Malcolm Turnbull at yesterday's Liberal Party campaign launch
Malcolm Turnbull at yesterday's Liberal Party campaign launch

We were in the foyer of the Novotel, all glass and blond wood, and at the bar, with a true blue Liberal lady, neat and wizened, a pinkish drink before her (had she ever voted labor? “Oh nooooooo”). What did she think? She looked around, wrinkled her nose. “They could have made it a little more … special.”

Cars were pulling up at the door, people tumbling out into a maw of cameras, boom mics, flashing lights on one side of the doors, a crowd of rubberneckers on the other. Rubberneckers? For this election? Who were they hoping to see? There’s Mitch Fifield! Let’s get his autograph! They were young Libs in blue T-shirts, older fans dressed simply and badly, and a few of those in-betweeners — people who wear a party T-shirt over an entire separate outfit, to show that they’re not the sort of people who would wear a T-shirt ordinarily, but in this time would make an exception. I mean, T-shirts over a whole tweed jacket.

Inside, much gladhanding in the foyer as the great and good assembled. People who wear suits on the weekend even if they’re not going to an event like this. Lots of moleskins and blue blazers and gawky young international students, i.e. like you opened a door and stumbled in on the worst Orientation Week party evuh. Trays of sparkling mineral water floating around, seems very much the drink of the day. “Hullow!” people yell as each new group of people barrelled in. Men did power shakes, grabbing each other’s elbows, like they were about to cheat each other in business.

The 2016 Liberal Party launch was a giddy event this year, but a modest one, held in a mid-size hotel in the vast East German style emptiness of the Homebush Olympic Park. Late ’90s style, glass and pale wood and an open staircase, with one wall covered in improving slogans, “Give a man a fish and …” sort of thing. There was a provincial air, even before the event started, like we were at a meeting of the North Tasmania Real Estate Agents Association. On TV screens all round the place, in white writing on royal blue, Stick To The Plan. Stick To The Plan. Stick. To. The. Plan.

It was motivational, more than triumphal, more than a touch of one of those weekends at hotel conference rooms where they herd you in for 12 hours at a time and won’t let you pee. We were a long way from 2013, in the vast brutalist space of Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre, a roaring triumphal gathering of the clan, the slogan that time being, if memory serves, We Will Be A Wave of Iron Rolling Over Their Skulls To Make All Being One and Usher In The Era of The Last Man. The glory days were gone, the government was just hanging on, and yet people seemed happy enough.

No great surprise at that. The Libs had been on the wrong end of a bad week, with Labor accusing the Coalition of wanting to privatise Medicare, and Turnbull scurrying to rule that out. Such a comprehensive rejection of the idea — even the outsourcing of certain admin functions for which there might be a good case — was necessary, but it was also tantamount to a confession. The Medicare co-payment, more than anything, killed the Abbott government, and there was no reason to believe that they weren’t going to stick to that plan, given half a chance. The Libs’ cheer squad went into overdrive on the alleged “Mediscare” campaign, which added to the sense that it was a Big Thing — the first very concrete thing people could vote for or against.

Then, on Friday, deliverance with the extraordinary Brexit result — an outcome that everyone knew to be possible, but no one really believed would or could occur. As the potential ramifications of the result became clear — the further break up of the EU, the UK, the unity of Russia by contrast, the renewal of a republican push in this country — the Libs saw they had something to hang the last week of the campaign on. It was a godsend, not only confirming their own argument, from the outside — y’see, y’see! Things fall apart! — and strengthening the message delivered by #faketradie, while dissolving the risibility of the presentation.

[Meet #faketradie: everything wrong with modern politics in one shitty ad]

Whether or not a sudden reversal in the march of European integration will register with the swing voters remains to be seen. But it doesn’t need to much; all the Coalition needed was a simple story, a plausible narrative, and they got one. They were happy as all get out. They cheered the very small number of Liberal celebs who arrived. When John and Janette Howard arrived and made their way up the staircase, sweeping past Gandhi’s injunction to be the change you want to see in the world, they cheered the place to the rafters. A bloke in a battered brown jacket tried to get “three cheers for John Howard”. The first one was lusty, the second one embarrassed, the third one echoed by no more than half a dozen people. “Who’s that?” said a bloke, a random guest, leaning on the check-out desk, small kids and wife beside him, fishing rods and clobber all around.

“It’s John Howard,” I said.

“Yeah who’s that?”

“Are you an Australian?”

“Yeaahhhhhhh.”

“Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“Twenty-five.”

Is that possible? Was he having a lend? He was a master of dry wit, if he was. Or was he a bloke who was 16 when Howard departed the scene, never did much at school or read a paper, never needed to know about it. The man who dominated by political thoughts and that of others, for a decade, hovering over us on a staircase, and now walking up and away into history. Actually, to the media centre, where Chris Uhlmann, David Speers and others were doing their desk pieces to camera, perched on high stools, like neat, talcumed elves. After a few minutes more they started to herd us into the main room. And, well, Jesus.

Jesus, a few hundred folding chairs around a central stage. No bunting, no balloons. No one in the media section up the back could see a thing. Mark Riley stood on two chairs behind us. Lit from beneath, he towered over us, like a Rapa Nui statue, relic of a vanished civilisation (called media). Didn’t matter. As the audience got to their feet to applaud the warm-up acts all we saw were tweedy backs and moleskins. And then: Craig Laundy!

