(From And so It Went)
Monday, 17th, March, 2008
Drove to town and proved welcome in Macquarie Tower, to which Minister Rees has been promoted, a blank bright low-ceilinged mausoleum I believed, I hoped, I’d escaped after twelve years ill-serving Bob Carr and Bob Debus in it. I pitched Tom’s filth-cleansing bio-miracle to Ross my chief of staff who seemed interested, then distracted, then bored. You never know.
I ran into Laurie Brereton, rubicund, scaly-faced and whooping in the foyer, joyed by Labor’s federal power, and a wealthy bemused Chinese he was grandly steering round Sydney. I gave him my bring-Howard-home-in-shackles pitch but he was humorously dubious, much as he was ten years ago when I bade him claim Howard’s proposed new dismissal laws, an earlier incarnation of WorkChoices, as ‘a sexual harasser’s mandate’. He whooped, laughed and bounced off (when politicians meet you inadvertently their urgent main purpose is the shared exuberant laugh that releases them from your conversation within, at most, four minutes), the sadder and wiser (and clearly jet-lagged) Oriental in tow, and the beset gay adviser Justin Di Lollo, and I asked myself again if Brereton had been a Good Thing historically for Labor or not.
His failure to succeed Wran (too many recent scandals) in 1986, and he would have been a good Premier, meant we got Unsworth and lost power in 1988; his theft of Carr’s long-nourished Federal seat of Kingsford Smith then lost us a great Foreign Minister; his encouragement of Keating’s moody sloth, you might say, helped lose us government in 1996. His invention indeed (and it was his invention) of the slick and conscienceless New South Wales Right, its free-marketeering, Zegna-suited, champagne-sipping, developer-duchessed Irish-Catholic-on-the-make agnostic lifestyle helped rip the working-class soul out of Labor (which became in his hands a Non-Core Labor Party) and sent it globally gallivanting and money-sniffing into uptown habits of mind and billionairist ambition. But he did give us Darling Harbour and the Monorail and he did, to Whitlam’s infarcting disgust, square things with East Timor as Shadow Foreign Minister; he was something between a Necessary Evil and a Judas Goat, I sluggishly decided. And soon he was out of sight.
Dawdling off towards The Pen Shoppe– I needed ink – I reflected on how things go. Had Brereton not sulkily quit his seat in 2001 Rudd could not have succeeded him as Shadow Foreign Minister and become sufficiently famous on morning television to make his run. Had Beazley, indeed, not equivocated over Tampa nor orated so well of the Kitchen Table and thus regained on the hustings a million lost blue-collar and suburban Hansonite votes, Rudd would have certainly lost his seat; and Crean, I guess, or Smith or Tanner or Swan or Gillard now been Opposition Leader and Howard still Prime Minister. Does it work like this, ill-winds that blow some smug souls good, and good great hearts like Beazley ever ill?
I’d reached Bent Street when I was hailed by Bob Carr, another autumn leaf blown sideways by history’s winds, and he forcibly, in his manicured baritone, proposed we have coffee. We did so, in a place called the City Grind cafe, at a footpath table where deferential strangers constantly hailed him, shook his hand and implored him to return to power. Part of the conversation, as I recall, went like this.
‘How is your book?’
‘It’s okay. I’m planning its launch, the radio interviews, the writers’ festival appearances, like a political campaign. How is your Olivier play?’
‘We’re negotiating, with difficulty, with Tarquin Olivier.’
‘Tell him, if he’s recalcitrant, that I will head your negotiating team. We’ll fly there together and convince him.’
‘Are you happy with how Iemma’s turned out?’
‘No, of course not. The worst of it is, as the corruption shadow creeps back to engulf him, it also retrospectively defames me and my administration.’
He spoke of his puzzlement over Iemma having no thought when he came to office of what he might do. ‘It didn’t matter what it was, but he had to have something. I had a list, a short-list, of things I purposed to do. The preservation of the wilderness as declared national parks. The encouragement of literacy and early reading. The building of a good Conservatorium, theatres, galleries. An improvement of public transport. A few other things, but not many. And he had no such list. He tinkers round the edges of existing problems but has no hit list, no Iemma initiatives, no landmarks, no monuments. I find it very curious.’
He urged me to look after my health. ‘Purpose on longevity,’ he said. ‘Give up all dairy products. Exercise. Be upright and vigorous in your nineties.’
‘I walk forty minutes a day.’
‘That’s good. That’s good. I’m certain obesity is a cause of cancer.’
‘I’ve got a new ambition,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘which is to live until I’m a hundred and two. That is, until 2050. No, I’m serious. I want to see the disasters. The first nuclear exchanges, the rise of ocean levels, weather out of control. Not to say, “I told you so,” or hear it said, “Carr was right.” Not just to prove the climate-change deniers wrong, but for the sheer entertainment value of seeing what happens next.’
‘Oh yes. I’ll get this. I have a meeting, I’ll see you.’
I watched him go off, shaking hands, down effervescing Bligh Street. After twenty-nine years of intimate acquaintanceship (hard to call it friendship though we ardently talk of everything) I barely know him; his wavelength, his inner theology, his emotional tone is not mine, or anybody’s much. His lack of children and love of them, his enduring passion for his ever-beautiful Chinese-Indian wife, his detestation of partisan stupidity, his obsessive care for the planet, his weather eye on death’s approach add up to somebody other than me: a nineteenth-century agnostic Midlands bishop, a sardonic Roman senator coping with the honoured presence in the House of Elders of Caligula’s horse, a Galileo hiding what he knows from the Inquisition lest he die on the rack for knowing it. Any of these, but too good a mind to be maddened by Iemma’s sluggard legacy or spent in assessing mere great books.