Our host is Ozzie Manning, an epitome of Dawe’s unembarrassed kinship with the little guys, the loveable cobbers of heartland Australia. He is old and garrulous, exasperated and a bit limited. His first window on the world is the newspaper: it could be the Daily Tele or it could be the Morning Herald, you suspect he buys them both, old Ozzie. There is a knowing element of self-parody in the way Dawe exaggerates his ‘Average Aussie’, this unwashed couch potato, thumping his newspaper in disgust every other scene, shrugging and sighing; but he is nonetheless redeemed by the same sense of goodwill Dawe always reserves for the ordinary bloke, the once-was-working-class of the outer suburbs.
Ozzie is first in the line of caricatures, familiar compound ghosts patched together from the stereotypes of newspaper editorials. Dawe has always taken inspiration from newspapers. Even ‘The Rock-Throwers’ had its genesis in a small report about the hunt for an elusive suburban vandal. He thinks of newspapers as a kind of common resource, the proper raw materials for a ‘public poet’. That Dawe takes seriously the role of ‘public poet’ – and has done since very early in his long career – is laudable; but it’s hard not to see a troubling gullibility in the way he recycles these commentariat cartoons. And I wonder if, in turning his naturally contemplative sensibility inside out, engaging with the problem of political responsibility only in its most superficial aspect – that is, as a problem of political personality – he hasn’t surrendered something essential, the art that otherwise makes him such a memorable chronicler of the everyday sublime.
They all walk on and convict themselves: Kevin, Julia, Tony, the media, the swinging voters, the independents, the Greens, Malcolm Turnbull, Mark Latham, cartoonists, ‘spinmeisters’ and true believers. They’re all part of the absurd spectacle of Australian democracy. But the absurdity is not realised in any properly theatrical way. There’s no madness in it, there’s no transport. Most of this is just an unironic reiteration in rhyming verse of narratives and characterisations already circulated by the pundits and the media.
For instance, Dawe has a scene where Gillard takes lessons on how to rule from Elizabeth I. This comparison between the two unmarried redheaded leaders was used to pad many pointless reviews and editorials in 2010, and Dawe’s version has more than a passing resemblance to a piece by Elizabeth Reid Boyd in The Australian. Dawe, of course, goes the extra step by filling Gillard’s mouth with hollow Elizabethan pastiche:
But let’s forget those regions drear, Those bitter winds that chilled, That storm and tempest’s acrimony with which some hearts were filled
When Dawe consciously steps away from these taxi-cab send-ups – which are only extensions of the spin and its contradictions – and risks an imaginative flight, things improve. The Faceless Men enter, but only to assert their humanity, to protest the ‘faceless’ label:
I’m Bruno and I’m simply here To help you get things right, This mask isn’t sinister at all; It’s to keep me warm at night. I’m a backroom boy, it’s true, but that’s because I’m kinda shy. As a little kid I could never ever dare look Anyone in the eye ...
Otherwise these piled rhymes seem like the hobbiest scribbles of an enthusiastic consumer of press-gallery speculation, but not one whose insights have any special imaginative reach. Here’s Kevin speculating on the coming showdown with Tony Abbott:
In those polls I’m level-pegging with poor Tony; I’ll use all my finesse to get it right. Those years of backing and filling, all that phony Stepping around assassins; every night And day I played that game and kept my ‘cool’, It’s paid off big, but the biggest game’s ahead: When will I call the election? I’d be a fool To go too soon. Yes, when all’s done and said It’s too close to the final bell to get it wrong. The ball is in my hands, I must shoot straight. Tony can jump and wave his arms around, so long As he doesn’t trap the ball, (or I don’t make, When shooting, some super-sized mistake). But then there are those other powers More particularly ours ...
Where the day-to-day details of the campaign are put aside, Bruce Dawe does sometimes hint at the sort of centre-cannot-hold political drama this might have been. I particularly like Rudd, darkly contemplating his comeback:
And I, having harrowed Hell, will then Rise and return So that hope and faith may both once more In my dear people burn.