The candidate for Flannel is pretty sure that very few of us give a toss whether he wins or loses. At least too few to matter, he says. And when it comes to discussing politics, with no real evidence, he claims most of us can barely string two coherent sentences together. For his purposes, that is how it should be.

    Like many citizens, for much of his adult life Baron McInerny* gave politics a big swerve. He believed that it had such little effect on his momentum, it was as if it travelled on parallel tracks, destined never to derail him. Until it did.

    Country life

    An effortless dux of his country Victorian school, Baron was the only issue of a wastrel squire and his ambitious and talented wife.

    His father, Clyde McInerny*, had abandoned the family highchair in privileged Britain for an agrarian life in the colonies. Clyde had won life’s lotto. An only child, his family line extended from the door of aristocrat and colonialist, Sir Benjamin Clyde McInerny. His only hobby was growing money from the vast sums he had accumulated solely through the privilege of his forbears being favoured by royalty.

    The son’s inheritance was so voluminous that it would take generations of careless spending at industrial levels to waste it all away. Following his wife’s untimely death, all evidence pointed to Clyde’s determination to test that theory. History tells us that he succeeded.

    Baron’ mother, who rejoiced in the name Sissy Apricot Gray-Fitzmaurier*, had a similar pedigree, but no money. Sissy had worked the district’s vineyards since a teenager. Her skills as a winemaker became legendary as her knowledge of the ancient art outgrew that of her peers and, for the most part, her employers. In her early twenties, she developed a grape varietal that produced small batches of wine of such complexity and depth that the few who had tasted it insisted it must be ambrosia – the preferred tipple of the Greek gods, believed to confer immortality upon all who consumed it.

    Sissy needed money to produce commercial quantities of this elixir. Enter the listless Clyde McInerny whose inherited holdings included a substantial part of the borough’s highly fertile land. The union signalled the start of years of happy, settled industry where land was prepared to receive the vines that Sissy was developing in a state-of- the-art nursery. In a moment of whimsy, she had named the new varietal, Cambrosiat [the ‘t’ is silent]. But the secrets of its structure she kept to herself. She never wrote it down.

    Then she died.

    Life lessons

    Baron was immediately despatched to an elite boarding school, while his father ostentatiously fell apart. Clyde became renowned for lavish parties where his guests would receive absurdly expensive gifts just for turning up. As he exhausted his neighbours’ desire to join in with his boundless capacity to constantly consume liver-crippling amounts of alcohol, and, allegedly, some illegal substances, Clyde began to import guests from the city. Flying them into his deteriorating vineyards, to witness his collapsing fortune attracted the most cynical of the beau monde. But only briefly. This novelty distraction quickly became too tacky even for these parasites. As the inevitable train wreck approached, Clyde retreated to his crumbling mansion and debts of such magnitude that what remained of his collapsing fortune could not possibly overcome them. Meanwhile, wise to his father’s hopeless profligacy, Baron had long realised that his education would need to rely on grants, prizes and scholarships. He set about collecting free money with the same single- mindedness that his mother had applied to viticulture. Baron’s final year at school coincided with the dust of his father’s fortune being despatched to the four winds. 

    Baron entered the adult world with a keen understanding of its slipperiness, what it took to get ahead and a fistful of generous bursaries from donors determined to see him succeed. He embarked on his university education slightly mystified as to why his fellow students would accept loans from a government, that any rational human being would not want in their lives. Especially when there was all this free money available just for the asking.

    Who pays the piper?

    Amongst his supporters, there were some opaque benefactors. The International Wisdom Group wanted nothing in exchange for the annual

    stipend other than a six- monthly roundup of how ‘foreign students were engaging with university culture’. How hard could that be? For another $10k per annum, Prosperity International asked only that he take a unit entitled ‘Current Australian defence systems and are they sufficient?’ and share its contents with his patron. In the third year of his undergraduate degree The Institute of World Affairs forked out six figures to encourage some modest research into ‘The successful deployment of personal data farming and how the accumulation of that intelligence can best serve sympathetic nations’. He barely took a breath, then signed up.

