It’s a cold night on Sussex Street. I pull my collar close up around my neck in a futile attempt to shield myself from the freezing, driving rain, one of those peculiarly Sydney downpours, the kind of rain that says, “Yes we have abundant natural beauty, but many people find us more frenetic and materialistic than is strictly necessary”. It’s strange how water falling out of the sky can be so articulate, but then, a lot is strange on this dark winter’s evening, as I head towards a mysterious assignation, with no guarantee I will return.
My shoes squelch in the puddles as I approach the enormous, forbidding oak doors, a squelch that seems to speak of superficiality and petty power struggles, but also of cultural and societal bankruptcy. I stand before those doors, where so many great men – Whitlam, Keating, Fitzgibbon – have stood before, and I hesitate. Do I dare to enter the belly of the beast? Do I dare even refer to it as “the beast” in these troubled times when there is a shell-like ear hiding in every waistcoat? When even our Twitter accounts are not immune to hacking and trickery?
Yes, I must. For journalism. I was employed to shine a light on the practices of the ruling class, and light-shine I will. Summoning up every scrap of courage, I reach for the enormous demons’ head doorknocker and knock, as instructed, three times. The knocks boom and echo through the dark night, attracting odd looks from passing prostitutes and pie-carts. I wait a moment, hardly daring to breathe.
As I wait, I reflect on the path that has brought me to this point. The idea of writing a feature examining the internal workings of the Labor Party. The email to the party executive. The raven arriving on my windowsill in the dead of night, with a cryptic message tied to its leg: “Be at Minto KFC at 11”. The mobile phone slipped surreptitiously into my pocket. The brief conversation with the man who would identify himself only as “Mr Labor”. The instructions to come to Sussex Street, tonight, carrying only a pen, a notepad, and some jam sandwiches. The interminable train ride into the heart of the city, due to trackwork at Westmead. The homeless woman vomiting on my shoes – what connection did she have to all this anyway? It was a tangled web indeed.
As the echoes of the knocker died away, I heard heavy, slow footsteps from within, coming closer, like the beating of some infernal centre-left drum. I waited, distracting myself by reading the engraving on the door. In huge Gothic lettering, it read “PER PATIENTIA, CONSENTIO”. “Through suffering, consensus”. Ah, yes. I felt a shiver run down my spine, as if a salamander were in my shirt. I was just about ready to turn tail and run, when the door suddenly swung open and a tall, pale, emaciated man in a dusty tuxedo was peering at me.
“Yes?” his voice creaked like a mausoleum door.
“Hello,” I stammered. “I…I…” I was at a loss. I had forgotten who I was, why I was there, how I got so wet. Desperate, I thrust my press identification card at him. He studied it intently.
“Ah yes,” he creaked. “They are expecting you. Walk this way.” I followed the pallid retainer, and suddenly found myself walking down a long, narrow corridor, luxuriantly appointed with thick crimson carpet and adorned down its length, on both sides, with foreboding portraits of great Labor luminaries. As I glanced from side to side, I felt almost oppressed by the stern gazes of these giants of the past. Hawke seemed to scold me as his famous eyebrows arched formidably from the canvas. Jack Lang’s bald head took on a disturbingly reproachful air. By the time I came to the final portrait, depicting Bob Ellis energetically coupling with Lenin, I was already wrung out. My emotional turmoil did not take a turn for the better when a bag was suddenly thrust over my head and I felt myself being spun around in circles for what seemed like hours. Finally the rotation stopped, and I was shoved violently from behind, apparently through a door into a new room, where the smell of incense and Belgian chocolate hung thick in the air. I could feel eyes on me, and felt I should say something, but didn’t know what. I shuffled my feet awkwardly. This was a social situation which, as a hard-hitting investigative journalist, I was rarely thrust into. It reminded me a lot of the time I broke one of Gaddafi’s teacups and hid the pieces in my pocket.
Finally the silence was broken. “Take off the bag,” a deep voice intoned. Suddenly I could see, though as I turned my head I couldn’t see hide nor hair of whoever had removed my mask.
I was in a small, smoky chamber, surrounded by antique furniture, enormous clocks, and the stuffed heads of African game. Before me, in an enormous leather armchair, sat a man in a dark suit, head wreathed in shadow and cigar smoke. That deep, gravelly voice rumbled at me once more.
