January, ah sweet January, lazy days, with the glistening of coconut oil on skin and the thwock of leather and willow. And for those not into plating and BDSM, there’s cricket and the beach. And, of course, the annual release of the cabinet papers on the 25-year rule. For the past while it’s been a little dull. Hawke hated Keating, Keating hated Hawke; stuff about timed phone calls and how Meg Ryan got her hair like that. But this year, coming out of the past — like Milli Vanilli and Gloria Estefan doing a super-grouping of Phil Collins’ “Two Hearts” (yes, it is 25 years since Milli Vanilli. You’re old, dude) — was this year’s Proustian Rush: “Cabinet papers reveal confusion over ‘vague’ plan to build futuristic Japanese city in Australia”. God, yes, the “Multi-Function Polis” (MFP), the super-city the Japanese were going to build in the middle of the Australian desert. The crazed proposal that became a hot-button election issue when Andrew Peacock plunged round desperately for an issue in the 1990 election. How he, in fact, won a majority of the vote that year. And how your correspondent may have inadvertently helped him do it. There but for the grace of AEC … so sit right back and you’ll hear a tale.

The year was 1987, a distant era in which Japan was a fearsome capitalist power that, according to popular culture, was hell-bent on taking over the world through sinister oriental wiles. Hard to remember, now that China is the rising power, and Japan is an economically becalmed island of vending-machine-using panty-sniffers who worship a kitten with no mouth, but there it is. In 1987, during trade talks over mineral resources, extraction at bargain-basement rate thereof, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) proposed the idea of a smart-industry-centric super-city, to be built in Australia.

The MFP would be like Japan’s Tsukuba Science City, but on steroids — university departments would be based there, right next door to major tech corporations. Housing would be dedicated to staff there, so that everyone could walk to work. The Greek idea of the “polis”, the livable modular city, would be emphasised. All very civilised — although of course it meant that who got to live there would be controlled to some degree by the corporations themselves. Oh, and there was one other small detail MITI wanted — the MFP would be a zone of shared sovereignty in certain aspects, such as visas, tax, company law, and the like. It would, the position paper noted, be part of the vanguard of this new concept, “globalisation”, by which ancient boundaries, old hatreds — and current parliaments — could be over-ridden.

Australia’s trade supremo at the time was John Button, whom the Japanese liked, because they saw him as on their level. Literally. He saw himself, not inaccurately, as one of the few people focused on the idea that we were running an economy on wool and wheat there was no longer a market for, with a bunch of rust-bucket industries that would seize up entirely the minute the tariff walls were lowered below a certain ratio (whose 1986 song Shack Up you should listen to as you read, for period atmos. Cassette-era. It took 18 months for Basia Bonkowski to pass this stuff on). He was thinking big thoughts about technology and society — one of his senior advisers was my ex-tutor in transcendental phenomenology, whom Button had taken on so as to give a fully Heideggerean account of the ontological nature of open-cut mining. Plus robots. Button’s hope was that some of the bootstrapping ingenuity, work ethic, etc, of Japan could be transferred with trade, so that we could become a smart nation, careering down what was not yet called the information super-highway — ambitious, because, this is worth recalling, Australia was not yet connected to the internet — listening to Tucker’s Daughter by Ian Moss.

But I don’t think for one moment that Button, that pre-wizened, sceptical old Frodo of the industrial front line, thought that the MFP was anything other than nonsense-and-unicorn-farts, at least in its wackier aspects. I think he just believed it would generate something, a knowledge hub, an industrial park or similar, and the rest would fall over sideways. No doubt, with that inscrutable smile that he tended to display when, in later years, importuned by poets wanting to talk about mandatory detention at book festival launches, he said yes to the proposal, and set up a competition by which each state would compete for the right to host the MFP. With no clear idea what it was, Canberra passed it down to the next level of government who had not a clue what it was, and who all started to create MFP development units, like six groups of people trying to plug their laser-disc players into their graphic equalisers, using only the instructions written in Taiwan.

Your correspondent joined the MFP unit of Victoria’s Department of Industry, Technology and Resources — a title that even then had a flyblown ’60s air about it — in the middle of 1989, when the process had been underway for about nine months, off and on. There was still no clear guide as to how the assessment of the six bids would be done — even Tasmania was having a go, although their proposal turned out to be some sketches of the renos for Trev’s shed on the back of old apple tin labels — so we were all chugging along nevertheless in our separate cities.

