Fiction (Political, Thriller)
A politician proves her support for refugees by inviting them into her home. One comes.
Recently elected to federal parliament, Carole Wynworth demands the Australian government welcome Rohingya refugees from Burma (Myanmar) who have fled to Bangladesh. When a terrorist bombs a ferry on Sydney Harbour, she publicly welcomes anybody wanting to come to Australia, offering to take asylum seekers into her Upper North Shore home.
Responding to her invitation is charming Mahmood from a refugee family long settled in Australia, who Carole helps by securing an extension to his Jordanian girlfriend’s visa. Carole involves Sydney Morning Herald journalist Xavier Talbot in her plan to promote Mahmood to those Australians opposed to the country accepting increasing numbers of Muslim refugees. With police still seeking a third person apparently involved in the ferry bombing, Carole persists with her plan even after police investigations suggest Mahmood has lied to her.
Chapter 1: The Member for Seidler
Images of Rohingya refugees suffering in squalor strafed Carole Wynworth’s mind, sitting with her cup of cappuccino coffee more than five thousand miles away. At her desk in her parliamentary office, Carole’s regularly re-tinted hair was groomed high from her head, although it had become a little ruffled reading that Amnesty International report. A tiny, warm tear waited patiently behind her watery blue eyes.
Hanging from a stand were the dark woollen coat and complementing hat she had worn outside that Tuesday morning. Winter had persisted stubbornly that year, at least in Canberra, but the sprawling hilltop universe of Parliament House provided comfortably regulated temperature without humidity. Carole’s deep green jacket and long dark skirt were for the House of Representatives sitting later that day.
Carole’s office door pushed open, revealing her young staffer. “Oh,” gasped Heidi Moore.
Around Parliament House were twenty-seven hundred synchronised clocks, positioned so at least one was visible from anywhere anybody stood. The time was past nine o’clock. “My God!” gasped Carole.
“You’re supposed to be in the party room.” Heidi hadn’t needed to remind her.
Carole rushed up from her chair, her stockinged feet slipping from the leather shoes in which they had been resting, half wearing. She slipped her feet back in her shoes as the telephone on her desk rang. “You answer that,” said Carole, moistening her lips with her tongue and hurrying to the chair on which her smallish handbag lay, carrying just enough make-up and credit cards to get her through each day, along with her mobile telephone. She had tried but never mastered the more complicated communications device allocated to her since her election, which lay neglected in a drawer until Heidi tried again to guide her through it.
Heidi reached across Carole’s desk to pick up the telephone handset. “Carole Wynworth’s office,” she said.
Reflected in the wall mirror, thin clouds of powder tinted Carole’s pale complexion pink. A fifty-year lifetime beneath green trees, back home in Sydney, had shaded her soft skin from the sun. On her jacket lapel was a silver Amnesty International badge, of barbed wire encircling a lighted candle. Carole quickly brushed her hair back to its grooming.
“Emmet would like a word,” said Heidi, with her hand across the telephone mouthpiece.
“I’ll call him back,” said Carole, although she rarely did.
Holding her handbag close to her side, Carole bustled through her open office door, past the waiting area of sleek clean sofas and public-property paintings on the walls, into the mint-green carpeted corridor. Within the private parliamentarians’ half of Parliament House, corridors were wide but ceilings not particularly high.
Built into Capital Hill, more or less replacing the hill, Parliament House was an under-hill city, most of which remained hidden from tourist cameras and view. Parliamentarians and their staff shed their days and nights there in the three floors of offices and chambers, without venturing further below ground to where golf carts carried workers around the network of tunnels and spaces servicing them. The governing party room was still several corridors and a floor away from Carole’s office.
