‘The Happy Land’ – The Life and Times of John Winston Coward – Part 5 – The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins

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Was John Howard's Australia the place admirers like Tony Abbott promote? 'The Happy Land' is Graham Jackson's satirical alternative reality. This challenging work, illustrated by Gee, consists of thirteen Papers written by the major players in a dark period in Australia's short history. Emeritus Professor P Costello recounts John Winston Coward's first concerns about refugees arriving in boats.
The Life and Times of John Winston Coward

The Prime Minister who pushed Children Overboard in His Pursuit of Electoral Victory: A Reconstruction


1: ‘His Scottish Ancestors’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
2: ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
3:‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward
4: ‘The Happy Land’ – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
5: ‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
6: ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
7: ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
8: ‘An Address to the Australian People’ – John Winston Coward
9: ‘Ruddock Replaces Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
10: ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
11: ‘The Unveiling of the Scottish Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
12: ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
13: ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
Paper 5:‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ - Emeritus Professor P. Costello

At first it was only one or two leaking boats, so the country could feel good about itself helping them out. A few cans of caulking material taken out of naval stores was usually enough to stop up the cracks and keep the asylum-seekers afloat, their heads above water. Often, naval officers stayed aboard to assist while the boats were turned around, pointed away from Australia, and wished bon voyage. John Winston Coward almost felt good about it, offering to pay for repairs from his discretionary funds. Even after the offices of personal advisers had been refitted, and highways diverted around towns at the hub of marginal seats, there was money left over for gestures.

But where had the asylum-seekers come from? The question was academic as long as the boats were few and far between — say the distance from Darwin to Perth, or from Christmas Island to foreign countries about which so much was speculated, so little known. As long as they arrived at long intervals, from the calling of an election until after the government had been swept back into office on a tidal wave of fear, no one need worry too much about origins, or points of departure, or whether the right tax had been paid. Even so, there was talk, as there always will be, and in parliamentary corridors some people began to wonder if something ought to be done.

Coincidentally, the media began to examine the private life of Prime Minister Coward. His personal life had been so far removed from reproach that most commentators felt something ought to be wrong: no one, not even a conservative leader, could be so untainted. Muck-rakers, Coward thought, they have no idea. And, of course, they hadn’t. Intent on discovering the undiscoverable and nailing the Prime Minister, the media largely ignored overseas problems, against which Australia was believed to be protected by an ocean barrier, the President of the United States of America, inbred apathy and fear. In these circumstances, out of curiosity as much as anything else, Coward directed his country’s response to the first trickle of asylum-seekers, while resisting the media invasion of his personal privacy.

The operations proceeded in unlikely tandem, with the Prime Minister sending out agents to find out what they could about the asylum-seekers – or illegal immigrants, as the government called them –while investigative journalists sniffed around Coward’s home in Bennelong. In the wider world, the number of refugees was increasing, although the news of the phenomenon hadn’t reached Australia, or, if it had, was overlooked by a population more concerned with the number of runs the country’s Test team was amassing against Third World countries like Zimbabwe or England. In point of fact, had his advisers drawn it to his attention, Zimbabwe might have provided the Prime Minister with a vital clue about the reason people chose to leave home, if not why they chose to come to Australia.

John Winston Coward sat in his office sifting through his agents’ reports as they came in from the field. They were a mixed bunch, often contradictory and inconsistent, but at one in their belief that the world was dangerous and alien. The origin of the refugees purporting to be Afghans, he learned, had been discovered quickly and correctly, as Afghanistan had been on most maps of the world a good many years. Its name had a grand, familiar ring, like the clash of sword upon sword. Memories of the Khyber Pass and Milford Sound assailed the Prime Minister as he pored over the sheets on his desk. Indeed, one of the reports seemed to be based on the assumption that the British were still running Afghanistan, although the contrary and more popular opinion was that the country had fallen into the hands of a fanatical religious minority. Coward puzzled over this report.

