We were turning into the car park at Port Botany, a vast expanse right on the water, the container port on the other side of one stretch of bay, the airport on the other, planes landing, and I thought, this isn’t right. This isn’t right. What’s this remind me of? Of course. Opening montage of The Departed, where a couple, blindfolded, are about to be shot execution-style by a gangster. He’s already dead, slumped over. She’s on her knees sobbing, about to get the head shot. Across the bay, at the airport, the planes are landing and taking off, travelers oblivious to two people being offed. It’s a chilling moment, and the chill went through me afresh. We’d spent a day or two following the Bill bus, the campaign vehicle with a picture of Bill’s outsize head, bobbing through the streets, then a walk around in Nowra, and a community forum with the usual testing of a candidate’s patience (“What are the issues for you?” I said to the woman next to me. “Uni fees are too high, it’s a disgrace. And why won’t Bill back Malcolm’s tax cut? I like that. Plus, we’ve got to get this deficit down. The politicians aren’t listening to us!”).

Bill, once a habitue of the press bus, stopped visiting a few weeks ago. Allegedly he’s in a snit, though I didn’t see it. But maybe this was it. Maybe he was about to go Duterte on our asses. “Put the press on the bus and drive the bus over a cliff,” the great line from The Candidate. Was this it for all of us? At the very end of the car park, rocks and a high-tech glass shed, holding a circular stainless steel fish cleaning table with a drain in the centre. Straight outta Saw, or a Sex Party campaign advert. Not confidence-inspiring.

The crews set up and, and we watch for the Bill bus. Appears and enters through the far distant drive, screaming “SAVE MEDICARE” on one side. Seen from this far away, that giant floating head is just weird, bobbing along the road like Pacman eating hatchbacks. Bill’s pate is large enough already, the forehead piled high, like a three level pie-warmer. Putting it on the side of a bus is a little frightening. And, must be said, a little try-hard.

Albo waits at the bottom of the steps, like a nervous suitor.

“G’day Bill.”

“Gday Albo!”

The real head coming out of the Big Head Bus looks like a Pez dispenser. It’s firing out Bill heads. How many are there in there?

The walk ‘n’ talk crew start to move backwards, getting vital footage of Labor’s leaders walking and talking. The rest assemble on the very edge of the spit. The wind is high. The planes whine as they land. Only then was it realised we were about to have an unamplified press conference for 50 people on the loudest part of south Sydney harbour.

“GOOD MORNING,” said Matt Thistlethwaite, member for Kingsford Smith “THIS IS THE WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE -EST PORT IN THE VREEEEEEEEEEER BUSINESS KACHUNGA KACHUNGA KACHUNGA LABOR’S PLAN FOR BLLVVVVVVVV SHORTEN!

“THANKS KADOINK BRRRRRRRRRRR GOT NO ANSWER TO LABOR’S INFRASTRUCTURE VWOOOOOOOOW JOBS. ALBO?

“THANKS NUUUUUUUUUUUUURRRRR. BECAUSE RAIL! BRIDGES! PORTS! LABOR WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH THUBUMP! QUESTIONS?”

“Mr Shorten, Mr Shorten …”

“Is that Juanita Nielsen I see over there?” I yelled. It didn’t matter. No one could hear me. I also realised that no one would know who that was.

To be fair, Shorten goes into bat for a long innings. Turnbull does six questions and he’s done. Shorten was there as long as we wanted him to be. Mind you, he has to be. Malcolm doesn’t need to keep us interested. Questions about health and education.. Cheap curly ones. Shorten plays Mr Reasonable.

Question from a Brit reporter, thin dude in a pink-and-white body shirt — presume having “I’M BRITISH” tattooed on the forehead would have been too exxy. “Al Jazeera, Mr Shorten. Five prime ministers in three years — can you guarantee that wont happen again?”

“Labor has a plan for infrastructure …”

The Brit gaped at the non-answer.

I thought of how you’d explain to, say, Alan Reid that politics was now answering questions from a bloke dressed like a Bermudan gigolo from an Arab network at a presser next to a fish-cleaning bath in buttfuzznowhere three days before polling. Then I thought of how you’d explain to anyone here, say, Alan Reid. The whole processional remains the same, but everything changes within it, and it becomes a different beast.

“Wrap it, up wrap it up,” hissed Sam Dastyari at the back. We broke up in minutes. No one argues with Dastyari in an empty car park on a lonely stretch of coastline near a container port.

I looked around. It was clear the only person who would get my Juanita Nielsen “joke” was Albo himself.

“Hey, isn’t this where Richo used to take people to have them whacked?”

