The Prime Minister woke up. He gazed at the clock on the bedside table to his right. It was 5.25AM. He’d beaten the alarm by a good five minutes, so he gave himself some extra time in bed. He turned his head to the left. His wife was still asleep. Between his pillow and her’s was the furry protruding arm of his old Paddington Bear. It was the same bear he had with him when his family left England to Australia at the age of three.
He’d had to renounce his British citizenship and give up his British Passport when he entered parliament. He resented this. He never felt less Australian for having a British Passport. Indeed, he felt it was what made him a better Australian. Now all he has left as a symbol of his Britishness was his Paddington Bear. He thought about a number of Australian lefties he knew at uni and who were also, and still are, British citizens. They didn’t seem to mind parading the fact that they have a British passport. A sacrilegious thought took shape in his mind: ‘Better a leftie with a British passport than a Prime Minister without’. He immediately banished it. The early morning brain can come up with unspeakable insanities.
It was time to get up and head to the beach for a morning swim on this hot summer day. He put on his swimming gear while his mind shifted from trying to remember what was on his morning schedule to where to and for how long will he swim for. His press secretary, who was accompanying him this morning, and two bodyguards were already waiting. They went out and, despite the early hours, a couple of photographers were around snapping pictures. They drove to the beach.
He liked talking to his press secretary. Having himself been a press secretary in the past, his own press secretary was one of the few people around him he could relate to with that paternalistic sense of “take it from me, I’ve done it all before”. He felt that a Prime Minister needed to exhibit this type of authority and he didn’t have the chance to do it much. He disliked the ambivalence that bureaucrats and other members of the government exhibited when speaking to him. It was always there. It was as if they respected him as Prime Minister and yet they didn’t. Some looked seriously puzzled, almost in a state of disbelief that he was the Prime Minister. They think he doesn’t notice but he does. Signs of lack of appreciation are what he captures best. ‘I am the representative of the unappreciated,’ he often told himself, thinking of all those devalorised and belittled Australians suffering silently while government funding went towards yet another ‘fucking multicultural god-knows-what’. His press secretary, however… He appreciated him; he looked at him with what, he felt, was genuine awe. He deserved that.
As they reached their destination and started walking on the sand towards the water, a number of early swimmers and joggers were already there. They greeted him and he greeted them. He always felt that this as a uniquely national moment. Somehow, though he never asked them, he was always sure that the joggers and swimmers felt the same. It was as if at that particularly moment everything was conspiring to make the whole encounter (and he in particular) represent the essence of what it was to be really Australian: G’day mate, splish-splash, British Passports, bikinis, you’re looking good, watch out for the sharks, wink wink.
But today a sound came as if out of nowhere, ruining the Australianness of it all. ‘Brime Minister… Brime Minister… Your Excellency…’
He looked up, muttering to himself, ‘What the fuck…?’, as if in a desperate attempt to recapture the Australian order of things he felt he just lost. But there was no avoiding the old man’s existence. He looked Pakistani or Afghani or whatever – something Arab anyway. And he had one of those ‘covered from head to toe’ wives with him to boot.
The Prime Minister stared at them for a second. He felt mildly endangered and his gaze moved between his bodyguards and his press secretary not certain whom he should reach out to first. His bodyguards, looking worried, were already approaching but his press secretary was closer and quicker. He muttered something in his ear about photographers and opportunity and he understood. The Prime Minister signaled to his bodyguards not to come any further and approached the man with a beaming smile.
‘G’day mate. How are you? Going fishing I see.’
‘Brime Minister… What a great honour, your Excellency. Can we take a picture?’
‘Sure, mate, sure. You want your wife in the picture?’ Feeling it was one of those moments where he should be respectful of cultural differences, he slowly repeated it: ‘You want your wife in the picture?’
‘Thank you; thank you, Brime Minister!’ said the man brusquely, giving his camera to the press secretary. Other cameras started flashing.
The Prime Minister found the man’s excessive politeness artificial. He reckoned he was a bit too bold and comfortable given where he came from. ‘More unappreciative people,’ he thought. But he forced himself to engage in small chatter as he has been trained to do on such occasions.
‘So, you’re going fishing?’
‘Yes, Brime Minister.’
‘Make sure you don’t drown, mate, alright?’
‘Thank you, Brime Minister. I am not swimming.’
‘Yeah, I know, mate. But you guys have a reputation of drowning everywhere along the coast without ever swimming, so be careful.’
‘Thank you, Brime Minister. Thank you, your Excellency.’
The man’s wife was also saying something, but the photos were taken and he was already moving away from them. ‘Shall we go in now?’ he says to his press secretary. He takes off his t-shirt, drops his shorts and towel and runs into the water.
‘Fucking multiculturalism,’ he thought to himself. He felt disgusted with himself for playing the multicultural game and not showing what he really felt. He felt he had let his people, “the unappreciated”, down. The man’s beaming face filled him with dread and he found himself venomously speaking to it.
‘I am spending millions of dollars to keep your kind out of the country, you poor fuck! Which part of “I despise people like you” do you not understand?’
He needed to wash the whole experience with some good, clear, Australian Pacific ocean water. And sure enough, the waves splashing on his face were slowly restoring the order of things: G’day mate, splish-splash, British passports, bikinis, you’re looking good, watch out for the sharks, wink wink.
By Ghassan Hage
Ghassan Hage is professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne. He works in the comparative anthropology of racism, multiculturalism and nationalism. His publications include White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society and Against Paranoid Nationalism. His most recent work is Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination (Melbourne University Press – forthcoming February 2015).