Notes from undergound

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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

By Graham Jackson

Part One

1:  My New Home

Since my situation was sensationalised by the national media, I’ve gone into hiding. It hasn’t been easy. As the last person in the country approving of Prime Minister Gillard, where can I hide? I was given no time to think about where I should go. As soon as the others saw my haggard face on the news I was ordered out of the house. This was the modest weatherboard in north eastern Melbourne I’d shared with my family for more than thirty years. Although the boys have been adults for the last decade, they still seem to like the comfort of home. A number of alternatives have been put to them recently, but now there will be more room at the kitchen table. I was surprised they couldn’t forgive me, but there you have it — no respect is shown to the elderly these days, even a superannuated man with a modest pension like me.

Where could I go? At least I carried no household baggage. A single blanket and a few personal items were all I had time to pack in my overnight bag, together with the morning’s newspaper. The Age contained a Missus Grattan article explaining why I should trust the Opposition Leader, Mr Tony Abbott. I needed a little humour to help me on my anxious, solitary way.

For hours I plodded along the banks of the Yarra. The path was narrow and well-worn, almost as if other strange men had trodden it down in their exile, banished for some remote, inexplicable faith. Why did I have faith in Prime Minister Gillard? It was an obvious question, to which I had no ready answer. Pressing myself for an explanation, I found I admired her pluck. Of course I realise this is an old-fashioned term, as old as I am, but there’s no escaping the ghosts of our past. My past includes a father who loved Queen Elizabeth all his ninety odd years. The Queen was also a plucky, if overly solemn woman. No wonder I approved of Prime Minister Gillard. It was my genetic inheritance.

I was startled out of my reverie by a voice hailing me from the opposite bank. Although I need glasses for reading, my long vision is good and I was able to make out the figure of the State Premier, Mr Ted Baillieu. So this was where he hid away from inquisitive Victorians. Divining my thoughts, he suggested I try digging a hole in the bank, as he’d done after winning an election and the unwanted exposure of office. I could make myself a comfortable burrow, he said. Whatever state assets he might contemplate selling, the banks of the Yarra would be exempt from the list and free of wind turbines, at least on our stretch of the river.

It was surprisingly easy scraping out my new home. No doubt the recent wet seasons helped. With luck there would be no further floods, and in time I might even acquire the kind of creature comforts Ratty had in Wind in the Willows. I doubt that anyone remembers this story now, but we were all Anglophiles in my youth and I imagine Premier Ted is still one now. He has the look of a Badger about him and is a substantial presence each morning on the opposite bank. I usually catch a glimpse of him in the half-light as I crawl up to the path on my way to the 7 Eleven. Here the employees all have a sub-continental heritage, dark and agreeable. They accepted me as a madman even before my public humiliation. I was one of their regulars, of course. While I’ve given them no indication of my change of address, my change of status, curiously, doesn’t seem to bother them. Perhaps these recent arrivals in our country secretly admire the Prime Minister, an underdog like themselves. Perhaps they were mentally damaged when they fell off their boat. I used to worry about these people, but I’m less worried now. Once, one of them asked why I bought the Fairfax paper each morning, and not Murdoch’s rag. I told him I didn’t like Rupert’s writer, Mr Andrew Bolt. It was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. At any rate, he fell off the stool he was sitting on. He was an Australian already, through and through.

2:  Responsibilities

There’s a genuine camaraderie on the riverbank amongst the many strange birds, the rabbits, Premier Ted and me. Honest workers go about their business here, too – mostly local council employees – who all think they disapprove of Prime Minister Gillard, but have no reason for doing so other than their brainwashing by people who ought to know better. I refer in particular to newspaper columnists, those psychoanalysts who insist people share their opinions. And everyone does, but for me.

I have a unique temperament, influenced by my previous employment as a car pool attendant. It was an unusual occupation, at which I worked diligently for thirty years. Not that cars were in any way remarkable, but the fact that a person was needed to count and encourage them was out of the ordinary. They had to be treated like people, persuaded to keep going in trying conditions. At any rate that’s what they used to complain about when they came in from the traffic. I sympathised with them. At that time I lived on one of the busiest streets in north eastern Melbourne. My unlucky family still does.

On a fine morning soon after I settled into my new home, the postie brought me a parcel. It came from Missus Grattan and contained scones and oranges as well as a note. While offering no apology for supporting Mr Abbott, she nevertheless conceded that as an endangered species I deserved to be on a register. A sort of state asset, I gathered. Although the scones were stale, they were snapped up by the river birds. One in particular, with a very sharp beak, drew my attention. I was reminded of the Prime Minister, whose profile is always enhanced by vile cartoonists. My bleak laughter drew a number of kookaburras to the scene, but I sent them about their business with a couple of oranges. Missus Grattan still had her uses. I would permit no one to laugh at Prime Minister Gillard.

