Chapter 27 – Australia, Mid-July 2019, the next day
Treasury swings into action
The Cabinet met in emergency session throughout the day. Since the bureaucrats had not yet written the relevant papers, they were entirely in the dark. It was hard to get the Cabinet to consider the case on its merits although the Prime Minister insisted that his officials be allowed a chance to present the figures. Freddie Whiz-bang and his team did an unusually good job, and for a while some members of Cabinet wavered. "What about just offering a package deal for the Gold Coast?" someone asked. "Or northern Taswegia?" someone else contributed helpfully.
But Treasury Secretary Williams worked hard to sink the plan. His approach was simply to ask questions. "Who is the potential buyer?" he asked. "How much is being offered? What are the terms? Are we to offer vacant possession? How do you plan to compensate private landowners? Will you allow migration south for those who don't want to become Japanese? Will you allow migration north for the workaholics?" The questioning was relentless and the answers sparse. Cabinet broke up at 2am and the next morning's newspapers repeated all of Secretary Williams's questions and many more.
The debate raged both in and out of the cabinet room in subsequent days. With things in danger of getting out of control, and Treasurer Valentino making a long delayed run for his job, the PM had begun to get twitchy. Ever since McDuff's headline had galvanized the nation into an unprecedented level of cerebral activity, the PM had been desperately trying to extract some information about the alleged buyer. T. Bone had been recalled to the Lodge, served tea and cheese scones and given a bottle of $2 coins so that he could track down Harry Bullock. Harry's secretary was loath to reveal his whereabouts, particularly to an over-excited colonial.
But T. Bone was persistent. He called all his old girlfriends in London until he found one who was a friend of Jane McPhee. Having known T. Bone for some time, the lady in question quickly discerned that he was desperate. She extracted a round-trip ticket to Oz with side trips to Ayer's Rock, the Barrier Reef, and the Apple Isle. In return she revealed that Harry and Jane were at the Suva Oberoi.
But T. Bone once again was thwarted. "Big Harry's had a bad heart attack in Fiji," he told the worried PM. "He nearly carked it. He's expected to live but his wife and his mistress are standing guard. They won't let me talk to him."
"Isn't there anyone else who knows what's going on?" the PM asked desperately.
"I'm afraid not," T. Bone replied. "Or at least if anyone does he's not about to spill the beans. I've worked pretty hard on John Watson. He's an Aussie and I've known him for a long while. But he's not talking. I suspect he's in line for Harry's job and he doesn't want to do anything to wreck his chances."
"Can't we offer him something?" the PM asked. "Maybe he'd like to be Governor of South Australia, or the bloody Reverse Bank."
"I'm afraid not PM," T. Bone replied. "U.C.'s bigger than South Australia and the Reverse Bank combined."
"Well I think we've got day or two yet," the PM reflected. "Keep working on it. We can pull this one off yet if we find the right buyer."
While the debate in the cabinet room raged, members of the PM's private office monitored the talkback shows on radio and television. There was a surprising amount of support for the idea. "All they've got in Queensland is unprofitable aluminium smelters and subsidized sugar farms," a representative of the Australian Manufacturers' Lobby argued. The Australian Workers' Council supported the proposal as a way of allowing tax relief for their members. With almost no Queensland members, it was an easy decision for the AWC to reach. The National Farmers' Corporation was also in favor of the plan since it saw a net benefit for the graziers and wheat growers of the south.
Among the major lobby groups, only the Festival of Light and the Country Women's Association were opposed to the plan. The Festival of Light's Reverend Murray Bile argued that Queenslanders were the only God-fearing Australians left. “If we lose their prayers, we're done for," he warned the audience of John Lawson’s late night "Teletalk".
The Country Women were mobilized by Premier Flo, granddaughter of Premier Jo and Mrs Bjelke-Peterson. Premier Flo's famous family recipe for pumpkin scones had assured her of a warm place in every rural female heart, and now was the time to call in the credits.
