Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull in an Adelaide gift shop
Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull admire the wares of an Adelaide gift shop

Somewhere between the Magic Mountain water slide, climbing high into the air, and the small flat brick pavilion, which housed the Glenelg Community Centre, Malcolm Turnbull paused and considered his options.

Around him were two dozen photographers and camos, the out-in-front crowd, arrayed in a flat semicircle, like a firing squad. They had been capturing his bold confident march to the C-1, his Comm car, the sleek white machine idling beside him. After an ebullient speech to some Adelaide beachside Liberals, he was to join Lucy in the car and sweep away to triumphs afresh.

But Lucy wasn’t there. She was gone. Nowhere to be seen. What to do? He couldn’t leave without her. He couldn’t get in the car and wait, while the cameras rolled, he’d look like a knobhead. He looked at us, he looked around. You could see his mind working like a dynamo, humming away, trying not to panic. This was South Australia, after all. Your spouse is more than five minutes late, first thought is they’ve been murdered and put in 16 separate preserving jars. Only then do you think maybe they popped into Brown Gouge to pick up some slacks.

Turnbull swiveled. A man with a baby in a stroller hove into view. Malc’s dynamo mind raced along a decision-tree: man is assassin-yes-no-no-man has baby-yes-no-yes-baby is whole baby not parts under blanket waiting for Jesus to join them up with his “sky tears” (rain)-yes-no-yes-speak.

“Hello, sir, you’ve got a baby!”

“Er yeah — uh yeah.”

“Out for a stroll?”

“Mmmm, well it’s a lovely day.”

“Mmmmm.”

Silence descended. The man actually backed the stroller up and walked away. I was the only journo present. Possibly I’m mistaken but I thought his eyes begged me to ask a question, any question (“fibre to the node?”, “Foxtel, just obeying orders. I can show you the email if you like.”) Suddenly a strangled cry from the community centre: “Lucy’s in the gift shop!”

It was like someone had found a kid in the snow. Turnbull turned and strode towards it, the photo crews walking backwards ahead of him. Something was happening! Something unscripted! Everyone was giddy with glee.

In the side room of the Community Centre was a small shop selling crocheted animals. No, I know what you’re thinking. Not a few crocheted animals. There were hundreds of the things, the whole animal kingdom arrayed, from sea anemones to sad donkeys, all crocheted, all with button eyes. Button eyes everywhere, dead, yet staring. Had it been in ACCA, outsider art specialists would have written a catalogue about it.

Lucy was there buying a present for Jack, the grandson that the Turnbulls have gone frankly and unashamedly gaga over. An old lady volunteer was helping her. The room filled to bursting, the volunteer one bad boom swing away from a hip replacement. Malcolm did the talk. It was a lovely moment, soft and human. We’d spent all morning at a defence industry shindig, being told over and over again that “this was South Australia’s largest manufacturing industry”. The cloud of death and destruction had been overwhelming. Here was life and love. We all agreed it was wonderful. “Trouble is,” someone said “this room is South Australia’s second-largest manufacturing industry.” Good point, but Malcolm was already away and gone.

***

“Well let’s hear from Tom, you’ve got a Masters in … Complex …”

“Complex Systems Integration.”

“Complex Systems Integration, and you can tell us about the opportunities for integrated projects in a renewed export market.”

“Well, yeah, Prime Minister, thanks to your government’s white paper, the Australian sector is really booming …”

At a small lectern amid 100 or so blue-suited defence execs, Malcolm Turnbull was in his element, directing a “forum” on the defence industry. Complex Systems Management? The press corps — Arts (incomplete), Arthur Fadden University (formerly Nhill Tech) — groaned, principally at the glutinous sycophancy on display, but also at the head-spinning detail. Malcolm was in his element. Running the forum off the back of a half-hour’s briefing and a couple of speeches by defence boffins, he was in his element. He was good at it and he loved it, throwing a question one way — “developing a STEM culture is about developing the people. How do you integrate performance delivery with personal development?” — then the other — “the global situation demands an agility in squaring technical demands with consumer needs. I suppose that’s where diversity is essential” — in a manner that was deeply impressive.

No amount of briefing could give you mastery of this stuff, could make such a smooth performance possible, unless you had an enormous capacity for synthesis, reflection, the sudden jump, the never-pause. This was the QC’s mind at work, never not knowing what he meant, because what he said was all he meant. This was Malcolm’s crowd. Abbott would have weirded them out in six minutes (“I’m a glad we have those missiles, to protect my, uh, daughters from … maleficence.”)

