Notes from underground Part 3

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In which the Last Person in Australia Approving of Prime Minister Gillard is Exposed by the Media and, Rejected by his Family, Takes up Residence in a Hole on the Banks of the Yarra, where he Contemplates Opinion Polls and his Future.

In this episode, PM Gillard’s approval rating falls from 0.00001% to 0%, after pollsters class the author as a merely a statistical aberration.

By Graham Jackson

[Read part one]

[Read part two]

Part Three

9:  Settling in for the Long Haul

Rome wasn’t built in a day, they say, and neither was the Prime Minister’s supporter base. My Melbourne ancestors had better fortune in the north eastern suburbs, which they grew with great speed in the second half of the nineteenth century. But their voyages out to Australia were less easy. At the risk of being parochial, I’d like to make a note of one or two incidents from these long gone times which still resonate now in days of fear and self-loathing, snake-oil merchants, pollsters, psychoanalysts, faith healers, billionaire evangelists and Cardinal Newman.

Our country was built on faith. Every shipwreck who washed up on our shores believed they had a future here. Even those who made way for them, our Indigenous Elders, believed there were better times coming, when miners might ask for permission to dig up their land and then pay a fair price, when petrol station attendants might serve something better than addiction and death, and when a wombat might turn out to be a wombat and not some elderly madman burrowing a hole in the banks of the Yarra. Times do change, of course, but not always for the better.

My ancestors came to Australia in dodgy boats. One of these vessels was built in Tasmania before going over to England – where it was uninsurable – to pick up its passengers. One young girl wrote in her diary, from the ocean southwest of Christmas Island, about the night they ran into rough weather, with “the ship rocking, the waves dashing over”:
“About 12 o’clock a large wave … broke the skylight of the fore cabin to pieces and took away the lifeboat and water came down through the windows. The ship sunk under it but rose again in a few minutes. We were all much frightened… The Captain ran upon deck undressed for in a few minutes we should have been shipwrecked.”

Many children were thrown overboard, buried at sea with tears and prayers. In fact the ship that brought the Singing Evangelist to Queensland disposed of seventeen small souls on the way, all of whom had died “from infantile diseases – diarrhoea, teething, convulsions, &c.” This vessel had come through the Suez Canal, acquiring further passengers en route – legal and illegal – before sailing on past Christmas Island. The Singing Evangelist’s children, six of them, all survived. His wife bore another four in Queensland before dying of exhaustion. She was forty-five, had been born a “bastard” child (according to the Scottish parish register), grew up in poverty and then married the Singing Evangelist and had her ten children, all legitimate. Her husband brought his small tribe down to Melbourne alone, where they went fishing on the river, and prospered. One of the boys once
“...caught the largest perch that has ever been hooked in the Yarra in this district [Heidelberg]. It turned the scales at 6lbs, and was 20in. long by 7in. thick.”

The local newspaper reported the catch, which had been made beneath the Manningham Bridge. I have access to the records via my computer and have discovered that newspapers then were like newspapers now, with columns by censorious psychoanalysts, sensations and statistics, fear and loathing. In 1891, after careful statistical analysis, one columnist concluded that “one man in every 300 in Victoria is a madman,” giving the colony an undesirable lead over (in this order) New York, England, New South Wales, Ireland, South Australia and Scotland. Not knowing what to make of the figures, the columnist concluded facetiously:
“To state a plain fact in very plain terms – the population of this colony has more than its share of idiots; that is to say, its lunatics abound in excessive numbers.”

This is my heritage.

I’ve also retrieved information about Gamblin Gary Goldfinger’s fall off the Manningham Bridge and the discovery of his broken body on the rocks below. I take no pleasure from all this historical information, but a fact is a fact and I have to occupy myself somehow while I wait for the Prime Minister’s numbers to improve. Raoul has promised to drop by the burrow more often, but although his intentions are good I suspect he either has a lot of other things on his mind, or nothing at all, and might prove to be unreliable. Apart from his personal commitment to Prime Minister Gillard, he made no promises about actively recruiting supporters. But who am I, cowering in a riverbank hole, to judge him?

10:  Broken Promises and the Lessons of History

The lessons of history are never easily learned. The Prime Minister has been castigated for turning her back on the lesson that a broken promise inevitably leads to a fate worse than death, that is, political suicide, which amounts to much the same thing. But if voters had to wait until they were convinced a politician’s promise would be kept, they’d be waiting until cattlemen came down from their mountain. On reflection this is not such a good analogy, and might be better used illustrating another broken promise, Premier Ted’s pledge to keep high plain drifters out of the north eastern suburbs. Only this morning Clancy of the Overflow dropped by the mouth of the burrow and wondered aloud if he could lend me a hand with one thing or another. I sent him down to the water for stones.