Even national icons must take responsibility for their actions, or failure to act. It pains me to say that the youngest of my three sons is a birdbrain, who spends a lot of his time listening to talk-back radio, occasionally phoning in to denounce the Prime Minister and consign her to an unfathomable fate. That is putting it nicely. What I mean to say is that this son of mine accepts no responsibility for anything – not the state of his bedroom, his casual night shift at the supermarket, or his laundry – and amuses himself with violent thoughts and video games. Since I named him Sylvester, I daresay I’m partly to blame. The rest of the responsibility lies with him and he’ll have to face his reckoning squarely, side by side with the likes of Alan Jones. Maybe they could hold hands on judgment day. Alan Jones will need all the help he can get. Considering he’s been a serial offender inciting riot and mayhem over a long career, I imagine God will take him behind the toilet block and give him one father of a hiding.

If the Almighty allows himself the pleasure of chastising female arrivals, Missus Grattan and Liberty Albrechtsen should be warned to turn up with their newspapers stuffed in their pants. But I see I’m becoming excited and personal. In the turmoil of my expulsion from home, I forgot to pack my prescribed medication. In any case, I don’t believe in God, and neither does the Prime Minister. Good on her. I understand Mr Abbott is some kind of Christian and I wish him no luck at all on his own day of judgment. I will cast my vote responsibly, and the Opposition Leader can be assured he won’t get a tick.

Perhaps I worry about these issues too much. What does living responsibly mean? Does it matter if we pump carbon into the sky? Does it matter if wealthy miners and evangelists refuse to pay taxes? Who cares if Rupert Murdoch owns most of the country’s papers? I’m going to have to scavenge and recycle them anyway. There’s no public toilet paper on the banks of the Yarra. The workers here know what I say is true and should be listening to Prime Minister Gillard. She has their interests at heart. I’m not being cynical. The banks of the Yarra are too steep for false steps, or sentiment.

3:  Statistical Gloom

Living alone in a hole on a riverbank is not without hazard and for a number of weeks I sank into depression and forgot to crawl off to the 7 Eleven. The first morning I missed followed a long night tossing, turning and pondering the latest Age poll, which put the number of voters intending to vote for the Opposition Leader – if a federal election were held that day – at 99.99999% of the population. Laughing loud and long at such a ridiculous figure, I brought down a shower of dirt on my head. It meant that only 0.00001% intended to vote for the Prime Minister.

But on reflection I calculated that if Australia’s population numbered 23,000,000 – give or take a few boats of asylum-seekers – and if I were the only one voting for the Prime Minister, then the poll was more or less accurate. Allowance had to be made for the fact that not everyone was entitled to vote, or voted if entitled; but even allowing for everything, the figure still stood. Only 0.00001% intended to vote for Prime Minister Gillard, and that percentage was me.

How had the country come to this? For several feverish hours, I rechecked my figures — hampered by the loss of my computer and calculator. Wikipedia might at least have confirmed population figures. But my maths has always been good, counting vehicles in and out of the car pool and, in the end, I had to accept that my fellow Australians had solid, statistical reason to make me, the lone person approving of our country’s leader, a creature of contempt.

Days and nights passed. I heard nothing from Premier Ted on the farther bank, but he usually only spoke when spoken to and, on reflection, the fact that he greeted me on my arrival had been a bit out of character. Perhaps he thought I was a mountain cattleman traversing the slippery slope for a drink. There was a haze over the Yarra that morning. By the time I entered my statistical gloom he might not even have been at home, since I suspected he only used the burrow as a tactical retreat when parliament was in session.

I completely missed the Queensland state election, news of which I caught up with later from stray newspaper pages blown down the bank. So, I first learned that not a single vote had been cast for the Prime Minister’s party. Not even her candidates had found the nerve to vote for themselves. Strictly speaking, of course, as state candidates they had nothing to do with the Prime Minister, but that gave me no satisfaction. Later it was revealed that eccentric billionaire evangelist, the Reverend Potted Palm, did try to vote for her, but his vote was invalid and is now the subject of an inquiry by the appropriate court.

Queensland is a strange state. For one thing, there are more Institute of Public Affairs Sympathisers there (per square mile) than anywhere else. They are more numerous there than Queensland blue pumpkins. This is a statistical fact. Their pervasive influence means that Queenslanders always take their conservatism one bridge too far and throw out pumpkin scones only when they get hard as rocks and politicians when they show visible signs of decay. This goes a long way towards explaining the anomalous statistics of the recent election.

