Political thrillers expose corrupting personal ambition

Dead Set
Kel Robertson, Text Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1921145048, RRP $29.95

Morning's Gone

Jon Cleary, Harper Collins Publishers, 2006. ISBN 0732282624, RRP $32.95

There are two schools of thought on the connection between politics and literature in Australia. One view is that all novels concern politics in the broad sense of power in personal relationships, whether these occur between individuals or within families or any other social institution. The second view is that novelists have tended to ignore the ‘profession’ of politics as practised in parties, election campaigns, parliaments and the machinery of government. The connection matters because fiction reflects reality, defines what is possible and prompts serious questions about what should be.

In this context it is interesting and somewhat disturbing, to discover how readily popular novelists regard politics as an appropriate background for crime stories. In Dead Set, by first time novelist Kel Robertson, and Morning’s Gone by the prolific Jon Cleary, the practice of politics in Australia has been corrupted by personal ambition and politicians are regarded with suspicion if not contempt.


Both works suggest that politics places intolerable strains on some individuals, and especially on those with active consciences. Neither work suggests that politicians are innocent victims of social pressures. Rather they show that other social institutions such as the family and the justice system are forced to deal with the mess created by politicians. In Dead Set the drama and farce are created by people with evil intentions subverting the political process. In Morning’s Gone, a politician with good intentions encounters difficulties when he meets an insurmountable obstacle. Both novels suggest that certain features of the system are vulnerable to manipulation by powerful forces and the result is that we are deprived of the very people who would be our best representatives.

Dead Set is a mostly very readable crime thriller set in Canberra, Sydney and the New South Wales Central Coast. Kel Robertson introduces a likeable and believable character, Inspector Brad (for Bradman) Chen of the Federal Police. Throughout the tale which is told in first person, Chen is on crutches and relies on painkillers, alcohol and the support of his driver, detective Kate Malone. Chen is recalled to duty because the Immigration Minister has been murdered. Chen noted the crowds outside her house and observes that not so long ago, a dozen Ministers for Immigration could have been murdered and there would have been no need to keep the public away. Tracey Dale was a Labor Minister noted for her generous policy towards asylum seekers, despite pressures from within her own party. Indeed, opponents of her Compassionate Australia Program are immediate suspects. Dale had strong Left credentials, having been active in the Vietnam Moratorium movement and the Age of Aquarius with the legendary Jim Cairns. In her will she left some property to Women’s Electoral Lobby. Chen even approves of her taste in crime fiction when he sees she has been reading Peter Temple’s Black Tide.

Robertson captures public cynicism pretty well. Asked about enemies, the Minister’s Chief of Staff Dr Garner, says that ‘In the Australian Labor Party we all have enemies. On an average day some of them may even be from the other parties’. However, she rules out political enemies because they ‘prefer character assassination, public humiliation and electoral defeat to violent death. Murder isn’t usually slow enough for enemies you make in politics’. Journalist Terry Priest tells Chen of Dale’s rumoured relationship – ‘playing hide the sausage’ – with the Leader of the Democrats, David McNiece. McNiece’s lawyer wife Athena Stellios knows of the affair, but believes he has ended it, because ‘for a politician he’s an astoundingly bad liar’.

Chen gives Malone a rundown on political assassinations, a history Malone seems to find this ‘about as exciting as period pain’. Chen mentions ‘Newman’ but does not think it necessary to explain that John Newman was the Cabramatta MP shot down outside his home in 1994. Politics can become an all consuming passion. When Dr Garner says that lately the Minister did not seem interested in the longer term, Chen asks ‘personal or political longer term?’ Garner replies ‘Is there a difference?’

While there are some disappointing aspects to this novel, these mostly arise from the need to conform to the dictates of the genre, including some grizzly murders and a steamy bedroom scene. Both of these are tolerable but the denouement unravels into extremes of violence too long to be effective parody. Overall however, the characters, the settings, the plot and Robertson’s snappy style make for a compelling read.

