Lights out at the house of power
An angular figure looms out of the subtropical evening, a big moon casting its light on the Brisbane River. "What's going on here?" inquires Bob Carr, Australia's Foreign Minister, blinking at the swirl of people brandishing banners.
"Stop the cruelty to refugees," shouts one sign. "Save Straddie - make sandmining history," pleads another. "Better not bigger," declares the slogan of the Stable Population Party. Someone has drawn a Hitler moustache on a picture of Kevin Rudd, its thought bubble offering "Carbon tax didn't work - I'll try stealing your bank deposits".
No shortage of hints about what is going on, then. Fairfax inquires if Carr will take part in one of the evening's debates. He is nonplussed: "Debate? I'm here to open the Yangon exhibition."
We are at Brisbane's Powerhouse, a concrete edifice on the edge of the city's wide river, an old power station converted into a splendid labyrinth of theatres and exhibition spaces.
A coalition of media groups - Fairfax Media's The Brisbane Times, Channel Nine and Fairfax Radio's 4BC - has organised a rolling series of debates between the main candidates for the federal election.
No fewer than seven "people's forums" are taking place within the theatres, and the Powerhouse has been renamed for the evening The House of Power. A thousand citizens have registered to attend the serial talkfest.
It turns out to be an illuminating evening, with members of the public tossing questions about their own, often local, concerns and candidates being required to answer. It's old-time stump politics in a lovely setting, the sort of thing that used to enliven political campaigns before they became presidential.
It also provides surprising entertainment, not least when One Nation's Jim Savage argues against same-sex marriage by declaring that children deserve the right to sit upon the knee of a father and "rest their heads on the soft boobies of their mummy".
Bob Katter ignores the subject, choosing to declare himself an original Australian and decrying discrimination, particularly headlines about "rivers of grog" among "his people".
Aidan McLindon, formerly a Liberal National, an independent, founder of The Queensland Party later merged with Katter's Australian Party, and now candidate for Family First, offers that the subject has created hatred against heterosexuals. The Greens' Larissa Waters advises the audience not to vote for any of the three and the crowd hoots.
Kevin Rudd was to have been the stellar attraction. He had accepted an invitation weeks ago to debate the Liberal National Party's candidate for his Brisbane-based seat of Griffith, Dr Bill Glasson, a former chief of the Australian Medical Association.
Around 550 of those registered to attend the debates had booked for the Rudd-Glasson face-off alone. At the last minute, only hours before the show was to begin, Rudd's campaign people contacted organisers and told them the Prime Minister had other priorities.
He couldn't make it to his home-town event because he was away in Victoria, electioneering in Corangamite, a seat held by Labor by a thread, the most marginal electorate in Australia. He would appear on Channel 10's The Project at the time he was supposed to be on stage with Bill Glasson.
Rudd sent along Queensland senator Claire Moore, and the expected audience plummeted accordingly.
Unsurprisingly, those who had devoted weeks to arranging the biggest single community election event in Brisbane were unimpressed. The Brisbane Times led its website brisbanetimes.com.au with a picture of the back of the Prime Minister's head, both hands raised in a two-finger salute, above a headline reading "Kevin Rudd snubs local debate with seat rival."
Thus, the appearance of Bob Carr excited some desperate interest. Might the Foreign Minister be standing in for the Prime Minister?
Alas. Not only was he blissfully unaware the House of Power events were taking place, but he was at the Powerhouse for an occasion utterly unconnected with the business of the election.
Something of a sophisticate, a student of history and a man of the world, Carr was there to open an exhibition of photographs of the fading glories of Yangon, the old capital of Burma previously known as Rangoon. Of course. Yangon - A City to Rescue, the exhibition was called. The Rudd government's rescue was a continent away.
Queensland was supposed to save federal Labor. Kevin Rudd, reborn Labor leader and Prime Minister, is a son of the state. Having been cruelly cut down by a southerner, Julia Gillard, his restoration, Labor strategists theorised, was capable of turning around the government's national fortunes because Queensland would return a swag of seats to Labor.
Why, it would be a snack for him to frighten the wits out of Queenslanders by comparing what a Tony Abbott government would do with what Liberal Premier Campbell Newman had already done, which is to say sacking thousands of public servants and cutting services in every direction.
It doesn't appear to be working out. One poll this week even has Rudd facing a spectre of Howardian proportions - the loss of his own seat of Griffith.
He can't take a trick. Having shown a flash of fighting spirit at this week's debate with Abbott at the Bronco's rugby league club in his home town, he awoke to a Facebook flaming by the make-up artist who had prepared his face for the event. She'd never "had anyone treat me so badly whilst trying to do my job".
It took all the wind out of Labor's claim that Tony Abbott had revealed himself as very nearly as angry and aggressive as Mark Latham because he'd blurted "does this guy ever shut up" during his bout with Rudd.
Former Labor premier Peter Beattie, inserted late to contest a marginal Liberal seat, Forde, appears also to have lost his fabled toothy ability to mesmerise voters, and may not make it to Canberra at all. Both Rudd and Beattie, who previously couldn't stand each other, had to swallow a lot of pride to broker their patch-up, and it appears it might all have been for no gain.
With three weeks of campaigning gone and two weeks left, Tony Abbott is skipping away with the election, even though he ought to be burdened with a weight that would crush a political leader in any ordinary contest. While tearing into Labor over a debt and deficit most countries would envy, Abbott still hasn't bothered explaining where he is going to find billions - $70 billion, Labor claims; $30 billion, says economist Saul Eslake - to plug the gap created by foregone taxes and promised spending.
But this is no ordinary election. Kevin Rudd is required to rush from marginal seat to marginal seat, trying to plug gaps opened by years of leadership turmoil and internal hatreds, leaving his own seat exposed.
And the Foreign Minister is trying to rescue a city in Burma.
All politics used to be local. In Brisbane this week, 1000 people still thought so. And then the candidate for Griffith cancelled.
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