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Telling in the Mountains: An Australian politics dream diary

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(Art by John Graham / @JohnGrahamArt)

Well before the spill, before even Tony Abbott's near death experience, Alfred P Zarb considered the tidings and foretold a future involving Malcolm Turnbull.

Greece’s Delphic Oracle had her vapours. Rome’s Vestal Virgins had their godly fire. Denmark had its fairy tales. Others had tea leaves and chicken entrails. That is how the future was foretold. But how is it done in Australia? 

I thought long and hard, much earlier than Tony Abbott’s “near death experience”, before I realised it. In Australia, we have politicians to do it for us. More usefully, for psephologists, soothsayers and the media witchdoctors inhabiting the frenetic parliamentary triangle in Canberra, we have politicians with unique talents to self-destruct. Shocked into an unending flow of nightmarish visions, I fought to escape and wake up, but with a great dream to tell. I recite it here, as happens with dreams, as if it is re-enacting itself in the here and now.

Unexpectedly, at a sudden meeting, the Liberal Party caucus faces an extraordinary spill of its leadership positions. Surprisingly, Malcolm Turnbull is elected party leader with 88 good luck votes in favour, and 13 bad luck votes against. A later check of the ballot box suggests 54 to 44. It is still a clear case of the good and the bad. Not surprisingly, Scott Morrison is elected prospective deputy leader, waiting for Julie Bishop to concentrate her energetic skills exclusively on foreign affairs. So Malcolm Bligh Turnbull at last abandons his Hamlet Costello crown of thorny thoughts and becomes Australia’s 29th Prime Minister. At the end of one of the finest speeches ever leaked from the party room, the new PM requests the indulgence of a necessary but solitary captain’s call. In an immediate attempt to regain the nation’s respect for parliament and voters’ trust in politicians, Turnbull announces crucial reforms as soon as possible.

One, the Speaker will come from the cross-benches and cannot belong to any political party while in this important role. Two, for the duration of the Turnbull leadership of the Government, Coalition members will not ask any questions during Question Time. Three, he relinquishes the presumed privilege of a PM to unilaterally engage in foreign wars without prior full cabinet approval. Four, all expenses claimed by any MP will be uploaded with due explanation to that MP’s website, within seven days for backbenchers and 14 days for ministers and their shadows. Five, the new Turnbull Government will honour the Coalition’s earlier promise to build Australia’s new submarines in South Australia, with international assistance if and when necessary.

Within minutes of naming at least five women in his first ministry, the new PM announces a special parliamentary committee to improve parliament’s operational requirements to make it less difficult for talented women with young family to serve the nation in Federal Parliament. Purely coincidentally, Warren Truss announces his retirement. Barnaby Joyce is then elected leader of the National Party. 

Shell-shocked, former PM Tony Abbott resigns from parliament, effective as and when it suits the Liberals, much to the secret satisfaction of spouse, Margie.  After a short holiday recovering budgie smugglers discarded by brilliantly successful opposition leaders, Tony announces he will devote his next few years to writing two major monographs. One will assess Australian politics and values, and the other will explore overdue reform of the broad Australian economy to meet the challenges of the 21st century. If appropriately asked, he would also write his multiverse memoirs.

Shattered by Abbott’s sudden loss of leadership before the election, plus reading the future before it happens and well recognising that while assassinating two prime ministers may be careless, killing a third is much too foolhardy, as well as impossible, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten quits parliament. Despairing of what might have been – always a wonderful solace or unhappy trap for highly motivated – well-superannuated ex-politicians, Bill turns his undoubted intelligence to the study of Shakespeare and Roman history. Before too long (some say deservedly so, rather unkindly) he becomes an acknowledged expert on Julius Caesar, especially as observed and appreciated by his great friend Brutus.

Tanya Plibersek, graceful and thoughtful as ever, is easily elected leader to wisely mother Labor into somehow becoming grown-ups again. Grown-up enough, that is, to warrant holding government in the future at the voters’ pleasure. In a move of historical significance, Tanya announces she will lead in Opposition for two terms. Then, preferably, she will hand leadership over to Ed Husic, impressive member for Chifley, who is already showing unmistakable signs of unusually wide appeal. Ever the shrewd numbers man, Anthony Albanese adds his support, reminding colleagues, grown up or otherwise, of the changing demographics in many marginal seats. Somewhat embarrassed, but keen nonetheless, Husic promises total loyalty to Labor and its traditional Australian values, especially for the ordinary workers like his family. So Labor starts preparing for the approaching real exam for grown-up politicians, for the one after, and for the one after that. Mendacious media and disingenuous politicians often call it “the only poll that counts”.

With Turnbull as Prime Minister, an extraordinary mood of multi-partisan cooperation and national pride bursts out among the cross-benches in the Senate. Richard di Natale, impressive no-nonsense successor to Christine Milne, offers the full support of the Greens to accelerate possible carbon tax revenues to expedite return to budget surplus. Clive Palmer makes his China expertise readily available to whoever wants it (for only a small fee, some insist), before resigning his Federal seat to be parachuted into Brisbane as the new premier of Queensland. Upon her inclusion on a special committee to oversee pay and related conditions for armed forces serving overseas, Jacqui Lambie drops all threats to take Tasmania out of the Commonwealth. Philosophical Nick Xenophon, mindful of historians’ doubts about the Athenian democracy of his ancient forbears, agrees to assist with all government negotiations to build submarines in Adelaide. Not infamous Johnstonian canoes, he insists loudly and calmly, but real lethal warships. Nick also begins to think that perhaps Australia needs more practitioners of his sensible yet pragmatic style of politics, even though a Xenophonic Party could ring alarm bells.

Time waits for no man (women excepted, then?). PM Turnbull, despite his earlier silly mistakes over the unverified use of certain trucks, is a great success. Former fine enemies, previously suspicious he may be a Labor Trojan horse in disguise, now laud the clever measured way with which he is improving the standing of parliament, the fortunes of the Liberal Party and the broad international standing of Australia. Not a bad threesome, he fantasises. He convinces his peers that budget surpluses are excellent when possible, and that budget deficits are equally as good when necessary. The nation is united once more, class wars of entitlement are famously ended, and real mateship returns. Sensible freedom of expression overtakes political correctness. Crimes are recognised as crimes, not confused with terrorism. Disgruntled youths find reasonably secure work and serious social inequalities recede. Business profits rise and membership of unions increases. Australia is at peace with itself, almost convinced it is the envy of the known world. Hope and incentivation replace fear and indifference.

Having grown up at last, Ed Husic is Labor leader. He waits and he waits. Malcolm Turnbull announces his coming retirement (as soon as a reasonable replacement can be found), satisfied with his tenure at the Lodge. With shrewd Lucy’s farsighted encouragement, he starts contemplating new experiences and opportunities. The future looks promising, indeed. Tony Abbott is appointed first President of the newly proclaimed Republic of Australia.

It was then that the rooster started to crow.

Alfred P Zarb is an independent writer based in the NSW Blue Mountains. The original John Graham artwork featured in this piece may be purchased from the IA store.

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Telling in the Mountains: An Australian politics dream diary

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