The Prime Minister was in Washington. Party room meetings with him away were unusual, but the previous day seventeen Rohingya refugees had entered the Australian High Commission in Dhaka, demanding resettlement in Australia. Once numbering a million, the predominantly Muslim Rohingya had demanded self-determination in Burma, known also as Myanmar, which refused them the privileges enjoyed by indigenous Burmese because they were Bengali illegal immigrants. The Burmese military response to Rohingya terrorism had led many Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Carole knocked before pushing open the party room door. Bright lights sprawled across the ceiling, leaving no shadows among the seats of well-groomed men and women in their ornamental suits and styles. The voice speaking from the front of the room stopped, as a hundred or so Liberal Party parliamentarians turned to their colleague clamouring into the room, clutching her handbag, closing the door behind her.
Standing tall at the long table at the front of the room was the Attorney General, his squarish jaw giving Leighton Ingles credibility his forty-four years of youth denied him. “The Member for Seidler,” he smiled at Carole. “I wondered where you were.”
“Constituents,” explained Carole. Parliamentarians excused anything upon constituents, although Carole’s constituents were people who cared deeply about refugees rather than refugees themselves.
Leighton waited while Carole looked around for the nearest empty chair, quickly spotting it. Members drew their legs closer as Carole slipped before them to sit there, resting her handbag on the floor and trying to become comfortable. The eyes that had turned towards her soon turned back to Leighton.
Sitting beside Leighton, facing Carole and the rest of their colleagues from the table at the front of the room, was the youthful Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. Andrea Gidley’s fine blonde hair bobbed neatly on the deep padded shoulders of her modest blue blouse, while her gently rounded face tried its best to seem earnest and sincere.
“We must respect sovereign countries enforcing their laws of sedition, public order, and morality,” Leighton told his audience, drawing his already deep voice deeper. “We will not allow malcontents, opportunists, and petty criminals to claim refugee status in this country.”
Carole’s right hand moved towards the lapel of her jacket. She began fidgeting with the sturdy silver badge.
“I propose that we amend Australian law to restrict refugee status to citizens of those countries the Australian government declares to be dangerous or oppressive,” continued Leighton. “We would closely examine the situation in Burma before deciding whether to gazette that country at this time, and thereafter keep the situation under constant review.”
Carole shook her head. Human rights organisations like Amnesty International had often criticised Australia for not sufficiently accommodating asylum seekers.
“Our successful multicultural Australia will only unite,” continued Leighton, “if we involve all ethnic and religious groups in these decisions, along with our friends overseas and human rights groups.”
Carole laughed. If people didn’t look at her then it was because they were not surprised.
“We shouldn’t pre-empt a decision about the seventeen asylum seekers from Burma,” Leighton cautioned them, “but our friends should not suffer the indignity to their nations our courts might cast by granting refuge to their criminals.”
“We could talk to them,” called out Carole. “They would understand.”
Members groaned. Others laughed.
“Other countries aren’t as tolerant of Islamic terrorism as we are, Carole,” answered Leighton.
“I don’t pander to Islamophobia,” Carole insisted, “while condemning it.”
“Will you gazette Afghanistan?” someone called out to Leighton.
“Iraq?” asked another.
People laughed, but not Carole. “Any more years of this government in Stockholm…,” smiled Leighton.
People laughed louder. “Not France,” said Leighton, his smile broadening to a grin, “not yet.”
“Principle does not change,” called out Carole, rising to her feet. “Principle that changes has perished.” Leighton rested back in his chair, while Carole’s weak fists held the air before her. “Our party once ended the White Australia Policy, welcoming those wanting refuge, when other parties wouldn’t.”
She looked around her. One man studied the patterns on his black leather shoes, arching his foot below his crossed legs. A woman read a letter.
“Asylum seekers aren’t criminals,” continued Carole.
Andrea Gidley leant forward. “Criminals don’t stop being criminals because they claim asylum,” she responded, her voice dragging as she spoke. The members who looked elsewhere when Carole spoke looked up at Andrea. “We all welcome refugees, Carole, but we need to manage each situation.”
“Helping people isn’t a situation,” pleaded Carole. “We don’t want any more impediments to people coming to this country. They’ve come so far, overcome so much. Can’t we let them share their dreams with us?”
