The mad publican of the Liberal Hotel
19 October 2010
I was reading about Tony Abbott’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure when half a dozen boofy blokes and a wiry looking girl from the road gang working down Sydney Street walked into the café.
They ordered stuff like focaccias, lattes and long blacks and Joadja’s celebrated mixed berry frappes. They were the sort of customer who would once have gone to the Sydney Hotel on the other side of Sydney Street for a counter lunch and a couple of beers but nowadays they come to a stylish café that sells second-hand books.
When the old factory just down the road was still open and making widgets, the pub could rely on a steady stream of blue-collar workers coming in for lunch or winding down after work. But the factory closed and 10 years later they built a big mob of apartments there and anyway, the workers got more sophisticated. They started to drink chardonnay and cab sav and good coffee and eat focaccia for lunch. And they didn’t drink like blokes did in the old days.
I used to enjoy the pub myself, but then it started to spiral downhill.
When I first moved into Werrong Lane, it was an unassuming sort of place with a pleasantly mixed patronage. They did a decent counter lunch and there were some quiet private corners in the lounge where you could meet a contact for a drink and a chat. But then they put in the poker machines … and then more poker machines. I couldn’t stand the jangling noise and flashing lights, or the horror of seeing poor suckers pouring their wages into the things, so I stopped going and not long after, Joadja set up the Brushtail Café. It was quieter and there was a bit of intellectual stimulation and soon, most of the crowd I’d mixed with at the pub, turned up at the café.
It was a year or so before I ventured back to the pub. There were even more pokies and they’d added a couple of huge TVs that bombarded the bar with rugby league games and car races. The clientele had changed too. The tradies were still hanging in but there were many wasted looking blokes wearing Jack Daniels tee shirts, many goatees, many tats, and a seedy feeling of aggro. Apart from the odd bikie’s moll, women weren’t much in evidence.
A couple of years later I heard that the place had changed hand so I checked it out. They’d spent a few thousand on a cheap glitzy fitout. There were even more pokies and a third TV screen and the only women were topless and serving the drinks.
The tits did the trick for a while, but the demographics got even narrower. The tradies stopped going (most of them were married with kids so it didn’t feel right) and the numbers were made up by a bunch of creepy losers who couldn’t pull a woman on their own account on a Monday night in Manilla – even if they’d just won lotto.
But really, the pub had lost the plot and inevitably, the numbers started going south. The place is hanging on but you can sense that it’s about to change hands again, or maybe close altogether.
I went back to reading about Tony Abbott and suddenly the fate of the pub struck me as a metaphor for the Liberal Party under Abbott’s leadership – and, for that matter, Howard’s.
You can get away with dumbing down to appeal to people’s deepest fears, silliest obsessions and worst instincts. For a while, the numbers look comforting and you think you’ve got the answer, but it usually wears off. And if it doesn’t – if it succeeds – you’re playing a very dangerous card indeed.
That’s why overthrowing Malcolm Turnbull and putting Crazy-Mad Abbott in charge of the Liberal Hotel was a retrograde step. Even Jolly Joe Hockey would have been a better publican. Why did they do it? Well, to hang onto the Alan Jones – Ray Hadley audience, the salute-the-flag-or-fuck-off-the-lottaya crowd. Nutty patriot, anti-scientific populist, religious obscurantist – with Abbott they got the full disaster.
And the Libs who voted to put Abbott in the job didn’t notice – or maybe, horrifyingly, didn’t care – that the man is, well, strange. They should have noticed that there’s something rather unsettling about his excessive exercise routine, his obsessively driven hyper-competitiveness. Is he trying to distract himself from something, central to his being, that he just can’t face? If his colleagues had been kind and responsible, they’d have had a quiet chat to him and urged him to enroll in a program with trained specialists who know how to bring relief to sufferers of his type of condition.