T H E C O N S T R U C T I O N O F T H E
C O M M O N W E A L T H O F A U S T R A L A S I A
Princes Park, Victoria - 1955
Bob Menzies listened on as George Harris and Howard Houston prattled on about this and that. Usually he’d be well entwined with their conversation, however on this occasion his thoughts were otherwise occupied, rendering him as little more than a mere token presence – as undoubtedly his good man Harold would be losing his positive temperament being left to the harsh elements on such a day, abandoned at a losing football match he’d been dragged out to. Menzies swirled his Southerly Buster in his left hand and tried to pick up the conversation once more, dropping ash off his cigar with a quick tap of his right hand’s ring finger. It would do him no good being ostracized by these men. George Harris was a driven, willful man, it saw him out of Changi during the war, and Bob had little doubt he’d one day be the Club President of this fine football club.
“So did you hear about Ongarello, Bob?” Harris asked, forcing the Prime Minister to break his current silence.
“Fitzroy’s wog full forward fellow? More shanks than Australian Lamb. Sure, we saw them off just the other week, a fortnight ago, right?” Referring to their last home victory, and their player's general reputation for inaccuracy.
Howard had a knowing chuckle seeing where this conversation was going. “Yes, I heard about a few of his goals from last week.”
Harris continued, “Yes. Scored two goals off of placekicks against Geelong down at Brunswick last week.”
“Placekicks?” Menzies queried.
The other pair nodded and chuckled knowingly, waiting to see the response of the elder statesman’s bluster. “Placekicks. Imagine expecting the whole world to wait on you.”
The other pair laughed, as Bob raised his bushy eyebrows, and lowered his glass after draining its contents. He was about to leave when Harris hooked his elbow and asked him with a hushed whisper. “And as for the other thing..?”
Bob drew back and straightened his suit, a smile broadly crossing his face. “Suffice to say, I believe we shall have some ‘Gold’ standard views coming up in our near future.”
This pleased the other men greatly, who shared a knowing nod. "Splendid!"
“In fact if we play our cards right I wouldn't be surprised if we may even be sitting in our own named sections on the outer in a few years. But what could a humble Prime Minister say, to a future President..?”
The men laughed and finished their drinks, watching the politician leave to return to his seat for the second half.
Howard turned to George and got straight to the point, now that Menzies was out of earshot.
“Do you think he’ll do it? Really? Bring the Olympic Games here to Princes Park?”
“I know there’s few things, if any, that man cares more about than our Carlton Football club. As for whether he could actually do it? Who knows? But he’s put his name to it. Carlton will have his guts for garters if he doesn’t pull through. Sounds pretty good though, doesn’t it? 'The George Harris Stand'...”
Bob ambled back to his seat. Carlton down two goals at the half to the auld enemy Collingwood Magpies, courtesy of some free kicks the Princes Park faithful had deemed to be highly dubious. The weather still wet and blustery, the middle of the park churned into it’s trademark gluestick from the state of the first half’s play.
He saw his compatriot Harold Holt still sitting next to his empty seat up in the grandstand, looking about as miserable as the weather. Menzies was in no rush to meet him, he carefully carried back a drink for the other man. He’d abandoned him in this monsoon, to go and check in on his own quagmire with the ‘Members’. Still, the look on his chosen number two’s face wouldn’t do at all. Might give others the wrong idea.
“Scrub the dour look, Harold. You’re amongst your constituents here.” Bob announced, sliding between legs to return to his seat whilst carefully holding out the drink as if it contained the elixir of life.
Harold Holt looked up with a start, at the return of the Prime Minister before looking around himself at his immediate surroundings. He’d recently transferred to the safe new Liberal seat of Higgins from Fawkner, which put him a few suburbs over from Princes Park. This put a furrow across the younger man’s brow.
“My constituents, Bob? A little off there with your geography, aren’t you?” He reached out, taking the drink.
“Higgins, my lad. Henry Bourne Higgins himself, that your seat was named after, was this club’s very President back in nineteen-oh-four.”
"Well, given the circumstances I hope I can count on his vote. Since I'm more likely to get sick sitting around in this bloody torrential downpour, than if I went 'round the traps kissing every baby with cholera."
Menzies laughed and let the younger man have his gripe. Harold looked at the elder statesman and tried to discern if his warmth of his laugh was genuine, or if it were at his expense for having the sway to drag him out here in the first place. Harold decided it wasn't worth the time or effort to think about, and diverted the conversation to what was really bothering him.
"So are we going to get down to brass tacks as to why you brought me out to this deluge, or do I have to be completely saturated to the bone first?"
"Why Harold, I thought you loved a good swim." Menzies replied with a wry grin. "But if you're that bothered by it, I brought you down here to discuss your taking point on a major upcoming development project." He stuffed a fresh cigar in his mouth.
Harold now had an idea where this was going, and raised his eyebrows in surprise. Robert Menzies had this habit of revealing just enough to his ministers that they could figure out where he was going before he actually said it. He found it empowered them and made them feel steps ahead, and up on things. A position Menzies liked, particularly with this young up-and-comer Holt.
Menzies pulled his cigar out between fingers. "The Snowy River Hydroelectric Scheme." He clipped his cigar and lit it, watching the game whilst waiting for the younger man's response.
"The Snowy? But I thought you railed against that when Chifley was pushing for it?"
