Dire days

irony - vandalisedImage by badjonni via Flickr

Saturday, and it was time to vote. Finally all the hot air and bluster, the wild promises and desperate threats counted for nothing. The die was being cast, and there was no going back, no stopping the cog wheels from cranking over once they had started.

It was a pretty day. The sun shone down on my street, quiet and still. I collected the newspapers as always and as always read them in bed. I expected John Howard to be returned as Prime Minister that night, but there was part of me thinking – hoping – that an upset was possible. It was all in the abstract still though, it meant nothing because nothing was yet concrete, nothing decided. The die may have been cast, but the result of it was still to be determined – and anything was possible.

At about 10 I wandered down to the corner of my street, where a marquis had been set up in the park. As I approached the crowds got thicker, people coming from or going to the long, white rubber tent where the electoral booths had been set up. I turned into the park. At the sight of me a little man in a fashionable anorak straightened up and reached for a pile of how to vote cards. He must be a Lib, I thought. As he proffered the coloured sheets of paper to me I raised a hand flat to him, no thanks mate, I said, don’t need them.

I never take them. Part of me is offended at the thought of all the wasted paper. And I figure if you don’t know how to vote by now you don’t deserve to vote. And there is something in me that doesn’t want to give anything away – if I take one how to vote card, I have to take all, lest it be revealed who I’m voting for – which is strange, because I wear my allegiance like a badge sometimes.

So I sniffily walked by, silently judging the Lib in his expensive coat, a cliché, a stereotype, the haughty Lib with his Range Rover no doubt parked nearby. I felt distant, and strong, and maybe a little righteous. I felt a different breed, tall and casual, laid back against short and buttoned up. As I waited in line inside the tent I smiled at my own prejudice. It was wrong, I knew that, and I recalled a salutary lesson some years ago.

At the time of the Republic referendum I was very actively involved in doing all I could do to get the yes vote across the line. I had been a republican from an early age, almost instinctively, though no doubt influenced by my family – my father famously refused to stand at some wedding in the seventies when God Save Our Queen was played as the national anthem. My Mum was terribly embarrassed, but I understood. She might be a nice old woman but Queen Elizabeth is not my queen, and England not my country. And so come the referendum I was fierce and passionate and violently disparaging of any on the other side.

As it happens I was nominated as the republican scrutineer at one of the nearby booths. I got there early and put up our banner for all to see. I got my pile of how to vote cards ready (ironic that), and waited. Soon after my monarchist counterpart arrived. He was maybe ten years older than me, a nondescript but friendly looking guy. I nodded to him and kept my distance.

People started arriving and we handed our how to vote cards out, spruiking our positions and copping the odd rebuff, but overall it was pretty uneventful. Throughout all this we would occasionally exchange a word or two. Then about halfway through the morning he unscrewed the lid from a thermos of hot coffee he had cleverly remembered to bring, and offered me a cup. For a moment I thought about making a political statement by refusing. Problem was that it was a cold morning, and I fancied a hot coffee. What to do? I did the sensible thing. I accepted a coffee and we got to talking. I found that he was actually in favour of the republic, just not the model proposed – a common problem. I found also that I liked him, that he was a gentle and good man though his beliefs were opposed to mine. And I learned from that how foolish it is to presume anything, and how prejudice so often dissolves when confronted with the human face of our rivals.

This is something I still occasionally forget.

I remembered though, as I stood in line inside the electroral tent. I could not understand the Liberal trying to urge his vote on me, we were of different ilks. It was wrong though to reduce him to a handy stereotype when in all likelihood he was, is, a good and decent person – just different to me.

I voted and marched out, hopped in the car and drove to Coburg. I bought some golf clubs then went in search of a tile retailer somewhere in Sydney road, to buy some tiles for my bathroom half renovated. I never found the place though I drove backward and forwards in search of it. Somehow it didn’t worry me. I had a restless bug in me and was happy to drive through these unfamiliar streets on the other side of town. I slowly began to cruise back, the sunroof open as I took different streets on a whim, arcing through Carlton and busy Lygon street as I approached the more familiar streets of the city, and then by the MCG and across the bridge, and the river, to my side of town. All throughout I played my music, avoiding the radio stations and any news of the election – I didn’t want to know.

That night though I sat in front of the TV to watch as the results began to roll in. I had thought it might take a while before any result became obvious – at 7.15 though it seemed clear that the Libs had won, and with an increased majority likely. This was the worst possible result. I turned the TV off and felt the restlessness of earlier in the day as pent up energy now released in me. I roamed from room to room. I had soured with the realisation that John Howard was here to stay for another three years, and could not rest, mentally as much as physically. I felt gutted, and full of philosophical anger.