The CWA's spokesman was the aging economic guru, Jackson Stonewall. “It would be almost as bad to hand Queensland to the perfidious Japanese as to give it over to the tender mercies of the blood-crazed megalomaniac Colonel Quaddaffi" his weekly column in the Ballarat Times asserted.
“It must, of course, be granted”, Jackson’s column continued, “that Japanese management would be very likely to produce an astounding rise in Queensland's productive capacity, and that would be an inspiration, and a warning, to all right-thinking Australians. But, just speaking as a member of the Australian taxpaying part of the human race, it doesn't seem to me that any members of the human race other than Australians have any moral claim to a single inch of Australia's precious soil, soil which has been fought and died for in successive world wars, not to mention successive local wars in Malaya, Vietnam, Thailand, and Norfolk Island."
Ordinary Australians were much less enthusiastic about the plan than most of the major power brokers. Many had aging relative in Queensland, and an even greater number had spent a holiday there. "After all, it's part of Australia," the average drinker would assert. "We can't just flog it to the Japs."
As the days went by it became clear that most Australians were simply confused about the T. Bone plan, as it had quickly become known. However, as had been discovered by the U.C. team in other South Pacific paradises, the only real issue for the populace at large was their standard of living. Assured that the proposed sell-off would lead to greater consumption for all, the tide of public opinion began to move in favor of the proposal.
Professor T. Bone emerged from the archives. "I've been in favor of this for years," he explained to a breathless Geraldine on the five o'clock news. “Way back in '85 I ran a graduate seminar on the subject at Sydney University. But I could see by the reception I got from the gradstudes that Australia just wasn't ready. My academic colleagues weren't ready either. And the bureaucrats weren't ready. The gnomes in the Treasury still aren't ready but they have finally been rolled."
By the end of the fourth day, the opposition leader had reluctantly conceded there was a good deal of merit in the proposal and that she personally would support it. Then Treasury asked its most devastating question. "Has anyone asked the Japanese what they think?" Mr. Williams put to the members of an exhausted cabinet.
When it became clear that the answer was no, a hurried telephone call was made to the ambassador in Tokyo. Moments later he was requesting an urgent audience with the Japanese foreign minister.
"I am very much afraid Prime Minister," the ambassador reported some hours later, "that the Japanese are not interested. They were very polite and quite indirect, but I think what they were really saying was that they already own enough of Queensland."
At 8.35 that night a sober Prime Minister spoke to the nation. His address was carried on all ten free-to-air channels. Even the cable station in all public bars cancelled its sporting coverage for fifteen minutes. Such was the sense of national crisis.
"Men and women of Australia," the PM intoned. "We are facing the biggest economic crisis of the decade. Once again we have been outwitted by the wily Japanese. The reports which have been circulating about an alleged plan to sell Queensland are completely false. They have been designed to prey upon your legitimate fears about the economic future of our nation”.
A clearly emotional PM wiped a tear from his eye. Many watchers did the same. Australia had defeated the Japanese on the Kokoda Track, but were now being outwitted in the marts of commerce.
The PM continued: “ I am convinced that the whole debate was designed to scare us into agreeing to a lower price for coal and iron ore. But let me assure you that neither I, nor my government, would ever consider selling one square meter of Australia's golden soil. There is no doubt that we are facing serious economic difficulties, but we shall face them together - Queenslanders and Taswegians, Victorians and Westralians, New South Welshmen and Capricornians, South Australians and Norfolk Islanders."
The failure to mention the good citizens of the Australian Capital Territory, or the women of New South Wales, was to cost the government a large number of votes at the next election. But the die was cast. Professor T. Bone left immediately for an extended period of sabbatical leave, having once again cost the government several points in the opinion polls.
The big winner was Jackson Stonewall, whose weekly column was again taken up by the major metropolitan dailies. And Treasury filed another notch in the Henry Moore which graced the courtyard of its grim but functional headquarters.
Chapter 28 is linked here.
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