“Seven fridges! Seven fridges!” At the Public Bar, Manuka, it had turned 11pm, and the late crowd were streaming in from staff parties on the hill, from Kennedy’s down the road, the young crowd, the staffers and journos, men with bad skin and half-pressed suits, gallery juniors in manic pixie dream girl glasses. And above all, those with the golden tickets, fresh from the hottest gig in town — the Latika Bourke party, held in some glittering penthouse on the hill, which, in the retelling by those who had skeeved their way in as a Plus One, took on the dimensions of a gilded Egyptian hall, with banqueting requisites borne in golden bowls by Nubian slaves (they are available from a party hire firm in Ainslie). The Elegant Young Man was particularly impressed by the wall of white wine. “Seven fridges! Seven wine fridges!”
“Why seven fridges? Christ, they’re not chilling red, are they? The AFP should be informed.”
“It’s all white.”
“As Christopher Hitchens said, ‘What the hell is white wine for?'”
“Who’s Christabel Hitchling?” said a drunk staffer beside the Elegant Young Man. I looked around. It was a young crowd. Wednesday night, nine days into the final sittings before the winter break. Nothing had got through, and everything was mired in confusion. The whole Parliament was circulating around the PUP-revhead bloc, who were unlikely to turn up here, and sure as shit weren’t at Latika’s. They were probably at the Sundowner in Queanbeyan, having a cheese sandwich and watching a Packed To the Rafters repeat, but still, they ran the joint. No one really knew where they were.
A taxi screamed to a halt diagonally outside and Sam Dastyari got out, which gave the evening a mild Scorsese buzz. He worked the room, back-slapping and cheek-kissing, with the speed of a gunman robbing an entire bus depot. I was impressed, but I did not yet know that he turns up to everything. I looked around. Well, that would be one of your seven lifetimes. Through the ranks of young Labor, crunching the numbers for Senator Buttfuzz, ex-head of the Frittlers Union, long days in the sepulchre on the hill, nights in pubs where no one is not in the business, marry one of your opposite numbers, and then disappear from the scene forever. No one here was older than I am, save Sid Maher, whom along with Paul Kelly I described last year as the Statler and Waldorf of Australian journalism. Kelly wasn’t here, of course — he was at home, in his recreational iron lung, absorbing nutrition from the air. So it was Sid and me. We did not speak and tried to avoid eye contact.
To be honest, on Monday and Tuesday I’d kind of lost track of what was happening in the actual politics. I do not think I was alone in this. The Coalition had negotiated over the weekend with Palmer, his advisers, possibly including the Australia Institute, and the PUPs last of all, and by Tuesday, the Senate had lost the brief flurry of excitement of last week, when miracle of miracles, no one knew how the vote would turn out. Actual politics occurring on the floor of a Parliament. Now, with Palmer having been offered a deal he could live with, the bill was moving to its slow close, debate allowed to flow freely now that it wasn’t going to change anyone’s minds.
Through the first week, when everything was in uproar, the press gallery and the commentariat had thrown up their hands at what was dubbed “chaos”. The consensus was near total and gave the strong impression that what was really being objected to was not Clive Palmer’s alleged erraticism, but the very fact of politics itself, of things being up in the air, subject to multiple forces. Myself, I would have preferred that the PUP/micro-party revolution hadn’t happened at all, and that the the Greens still had the balance of power. That not having happened, I was at least enjoying the fact that some of the furniture was being saved, and in a lively way. For everyone else, it was if the sky had fallen.
For days, Clive had been moving through the corridors of Parliament, drifting massive as the Titanic replica he wanted to create, holding impromptu press conferences as the mood took him, throwing off casual remarks about the issues of the day. It was a helluva way to do politics, but it had the effect of breathing a bit of life into the bizarre forbidden city of the Australian Parliament, this great disaster — a building isolated from everything in the city, in a city isolated from everything. Once you’re in Parliament, you’re there for the day — a place whose symmetry gives it an air of the infinite, as if its polished corridors continued forever — and with the facilities of a mid-level regional airport. Our political system breeds a self-selecting political network — it is too small to be a “political class”, that nonsense phrase — and the building and the city turn them into a priestly caste. Palmer and his motley litter of PUPs have changed the meaning of the general patterns of work and play.
By Wednesday, it was becoming clear that the basic forward motion of government might be in trouble. With half a dozen bills still to get through, and no idea what direction Clive might take people — especially on the mining tax repeal, where he had demanded that the abolition of social provisions, such as the schoolkids’ bonus, be stripped out — there was the real prospect that we might get to the end of the fortnight with only the carbon tax repeal got done.
When everyone was tangled up in this, George Brandis chose his moment and released a revised ASIO powers bill which mandated ten years in chokey for leakers, and for any journo who co-operates – and presumably editors and proprietors too. Brandis fairly shimmered in the blue room. He is so white. How white is he? Camera crews must use Brandis to adjust their white balance levels.
