Crazy angled couches, ceiling of polished wooden triangular panels, great leaping orange thrusts to nowhere: the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre was a helluva place to hold the Liberal Party federal election campaign launch.
The vast foyer dwarfed the few hundred faithful gathered; about half in royal blue t-shirts, suits and suburban fashions, mingling with black-clad media crew around coffee carts. Brueghel could paint this; families gathered at long trencher tables scarfing down smashed avo while amidst them a man goes down in flames into the sparkling, indifferent waters.
Mother’s Day, one week until the election, and the Liberal Party had gathered in Melbourne — Melbourne! — to kick off the last go. Outside, 60 or so protesters (including two giant inflatable poop emojis) were raising as much of a ruckus as they could amid Southbank’s glass caverns.
“Can you face me in the light?” I yelled as I tried to get a photograph.
“It’s hard for the poop to hear you,” their protest wrangler said.
The word had gone out on protest wires as soon as the city was announced but… Sunday morning? A party launch? Hard yards. There’d been head-scratching when the city was announced. Surely they knew there’d be protests. Did they want protests? Perhaps to show what hordes they were holding off?
Well, whatever, they were going low key. Tony Abbott’s 2013 launch had been in the grand auditorium of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 2000 people in rising tiers of seats ascending to the heavens, with the press at the top, News Corp at the very top, Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan hovering like the gods of Valhalla. This one was what they call a mid-size venue, with party faithful up the front and media in the worn seats behind.
It was like being at the Corner Hotel for a revived minor ’80s band. It was like going to your cousin’s one-woman show about Amelia Earhart in a repurposed electricity substation. It was like a mini ‘burban mega-church.
Telstra hold music played while clips of ScoMo with young workers — hotties of all genders in hi-viz — played on loop, only mildly maddening. We were driven in through the foyer doors at speed, a sense of getting this done. There was no Turnbull of course, but also no Abbott, no Howard, no Gladys… the B team for a B event.
Sarah Henderson opened proceedings with a shout-out to all the mothers and the “mothers no longer with us” (Noosa? Sitmar cruise?) — the first of many mildly odd notes. Then the national anthem, one verse thereof. Most journos stood but remained silent, save for Chris Uhlmann whose mouth moved with the words like a carp feeding at the surface.
Joshie Frydenberg came next to tell a joke about a Liberal MP door-knocking, stepping in still-wet cement of a new driveway and introducing himself as a Labor candidate. Big laugh, hahaha.
Next: standard lines on how only a Liberal government can deliver prosperity for families. Families, families, families. The petit-bourgeois tone of the day was being set: this was no hymn to bounding free-enterprise or defence of western civilisation as might have been done in NSW or Queensland. This was the forgotten people redux, “quiet” people doing things quietly.
Before Joshie we’d had a him-and-hers film about ScoMo and wife Jenny detailing how they’d met (year nine, of course). Some vomitous newlyweds stuff (Question: “If Jenny was a superhero…?” Answer: “Oh she’d be the one in Avengers with all the arms to do a million things…”). Ah, Heteronormative Neoliberal Housewife, that superhero. After Joshie — or did I dream it? — there was a film about their 14 years of childlessness due to Jenny’s fertility problems. I would have loved to hear the convo that got that into the mix… Then all four Morrisonettes — mother, wife, two daughters — came out to introduce the man who was brought in on a sedan chair made from the bones of his enemies.
Endless copy has now been written on the core offers: a first home buyers deposit bridge; pay for the whole East-West Link to jam up the Andrews government; a dip into weirdness, recalling comforting a farmer during the drought — “As we stood over the rotting stench of her cattle carcasses, we hugged…” Yes, this was really said. Then there was the line that has attracted so much ridicule — “the promise of Australia” — which seemed fine and perfectly comprehensible.
But there was, above all, modesty of claim and intent. Aside from a few remarks about stopping the boats, the world beyond our borders may as well not exist. The country itself was barely there either. There was little beyond the front doorstep; the national budget was merely the family one writ large. This was not an appeal to would-be masters of the universe, but to people who feel that the forces of the world that buffet them are beyond their understanding and all they know is what they can touch.
“Life is not about what you accumulate,” remarked Morrison, leader of Australia’s capitalist propertarian party. If the Liberals do not go down in flames, manage to bring this to a draw, a *gasp* win or a loss limited in impact, it will be these qualities of Morrison that done it. His evinced belief in better things, a sense that he knows who he is and has a view of what matters in the world.
At the end of this strange, but at times not-unmoving event, everyone scattered quickly. No VIPs streaming into big lunches, just families going off to lunch. The protesters were long gone. The cavernous bogus hall — pure Kennettism, another type of liberalism — echoed with the footsteps of staff striking the set and TV crews packing up.
Scott Morrison had a message, and he will be hoping that great things will come from it, if people can hear it through the poop.