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Notes from underground Part 4

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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, the author has an epiphany and thereafter rejoins the world — making plans to stand as an Independent Federal candidate.

By Graham Jackson

[Read part 1]

[Read part 2]

[Read part 3]


Conclusion


13:  Low Water


The river is no more than a trickle. If the Bend to Bridge Dash were held today the competitors would thrash about on the rocks like dying perch, and if Mr Abbott were asked to think about hiding his shame he might think twice before he said no. Premier Ted has been away for several weeks, rumoured to be down on the bay, at Portsea or Rye. The Age has reported sightings of him instructing the Opposition Leader how to negotiate Victorian waters in more modest attire. Speculation is rife and innuendo prevails in the daily news, and even the cheery young men at 7 Eleven are beginning to show signs of distress. Consumer confidence is as low as the Yarra and business is bad.

I do the best I can, turning up each morning for my paper, sometimes stopping to chat. Their English is good and no barrier to conversation, but their spirit is gone and a tired smile and weary good morning is all they can muster. Once, I waited more than a minute for someone to emerge from the STAFF ONLY door and received no apology. I feel for them; I feel for everyone in these days of low morale and river levels.

Raoul has become more reserved – I was going to say sullen, but it’s not as bad as that – and has his head buried in a book when he comes round to visit. He’s reading Father Brown mysteries. I’m starting to worry about Raoul. He’s never been religious, my eldest son, and another conversion in the family might be a faith too far. Already, I struggle to tabulate our swings to and fro, Protestant to Catholic, Catholic to Protestant, and can count my blessings I only have Christian beliefs to record. By the time other faiths appear in the family this unbelieving historian will be cold in his grave.

Even The Age has become sympathetic. Either that or turned nasty – it’s hard to say which – and taken an editorial decision to twist the knife. This morning, one of their psychoanalysts made fun of the polls and his colleagues — called them idiots. You can’t say fairer than that. I might have written the piece myself with the right kind of background information. It delved into the political past, when the current Opposition ruled the land and high seas and turned potential 7 Eleven staff back to the chaotic countries they came from. The general conclusion was that Prime Minister Gillard still had the ghost of a chance. But no one can read between lines better than me and when another columnist told me the gambling industry had the Prime Minister’s measure, I knew all bets were off.

Advice from the Institute of Public Affairs tempted me to stop buying the paper, but decisions are rarely made so easily. I still needed paper for toileting and, as we moved into a cold late autumn, the broadsheet was useful as a second blanket. My wife had weakened to the extent of sending food parcels down to the river, but they were intended to keep me alive, not in comfort.

I had a third sign planted by my burrow now. NO HAWKERS, it said. While it exposed me to a negativity charge, the time I saved explaining my situation made it worthwhile. How these people made a living selling their wares up and down the river was beyond my understanding. Times were so tough you couldn’t eat a scone without breaking your teeth, and everyone knew the price of a dentist. They could name their own price, if the truth were told, and how many citizens had that kind of advantage? Only dentists, billionaire evangelists and the Prime Minister, who, in another context, was being goaded by the gambling industry to write her own ticket on an election win.

With confidence in everything hitting rock bottom, even the trickle in the Yarra evaporated and my wife’s beef stew lost a lot of its beef. Bulked out with a soy bean substitute, it tasted like river mud, which could still be found here and there in the billabongs. Once I trekked upstream to find the last of them, but lost myself in the Banyule Flats. Life is unforgiving in this stretch of the river, in flood and in drought, and I had to call for Raoul’s help to get me back to my hole.


14: Pai-abun


I lay dormant in my burrow, like the original wombat. Images fast forwarded across my eyes, the peaks and troughs of opinion poll graphs, faster and faster, until they blurred and flatlined. The Prime Minister’s approval rating was a constant 0% and the war against her was won. The Age newspaper headlines spiralled round her tense face, proclaiming victory in wars against everything —against drugs, faith, hope and charity, against Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and remote Palm Island. The war against asylum-seekers had also been won, screamed a huge black headline, and Mr Abbott was taking credit for turning their boats around and shoving them in the right direction. The troops could now come home.

The wars had come at a cost. Three senior Age writers were being treated for ulcers and powder burns. Their campaigns had been long and arduous and Missus Grattan had willingly gone to the front page on numerous occasions. Too many, it seemed. Her face had become as unmoving as the fallen enemy. Her pith helmet was stained with blood and sweat, with tears for those of her comrades who had gone missing in action. Fears were still entertained for their safety. Would anyone see Master Blarney again?

