“What do you make of this famous old French detective they’ve brought to Australia? Was it to find out how Harold Holt died? What’s the word in Labor circles?”
“I wouldn’t know, Sir Keith. Apparently he’s still in the country, in Sydney – the Frenchman, not Holt – stuck here because of the airport strike. I hope you don’t think I had anything to do with that. The strike, I mean. Not Holt.”
“I don’t blame you for anything, Mr Macken, and I’m not interested in attacking your party without reason. Give me a reason, and that’s another matter. Look, you people may think my late father and I have been too political all these years – and in the wrong way for you – but I’ve been doing my job, that’s all. Make my job hard and I make your job harder: that’s the Ducker way…What’s your drink?”
“Just whatever you’re having, Sir Keith.”
Sir Keith Ducker turned round from the silver drink trolley and his face wore that full-lipped smirk which was as threatening as anybody else’s scowl.
“You’re my guest, Mr Macken. You can have what you have, you know.”
“Well…scotch I guess. As it comes.”
“Right, scotch it is…And I might join you in one.”
He poured two drinks into hefty cut glass which was the old Brilliant preferred by his grandfather, who thought anything Edwardian and after showed the roots of modern flimsiness.
“There you go, Mr. Macken…Or can I call you Pat?”
“Pat. For sure. They all call me Pat.”
“And you can call me…Sir Keith. Like they all do.”
His grin broadened, till the face atop that massive frame was of an amused predator cat. His guest, suitably dominated, gave a suitable chuckle.
Sir Keith lowered himself into a venerable armchair which was bigger than the others in the study. The murky green leather showed wear, as was the intention. It was the wear of four generations of Duckers making money, each more than his predecessor.
“As I was saying, Pat, I’m political because I have to be to survive. But I also feel I’m helping this country to survive. Can you look me in the eye and tell me we’d be in better shape if the likes of Evatt had been running the show since the war? We wouldn’t be in Vietnam. We’d be bloody Vietnam, right? It’s okay, I know you can’t answer.”
“No, I don’t mind saying that Menzies might have got even my vote over Evatt. Don’t know about Gorton…But you have to remember the Party was never really Evatt’s. Anyway, that’s Federal Labor, and I’m a state member. NSW is my concern, and yours too, I think…”
“Before you go on, I just want to make a point of order, Pat. Do you mind?”
“N…no, of course not.”
“You just said there was something I have to remember. I’ve sacked blokes for phrasing like that.”
“What you have to remember is that I never have to do anything. If people could tell me what to do there wouldn’t be much point in being a Ducker, would there?”
The voice had not been raised, it was even slightly softer, but the grin had flattened out. The point was taken.
“Now, you were saying that we’re both interested in the future of NSW?”
“Well, of course. If we win government we’re not interested in turning the clock back. Our union base has to recognise that choking the goose is no way to get any eggs in the long term. And, frankly, I don’t see why every major new enterprise has to go south to the Vics. And now South Australia. What’s wrong with doing the big things in the premier state? Hang out the NSW shingle, that’s what I say.”
“You’re dead right. Why does everyone feel it’s safer to marry the ugly sister?…Premier state. I like the sound of that, Pat. You can put it on number plates if you win government. Of course, you have to win government first.”
“Yes, well…we’ll be doing our best. We have a great new leader in Paul. He’s been a knockabout from Redfern, background like most of us, but he’s also got that appeal to youth, thinking types, the middle ground. No silver spoon like a lot of these law school socialists, but you look at Paul and you don’t see the Old Guard either. You see someone who looks like he’s stepped out of a boardroom and might be heading off to the opera. Other times he looks ready to pull on a jumper for South Sydney.”
“No need to oversell the bloke, Pat. I’ve actually met him at the opera, and, unlike me, he didn’t have the excuse of being dragged there by his missus. Anyway…I like the look of the man, but I won’t be bothering him. If he enjoys a good drop like they say he can always come round and help me polish off a case of ’53 Margaux. Happy to know him, and even talk a bit of business…but I’m more interested in a key minister in any new government he forms.”
Pat Macken shifted in his chair, said nothing.
“A key minister in a new, can-do government…and you can call it Labor, for all I care. Someone who knows the unions and knows how to keep them sweet with developments that are good for for them, and good for the NSW public. Someone who sees the other side. No more red-raggers – but also no more micks with chips on their shoulders. Excuse the reference to Catholics, Pat, but I think you know what I mean. This is the 1960s and it’s time to bury a lot of old baggage. I’m not against anybody’s rosary beads, but I don’t want them shoved down my throat.”
“Couldn’t agree more.”
