Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My Colin Barnett Story

He's the man of the hour right now, today, what with all this nascent Queen-welcoming, CHOGM - hosting, Amity-beach-mayor-impersonating (kill the shark!!), high-handed treatment of Indigenous landowner etc etc behaviour of his making news lately.

I'm going to let myself off a leash just a little here in this paragraph too, I hope you don't mind, and you know how distasteful I find name-calling but once I had this thought I couldn't un-have it and it feels dishonest not to disclose it up front.......doesn't Colin look just a teeny bit like bufo marinus to you?  (You know, a cane toad?)

Anyway, here's my Colin Barnett story, set back in the late 1980s so adjust your set design accordingly.

INTERIOR: Greenpeace Perth offices, half a flight of rickety stairs down from Joynt Venture (yes the notorious bong shop) on Hay St.  I'm sitting with our uber-dude, salty old sea dog Roy.

Let me describe Roy to you.  Everybody knows Roy.  He's that tall, large-framed guy with a long beard, woolen beanie perpetually affixed in all weathers, with a mainly calm and reassuring presence, but with an oddly soft and high speaking voice.  A man whose never-seen anger you would fear if you thought about it, but whose outbursts generally took the form of a slightly bumble-footed mania, a squall of incensedness that would blow over as suddenly as it had arrived.  A man who had what seemed like only one set of clothes, to go with his one life companion, a gorgeous and highly evolved Malamute called Ben.  Roy is my boss, as head of Greenpeace Perth, and was one of the Original Greenpeace folk.

Roy is sitting behind his desk, leaning back so as not to appear overly fatherly in his advice to young idealot me, as he explains one more time that I don't have to do this at all if I'm not ready, it's no bad reflection on me if I want to watch him do another one or two first.  He's talking about doing a school talk as a representative of Greenpeace.  As well as canvassing for donations and magazine subscriptions (how I earned a measly living at the time) and the odd local protest action (when the US brought her nuclear fleet into port for example) we did such community outreach to schools and other groups.  A standard-ish spiel with some suitably graphic and emotive video to play, outlining Greenpeace's ethos, activities and questions for society to address.  Saving the whales was still very much the hot-button emotive issue, as well as the anti-nuke fleet thing locally (Sydney and other cities had become nuclear-free zones after all) and we still rode a wave of cachet on the back of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior 5 years earlier.  Did you know the French called it Operation Satanique?

No, Roy, really, I think I've got it.  And I know you'll be there to back me up if anything I can't handle happens, and yes I'm nervous but also really excited to be doing it.  I mean (I thought to myself) how cool is this to be the public face of Greenpeace ffs at the age of only what, 20, hanging out as equals with legends like Roy and all that.....at Guildford Grammar!!  I'd been in Perth long enough to know that this is THE boys' school.  Populated by wealthy pastoralist's and rural magnates' sons boarding there during term and a good smattering of old money from the big smoke as day kids as well.  Conservative but not overtly so, very high educational standards a greater priority than that, and it was to be my first flight at the controls.  Roy would simply wait off in the wings and only swoop in in the event of an imminent major crash.  That was the plan.  And yes, it's time to get in The Van for the 45 minute drive out to the Grammar.  Let's go.

INTERIOR: Greenpeace van, in post-peak hour traffic.
No really, Roy, I'm fine.  Thanks.  I've had enough coffee.

EXTERIOR PAN: The manicured trees and expansive lawns that surround the functional but graceful early and mid-twentieth century architecture of the school.  Glimpsed in the distance in the manner of a spectral, watchful presence from the glorious past, an original building from the century before.  Just reminding us of the relative gravity of the surrounds.

INTERIOR: Backstage anteroom of a lecture hall.  The subdued rabble of a well-enough disciplined bunch of 16 and 17 year old boys filing in next door can be heard, the occasional wry admonishment from a teacher chivvying the stragglers and outliers.  Present in the anteroom are myself, Roy, and the Economics Master (if memory serves - forgive me on the little details after all this time) who organised our visit.  the Master is warm and brisk, but seems oddly distracted and not quite engaged with our discussion as to the order of proceedings.

In through the door behind us comes two men.  One is clearly faculty, ushering the second man in - a roundish fellow, with (in my memory's eye) just a touch of bufo marinus about him, who has an air of not-quite-sureness about him surveying the room and our little trio, despite being led directly here.  He sees before him a smiling neutral-coloured bespectacled teacher type, a swarthily bearded gent in practical clothing and beanie looming there like an oversized refrigerator momentarily shifted from its habitual place for cleaning and a stringy beanpole-type young man sporting jeans, boots, a black t-shirt emblazoned in great rainbow block letters with the word Greenpeace beneath his jaunty summerweight homburg-lidded face.

