THE HAPPY LAND: Part 6Was 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. Here Emeritus Professor P Costello recounts how John Winston Coward's right-hand man, minister Reith, came to fall upon his sword.
The Life and Times of John Winston Coward
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 6: ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ - Emeritus Professor P. Costello
At the height of Coward’s power, there was a minister called Reith who did a lot of his leader’s more devious work. Occasionally, he was required to play fast and loose with the truth. Otherwise, he was a genial man – corpulent and balding – who was one of those known as a political animal. Having a special affinity for water, perhaps on account of his resemblance to a whale, he was often assigned tasks associated with Australia’s territorial waters. One of his early jobs had been the measurement of the country’s coastline, which he accomplished with a map drawn to scale, a tube of glue and a length of string. That success was followed by the design and implementation of new regulations for the unloading of ships, specifying the distance between waterside workers so that one wouldn’t trip over another. But his most remarkable feat occurred in the course of the crisis that arose over the arrival of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins — an event that has been recorded elsewhere, but without reference to the part played by Minister Reith. It was an invisible role, devised by Coward, a last desperate ploy to close the flood-gates on a spiritual tide that had arisen in the Middle East and threatened to engulf the world, Australia included.
It was said of Minister Reith that if he hadn’t looked so much like a whale, he would have made a good barn owl. Remarks like these were usually made by members of the Opposition who had time on their hands to make trivial comparisons, since they shared the government’s fears. But it was a fact that, because of his spectacles, his eyes were inclined to open wide like an owl’s trying to see in the dark — or in the case of Minister Reith to see through the murk of political situations.
“He’s the man I’d most like to have lying behind me in a crisis,” Coward often told his other advisers.
In fact, he had positioned Reith in an adjoining office, where he could guard his leader’s rear — and at the height of the hysteria over the asylum-seeker invasion, the door between the offices was always ajar, so the two men could remain in constant communication.
“I’ve been giving the matter further thought,” Coward remarked one morning.
A fly on the wall might have wondered if the Prime Minister were talking to himself, but Reith’s ears pricked up.
“And what are your conclusions?” he asked.
“That instead of defusing the situation we ought to escalate it. There’s nothing quite so rewarding as giving the People a glimpse of their fears.”
“So one can offer words of comfort.”
“We should discuss a strategy. Would you like to come through?”
The minister brought his tea in with him. It was black, and tossed about in the cup like a dangerous sea as Reith eased his bulk into the visitor’s chair.
“I’ve been considering the position of the Fins,” he said. “Anomalous, I should’ve thought.”
“That they’re not Moslem, or don’t appear to be, and are apparently not from the same geographical area.”
“Do we have any better idea now where they might be from?” Coward became terse, so that Reith splashed his tea. “I’d thought with your seafaring portfolio you might have found an answer by now.”
The minister didn’t look apologetic or even aggrieved, as he set down his cup. “The real question is how useful they might be.”
“In line with your present thinking, Prime Minister.” Reith grinned glassily, his eyes becoming large and perfectly round. “Since so little is known about them, so much might be suggested. They could be demonised.”
“We haven’t had a demonisation for months,” Coward agreed. “They always remind me of my father.”
Reith raised his eyebrows.
“But there’s no point dwelling on the past.” The Prime Minister rubbed his hands together and almost smiled. “Yes, yes,” he agreed with himself. “Now, how shall we go about the present business?”
They appeared to move closer together, leaning across Coward’s desk. Because they didn’t have much hair between them, the office lights shone from the tops of their heads, warning off anyone who might have been tempted to listen to their conversation. There was much nodding and muttered agreement. Occasionally, Reith smiled, and, while his leader couldn’t permit himself this kind of indulgence, even he sometimes seemed to be amused by their plans, especially when they imagined the Fins threatening to throw their children overboard if they weren’t allowed into Australia. There was something in the angle of Coward’s head, or the tap of his pencil on the desk. At the end of the discussion he leaned back in his chair and became serious.
“There might be some danger in this for you,” he warned. “If we get caught out you might have to fall on your sword.”
“The one the Admiral gave me?” Reith considered the idea, before concluding: “Nothing can go wrong. The People believe whatever we tell them.”
“They do, don’t they?”
Outside Parliament, the light was beginning to dim. As large as he was, no one noticed the shadowy figure of Minister Reith moving across the car park. He always preferred to drive himself, regarding chauffeurs as an untrustworthy breed with a tendency to recall conversations. Insinuating himself into his vehicle, he closed the door, turned on the ignition and steered himself into the night.
At dawn the following day, a small plane landed Reith and his wife on the dusty red strip next to Lake Mungo Lodge. Since the immigrant tide had first been detected, the government had been issuing reports of the sightings of small boats approaching Australian shores, even those of dry inland seas. Lake Mungo was an ancient sea-bed covered with saltbush and other stunted growth, through which emu and kangaroo wandered, posing for the cameras of tourists. The cameras of journalists arrived shortly after, once it was known Minister Reith was there to investigate the latest sighting.
“It’s a peculiar thing,” he told his wife as they stood at the Lodge bar, “how simple it is to lead people by the nose.” He sniffed at his glass of indifferent red wine. “I believe they’re growing grapes on the Darling River these days.”
The Darling was some distance away to the west, but as yet there had been no sightings of asylum-seekers attempting to scale its vertical banks.
“I once read something about that,” his wife replied.
“What do you fancy for dinner?”
“Roast kid, perhaps?”
“An excellent choice.”
Early the following morning, when it was still hard to distinguish animal and bird from saltbush, the Reiths flew out unobserved, en route to the far north-west. The exact location was a secret, in keeping with the importance the Government had placed on the mission. Later, when questioned about his minister’s whereabouts at this critical time, John Winston Coward had forgotten Reith had been to Lake Mungo.