An American platoon, codenamed The Australian, shouldered in to claim the victory. Their headlines screamed VIVE LE REPUBLICAN PARTY! and their mascot Liberty Albrechtsen was given the honour of raising the flag before passing it on to retired General Kelly, who, overcome with emotion, dropped dead at her feet. Alan Jones bravely strode in to challenge the corpse to stand up like a man, but distracted by incoming phone calls lost the thread of his demands and fled the field. His admirers gathered to console him, to wipe the foam from his mouth, and Mr Andrew Bolt offered words of encouragement at the best price he could get, per column inch.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word is now the power and the glory, the creator and destroyer. Burrows are dug on a word of encouragement. Even as my own retreat caves in and stifles the words streaming out of my mouth.

But my vision remains unimpaired. I can see a figure on the farther bank, Premier Ted, beckoning. Have I heard the troops are coming home? he calls. Yes, I’ve heard the rumour, and that chickens are coming home to roost, and that I have to vacate the riverbank and go back to suburbia.

I lay delirious in the burrow. Ancestors were with me, the Singing Evangelist, the Man of Flowers and the Musical Baptist. They asked me to reconsider my faith. They had also been sorely tried and tested. Their wives had died young, they never remarried and had to raise their children alone. I should have more confidence in my boys, in their ability to create a future. Come out of the burrow, my ancestors urged, as they presented me with family icons — a conductor’s baton, a hand-crafted, kiln-fired flower pot and an old 1904 book about Aboriginal customs and beliefs. Turning the pages of this heirloom I discovered that if a man
“…dreamt anything special at any time, he would always repeat the dream to his companions, and they would take it seriously. A dream was called pai-abun, and during one a man would often see a person who had died, and … if he saw anything dreadful in his dream he became exceedingly afraid, and would be convinced that the awful things he saw were really to happen.”

For days I lay in the burrow tended by my eldest son. Later, he told me Chance had come down to the river with a proper beef stew and helped me sip the gravy. Slowly, patiently, I was nursed back to health and I want to note here the care provided by all members of my family, with the exception of Sylvester. Raoul believes his youngest brother is becoming infected by war games and in danger of being lost to the void.

I am exceedingly afraid for him. My dreams of death and destruction, of ill-gotten victories, have drained optimism out of my frail body. Even hope is hard to find, although I still sleep at night and wake each morning with the first calls of the birds and go up to the 7 Eleven for my paper. But how long can I go on this way? Should I go back to my wife? Raoul has suggested I wait a few more weeks, to see how I feel then, and I’m inclined to take his advice.


15:  After the Dreaming


One night I returned to my old home, when the moon was hidden behind cloud and the suburb cloaked in darkness. I could feel the fear in the streets, the ancient fear of night and even of fear itself. New analyses now suggested some of our wars had been abandoned rather than won, and that wars against terror, tobacco and TattsLotto fell into this category and might be expected to flare any minute. Liberty Albrechtsen’s war against hypocrisy was a case in point, since she’d called out all those who bought $1,000 fundraising tickets to dinners other than the one given in her honour by the Institute of Public Affairs. Some mean spirited columnists claimed she stood accused of shooting herself in the foot and that she was one of war’s hidden casualties and had in fact hidden behind one war or another – against rival philosophies, Prime Ministers, Occupy Movements – for too many years. But every individual stands accused at some time or other, even as I had been branded as the last living supporter of Prime Minister Gillard and now walked suburban streets alone.

I don’t believe I’m overstating the case, although I hear the hyperbolic shrill in my mind and appreciate others might catch some of its echoes. I could also hear my footsteps echoing down the concrete path behind me, and turned my head more than once to see who might be following. But no one was there, just the unremitting darkness and fears for my three sons, especially Sylvester. If Liberty Albrechtsen was hidden in the shadows I could trust her to be looking out for herself, not me.

I stopped outside my weatherboard. Should I knock at the door, see if one of my family would let me back in? Despite their recent approaches, I still wasn’t sure of my welcome. Perhaps with me out of the house they were experiencing the kind of nostalgia we all have for the good times we shared in the past – birthday parties and summer trips to the beach – under the security umbrella of a male Prime Minister. Now we’d all moved on, I might be better served cutting my losses and be grateful for whatever family contact I could attract down to the riverbank. At least I was my own master there.