Andrea sighed. “Aspiring immigrants want better lives for themselves and their children,” she said, “but that doesn’t make them heroes and it doesn’t make them victims.”
“They’re frightened,” insisted Carole, with fear in her eyes reflecting the fear she imagined in the eyes of strangers. “Asylum seekers don’t understand passports and visas.”
“They understand refugee status.”
Members laughed. Leighton smiled.
“Would you deny seventeen refugees seeking resettlement from a camp in Africa,” asked Andrea, “for seventeen people not deserving of our sympathy?”
“We should welcome them all,” Carole persisted. “Is it not better that we accept a thousand men and women unworthy of refugee status, than refuse just one refugee from a homeland we don’t want to offend?”
“No,” replied Andrea.
“What if you were that refugee?”
Andrea placed her hands on her European face. “Tell me the Asian or African country that would take me.”
“That’s more reason to welcome them,” scoffed Carole, looking around the room at too few faces looking back at her. “What is happening in this country?” she asked, unable to recognise the party she once lauded at garden parties in her home. Damning those around her for their indifference, Carole slumped back in her chair.
“Put the vote,” a member called out.
“Is there more debate?” asked Leighton, again standing up; party rooms were normally fora for debate as the floor of Parliament no longer was. Leighton was politically astute enough to have already secured the Prime Minister’s approval to so provocative a proposal, while involving his colleagues who might one day decide the next prime minister.
“Put the vote,” cried another member.
“Those in favour….”
“Aye, aye, aye,” the room resounded with forthright expressions of a will.
“Those against?” asked Leighton.
“No!” yelled Carole. Her conviction only accentuated the silence around her.
Almost all the parliamentarians rose from their chairs, talking with each other. Someone opened the doors and they streamed out of the room into the corridors.
Carole remained slumped in her chair, while space emptied around her. The decades since Her Majesty opened the blandly grand Parliament House were not enough for the antiseptic rooms to become soulful. Far from her life at home in Sydney two hundred miles away, she sat in an uncomfortably thin-cushioned chair in the mellow dust-free air, her neck too taut from words unsaid to move.
Only one other person remained in the party room, watching her from the front row of chairs. Standing in the threads of his dark silk suit was the government chief whip, Rodney Bayne. The ceiling lights shone from the cream in his black hair, and from the gold pin holding tight his navy-blue tie, but not from his thin nose and lips. His clothes had kept ahead of his career since overcoming his government school education to study politics at Adelaide University, not quite fifteen years earlier. “You argued well, Carole,” smiled Rodney, his long fingers dancing about the end of his long hands.
“Not well enough.”
“Cicero could not have won your case.”
“I don’t watch television,” she told him, “apart from the ABC.” The ABC was the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Rodney began walking around the rows of chairs towards her. “I know you’ll support the party decision today,” he told her, tilting his long head towards the long windows admitting light from the private members’ gardens and cold Canberra winter, “out there.”
By one window, a tall wooden lectern stood idle. Lining one short wall to the side of the room were framed photographs of every Liberal Party leader since the party formed in 1945, from the sepia-toned serious to the colourful smiling predecessors of the current prime minister. Beyond his photograph was space for more photographs to come. If Rodney feared Carole’s dissent, she was less certain of her courage than perhaps he was.
“The Senate won’t pass our bill into law anyway,” Rodney continued. “This is something we can use to remind the voters that we’re the party willing to enforce our borders, even if we don’t.”
No place had felt more calculating than Canberra. “While you’re playing politics,” said Carole, “refugees feel unwelcome.”
“If we don’t present unity,” Rodney repeated his oft-repeated words, “giving voters clear choices as against our opponents, then voters will punish us on polling day.”
Carole looked back at him. “Welcoming refugees is a matter of principle.”
“You’re not the only person here with principles,” said Rodney, almost sympathetically. He reached the row in which Carole sat and leant on the back of a chair to face her. “You are the only person assuming the rest of us are without them.”
