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Far canal

Pundits who were left gasping by the announcements of Colin (‘Cry me a river’) Barnett, leader of the West Australian parliamentary opposition until the recent election, would have been less surprised if they’d read the June 2004 (and, sadly, last) issue of the Okotsk Institute Journal of Research into Inexplicable Public Behaviours. On pages 721–954 of the OIJRIPB, Dr Ilyitch Blok and Professor Natasha Takl describe their uncovering of an obscure, essentially benign, but inconvenient condition they call ‘The de Lesseps Incongruence’, or dLI.

Blok and Takl suggest that dLI occurs almost exclusively in males, although they cite former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and someone they call Paulinovka Hanchik as examples of possible feminine outbreaks. Symptoms can be activated by intense anticipatory excitement (such as is associated in male vernacular with ‘being on a promise’—to translate loosely from the Russian), or by general stress, or, sometimes, as a result of cerebral surges induced by simple mathematical tasks such as addition and subtraction.

Following one or all of these symptoms, the lineaments of the condition become recognisable by the sufferer’s desire to engender and carry out massive schemes that require large-scale reorganisation of natural features or forces or socio-political relationships. So entrenched does this obsession become that it cannot apparently be mitigated by even the most logical demonstrations of its impracticality. Hence Thatcher’s Falklands War; hence Paulinovka Hanchik’s One Nation Party—if that’s the babushka they have in mind. And hence Colin Barnett’s Grand Canal in the west and his dysfunctional finances. Each scheme involves the hubristic aspiration to alter the course of events or nature or historical legacy with a minimum understanding of the forces and ramifications involved.

The career of Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1805–94) is, of course, the example on which the Russian researchers have based their nomenclature. Though well launched as a successful diplomat, de Lesseps—like his 21st-century antipodean counterpart—became obsessed with great big canals. Out from the diplomatic bag would come his portable silver shovel at the first sight of an isthmus, and he’d be carving histh way acrossth it before you could say ‘Jack Robinsthon’. This worked fine in Egypt but, with the egotism characteristic of the condition to which he would give his name, de Lesseps attacked the Isthmus of Panama and brought upon himself an intensity of social, political and financial opprobrium that would only be equalled 150 years later in the strange case of hapless fellow sufferer Colin Barnett.

In accidentally drawing attention to the ground-breaking work of Dr Blok and Professor Takl, Barnett has brought this bizarre affliction into focus, making it possible to recognise other outbreaks and other sufferers. The onset of dLI, for example, provides an explanation for the otherwise puzzling decision of Prince Charles to visit Australia. True, he had many good reasons for wanting a brief escape from his mother, his father, an assortment of untrustworthy courtiers, the Church of which he is the putative head, and his younger son’s odd sense of humour—to put the best possible spin on what looked like a simple case of another, much better known condition: being as thick as two planks.

But, much as they would no doubt like to, your royals don’t normally up and go on ostensibly official swannings just to be shot of the English weather and the awful rellies. Even they need a veneer of justification to light out for the colonies and hit a bunch of unsuspecting Commonwealth subjects with a travel and accommodation bill for a million bucks.

Yet as late as when he subsided gratefully into his first-class seat and Heathrow disappeared into the overcast and sleet, Charles could not have said in detail why he was going. It was left to some nameless spokesman for the Australian Prime Minister’s Office—a person clearly in the grip of advanced dLI—to come up with a breathtaking answer, as reported on page 21 of ‘The Inquirer’ section of The Weekend Australian for 5–6 March.

 ‘There wasn’t a specific event for him to come to,’ this spokesman admitted, but ‘The planets just aligned at this time ...’ [my emphasis]. Not for this anonymous bloke a random isthmus or a casual few hundred kilometres of canal. He’s meddling with the cosmos, he’s mucking round among the stars. This man is thinking big, he’s thinking dLI big. Thus aided and above all given rationale by this dLI-afflicted genius, Charles was able to inspect ‘key’ industries (a key factory in western Victoria), ‘organic’ enterprises (an organ tuner in New South Wales) and a ‘school’ (of salmon in Bass Strait), exuding throughout an air of purpose and planning that he would have lacked without the intervention of that galaxy-dominating spokesman.

Rather in the manner of the woman who, having become pregnant, begins noticing what an amazing number of pregnant women there are suddenly appearing around her, once alerted to the dLI phenomenon, you can spot it immediately—and it’s everywhere. Even as I write, the federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, has come down with a clear and severe case. ‘Either spend or give me back the billions you’ve reaped from the GST windfall,’ he is telling the states, ‘or I’ll …’

The state premiers: ‘Or you’ll what?’

Costello: ‘Or I’ll dig a huge canal that cuts through every state.’

And there is, as yet, no known cure.         

Brian Matthews is a writer who also holds professorial positions at Victoria University, Melbourne, and Flinders University, South Australia. He lives in the Clare Valley, South Australia.



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