I returned via the 7 Eleven, where the student on duty noticed how sad I looked and offered me a small Slurpee free of charge. It was a thoughtful gesture. The young fellow’s English wasn’t as good as his colleagues on the morning shift and he was keen to get some practice. He didn’t know me, of course, since it wasn’t my usual hour. In fact, he probably didn’t know anyone. I’d walked along a deserted road to get to the store, a road which for the greater part of the day was jammed with traffic. I remarked how quiet it was. He must have been working on his reply for some hours, as he waited to greet his first customer. At the time I didn’t understand a word he said, but I got the gist of the overall meaning and later, in the burrow, I was able to work it out. He was trying to be humorous. His store was a genuine 7 Eleven, he said: people only came in between 7am and 11pm. Then he laughed. Perhaps if they renamed it 12 Twelve, they might get customers round the clock! He looked at me, slyly, to see if I understood. Fortunately I smiled, not at the joke, but to thank him for the Slurpee. So he was grateful then, too, and returned the smile, and although he didn’t get to use his cash register, I imagine the transaction was as satisfactory for him as it was for me.

I took a lot away from this casual encounter, a calmer frame of mind, less reliance on the daily news round to provide a reason for my being. Really, I should have arrived at this point as soon as the opinion polls wiped out my slender percentage; but better later than never, I reasoned, as I began to tidy up the burrow. Who knew what tomorrow might bring? No more wars, at any rate, I was done with them. If I bought the morning paper I’d turn to its cartoon page and embrace the Wizard of Id.


16: Wizard Ideas


First an apology I should have made earlier to Premier Ted. Since his return to the Yarra I’ve crossed the dry river bed a number of times to say hello. Although he answers few of my questions, I appreciate his calmness and rock-like assurance — even the necessity for busy politicians to get away from the hurly burly once in a while to gather their thoughts in private. Perhaps the Prime Minister needs a hole in the river.

So I thought I had Premier Ted’s measure and when he finally spoke at length I couldn’t believe what I heard. He was hard at work in his hole, he told me, hard at work. Of course I understood him to mean he was meditating, or preparing one of his short speeches. But no, he was working on the Missing Link — a thoroughfare between the Ring Road and the Eastern Freeway that had been planned for years but never built. Providing the link was such a wizard idea I could think of no better way for the Premier to spend his time than studying proposals for the project, above ground and underground. That was when he told me he was, in point of fact, digging a tunnel with his bare hands and had calculated that with a bit of luck and a lot of honest toil the work would be finished by the end of the year. He smiled in his slight, unfathomable way, anticipating the electorate’s joy come Christmas. When I recovered my wits and asked what he was doing with the earth and rock he dug out – there was no evidence of it on the riverbank – he clammed up, and I had to accept his right to make freely available only such information as he chose.

But it started me thinking about ideas big and small, practical ideas and hopeless cases. What was the opposite of a wizard idea, I wondered? Nothing came to my mind and I asked Raoul if he had any idea. Easy, he said, the opposite of a wizard idea was a fizzer. And there it was, as easy as that. I thanked him and went back to the article I was reading, a fizzer if ever there was one, since it implied Australia ought to go down the path of Fiji and New Guinea. Give the Generals, current and retired, a greater say in how the country was run. Ignore the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence. Give the Generals their heads. What a fizzer!

But there was a wizard idea in the paper as well, about how we needed people of vision to lead us out of the bog of opinion poll politics — independent thinkers who refused to take ‘cash for concessions’ from the Reverend Potted Palm and his kind, who refused to take any nonsense from Generals and who gave us hope for the future. This was the test I should apply to the Prime Minister, the article concluded.

Could my approval of Prime Minister Gillard survive such a test? All my anxieties flooded back at once and, sick with apprehension, I was inclined to dodge the bullet. With the Generals out and about that was no easy matter. Friendly fire, they called it. Moreover it was the Victorian duck shooting season and Premier Ted was sitting outside his burrow taking pot shots at anything moving. I had to keep my head out of sight, deep in its hole, where it threatened to implode in any case, with so much new information to process, so many fears to face, and the very real prospect of the loss of its one and only faith.

