A fascinating new mini-series that was launched this week depicts one of the great tragedies of our time: the sinking of the “unsinkable” Australian Labor Party. Each new episode explores the calamity from the point of view of a different character.
Scripted by Sir Julia Fellowes (author of long-running popular period drama Downtown Canberra) the series aims to set the record straight for once and for all about the events that led to one of history’s most epoch-defining disasters.
Sir Julia, who controversially took over scriptwriting duties mid-way through the first draft because she was unhappy about the chaotic organization and directionless approach to the project, has now taken full responsibility for how it all pans out. “There will be no happy endings in any production I lead,” she famously (and accurately) maintained.
As the vessel heads inexorably towards the fateful night of the 2013 election, viewers get to repeatedly experience the extraordinary events leading up to those final calamitous moments as the Labor Party is struck by a gigantic, immovable Carbon Tax, and sinks without a trace into the darkness below. In the final horrific minutes, members of the party and fellow travellers attempt to scramble to safety, but are sucked downwards by the sheer force of the anti-Labor vote. Even those clinging to floating preferences or hoping to clutch onto the passing debris of a New England independent or inner-city Green get sucked under. Keen viewers will note that in one of the many flashbacks a canny character known only as Barmy Bob manages to slip overboard and swim to safety in Tasmania. Sadly, his paramour Christine suffers a very different fate.
Ignoring all warnings, the hapless pilot of the doomed ship, Captain Swan, steers the vessel directly into the path of voter anger and treacherous cash floes. On a moonless night, he seems stubbornly insouciant to the dangers posed by the sea of taxes, imposts, and wasteful spending, any of which could punch a hole in the ship at any moment. In one of the many fascinating historic details, viewers learn that the shipbuilders were forced to borrow a hundred million dollars a day just to keep the whole enterprise afloat whilst, incredulously, squandering billions more on an archaic Wireless Message Network, which fails to save them.
Although the script is fast-paced, involving everything from a huge surge of illegal immigrants found hiding below decks to a luxurious ballroom where prostitutes frolic with credit card fraudsters, the dialogue is particularly cheesy, with unconvincing lines such as “we’re all moving forward” and “he has my full confidence” sounding insubstantial and trite.
For a costume drama, it leaves much to be desired. Grey suits with blue or red ties are the norm, although one bizarre character inexplicably wanders the decks dressed in a long black robe and silk tie yelling at everybody to leave the chamber. Visual relief comes from the exotic array of suit jackets and skirts worn by the enigmatic character known only as “Juliar,” a tragic cameo role played by the scriptwriter herself.
The mini-series’ great strength - and weakness – is that its plot is pre-determined. Indeed we know within the first few minutes of the “Budget back in Surplus” episode that most of the diesel rebates and other crucial business lifeboats have been jettisoned, leaving small and big companies floundering in a sea of red and green tape. Meanwhile, vast sums of money have been wasted on extravagant projects such as wind turbines on the upper decks to try and keep the sinking vessel afloat, all to no avail.
The series’ overriding theme is an intricate study of the class prejudices glaringly prevalent at the time. The wealthy mining moguls who sip champagne on the western deck spend most of their time buying newspapers and even radio stations. Loud and boorish, they concoct all sorts of fanciful plots about CIA involvement in sabotaging coal supplies. Meanwhile, the working classes struggle to earn a crust below decks, their suffering only relieved by generous “compensation” packages that in the end still don’t save them from drowning under the sheer weight of their energy bills. The insidious class conflict, a device contrived by the script doctors for purely narrative purposes, is overworked and soon wears thin. Nonetheless, crew members Wong, Shorten, Carr and Combet continually resort to class-ridden clichés, attempting to portray themselves as heroes of the embattled workers whilst blaming everything that goes wrong on the one vaguely credible character who toils away in the boiler-room wearing nothing but a hard hat and a pair of speedos.
Critics have compared the series with film-maker Doug Cameron’s 2007 blockbuster epic – unsuccessfully re-released earlier this year – in which Captain Rudd heroically steers the vessel to safety and is greeted at the docks by cheering throngs of Gold Coast school kiddies.