Human beings aren’t wired to keep promises. Our wiring is so faulty we’re all more or less mad, particularly here in Victoria as our history has shown, which we have to keep in mind as we strive daily to do the right thing, keep to the left side of the road and avoid running over the elderly on pedestrian crossings. At least living by the Yarra I run no risk of that. I’ve written to The Age on these matters more than once, suggesting the paper wastes too many valuable column inches on the elusive link between lies and the erosion of trust, faith and riverbanks.

We all know about lies and statistics, of course, as well as fools and their money — and loss and grief generally. But this only leads to the morass of tears and recrimination, the bog at the water’s edge churned up by the mountain cattlemen’s beasts (curse their sinewy hides). I hasten to add I have no fear and hatred of cattle and, in my former life, was fond of beef stew. One lesson I did learn early is that a wife always knows best, that a failure to acknowledge this unpalatable fact has consequences, like leftovers for dinner instead of beef stew. You can take that on trust.

But another lesson is this: if emotionally involved, never trust your own judgment. Shortly after Clancy rode off upstream, my son turned up at the river. In fact, Raoul has been a regular visitor since and I have to admit I misjudged him. So much so that I’m persuaded the Prime Minister’s approval base is now standing steady at 0.00002%. While this mightn’t be statistically accurate in the strictest sense, it does indicate my son’s involvement (or at least the involvement of one other person) in the revival of the Prime Minister’s fortunes. And it suggests an upward trend of which the pollsters will take note and pass on for the base reflections of the psychoanalysts. These people never learn lessons.

I once broke a promise to quit smoking. Raoul had just started and it seemed the only way I could persuade him to stop. At any rate my wife thought it was what I should do and, as a non-smoker, her opinion carried the weight of authority, as well as control of evening meal menus. She had no idea what she was putting me through. I passed each day in the car pool in a haze of tobacco and carbon monoxide that, over the years, had created its own reality. Not one of the alternative realities alluded to in a previous note, but still one it was going to cost me some pain to escape. I tried getting healthy, running round the pool in my lunch break. Then it was small cigars, drawn into the mouth but never inhaled. The last measure involved shouting at Raoul more or less constantly, especially over weekends and, when that failed, I broke my promise.

In one of those inexplicable turns of event and lessons of history, instead of giving me a cold shoulder, my wife prepared the best stew I ever tasted. It was Welsh and dished up with a kiss on my cheek and a thank you for making the effort. I was speechless then, but have the right response now. And that is to advise Prime Minister Gillard to keep having a go, to keep trying to deliver legislation along the lines originally promised, and if it all falls through to go home and have a tasty Welsh rabbit before returning to the office and trying again.

11:  Saying No

I have to confess to prejudice. I said in a previous note that the Opposition Leader was some kind of Christian, when I knew all along he was Roman Catholic. My prejudice isn’t against Catholics as such, because I’m one of the lapsed sort myself. The truth of the matter is that the Singing Evangelist had a daughter who not only sang as well as her father, but played the organ even more profoundly. In fact, she was so good she was prepared to say no to her Protestant past and to convert to Catholicism in order to play the organ in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. She was the organist there for twenty odd years in the time of Archbishop Mannix. She was my grandmother – my direct ancestral line – who married late in life and had one child, my mother.

I said no to Catholicism when I married my wife. By now, you know who wore the pants in our house, and I have no problem with that. I’ve been faithful to my wife and to my current Prime Minister and always agreed and said yes, even when ordered out of the house. In fact, I take a quiet pride in saying yes.

The Opposition Leader, Mr Tony Abbott, says no more often than not. He says no to people who want to do something about a smoking habit, no to those who believe billionaire evangelists like the Reverend Potted Palm ought to pay taxes, and he even said no to Gamblin Gary Goldfinger and now has the hide to participate in Heidelberg’s annual Bend to Bridge Dash. Although this has nothing to do with Gamblin Gary’s fall off Manningham Bridge, it still reminds a few of us older folk of an unhappy day in our past.

In fact the Dash takes place between Sills Bend and Manningham Bridge, and encourages participants to enjoy the event rather than go all out to win it. Compete in a friendly spirit is its motto, which explains local astonishment at Mr Abbott’s appearance and his refusal to accept local rules. Intent on winning, he was attired in modern racing swimwear, complete with goggles and lifesaving cap, and so impatient to get started he swam off in the wrong direction, against the current, upstream. Had he got so far, he might have lost himself in the confusing twists and turns of the Banyule Flats. But as it happened he only managed to stay in the same spot, relative to the Sills Bend banks, where he was cheered on by supporters after the main body of swimmers splashed away downstream. Then as he tired the current kindly took hold of his body and bore it slowly and gently down to the bridge, where it arrived long after the crowds had dispersed. Even his supporters had drifted away by the time he dragged himself out of the water. The ghost of the Man with the Midas Touch was the only presence to greet him.

