Accidental politics

 A Ralph Bloom short story 
 by Don Gazzard

Ralph took the Cahill Expressway and the Bridge instead of the harbour tunnel, Kate had a bit of a phobia about the tunnel. Phobia's too strong a word, he thought, it probably has a precise legal or medical meaning and if I wrote that in the newspaper some bloody reader would be sure to pick me up on it. 
His first editor had taught him never to settle for the first word that came to mind, but to try and find exactly the right word. He finally decided that Kate's attitude would probably be more exactly described as a strong dislike. 

Ralph Bloom was writing occasional travel stuff after years of political reporting for theSydney Morning Herald, it was a perk in the year before he retired. They were heading north to visit Kate's youngest daughter and two grandsons in Newcastle. He intended to write a piece about the changes since the steelworks had closed down so they could stay an extra day and claim the expenses.

They'd been batting it back and forth all morning about what they should do at the end of the year when he was due to retire. He'd already put it off once because of a big story he'd been working on.  Kate was trying hard not to harp, but was getting more tight lipped that they should return to Melbourne; both her sisters lived in Parkville near the university, and although she'd come to like Sydney in the ten years since he'd transferred from the Age, she thought it was time to go back to their roots.  

Many of their friends had downsized into self contained cottages in retirement villages but the thought of all those old people didn't appeal to either of them.  People raved about the new friends and ready company, but they were more independent, and healthy, touch wood Kate always said.  They wanted to be around young people, art exhibitions, bookshops, coffee shops and the movies. 

 They tossed the options around as they drove up the highway towards Hornsby and the turn off to the expressway. Ralph's first thought had been keen to sell their Paddington house and move to the Southern Highlands or the Illawarra.  At the time he could see them growing their own vegies, composting the waste, harvesting the rainwater, and the sun with solar panels on the roof, the full sustainable bit, and him stoking up the fire on cold nights and pecking away on his novel. But when really challenged by Kate, he'd reluctantly agreed that the country thing was a bit of an environmental fantasy, that they were really city people at heart. 

He'd finally accepted that he still had strong sentimental feelings about the city where he'd grown up and worked for such a large part of his life, so a top floor flat near Lygon Street in Carlton where he'd lived as a student had a more realistic appeal than the country, and this pleased Kate of course, which was important to him.  Newspaper life had conditioned him to early rising, and he could just see himself coming down to his regular coffee shop while Kate was still in bed, sitting in his regular seat near the window and the Age and his coffee being brought to him senza spuma, without froth the way he liked it. 

 Ralph knew it was challenging the Gods to declare that he intended to write the 'Great Australian Novel'. It was really a tongue in cheek strategy to blackmail himself into action. He'd found that if you went around loudly declaring you were going to do something, and said it loud enough and often enough, people believed you and even started to ask you how it was going, and in the end it was too embarrassing to back out; Ralph had dubbed it the Power of Declaration! 

 He'd started writing novels with naive optimism as an under-graduate but having to earn a living had intervened for fifty years. He didn't regret the enforced delay, he'd been wet behind the ears then, and forty years as a journalist had not only taught him how to write but a thing or two about the way the world worked too; he thought he was ready for it now!

 However despite his tough, real world background as a journo, he was more than a bit of a romantic and could even imagine himself writing his novel in the corner of the coffee shop, the way Lampedusa had written 'The Leopard' in Palermo.  What a brilliant book that was, how subtly he'd shown the transition from a society dominated by the aristocracy to a more democratic one.

 He'd been a political correspondent on newspapers for well over forty years and had dealt with all the political figures of his day, and the novel he planned to write was about the decline of our political society and the failure of most reporting to catch the sickly sweet smell of its innate corruption.   

Just before the turn off an old Valiant cut sharply in front of him.  He was forced to brake hard, but it wasn't enough as the intruder was also forced to brake sharply by the car in front of him, and they slammed into the back of the interloper. He exclaimed fuck several times loudly, asked Kate if she was OK and sat watching the other driver get out of his car and come towards him. Ralph recognised him straight away, the other driver was Bruno Brunetti, Member for the electorate of Auburn in the New South Wales parliament, a numbers man for the Right faction of the Labor Party who was up to his ears in a big controversy about a regional shopping centre proposed on an old army rifle range in his electorate.

 As Ralph wound down the window Brunetti got in first and disarmed him by admitting that it was his bloody fault for being so impatient, that he was really sorry and apologised.  As he got out his license details, Ralph said mildly, 'I'd have thought you had enough problems at Auburn without causing accidents Mr Brunetti.'
'Have we met?  Brunetti asked with a smile.
'I'm a political reporter at the Herald, 'Ralph replied, 'and we met briefly at the time your mate was elected Premier.'
'I certainly don't need any more publicity at the moment,' Brunetti said, 'I accept full responsibility, I'll pay for the repairs, it doesn't look too bad, you can still drive it, and I'll get a car for you while it's being fixed, if you can see your way....'

