Party trick

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

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

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