It’s in the nature of conservatives like the Opposition Leader to try to hold their position against the current of change, to say no, to resist the natural forces carrying them downstream. In this sense, I’m also a conservative, wanting to hold onto the Prime Minister against every other opinion in the country, save that of my eldest son. Are we dinosaurs, Raoul and I, yesterday’s men? Are we saying no to the flood of history? Are we mad, eccentric? Should we say yes?

I believe Mr Abbott should say yes now and then. As for myself, since my Eureka flag was stolen, I’m going to put up two signs at the entrance to my burrow. One will be negative, SAY NO TO POLLS, the other positive, SAY YES TO STATE OWNERSHIP. I can’t say fairer than that. Premier Ted will have to like it or lump it, and if Clancy of the Overflow, or any other high plains drifter, ever tries lending me a hand again I’ll throw him in the river. You can quote me on that, verbatim.

I’m going to take hold of my country’s spotty history. I’m taking approval of the Prime Minister to another level. I’m unrepentant in this. Raoul and I are united. You all know where you can find us. At any rate you all know where to find me. Even Mr Abbott knows where I live now, because I had a grandstand view of him trying to push waste matter upstream. Now he knows where it comes from.

12:  The Erosion of Trust

There seems to be no doubt that I’ve been punished in the polls for making wild claims. I have no excuse. Raoul brought my medication down to the burrow more than a week ago now and, as far as I remember, I haven’t missed a day. I am accountable for my actions, for my choices, for the angle of my cap and these explanatory notes. The polls have reduced me to an anomalous blip, but in doing so, merely reflect the strict standards required of everyone living in the public eye.

Approval of the Prime Minister has fallen dramatically and is now 0%, despite common knowledge of my voting intentions. The psychoanalysts have dismissed me as an aberration, something that exists, but not relevant as a statistic. It’s a humbling experience, one which has given me a better understanding of Mr Rupert Murdoch’s trials and tribulations, when his newspaper vanished into thin air, as if it had never existed.

The nation’s 0.00001% approval of Prime Minister Gillard has also vanished overnight, without a hint of warning from anyone, son or wife or investigative agency.

Any trust in the validity of my existential statistic has evaporated. In fact, to talk of ‘erosion’ is misleading, since it seems to imply that something might remain, some residue, the faintest shadow of a once solid object. Alas, all is gone now, trust, hope and charity – these three – and only faith remains, for which I can thank Raoul. My son is encouraged by the 0% result, interpreting it as a sign that things can’t get any worse. And of course he’s right, because it means, conversely, that things can only get better.

From here on we can contemplate reversals of fortune rather than erosions of trust. Already I find myself taking morning walks on the riverbank with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, like Roamin in the Gloamin or the Welsh national anthem in 6/8 time. That I have no Welsh ancestors, only Scottish, English and Irish, need come as no surprise, since the Prime Minister has bequeathed me this part of her heritage, as well as some of the Reverend Potted Palm’s spare change. For this, she has my lifelong devotion. Let me say unequivocally, there is no place in Australia for billionaire evangelists preoccupied with their personal salvation.

I am energised. In one day alone I scraped out a spare room in the burrow, to offer Raoul a bed if we ever got onto the vodka again and he needed to crash. But so far, we’re moving along in an orderly fashion, discussing plans for the future, when the numbers improve and we can walk up to the office of the local federal member and admire the renovations. In fact, things are going so well I could almost go fishing – if I had the stomach for putting a worm on a hook, or taking a hook out of the mouth of a prize-winning perch. Some things are beyond me, but not faith in my Prime Minister.

Our Prime Minister, of course. I should be inclusive, prepare myself for the day all citizens embrace her, throw petals in her path. I can imagine one or two psychoanalysts who might find statements like these incredible, facetious at best, and conclude I’m a kind of fifth columnist, pretending to approve of the Prime Minister while eroding her base, leading Raoul astray and into the arms of Mr Abbott. Let them believe what they will. They always have. They know all about eroding trust, creating the conditions in which trust becomes dust and, at a keystroke, disappears. I know all about them.

I am their nemesis. I am the flower in the attic, the bat in belfry, the key in the keyhole, opening the doors of voters’ perceptions into unknown worlds of desire and intention, and taking the cap off a bottle of vodka with a single turn of the wrist. I am wristy, risky. I am all things to all voters. It’s true I can never be my wife, but on this single occasion I’ll persuade her to take her husband on trust, to take a gamble and vote for Prime Minister Gillard, after which we’ll share a victory dinner at the finest beef restaurant in the north eastern suburbs. The boys will share it with us, even Sylvester, who to the best of my knowledge hasn’t put his name on the electoral roll yet. But I’ll persuade him. Wait and see.

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