Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann forged a coalition of two to write an insider novel about politics in which some characters may seem strangely familiar
FOR 10 easy points, which prime minister uttered this? ‘‘ Come on, cobber, that’s a bodgie piece of analysis. I am fully seized of the need for China to engage with the councils of the world and, in due season, it will.’’ OK, a few more clues. This PM was ‘‘ a gifted Chinese scholar, fluent in Mandarin . . . had a work ethic that bordered on the demented, burning through staff’’. Hmm. ‘‘ Socially autistic’’? Check. ‘‘ Unable to settle on a private or public persona’’? Check. For good measure, this PM was loved by the public and despised by their colleagues, was dumped first term by their own party and was bought off with the foreign affairs portfolio. Then they had a stroke on Lateline.
Meet Catriona Bailey, one of the stars of the fetid firmament of The Marmalade Files, a joy-ride through an all too recognisable federal parliament heaving with a cast that, initially at least, seems only slightly blurred by gender reassignment.
There’s the small-l liberal, multi-millionaire opposition leader Elizabeth Scott, bludgeoned in the polls and unloved by the hardheads of the Liberal Party. There’s new Labor prime minister Martin Toohey, who crawled to power over Bailey’s political corpse and is coming to grips with the realisation he’ll be forever tainted by the manner of his ascension. And yes, Toohey nearly lost the post-coup election and his government is now in an uneasy alliance with the Greens. (The new Greens leader is male, but far funnier than Christine Milne; all in all, it gives reason to look forward to Sarah Hanson-Young’s rise to the top.)
As senior press gallery members in the spaceship that is Parliament House, Marmalade’s co-authors — the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann and News Limited’s Steve Lewis — know their stuff. But as the disclaimer pleads, ‘‘ please do not interpret anything that happens in this book as a real event that actually happened or involved any person in the real world’’. Just as well, otherwise there’s one scene of, ahem, deeply intimate bipartisanship that would keep you sleepless for weeks.
Australia’s present political scene was always going to be irresistible, but Lewis and Uhlmann use the familiar circus of malevolence and blunted expectations to draw the reader into the bigger story of Australia and its place on the perilously shifting ground between China and the US. The star is Harry Dunkley, political correspondent for The Australian. We meet him early one hungover morning (clearly he’s not based on anyone at the Oz) en route to what will prove to be a John le Carre moment by Lake Burley Griffin, where he’s slipped a photo of a young Bruce Paxton in Beijing with two mysterious figures.
These days, Paxton is the defence minister and at war with his department, a job for which he draws on his experience as a trade union heavy — damned not so faintly as a ‘‘ Hawkie without the charisma’’ — and prepares for tough meetings by slipping off his prosthetic hand and replacing it with a hook. But it’s Paxton’s murky China ties and ideas about the future direction of Australia’s alliances that have put the wind up Washington.
As it all unfurls, Dunkley’s only too aware he’s part of someone else’s game — as journalists often are — but he hungers for answers. Lest you think it’s all aimed at the pollies, Dunkley’s profession also comes in for a hiding. Recently, when the real Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was getting ready to have an on-stage chat with Uhlmann and Lewis at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, she was so clearly relishing the turning of the tables I asked her (for a Strewth item) how she was training for the encounter. She replied cheekily, ‘‘ I want to be in peak condition. Mental preparation has included studying CIA techniques for psychological torture during interrogations.’’
Not that the authors need much prodding. Lewis was heavily involved in the Utegate affair in which Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership ran aground on the shoals of Godwin Grech, but he and Uhlmann have brazen fun with an opposition leader-damaging fiasco called Bank-gate. Then there’s a throwaway line (cheerfully written at Uhlmann’s expense) about the ABC’s ‘‘ dopey political editor’’. But when Uhlmann and Lewis turn their attention to commercial breakfast TV, they capture things with a forensic, deadpan cruelty that would have been at home on Frontline. Behold the live, hospital bedside broadcast with Morning Glory host ‘‘ Thommo’’ and the strokeparalysed Bailey who, in true, indefatigible — dare one say ineRuddicable — style has outraged her colleagues by learning to communicate with her eyelids:
‘‘ The camera comes in for a mid-shot of Thommo. ‘ This morning I guarantee you will shed a tear. But you will also laugh with and be inspired by Cate Bailey. It’s been an extraordinary journey to this day, but let’s begin by remembering happier times.’ Cue the opening bars of You’ve Got to Have Friends and the exquisitely edited footage of Cate rolls out into the lounge rooms of Australia . . . By the time the montage was finished the ground was tilled for the first big bang. ‘ Cate, how do you feel?’ whispered Thommo. The director cut to a shot of Bailey’s face, her eyes concentrating on the Dasher screen in front of her, urging the cursor to respond. ‘ B-o-n-z-e-r’ was spelled out on the screen.’’
Part satire, part thriller, The Marmalade Files is also an elegy for old-school journalism in the digital age, and a lament for our political institutions. In one poignant moment, one character asks a member of Toohey’s inner sanctum, ‘‘ What happened to Labor, George? You used to be a serious party. Now you’re some kind of sad, faded circus act.’’
On the other side of the dispatch box, one senior Liberal takes a principled stand and is promptly felled by her colleagues.
Will it fill you with hope? Probably not. But it’s definitely fun. It’s got sex, it’s got politics, it’s got spooks, it’s got a transvestite disco. I table The Marmalade Files and commend it to the honourable members of The Australian’s readership.
Journalists and authors Steve Lewis from News Limited, left, and the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann outside Parliament House in Canberra