 Ralph stopped him in mid-sentence, 'Your insurance will pay because you were in the wrong, and if I need transport I can use one of the Herald cars, I'm satisfied with that. But you've interrupted our trip to Newcastle so the least you can do is buy me a cup of coffee and tell me the inside story of the Range with my word that I'll never let on who told me.' 

 Brunetti grinned and replied, 'It's a deal, it's becoming a real bloody problem and could lose me the seat, so I'd be only too pleased to tell you all about it.  I'm a bit out of my territory up here in the wilds of the North Shore, but there's a coffee shop just up the road where you can park at the back, how about we meet there?'  Kate was a bit shocked, 'That's blackmail,' she said after he'd left, and Ralph smiled and agreed. 

 Ralph was a self proclaimed opportunist, he'd never understood why that word had such a bad name and didn't tell Bruno that his editor had already asked him to write a series of articles on the background and personalities of the Range development because of the great public backlash it was causing.

 Human interaction is a strange thing.  Ralph and Bruno were opposites in age, lifestyle, temperament and background, but as a reporter Ralph had developed finely honed professional skills in seducing people of widely different views to tell him honestly what they knew, and the more they talked and capped one another's stories the more Brunetti started to trust him. 

 So he settled down to listen to Bruno explain that he had a political conflict of interest that he didn't know how to reconcile.  He agreed with the people who had elected him that the Range should be a regional park, but if the govern-ment proceeded with this shopping centre he'd be bound by party solidarity not to oppose it.  He hinted that money must have changed hands somewhere, it was out of character for the Minister to behave like this, and he was clearly very worried about the possibility of losing his seat in the coming election.

 Bruno was pleased, of course, at Ralph's sympathetic interest, it never hurt to have the media on side he thought, as he elaborated about the protest group called SOR, short for Save Our Range, the smooth talking developer Frank Ferro, the Minister for Local Government Will Smith and the other people involved.  And Ralph, who up till then had assumed the Range was just another nimby protest, started to see that the high handed way the State government had taken the decision out of the hands of Auburn Council with the mantra that it would create jobs, rankled almost as much as the fact that the area had such a low ratio of green open space; His editor was right, it could well become a big story.  Ralph said he was sympathetic and would help Bruno if he could and they agreed to liaise about the Range as it developed. 

But his book had been running in his mind all morning and the fortuitous bingle with Bruno and the whole Range business had given him a sudden idea.  He wondered for a moment whether to say anything but the momentum and opportunity of the occasion drove him on.  'There's another matter I'm hoping you might be able to help me with,' he plunged on, 'don't laugh but I'm about to retire and I'm interested in understanding your world even better than I already do as the background for a novel I'm writing. What I'd like to do is simply talk to you from time to time and have you tell me, with no holds barred about the details of your day-to-day life.

I sense we'll become friends and I promise never to reveal my source. What's more I don't take sides or a moral position, I just want to write a more psychologically accurate story. I'm not starting from taws remember,' Ralph went on, 'I've covered politics here and in Victoria for over thirty years and I know all the players. And as the Godfather you can read the novel as it goes along.  I see it a bit like those political novels of Gore Vidal's set in the power structure of the Washington Beltway, with real people in them as well as fictional characters; you can be in it as a real person if you like!

 And for what it's worth, I grew up in your electorate, when Jack Lang was the Member, people referred to him as 'the big fella!
''Lang was before my time,' Bruno was more than a bit intrigued, 'but I've heard the stories.  Did you ever meet him?' '
'No, I was only a kid, but when I went to university I read about his fight with the British banks and his moratorium to stop peoples' houses being sold when they couldn't afford the mortgage payments. I grew up in the Depression, most of the kids in my primary class came to school with bare feet, so I have a real sense of what all that meant to ordinary people.  Then I became involved in left wing politics at university, probably a reaction to my old man who thought Bob Menzies could do no wrong.' 

 When she came back from shopping for treats for her grand-children, Kate was a bit intrigued at how how well they were getting on.  They agreed to keep in touch, and Ralph regularly emailed Bruno seeking facts and names as his leader page articles developed. It became clear to Bruno that although the ideal journalistic role might be simply to report and not to take sides, no one is entirely without bias and Ralph was more than a bit sympathetic to the protest side of this affair.  And as time went on he discovered that Ralph also had that gift of writing in an easy, persuasive style that, while it supported the case for a regional park, also had the knack of sounding objective and reasonable and not at all partisan.