Howard would have been treated as a dufferish reliable good-ole-boy, but Malcolm? Malcolm got them. Got what they were doing. “The six years of Labor were terrible for the defence industry. Now we can see blue skies again. With your government’s white paper …” They repaid him with an event so craven, so oleaginous, so copraphagic in its manner that Kim Jong-un would have been going “guys, guys, doesn’t anyone have a tough question?”

Every answer began with a paean to this government, its frikkin white paper, those submarines, and Mal Kim’s ministers, Arthur Sinodinos — “the most trusted man in government” — and Christopher Pyne, who was seated in the front row, his feet swinging, not touching the floor, or so it seemed.* It was nauseating, it was inevitable, it was endless. No one in the front of the room blanched for a moment.

***

But then, why would they? This was Raytheon, saviour of South Australia, branch of the fourth-largest defence contractor in the world, and an example of why you should use The Book of Evil Names for Companies for your next enterprise. Raytheon invented the microwave and is now the world’s largest producer of guided missiles. When you are heating a final burrito before your city is flattened, this company will be at both ends of the experience. It has been fined in the US for deceitful tendering, accused of international bribery, and much more.

[Global trail of murder, corruption dogs Australia’s newest defence contractor]

Gathered in the room were hundreds of engineers, production managers, salespeople all dedicated to one thing, the production, and the refinement of the production, of the means of death on a mass scale. To have something like that is often justified on the grounds that you need your own defence capability, and it’s a defence that I buy — for Australia, armed neutrality is the only way out of the US alliance. But what all three big SA parties — Labor, Liberal and NXT — are cooking up is something on a grander scale: world class mega-defence exports to replace the car industry, from Mitsubishi and Toyota to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a single decade.

No one really believes the notion of a “defence” industry; it’s an attack industry, and the targets in the decades to come will be mass civilian populations, in need of control as elite systems suffer further disarray and come under siege from their own people. No wonder they were all so eager to feed the PM a series of artfully constructed Dixers. Anyone of any intelligence in the “defence” industry has spent years lying to themselves about what they do. With the move away from cars to kills, it’s being done on a statewide basis.

That is an easy switch in many ways; defence production is harder to gainsay, and industry subsidies can be hidden in a system of ludicrous overpayment by the government. In this most quaint and stately paced of places, a state founded out of our only utopian colony, the political establishment has revived, almost as retro-chic, the military-industrial complex. South Australia — the one place where settlers did not arrive sorted into masters and slaves, became the place where grotesque murder was more or less a cottage industry. With the new “defence” push, that murderous intent is put on an official setting, and at the centre of the state’s life.

[Government gets it part-right on submarines]

Heavy shit, man. But Malcolm was light throughout it. The hundred or so assembled engineers and such, seated around him, 90% men, the young women shuffled to the front chairs behind him (if a politician went to the opening of a new office for the Campaign Against Sexual Objectification, the young women would be shuffled to the front).

The topic was heavy, but he flew across it, like a conductor blending the themes together. To a degree, he was too light. It was all easy, virtuoso, dazzling, and nothing much at all. None of us noticed it at first. The dominant feeling in the travelling press was something less than amusement, a mild anger, a slight disgust, at what a shameless travesty it was. “That is the biggest load of shit I have sat through in seven weeks,” said one, leaning over the front row of press to tell no one and everyone, seconds after the event was wrapped up.

Even the crews, proud of their imperturbability shook their heads. The “forum” was in the service of one thing: Turnbull’s post-Brexit appeal to stability. “If you want a stable government you must vote for the Coalition,” he said, nine times, in as many variations. It’s a compelling line, as the truth about Brexit starts to come out: that many people, many, many, voted “out” to “send a message” to the arrogant elites, and voted themselves out of the largest borderless economy in the world. This is the narrative he needed. His minders will do nipple-cripples if they have to, to keep him on that simple message from now to Saturday.

Labor’s Medicare privatisation claim cannot compete; Turnbull has tapped into the deepest currents of Menziesan liberalism — the national interest preserved for the forgotten people, those folk who can’t get enough of their grandkids. It goes without saying that nothing in this sinister mass-death led recovery has anything to do with the genuine spirit of liberalism and human flourishing. It is a grim thanatological corporatism, in which we are presented with two choices: making things to kill other people, or the boneyard for us. It is sheer desperation, a result of the refusal to innovate within protected industries, rather than of the industries themselves.

Turnbull’s delight at the tales of integrated (i.e. non-competitive) complex technical systems demonstrated how little there is of genuine liberalism in him. He’s as happy to be a corporatist-statist technocrat as he is to be an agile liberal. He wants the journey, not the arrival. He wants to stay one step ahead. He’s the conductor, not the orchestra — remembering, of course, that the conductor is a 19th-century role, a bullshit invention of the Romantic era, the one who plays no instrument, writes no music, but is nevertheless the star of the show.

