The Incumbent: Chapter 15

It's an intricate web of murder plots, government conspiracies and rampant tanning. Oh, and the future of the entire nation.

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.

Alvin Duff sat at his desk waiting for the phone to ring. Or for a letter to arrive. There had been nothing for days. His large teak desk was empty apart from a fine bone china tea-cup and a fountain pen, its ink leaking onto the felt inlay.

He was waiting for an invitation to Geneva. There was a meeting there and he assumed he would be invited. He'd read about it in the newspaper, of all places. The editor at the local tabloid rag had inadvertently published a few international stories. There had been a shortage of pieces on celebrity sightings, cute animals and ugly asylum seekers out to destroy the Australian way of life — the fodder that normally filled the column inches. So in desperation they'd pulled stories off the wire, exposing Australians to horrific wars, famines, crazed dictators and, apparently, a G20 meeting on Geneva.

Duff was upset that he'd been missed again. He banged his head on the prime ministerial desk.

'Is there something wrong Prime Minister?'

Duff looked up. He liked it when Holton-Lacey called him Prime Minister. It was a mark of respect, something he rarely felt from his Finance Minister. The truth was that Holton-Lacey often called him that because he'd forgotten his name. He was uniquely forgettable, even for someone who had worked closely with him for years.

'It's the G19,' said the Finance Minister, hoping that would explain everything.

'And?' said the Prime Minister.

'We're in the G20.'

'So, what's the difference?'

'Well,' said Holton-Lacey, wondering how he could put this tactfully. 'The difference is Australia.'

It seems that the world leaders had decided to abandon the G20, which included Australia, and form the G19, which didn't. It was a snub to Holton-Lacey as much as it was to the Prime Minister, because the meetings were all about economics and the Finance Minister would normally attend. Duff always came along for the frequent flyer points and for the gala dinner on the first night.

They both loved the G20 because everyone spoke about economics — it was one of those rare events where you could say anything you wanted, because no one had a clue what they were all talking about and wild arguments ensued, after which, nothing was decided. The vote to exclude Australia had been the first thing everyone had agreed on. Australia, they decided, was too far away from everything to provide any useful input. They also agreed that Duff had a particularly sweaty handshake and no one really liked touching him. And so the G19 was formed. They just hoped Australia wouldn't notice.

'Well, who else isn't invited?' asked Duff, rather dismayed.

'Just us,' said Holton-Lacey, matter-of-factly.

'Dammit,' said the Prime Minister, banging his fist on the desk again, causing some of the leaked ink to splash up onto his forehead, making him look a little like Mikhail Gorbachev.

'Surely this has to be some sort of mistake?' he said. 'After all, I get invited to all the A-list functions.'

He opened a drawer and pulled out a scrap book filled with photographs of events he had attended; heads of state meetings, royal weddings, major sporting events, Mornings with Kerri-Anne (even if it had been in a paid advertorial slot). Holton-Lacey rolled his eyes, he'd seen it all too many times before.

Duff smiled as he turned the pages for a few moments, then quickly shut the book. He thought about how few overseas invitations he was getting these days and was worried that his country might be sliding into irrelevance. Even at the last United Nations Heads of State meeting, where basically everyone was invited, his name was left off the list and he only managed to stay because he agreed to share a bedroom with the Prime Minister of Italy, who kept inviting girls back to the room and, sometimes, women. Duff hadn't managed to get any sleep.

A transvestite was America's way of saying, 'We'd like a woman President, but we'd like it to be a man.'

'Who's that in the corner?' one of the girls had asked.

'Oh don't worry about him. He's just the Prime Minster of Australia.'

Duff lay there, his head under the covers, sniffling about his own lack of significance. How could he be treated with so little respect when he headed one of the most affluent nations in the world?

Occasionally, the US President would talk about the importance of the US friendship with the 'Oz-sees', but he'd always be reading from a script and never answered questions on the subject, partially because he didn't know the answers, but mainly because there were far more important things to talk about. Still, every now and then, a US dignitary who'd fancied a break from a bleak northern winter, would talk about a strong relationship with Australia during a five-minute press conference delivered on the steps of the Opera House, before heading down to the beach for a couple of weeks. But lately more were heading to Brazil as the Aussie relationship became strained, largely because of economic differences.