“I have my mandate.”
“Mandate?” responded Rodney. “You’re here because stronger candidates for party selection in Seidler battled each other, leaving you the only candidate nobody knew so nobody hated.”
The former member for Seidler’s sudden retirement one year earlier had led to a hurried selection contest for the safest Liberal Party seat in New South Wales, in which party factions fought to keep each other from prevailing. Curious twists of circumstance overcame years of secret planning as unambitious local party members conversing among themselves voted quietly for their friend and conversationalist from the Killara branch, allowing Carole to slip into selection.
The election proper followed. “A hundred thousand constituents who knew nothing about you voted for this government,” Rodney continued. “The party could have selected a one-legged wallaby to be our candidate and still retained Seidler, albeit with a reduced majority.”
Drawing the last air around her into her chest, Carole collected her handbag from the floor. She rose from her chair.
“You should not assume the outcome of any inquiry into the situation in Burma,” Rodney told her.
“Governments only convene inquiries when they already know the results,” replied Carole. “I’ve learnt that these past eight months.”
“This is not about you, Carole,” Rodney explained, strangely reassuringly in his voice. “This is about the Government keeping faith with the people who placed us here: the people who look up and out at this big little world and want a government willing to say this country still exists, that they still count for something, that we’re doing all we can to protect them. Would you betray them for vagrants in a diplomatic confine, or jetsam in the wide-open sea?”
Carole turned and walked away from him towards the door until, before leaving, she turned back to face him. “People say, Rodney, that I won party selection with a story of my late father, who lost the sight from his right eye fighting Nazis at El Alamein. Too many nights he bounced his little girl on his weak failing knees, begging my generation, your parents’ generation, not to repeat the wars he saw.”
She continued staring at Rodney, as pleased with herself for her retort as she was angry with him for compelling her to make it. “Was your story true?” he asked.
Carole turned and stepped through the open door. In the corridor, she drew a long breath. Carole’s skin cooled beneath the powders on her face.
Her handbag at her side, Carole trekked back along the white-walled corridors, past people too busy to notice her. She passed office doors open and closed, with blinds shielding the offices beyond glass panes beside each door. Most panes were conspicuously neat, although some city members displayed posters promoting their causes and some country members displayed posters promoting their electorates. The posters weren’t there to persuade anybody bothering to read them, but to please the few visitors that security guards admitted to the corridors and staffers escorted to the offices.
Australian art adorned the higher walls and Australian sculptures interrupted the higher ceilings of lounge areas by the stairwells and beside the glass walls overlooking well-watered lawns and ambient secluded gardens. Being public property, although the public never saw it, every item was carefully catalogued.
Small plaques identified the timbers of benches: eucalypts, wattles, and other Australian woods. It was all a big museum.
The lift carried Carole slowly upwards to her distant office floor. Ahead of her as she stepped from the open lift, leaning against a wall by the window and with his hands in the pockets of his unbuttoned white jacket, was a large round man, belching with the force of too much breakfast. Carole recognised the aging Xavier Talbot from the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper not just from the Parliament House cafeteria but from the press gallery high in the chambers and the broadcasts of press conferences she had watched from monitors.
“Carole,” he said, heaving himself away from the wall, keeping his hands in his pockets.
“You know who I am?”
“Everybody here has some reputation.”
“I’m more accustomed to the attentions of the North Shore Times,” admitted Carole. Metropolitan newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald rarely troubled backbenchers, and more rarely those in their first terms.
“Leighton Ingles and Andrea Gidley called a press conference for ten o’clock this morning,” explained Xavier, “but all their offices are saying is that it concerns the Rohingya in Dhaka. Do you support what they will say, Carole?”
Commentators who approved of the Government would approve of their proposal. Those opposed would oppose. Carole turned and walked along the corridor towards her office.
“This prime minister runs the tightest government I’ve seen,” observed Xavier, following her. “Voices that once roared now won’t as much as whisper in a dead man’s ear.”