 Ralph therefore wasn't that surprised to come home one night to find Bruno and Kate drinking red wine in the kitchen. Bruno thanked Ralph for his help on the Range and said, 'I've thought about ya book and the House was a bit quiet so I thought I'd pop out and seeya's both,' he said.  'Everything's a bit slow at the moment and I can't get excited about this bloody cross city tunnel mess Carr's got us into.' Ralph liked the way every now and then he slipped into the western suburbs speech of his youth. 'Come out to Fairfield on Satadee night, it'll be the start of the education of young Ralph; sorry Kate, it's men only.'  

 They met at the Workers Club in Liverpool.  'Tonight isn't just about being friendly in the electorate,' Bruno told him, 'it's about getting Jim Coleman up for Campbelltown.  He's a ten pound pom, came out as a kid and ended up a union rep, you probably remember that business last year about those poor bloody Vietnamese workers at Cabramatta, that's him, he's a good bloke and there's a bugger called Mc Dermott trying to get up instead.'  

 After beers with a succession of people, Ralph found himself in an empty room with six men, and Bruno started to talk about the pre-selection.  One of the blokes was quiet and nodded towards Ralph as though he was unsure about talking openly in front of him, but Bruno introduced him saying, 'Ralph grew up next to Rookwood Cemetery when Jack Lang was the Member and he's a mate of mine,' as though that was enough. Bruno obviously knew them all well, asking after their wives and kids, and started to go on about why Mc Dermott wasn't the best choice, but they didn't need any persuading, and one by one went through the names of branch members who would vote for Coleman on their say-so, until Bruno announced that by his reckoning there were at least thirty six sure votes, and that orta do the trick.  They parted with Bruno waving and saying seeya.

 This was the first of many forays into the electorate. Ralph tagged along with Bruno to many boring Party Branch meetings and of course, interminable council meetings, and admired the way he kept his ear to the ground and made allegiances early by offering help and advice.  The politicians were of all sorts and backgrounds, the only difference was the relative proportions of public concern and personal ambition in each of them. The ones he didn't warm to were the Cassius like party apparatchiks (they always seemed to be dressed in black) with their polls and focus groups and disinterest in the punters; it was all just numbers to them.

 Ralph started to appreciate what a good training ground councils were for aspiring politicians and realized yet again what fertile grounds for corruption existed in local government because of the need for planning schemes to be revised and changed as the city grew.  A simple change of zoning could more than double the value of a piece of land, so he wasn't surprised to often find Bruno in the company of developers who were anxious to do just that if they could get away with it.

 Earlier in his career Ralph had covered a famous planning case in the Land & Environment Court and thought he knew about the intricacies of the planning system but Bruno turned out to have much more than a detailed understanding of planning law and precedents The Minister for Local Government ends up having the last say in disputed planning matters and Bruno was clearly a conduit to help him make the right decisions.  Jim Coleman did get pre-selection and although it was a safe Labor seat, Ralph wrote a profile of him for the Herald to help make sure he also won the by-election.

 Ralph hadn't heard from Bruno for a while when he rang out of the blue and asked him to lunch at Parliament House. 'I really liked the stuff you sent me, so as Godfather I thought it would be good for you to get the feel of 'this place' as we bloody pollies refer to the parliament.'  He was amused at the way all the other politicians took notice of who Bruno was dining with, and a few of them nodded to him as though they knew him, or at least that notice should be taken of him simply because he was there.  With great ceremony Bruno introduced him to the Leader of the Opposition emphasizing, in verbal inverted commas, that his guest was "the Senior Political Writer from the Sydney Morning Herald!"  It will give the poor bugger more to worry about,' Bruno told him with a grin. 

 Bruno explained the finer intricacies of the factions in the Labor Party over a surprisingly good rack of lamb and a bottle of Shiraz, the Klipfer potatoes were done to a turn!  Ralph was impressed at how well they obviously looked after themselves; he always seemed to be eating on the run.  Without pulling any punches Bruno systematically explained in detail 'who was up who and who hadn't paid' as he put it.  He used a current battle between the factions over the privatization of State power generators, and who should be the chairperson of an environmental committee which had some power in the matter, to illustrate his thesis.  By now Ralph had met many of the players, and had started to appreciate even more the way all the pieces fitted together.  After a long lunch an urgent bell that brooked no delay rang for a division. Bruno quickly shook hands, said say hello to Kate, and disappeared into the bear pit.