“Oh come on! I don’t think Richo actually whacked people!” I loved the hedging “don’t think”. Heh, I don’t think he did either, for the record.

“Look over in the rocks, is that Juanita Nielsen? I see her …” but he was in the Comm car and gone.

“WISE MEN SAY … ONLY FOOLS RUSH IN …” Back of our bus, a few minutes after boarding, and Rob of the Herald Sun has broken into song. A big round man, his voice echoes and billows in his chest. Yesterday, we had more Elvis, Total Eclipse of the Heart, some Peggy Lee I think all in that same voice. The female journos laugh, the camos scowl when it wafts down the front of the bus. Rob had introduced himself sticking out a hand earlier, on the tarmac. “From Crikey,” I’d said, and the face had fallen and he’d turned and moved back to the bus as lightly as Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats dancing around a pool table in The Hustler.

He was in fine form now.

“I’m so tired of this,” he said. “I was born in the wrong time. I’d like to live in Downton Abbey.”

Laughter.

“I would.”

“What if you were one of the slaves?”

“There’s no slaves in Downton Abbey.

“You know…”

“Upstairs or downstairs?”

“I’ve been upstairs I’ve been downstairs, I’m fine with both.”

Laughter.

“ROMEO LOVED JULIET … JULIET SHE FE-ELT THE SAME … ”

“Chocolate! Chips!” the staffers came up the aisle with bags of sweets. The Shorten press bus was heavy carbed, sugar rushed and a little giddy all the time. Product of the widespread belief that Bill had lost, knew he had lost, had a chance to come round again in years hence. The Turnbull bus took on Mal Kim’s anxiety — that a loss, however unlikely, would turn him from impressive man into joke of history in a flash, edging out Abbott, and both of them making Gillard look like William Ewart Gladstone for staying power. It’s not just innings, either. There is an unlikely asymmetry of the two men, their lives, and how they’ll be capped off. Shorten tells people he’s wanted to be prime minister for 30 years. I don’t believe that for a second. I think he came of age in the Hawke/Keating era, aspired to be a solid middle range minister in an outfit like that, and has found himself, the fish-cleaning pool of ALP talent somewhat lower than it was, in a position of having to claim an intimation of future greatness. Should Shorten falter on Saturday, he may be done, but he’ll have a solid life first part of life to look back on.

For Turnbull, it’s a little more serious. His public achievements are a matter of record, but that’s the problem. He’s made news, he’s made money, but well, he hasn’t made much of a difference, has Malc. His life does not come together as a story. Should he win on Saturday, it will, and everything before will look like it was leading up to; to work backwards through his 40 years of hustle; to give it all an end. Should he lose then, well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Its the big house on the harbour with the Bill Hensons on the wall staring back at you, and another 30 years of board meetings and opera cruises in the Mediterranean. So there’s an anxiety there, and it travels down into the press. No one wants to watch a man fighting for his life, fighting for a sense of his own life, but we’re more than happy to come along for the ride with a guy who’s already given up, and finds that, now the pressure is off, he’s doing better than ever.

Mind you, there’s a limit to that. You can be so laid back that you essentially go arse over outsize head. Earlier that morning, we’d stopped at the Riverwood Community Centre  — “this will be a photo opp opportunity only, the doorstop will be later” — for a meet and greet with the good citizens of Banks, a seat whose location sparked a half-hour debate as to whether it was south or west. The huge Bill bus and press bus pulled up in front of the low-slung ’70s-style church outreach centre type facility — and the small buses pulled up in the back, with brown and golden Chinese and Vietnamese seniors being herded in, in convoys of wheelie-zimmers, “Come and meet Bill, come and meet Bill”.

Inside, there were hundreds of folks gathered, mostly elderly, mostly women, the men having long departed (“Why do Serbian men die before their wives? They want to!”), Greek women in elegant black and grey, the Chinese and Vietnamese in bright colours, crimson tops, electric blue slacks, fur hats against the “cold”, and at one end of the horseshoe, a group of young Somali and Eritrean women, dandling about three toddlers each. It was suddenly, simply, deeply moving, 70 years of immigration laid out in a long curve, from then to now, the country we have become, whatever we are.

Bill wandered into the centre of the horseshoe, invisible to them, the TV press pack trailing in front, with the local organisers trying to part a way in the middle of the pack. Snap snap snap snap whirr whirr whirr. Eventually, Bill himself, Moses-like, parted the flock of cams “Let my people SEE!” he did not say. He was introduced briefly by a local stalwart, a women of Scots pale and ginger, last of the old settlers. “We’re now going to hear a few words …” we couldn’t hear her speak. Bill, came on. “I’d like to say a few words …” We couldn’t hear him speak.