“The unit had spawned think tanks, discussion papers, local government submissions … and like an ancient empire, had forgotten its own sprawling myths … most of the correspondence, however, was bullshit.”

The office was in the Rialto building, and every day I turned up to work at a desk that overlooked Southbank, which was still a declining industrial site, full of magnificent old Victorian and Edwardian factory buildings. I doubt their original inhabitants had enjoyed them much, but they were still there. Southbank was to be developed as a retail hub, and I presumed, without much doubt, that they would simply refashion these buildings and create a heritage area. It was the tail-end of the most triumphal years of the Cain era, which had seen Melbourne transformed from a pretty dour city into one jumping with arts festivals, painted trams and loosened up liquor laws, which had kick-started nightlife. Though his pudgy Napoleonic planning minister “Snappy” Tom Roper was hell-bent on pulling down every building worth keeping, we managed to hold a few back. There was no casino, no CityLink, and Docklands, the Warsaw end of Collins Street, was still to come. The whole festivals thing would soon get out of control, like cultural prickly pear, but it was a pretty good time, in those Living Years (no. 10, 1989).

My first task as part of the MFP unit was to read back over all the correspondence leading up to that point. The unit had spawned think tanks, discussion papers, local government submissions (“Knox City — future home of the MultiFunctionalPolis!”), and like an ancient empire, had forgotten its own sprawling myths. It needed someone to remember what it was, and that was me, the graduate management trainee, in the public service for a year to pay off student debts:

“What other positions did you apply for?”
“Well, er, none”
“Do you see yourself having a career in the public service?”
“Well, no, not really”
[pause, sigh] “You start on Feburary 1”.

In the intervening two months I worked as a spot welder on the line at Toyota in Fishermans Bend. (Never, never, never buy an 88/89 Camry). Had I had a little more experience before doing so, I would have realised that the MFP had two aspects to it — the part that was noxious, and the part that was bullshit. The noxious part was its elitism and its early bid to create a supra-national network for the global winners in the emerging information era. In the same era, the EU (with the enthusiastic participation of Margaret Thatcher) was re-engineering itself as a means by which to override local parliaments that might be taken by parties representing the working-class, however vestigially.

Gated communities, the staple of horror communities such as Brazil, were being exported to the first world, especially the US. Communist China was running Free Trade Zones, capitalist slave hells walled off from their still-socialist economy, in Shenzhen and Shanghai. This was the real historical process occurring in the wake of the ’70s collapse of the Left, an occurrence to which the collapse of the Soviet Eastern bloc was a mere historical correction. Epic new divisions were being created, on a world scale. It was alarming, to a degree that not even the Golden Palominos’ groundbreaking A Dead Horse could lift the gloom off.

Most of the correspondence, however, was bullshit. Hundreds of pages were devoted to the transcripts of focus groups, academics, shonky consultants and a few sci-fi writers, assembled to think big about a project whose eventual proposed Victorian siting now looked like being Werribee. In hotel conference rooms, with fancy sandwiches, the new tapas snacks that were all the rage, and laptops the size of MRI machines, thinkers thunk their thoughts about offices situated on monorails, GM-engineered gardens, and humans with communications implants so they could, stop me if you’ve heard this, speed like cyborgs down the information super-highway.

Gavan McCormack, the Asia specialist who had first spotted the MFP proposal, and had written for it in Arena, which I had just started to work with, inclined towards the noxiousness/”bullshit” interpretation of the project. I was a little more apocalyptic at the time, and, immersed in it, found it an alarming and alienating vision of the future, all the more so as everyone at work said how great it was. I had briefing meetings with planning supremos and for the first time met people I would describe as genuine megalomaniacs, wild-eyed, spreading huge charts across salmon-pink-and-grey boardroom tables, showing how the whole city could be oriented along new boulevards, reconstructing the entire original Victorian plan, bulldozing towards the sea. I realised then how it would be worth spending 15 or 20 years doing the petty stuff a town planner has to deal with, to get a shot at this sort of power, to set down how things would be for millions for a century to come. That was certainly the belief of the MFP team, especially as regarded the imminent “public consultation” process, which we were injuncted to “win”, which meant get the damn thing past any objection. It was an edgy time, as regards Asian-Australian relations.

