ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.
Inside the Lodge, Duff and Holton-Lacey were still hatching a plan to build a bright, new phone company. It seemed like the perfect way to distract people from the massive redundancy program being undertaken by Jones.
'Of course, we also have our own redundancy program,' said the finance minister, once again pulling out a document he knew the prime minister had never read. 'This might be a more expedient option. Perhaps I should implement it before this Jones character manages to push ahead with his own plan?'
'Yes, yes,' said Duff dismissively. He didn't know what was in Holton-Lacey's document. He'd tried to read one of his plans before, but it was extremely turgid. In any case, redundancies at VastTel seemed inevitable, and he wanted to focus all his effort on setting up a new company so all the incompetent people had somewhere to go — otherwise, they'd be out on the streets and sleeping in parks, and generally making the whole country look very untidy.
People hated seeing the government wasting money — which is why they made sure no one knew about it.
'How can we be sure that this new company will run as inefficiently as VastTel did?'
Holton-Lacey reminded him that it was going to be run by the government, so inefficiency wasn't an issue.
'Good point,' said Duff, but he wondered how they would sell the concept to the public, some of whom might have inadvertently bought shares in VastTel. The finance minister shared his concern. People hated seeing the government wasting money — which is why, when they wasted money, they made sure no one knew about it.
'But this will cost billions of dollars. We can't hide that from the public?'
'No, you're missing the point,' said Holton-Lacey. 'It will only cost billions if we actually build a network. Why would we do that?'
Duff was confused.
'We're just going to set up the company that's going to build the network. They'll spend forever planning, they'll never get round to actually building anything.'
It was a good idea. Running VastTel had been a challenge when it was in government hands, because even though inefficiency was key to the operation, people still expected their phones to work, at least some of the time. By establishing a new company, charged with building a new telecommunications network, people wouldn't have that expectation, just so long as they knew something would be delivered, some time. Not necessarily in their lifetime.
'Huge swathes of people busily employed with no evidence of any output whatsoever...'
'Yes. We could stretch it out for years,' said Duff, finally getting it. 'Huge swathes of people busily employed with no evidence of any output whatsoever.'
'Brilliant!' said Holton-Lacey, neatly turning it round, so the PM thought it was his own idea.
Of course, they would launch it with great fanfare — a new telecommunications network for a new generation, all that sort of thing — but, as politicians, a promise like that would amount to nothing. Duff's wife should have realised this when Holton-Lacey had promised, three years ago, that he would leave his own wife and they could come clean on their secret relationship. Instead, he had argued that she was taking his promise out of context, it wasn't a core promise and that the matrimonial agenda had been complicated by the global financial crisis.
'So, we forget about VastTel and build a brand new company,' said Holton-Lacey, summarising their plan.
'I'm going to call that Plan A,' said Duff, writing 'PLAN A' in big letters on his large sheet of paper, each letter a different colour. That took some time, then he added a rainbow in the background. Holton-Lacey used the ensuing five minutes to eat some of his breakfast cereal, spilling some of the Wheety-bits down the pyjamas, which he had only just realised were monogrammed with the prime minister's initials.
'So, now for plan B,' said Duff, admiring his handwork and setting off to write 'PLAN B' in an equally ornate fashion.
And then Holton-Lacey had an epiphany.
'We don't need to actually start this company,' he explained. 'We'll just use it as a threat.' His plan was that they would tell VastTel about how a new phone company would be started up if Jimi Jones went ahead with his plans. Hopefully, that would be enough for them to think again. Jones might be confident that he could run an efficient phone company whilst VastTel was the only game in town, but what if someone else came along?
'We'll get Woodburner into your office, and threaten competition unless he sacks Jimi Jones.'
'We'll use the c-word at them,' said Holton-Lacey, very pleased with his idea.
He watched the prime minister write the c-word alongside Plan B.
'No, not that c-word!' said Holton-Lacey. 'I meant competition. We'll threaten them with competition. We'll get Woodburner into your office, and threaten competition unless he sacks Jimi Jones.'
Duff was too busy trying to remove the c-word from his large sheet of paper to be paying much attention. He didn't want his wife to see what he'd written, and was scribbling over it with a large felt-tip pen so vigorously that it went through to the kitchen table, leaving the c-word silhouetted in indelible ink on the imported Italian mahogany surface.
Duff could see the sense in Holton-Lacey's plan, when it was explained to him again, much slower, the second time. They would threaten Woodburner with competition, unless he removed Jones from his post, he got that. And not just ordinary competition, but government-funded competition, so the usual rules of commerce wouldn't apply.
'Will it work?' asked Duff.
'Well, we could sweeten the deal,' suggested Holton-Lacey. Almost immediately, an idea sprang into his head. Another one. It surprised him. He knew he was inventive, far more than the prime minister ever imagined, but even for him, the ideas were springing up fast today.
'Woodburner is a TV man, right?' he said. 'We'll offer him a licence. We'll give him a new TV network, provided he agrees to sack Jimi Jones.'
Duff liked it. The threat of a competitor and the offer of a new TV network, on which he could run the same old crap he ran on the other networks, just slightly older reruns. How could Woodburner refuse?
A new TV network, where he could run the same old crap — just slightly older reruns. How could he refuse?
'So, let me summarise,' said Duff, who had stuck paper glue over the heading PLAN A and was now sprinkling a tube of glitter over it.
'There's Plan A,' he said, wishing he'd written more than just the heading, because the rest of it had already slipped his mind.
'And plan B is ... c***,' he said a little confused.
Holton-Lacey suggested that the prime minister leave it all for him to handle.
'You might want to get rid of the document,' he added. 'We wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands.'
Duff agreed and stuck the whole thing in the paper shredder, which quickly became clogged by the sticky mess of glue and glitter.
'Well, that was a most excellent session,' said Duff, the two men congratulating each other on their grand master plan.
As they finished up, Duff's wife emerged. She was a little surprised to see her husband there; he was supposed to be at a hospital opening. There was a new bed being added to the Maternity Ward at the Royal North Harbour Hospital. She had slipped on her sexiest negligee that was completely transparent, except for a small area that covered her belly button. By the time she realised Duff was still there, she was already in the room.
'Hello, darling,' she said timidly.
'Good morning, darling,' said Duff and Holton-Lacey in unison.
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.