Walking across the playing fields of St Edmund’s College, Canberra, my mind wanders back 36 years to the day I ran out for Marist’s First XV on the main oval. Although Marist only fielded a senior team for the first time in 1975, three years on the two Catholic schools had developed a fierce rivalry. We had much the better of a bitter struggle that day and the Eddies scrum went backwards as if it was packing down on ice. But, at the end of the game, the sportsmanship of the age was demonstrated when wounded rivals from both teams shared an ambulance ride to hospital. Their champion breakaway rose in our estimation when one of our returning injured confided that it had taken 18 stitches to reattach the flanker’s ear.
I’m making my way to one of the smaller, upper ovals to an under 10’s soccer match that includes the son of our friends, Anne Moores and John Kunkel. My wife Gai is young Jack’s godmother. The Spurs boys play well, downing Eddies 3-0. “That’s five in a row,” says the proud Dad.“Really,” I’m impressed. “Where are they on the ladder?” John, a former speechwriter for John Howard, casts down his eyes: “There is no ladder.”“How do they know who makes the finals?” “There are no finals,” I can see the pain etched on John’s face, himself once a handy Rugby League player. I shrug, searching for something I recognise as sport. “Oh well, three-nil is a good score”.John’s voice is now a whispered rasp. “We don’t keep score.” I leave strangely deflated. The surroundings don’t seem so familiar anymore. I wander past the games thinking that if the Battle of Waterloo really was won on the playing fields of Eton then the West is doomed. I am brightened by thoughts of the week ahead, as Steve Lewis and I will be promoting our second book, The Mandarin Code, and the PM has graciously agreed to launch it.
It’s always interesting being on the other side of the microphone. I am asked by one broadcaster for the best piece of advice I have ever been given.It sparks another flashback. It’s 1988 and I am a security guard at Mt Druitt Marketown, in Sydney’s outer west, doing the rounds at night with a guy in his 50’s who’s a prison guard by day. Or, as he described himself, “a screw”. He is a man of few words and our relationship had developed slowly. In our first encounter I upbraided him for turning up late and he suggested we settle the argument in the car park with our batons. I declined and after a few months we got on quite well.That evening he turned to me and said with some urgency: “Never fight naked.”I was taken aback and wondered where he had found himself fighting naked. In prison. But I recognise that this is very good advice and thank him for it. In the ensuing years I have broadened the interpretation to mean, never go into anything unprepared. It has served me well.
Launch day arrives and Steve and I are awaiting the arrival of the Prime Minister in Parliament’s Mural Hall. His shape lumbers into view in the distance. The walk is as unique as a fingerprint. Barnaby Joyce calls its “square-gaiting”. The PM’s rocking saunter harks of someone who has just dismounted and is finding his land legs after a month in the saddle. As Tony Abbott approaches I am reminded of the vicissitudes of politics. In 2007, after a lamentable performance in the election campaign, he was demoted by Brendan Nelson and even the location of his office spoke of exile: almost the last on the outer ring of suites in the vast Parliament. I would visit every time the House sat and always enjoyed the conversations. The PM is much more thoughtful and self aware than his many detractors would paint him and he has never been dull company. If you have told Tony Abbott in early 2008 that he would be Prime Minister by the end of 2013 he would have greeted the prediction with his bark of a laugh.
As the PM reaches us we are engulfed by the media swarm: boom mics hover overhead; the motor drives of photographers rattle through five frames a second; and TV camera lights shine like car headlights. We shake hands and engage in idle banter with every move recorded and transmitted. Any ill-thought word or gesture in this most public of spaces can’t be retrieved. And as we turn to walk to the podium a semi-circular media organism forms around us and retreats as we advance. I have never been on this side of the huddle. No one could feel natural in this environment. I mutter to the PM: “Does this ever get weird?” He laughs and pauses as he weighs the wisdom of responding. Then he answers. “Yes.” But the media spotlight on our leaders fades to black when compared with that shone on those in positions of power in the United States. And leaders from the US and their minders are much more attuned to the importance of theatre.
I am with the 7.30 crew awaiting the arrival of the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel for an interview that has been months in the making. We are greeted by an air-force major who has spent 18 years in military PR. He is keen to look at the way the shot has been framed. Then his boss, a rear admiral, also asks to see the shot. A three star vice admiral appears to sit in for the secretary. One of the admiral’s minders, a civilian, is disturbed by what she sees in the viewfinder. It’s the way the stripes are hanging on the flag that will appear in the background, over the talent’s left shoulder. “They have to run from left to right,” she says. The cameraman produces some gaffer tape and Old Glory flies proud. Scenery sorted, the secretary arrives and the lights go up on the off-Broadway show.
Chris Uhlmann is host of AM on ABC radio and, with Steve Lewis, co-author of the novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10