The east-Asian peoples we are now told to regard as dependable immigrants who integrate (compared to west-Asian Muslims), were then seen by many as culturally alien people who would never integrate (compared to southern Europeans, who decades earlier had been swarthy Catholics who would never … and on it goes). Geoffrey Blainey, drunk with sudden publicity, had started a brief few years as an anti-Asian rabble-rouser, declaring (as Jeff Sparrow reminded us last year) that places like Cabramatta were sinister ghettos. Demographically, Australia was still a European-dominated settler nation. Beating back racism was fine, but the MFP unit, under direction from on high, was effectively wrapping the allegedly anti-racist character of the proposal with the surrender of sovereignty, and the grim techno-control future it proposed. At that point, realising that the elitist ideal of the MFP was being extended into government practice, and in cahoots with a couple of people from the outside, I decided to leak it.

Having decided to do that, it quickly became clear that it couldn’t be done by selecting important documents in the office. One needed time to work out how the whole thing fit together, so I made the decision to essentially copy the entire MFP file and assemble it outside the office. Thus every evening, earning the kudos of my superiors, I stayed for about 10 minutes after everyone had left — i.e. until 4.56pm — and left with a thick wodge of files in a briefcase. Sometimes in a briefcase and a gym bag. I took them to a higher education institution that better remain unnamed — an early example of industry/education synergy — where three of us then photocopied the whole thing, setting up a production line of sorts. The old-style, pin-folder files couldn’t be broken up, so the pace was slow.

Over the next two weeks, I moved through the entire wardrobe-sized filing cabinet, from A to Z, and then onto the think tank transcripts, in huge white laminated folders. I got lazy and began photocopying files in the office to save time — including pink-jacketed ones, whose colour indicated that they were not to be photocopied. It was an early lesson in how suspicion and plain sight works, because I was tumbled doing this several times. But it was not only that the rest of the MFP team could not imagine subterfuge in general — they did not even have a healthy level of suspicion. We were engaged on a months-long process to fool the Australian public into believing that the MFP did not involve the proposed transfer of Australian sovereignty, yet they had compartmentalised this activity to such a degree that they could not recognise duplicity when it was staring them in the face.

After 10 days or so of hours-per-night photocopying, we had the whole file, about 6000 pages, which, removing repetitions, we winnowed down to 4000 pages. We then decided that the only way to get on top of this was to read the whole thing, and create our own filing system, cross-referencing the entire shadow file along lines of real political power, such as cross-bureaucratic connection and ALP political finagling whereby “possible” MFP sites would pop up at wildly inappropriate but marginal seats. That took a month or so, with me forwarding the project by day, and trying to deconstruct it by night. But once again, it was worth it.

By the end of it, we understood the project better than anyone who was actually involved in the project. And one thing stood out loud and clear: no-one involved in this thing, on the Australian side, at any level, had the slightest belief in it whatsoever. Drop-kicked from department to department — the drop-kick was yet to be a lost art in them days — time for some more music? Here’s The Shower Scene From Psycho with One — the entire MFP project was built of political advantage, bewilderment and vague fear. The only people who’d got really excited about it were the expert focus groups, and by now I’d recognised that one of the thought-leaders was a local junior academic who had developed such a bad skag habit that he managed to get himself registered as a rare legal morphine user, and was by now teaching classes and running seminars with eyes bulging like Marty Feldman’s (who is … oh never mind).

Once we had a whole overview of the project, and in my last weeks with the unit, we were able to leak it in targeted ways, doling out different parts of the story to different outlets. To Fairfax we emphasised what a shonk the local parts of the process were, how anything but the natural place for an MFP — like, duh, near a university — were being emphasised, and gave them a small file. To parts of the ABC, it was the way in which the process was pseudo-consultative, and the fix was in. Even The Australian was enough of a real newspaper in those days to get some of the drier economic stuff, about how the figures being used to buttress the MFP argument were pure rubber. By now the Rainbow Alliance, the pre-Greens progressive network, had become involved and made it a major part of their campaign. It had also caught the attention of some unsavoury far-right groups. We weren’t working with them of course, so ignored them, which turned out to be a mistake.

The big one we were after was Four Corners. By early 1990, they were on to it, and we thought that the episode, due for sometime in the middle of the year, might be the apex of the movement against it.