 They talked often on the telephone and got into the habit of meeting for a long chat every couple of weeks.  What had started as a mutual help arrangement about the Range had deepened into a real friendship.  They usually met at a coffee shop located within Sydney Hospital on that pedestrian path and court-yard connecting Macquarie Street to the Domain, just along from those great colonial era parliament buildings.  So different from that ponderous classical pile at the top of all those steps in Spring Street, Ralph always thought, as he reflected how the architectural differences some how confirmed the underlying political styles of the two places.

 They exchanged general political gossip as well as information on the Range at these meetings and Ralph was able to help Bruno avoid potential trouble with the Press a few times.  He had met Bruno's wife by now, she was a social worker and told him with a feminist grin that she deliberately kept away from Macquarie Street, that she preferred helping real people and left the big picture to Bruno.  Kate came to coffee once or twice, and their talks often stretched into a long lunch at the Greek Club.

 By now the Range had developed into acause célèbreof much more than local importance.  Some time the story deserves to be told in detail of how Ralph pieced together all the clues, but space will only permit an abbreviated version here.  Clearly a lot of money was at stake so Ralph had dug into the back-grounds of both the developer and the Minister and discovered that both their fathers had migrated after the war from the same part of northern Italy, the Langhe and the valley of the Upper Tanero.  By sheer luck he'd stumbled on the change of name from Ponti to Smith by deed poll.

 At a demo outside the Council Chambers in Auburn over the Range, Ralph had met a young protester called Robbo who turned out to be a hacker although he never admitted it. One day he just appeared and passed on some discs that he said 'had fallen off the back of a truck.  Just don't ask any questions' he warned Ralph, 'and don't try and find me, I'll contact you if I can find out anything else'! 

 The information had been downloaded from Ferro's personal computer and apart from revealing that Ferro was having a torrid affair with Anne Marie Smythe, the Chief Planner of Auburn Council, in itself a pretty serious conflict of interest on her part, but more importantly his bank records showed he was paying someone large sums of money regularly; the only identification on each of the payments was the same date, 22 Settembre, 1944, on the top of the page. Logic suggested the person being blackmailed might well be Will Smith, the Minister for Local Government, the man who would eventually make the crucial decision whether the Range should proceed.

 Ralph thought that the Italian connection might explain the blackmail, as he kept telling his editor, 'Don't forget the way things stand, Ferro is virtually being handed public land for free and stands to make squillions out of the development of the Range site, there's real big money at stake here.'   
His editor knew Ralph took his holidays in Italy every year and knew his way around, so he suggested Ralph should go and suss out the details in Piedmonte;  the story of corruption in high places always had the potential to sell more newspapers!

 With the assistance of a friend who spoke the local Oc dialect, Ralph had uncovered a story with a plot almost as unbelievable as those of a traditional Italian opera.   The story started with three young partisans from the Ferro family being shot by the Germans towards the end of the war.  It was all a long time ago, and the old men in the Langhe villages involved had only been boys at the time, but they remembered the story put about by old man Ferro that it was Ponti who had betrayed his sons. 

 Then Ralph discovered that the Minister's young mother's name had been Rebecca Levi, she had been una ebrea, jewish, and had been betrayed and deported to Auschwitz only six months after the birth of her first child, the baby boy who was now a Minister of the Crown.  And he'd also heard the counter rumour that it had been the openly anti-Semitic Ferro who had betrayed her; he apparently never stopped repeating that oldest accusation, that the Jews had killed Jesus! 

 Ralph visited the Partisan memorial and cemetery near Rocca Ciglie, high up on a ridge overlooking the Po Valley with the snow capped French Alps on the far side.  He soon found the three Ferro boys and was not that surprised to find that the date they had all died was the same date as that marked on the Ferro payments in Australia. 

 One of the old men suggested he visit a memorial at nearby Borgo San Dalmazo to the Jews who had been deported from the area.  It was very moving with a few of the cattle trucks that had taken them to Auschwitz forming part of the memorial and brought tears to his eyes.  He soon found Rebecca Levi's name, and the records at the commune office confirmed that she and Giorgio Ponti had been married in mid 1943.

 Like any good journalist, Ralph took the local stories with a grain of salt, he knew how unreliable hearsay evidence could be.  One of the old men told him about a book about the local partisan campaign written by a historian at the university in nearby Turin.  Ralph contacted him, he had investigated these specific incidents and convinced Ralph that there was no hard evidence that either of these betrayals ever took place.  He'd even tracked down and interviewed the German officer involved after the war and he had claimed it was pure chance that they had captured the young partisans and then shot them in retaliation for the shooting of two of his men the previous week.  It was all just part of the confused end of a long bloody war when dreadful things happened.