It also goes some way towards an appreciation of their history. One of my nineteenth century ancestors, a Scottish churchman known as the Singing Evangelist, sailed to Queensland to save the souls of miners and railway workers. They should have seen him coming. Failing that, they should have sent him on south; but, of course, they kept him too long and allowed the power of his voice to attract rival singers. At Copperfield, where five thousand lost souls mined and toiled, there were (at the time of his expulsion) nine different denominations:
“There were three denominations of Methodists. With difficulty the Presbyterians kept in one fold but were not harmonious … There was Church of England, Congregationalists, Baptists, Roman Catholics and Lutherans. In addition there were several congregations meeting without a minister. One body numbering only three met regularly, until two decided the third was heretical. They expelled him.”

But his legacy remains, and can be heard in the high-pitched preaching of the Reverend Potted Palm and fellow evangelists like Babbling Barnaby. There is no sign of disunity in Queensland now in either the religious or political realm. Everything is measured in 100%s. Only at the national level can one voice of dissent be heard.

4:  Lifting National Standards

This morning, I raised the Eureka flag outside my burrow. While it might seem at odds with my outcast status, I realise now that I’m hiding more from myself than the world. No one is looking for me, certainly not my family, and accidental tourists are the only people likely to catch a glimpse of me over the edge of the riverbank. During the day I sit in the filtered sunlight at the entrance to my hole, whiling away the hours in self-condemnation. At first, it was self-pity — but sterner stuff entered my soul after its depression.

Now, self-condemnation has given way to defiance. How dare the media put my face on the national news!

Gathering strength, I stood tall by my flag, shook my fist at the sky and raised the standard high. Unfortunately, a local chapter of Ned Kelly Sympathisers, having lunch by the river, saw what was going on and stormed down the bank. To be fair, they wanted to honour the flag, but recognising my face – which was still featured on a number of city billboards – they attacked me with bowls of potato salad. And I thought they might be sympathetic to another Victorian outlaw. They took the flag with them as they clambered back up the bank and left me dripping with dressing.

Could I find a welcome anywhere in the city? Would the Occupy Melbourne people accept me, absorb my pitiful percentage into their secure one percent? Or were they more likely to embrace Senator Bob Brown, for whom I must confess I once entertained feelings – and to some extent still do – but whose stern eyes on my Prime Minister are just another bridge too far. Nevertheless, I thought of Occupy Melbourne as an ally, particularly after it was denounced by the media in the shape of Liberty Albrechtsen.

She said they were infected by the politics of envy; a mud throwing exercise, in my humble view. I know of no one seduced by money and greed – with the possible exception of my second son, Chance – but surely it’s clear we all want security, not wealth. In my underground home, I have experienced this as a spiritual, claustrophobic, truth. But I was aware of it, too, in my former life.

The car pool was part of a greater institution, in whose life I participated at social gatherings like the weekly TattsLotto draw and the annual Melbourne Cup lunch. While these activities had the winning of money as their stated aim, they offer no support for Liberty Albrechtsen’s view. I mean, we all expected to lose our shirts. Even Gary Goldfinger, our mascot and mail clerk – the Man with the Midas Touch – always lost on the horses. In fact, Gamblin’ Gary was a poker machine addict, which we all did our best to forget — just as we avoided staring at the shirts his wife stapled to his back before he came in to work.

Problem gambling is an area of interest. Another is asylum seekers, since I’ve become friendly with the staff at 7 Eleven. I’d like to offer the latter a more generous welcome to my burrow on the Yarra and the former rehabilitation on the river’s banks. I’ve written to the Prime Minister about my concerns, while reassuring her she still has my approval and vote. I even went up to the office of the local federal Member, who happens to be of the Prime Minister’s party, but found it closed for scheduled maintenance.

I’ve drifted away from the point, which is easy to do when the river is low and eddying. At moments like these, the city is hushed and nature regains her natural ground, proclaimed by the clear call of a bellbird, or the muted splash of a duck on the water. Even an old scone is harmonious somehow. At moments like these Liberty’s bank notes flutter down on the river’s surface — unnoticed, unwanted, and even Premier Ted might turn his back.

So, if not gold standards, what standards do I raise? Eureka has already been flown and surrendered. The Prime Minister has no personal standard — and neither do I, or anyone else in our broad, democratic land. There’s the Queen’s flag, of course, but that was buried on top of my father’s coffin. And in any case, royalty is more about the trappings of inherited office than genuine standards.

This matter needs further reflection on another, less trying, day.

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