Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2019

Zebra, and Other Stories, by Debra Adelaide

There are 13 short stories in this collection I skipped straight to the last story in this collection, because I’d rather read a novella than a short story any day…

‘Zebra’ is an odd confection.  It’s a whimsical tale of a female prime minister well into her middle years and with a name as ordinary as the dust on her shoes.  She has been in power for several years, long enough to take as much pride in the garden at The Lodge as in her other achievements (which are a wishlist of reforms that have not happened in real Australian life).

Accused of not having a ‘real’ job by her irascible neighbour Kerr, this PM (oddly non-combative for a politician) muses to herself:

He could not boast about making company tax more equitable, about simplifying the paperwork for small business, about establishing a non-profit national telecommunications provider.  He had not implemented the quiet triumph of her entire term: people answering the phones again in government departments. He hadn’t found a way to keep manufacturers onshore and small schools open in small towns.  Nor had he ever got all six state premiers together without a single fight.  (p.234)

However, as the story opens the PM has a report to read in preparation for an overhaul of the national health budget.  It rejoices in the title Key Strategic Objectives: Minimising Negative Patient Outcomes, but it fails to keep her attention and sitting so long to read it (literally) gives her a pain in the proverbial:

The document she was reviewing, being a commissioned public service report, was woefully unclear.  Actual patients did not rate a mention.  Their specific health needs were smothered under bureaucratic jargon.  Thick clods of managerese fell upon the subject as if it were already dead, shrouded, and six feet in the ground.  She did not feel like a Health Service Stakeholder, and the report so far made her feel unenthusiastic about taking her right buttock, or any part of her anatomy, to medical facilities as they currently stood.  (p.204)

Her garden is the one project that really matters to her:

She knew that in the years to come, retirement years, the post-leadership twilight world of sitting on boards and running consultancies and working for international charities — the quiet morning-tea existence, as opposed to the nonstop sushi train that was life now — she could easily have regrets.  She would look back on this time in her life and never wish she had been to more briefings, overseen more committees, shaken hands with more delegations, attended more conferences, held more cabinet meetings.  Especially not cabinet meetings.  But she would regret it if she hadn’t made the most of the garden.  (p.205)

The truth is, she’s not interested in the slog of governing and she would rather delegate the stuff that bores her to her ministers.  What she wants is to generate ideas and indulge her well-hidden life of the mind, but she gets sucked into trivia which the media presents as evidence of fitness to govern:

All the accusations people levelled at elites being out of touch reached a crescendo when it came to parliamentarians.  But she was probably the first prime minister of the country who knew the price of a litre of milk.  At both the supermarket and the corner store.  Previous prime ministers had been crucified for less than that.
(p. 233)

If you’ve been around for a while and paying attention to politics in this country, these allusions will evoke a wry smile. You will remember those wishlist policies being sprouted by Howard and Rudd; you’ll have a vague recollection of Bob Hawke and John Howard on post-retirement boards; of Paul Keating’s Asian consultancy; and of the work Malcolm Fraser did for UNICEF.  The oft-denied plan to destroy Medicare and the weasel words used to conceal it will ring a bell; and you will remember the end of John Hewson’s political ambitions because he was ‘out of touch’ on the price of everyday groceries.  But while most people will recognise one of the ‘trouble-makers’ in the Senate, who remembers Brian Harradine these days?  The PM’s executive assistant with ambitions to be a policy adviser derides Harradine’s large Catholic family, and recommends dealing with the Tasmanian crisis by letting our smallest state secede because their excess of independents has made the state ungovernable:

‘Let them go, I say.  Place is only good for cheese and apple juice anyway.’
‘Is that your most professional advice?’
‘It’s caused trouble for years.  Ever since that Green fellow went into the senate.’
‘You mean Brown.’
‘Same thing.  Then before him there was that lunatic, the one with a hundred children.’
‘Harradine?’
‘Yes.  Just one extremist dictating to the rest of the country.  It shouldn’t be allowed.  But if we cut them off, it won’t.
‘Make the state secede?’
‘Why not? What do we get out of the place?  Really?’ (p.210-211)

(Women with long memories will remember that Brian Harradine’s ultra-conservative beliefs had such disproportionate power in the Howard government that they prevented access to pharmaceuticals for women’s reproductive choices across the country.  See the last sentence here.)

Anyway, for reasons I’ll leave for readers to discover, the PM ends up building a maze in the gardens of The Lodge for a zebra which was sent to her by Texan whose private zoo has gone bust.  It is a daft story, a fantasy about political power and how it is wasted in this country.  It is also about the loneliness of power and her bell curve of expectation and disappointment, an index of overworn emotions and fatigued hope. 

There are other reviews (of the whole collection) at The Saturday Paper (paywalled, but you can read one free article each week), and The AU Review.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title: Zebra and Other Stories
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 327 pages
ISBN: 9781760781699
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan, RRP $29.99

 

 


Responses

  1. It would be nice to have a prime minister who got things done, a parliamentary system which was not so determinedly adversarial, a national concensus about desirable outcomes. In other words the complete defeat of neoliberalism. It’ll take a while, I just hope it doesn’t take a war.

    Like

    • Amen to that.
      When are you due in Melbourne? I am going to lend you Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings which I think you will find fascinating about the processes impacting on our politics. I am almost finished it now…

      Like

      • Maybe in Melb next week but while I work for Dragan am never sure until the last moment (and even then I could get turned around half way). More tomorrow.

        Liked by 1 person


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