Wednesday, May 11, 2005

REFLECTION: Pilgrimage to the Holy Grail

Most Sydney-siders regard Canberra as a rather boring place. Well, that is their problem. Normally a Sydney-sider myself, I quite like Canberra. In fact, I liked it so much that when I decided to pursue post-graduate studies, I chose ANU above metropolitan Sydney options.

That was 2003, when I enjoyed the over-chlorinated Belconnen pool, the wonderful coffees at Bardellis (which I understand no longer exists in its original spot), the smell of beer at King O’Malleys and the midnight strolls around Lake Ginninderra with my equally-nutty cousin.

Since then, work commitments have kept me in Sydney. But every year, I join my flatmate (a member of the NSW Young Liberals) and a small contingent of political kiddies for the annual pilgrimage to Canberra.

Pilgrimage? Where to? The Florey Hindu Temple? The Canberra Islamic Centre? That pretty Anglican Church in Barton?

No. Ours is a more secular, money-minded pilgrimage. And this morning, I am still recovering from the late hours of networking, politicking and partying that constitute budget night.

I left my humble Sydney abode and arrived in the Parliament House car park at 6:30pm. I had never seen so many luxury cars parked in bus zones in my life. I was too lazy to walk up the stairs, and after exiting the lift I entered a world of hi-tech security.

Firstly, I was required to throw my mobile phone, my wallet and the change received from the McDonalds employee into a plastic box. I then walked through some kind of scanning device. I was directly behind a rather attractive lady. Luckily for the male guard holding the scanner, the lady was wearing more metallic jewellery than my good self.

I then had to get through security at the glass foyer. My flatmate came and collected me after my name mysteriously disappeared from one of the 20-odd lists of MP’s guests. After a few minutes negotiations, I was allowed into the corridors of power.

And yes, I could feel the power flowing through my intestines as I finished my tofu noodles at the cafeteria. Even more power was felt when I walked into Joe Hockey’s party and recognised a whole bunch of other Sydney slickers. Like me, these were former centre-right NSW Young Libs who were forced out after a takeover by the Taliban.

Amongst my Sydney friends was a chap who ran a rather unorthodox campaign as endorsed Liberal candidate in a safe ALP seat during the 1996 federal election. Paul Keating went to that election for the last time as PM, and his "banana republic" words came to haunt him. My mate scored a whopping 9% swing in his favour. All this on a budget of $3,000. His campaign consisted of handing out bananas polling booths, offering voters a choice between a Liberal ‘how-to-vote’ and an ALP banana republic.

Other hard-luck candidates were also there, enjoying the alcoholic largesse of Akh Yusuf (Arabic for “Brother Joseph”, though in English he was known as Joe Hockey) and his staff. Although I am a devout teetotaller, I am certainly no teetotalitarian. I therefore sipped on my water after offering someone else the beer offered to me by a lovely lass from Melbourne University Liberal Club. My refusal of her beer bottle did not stop us from discussing life and other contingencies.

After enjoying the company of numerous political animals of the female persuasion, we returned our Hockey sticks and enjoyed the hospitality of John Fahey, a man I generally associate with jumping at least a metre in the air on national TV after some Spanish dude made an announcement about Sydney a few years back. Tonight Bruce Baird was toasting the budget, not the Olympics. He was soon joined by the man of the hour, Mr Dollar Sweets himself, Peter Costello.

I like Peter. I will like him even more after July this year. So will my bank manager. And I and my bank manager were not the only people lining up to have our photo taken with Mr Costello.

By this time, it was almost 11pm. The time had come to adjourn to the final shrine of our pilgrimage, the infamous haunt for many a post-budget delegation. My friends and I were driving around Kingston trying to find this place. All we could see were dark silent streets full of townhouses and units, a sight to bring a smile to the face of Bob Carr’s Planning Minister.

Finally, after 20 minutes of fruitless searching, we went to the petrol station across the road from a posh school (my friends were too drunk to tell whether it was St Edmunds or Radford College). We were told to go to the shops. But ever shop seemed closed. Eventually we heard a faint echo of laughter and bad music. And after 3 seconds, it was like a Christmas tree had suddenly been lit up after the fuse was replaced.

We had finally discovered the Holy Grail. I recall wishing I had my ‘Best of Hunters & Collectors’ CD and a giant sound system with me as I approached. I would have modified the lyrics a bit though ...

Woke up this morning,
from the strangest dream
I was in the biggest pissup taxpayers had ever seen.
We were slouching as one,
On the road to the Holy Grail

It was just one huge loud hobnob. It took us 10 minutes to walk from the outer fringes of the drunken crown to the front door, by which time I was already intoxicated on the fumes.

Upon my entry, I was approached by a young chappy from the Daily Telegraph who was clearly inebriated. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who used to be a Democrat Senator? What the f#ck are you doing here? Didn’t I see you here last year as well?”, he asked with speech suitably slurred.

I guess Aboriginals and persons born to Indian parents can look somewhat similar. Funny thing is, in his mugshot for the paper he often looks like a Bollywood star!

It was here, in this trendy Canberra nightclub, that our pilgrimage reached its highest stage of spiritual unfulfilment. I continued chatting to the pretty lass from Melbourne Uni. My flatmate was planning branch stacks with his branch members. And my car froze to death in the carpark, almost necessitating another phone call to NRMA Roadside Assistance.

I would like to apologise to all Canberrans for our unruly behaviour. But don’t worry – we’ll all be back next year to cheer Peter (or whoever the Treasurer will be) onto further tax cuts and more free piss!

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer, practising in workplace relations law. He regrets not having been practising 15 years earlier, as this may have enabled him to brief prominent industrial counsel Peter Costello. Irfan was the endorsed Liberal Candidate for the federal seat of Reid in the 2001 election, achieving a two-party preferred swing of over 5% against the sitting ALP Member, Laurie Ferguson.)