Would I have to abandon the Prime Minister? Would I have to become even more independent than I was then, on the banks of the Yarra? Would I have to refuse my wife’s food parcels, turn my son away from the burrow? Would I have to come up with a wizard idea of my own? All manner of madness swirled round in my brain, such as the temptation to accept as a wizard idea that my ongoing approval of Prime Minister Gillard was a fizzer. Fizzers and wizards flew in and out of my hole. Premier Ted banged away at them all and didn’t seem to care if they took a direct hit or fell, winged and wounded, into the dry river bed. The Yarra had seen it all before, of course, through drought and flood, pollution and clean up campaigns, dead ducks and living bellbirds ringing through the trees on its banks.

Could the river itself help dig me out of my hole?


Postscript


In Australia flood follows drought as surely as day follows night and the Yarra did come to my rescue, much sooner than I expected. It caught Premier Ted on the hop, too, and the media was on hand to record his awkward escape from the fast rising river. He fell back down the bank at least twice before an emergency rescue team got to him. I was overlooked completely, which was fine by me, since my experience of the daily news cycle had taught me a valuable lesson. And that was to put a premium on solitude, whether it was in a riverbank burrow or behind a locked bedroom door. I was beginning to understand my sons. I imagine Premier Ted had learned some kind of lesson as well.

For all that, I’ve made a momentous decision that will place me in the public spotlight again. But I have a tougher hide now and, like the wombat, know which profile to present. My years in retirement have also refreshed me, given me the desire to go back to the car pool (metaphorically speaking) and start counting again. Only this time I’ll count heads.

Yes, I’m entering the next federal election as an independent candidate, aware that I have to stand up for myself and not simply approve of what others are doing. Make no mistake, I still admire the Prime Minister’s courage in the face of such desperate odds, and who knows, one day we might even be in a minority government together. What a day that would be!

But there is much work to be done before then. The 7 Eleven student with the poor grasp of English has come out in support and offered to be my campaign manager, in return for my signature on immigration papers. We have a lot to offer each other. In fact he was keen to start a party, and call it the 12 Twelve, but I explained my call to arms would be in the areas of vision and policy, rather than on an actual field of battle.

Of course, I couldn’t take him on as my campaign manager either, since Raoul had that position, with Chance as his deputy. Nevertheless our Tamil brother (as it turns out) is still keen as mustard and has accepted a position as general factotum. His first task is to get Sylvester on the electoral roll. At the same time he has to keep going to English classes, enlist support from other 7 Eleven staff and try hard not to brood too much about his proud, ancient heritage. Other jobs come to mind as I write, such as monitoring opinion polls on a daily basis. Know Your Enemy is one of our private slogans; not one we can put before the electorate, of course, but something to buck us up in private as the tide of public approval ebbs and flows.

I’ve given a lot of thought as to what our campaign slogan should be. Nothing too aggressive, or too self-effacing, but something that strikes the right balance and suggests a man of conviction who knows what Australia needs. The right words will suggest themselves as we settle into our task and read the electorate’s mood.

I see I’m using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, which reflects my desire to appeal to all people, all Australians, all cultural parts of our all-embracing democracy. My wife has entered the spirit of the campaign and is learning to cook a range of vegetarian dishes, which in time we hope will have a mellowing effect on Sylvester. We can all use a dose of lentils now and then, if only to take the edge off our response to media campaigns of insult and abuse, their psychoanalytical tirades. I’m ready for them now.

And my vision? Well, I’m not a prophet like Jesus Christ or Muhammad, or even one of the Old Testament kind, and I’m not Ghandi or Mandela or anyone else people worldwide recognise as an inspirational leader. In fact, as you already know, my greatest experience is as a car pool attendant, with some more recent knowledge picked up on the banks of the Yarra. All of which prepares me, you might legitimately ask, for what? And I would say, I know how to be my country’s attendant, paying attention to detail, being kind to myself on a rough day and understanding of others when they phone in with abusive reports of traffic conditions. In my Australia, we’ll all work together to solve our transport problems, even if we pray apart, to different gods.

Speaking of which and, most important of all – the cornerstone of my vision – we’ll all learn the myths and legends of our Indigenous Elders together, in kindergarten, school and car pool, retirement village and nursing home. Everyone will know the Dreamtime, the stories of the emu, kangaroo and wombat. In time, Wombat and Australia Days will merge. They will become one, celebrated the length and breadth of the country. On sunny beaches, inland deserts and the banks of the Yarra, everyone will know how the first Wombat dug itself into a burrow to escape the hustle and bustle of contemporary life and exposure to unwanted attention — and only came back out into the world when it was ready, and on its own terms.

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