Accidental politics

A short story by Don Gazzard

 Kate had a phobia about the harbour tunnel so they drove over the Cahill Expressway and the Harbour Bridge towards North Sydney.  They were on their way to see her youngest daughter and two grandsons at Newcastleand had been bickering all morning; not really bickering, just the rumble of a good marriage. 

Ralph was a journalist who was writing travel stuff after years of political reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald, it was a perk in the year before he retired and gave them an excuse to travel.  He would write a piece about the changes in Newcastle since the steelworks had closed, it would mean they could stay an extra day and he could claim the car expenses; the price of petrol wasn't a joke anymore. They had been talking again about what they should do when retirement finally hit. He was quite keen to sell their house in Paddington and move to the country, somewhere on a train line around two hours from the city, the Southern Highlands or the Illawarra. 

Kate wanted to move back to Melbourne.  Her family was scattered all around the Carlton area, and although she had come to like Sydney in the ten years since he had transferred from the Age, she thought they should go back to their roots.  Neither of them had fixed views, and at this stage it was pleasant to contemplate all the possibilities.  So they tossed arguments and options around as they drove up the Pacific Highway towards Hornsby and the turnoff to the Newcastle Expressway.

 Tongue in cheek Ralph proclaimed that he intended to write the 'Great Australian Novel' when he retired.  He'd started it with naive optimism as an undergraduate but having to earn a living had intervened for forty 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 world too. Was it a romantic pipe dream, he asked himself, he could just see himself tucked up in a rustic cottage on the Southern Highlands with the fire stoked up on cold winters nights, pecking away at his computer; there might be too many distractions in Melbourne, he thought.  Many of their contemporaries had moved into retirement villages but the thought of all those old people put them both off.  People they knew raved about the new friends and ready company, but they were both more independent and didn't want to leave the real world. Apart from friends and relatives Kate wanted to be near exhibitions, coffee shops, bookshops and the movies. 

Ralph's fall back alternative was equally romantic, a top floor flat in Lygon Street in Carlton.  He had been conditioned to early rising by his newspaper life, and could see himself coming down in the morning to his favourite coffee shop while Kate was still in bed .  He imagined sitting in his customary seat near the window, and being handed the.Age and brought his coffee the way he liked it without a word.  Despite his hard boiled background, he was more than a bit of a romantic and even had fantasies about writing his novel in the corner of the coffee shop every day the way Lampedusa had written'The Leopard'in Palermo.

 What a brilliant book that was, how cleverly and with what subtlety he had shown a society in transition. It was the sort of book he'd like to write if only he had enough insight and talent.  He had been a political correspondent for years and had dealings with all the political figures of the day, and the novel he had in mind would be about the decline of our political society and the failure of most reporting to catch the sweet smell of its innate corruption.

A car cut sharply in front of him, and 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 he slammed into the back of the car with an expletive.  He asked Kate if she was OK as he sat a bit dazed and watched the other driver climb out and come towards him.  He recognised him immediately, it was Bruno Brunetti, the Member for the electorate of Auburn in the State parliament, a numbers man for the Right faction of the Labor Party who was up to his eyes in a big scandal about plan-ning permits.  Ralph wound down the window as Brunetti came up saying apologetically, I''m really sorry, it was all my fault.  As he got out his license and insurance details, Ralph said mildly 'I'd have thought you had enough problems at the moment, Mr Brunetti'.  'Have we met?  Brunetti asked him. ''I'm a political reporter at the Herald,' Ralph replied, 'and we met at the time your mate was elected Premier.'

'I certainly don't need any more headlines,' Brunetti said quickly. '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 put his hand up, stopping him mid-sentence,' Your insurance will pay, and I can use one of the Herald's 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 your problems, with my word that I'll never tell.' 

Brunetti grinned as he replied, 'It's a deal, I'm out of my territory here, but there's a coffee shop at Gordon just up the road, you can park around the back, I'll meet you there.' 

Kate was a bit shocked, 'That's blackmail,' she said after he'd left, and Ralph smiled and agreed. 

 Human interaction is a strange thing.  Ralph and Bruno were opposites in lifestyle, temperament and background, and Ralph was much older but they instinctively liked one another. The more they talked and capped one another's stories the more they started to trust one another.  Ralph told him frankly that he wasn't interested in a story for the paper. 

'Don't laugh,' he said, 'but I'm about to retire and I'm interested in understanding your world even better than I already do as background for a novel I'm writing.  What I would really like is talk to you from time to time, that's all, and for you to tell me, with no holds barred, about your political life in detail. I sense we'll become friends and I solemnly 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 State politics here and in Victoria for over thirty years and think I know all the players. And as the Godfather you can read the novel as it goes along, I intend to write it as a fictionalised history, a bit like those novels of Gore Vidal's set in the power structure of the Washington Beltway, with real people in it as well as fictional ones. What do you think, 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 local member.'

'Lang was well before my time,' Bruno said, 'but I've heard all 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 their mortgage repayments, and that impressed me. I'm older than you and grew up in the Depression so I have a real sense of what all that meant to ordinary people.  Then I got involved in left wing politics at university, probably a reaction to my old man who thought Bob Menzies could do no wrong.' 

 Kate was amazed when she came back from shopping for treats for her grandchildren to find how well they were getting on.  When they parted Bruno said he'd be in touch and Ralph wondered cynically if he'd ever hear from him again.  Then he came home one night to find Bruno and Kate drinking red wine in the kitchen and as thick as thieves.

'I thought about your book and the House was a bit quiet so I thought I'd pop out and see youse both,' he said. 'I can't get excited about that bloody cross city tunnel mess Carr got us into.'  Ralph noted the way every now and then he slipped into a rougher way of speaking.