 But whatever the truth, the whispered family story had been sufficient excuse and motivation for Frank Ferro to blackmail the Minister over fifty years later.  Ferro had set up a secret account to entrap the Minister, who when he'd found out about it, vacillated and in the end did nothing because of his concern such a big scandal might have on his frail ninety year old father.

 He and Bruno confronted the Minister before it all came out in the weekend Herald, and Smith had no option but to confess what had happened.  Before resigning he sent the whole mess to ICAC as his last action as Minister with a recommendation that the whole Range development should be re-examined.  

In high drama Ferro was arrested sitting in first class only minutes before the Emirates flight was due to leave the country.  He ended up with a gaol sentence for perverting the course of justice and bribing the Minister.  The SOR battle to save the Range became a byword for the power of an aroused local community, it would make a book by itself, and its tactics were widely quoted and emulated.  And in an almost too good to be true finale, Bruno was appointed Minister after elections in which the Labor Party just scraped back, the Range became a beautiful landscaped park, and Ralph Bloom ended up with a Walkely for investigative journalism; a fitting end to his career. 

 •            •            •            •            •            •            •            •            •            •

 Ralph and Kate did retire to Melbourne after all this had ended, and they did end up living near Lygon Street.  Ralph tried all the coffee shops and adopted the University Café, mainly because it's on the sunny side of the street in the morning but also because he could practise his Italian with the proprietor who had migrated from Catania twenty five years before. 

 By then his novel was well on the way, largely due to the stimulus of his chance encounter with Bruno and the way their mutually helpful friendship had developed.  A friend who'd been in the book trade suggested a publisher for what Ralph kept referring to as his 'Bingle with Bruno' book.   The publisher thought the title should be something more like, 'Factional politics in the NSW Labor Party' but Ralph thought that was far too straight and they settled on 'Accidental Politics' instead.

 His friend thought the way he'd got inside the personalities of the people and his understanding of the intrigues involved in making decisions within the Labor Party was exceptional and suggested Ralph should follow it up with a Melbourne sequel.  'We all know the Rum Corps lives on', his friend said, 'even if they mostly have Italian names these days.  What would be really interesting is a book set in Melbourne telling the same story from the other side, to explain the more subtle corruption of the born-to-rule men with money.  What you need Ralphie', he said, 'is a friend in the Melbourne Club'. 

 But Ralph doubted he'd have the same rapport with the Right side of politics, not such interesting personalities to start with and he intuited that their corruption and decision making was less democratic and not as interesting. 

 He'd found he could say anything to Bruno, and that Bruno had no hesitation in confiding intimate aspects of wheelings and dealings that some people might regard as a bit doubtful in order to explain the psychology of someone's actions.  Yet for all this, Bruno had a steely core that bridled at injustice or lack of equity, it was just that he wasn't that particular how his ends were achieved.  He wasn't dishonest in the legal sense but he didn't think it was always possible for the means to justify the end in the fast moving world of Labor politics. He almost took a medieval view, an acceptance that good can't exist without evil. 

After nine months Ralph had come to regard Bruno as a real friend and they had parted with mutual affection. Ralph joked that he intended to dedicate the book to Mr BB, like Shakes-peare's Mr WH he reminded him, but Bruno remembered that stuff from university and didn't feel put down or impressed. He has the ability, Ralph thought, to see the world simply as tribal allegiances, who's family and who isn't. Was it because of his Italian background?  Ralph doubted it, Bruno had told him about his grandfather from the Veneto, but he only spoke a few words of Italian and had never been to Italy; his country was the Cumberland Plain of western Sydney. 

 After his novel was published, Ralph ended up discussing it on chat shows and at events like Writers Week with academics, journalists and critics.  Their innocence of real understanding of therealpolitikand psychologyof the situation made him appreciate just how open Bruno had been in explaining all the subtleties and complexities of the factions and their different styles and characters; even the charged language and key words they used!  He had even taught Ralph how to guess what faction Labor politicians were in from the way they talked and the key words they use, almost the ties they wore. 

 It'd be enough to earn me a PhD, Ralph reckoned, if I rewrote it in the passive tense and added enough footnotes to weight it all down.  But fiction was more his bag he thought, a novelist reveals the truth in a different way.  What was it Picasso had said once, 'Art is a lie that tells the truth!'             

 He found that some Melbourne people tended to explain his story as one that might be expected from Sydney, but Ralph didn't agree with this glib reaction.  He was attracted by the Kennett era in Victorian politics, his rise and fall was a fascin-ating story of Greek hubris.  And then there was the waterfront dispute and Corrigan.  You needed a few larger than life people in a good novel, but as Ralph often said without any intended irony, he hadn't run into anyone yet who might help him.

 

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