Sunday, 3 July 2016

No Town and Country For Old Men

My first piece for The Australian since joining full time - a skewed look at the Australian election, and perhaps quite fitting, given the skewed and rather strange cliffhanger of a result. The piece as it ran in the online edition is here:

It is nippy in Bippy’s, where the great headkicker and political Mr Fixit Richo - ailing former Senator Graham Richardson - once held court, and where Latham the Barbarian, Paul Keating’s potty-mouthed heir apparent as political polemicist and insulter-in-chief, may have sharpened the barbs that would be unleashed upon conga lines of suckholes from all sides of the political divide.

The restaurant out front of the Town and Country Motel, Strathfield, is freezing as I sit alone, finishing my Wheaties under the impassive gaze of two plaster cherubs in Akubras, one clutching a bounteous bunch of grapes, the other a sheaf of wheat that looks more like cricket pads. The dark chocolate wainscotting, held together in places by great swathes of sticky-tape, almost reaches to the ceiling, where a glass bead game of chandeliers depends, oozing pure 70s. 

My breath makes foggy clouds, or perhaps it’s the ghosts of elections past getting restless. Local gossip has it that Bippy’s was something of a Labor Party bolthole in years gone by. It certainly affords a weird perspective from which to watch the election for someone just days returned from a quarter of a century living and working in the light and heat of Hong Kong and Bangkok.  

A day earlier, as I sat in the Coffee Box at Strathfield Mall, a flashback of horror flickered across my consciousness. A spot of Googling reminded me that I was sitting almost exactly where Wade Frankum began 10 minutes of mayhem that became one of Australia’s worst massacres, turning around to repeatedly stab a teenage girl before shooting seven dead and injuring six more with his semi-automatic rifle before shooting himself in the head in a parking lot after saying ‘I’m sorry’. 

Today, Strathfield is a bustling centre and a kind of Little Korea, a bulgogi-fuelled battlefield where local politicians pen poison letters, sleep with spanners under their pillows and sweep their homes for bugs as they vie for the pork barrels they feel are due Sydney’s third-most-connected transport hub.

Since Richo’s heydey, other Labor right powerbrokers and gladhanders have made Strathfield a happy hunting ground, men like Fast Eddie Obeid, the backroom kingmaker with more false fronts than Hugo Weaving in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, his son Moses, who tried to part the waters and build a marina, and mates like Eric Roozendaal and dirty trickster Joe Tripodi, a saturnine presence who looks like Pete Sampras recast as the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray, not to mention their various Triproteges. 

As these names - vague headlines to me - swirl around the room, it’s getting trippy in Bippy’s. I gaze at the political landscape and it seems populated by pygmies and nitwits. Mama’s little baby may love Shorten’s bread, but no one else seems to be buying it. As for Malcolm in the Middle, the one percenter and self-styled smartest person in the room - meh. 

Where is the blood and thunder, the power and glory, the invective and insults that made Australian politics worth following? Where are the characters, the mates, the friction in the factions? 

When I left Australia, ‘Old Silver’ Bob Hawke had finally been prised from the levers of power by Paul Keating, and parliamentary discourse would never be the same. For the first decade I was away, Australian politics seemed worth following, if only for the ever-more inventive insults and epithets that dripped from the curled lip of Keating. Parliament was a house of shivers waiting for spines, debaters being flogged by warm lettuce, where feral abacuses ran amok, souffles rose twice and bums were araldited to seats. 

Even the desiccated coconut Little Johnny Howard cocked his unruly eyebrow and uttered immortal lines on occasion, likening himself to ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’. 

Let’s not even besmirch the memory of immortals like Gough Whitlam, with his ‘well may we say God save the Queen’ and ‘Kerr’s Cur’ one liners, or the never-repeated feat of ‘Little Digger’ Billy Hughes, who sent the Speaker of the House into a fatal apoplexy by telling Australian second Primer Minister, Alfred Deakin, “at least Judas had the decency to hang himself.”

Today, a charisma bypass and the removal of a sharp tongue seems to come with preselection. The best thing I have read since returning to these shores a nanosecond ago is Tom Dusevic’s cogent, mordent and prescient essay in these pages in 2011, bemoaning the rise and rise of political ‘monoculture’ on both sides, full of ‘minor leaguers’ with ‘stunted’ intellects; lacking “gravitas, broader interests and their methods are those that served them well in student, union or factional politics: stunts and tricks.”

There are no tricks at the Town and Country, not since they ran Lorna out of town, Lorna Doon, who had been working in the world’s oldest profession until the ‘bag full of condoms’ incident, closely followed by the strange case of the cleaning lady and the bed covered in sex toys.

“Lock your door and watch out for Lorna,” had been the advice from the motel’s affable new proprietor, who added: “It’s a classic, isn’t it? It’s like a little slice of the 70s trapped in amber. Bippy’s is straight out of Underbelly or Goodfellas.”

Bippy’s was named, he says, for the cars that would beep as they came over the hill, and as a parody of Beppi’s, the famed Darlinghurst restaurant that has hosted Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rihanna, Pink, Julio Iglesias, Joe Cocker, Billy Joel and most recently by Hollywood funnyman Ben Stiller, as well as being a favourite of John Howard, Bob Hawke and Julie Bishop, and where Kerry Packer and Sam Chisholm reportedly had a standing  every Friday lunchtime in the wine cellar room.

Beppi Polese, the proprietor, died recently. It’s a safe bet he never dined at Bippy’s. Richo did, though, as did Latham. I peer into the dining room’s gloom, expecting to see Ray Liotta or Joe Pesci, or perhaps Alfonse Gangitano. 

Instead, I hear the hard nasal drawl of Richo, Minister for Kneecaps, a man who knew a thing or two about tricks, political and otherwise, the Labor right’s one time capo di capo, about to keel over from chondrosarcoma but still wanting to go mano a mano.

This is no ghost though. I’ve accidentally clicked on his latest Whooshkaa podcast. And his words cut through the buzz of static in my brain, succinctly summing up my thoughts, and oh-so-colourfully describing the colourless monoculture of Australian politics over the past decade. 

“Australia, hasn’t fallen in love with Bill Shorten, they won’t wear him. (Kevin) Rudd … that hopeless arrogant turd who paraded around hating everyone and treating everybody with contempt. he goes and you get (Julia) Gillard, who was just Rudd in a skirt, who disregarded everyone who ever told her anything sensible, always made her own calls and was always wrong, a hopeless politician. Then Tony Abbott … with Prince Philip and his knighthood, and the 2014 budget which was an attack on every Australian who didn’t have a quid. Turnbull, who might be bright but isn’t smart. All those bad leaders in a row - we’ve lost faith in our political class.”

Richo might have been a foul-mouthed grub with unexplained millions stashed in a Swiss bank account, a tad too chummy with the likes of Fast Eddie and dead Rene, but in the great Keating tradition he could call a spade a spade in the most entertaining way.

It’s nippy in Bippy’s as I sit in the restaurant at the front of the Town and Country Strathfield, feeling like an alien, contemplating my return to the country of my birth and my incipient return to journalism, on the eve of an election that sounds like a whooshkaa. 

I’d love to have a beer with Richo. Richo’s me mate.