Robertson uses flashes of background and the cynical observations of his narrator to good effect, mainly because the background seems accurate and the cynicism is in touch with contemporary standards. Jon Cleary writes in third person, and his central character is himself a politician and so less likely to be critical of his occupation. Cleary also uses a broad brush approach rather than providing succinct snapshots of events and so the background is sometimes blurry. It is never quite clear why the author chose to mention some background events and omit others, nor why he avoids naming prominent politicians such as Prime Ministers, given that the reliance on recognisable context leaves no option but to imagine the period from Fraser to Howard. For readers who remember the nineties, a small slip such as having the Rwanda disaster out of sequence is disconcerting. Robertson avoids this difficulty by placing his drama in a parallel political universe where only Parliament House and the political parties are ‘real’.

Despite causing some discomfort with context, Cleary has devised a superior plot and his main character Matt Durban is an interesting study. Durban is caught between the grand Labor goal of ‘the Light on the Hill’ and his own longing for the peace of ‘the light on the porch’. Durban grows up in the small town of Collamundra and returns there as a young teacher where he lives with his father, also a teacher. He has a relationship with Ruby Rawson, widely regarded as the ‘town bike’, but he has ambitions and decides to move to the city. When he tells Ruby that their relationship is over, she is bitter. Ruby is found stabbed to death, and although Durban is not suspected of responsibility, her death returns to haunt him later.

Durban is fully aware of his ambitions and acknowledges that there are ‘no angels in politics’. He follows a fairly typical career path, becoming a secretary to the local Member of Parliament, then adviser to a Minister, then a backbench MP and then a Minister. Meanwhile, he marries Carmel, who is equally ambitious for him, but says that she will not ‘follow’ him to Canberra’ but will go ‘side-by-side’ with him. She has no intention of becoming a ‘political widow’ minding the children and keeping house, but remains his best critic, reminding him when his talent is overwhelmed by his ‘bonhomie’.

In order to make his mark as a backbencher he adopts the neglected issue of security along the remote northern coastline, and attracts the attention of June Herx, a Coalition backbencher from North Queensland, and consequently of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which regards her as a person of interest. Durban is recruited to become closer to Herx, but the mission is terminated when she is murdered. Suddenly, Durban’s close connection with two murdered women suggests more than a coincidence.

Carmel reckons that if ever Australia had a woman Prime Minister, she would need to be ‘tougher than any man, a sports lover and as chaste as the Virgin Mary’. In Dead Set, an ex-policeman suggests that most of the ‘sheilas in this country’ should be suspects in Tracey Dale’s murder because ‘it’s OK for a woman to be successful and over forty-five, but it’s unforgivable for a woman to be successful and over forty-five with great knockers’. Both Cleary and Robertson seem to be hinting at something tragic about politics for women in particular. Durban’s push for the party leadership is ended by a revelation about Carmel, and Chen’s case ends as he loses Malone. Nor are these isolated phenomena. In John Misto’s The Devil’s Companions (Hodder Headline 2005) all the female characters suffer. A politician’s daughter is kidnapped, nuns are suspected of the crime, and the protagonist’s partner Nikki is killed by a car bomb.

It is not clear exactly what these crime writers want to tell us, but it could be that they are observing the hypocritically stringent standards we place on ambitious women. There is ample evidence in the treatment of Carmen Lawrence, Cheryl Kernot, Kerry Chikarovski, Natasha Stott-Despoja and Franca Arena to suggest that politics remains more dangerous for women. Nor can these themes be attributed solely to the fact that the authors are male. In 1995, former MP Robyn Read set a murder mystery The More Things Change in the NSW Parliament, and Camilla Nelson in Perverse Acts (1998) explored the links between sex and power. Perhaps what Robertson and Cleary show most clearly is that in politics, he who wins is very likely to have abandoned any pretence to principle, and is willing to do anything in the pursuit of power.

 

 

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