Ah, Mr Barnett, welcome - this is Eric and Roy from Greenpeace WA; you'll be sharing the stage with Eric today, I understand....

FREEZE FRAME: blackout but for spot downlight on the trio of Roy, Colin, myself.  Colin and I with hands extended towards each other - eyes locked but heads ever-so-subtly troping towards the Econ Master as if enlightenment, or at least confirmation of the sudden mutually held sinking feeling of having been expertly set up lay in that direction.  A series of dramatic camera POV swings on this freeze - over each person's shoulder, showing the faces of the opposite numbers.  Colin is still off-balance but quickly regaining his sense of composure, Roy is halfway between resignation at a typical upper-class trick and suddenly panicking that already the Econ Dude has conversationally confirmed me as speaker - no switching available now! - and I'm doing my best to hide bafflement at the new twist by leveraging the psychological advantages of height and pretending like I knew this would happen anyway.


Mr Barnett is head of the chamber of Commerce in Perth and we all thought it would be more interesting to have you both here at the same time to contrast the issues of economic development and environmental awareness you see, I hope you don't mind (smirk); so we thought if we could get you each to do 10 or 15 minutes opening remarks and speeches and then the boys have prepared some questions during our studies this last week......as Colin and I lock hands, sharing a moment of genuine and deep cameraderie; a minor reflection of that ancient gladiatorial moment as strangers suddenly are made foes for another's cruel enjoyment.

I now don't remember much in the way of detail.  It comes iin flashes - an auditorium of the oldest, most mature and well-dressed looking schoolboys I'd ever seen, about 150 of the buggers it seemed, all intently focussed.  A pair of lecterns on a stage.  Roy going to say what we both knew he was going to say to me but him stopping himself one last time and instead just sucking it up, doing his best confident smile and squeezing my shoulder.  The video - I did play the 7 minute mainly anti-whaling video, and saw that hardened as most of these boys wanted to be, there was some effect that got through.  Mainly what I remember though, was that I knew my shit.  I was of course a True Believer; having lived the environmentalist life a couple of years already and being a fervent learner and natural spruiker, coupled with an already battle-hardened canvasser's experience stood me in good stead.  I mean, I spent 4 or 5 hours every evening dealing with all the objections the public can come up with to Greenpeace's mission and an environmental consciousness above profit motive, unlike poor Colin who would be used to preaching only to a fan base.  I leaned heavily on the simple premise of no environment = no economy, and to put it most simply, I fairly frigging wiped the floor with him.  Aided and abetted, in fact, by the way that most of the questions from the boys (many at the urging of their pastoralist fathers, I'm sure) were squarely-aimed 'gotcha' questions designed to shoot holes through my agenda, but I was FREAKING WELL ON FIRE just getting off on the glory and revelment of having such a rapt audience and my quarry on the ropes for the whole 3 rounds.

I did not glance across at Roy once, the whole time.  I would have lost the mojo, been distracted and started second-guessing myself with "what would Roy say?" and all that.

There was morning tea afterwards with some faculty members, and a slightly surprised, but impressed Econ Master.  Colin did not grace us with his presence and Roy dragged me away very quickly before my ego could undo any of the good work.  Smart man.

INTERIOR:  Greenpeace van, smoking a cigarette whilst driving in light traffic, sun coursing down on a gorgeous Perth day.  Neither of us is speaking.  I am beaming quietly, so much that my face hurts slightly, but I am also getting that adrenalin comedown, and starting to want more coffee, anything, to keep the buzz up and stop the little tremors of anticlimax.

Well, I'm happy for you to do the talks on your own now.  They won't get any harder than that one, I think.  That was pretty much all he said.  I've no idea what he said to others back in the office but in my presence all he said was "it went well" and forswore gainsaying any of my wild-eyed commentary about it.

I have a feeling I didn't make much money canvassing that night.  If memory is serving and if history is a guide, then the pub was probably a pretty lively place for me after work that night too.

And for years afterwards, as his career put him more and more in the media spotlight, the first thing I'd remember when he popped up on the news was another freeze-frame moment.  My POV, looking across the stage at him after I'd just laid out a masterfully succinct precis of how if we can't eat then we can't have an economy, opening the floor with my glance to his right of reply, and seeing that "fuck you" look fleetingly pass like a rushing cloud across his amphibian jowls as he formulated some weak riposte about the necessity of business to *pay* for environmental actions and remediations etc etc.......unkind of me, wasn't it?

Now when I see him I have a pleasingly neutral sensation.  I seem to have worked it out of my system, to the extent that only the rantings and ravings of a friend taking up bitter (and entirely laudable, understandable) opposition to Mr Barnett's idiotic stance on this 'rogue shark' bullshit non-issue has prompted me to remember this episode afresh, the first time in ages.

And that's my Colin Barnett story.

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