    Baron was periodically baffled by the reluctance of his peers to exploit the bounty available in certain corners of the webernet to enhance their lifestyles. It would, he reasoned, put a stop to the incessant whining about the paucity of their own liquidity that daily gave him the irrits. 

    ‘Their loss,’ he told me. But it was in is post graduate years that the real money began to flow.

    Over the top

    Baron aced his raggedy undergraduate degree. It was a curious mixture of digital engineering, botanics, a dabbling in economics, world affairs and geopolitics, and a minor in Tibetan throat singing – an obsession he carried with him from his childhood. When he announced his intention to pursue a master’s degree, the real money came a-knockin’.

    The Institute of World Affairs would kick in double what it had previously coughed up should he find it within himself to take a quick look at the likelihood of certain influential government members being sympathetic to the redistribution of Australian resources towards nations who knew what to do with it but had little of their own.

    He could do that. By leaning on a pliant and sympathetic government minister, Planetary Communications Corporation contrived to have the university establish a chair in the Economics Department solely to support the proposition that wealth is best concentrated in the hands of wealth experts. Baron was offered a seat at the table, sweetened by a tax-free gratuity that easily eclipsed all the other streams of income he had already banked.

    It was immediately clear to Baron that PCC’s thesis was the right one. He set about producing papers, podcasts, TED talks and accepting panel positions on current affairs programmes where he expounded its virtues at great length using all the convoluted and arcane language that any economics department worth its abacus could muster.

    Baron’s star rose quickly. He became a darling of the chat circuit, the go-to commentator whenever the complexities of the economy overwhelmed the theory it was based on. He could be relied upon to repair any perceived shortcomings with lengthy verbal patch-ups that sounded comforting but said nothing. Then the whole edifice began to unravel.

    Reasoned backlash

    The talkback shows went first. A parade of modest, thoughtful callers chipped away at the accepted wisdom with lived experience of struggle and sacrifice. The spiral towards poverty, children without shoes, meals skipped, bills unpaid and evictions. Then the activist clerics took up the cudgels while community groups offered food parcels and distributed free meals. When the retired community leaders, safe atop their considerable savings piles, offered a humble redistribution of a small portion of their wealth, the tide had turned. Baron soothing babble was heard less and less. One by one, his benefactors withdrew their support. ‘A time for responsible frugality,’ spun one. ‘We need to withdraw for some self-reflection,’ lied another.

    Then the final straw. Panicked by support falling off a cliff in electorates held by wafer-thin margins, the government did

    what governments like to do when some fiscal rectitude is called for. A frenzy of arse-covering erupted and funds were drained from any program that might be ‘misunderstood’ by wary voters.

    Baron’ niche support of keeping wealth among the wealthy had to go. He found himself out in the street, alone, surrounded by the trappings of a decapitated career, staring at a poster that invited applicants to stand for the seat of Flannel in a by-election.

    Not one for self-pity, Baron immediately reasoned that this might be the only safe haven for a person with his very specific set of skills. He would join the government.

    Democracy: the right to make the wrong choice

    Baron immediately attracted the support of a major party. He was young; he had a public profile; he understood the elasticity of convenient alliances. Tick, tick, tick. The party machine clicked into gear and Baron’s face suddenly appeared everywhere. Power poles, shop windows, lawn posters, public transport, shopping centres are overnight adorned by his odd visage. Details such as lack of local residency, a curiously apolitical career thus far, no apparent history of community service and a disdain for anything that can’t be measured by price are glossed over. Baron is on the hustings, deploying his talent for saying everything by saying nothing. He was a natural.

    We meet after he exits the wringer of a gruelling fortnight of gladhanding during which he has distilled his entire platform into a slick slogan: ‘Don’t move, I’ll fix it’. He treats me to the full performance loaded with ifs, buts and maybes. As the caveats pile up I can see he is finally exhausted by it. He is cooked. He whispers to me that now all he really wants is a decent bump in his superannuation account. If that’s not motivation enough, he is also aware that The Big House has one of the finest wine collections on the planet and it’s all free. Apart from that, he will go through the motions because he can.

    I try not to believe him, but I suspect, at last, he’s telling me the truth. *Surprisingly, this is not a real name

    Words and music © John Dickson 2023

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