“Mungo?” he queried, as a journalist stalked him. “A kind of tropical fruit, I believe.”
It was an emotional response, so out of character that the journalist, a man with a thick neck, forgot his next question.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Darwin, the Reiths were pondering dinner.
“Is a kid best grilled or stuffed?” one asked the other.
It was a doubtful issue, which would need to be considered at length over a suitable wine. Unfortunately none was at hand in such a warm climate.
The minister scratched his head: “Perhaps we should stay with conventional fare,” he suggested.
“You mean roast kid?”
They were an agreeable couple — partners of long standing, who could bend to each other’s wishes. Rather like Reith and his leader, in fact, although Coward’s tastes in food had always been plain. It might have been a consequence of his childhood in the wheat lands, or of his denial of feeling, or simply the expression of a profound conservatism — but his taste in food didn’t extend much beyond the bread and dripping his mother had served, in the days when he could still more or less say what he felt. Reith, on the other hand, had always been able to express his feelings as well as savour delicacies like kid marinated in salt water.
“You might as well know,” he told his wife, “I’ve been sent up here to start a rumour.”
She didn’t have to say any more, they understood each other so well.
Later that night he was picked up by a barge. The darkness contained no moon and the blunt-nosed vessel was hidden deep in the mangroves. He was helped aboard by the engineer, who was at least sober, unlike the skipper, whose voice could be heard in the distance offering the foulest abuse. The voice was heavily accented, like a British aristocrat, and created an illusion of places even more distant in space and time than the voice itself, which eventually faded away.
“Welcome aboard, Sir,” the engineer said crisply. His old white uniform was patched, and smudged by his oily position below deck, but his shoulders were squared with the acceptance of responsibility. “We go out on the tide.”
The barge was still waiting for the tide to come in. Although Reith couldn’t see it, the flat hull was stuck fast in the mangrove mud from which an unpleasant odour arose and above which innumerable mosquitoes prepared to drone in. But he was used to the persistence of reporters and waved the pests away.
He was more concerned with Operation Shark Bait — not its morality, so much, as its secrecy, upon the maintenance of which his own reputation depended. As water began to lap at the side of the barge and finally lifted it up from the mud, Reith stood pensively on the walkway in front of the wheelhouse looking down at the tarpaulin-covered cargo. So much was at stake in that hidden hold.
“But what on earth is it?” his wife had asked before she went to bed. “No doubt I’ll read about it in a day or so.” Then she’d smiled, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
The skipper had been brought aboard the barge, still drunk, and covered in mud. The cook and second engineer laid him out on his bunk, while the captain’s assistant, a casual young fellow, took charge of the wheel.
“Does he know what to do?” Reith asked the cook, dabbing at his neck with a handkerchief. He was perspiring freely, the closeness of the night was so intense. He fretted: “He looks as if he has no experience at all.”
“The Captain trusts him, Sir.”
Captain? Presumably, he was referring to the drunkard snoring in the bunk by the galley: the cook seemed to regard the skipper as a particular trust. Captain?
Reith thought of Coward far south in his parliament office. He never left it, despite his happy marriage. Like many politicians, he lived at a distance from his family.
Reith sighed. Already, he was regretting the distance between himself and his wife. He’d been tempted to bring her out with him. Their children could have come too, had they been younger.
The cook interrupted his reverie: “We’ll clear the creek shortly, Sir. You might like to watch the sun come up over the horizon.”
After all, why not? It was years since Reith had had an adventure. Had it been with his wife? Nowadays his adventures were all in his mind and shared with his leader. He clapped the cook on the back.
“Perhaps breakfast might be served while I’m watching?”
The cook saluted.
“Pot roast leftovers, Sir?”
Later, the sun came up to shed light on the cargo, which when the tarpaulins had been rolled back appeared to be dozens of inflatable children.
Minister Reith explained as he stood at the rail with the sobering skipper: “We need pictures of children tossing about in the waves.” As the other still looked bewildered, he added: “They look like the real thing, don’t you think?”
Already, a camera had appeared in the hands of a crew member nearby. The skipper shook his head — although it might have had more to do with his hangover than any lingering disbelief. But there could be no doubting the spectacle the asylum-seeking children made in the ocean.
“What a sight!” Reith breathed.
It was truly alarming. A school of sharks had been attracted by the disturbance and sliced through the water where schools had never been seen — except once, years before, when Coward had made a half-hearted attempt to raise the educational standard among the local Indigenous people. Suspecting his motives, they declined the offer.
“Ungrateful bastards!” he said to someone at the time.
Sadly, Minister Reith’s time, too, was up. Unable to comprehend the plot – or conspiracy, as it was called in some quarters – the captain spoke to certain people after manoeuvring his barge back into the mangroves. These, in turn, briefed the media, which broke the news to Australia.
Minister Reith fell on his sword. As it was a ceremonial weapon and not intended for political suicide, it made an ugly hole in his gut. Instead of discreetly bleeding to death in the manner prescribed by Yukio Mishima, the authority on this difficult subject, he botched the job in his parliamentary office. He was a big man, twice the size and weight of the Prime Minister, and it took a while to clean up the mess.
Still in an agreeable frame of mind, the Opposition was unable to take advantage of the situation and Reith was soon forgotten. Only the Prime Minister remained to comfort his fearful People. While they knew the children overboard story was a figment of Reith’s imagination, they also knew asylum-seekers were a different kind of human being, even agents of terror. Moreover they were illegal, as Coward often told them, and who could they trust to tell them the truth if not their chosen leader?
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