Monday, 9th February, 1998
On a stage on Parliament lawn, a large loud overbearded actor playing Henry Parkes with furious Edwardian fustian fails to alert a throng of bubbly-sipping delegates (Chipp, O’Donoghue, Ruxton, Fischer, the icy Hitchcock blonde Stott-Despoja, the darkly blazing and beauteous bitch goddess Papadoulos (Mirabella)) to the presidential brilliance of Dick Smith, the evening’s puppetmaster, who then also speaks in his own praise unheard. I am neutral on a republican Presidency, he shrieks above the noise, and I want it. John Howard is briefly, edgily, clammily present (silverside complexion, dead sultana eyes) but has to go off to discuss on White House hotline what Mungo MacCallum cheerfully calls The War of Clinton’s Dick.
This may save him, it is gloomily agreed. My government proposes a Gallipoli landing on, say, April 25 and an eastward march to Babylon of slouch-hatted heroes singing ‘True Blue’ before engaging hand- to-hand with the filthy Saddamites in the little-known valley of Armageddon and Christmas pud by the wells of Beersheeba, then home to Gundagai by Australia Day for the khaki election. It might work. Why should this generation of brave diggers be deprived of those brothels of Cairo that so uplifted our grandfathers’ Anzac spirits? It might work.
Not much else has, this week, for the wizened wizard of Wollstonecraft. Reith with the usual sly vaudeville timing of his clone Eric Morecambe has declared himself a zealot for, shock, horror, presidential democracy. Zammitt the same day called his pollsmitten chief a slipping, sliding, slithering calamity for Australia and quit the party. In a vote on the Republic’s timing that would have let him open the Olympic Games his lone raised hand stood sad in a silent sea of mutiny. And his government’s rating fell that day in the Herald poll to 44.
Turnbull wasn’t looking too flash either. After Friday’s acrimonious agreement of Turnbullies and Bolsheviks (‘Let’s meet and sort it out,’ said one wit, ‘Wran to Rann’) that the ARM on Monday would counterpropose an even sexier direct-election hybrid, he had a cup of tea on Howard on Sunday and came away with his mind wonderfully focused – on, some snidely suggested, his own rapid rise by acclamation to the rank of Liberal cabinet minister – and met the flabbergasted Mike Rann on Monday night with a stern and stony face and a let-down of the sort merchant bankers manage most days of most weeks. Annoyance grew around him as he claimed the Head of State’s title meant nothing, nothing at all (come off it, I inwardly murmured, Dictator? Tyrant? Caesar? Kaiser? Bonaparte? Caligula?) only his powers. Tell that to Yeltsin, the torcher of parliaments. Nifty (the good cop), beside him, and Holmes a Court (the lady empress-in-waiting), on the other side, looked a nidge embarrassed.
Bruce Ruxton, the besotted Member for Bedrock, is vainly wooing Stott-Despoja with blown kisses across the chamber. An uncharismatic zealot in Kings Hall is trying to sell to passers-by his possibly novel system for slowing down the speed of light. A rival idealist is displaying his own Jeffersonian Declaration of Independence, and seeking signatures. A bulbous dim woman for long repetitive days demands I admit I am not Bob Ellis but in fact Mark Mitchell – ‘Con the Fruiterer!’ as I trudge away from her cursing and she follows adoringly. Bill Leak draws, but is told not to put in, a cartoon of Howard sloppily fellating Clinton, and Clinton jovially informing a number of pointed microphones, ‘He SAID…Australia is a proudly independent nation, and it doesn’t need a republic.’ A legless delegate in a wheelchair bowls in and out of the chamber muscularly conferring and crunching numbers.
‘To be or not to be!’ begins the wispy Eric Lockett, thereby achieving crushing tedium in only five syllables. Neville Bonner stands hunched and white-haired on the front steps, smoking, an outcast once more, in a lesser cause. The summer heat is maddening, and the Canberra green a delight. In the cool of the Gallery, Rembrandt’s inward, illumined faces recall our mortality, futility and human kindness. Tim Fischer, looking like one of them, tells me he and John Howard want to bring back Parliament’s deliberations to this beautiful building – with a connecting subway, perhaps, to the ministerial slaves in the Other. I briefly believe him, then can’t. Paddy O’Brien calls, once again, the Prime Minister ‘Citizen Howard.’ Flo with difficulty limps, hand on the railing, down the inner stairway.
Pat O’Shane and pink-topped Moira Rayner (‘When,’ asks Mungo, ‘is she going to tend her head wound’) call a press conference to curse the Turnbull ‘politburo’ and bay for supportive phonecalls – a just republic, not just a republic – and Beattie, Gallop and Rann crowd in beside them. Rann, the coolest, shrewdest and possibly best-looking Labor leader now working, speaks of imminent shipwreck if the ‘brie and chablis set’ do not see sense. My electors, sir, cannot be trusted to elect another (like Groucho saying he would not be a member of a club that would have him as a member) is not a position voters will buy.