“Here’s the thing, Pat. My family got into publishing and stayed in publishing because a long time ago we worked out that if millions of people can read they will want to exploit that ability. Go back a century or two and such wasn’t the case. At first the general public couldn’t read; then, when they could, they were told to just read the Bible at night, which they did. Then they realised they could read all kinds of stuff. Language was language, print was print. Then someone invented better lamps, then electric lights, and people realised they could sit up late reading all sorts of stuff – appealing, easy stuff – instead of just having naughties in the dark with the same old body lying next to them. Then someone invented ways to put photos, lots of photos, into periodicals….then colour photos…You following me?”
“I think so.”
“Pat, this is the age of the masses, no thanks to Marx or Doc Bloody Evatt, but thanks to hungry buggers like me making stuff for the masses. There’s another hungry bugger called Ludwig who’s buying up whole forests in Brazil so he can make money selling newsprint to blokes like me who’ll make money selling Rugby League Month and Women’s Journal to any punter with two bob to spare. I mean, one day there may not be any phone booths because people might be getting about with walkie-talkies; but there’ll never come a time when they don’t need paper to print on and read off. So if it takes a forest, we’ll grow forests. There’s the Ducker secret: sell as much as possible to as many as possible, and never price yourself away from the working man…
“So who’s more Labor here? You or me?
“The age of the masses! We’re there. Think about it, Pat. The working man is the main customer because what he lacks in income he more than makes up in numbers. Now sheilas aren’t getting married till their mid-twenties – some even later – and they’ve got a few bob to spare. Seems crazy, but it’s the reality. Thousands of young unmarried women with their own money. Should we pretend they’re not there?
“What do you reckon, Pat? Haven’t we got a lot in common?”
“I’d say…we do, Sir Keith. It’s just that we’ve been coming from different angles, maybe.”
Sir Keith sat back and stared into his drink before taking a slow, satisfied sip, to allow his guest to digest what had been said and worry about what it was leading to. Nice or nasty, Duckers never allow too much comfort.
“Now, Pat, you and I are nodding acquaintances from the track. I’ve also seen you at a certain illegal casino, where we refrained from nodding. I gather you like a bet and some fun?”
“I…yes, I do. I…”
“No explanation needed, Pat. You and I and millions of people in this state of convicts and weekend-seekers want to live a certain way. Just like our forebears. Doesn’t mean we don’t want to work and go places, make an honest quid. We just want to be able to clock off in our own way. Isn’t that about it?”
“I’d say so.”
“Yet we have to wait on-course for a horse-race, or queue up in something like a post office, or maybe buy an Opera House lottery ticket, if we want to gamble and stay legal. The whole legal system is there to make us seem what we’re not: Victorian Pommie serfs. The sports-loving working man of NSW has to creep around like a dog about to be beaten if he wants a flutter. Fortunes are made which never see the light of taxation. Old Perc Mallia has to buy out entire lotteries to wash all his bookmaking money. We hate bloody wowsers – yet we live under these bloody wowser laws we’re not game to touch because we’re frightened to be ourselves.
“It’s not just the flutter, either. Sydney’s an old port city where people have been buying and selling sex forever. But all we offer openly by way of sex in publishing is a sheila in a bikini on page three, or maybe Tania Verstak in a one-piece. In entertainment, there’s one tiny strip where everyone’s supposed to go to get a look – and then only the looking is legal. Why can’t a working man go to a working lady, Pat, to satisfy two needs at once – legally! And why don’t governments get their take from it all? Someone gets to do the taxing, but the public sees none of it. Why not fund a new expressway with the rooting by American servicemen up on the Cross?
“Now, I’m not proposing open slather, but look at all the poofs, in Sydney especially. Most of them just working men who want to get on with their lives, not interested in touching up kids, just other blokes. Why, I’ve even heard things about your new leader. Maybe it’s just because he dresses well…”
Was this a threat? Pat Macken was too quick with a response.
“I can assure you, Sir Keith…”
“Let me assure you, Pat, that I couldn’t give a rat’s what Paul Furst’s preferences are in that regard. I want to propose certain things for the future of this state, that’s all. Do you think you could come along with me, if those proposals were sound and meant more money for the NSW government?”
“Well, I…I’d have to know what proposals…”
The other’s mouth dropped open a little.
“Yes, a casino, Pat. Legal and huge and world standard and world famous. Right here in NSW.”
Pat Macken was silent, his brain was not.
“Er, Sir Keith…it’s visionary, of course. But…”
“I’ll say all the buts for you, okay? The wowsers will hate it, and the underworld will hate it. And maybe young Murdoch will decide he hates it just because I’m a Ducker and he’s just a bloody Murdoch.”