“I think we all know how important Medicare is and what the government wants to do to it …” he began, as the interpreters started in the far corners of the room, Chinese: “As a frog will bend a water reed, so will the storms come across the mountains. This is about Medicare” Vietnamese: “This man is a Communist, like the Communist Whitlam.”

Medicare, Medicare, Medicare. “Save Medicare, have you read my bus?” he seemed about to say. OK, on message. But would it have killed to have a couple of sentences at the top, about why we were all here. Were they scared of some soundbite about “multiculturalism” to be played in skegville/Skiptown somewhere? Something about all being here in a circle together, from all over the world, but here we had made a nation together, and would make a future together, without rancour, with respect, an example to the world? How hard would that have been? Who would, three days from possible political oblivion, not take that perk — to say a few words about what it might have all meant? To 70- and 80-year-olds who have scant time left on this Earth — a mere 30 or 40 more years, in the case of the Chinese? Would it be good for votes? Cant’t see how it wouldn’t. In any case would be good for the spirit. Speech done, Bill worked his way round the circle, started with an immaculately turned out grey-clad nonna. “Hello, I’m Bill.” She pulled out a piece of paper with a long neatly written paragraph on it. “Mr Shorten, I would like to talk to you about Macedonia …” Bill’s eyes widened like a broadcast cam refocusing. We were going to be here for a while.

“What did you think of Mr Shorten?” I said, to an old, neat, moustachioed type, someone who looked like he might have good English.

“Medicare. The importance. Here, we play tennis!”

A young man, came up, gently interposed.

“We’re having a community forum now, if you’d like to stay.”

“Love to, but we’re moving on to a doorstop.” The crew were backing out, packing up already.

“What’s a doorstop?”

“Well, a press conference — it’s called a doorstop because it’s meant to look spontaneous.”

“So it’s a planned spontaneity?”

“I’m afraid so.”

He sighed deeply, and went to direct wheelie-zimmer traffic. The Bill bus drove off its giant head staring through the door. We raced for the press bus. “THOUSAND PRETTY WOMEN GONNA TAKE ME THERE AND I’M JUST A DEVIL WITH LOVE TO SPARE SO VIIIIIIIIIIVA LAS VEGAS!” the singing started again. Kit-kats and snakes came down the aisle. Snakes on a bus! Sugar-bombed to the brain, we drove towards the airport.

Bill Shorten is heading for either unlikely victory, or a loss so unsurprising that people will wonder what this eight weeks was all about. What these crazy caravans are all about. Whether people just do it, pollies and press, because they don’t know how to do anything else, and they remind you what it was to be young and on the edge of everything. Two weeks more of this, and the press corps would be pashing each other at a blue light disco, to Promises’ Baby, It’s You. You can’t help but feel that the procession is the power — the politics/media class enacting it, as kings would spend their reign going from castle to castle, retinue trailing them. Maybe there’s another way to do this? Who’s going to be the first to try?

This time around, Bill will be either credited with an on-message campaign whose fierce discipline won a tight victory in key marginals, or damned as a man who should have obviously, obviously gone big, and any fool could have seen it. Sic transit. As I noted, there’s something real about Bill, a quality that eludes Malcolm — but Jeezus, you wouldn’t want to push it. Even the most modest aspiring leader needs to find some way to speak to our hopes, to serve us by articulating the best of what we want for ourselves, together. Bill may have fatally underplayed it, either through strategic cuteness, or because he and his advisers simply do not have that in their souls, and there is nothing for them to speak from, to.

Back at Nowra, waiting for the bus to warm up, I chuggalugged vodka and Cointreau from the BWS and read the ads in a travel agents window. Cruise ship specialists! The Rock ‘n’ Roll cruise, the Disco cruise — Baby Animals, Noiseworks, Glenn Shorrock, Wa Wa Nee. Christ, that’s where they’ve all gone. Boomer pirates, circling the Pacific forever. Good luck to ’em. People will go on one of those and remember it as one of the best, most unifying events of the second part of their life, something that made it a little clear, what it was all for. The challenge for politics is that it once did that for people, and no longer does. And is losing the ability to speak to it, through sheer attrition.

We got on the bus. Rob started up.

“NOW YOU SAY YOU LOVE ME …WELL, JUST TO PROVE YOU DO … COME ON AND CRY ME A RIVER, CRY ME A RIVER, I CRIED A RIVER OVER YOU. YOU DROVE ME …”

He was very good. Got the vibrato and everything. And we disappeared into the night.

Peter Fray

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