[The Liberals betting it all on western Sydney]

Laundy is the local member for Reid — about the most multicultural seat the Libs hold, stretching from Five Dock down to Auburn. He’s a decent enough guy, and his seat was clearly chosen as a launching place because he’s a multicultural man himself, being part chipmunk. He has a pair of capacious high cheeks and a pursed mouth, which hides his long front gnawing teeth. Part of a pub-owning family, the Laundys are Chipmunkian-Australians, a group who go back nearly two centuries, since a family of gophers arrived with a timber shipment in the 1830s. Before Auburn was known as “Little Damascus”, it was known as “Little Alvin”. He is the only man in this election with two nutsacks on his face — or was, until certain events in the travelling press gallery last night.

He gave the intro that Turnbull wanted: he gave a sort of recognition of the original owners, and a big shout out to multiculti, and none of it was even slightly meant for the wider audience; it was designed to give the shits to the old conservative guard in the party. The only major representative of those folks was Tony Abbott, and he had to be there — with the press craning their necks to see if he was grimacing, grinning rictus-style, masturbating furiously, whatever. He wasn’t doing any of those things, of course. The man is still in shock, and his body displays that.

Three years ago, Abbott was presiding over a launch that had more than a touch of Wagner about it — Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre auditorium being brilliantly designed as a sort of abyss, the stage at the bottom of a series of soaring galleries and boxes that hang in the air. Abbott’s launch was Grand Guignol, with an OTT performance of the national anthem, military officers addressing the joint, the celebration of a party that had already won and were eager to usher in not merely a new regime, but a new cultural politics.

Turnbull’s launch, with a fire-breathing middle speech by Barnaby Joyce, was … well, I’ve already given a couple of comparisons. But there are so many more. It was like the office farewell party for a colleague nobody liked; it was a municipal celebration for the naming of a park bench after a recently deceased groundsman of long service; it was like any evening at the Sydney Institute. The national anthem was sung in a single verse to a recording, with a flag waving via digital image of Atari-level sophistication. It was very odd.

[Abbott: from ‘unelectable’ to Australia’s 28th prime minister]

Malcolm bounded out his usual ebullient self, no lack of enthusiasm there, but that in itself was a clue. Abbott had basked in it, milked it, marinated himself. I had the distinct impression that he was eager to get this over with. These are not his people after all; no people are Malcolm’s people, he’s a nomad whose life is a series of deals and performances with no overarching theme. Abbott was not of the Protestant Liberal tradition either, but he bonded to the darker currents of the organised right — its resentment, sense of denial and displacement.

Howard — these were his people. Daggy, nerdy, lumpy, flabby suburban types, who know they are missing the big things, and that the best they will get is to be at a Novotel for a boring Sunday morning speech. Though he prefers to seek out the sleek and silver-tailed, he is happy to bask in their admiration. Malcolm gave every impression of wanting to be out of there as soon as possible.

The speech was the usual: only the Liberals can be trusted with the economy; only a stronger economy will allow us to do the things we want to do, which includes acting on climate change, a big-state national plan on mental health and numerous other things not especially small-government liberal; Labor can’t be trusted on boats and Bill Shorten will run the country for the benefit of the unions.

The centrepiece was a long appeal to the idea that the Coalition is the only unified force; Labor was split against itself, and a Greens, Labor and independents (“the Glee club” Barnaby had called them, in a genuinely funny line) government would be a disaster. We had to be positive: “This was a great time to be alive,” he averred (to which Tony Wright mordantly noted that if this were true, this event made you question the value of existence). He had one distinctive line: “This is not a time to pull the doona over our heads.” So, a commitment against Dutch ovens then.

The only moment of passion was a call and return about Labor’s robocalls. “Little old ladies have been called late at night by the CFMEU to say they’ll break their legs if they vote liberal, and we will have abolished Medicare so they won’t be treated!” — my notes say. “Shame!’ They yelled back. I looked for the little old lady. Was she there booing along? Or back in the bar, sucking down pink gins?

Apart from that, it was a commercial lawyers’ address, clipped, to the point, and studiously devoid of life. The audience liked it well enough, but there was nothing of the orgy of self-celebration there had been in 2013, the deep sense in the room that we were going to get these guys, the Rudds and Gillards, the whole damn politically correct crew. This time it was “Stick To The Plan”. Stick to The Plan. STICK TO THE PLAN. It banged around in my skull. It seemed desperate unless you did it in the voice of Ray Winstone, snarled out: stick to va plann. Stick to va plann. And then he hugged his family on stage, the leader as national father, and pffttt it was all over and he was gone.

Some of us stood around for a while with a mild bewilderment, as the rolling online press rushed to file Snapchat Instagram mash-ups of dank memes to a waiting world. The room seemed empty beyond empty. It was only hours later, back on the press bus, that someone remarked: “Where were the balloons?”

“What?”

“There weren’t any balloons, there’s usually balloons.”

True believers and press creatures alike, we all noticed some absence at the centre. Hard times for traditional politics, as the centre cannot hold, as people forget who John Howard even was, as we hurtle towards a crisis of legitimacy afresh.

Peter Fray

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