IT’S FOUR on Wednesday afternoon and I’m wandering the corridors of Parliament House trying to figure out where I am. The place is vast, a world entire, and its navigation presents a considerable challenge for the non-denizen on a temporary visa.
I arrived yesterday, come for a bit of a sniff around, collecting background for a novel way beyond deadline. I’ve already got what I came for – a few minutes with a handful of members, people who can draw diagrams of processes and describe situations that will become grist to my fictive mill – and I’m wondering if I can trade my cut-price ticket for an earlier flight back to Melbourne. What I don’t yet know is that an accident of timing has put me in the dress circle for the biggest show in town.
Anthony Albanese is coming towards me, flanked by a pair of suits. I’ve met Albo, eaten with him. Something about him makes me think of a kid with a slingshot and scabby knees and a billycart you wish you were game enough to ride, a big winner in the marbles ring, bit of a jostler. He gives me a nod as we pass, not quite placing me. He doesn’t look like he’s plotting a coup, but what do I know?
My spirit-guide finds me. A repository of Labor Party history, a fountain of discretion, he wheels me around, introducing me, identifying the invisible proprieties, minding my manners, borrowing from the library on my behalf. He knows where my interests lie, in the nooks and crannies of potential happenstance that can be woven into a plot. He smooths my path into the offices of ministers and the cubicles of invisible minions, those messengerial attendants who pass unremarked through the sealed doors of confidential conclaves.
It’s sixish now and I’m back in Lindsay Tanner’s office, my temporary pied-à-terre. This is ministerial row, heavy-hitters territory, and not a mouse stirs in the corridor. If skulduggery is afoot, it treads very softly indeed.
The day is winding down and the staff in the office engine room are keeping an amused eye on the television monitors streaming Sky News. Reports of an imminent spill are getting more feverish by the minute. Journalists are interviewing journalists about what other journalists think might be happening. Arms are shoulder-deep in the entrails; reports arrive of a calf born with two heads; flights of vultures have been sighted in the evening sky.
Tanner’s chief-of-staff shambles into the room, watches for a while, shrugs, joins the general badinage, does a little light job-allocation, wanders out. Mary Day, his political majordomo, lends me her desk to check my email. Nothing to see here, folks.
The television commentators keep gnawing their bone. The South Australian right is organising the numbers, the Victorian left… Julia Gillard has been seen going into Kevin Rudd’s office. The PM and deputy PM are having a meeting. Hold the presses.
In breaking news, Lindsay has joined Kevin and Julia in the PM’s office. Not bad, considering he’s three metres from me and we’re off to dinner. If something doesn’t happen soon, the Australian media will burst like a festering boil. Time to get out of there.
So it’s down to the basement car park and into the Prius and off to a pub in O’Connor. Lindsay’s driving, letting his phone go unanswered. By now, it’s vibrating like a blowfly with the DTs.
We join Maria Vamvakinou, the member for Calwell, and a crew of young staffers. Lindsay does a quick check of his messages, somebody wanting to know if he’ll be attending the press conference. Shrugs all round. What press conference? Lindsay doesn’t bother to reply. For the next two hours, we talk about… books. Recent reads, swapped recommendations, shared authors, the problem of finding enough time for history and fiction. He helps me shape a particular scene in the novel that I’ve been sweating. Lucky he’s only the federal finance minister. Back in Brumbyland, this amount of front-bench face-time would cost me thousands.
He gives me a lift to my rented room. On the way, I quiz him about the Greens’ challenge to his seat. He triangulates the electoral demographics, won’t be drawn on tactics. I leave him parked at the kerbside, phone to his ear.
The Victor Lodge has neither TV nor radio but the coin internet has ten minutes left on the meter. While his finance minister was helping me plot a chapter, Rudd had announced a caucus meeting for the next morning. Lindsay’s car is no longer at the kerb.
So now it’s nine-thirty the next morning and I’m standing behind the media scrum outside the party room. Feral cats at a mouse hole, they await their prey. Bob Ellis, x-ray visionary, is framing his cadences into a dictaphone: “… an atmosphere of desolate pity…” The door opens and the pack lunges at the party’s emissary. Gillard, unopposed. Swan, deputy.
Hurble-burble, hurble-burble. No further information is forthcoming. Heave and surge. The caucus doors open on an empty room. They’ve escaped, gone out the other door. The flackery departs, stringing out along the corridor, bound I know not where. I’m not in the loop.
Ah-ha. The prime minister’s courtyard. Security men are checking passes. Press only, and PH staff. My day visitor tag won’t cut it. I pull out my notebook, merge into a cluster of pundits and sidle through. We wait in the damp air, voices muted. A historic moment. I seek portents and symbols. On cue, the cawing of a crow pierces the winter sky.
Michelle Grattan and Paul Kelly join the crowd, waxy and wrinkled as exhibits in some glass case at Madame Tussauds. What ponderous platitudes must Kelly’s gigantic intellect be distilling from this moment, I wonder? What quotidian punditry is Grattan incubating? Polonius and old lace.
Rudd appears. He looks numb. He speaks slowly. The lip quivers. We watch, transfixed. He has a list, dot points of his achievements. Let it be recorded that he made worthwhile things happen, that he helped people, improved and prolonged lives. I’m proud of this, proud of that. He tries to speak from the heart. It is too late. The carapace of jargon cannot be thrown off so easily. His voice catches. The pauses grow longer. His eyes moisten. His ticker falters, replaced valve and all. We gotta zip, he finishes. Zip? Zip?
There is scant satisfaction in this. Not much pity, either. It’s too late. Anyway, it’s Gillard’s turn. Toward the waterhole lumbers the herd.
Eleven o’clock and the party room is chockers. Press, MPs, you name it. Julia sweeps in. Swan combines the gravity of a cardinal with the air of a man who just found a $50 note on the footpath.
Gillard speaks, ticks all the boxes in our bright and admirable democracy of alarm clocks and open minds, harnessed talent and harnessed wind, team work and hard work, surplus budgets and brave soldiers, pulled government advertising and invitations to reciprocity. There’s mention, too, of sanctuary.
A very elastic word, that.
And now the press are shouting, baying like brokers in the bourse. Fran Kelly is a corgi, straining at the leash. Barking, barking. “Juliagillard, juliagillard, juliagillard.”
Each must have their turn, no matter that the question has already been asked and answered. Every child wins a prize. Nobody cares if the lolly has already been sucked. Gillard’s full sentences are chopped into bits. It’s the only language these people understand. Then it’s Julia’s turn to zip. She’s off to see the GG, get her chit signed.
Back in Tanner’s office and everybody is closeted in a meeting. Next thing we’re staring up at the office television, watching Lindsay call it quits. Nobody can doubt his explanation because he is, quite simply, exactly what he appears to be. A mensch.
On the plane back to Melbourne, I find myself sitting beside a Channel 10 news presenter and her producer. They’d arrived too late for the Kevin and Julia shows and spent the afternoon doing live links to camera.
I hope I’m home in time for the late news so somebody can explain it all to me. •