In a political world that contains all the strange twists of, say, the James Ashby/Peter Slipper case, or the Malcolm Turnbull/Godwin Grech imbroglio, how could fiction possibly top reality? Isn’t politics weird enough without making it even more so?
There haven’t been a huge number of Australian novels set in the world of federal politics – Jessica Rudd’s forays into political chick-lit with Campaign Ruby and Ruby Blues being recent exceptions – so it’s refreshing to see two political insiders taking up the challenge.
The Marmalade Files sets the scene with a hung parliament and a Labor government formed with the support of Greens and independents; a Prime Minister who has ousted a popular but dysfunctional predecessor; a Defence Minister taking on a resistant Defence Department; an Opposition Leader of considerable personal wealth considered by some colleagues not sufficiently hardline; and a press gallery under pressure. So far, so familiar.
But then come the twists. The novel opens in the cold Canberra pre-dawn light with Harry Dunkley – ‘a press gallery veteran with an instinct for trouble’ – taking delivery of a photograph of three men. He has come to a remote part of Lake Burley Griffin expecting to meet an anonymous contact from DFAT, but an envelope containing the photograph is all he finds.
Initially he is only able to identify one of the three: the pugnacious Defence Minister Bruce Paxton, an ex-union heavy who lost a hand in an industrial accident years ago and, when the situation requires it, wears a hook at the end of his arm instead of his black-gloved prosthesis.
The two men with him appear to be Chinese – but who are they? What is their connection to Paxton? And why has Dunkley been given the photo?
This mystery is the main driver of the plot, but there is a lively sub-plot involving the Foreign Minister (until recently the Prime Minister), who passes out during an interview with Tony Jones on Lateline. (Surely the authors must have written this before poor Simon Sheikh had his collapse in front of Tony Jones on Q&A?)
There is a delicious scene the next day of the incumbent Prime Minister being browbeaten by his chief of staff into visiting the stricken Foreign Minister in hospital. It is, of course, just what the media wants to see – and what the Prime Minister does not want to do.
The Foreign Minister may put readers in mind of someone:
… a publicity-seeking missile despised by colleagues but still liked by the public … a work ethic that bordered on demented, burning through staff … usually lived on four hours [sleep] a night … Six months before the election poll numbers collapsed and Labor hardheads feared they would become the first government in eight years to be turfed out after just one term … When the execution came, it was over in a heartbeat … gone in less than twenty-four hours … [now] driven by revenge.
Here, however, these characteristics belong to Foreign Minister Catriona Bailey, former academic and China expert.
And in this way the authors have sliced and diced the attributes of real politicians into new arrangements for their cast of characters. A large part of the pleasure of the book is recognising familiar foibles in their new incarnations: Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and personal fortune are gifted to the novel’s Opposition Leader Elizabeth Scott; Prime Minister Martin Toohey has been given Bill Shorten’s union background and Julia Gillard’s path to the leadership; there is even an ALP power-broker of the NSW Right called Sam – though here he is a senator ‘who played politics with all the subtlety of a Somalian warlord’.
While it’s clear the authors have had great fun putting this together, it is a bleak picture of the political process. As the novel opens, Harry Dunkley heads off ‘ready to take on the latest political travesty’, and the current crop of politicians are given short shrift compared to the era of Paul Keating when:
… the Labor Party was filled with men and women of substance and steel; not the current mob of shallow careerists whose sole ambition was chasing power at any cost – before pissing off to a nice offshore sinecure.
(Though it must be said there is one politician who puts principle ahead of politics towards the end of the book – and immediately pays the price for it.)
But it’s not just the politicians getting a hard time – the authors have little good to say about their own profession:
Decent long-range reporting had given way to instant, shrill sensationalism, while newsrooms – roaring on the high octane needs of a 24/7 product – were demanding more and more from their best reporters … Christ, even Laurie Oakes and Michelle Grattan were on Twitter, feeding short missives to their followers.
Tellingly, when Dunkley wants to investigate the story behind the mysterious photograph, he has to take time off from his job to do it.
Chris Ulhmann and Steven Lewis are in some ways the Odd Couple of political journalism. Ulhmann has won a Walkley award and is Political Editor of the ABC’s 7.30 Report. With colleague Mark Simkin he broke the story of the challenge to Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership in June 2010. Steven Lewis is a print journalist, most recently for the tabloid Sydney Telegraph, and his career has been a more colourful one, splashing what later turned out to be a fake email in the ‘Ute-gate’ story, and more recently having a supporting role in the Peter Slipper/James Ashby drama.
The Marmalade Files is a clever, page-turning read, and has an ending to rival conspiracies of the Harold-Holt-was-abducted-by-a-Chinese-submarine variety. Anyone who has followed federal politics over the past five years will find many resonances and much mischief, but little reassurance.
Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann The Marmalade Files Fourth Estate 2012 320pp $29.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.