'We'd like a free trade agreement,' the US leader had asked. At the time, President Ru Mollest, the country's first transvestite President, was running on a high tide of popularity. They had been through film actors, peanut farmers and had even picked an African-American for a short time and there were very few niches left for Presidential candidates without resorting to ethnic groups. A transvestite was America's way of saying, 'We'd like a woman President, but we'd like it to be a man.'

Duff didn't like the idea of free trade. Even his mild grasp on commerce told him you should charge something.

'We just can't afford it,' he explained.

'I understand,' said Mollest, adjusting his halter strap.

'But we're prepared to give you a buy-one-get-one-free offer.'

Ru Mollest quickly realised he was talking to an idiot, but he was distracted somewhat by a false eyelash that was coming unstuck.

'Obviously this won't apply to already discounted items,' Duff added for good measure.

Since then Australia had had little to do with the US, or anywhere else. The German Chancellor, Helmut Von Kippleoff, had taken pity on the two Aussies and given them a free copy of his text book, 'Neo-Classical Economics for Complete Buffoons', but he became annoyed once it was clear that they didn't understand any of it.

Duff and Holton-Lacey had been too busy adopting their own theories about the economy. In every other country the wealth of a nation was determined by the levels of production and consumption — in Australia it was mostly dependent on how much poker machines had been paying out.

They were disturbed to read a section in the Chancellor's book about a thing called supply and demand. It showed how if you dropped prices, demand increases.

'Why would you want to do that?' said the Prime Minister, as keen as Holton-Lacey to discredit the book. 'You'd just have to work harder to produce more. That makes no sense.'

And with that, he put in a call to Twistie Buffet. Although VastTel was a supposedly private enterprise, it was still the recipient of massive government grants, so Duff had a lot of influence on how the company was run.

'I don't want you ever to reduce prices,' he insisted, explaining that from that point on VastTel should increase prices and make more money so it could employ more people.

'What will they all do?' Buffet had asked, even though he had little idea what everyone was doing as it was.

'It doesn't matter, I just want more people employed.'

Full employment had become one of Duff's aims for a few years now. His first tactic — recruiting unemployed people into government positions — only went so far. He needed to call on big business to get even bigger, paying more people more money. From what he'd understood in Von Kippleoff's book, this would lead to a thing called inflation.

The Australian people wanted jobs, but they didn't really want to do anything.

'With inflation prices go up,' he explained to Holton-Lacey, as the two men struggled through the theories in Von Kippleoff's book. 'If prices go up, we know people buy less, which means we can all work less.'

'Brilliant!' said Holton-Lacey, excited that they had developed an economic theory that had eluded the rest of the world, one that seemed a lot less stressful. He went through it again just to make sure they'd got it right: 'If we employ more people and pay them well, they'll spend money, which will force prices up, so people buy less, which means all these companies can produce less, so people don't have to work as hard.'

'Yes,' said Duff, sharing the excitement.

'Genius,' concluded Holton-Lacey, wondering whether it had been his idea or not.

'It is isn't it?' said Duff, pleased with himself.

The two men sat in silence for a few moments, before Holton-Lacey spoke. He had spotted one minor flaw in their new approach.

'But if these companies are making less, how can they afford to pay more people.'

'Dammit,' said Duff, banging his fist on the table yet again. 'I hadn't thought of that.'

But it was too good an approach to let go. The Australian people wanted jobs, but they didn't really want to do anything. They just needed a bit of money — just enough for a waterfront property, a home cinema, two overseas holidays each year, a small boat and a jet ski, not much more than that.

'Well,' suggested Holton-Lacey, 'we could give those businesses big grants.' He admitted it would involve pretty significant amounts of money.

'Excellent,' said the Prime Minister, 'on the condition that they never discount prices.'

'No, that would create demand,' said Holton-Lacey, pleased that at last they were getting to grips with the fundamentals of Von Kippleoff's work. 'And we want to avoid all that at all costs.'

'Yes,' agreed Duff, 'too much like hard work.'

'Golf?' he said to Holton-Lacey. They had done enough for one day.

'Good idea,' came the reply. 'Why don't you? I'm going upstairs to bed.'

Duff wondered briefly why he'd want to sleep upstairs in the Prime Ministerial residence.

'Don't wake my wife will you. She's having a little lie down.'

And with that the Prime Minister went off to play a round, and so did his Finance Minister.

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.