Portrait

What's it like to ambush the prime minister in the name of a good cause? By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

A surprise package for Tony Abbott

Nine or so writers are gathered in my hotel room, overlooking one of Sydney Harbour’s moonlit wharfs.  I’m chatting to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead, who edit the journal Overland.

“So what are we going to do about this book industry awards thing?” Sparrow asks.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who’s recently announced cuts to the arts industry that will seriously affect Australian writers, is giving a keynote speech the next evening at the Australian Book Industry Awards. Group protest plans have been widely discussed but ultimately abandoned.

“I printed a copy of the petition. I’ll just give it to him, since I’ll be there anyway,” I suggest.

“You can’t do that!”

I glance around the room. Miles Franklin shortlisted author and short-fiction master Tony Birch has just donned the pristine white storytelling bathrobe; philosopher John Armstrong – Alain de Botton’s latest literary collaborator — is ordering another expensive bottle of white on my room tab. At this point, hand-delivering mail to the prime minister seems feasible.

“He’s just a man.” A few in the room snort at my comment, but in some strange, wine-goggled way, it makes sense to me.

“He won’t accept a petition.” 

I look at the A4 envelope on my bedside table. A copy of my book is sitting beside it.

Opportunity knocks

Next evening I’m at the awards, seated between my publishing director and the literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, white-silver hair elegantly pulled back as she discreetly jots down observations. A book-shaped A4 package is stashed under my chair. Entree is over before I even notice Abbott, seated in the centre of the room. I sweat through the first few speeches.

Main course is announced. I get up from my seat, approach the prime minister’s table, walk quickly up to his chair, crouch down beside him.

“Tony…” The name feels excruciatingly unfamiliar in my mouth, as though I’m wearing a custom-made plate fitted for someone else’s underbite. 

The prime minister turns, as if expecting to see a familiar face, and meets me: closely shaven afro, black cocktail dress, green and orange feathered earrings dangling to my shoulders. Confusion briefly flashes across his face. It’s a month in which furious university students have been dragged from his person. Public appearances have been cancelled across the country as widespread condemnation of his recently delivered budget sets in.

“Prime Minister, forgive me for being so forward. I’ve been wanting to meet you for such a long time. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

He swings around in his chair, gives that familiar smile: thin lips bared to the canines, goofy yet unsettling. He leans forward, offers his right hand. “Well then, what’s your name?” He’s utterly delighted, eager for a peaceful encounter.

My fingers are shaking. The prime minister takes my hand in his. I can see the top of his thinning chestnut-grey hair. Seated mid-meal, he’s entirely unimposing. He smells faintly of cologne, but underneath there’s the scent of newly printed-on paper, stale sweat, freshly dry-cleaned clothes.

The handshake the prime minister offers is not the firm greeting I’ve seen him give Barack Obama and David Cameron on the evening news. It’s been adjusted to suit my stammering. His left hand is over his right now, mine warm in between.

I tell him my name, that I’m an emerging writer and have just published my first fiction book. He nods, relaxes into the conversation. I pick up the package from where it’s been resting on the floor. “I heard you were going to be here, and decided to bring a copy of my book.”

Up close and personal

The ordinary man disappears. It’s the prime minister, staring back at the opaque package. He looks at it for what must be about 20 seconds: there’s a faltering, a skittering of his pupils quickly around the room. A tall stack of furrow lines layer themselves across his high forehead. At close range, Abbott’s every facial feature is emphasised by the paucity of flesh between skin and bone. There’s 40 centimetres between us. It’s just me, him and the package I’m offering. Later, friends will ask me what Attorney-General George Brandis, also seated at the table, was doing. They’ll ask me where the prime minister’s security detail was situated. I will tell them I have absolutely no idea.

The prime minister’s eyes dart again, from left to right.

“Look, I know you probably don’t get much time to read,” I concede. 

He laughs, relaxes a bit. “No, I don’t get much time to read.”

“Well,” I continue holding out the package, “I brought this here for you. Maybe you could take it, and it’ll just sit in your office and one day, who knows...?”

An ordinary man

In the end, it’s the ordinary man who comes reaching for the package: veined hands branching into long, thin fingers that quickly close around the parcel.

I stand up, elevated a few feet above the prime minister now, feeling uneasily disobedient. I tell the prime minister there’s also a petition in the package, signed by some of Australia’s most prominent writers: Christos Tsiolkas, Michelle de Kretser, J. M. Coetzee, Don Watson. His shoulders tense. He looks off somewhere behind me, will not raise his eyes to meet mine.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to make a scene,” I say. I tell him I feel as though I’ve behaved respectfully, that I hope he takes the package with him when he leaves and responds to it, that I’ll be watching to see if he does. He nods, eyes glazed over now, very deliberately looking away, across the room.

“Thank you.” It’s the thank you that doesn’t mean thank you; the thank you that means move away now please, this conversation is well and truly over. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has returned: disengaged, impersonal, inaccessible, on guard.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Surprise package". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.