Malcolm Turnbull and the parable of the pelicans

Pelicans, Flickr image by DannyBenWe all know that there's no such thing as a dead certainty yet even the most circumspect among us are occasionally tempted by the thought: 'This time — just this once — it will be different. I'll get lucky.'

In Shepparton years ago, while dividing my time between school teaching and fishing in the Goulburn, I learned from my pedagogical colleague and fishing partner that a vast number of mature rainbow trout were to be released into the nearby Victoria Lake for the benefit of recreational fishermen.

Always interested in both the theory and practice of the piscatorial arts, my mate, Ken, getting wind of this plan, visited the distant trout farm and demonstrated rote-learned, earnest interest in fry, fingerlings and yearlings, not to mention allozyme variation in rainbow trout — or Oncorhynchus mykiss as he casually and uncomprehendingly referred to them once he had warmed to his spiel.

In this way Ken discovered a vital piece of information: the fish had been raised on a diet of chicken liver, among other sustaining nutrients.

On the afternoon of the official trout release, at a lakeside ceremony presided over by the Mayor and a battalion of dignitaries, Ken manoeuvred me into a quiet corner of the local pub and outlined his daring plan. We would take our dinghy to the lake just before dawn on the following morning and fish for trout — with chicken liver-baited hooks.

'It's a dead certainty,' he said. 'Practically all they've ever known is chicken liver. We'll fill the boat.'

'What if they're sick of chicken liver?'

He gave me a withering look, not bothering to reply to such catastrophic thinking. And so the die was cast and the fate of an incalculable number of the sexily named Oncorhynchus mykiss was sealed.

The next day the first streaks of a cold northern Victorian dawn found us, shadowy silhouettes, anchored in the middle of the lake, the 'compleat' anglers. Armed with crucial inside information we were more prepared than Isaac Walton could ever have imagined.

Five hours later, just before midday, we gave up, having had not one single bite, though trout were jumping and splashing all around us for the whole time, as if rejoicing in their newfound freedom and space.

That same afternoon, when the sun we had seen rise was contemplating giving it away for the day, 50 or so pelicans cruised in from various reaches and bends of the Goulburn, herded all the fish down to the shallow end and ate the lot. Neither the mayor nor the dignitaries who had welcomed Oncorhynchus mykiss were on hand to farewell them. As for the pelicans, judging by the precision, efficiency and unerring accuracy of their raid, they knew they were on a dead certainty.

Only a few years later, I succumbed again, and this time I couldn't blame a fanatical fisherman. In London as a student, running dangerously low on funds and disinclined to send another emergency call home, I put my last £50 on an absolute you-know-what at Catterick Bridge, convinced of this nag's deadly certitude by a shamefully perfunctory study of the form.

As a neophyte punter in a foreign system, I didn't have the nous to bet each way. I put my bundle on the nose. And it was by that same nose — or, in fact, one of its snorting, plunging nostrils — that my hayburner was beaten into second place.

The dead certainty haunts every age and assumes guises suitable to the times. In our electronic world, the DC could materialise as, say, an email. South Australian Liberal leader, Martin Hamilton-Smith, a few months ago came across the dead certainty that would blow the wax out of your ears. It was email dynamite and would bring down Labor Premier Mike Rann and all his cohorts. But, more dead than certain, the email was a fake, a faulty grenade, and Hamilton-Smith — an ex-army man of some experience and distinction — blew himself up.

You would think his fellow federal Liberals, no matter how profound their lack of interest in anything east of the Divide, would have sniffed the cordite in the air and done some consciousness-raising sessions on weapons of self destruction.

But no: like a fisherman with irresistible bait, or a punter with inexplicably unshakeable conviction, Malcolm Turnbull took his dead certain ticking bomb up to the battle front, aimed, stood back in puzzlement when all it did was hiss, then fell about in alarm when, suddenly, it exploded in his face. Another dead cert up in smoke.

As I write, the OzLotto has jackpotted to 90 million dollars. The odds against are 46 million to one. Still, I've got a feeling. I sense something in the air. The rush of Fortune's wings? Or a squadron of hungry pelicans?

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life.

Topic tags: dead certainty, trout fishing, horse-racing, malcolm turnbull, utegate, Martin Hamilton-Smith



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Existing comments

Incorrigible, and incorrigibly wonderful Brian. Why am I not surprised?

Morag Fraser | 08 July 2009  

Great. I've always enjoyed your contributions and have somehow missed them since hard copy days. Enough to bring a twitter (of pelicans?) to the heart. And go the Saints - dead certain!

Denis Quinn | 08 July 2009  

What a fantastic contribution. It sent me off to read a few back pieces. What a giggle I had as I took a break from waging nonviolent protest actions with some Christian and not activitists at Talisman Sabre09(or if American Saber. This exercise is described by the defence force media as 'games', when we all know it is practice for Australian & USA troops engaged in the Afghan/Pakistan war.

Patricia Gates | 09 July 2009  

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