I looked around. I couldn’t see another chair. Should I sit on the sideboard? The rhino’s head? I looked back at the shadowy figure and shrugged helplessly. “There’s no chair.”
There was a pause, followed by a throaty chuckle. “Well done. You passed the test.” Suddenly the man rose, and swept past me. “Follow,” he barked, and I turned and hurried out the door with him, into another corridor, panting as I trotted after the back of his rapidly-receding, smoke-encircled head.
This hallway was different. Less extravagant, it was floored with large stone slabs, and instead of portraits of Labor figures covering the walls, we were instead watched over by the bulging eyes of a cornucopia of historical figures. Here was Cleopatra, signing the Accord. Here was Alexander the Great, nationalising the banks. And perhaps most poignantly, here was William the Conqueror, implementing GroceryChoice.
As I hurried to keep up, I flipped open my pad, hoping to get some insights into the inner workings of the machine I had entered. “Where exactly are we?” was my first question – always a good place to start for a journalist in any situation.
“You’re in the headquarters of the most efficient, effective, and ruthless political organisation the world has ever known,” he replied, without turning. “You are heading towards the nerve centre of the engine room of the inner sanctum of the brains trust of the entire country, and by extension, the world.”
“So this is where the decisions get made?” I gasped, cigar smoke streaming into my nostrils.
“This is where everything gets made,” he growled. “Decisions, policy, lamingtons – EVERYthing comes out of here. Without authorisation from us, no Labor Party branch dares breathe.”
“And with authorisation?”
“Well they do dare breath, obviously”. We walked on for a while in a slightly awkward silence. As turned a corner and the smell of ammonia filled the air, I managed another question.
“Why is the ALP so secretive?”
“Wouldn’t you be secretive, if you knew how determined your enemies were to destroy you?” came the barked response. “Wouldn’t you hide yourself away in a secure fortress, if you knew that the minute you stick your head outside it’d be sliced off, by the Liberals, by the Nationals, by the Greens, by the unions?”
“But the unions are on your side,” I protested, for which I received a short, sharp laugh and what sounded like a spitting noise. I tried again: “So you stay bunkered in here out of fear?”
“Yes! Fear that we shall be forestalled, that the great Labor project will be stymied by the forces arrayed against us.”
“And what is the great Labor project?” I asked, wading through the stagnant water we had somehow found ourselves up to our knees in.
“It’s the Light on the Hill!” he cried. “Justice! Equality! Social cohesion! A fairer future for our children!”
“So you – ” I began, but he was in full flight, puffing from his cigar even as he bellowed and expectorated and leapt lightly from crocodile to crocodile.
“Equitable workplace relations arrangements!” he roared. “Quality education and healthcare for all! Sustainable economic growth! Free trade! Small business! Open markets! Secure borders!”
“I’m not sure – ”
“Family values! Equitable religion for all! Sustainable censorship! Deregulation! Red tape! Green energy! Yellow perils! Fear! Misery! Desolation! ALL SHALL DIE!” He came to a solid steel door, and knocked eight times in a sort of calypso rhythm. “That, Mr Pobjie, is the Labor project. No less than the very re-structuring of society itself into something resembling extremely closely what we already have, but with more solar water heaters. Oh yes, you may call it Utopian, but we believe it is attainable, with a bit of elbow grease.”
There was another awkward pause, and then the steel door swung open, and we stepped into…
A pleasant pastel-hued lounge room, filled with the scent of pine needles and the sound of soft jazz piano coming from a small iPod dock in one corner. On the couch sat three men in long brown robes, hoods hiding their faces. One of them beckoned to me to take a seat on a nearby ottoman. I did so, relieved to be able to rest my feet and to no longer have to shake turtles off my trouser legs.
One of the hooded figures spoke. “We understand you have some questions,” he hissed, in a voice that sounded like a man hissing. I felt a strange emotion I was unfamiliar with, a sort of terror mixed with arousal mixed with overwhelming sadness mixed with a deep respect for party conferences.