Menzies rolled his eyes at the the younger minister being so slow on the uptake. "If the Labor Party only ever had stupid ideas it wouldn't be an achievement to get elected, now would it Harold?"
Holt's response had been a sullen jab brought on more from the discomfort than any real news, though, and both men knew it. In reality much of the work had been taking place for some years now, it was a popular policy point electing many and bringing a boosted sense of public confidence for the major engineering feat, even beyond the improvements to electricity and irrigation infrastructure and the widescale employment boons. A poke in the eye before the thankful acceptance and consideration.
"Well of course I'll take it on, although I am curious why this would fall to me. It wouldn't have anything to do with my family's South Australian ties to smooth over their concerns for how it'll affect their water flow downstream, now, would it?"
Menzies and the crowd jumped to their feet with a chorus of "BALL!" as one of the Collingwood Magpies players was tackled from behind and dragged into the growing mudpatch out in the middle.
Harold wondered if the Prime Minister had heard him, but soon found his answer as the older man replied. "Please Harold, these shots really are tiresome. I thought I was speaking to my Minister, not the media. Are you, or are you not, presently the Minister for Labour and National Service and the Minister for Immigration?"
"That's why you got the tap, old son. That coathanger they built up in Sydney Harbour has nothing on this in terms of feats of engineering prowess. You're perfectly placed for it. Whoever I put on it from cabinet would have had to work with you both because of your Labour and Immigration portfolios, we're going to have to bring in some top flight engineers. We've already worked with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to organize training, tech assistance and, in all honesty, we'll probably get the odd engineer from there over here on it. We've pulled this guy William Hudson over from across the Tasman to head the scheme. A lot of the real groundwork has already been done, and frankly, it's solid. I'm handballing you a sweetheart assignment that's primed to make you look good whilst you're still holding those portfolios. The correct response is 'Thank you, Bob. I won't let you down, mate.'"
Menzies took a deep draw on his cigar and went back to his intense focus on the game taking place before them. The margin rapidly expanding against Carlton's favour as poor goalkicking kept costing the Blues, whilst the Magpies remained accurate with their opportunities. Harold thought about what the older man was saying, Menzies had, after all, been a leading figure since both men's days in the Young Nationalists.
"Fair enough. You're right. Thank you, Bob. I won't let you down, mate." Holt breached the gap.
"You're welcome." Menzies didn't take his eyes off the game.
"Bob, what did you mean when you said 'whilst you've still got those portfolios'?"
Menzies sighed deeply, as if every distraction from the game to explain the seemingly obvious caused him great pain. "I thought that much was already clear."
"No. It isn't." Holt pushed for further elucidation.
Another sigh grumbled from well within Menzies' core. "Very well. You're getting given a sweetheart deal, a big public positive assignment because you're, in all likelihood, getting tapped to the Treasurer's seat. And I want you to have a major success under your belt before I send you there."
"The Treasurer's seat? What do I know about economics?"
Menzies screwed up his face as if he was offended with the stupidity he was having to deal with. "The Treasurer's seat is not about economics!"
"No. No, it's not. Bruce, Lyons, Chifley, Fadden, myself... It's a stepping stone that says one is ready for the responsibility of the big chair."
"But what about the portfolio itself?"
"You've got bloody civil servants for that. A staff. Did you think everything I was coming up with from the Treasurer's seat was bestowed upon me from the Lord Almighty on gold tablets or something?"
"I suppose not." Harold said to himself. Thinking things through. Could this really be true? Could he really be that close to 'The big chair'? "Thanks for that as well, I suppose."
"Oh, there is one other thing though." Menzies said, not taking his eyes off of the game. Seemingly throwing it away as an afterthought. "There's this thing I'm going to need help with. The work's already done, though. Just need separation. I'm going to need you to pick up this '56 Olympic Games temporary ministerial assignment as well. Another sweetheart deal. Can hardly screw up something as popular as selling sport to Australians either, eh? We attach your name to a big part of the Snowy and to the Olympics, that'd go a long way on the resume. Should lead to a relatively seamless transition once I'm ready to take the big step down."
"Wow, the Olympics?" That caught Holt's attention instantly.
"Thanks, Bob--" Menzies led Holt along.
"Thanks, Bob. I won't let you down, mate."
Blues full forward Noel 'Nobby' O'Brien got out to a great lead and took a rock solid chest mark forty five metres from goal. He walked back to line up for goal and pulled his socks up and plucked some grass to test the wind.
Harold rocked forward. "You know what, you've certainly given me plenty to think about, Bob." He got to his feet. "I might get on my way and tell Zara the big news. Looks like I'll be pulling some extra hours and long nights for a while."
Menzies wasn't paying any attention anymore though, everything of importance had been addressed. There was only the Carlton Blues, the Princes Park buzz and Robert Menzies. "Hmm? Yeah sure. You go. Go." He absently waved the younger man away.
O'Brien began his run up and pumped a drop punt from fifty metres out over the man standing the mark. The Carlton crowd rose from a buzz to raucous cheering as the ball sailed true for a goal.
Menzies clapped from his so-far unnamed seat in the grandstand, and spoke to nobody remembirng the conversation he'd had with Harris and Houston earlier.
"Placekicks. Huh... Imagine expecting the whole world to stop and wait on you."