t work out what is actually done to them. Save for they are wrapped in batches by the largest automatic clear plastic wrap machine. I look for Riley, to see if he knows the make of it, but he left the bus earlier he’s well out of it.
The camos make up press lines, better than the ones the advisers come up with
“Well, uh, Mr Rudd opened the door — opened the door — to the question of trust, and here I am to go through it.”
We’re all in orange safety-jackets, Ruddock included. Like life-jackets and we just fell off a boat. Hahahahahaha. Not.
On Twitter, the Left is melting down into despair. It will be nothing compared with what happens the next day, when the grrrr “costings” are announced, and foreign aid gets a slug, the ARC gets a slug — “we must defend funding for study of public art response to climate change” — and an internet filter is announced and prompts a brief flurry of chaos, which, had it been Labor, would have been page-one above-the-fold banner head on all Murdoch tabs, and is instead p.23 behind the bowls scores.
God, I can’t feel that despair, watching Abbott here, among people paid to spend theur lives manipulating inert matter done in slices, hemming and hedging on FairWork. Will Abbott win? Yes. Will he get control of the Senate? Maybe. If he doesn’t have outright control, will he have a right-wing cabal in control? Most likely. Will there be a “black hole”, an uh-oh, a this-means-changes-to-our-plan etc, etc? Maybe.
But all this has been fought, for Abbott and the Libs, on alien territory. Yes, there are all sorts of small things they can get away with, but on the big things — well, people will notice should these suddenly be wound back. And though you curse the lack of attention of many, they will be dismayed should those promises be broken — just as many of Howard’s “battlers” were genuinely shocked at WorkChoices, and this attack on them.
Look, when all is said and done, we live in a country where the Right must agree to: public health, wage and conditions fixing, a living wage, superannuation, paid parental leave, state school support and funding, national disability insurance, readily available abortion and much, much more, to even get to the gate. Feeling sick and sorry for yourself? Go to the US and talk to door factory workers there, and see what their lives are like. Talk to the activists who have to fight against compulsory vaginal probes for a termination at eight weeks. To the seniors living in their kids’ living rooms because they have gone bankrupt paying for their cancer meds. Go to the UK and see what it’s like to be run by a slick crowd of Old Etonians, with a license to enforce a punishing austerity, and an upper house that includes 24 bishops. To a place where your accent will pin you, at age 15, to your life, like a gassed moth straight out of a belljar. Go there, and then come back and see not tragedy, but opportunity.
Stop sooking in other words, about the Australia we never got, the endless late Whitlamite lament, and start feeling the political and cultural power do have, vested in what has already been conceded as right. Prepare to fight on that terrain in a way — that I and many others will never understand — that Labor decided not to, out of some mix of cowardice and diffidence and demoralisation and focus groups. Welcome the fight against a business party that has less legitimacy for its desired program than any party going into power in recent decades.
Mind you, if anyone wants me, I’ll be in London. But hey, the struggle is global. Just the TV is better over there.
5. Le Montage
Last go round with the Libs at Le Montage. You guys. Once again with the symbolism pre-supplied. That’s efficiency. To quote Khrushchev, I will be voting for the Conservatives in the next election.
Fuck, it was alarming, though, even before I was completely obliterated. The blue light, the ’80s pseudo-onyx black pillars — you guys really are a bunch of tasteless lifeless suburban craps deep down, aren’t you, there’s really no hope for you — and the laughter was uproarious, the hob-nobbing unconstrained, the energy feral. Had George Grosz been there to capture it, he would have been accused of restrained realism. Pugs and pigs in pearls and shiny suits.
I, for one, welcome our new Orc-like masters.
The usual speeches from Howard and Abbott, and then an interesting one, a clue, from Andrew Robb.
“We believe in the individual, and Labor believes in the dead hand of collectivism,” etc, etc.
Aftewards I staggered up to him more dead than alive. Me, not him
“You don’t believe that, do you? Gonski, NDIS, FairWork, NBN, PPL, there’s been no stand against collectivism. You’re just modified statists.”
“Ah,” he said, “but watch what we do. In schools, for example, there’ll be a lot of change, a lot more autonomy for schools, a big shake-up in how health is delivered. That’s where the individualism will come out. You just watch.”
We will, Andrew, we will.
Back outside, I threw up into the garden. I’ll take that as a comment, I thought. In the taxi queue, a couple from the bash try to cut in front of me. The dispatcher says: “I’m sorry, that was this man’s taxi.”
They, beige and mild pinstripe, snotty and imperious by turns, remonstrate, but the guy’s firm, and I’m away, watching them through the back window, and then the Harbour Bridge looming huge, vast and strong and something everyone can cross.
That, that will have to do. For a sign ahead, for how it may play out, that will have to do.