Poppy King (pale fire and ivory and scarlet lips) evokes with schoolgirl fury a man bereft of his memory to whom she must now explain why Australia’s Head of State is not Australian. Jim Killen – who may be fairly and briefly described as a shaggy-drover’s-loaded-dog in whose clenched grey snaggled cuspidors is not a bomb but a Latin concordance – declaiming in the style of Marcus Tullius Cicero, tells why we must vote on the model first, and then on becoming a republic. ‘If you are going to pull down the family home about our ears, you must tell us, surely, first what kind of dwelling lies in wait for us.’ Asked by a reporter, for my assessment, I call it, ‘A wonderful process with a bad ending.’
Rann begs Wran for a meeting to sort things out: bring Janet, he says, but not for Christ’s sake Malcolm. Enflamed by his exclusion Turnbull rolls up anyway and immediately begins abusing Lois O’Donoghue for something she said on the ABC. A man, says Rann, in clear need of house-training. I recall a story of Turnbull arriving with all the votes sewn up to receive by acclamation his preselection in a safe Liberal seat and having a fist fight with two of the committee members and being like his Pom clone Randolph Churchill belatedly disendorsed and wonder if it is true.
That hot night from a sidewalk table at the Ottoman we see Ruxton lumbering by like a Rodin Thinker imperfectly animated. ‘Come in and eat with Johnny Turk,’ Mungo with characteristic snide jocosity calls coldly out. Ruxton growls like a bear and thrusts on, a blonde not Stott-Despoja trotting briskly at his side. Over the mixed dip we reflect on how in our student days Lloyd Waddy would year after year compere the musical nostalgia evening Victoriana and with corpulent equanimity lead the singing of Land of Hope and Glory, a task, we decide, that slowly and quietly consumed his entire existence, and his lifetime. Beazley arrives like Moby Dick in the balmy moonlight, following down the summer wind a pleasing faint aroma, I guessed, of Peking duck. We gripe to him how doomed it all now seems. ‘Oh, we may lose,’ he says buoyantly. ‘But consider the upside. I’ll be Prime Minister in six months anyway, and if so placed will do such things as will give us a Republic and a President in time for the Olympic Games. Always look at the Big Picture, citizens.’ Or words to that effect. And he floats on, chirpier than I have ever seen him, into the Banquet Palace across the street.
‘My own state,’ says – magnificently – Killen of Queensland, from the floor, ‘my own enlightened state.’ A delegate hoots at this. ‘I did not detect, sir,’ Killen responds, ‘that you were so imperfectly informed.’ Nova Peris-Kneebone speaks movingly of a nation over which, for her, the Union Jack must no more flutter. A female army officer called Maretta movingly argues the opposite. Alisdair Webster says this country needs no constitution when it has the Holy Bible. ‘I’ll go along with that,’ comments Beazley later, ‘so long as we stick with the Old Testament’ – with much smiting of Midianites and Amalekites, I guess, and certain collateral damage in downtown, heathen Teheran.
Much eyeballing and arm-twisting has overnight brought hope of a deal. ‘Not Wran to Rann,’ confides Mike Rann, ‘Nifty to Swifty.’ The two sit bagging Turnbull behind me in the cafe. ‘Falling in love again,’ says Turnbull in the corridor, snatching national revulsion from the jaws of glad victory as is his wont. Feigning humility with the haughty smoothness of Coriolanus, he names the new plan (it gives us, as always, a whiff of consultation but no democracy) the O’Donoghue Model. Happiness breaks out and begins spreading. Scalded by this prospect, Howard declares war, two aircraft’s worth, and Saddam Hussein, presumably, trembles.
Tim Costello compares in Kings Hall our two fundamentalist upbringings, measuring and mourning youth’s lost pleasures. Don Chipp speaks warmly of Kahlil Gibran, and introduces me to his tiny children. Turnbull, Djerkarra and Pell move together out of the downstairs gazebo. ‘We need one more bishop,’ says Turnbull. ‘Knight takes bishop,’ shouts Mungo, with possible irrelevance. I sometimes mistake certain younger delegates for waitresses, asking one for a cafe latte. Bill Leak’s coarse cartoon is passed, with gasps and guffaws, around the chamber.
McGarvie (hereinafter known as the Knight of the Woeful Consonants) is mysteriously replaced by a pre-slimed Max Gillies impersonation whose prissy arrogance and pertinickety loopiness achieves in eight minutes the loathing and contempt of all observing. He says none of his wise elders should be under sixty-five but can be, however, sometimes over seventy-nine (and dismissable for senility by a vote of the High Court, in doddering empathic convocation) and the assembled democracy groans in unison. Asked when women will get a look-in, he says, ‘In thirty years women will have caught up.’ Rann feels like voting him an infinite extension, then, then, fatally, maybe, doesn’t.
Cleary magnificently extols the wisdom of ordinary people, in a speech whose words have the weight of flung bricks. Turnbull deftly extols the virtue of the camel, its fleet feet and desert durability. Ruxton calls Turnbull the Godfather, and in place of his proposed communal assembly suggests, with megalithic wit, the RSL. Chipp says in his forty years of republicanism he has not found a path that is free of peril. ‘If you escape from the tiger,’ he says, ‘beware the crocodile.’