But I can’t say that many people found that terribly worrying. The corridor parties celebrating the very deep midwinter continued. The soirees in offices. Christmas in July shindigs. The place had the vague air of VE-Day. But it goes the other way too. My strategy for getting to Latika Bourke’s party was to go up to her and whine, “Latika, can I come to your party?” Her big eyes widened till they occupied most of her head, like Stewie in Family Guy. “Oh well, it’s just a small gathering for friends — hello hello?” she said, into a phone that had not rung. Christ, I thought, I used to think this was like a student union. Now it’s like high school. In year 12, I played guitar in the musical Pippin wearing a peasant smock — have you ever tried to play guitar wearing a peasant smock? — to meet girls. This is worse. Where was I?
Oh yes. I went to one or two of these office parties, settled into deep European-design armchairs, got poured a deep glass of red, and found Sam Dastyari in the seat next to me. “G’day mate, how are ya. Now let me tell you something …” he said, and I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t earlier described him as the Hanna-Barbera version of Senator Nick Xenophon, more angular, schematic and animated. He was about to give me some of the good stuff, and I set my mental tape deck whirring. And when I later checked that mental tape, having woken on the floor of a motel I didn’t recall checking into… nada. zip. Flllp. They had slipped something into the wine. Or I had forgotten drinking three bottles of the gumment stuff. Later I mentioned this strange effect to a staffer who’d been there. “Yeah, we wait until you see your eyes start to go. Then we reckon we can open up.”
By Thursday, we had a sort of perfect storm — silly season had fused with the process of winding up a not insignificant part of the Gillard/Rudd legacy. Outside, Jacquie lambie was riding a wooden bike round the forecourt, like some demented Mary Poppins come down the flagpole. It’s a product of Tasmania, I presume. If they sell it, they’ll make another one. Inside, Scott Ludlam, fighting a sort of dada rearguard action, managed to get the “assets recycling” bill — whereby the feds offer a cash incentive for state governments to sell off assets — renamed the “encouraging privatisation bill”, which made for some yuk yuks as the Coalition then had to vote for it in that form. Later, as Queensland LNP MP Ian Macdonald, a true piss-stain on the tightie whities of democracy, stood up in a high-viz jackets to say how much he liked miners, Ludlam photobombed him with a sign saying “SRSLY!”.
Props for stalwart resistance to the end. Ludlam was thrown out for that, but MacDonald was censured, too. Turns out the high-viz jacket was personalised — and a gift from the mining industry. Turns out the hero of the hour was Billy Heffernan, who was in Katharine Murphy’s office — Christmas in July meets Party of Two, I’m thinking feel-good summer romcom Murpharoo — and raced down to the floor to denounce this perversion of Parliament. Props to him, too. More stuff happened after that, but really you’ll have to ask someone else. I do recall, on Wednesday night, calling early the Elegant Young Man to see what was cooking. ”Oh I’m actually at Latika’s,” he said. I heard riotous laughter behind, and tinkling piano. Dammit, it was like one of those ’30s parties, where Gershwin would be persuaded to tickle the ivories. This needed to be handled with subtlety. So, “XXXXXX,” I whined, “tell Latika to invite me to her party.” “Oh, um, I’ve got another call. Byeeeeee,” he said.
Meanwhile, in parli, there was legislative resistance but it was mostly in vain. The program was marched through, and I haven’t even checked what happened. I’m presuming the social provisions were saved, and that, sent back to the Reps in that form, will be rejected as a huge budget hole, and there my parliamentary knowledge ends. Indeed, it was a double pike. I was neither at the Senate nor at the Kingston for Flamin’ Thursday, the night I was assured truly went off, all the folks who’d missed their flight home and had nothing to lose. There, they guzzled steaks straight from the grill, and engaged in tests of strength with each, tearing out chest hairs in handfuls. And the men are even worse. But I wasn’t up to it — Sid had outlasted me at Public, me slinking away, so I went back to the Pavilion on Northbourne — a sort of insta-retro ’70s place, part of the city’s collection of failed architectural obsessions — and watched three episodes of a Friends marathon on Go!. It seemed like a way of communing with the heartland.
Because really, the split between everyday life and the way we are governed in this country is near total — and consecrated in this building, this city, these old parties, this process. You could hardly say that Clive Palmer and PUP represent an outbreak of mass populism, in the old hard-Right style. Their appeal is, in part, a measure of the vacuum created by Australian politics — its decades-old lockstep two-party dominance, its wilful separation from the run of Australian life, its priestly sense of itself, its creation of a social caste around it — and the deep desire people have for anything, anything that will shake shit up a little. And there’s a lot to get through. No one knows what things will look like in three months. Or three weeks. Fun times. And I heard, though not from the Elegant Young Man, that late at night, to celebrate her passage from ABC to Fairfax, Latika was borne on a golden barge down Lake Burley Griffin and presented with a life-size statue of Gough Whitlam, carved out of butter. Let Ngambra into Lake BG melt/and the ranged arch of the wide empire fall. The great days have not yet begun. When everyone has seven wine fridges, we will know that the Scullin government has been vindicated.