At about the same time, a journalist from one of the bigger daily newspapers was underlining one of her notes about the Prime Minister’s wife — that she was a devout woman, with a good record of attendance in the Anglican Church. There was something about this note that worried the journalist, but she couldn’t pin it down. Coward himself was a church-goer, although he didn’t move in the same high circles as his wife, who was on many committees and sat at the same dinner table as bishops, when the occasion arose. If Coward happened to be in Bennelong on a Sunday he would accompany his wife to the morning service, but more often she attended alone, or with one or another of the children. The family’s arrangements were so normal the journalist couldn’t get a handle on them.

None of the Prime Minister’s reports had anything more to say about religion. It wasn’t a strength of agents in the field that they thought a lot about the beginnings and ends of things, or how they should conduct themselves in between. It was enough to know they should walk in shadows and keep their heads down. Most of their information came out of gutters.

If the Afghan refugees were escaping religious extremism, Coward thought, they might appreciate being sent to New Zealand. He chuckled as he dialled his counterpart across the Tasman. Serve the bugger right! The words sang in his ears as he listened to the dial tone, although it was unclear to whom he was referring. Later, when the New Zealand leader asked what the Afghan refugees looked like, he was told their boats were filled with hope as well as too many people. Several may actually have sunk, Coward informed him, if the flotsam and jetsam off the coast of Western Australia was anything to go by. It was as bad as the litter journalists and cameramen left around the perimeter of his Bennelong home, as they spied out the land and looked for an angle — although the media never left turbans or cloth hats behind.

One of the agents had produced a monograph on the similarity of Afghan headwear and cricket caps, in which he speculated that cricket and clerics were being imported from neighbouring Pakistan. He thought the two might be related. Both were male preserves full of ritual and, as a new batsman or acolyte strode onto the field of play, incandescent language. What on earth did the agent mean? Both cricket and Christianity were numinous activities, Coward was told, with elements of sun worship thrown in.

The Prime Minister pensively stroked the side of his nose. He was certain the Afghans weren’t Christian, but some other brand of Godly people. He took off his glasses and blinked once or twice to clear his vision, before replacing the thick lenses. Perhaps that was what the agent was trying to say, that civil unrest was being created in Afghanistan by the subversive implantation of foreign codes—cricket and Christianity — which was leading to the flight of its citizens, or at least their uncertain flotation. Hence the debris off the Australian coast. But why would they come to Christian, cricket-loving Australia?

Coward shifted his weight and, his brow furrowing, scratched himself. It was one of the more striking aspects of his leadership style that he never felt burdened by what some thought should have been the heavy responsibility of high office. On the contrary, as he strengthened his hold on power, a nebulous and, at times, even ethereal thing, he often felt as light as a feather, at least in his head. Physically, he was slightly overweight and, because he was such a short man, it showed. Not even the dark pin-striped suits recommended for conservative leaders did much to disguise a condition his wife tolerated because she was much the same shape. But no, at least in his mind he had full confidence in his bird-like ability to dart hither and thither, dodging the truth, at all times on top of things or at least over and above them.

At that moment, as Coward rearranged his pile of agents’ reports, his wife was standing at a window of their city residence. As she watched the heads of the press gathered in conference over the top of the brick fence, she recalled a recent conversation with a local church dignitary. He’d remarked that investigative journalists were like asylum-seekers, just waiting for a chance to get past the front door. She liked the analogy, as it seemed to bring all their preoccupations – her family’s, at any rate – so neatly together. There was her husband doing his duty keeping illegal immigrants out of the country, while she had to make sure the gate at the end of the garden path was latched. What a nuisance the media could be — like a school of sharks. The reporters’ heads appeared over the top of the fence like so many dangerous fins. One never knew when they might turn and strike.

Even then, as it happened, one had solved the puzzle bothering her and discovered Coward hadn’t been brought up as an Anglican, but in another kind of Protestant church. The revelation wasn’t inconsequential, since the Prime Minister was so secretive about his past — which was understandable if he’d been involved in some arcane form of Wimmera harvest worship, or snake charming. She would have to dig deeper, get to the bottom of the matter, and shed light on it. Who knows, she might find something that would be to someone’s discredit.