The unweeping crocodile strikes round noon, as vote after vote is shunted through with the unrelenting decisiveness of a Chainsaw Massacre (‘Birth of a Nation part eighteen!’ comes a cry from the gallery) and our national topography for centuries, perhaps, mapped out in thirty minutes. The Hayden model goes down, amazingly, with only Cleary, Bullmore of the Shooters’ Party and Hayden – bizarre bedfellows momentarily enmeshed – for it; Direct Election, more contentiously, by 31 to 30, McGarvie momentarily prevailing, after my head count of the upstanding delegates looked, from where I was, like an easy Bolshevik shoo-in; then shouts from Professor Paddy and Paul Tully of Ipswich as the Mensheviks narrowly win the big vote (or do they) with 74 but not the 77 that Howard (absent himself from the chamber throughout the counting in fear, perhaps, of a red-faced televised humbling) required for a decisive model; they move the Convention, having utterly failed, do now adjourn, and are voted down.
Confusion, anger, dismay swarm down the corridors (a constitution, one young girl speaker warns, like the building up the hill – shining, glamorous, hollow); a sensation of let down, foreshortening, all too swift. From wonderful promise, a lousy punchline. The unelected monarchist delegates, as in an Asian oligarchy, have proved here, too, decisive. A welter of haggled amendments pollute and embitter the afternoon. A carefully structured stuff-up? Maybe. I spend the evening (at the Ottoman again) on other business.
Friday morning, 4 a.m.
The best of it (I snarl in interview after interview) was the bustling, companionable, articulate feeling we had for a time here that Australia was not, as we’d lately come to think, a sub-racist and spirit-deadened post-colonial backwater like Southern Rhodesia, but a great warm fire of jousting, egalitarian, comradely decency – hey, True Blue – whose politicians both new and old were not poltroons but (like Paul Keating) brawler-statesmen. The glad warm intergenerational feeling, too, of old lions and lion cubs on the grassy upland sharing old bones as the summer twilight deepens, exchanging sad, gnarled wisdom with the fresh impertinence of youth. It was good to be here. Like Haley’s Comet in my lifetime, it will not come again.
Howard snatched some shreds of honour from the final vote, which he said was – bugger the numbers – worth a referendum anyway, mysteriously asserting as his reason ‘that we all smell’, then, consulting his notes, went on, ‘the same gum leaves’ – a noble sentiment provided, I guess, by those of his American advisers who would before correction have added, ‘We all eat the same fried koala.’ Beazley trumped him by dragging him out of his seat and bouncing him up and down like a rag doll with a manly handshake and a challenge that he campaign for the new Republic, alongside him as comrades together. No way, said the little man shaking his head, with the pink-faced prepubescent smirk, nya nya, he will wear, I guess, in his coffin. Sinkers, much enlarged by his lordly achievement of order in the House, and wit, and widespread commonsense, made his concluding remarks, the last of which was, ‘The Members’ Bar is open.’
Much valedictory piss is consumed in this venue. ‘How is it,’ I ask of the affable Tim Costello, apropos of his brother, ‘that two men shared a bedroom for nineteen years and all the good went to one side of the bed, and all the evil to the other?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he says, smiling gently. ‘It’s a mystery.’ I consider bowling up to Howard a few feet away and asking him warmly about his sexual technique but am diverted by a young woman of twenty-five who claims to have been offered Labor preselection in three states and to have turned them all down because none of the addresses please her. I refrain from strangling the silly bitch and go down to the press room with Mungo.
Mungo takes a last look around. ‘A good experience,’ he says in his long flat voice. ‘Worth having.’ ‘Do you want to come back?’ I ask. ‘No way,’ he says.
We go on to the subsequent Press Club piss-up where amid a lot of shouting certain deluded Melbourne monarchists attempt to recruit me to their cause. Mungo, benignly intervening, tells Papadoulos (Mirabèlla) he has heard she is into S and M. ‘So?’ she says combatively, dangerously smiling. She then hands me her camera and asks me to photograph her with Mungo and, as it flashes, knees him in the balls. He then strikes her over the head with the flat of his hand and I photograph that too. She’s little, as Shakespeare remarked of a similar female, but she’s fierce.
I dine with Barrie Cassidy and Mungo and Heather Hewitt and they recall (of course) the old days and how it call came back this last fortnight. Why should a building make such a difference? Dunno, but it does. Cassidy said it was a great experience and he is proud of his end montage. I recall nothing like it. John Howard in creating it hoped for a derisory Lilliputian rabble and instead, to his amazement, unleased Australia – a country unfamiliar to him, with much goodness in it, despite all his efforts, and much democratic muscle even yet. And its momentous, garrulous, raucous decency overwhelmed his sly whingeing prattle, his ceaseless and wheedling hypocrisy and cover-up, with the clarity of big ideas and the force of communal caring, and the power of` that education, achieved under Whitlam and Hawke and Keating and Radio National, that will not go away. And will soon, I profoundly believe, bring him down.