'Come out to Fairfield on Saturday night, it will be the start of the education of young Ralph.  Sorry Kate, but it's men only.'  They met at the Workers Club.  Tonight is not just about being friendly in the electorate, Bruno told him, it is about tying up the preselection for Campbelltown for a mate of mine, Jim Coleman.  'He was a ten pound pom originally, came out as a kid with his parents and eventually became a union rep, you remember that business about those poor bloody Vietnamese workers at Cabramatta, don't you, 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 and much raucous back slapping from Bruno, Ralph found himself in an empty room with six men, and Bruno started to talk about the preselection.  One of the blokes was quiet and nodded towards Ralph, as though he was unsure about talking openly in front of him, but Bruno said, 'Ralph grew up in Lidcombe and is a mate of mine,' as though that was enough. 

Bruno obviously knew them all well, asking after their wives and kids, and went 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 that by his reckoning there were at least thirty six sure votes for Jim, and that should do the trick.  They all parted with Bruno waving and saying seeya.

This was the first of many forays into the electorate.  Ralph went to many boring party branch meetings and many interminable local council meetings with Bruno and admired the way he kept his ear to the ground and made allegiances early by offering help and advice.  He started to see what a training ground councils were for aspiring politicians and realised for the first time what fertile grounds for corruption existed in local government because of the potential for town planning schemes to be manipulated.  A simple change of zoning could more than double the value of a piece of land, so Ralph was not surprised to often find Bruno in the company of developers.

Ralph had covered a famous planning case in the Land & Environment Court earlier in his career and thought he knew something about the intricacies of the planning bureaucracy but Bruno turned out to have more than a detailed understanding of planning law and precedents.  The Minister for Local Government ends up having the last say in many disputed planning matters and Bruno was clearly a conduit to help him make the right decisions.  Jim Coleman did get preselection and Ralph helped him to win a by-election by writing a profile for the Herald.

Ralph didn't hear from Bruno for a while until he rang out of the blue one day and asked him to lunch at Macquarie Street.  'I 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 call the parliament.' He was amused at the way all the other politicians took careful notice 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.  And with great ceremony Bruno introduced him to the Leader of the Opposition making sure he realised that Ralph was from the Sydney Morning Herald, 'It will give the poor bugger something more to worry about,' Bruno told him with a grin.  Like a schoolmaster Bruno instructed Ralph over rack of lamb and a bottle of red wine more about the finer intricacies of the factions in the Labor Party, and without pulling any punches, explained 'who was up who and who hadn't paid' as he put it.  By now Ralph had met many of the players, and had started to appreciate even more the way all the pieces fitted together.  Then, after a long lunch, a session bell rang, and Bruno shook his hand, said say hello to Kate, and disappeared into the bear pit, as the lower house is called. A few weeks later a young reporter sought Ralph's advice about writing political profiles, it was what he aspired to.  Ralph told him to ring Bruno Brunetti and mention his name, he might be willing to be interviewed, and that Ralph would put it up to the Editor if it read well.  You scratch my back, Ralph thought, after all they were mates.

Eventually Ralph did retire to Melbourne and did end up living just off Lygon Street.  Ralph tried all the coffee shops and adopted the University Cafe largely because it is on the sunny side of the street in the morning.  By then his novel was well on the way, largely due to the accident of his chance bingle with Bruno and the way their odd friendship had developed; there is a God he often thought.  He showed a draft to an old friend who had been in the publishing business and he suggested people who might be interested.  His friend thought the novel was exceptional in the way Ralph had got inside the personalities of the people involved and his understanding of the machinations within the Labor Party.  He thought Ralph should follow it up with a sequel about Melbourne. 

 We all know the Rum Corps lives on, his friend claimed, even if they have Italian names these days.  His friend thought that it would be interesting to tell the same story in Melbourne from the other side, that he should try and explain the more subtle corruption of the born-to-rule men with money, that what he really needed was a friend in the Melbourne Club.  But Ralph doubted if he would 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.  He'd found he could say anything to Bruno, and that Bruno had no hesitation in confiding intimate details of aspects of wheeling and dealing that some people might regard as 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 sometimes he wasn't that particular how his ends were achieved.  Not that he was dishonest but he didn't think it was always possible for the means to justify the end in the fast moving world of State Labor politics. He almost took the medieval view, an acceptance that good can't exist without evil.  After nine months Ralph had come to regard Bruno as a good friend and they parted with mutual affection. Ralph jokingly told him that he intended to dedicate the book to Mr BB, like Shakespeare's Mr WH, he told him in jest.  But Bruno remembered that stuff from university and wasn't either put down or impressed. He has the ability, Ralph thought, to see the world simply as tribal allegiances, who is family and who isn't. Was it because of his Italian background?  Ralph doubted it, Bruno had told him once about his grandfather from the Veneto, but he himself only spoke a few words of Italian and he'd never been overseas, his country was the western suburbs of Sydney.  There are worse ways of seeing the world, he thought, and Bruno was a mate. 

When his novel was published and Ralph inevitably ended up discussing it with academics and critics on chat shows and events like Writers Week, their innocence of real understanding of the realpolitik of the situation made him appreciate even more just how forthcoming Bruno had been in explaining all the subtleties and complexities of the relationships between the different factions.  It'd be enough to earn him a PhD, Ralph thought, if he were that way inclined.  But a good novelist reveals the truth in a different way, he thought, fiction was more his bag.     

He found that Melbourne people tended to explain his story away as one to be expected from New South Wales, but Ralph wasn't so sure.  He was attracted by the Kennett era in Victorian politics, Ralph thought it would make a fascinating story of Greek hubris played out.  And then there was the waterfront dispute and Corrigan.  You needed a few larger than life characters in a good novel, but he hadn't run into anyone yet who might help him.