“Yes, sir,” I said, opening my pad again. “I want to know why the Labor Party lost its way. When did it stop speaking for the people, and start speaking for a dark cabal of secretive overlords making decisions on behalf of membership without consultation or accountability? When did being a member of the ALP become a pointless exercise? When did the party become less about sharing wealth and opportunity more widely, and more about concentrating as much power as possible in the hands of the unelected and unqualified backroom powerbrokers? When did policy become secondary to the relentless obeisance to focus groups? How is it that a party founded on principles of fairness and social justice has been degraded to an ineffectual rump of political timeservers and careerist machine men, interested only in numbers, internecine squabbling, and consolidating narrow power bases within an insular, delusional party administration without the slightest inkling of, or interest in, the goings-on in the real world beyond their adaptability for purposes of political power-retention, the detachment from reality having exceeded reasonable bounds to such an extent that even possessing control of government now seemingly comes second to possessing control of the tiny minority of citizens still blind or cynical enough to call themselves ‘Labor Party members’” I took a breath. “How, sir, did this happen?”
There was silence for a moment. The jazz seemed even louder, even more relaxing. A small butler offered me a spinach puff. The hooded men seemed to be stroking their chins. Then the middle one stood, and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“These are all good questions,” he said quietly, “but they come from a place of ignorance. If you knew anything of the reality of politics, you wouldn’t need to ask these questions. You would know how things work. You would know the way of the world.”
I gazed up at the hood, and suddenly felt an overwhelming urge, such as I had not felt for many years: an urge to actually learn about politics. “Tell me more, sir,” I said, munching on my puff.
“I will,” he said, “but be warned, your life will never be the same again.”
“So what’s the catch?” I asked, chuckling heartily. The butler joined in, but nobody else did.
“What you have to understand,” began one of the seated hoods, “is that this country is not run by the government, nor by the corporations, nor even – despite appearances – by the Greens. This country is run here, by us, in this room. Here, let us show you.” And with that he reached over the arm of the couch and took hold of the lamp sitting on the small occasional table. He gave the lamp an almighty yank, and suddenly the enormous photo of Stalin that covered one wall swung back, revealing a huge and complex control panel, covered with flashing lights, levers and dials. “Here is where the country is run!”
I stood and walked closer, peering at the controls on the wall. Each button and lever was labelled, with things like “monetary policy settings”, “border security”, “fluoride release”, “law-abiding citizen disarmament” and so on.
“You see,” said the third hood, “we need to keep the Labor Party in a constant state of turmoil, engaging in endless civil war, tearing itself apart with impotent disputation, stumbling from PR catastrophe to policy brain-spasm like a wounded elephant, constantly promising renewal and reform and constantly disappointing, perennially commissioning reviews, and most of all, obsessing interminably about the merits of the factional system; in order that nobody learns that the entire nation is controlled on one vaguely retro-styled wall in a stylish modern lounge room by three men in hoods.”
I was, to be honest, surprised. Although I had long suspected that “something was going on” in this country, I had always assumed it had something to do with Ray Martin. This development was, in about 55% of its details, unexpected. “But…but why?” I sputtered. “Would it really be so disastrous if the electorate knew that democracy was a complete sham and their lives were at the mercy of creepy sort-of-monk guys? I think they mostly suspect that anyway.”
“NO!” shouted the standing man. “They can never know. The result would be anarchy, disorder and tragedy, if the people were to ever discover…who is really in power.”
“Who is really in power,” his colleagues repeated, rising from the couch and taking their places either side of their comrade. They lifted their hands to their hoods. “Prepare yourself,” they droned, in unison, and threw back their cowls.
I stared for a second, and then screamed, the scream of the truly damned. For before stood three ordinary, nondescript men, wearing robes…with no faces. Beneath their conservatively styled hair, the fronts of their heads were utterly smooth and bereft of features.
Still screaming at the horror of it all, suddenly I felt a rough hand on my shoulder, and turned to see my guide from earlier, his face no longer wreathed in smoke. And I screamed again, as I beheld his visage, for his entire head was an enormous nose.
“The interview is over,” snarled one massive nostril, and everything went black.
When I awoke, I was stripped to the waist, bathed in sweat, and lying by the pool on the deck of the cruise ship Dawn Princess. Beside me was a poorly-typed copy of the story you have just read, and yet of which I had no recollection beyond some deep bite marks on both ankles and certain vague ideas about Cheryl Kernot.
Was it a dream? I’ll never be certain one way or another. But still, the story had to be told, and I will leave the Australian people to make up their own minds, about the Faceless Men of Sussex Street.