“Sir Keith, when you try to do this sort of thing…even if you handle the local influences, which is not easy…there are people in America who are experts in moving in, then taking over. If you legislate them out of ownership they’ll manage to own every business and supplier connected with the enterprise, control every union…”
“Pat, do you think I’m just hatched? I said the casino would be legal, I didn’t say all my partners and associates would be altar boys. Nobody who really matters will be kept out of the action, and some of them are just aching for a legal front.”
“But the Yanks…”
“Pat, Sir Andrew Adele can come to satisfactory arrangements with overseas interests, and you can help him, I’m sure. I’m talking about something enormous, something that will be able to give suck through a lot of very big tits. Imagine Monte Carlo, and then some. You think Adele would be interested if it wasn’t so? Nobody fries bigger fish than Sir Andrew.”
Silence for a long, thoughtful moment.
“Sir Keith…it’s just that Sydney is so jammed in, and there are so many small establishments operating to meet the needs…the recreational needs of…”
“Who’s talking about bloody Sydney? If planners want to put giant broken eggshells right on the harbour to make a business loss, then call the flaming thing an Opera House, let ’em. We don’t want to hang off the harbour like a sore thumb and shock the wowsers waiting for ferries at the Quay. If people want to go to dives for a flutter on the tables, they can keep doing it, and the dives can go on making money. In fact, my plan is to grow their market, give people a taste. A little bird tells me you’re mates with George Snoweiss. Well, if you are, you can go and tell George his businesses around the Cross and Darlo won’t die but grow under my plan. My supermarket will be a long way from his little boutiques…
“Pat, I’m talking about a superb heritage building on a superb site with endless development room. It’s days off being acquired by the right…transitional syndicate, so to speak. There’ll be massive extensions and remodelling, but under my plan Sans Souci will be preserved forever.”
“Sans Souci! The Blue Mountains!”
“That’s right, Pat. Just a couple of hours or less from Sydney, and a million miles from care. But instead of decaying guest houses you’ll have the greatest casino in the world, where a working man can come with his family because there are safe and wholesome amusements all around. Cec Corkery’s Reptile Park, the Namatjira Gallery, the Museum of Aboriginal Relics…those things are there already. Golf and tennis coming out of your ears, of course. Plans for a world’s biggest putt-putt that’ll be every kid’s dream. Along with all the classic bushwalks and pony rides, the waterfalls, which were the main reason people started going to the Blueys last century…
“But if a billionaire flies in from overseas, there’ll be first class facilities for him, and a high stakes compound the equal of anything in the world…
“I’m not talking about a gaudy strip in the middle of nowhere like Vegas where there’s nothing worth looking at past all the lights, but a slice of Aussie heritage overlooking the Megalong Valley. The breathtaking Megalong Valley. And all it will take is the help of a can-do government which can only benefit from doing what should have been done a long time ago…
“What do you reckon, Patrick Macken, Member for Druitt and Shadow Minister for Works?”
“I…I’d have to think, consult with others.”
“But not too long, I hope.”
“No. In fact…this is making sense. I mean, without your plan Sans Souci will just be a liability for the state and whoever owns it. Nobody can make money with it; nobody can afford to fix it just for use as a guest house again; nobody wants to pull it down just to exploit the liquor licence…I doubt anybody would be allowed to pull down such a huge and famous old building…
“It’d be like shooting Skippy, wouldn’t it, Pat?…Say, it’s a drizzly day and you look about the right size for this spare raincoat.”
Without getting up from his chair, Sir Keith picked up a folded raincoat and tossed it to his guest.
“Oh, I think I’ll be fine just getting to my car.”
“No, please. Do me the favour of trying it on, at least. It was left here by an actual duke, a mate through polo, who died last month. Maybe he should have kept it on…”
“Really, I couldn’t…”
“Stand up and try it on. It’s an Aquascutum, one of their fancier types. Apparently it’s the same model as Cary Grant wore in that movie. Why waste it if it fits? Won’t fit a brontosaurus like me, that’s for sure. Go ahead, just try it on.”
Pat Macken did as he was asked. The coat was, in fact, a perfect fit, and Pat seemed quite smug as he smoothed it down.
“I told you so. A perfect fit.”
“Um, there’s a bundle or package in this pocket, Sir Keith.”
“Is there? Probably an old bag of jelly beans or something. Please don’t dispose of it here. Look at it later. There’s already too much clutter in this smelly den of mine. But you don’t look like the Member for Druitt in that coat. More like Humphrey Bogart, or a young version of that French detective, the one who’s stranded in Sydney by the airport strike…
“A bientôt, Monsieur Macken!”