***

“I try and say goodbye and I choke, try to–”

At the front of the press bus, they were singing along to Macy Gray. The photographers were trash talking shots online: “no way is that a wide angle lens with a 200mm. That’s photoshopped!”

“Photoshopped.”

The non-revenue media — sorry, the exciting future of news online — were talking engagement and platforms. The journos were grousing. Seems the Raytheon gig was not the standard of the last eight weeks, but a new low. In any case, it had brought the experience of the campaign to a pitch.

“What were we there for?” said someone leaning over a seat.

“What have we been anywhere for, really?” said another.

There was general agreement. Many people were starting to realise, and have been over the past weeks, that this may be the last election done this way. The sheer mindnumbing, futile length of it, the five-week phony war was part of it. Once Fairfax pulled their journos off the buses, something snapped. Why had they been there at all. Why not send one journo with a good digital camera, or a photographer who can write, or pilot a drone from head office to follow the candidate’s car?

[How to make money in online media: turn it all into ads]

Most of these campaigns are ritual, an echo of a time when a leader had to get on the road and address general audiences from town to town. But there’s a fine balance, and in the Raytheon event, the Libs crossed it. It was an insult to the intelligence of everyone there. People drawn to defence work don’t care much: they are sycophants to power by the very nature of the industry. But journos retain some sense of scrutiny.

Then they forgot all about it. Music kicked in again.

“Love is in the air.”

“Woo woo woo woo woo,” the boom swingers sang. In front of me, the one imperturbable element, the Elegant Young Man, was on the phone.

“I’m in Adelaide,” said the Elegant Young Man, into his phone. “It’s like a compact version of Melbourne …”

Adelaide rolled past in the windows, parades of shops. Either “To Let” was a local greeting, or the place was in trouble. Looked like it had already been hit with one of Raytheon’s missiles.

Crack bang, of the bus, on the roads.

“Woo woo woo, woo woo woo.”

“Hello. Oh Hi. No, I’m in Adelaide. It’s Melbourne, but demure.”

“Hello …”

“Jesus,” I said, “how many of these are you going to try? It’s like Noel Coward at 40 Ks an hour: ‘Very big, Melbourne — very small, Adelaide.'”

“I-”

We lurched to a sudden stop

“We’re here.”

Glenelg, the Adelaide beach. Sunlit, palindromic, with a tram from the city that gently halts at the very edge of the beach, and a theme park Magic Mountain that was once, when I came here in the, fark, ’70s, a huge waterslide with a rough and ready amusement park around it, and is now, compared to Gold Coast monsters, a modest waterslide with a concrete mall attached.

We piled into a restaurant in an upper floor, crowded with hundreds, done in a sort of James Bond villain undersea headquarters style. Men with comb-overs and clipped moustaches talked to women in diamante filament necklaces and black and white check knitwear. Midday, and we were in some retro immersive theatre experience, waitresses circulating with pork rolls and Crownies. Journos said hello to a local Liberal staffer, apparently much loved, and very pregnant.

“Good to see you before I go off.”

“We might have to do this all again in three months,” I said.

“I won’t be,” she said.

“But what if you must?”

“Stalwart, like a revolutionary woman,” said the Elegant Young Man.

“Malcolm Turnbull could deliver your baby,” I said.

“It’d all be over.”

“Good for 130 seats.”

“Would he eat the placenta?”

“On water crackers.”

She looked suddenly pale and wobbled to the other side of the room

“Have we gone too far?”

“Yes,” said someone behind us.

She came back, with leaflets for the local candidate, for Hindmarsh.

“Actually, I just want to go down the waterslide,” she said.

“That would be the birth process in reverse.”

“Get to know it from the baby’s point of view.”

We stopped, exhausted.

“[Elegant Young Man], we’re bantering like crazy.”

“– and no one’s bringing cocktails, it’s infuriating.”

The kliegs switched on, bright white light, and all eyes turned, as Malcolm swept into the room. A ripple of excitement went through the room. Nice to be among people really really happy to see him. Turnbull’s smile widened to the very edges of his face. These were liberally liberals, those he felt most comfortable among.

Two schoolgirls in Blytonish uniform were presented to him, teenage bride tribute for the chief. Proper bourgeois people surged like Taylor fans: “get a shelfie!”

“It’s ‘selfie’, Dad!”

“Whatever.”

He got to the bank of mics to do two things: say exactly what he’d said before about voting for the Coalition — “you must vote for the Coalition for a stable government! You cannot vote for an independent if you want stable government!” — and offer a series of shameless bungs for local roads, that great bit in local politics when the leader of a trillion-dollar economy insist they care about nothing other than refurbishing the traffic island at Wooropna Street.