She continued walking. Her office had never before been so far away.
“With other governments,” continued Xavier, “I had to shut out the noise there were so many people with so much to say. Today, I watch the corpses in parliamentary coffins and your name keeps coming up in the obituaries.”
Carole reached her office door. There, she stopped.
Xavier soon stood beside her. “I can be your friend, Carole.”
“The party room unanimously welcomes refugees, Xavier.”
“Friends talk with each other,” he persisted.
“We’re talking!” cried Carole, raising her hands in the air.
“Are you a solitary voice of political dissent, here to change the ethos of the unethical, the morals of the immoral? Lying in the flow will leave you another minor footnote in old editions of the parliamentary Hansard.”
Xavier drew his hand from his pocket and, concealing what he held, forced a card into her hand. Carole crushed the card in her fingers before anyone saw it.
“What frightens you, Carole? Is it having no influence, or is it having too much?”
A young man suddenly raced from an office and along the corridor beside them. People running through the office corridors were unusual, but a young woman rushed from the same office and ran after him. “What’s happening?” asked Xavier, stepping in her way.
“You better switch on the television,” she said, rushing around him.
Carole glanced at Xavier before hurrying into her office, past the empty reception area. She pushed open the door to her private office, where Heidi stood before the television set, broadcasting the sight of plumes of swirling smoke from the blue of Sydney Harbour. Slowly Carole moved towards it, her heart uncertain whether to race away or stop beating in her chest.
The telephone rang. Heidi answered it.
Carole stood affixed by the images too much like war at home. Xavier Talbot’s crumpled business card fell from her opening hands to the otherwise clean carpet floor, while history in a present tense shone from the television screen.
Among arrays of stumbling motorboats, a ferry burnt amidst streaks of debris: seats, and suitcases, strangers trying to swim. Bouncing in the waves of turmoil was a flotilla of bright orange buoys to some of which people were holding fast. “We have unconfirmed reports of an explosion at Queens Park,” said the television news commentator.
Heidi replaced the telephone handset. “Emmet called to say he and Tessa are safe,” she told Carole.
Again, Xavier stood beside Carole; the office was supposed to be Carole’s private space. “You can stop thinking about the Rohingya,” Xavier told her as they watched.
“Don’t leap to any conclusions about the events you’re seeing,” responded Carole.
“Don’t leap to any about me.”
“They might be accidents,” insisted Carole. “There could be anyone at fault.”
“Leighton Ingles won’t be talking today about accepting more Muslim refugees.”
Carole turned to Xavier. “Crime and terrorism have nothing to do with immigration,” she told him. “They have nothing to do with refugees, nothing to do with Islam. If anybody uses this tragedy to say anything else, then the police will be onto him, very fast.”
“Every time something like this happens,” said Xavier, “or when police arrest the would-be terrorists before it happens, the prime minister and every other major political party figure in this country say the same thing. They’ll say it again soon enough today and we’ll faithfully repeat it, but I report news, Carole, and you saying it isn’t news. If you feed me something extra to say, I’ll say it. I’ll quote you, and I’m sure it will be something that sits very well with a lot of our readers: people like you, Carole.”
Carole remained silent. The business of government was too private, too sensitive.
“You must know something.”
She shook her head. Carole looked back at the television screen.
“No,” he muttered, “maybe you don’t.”
“This is precisely the time we should affirm our support for immigrants and refugees,” said Carole, watching the television. “You quote me saying this country should welcome the Rohingya and everybody else wanting to come here, especially poor Muslims.”
Xavier stepped to where Carole couldn’t help but see him. “If you’re so willing to accept refugees into your country, people will say you should accept them into your home. I know enough about you and your electorate to know you live in a very lovely home.”
There was room enough in the country for Carole and her family not to need to accommodate anyone, but politics and public opinion weren’t well-suited to nuances. “We have a spare room,” she told him, “or two.” Policemen on one boat pulled aboard a body.