But that was a long time to wait, and in the interim, the campaign began to flag. I was going around the country talking to meetings organised around the topic, but it was clearly running out of steam. Increasingly, parts of the campaign involved learning how to disagree with racists who thought they supported you. The hinge point of the campaign, and the moment when I realised that these things had to be carefully planned, was when the RSL climbed enthusiastically on board opposition to the venture in early 1990. But that was nothing as to what happened when Bob Hawke announced a snap election campaign on a weekend in early March, 1990, and the Monday papers were filled with Andrew Peacock’s announcement that the Coalition’s major election issue would be defeating the Multi-Function Polis.

This was bizarre, amazing and ghastly at the same time. I was staying in Kings Cross, and I recall buying a half-dozen interstate papers at the Macleay Street newsagent and spreading them out in one of those now-vanished European cafes with hookers drinking hot chocolate, and black forest cake sweating in the front window. Schizophrenia must be like this, I thought, the moment when you suddenly believe the TV is talking to you. The MFP had been my obsession for six months, three of them seriously sleep-deprived. Few others had really understood what it represented. Now it was being put at the centre of the campaign.

To a degree, there was little to complain about. Peacock’s team was playing the issue smartly, focusing on exactly what we had said about the thing — that it was an elitist enclave. However, since their lives — from schools to clubs to networks — were a series of elitist enclaves, it was hard to believe they were really sincere about that. Whether they “wanted” it or not, others took the race angle, and it was by that process that the issue carried itself along. This double-play put Labor in a difficult position — especially Hawke, the by-now beleaguered fourth-term hopeful, whose ’70s “man of the people” image was by now seriously tarnished. He assailed Peacock for “insulting the Japanese”. But it was 1990. There were survivors of the Thai-Burma railroad who hadn’t even hit pension age yet, and the resources-based, client-customer relationship that had developed between Australia and Japan since was something that had never been thrashed out. Paul Keating’s new nationalism, trying to orient to Kokoda rather than Gallipoli as a national moment — and to have the history out in the open — was still a couple of years off.

Just as Japan was beginning its final phase of economic dominance — thought then to be eternal — all sorts of things, left unsaid for a while, burst out raw and ugly. The press, Left and Right, still of a basically liberal disposition, turned on Peacock, for the same reason they had turned on Peacock’s predecessor, Howard, for wondering aloud whether Blainey didn’t have a point, and that Asian immigration might be slowed a little. The press had called him unfit to be leader, ever — the strongest cry coming from Paul Kelly. Must be yet another one of them, because the journalist with that name has spent years assailing “Howard doubters” as out-of-touch elitists — and they said the same thing of Peacock. The same pro-globalisation push would go on to say that Peacock was punished for his crude demagoguery by losing the election.

And that is a falsification of history worthy of being called Orwellian, because Peacock didn’t lose the election. He won it. He bloody won it, to his supporters’ total Dee-Lite. Sure, it was on the raw numbers only, 50.1% to 49.9%, a 1% swing to the Coalition, but it’s only our addled system that made it yet another election result in which the voters do not get their explicit decision respected. Less galling than the 1998 reverse result — a real travesty — its subsequent rewriting as a “solid Hawke victory” shows you how much myth there is in history.

By now, of course, history was over. Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History” had been published as the Eastern Bloc fell. The USSR had a year left on the clock. The site for the MFP, part of this brave new post-histoire, had been announced, and it was South Australia, and not only that backwater state far from the Gold Coast where MITI had always wanted it to be, but in Gawler, a godforsaken area of salt flats. Or “Elizabeth II”, as someone soon dubbed it, after the deathful new town created for car workers in the 1950s.

Through sheer pique there seemed some determination to continue with what was clearly a dying project on the part of the Hawke — soon to be Keating — government, but in May of that year the Four Corners episode aired, and it was a doozy, playing back to bewildered MITI executives all the wacky ideas I’d first read less than a year earlier in the MFP Melbourne office. “Human implants? Uh, nooooooo,” said one mid-level functionary, not entirely clear what he was being asked about. By then the thing was as good as dead, killed to some degree by ridicule, but mostly by the attempt to con Japan into funding urban development in a place no one wanted to live in anyway.