The crowd was already geed up, then Malcolm: “Today I can announce 50 million for the Oakham overpass, which has long needed it!” And they lost their shit. They cheered the beige, orange-light hung rafters down. Free at last, free at last — to cut eight minutes off the trip to Gawler. There were no questions. Mal Kim is in Howard mode now, on message, a guided missile of political tedium. Stability, stability, stability.

We piled out in Malcolm’s wake.

“Isn’t he marvellous!” said a woman in a brown helmet bob cut, beside me. She was standing with a man in a zip-up, white, cable knit sweater and a suede jacket. Liberal gatherings are the cultural equivalent of the Svalbard global seed bank; one of every strain of lost cultural styling is therein preserved, for the benefit of humanity.

“He’s very impressive. Do you think it will be close?”

“Close? The election?”

“Well, yes.”
“Who would vote for Bill Shorten?”

“Well, 50 perc–”

“For heaven’s sake …”

She moved away. EYM swept past and out the door, on the phone. “Yes, Adelaide! It’s like Melbourne’s country cousin, pale and small …”

We came out onto the sun-bleached concrete driveway, and it was there Malcolm came smack up against the unplanned contingency of existence.

It’s a measure of how ritual the trail has become that it was this moment, only, that gave us a chance to observe our prime minister making an actual decision. Campaign managers want to minimise risk; this time around they’ve overdone it, removing any chance of it whatsoever. By doing so, they’ve lost any chance that the campaign caravan might turn up something spontaneous and real, something that might persuade wavering voters that X or Y is worth voting for. That is a general condition, but it is also something that Turnbull has been persuaded to stick to, a choke on his more freewheeling nature. That was on display at the Raytheon shindig, but in tightly controlled conditions.

Quite aside from the risk of some gaffe — and how few gaffes have there been this campaign? Like the sparrows, they have disappeared without any of us noticing — there is the risk, with Malcolm, that his spontaneity and agility will come to be seen as what it is: a lightness of form unconstrained by any weight of content. Watching him conduct the defence forum, I was reminded of people from TV, producers who had never been anything other than producers, people whose skill in general is to have no skills in particular.

[Rundle: true blue Libs at a launch of drab grey]

Turnbull’s many talents are also his curse. He’s the bloke you suss as a bit of an amiable BS artist after 20 minutes. That’s one reason why he hasn’t been able to put Shorten away, the way Howard put away Beazley, Crean and Latham. Turnbull is many things, but there is a sneaking suspicion he isn’t real. Shorten is very few things, but, by comparison, is as real as a $1.99 dish-draining rack from Big W. “Real” is a categorical quality that undergirds all the others. Without it, the rest don’t matter much. Come Saturday, that may matter.

The press bus backed up towards the waiting journos, off for another day of this extended school excursion. I was jumping off here, sat on a stone ledge, watched them file on. The whole trail thing is a hangover from the days when leaders actually had to be on the trail to be seen, to address meetings in church halls, country pubs and everything else. It’s been archaic for years, now it seems ancient, bizarre, political Contiki.

The new instant-upload demand turns journalism into something else, a subjectless process without time for synthesis or reflection, a sort of complex systems management. Time was, daily filing was seen as up to the minute, and there were people on the bus with a weekly deadline. A daily deadline is now a luxury, the preserve of the languorous essayist. What the trail did provide — the opportunity for assessment of character — has thus been swept away. If our politics now seems dull and contentless, it is in part because it has been tightened from both ends, until no air remains.

Tony Wright, sketch-writer extraordinaire, slumped down beside me on the ledge. “You know, this might be the last time something like this happens. I can’t see this being done this way again.”

“Especially if we have to have another go-round in a few months time.”

Across the way, Mike Bowers, slumped, tired, festooned with lenses like a walking defence facility, blanched at the thought. I had a sudden flash vision/hallucination, saw the three of us sitting there, as large crocheted animals, a bilby, a numbat and a koala, slumped and sweating through our wool and staring at the “exciting, agile” future through buttons for eyes.

The bus warmed up. They sloped off. “I’m in Adelaide!” the EYM’s voice wafted across the concrete “It’s beige! My colour!”.**

The bus hit pitch, moved away. There has never been a more exciting time to be stranded in Adelaide on a Monday mid-afternoon, as we all go down the great waterslide to Saturday’s result.

*Pyne is really doing it — going from childhood to senescence without any intervening period of maturity. He looks like a kid made up to play Big Daddy in a year 8 production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

**this is actually Nancy Cunard, on first seeing the Parthenon. I did not hear EYM offer any final bon mots on the City of Churches.

Peter Fray

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