I woke the next morning and refused to turn the radio on – I knew what the news was and didn’t want to hear it. I collected the paper and turned straight to the sports section. Overnight I had come to accept the fact though, it did not eat at me as it did the night before, like acid. My state of mind was helped somehow by the bright, warm Sunday morning, and by a round of golf I played, like nothing had happened, laughing and cursing as I do every time I am on a golf course.

Though I continued to avoid the news I remained in that state for the rest of the day. As it happened it was a lovely day, peaceful and serene like Sundays should be. The energy I had felt seize me the night before I now directed to other tasks, and felt at the end of the day some satisfaction at what I had managed.

Then everything changed. I suppose I am drawing a long bow to suggest what happened as being indicative of the times we live in, times changed since John Howard came into power. I suppose what I am about to describe has happened many times before and in different ways. For me though it symbolises in some way what has happened to this country in the last 8 years.

Last night I logged into an internet forum I am a member of. As I have on hundreds of occasions before I browsed the boards and contributed here and there to threads that interested me. Though the forum is sporting based it doesn’t preclude people from posting other topics. And so, predictably, there were threads devoted to the election result. By and large I avoided those. I didn’t want to read what they had to say, didn’t want to be roused to anger or to the need for a response. Discretion is the better part of valour, and discretion in this instance told me to walk on by.

But then I clicked on one, don’t know why. And there I read a tawdry tale, some hero boasting how he had taken a how to vote card from a girl representing Labor and there in front of her had set it alight. I might have accepted that, might have put it down to some limp dick indulging in unlikely braggadocio. What really disturbed me most was the response to him, which was universally positive. ‘Way to go mate’. ‘That’s a classic.’ ‘Wish I’d been there.’ ‘What a legend.’ And so on. This went on for perhaps a dozen posts. I read with a growing sense of distaste. I felt sick to the stomach and turned away.

I tried to watch TV but I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had read. Is this what the world has come too? That people take pleasure in terrorising innocent people doing their job, and are applauded for it? What has happened to our sense of right and wrong? Where has our restraint gone? Our morality?

Somehow I conjured up in my mind a picture like you have seen in a dozen or movies or more. It’s in a bar say, there are a bunch of swaggering males sitting around, loud and hooting. Standing at the bar is a plain girl, or maybe a simpleton, or some guy down on his luck. In any case, and easy mark. And so one of the group makes a remark to the plain girl, the simpleton. He draws from his friends derisive laughter, is encouraged by their remarks and goes on. Soon they all join in, brave boys all joining in this heroic venture.

Of course in all the movies they get their comeuppance. Life isn’t like the movies though.

The longer I thought about it, the longer I festered, the more my anger turned to John Howard. This is the world he has made possible. Once upon a time we were gentler than this. Once upon a time we were big hearted, generous. Or so I remember.

Times have changed because the people leading this country has changed. I guess I shouldn’t blame him altogether – the world around us has changed also. Is that reason enough though? No, it is not.

John Howard has lied to the Australian public. He has exploited the misfortune of others for political gain. He has made everything subservient to his political ambition. That ambition is ruthless – nothing is beyond the pale. And so by degrees this new morality has filtered down into society. We have delegated not just authority but morality to him as our leader, and have ourselves become corrupted by his political will.

I got from the couch where I was sitting. I could not sit still. Much as I would like to turn the other cheek I could not. I was drawn, sick to the stomach, back to my computer and, choking on my bile, I responded. It was wasted probably, lost on mentalities such as theirs. It felt good though, felt cleansing in a way to stand and speak, innefectual as it was.

Today I feel depressed, sorrowful. That incident has revived my distress at another three years of John Howard. I find it hard to live like this, but I do not know what to do – only that I must do something.

It is a woeful feeling. I feel like a father with his favourite son. He has always been the golden one, intelligent and friendly, strong and good. Oh, I have been proud of him. My son! I bathed in his reflected glory, accepted yes, I was so lucky to have such a son, and looked forward to the day when he would come into his own. Except it never happened. Somewhere along the path he lost his away, was led astray. And so the golden haired boy of my heart has grown into a man I do not recognise, arrogant and shallow and selfish, a stranger.

That is how I feel about Australia, though I am it’s son. I have always been so proud of that appellation: I am Australian. It stood for something good, something generous and real. We have lost some of that, though not irretrievably. Right now though I feel kind of broken-hearted at what has happened. My country – with each passing year I find it more difficult to believe in it. Yet it is my country. Like the father with his son, you can’t walk away, can you? It’s your blood.

I don’t know where that leaves me now. I wish I could be less involved, less passionate – but I can’t. I had dinner with a girl last week who told me my passion was an attractive quality, but that she couldn’t understand it. I can’t understand but know I will be drawn into this now, where it deposits me I don’t know.

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