“The MFP was an early attempt to streamline the process of accumulation — turn universities into corporate feeders, cities into corporate domains …”

Later testimony — the thing was successively defunded, and finally killed in 1998 — showed that MITI couldn’t believe the ride they were being taken for, with the Australian federal system used to turn the project into some mad pass-the-parcel. They had wanted the government to plonk the thing down in the Gold Coast hinterland, with airports, universities, beaches and golf courses in easy reach, the perfect place for a science city/gated community/resort. By the time the South Australian decision had even been announced, $150 million had been chewed up. The whole boondoggle was the ultimate example of why Australia wasn’t going to be able to reshape itself into the ends-focused, state-corporation-university Team Australia on the Japanese model. We were (and are) a country where everyone was going to take their cut, rort the grants, hire the mates who would hire them in five years and fund it all by chipping bits of the continent off and floating it northwards at a fraction of its high-end value. On a positive note, we were a mere six months away from peak Ratcat.

By then, I had left the public service and been half-heartedly threatened with prosecution under the Public Service Act, for removing an entire department-worth of files. That was never seriously intended, although they remarked sternly that my career in public administration was effectively over.

The city and the state were sailing onwards. Over the years, the deserted land seen from the MFP office became Southbank. None of the great red-brick buildings were saved, and the once cool river frontage now looks as mid ’90s as a banana-yellow waterproof Walkman. The sweeping road that the crazed head of planning — I think he was Venezuelan — wanted to build never got built (it was to follow the Port Melbourne light rail, from where Crown Casino is now, along Normanby Road and then through what is now a long linear park to Station Pier).

A moment’s glance shows that he was spot on. A major boulevard would have created a whole new city centre. Instead the city crowded outwards, via the criminally inept planning of Docklands, and the obliteration of South Melbourne. The half-empty CBD was opened up, and became affordable — for about 10 minutes, before it all became impossible. By then, the freewheeling state-based festival culture of the ’80s had metastasised into a “cultural city”, the happy dance into a mad tarantella, expressive of our global “brand”. Around it, instead of a new urbs, we have empty apartments, cubed space as a store of global value, stacked end-on-end in the one of the most over-heated real estate markets in the world.

It was in the fourth floor of one of those half-empty buildings on Flinders street — now an elite hotel — that I got my comeuppance, at a discussion meeting on the whole MFP issue held by the International Socialists. The place looked like a cross between the Henry George League and the killing floor of Goodfellas, with stacks of pamphlets, lots of plastic wrap, and an enormous world map with pins marking the place and date of every revolution since the 1848 extravaganza.

There I was verbally and intellectually shellacked for being part of a campaign that was parochial, nationalist, overly concerned with which capitalists owned the capital, and that had drifted into racism. They were right on much of this, and it had been a lesson learnt. All the stuff except the last of these had come from the campaign itself; the racism had come from a small, mordant South Australian group who had put out a couple of supremely weird pamphlets on the MFP, and whom we should have denounced immediately and forthrightly. That there are troglodytic “others” attached to any cause does not exclude it — supporting the Palestinian cause would be impossible in that case — but how you control the message, and police the boundaries of a movement, makes a hell of a difference. Luckily, the racist dimension of the MFP protest appears to have made no real difference. When the hard-right One Nation movement got started again, its target was plain old-fashioned multiculturalism, and Aboriginal welfare millionaires apparently.

But on the other matter, I think the Socialists were wrong. What we were about to find out in the ’90s and 2000s, was just how important space, sovereignty and boundaries were to capital, as it reorganised itself in the wake of the Soviet bloc collapse. This looked like a triumph, but in fact Western capital had entered into a period of long stagnation, resulting in perpetual low growth, hidden by a series of bubbles, which burst in unison in 2008. The MFP was an early attempt to streamline the process of accumulation — turn universities into corporate feeders, cities into corporate domains, with none of those messy things like diverse ends, and democratic institutions (however imperfect) to interfere. Singular territorial sovereignty may not be the final form of human organisation, but the alternative proposed by MITI was not a prelude to rule by the multitudes. In retrospect, the MFP looks like a foretaste of the defensive struggle we are now engaged in, against the endless re-quartering of the world by capital, now plugged into the digital revolution, and carried by it, but also resisted there, a place where 200,000 documents can be made public via a Lady Gaga CD. But that’s now, and that was then, a Long Time Ago.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article identified the International Socialists as Islamic State. No, Crikey hasn’t become reds-under-the-bed paranoid, but an error in the production process confused two acronyms. We unreservedly apologise to all members of the International Socialists.