Not much light had been thrown on the other main group of refugees — the Iraqis. One agent suggested they were North American Indians and mounted a strong case for their persecution at home at the hands of filmmakers. But his work had been dismissed by an internal secret service memorandum, stapled to the top right-hand corner, which concluded that he’d confused the Iraqis with the Iroquois Indians who once lived west of New York. Some still lived in the area, but none had set sail for Australia. Nevertheless, they were an interesting people, the memo continued, as its author warmed to his subject, and a study of their history might prove instructive to someone or other. For instance, as well as being immortalised in Hiawatha and the Leather-Stocking Tales, this cultured nation had twice allied themselves with the British, at first in the French and Indian Wars and later in the American Revolution. It was food for conservative thought. In the unlikely event the Iroquois and Iraqis were one and the same people, the American President might declare war on them, again. Which side would Britain be on? Would Australia be obliged to help out?

Coward sighed. He needed facts to twist into shape and present to his People, not claptrap. Why would America’s Indigenes be seeking asylum in Australia? It was widely accepted that Indigenous people didn’t feel comfortable in Australia. How long and hard had Coward worked to precisely this end? He tapped his pencil on his desk with some agitation. If he’d refused to apologise to these people once, he’d refused on innumerable occasions.

No apologies were offered the following morning when an article appeared in one of the daily newspapers examining the Prime Minister’s religious background. Noting its non-Anglican character, the correspondent speculated about its origins, which she thought was based on male supremacy. As that had been a cornerstone of so many religions over the centuries – possibly even the Anglican – she didn’t persist with this line of thought but quoted extensively from an interview with one of Coward’s sisters. The prime ministerial eyebrows arched high, as he’d completely forgotten her existence. It was understandable, given he had so many siblings, but didn’t lessen the surprise of her betrayal.

She’d given the reporter a great deal of factual detail about her childhood, and by implication her famous brother’s, including their parents preference for their sons — Coward in particular. He was genuinely astonished as he read how his mother doted on him, and how his father had scrimped and saved to send his youngest son to university in the city. There, his sister revealed, he had lived in an all-male college and learned to memorise and recite pages at great length. He was good at that sort of thing, she said.

She surmised it could all be traced back to their church, where men could get up and deliver sermons, but women were only encouraged to listen. Her own father had been an elder of the church and John Winston had been proud of him, although one had to know her brother well to see when he was enthusiastic about anything. He had been such an unemotional boy, much as he was now, as the Prime Minister. No, she never saw much of him these days. In fact, they no longer exchanged Christmas cards. Would she like the reporter to see if she could arrange a reunion with her brother on national television? Definitely not. Had the family worshipped snakes or pumpkins in their Wimmera church? Never seen a snake in her life! The enthralled readers of the article could almost hear her laugh.

John Winston Coward didn’t laugh. He folded and placed the newspaper in his waste-paper basket with exactly the same precision he used to disperse any kind of tension that unexpectedly came his way, before ringing his wife and instructing her to place his sister on their Christmas card list. Then, he called the minister who was responsible for information and demanded his sister’s address. In passing, he complained about the poor espionage in relation to the Iraqis and was told that more reliable reports were presently coming through about Persians. There had even been an email promising an attachment about Fins, but so far he hadn’t been able to open it. The computer people were on their way.

There was always someone on the way. It was a curse on the age, the Prime Minister reflected. The tea lady was on her way, too, and would bore him endlessly with what she had sniffed out in offices further down the corridor. She wasn’t even being paid as a spy. Hers was the kind of inquisitiveness needed out in the field, in Afghanistan, or Persia — wherever Persia might be. Coward glanced half-heartedly at the map on the wall behind his head, but could see nothing remotely resembling it. He’d once eaten persimmons as a child, he remembered. It was a tartish taste, much like his mouth at that moment.

What if the stray boats of the asylum-seekers should turn into an armada? It wasn’t a question he liked to think about, although his advisers were already saying the government ought to be prepared, or at least get the American President’s opinion. Coward was tired. He wished they would all go away — go back into whatever holes in the mountains they crawled out of, in Afghanistan or Persia. His head began to nod. Reporters, too, back into their holes… And the Fins, whoever they were.

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