'You're wondering why you weren't invited, aren't you?' said Holton-Lacey, a statement more than a question.
'Well, where the f**k is Kyrgyzstan anyway?' said the Prime Minister, breaking into one of his trademark tantrums.
'Eastern Europe, Prime Minister,' came the matter-of-fact reply. 'It borders Uzbekistan and Tajikstan.'
'Those people from those places you just mentioned,' said Duff, who was always a little unsure of places outside Australia, or even west of Melbourne. 'Uzziestan and Staligstan or wherever.'
'Both of them,' said Holton-Lacey, enjoying the Prime Minister's annoyance. 'I'll see what I can do to wangle a last-minute invite,' he offered. 'I have connections.'
Duff knew that Holton-Lacey was well connected, far more than he was. He hated the power that this gave the man, who he was trusting less and less lately.
'Why should a man in government need contacts?' he wondered. He found no need for them. All contacts did was ask questions and try and influence decisions. Such conversations only confused him and made him uncomfortable. So why did Holton-Lacey have so many contacts? Why was he out there talking to people? What was he up to?
He had always suspected his Finance Minister was pursuing some secret agenda, but he could never quite put his finger on it. When he spent time thinking about it his brain would start to hurt, so he stopped concentrating and quickly returned to his normal near-meditative state.
'It would be a good time for you be out of the country,' Holton-Lacey continued. 'You are particularly low in the opinion polls this week.'
'Am I?' said Duff, somewhat surprised. It was true that when he went overseas his position in the polls did tend to improve, but right now he was certain he was doing better than normal. He'd just given a cash bonus to millions of voters and it had gone down very well. Nine hundred and 50 dollars had gone into everyone's bank account, so they could all do a little shopping. An explanatory letter had been sent out saying the money was to help the economy and to recognise their commitment as proud Australians. Admittedly, the payment also went, by accident, to everyone who had ever visited the country, or asked for a brochure from the tourist board, but that didn't detract from the populism that can be achieved by giving free money to people.
In fact, Duff would often dip into the budget to make payouts if he wasn't polling too well. His favourite was the incentive introduced to increase the population. He was desperate to have more Aussie-born children, to deflect the influx of people from countries he had never heard of. These migrants were often too clever by half and he hated to think what it was doing to the national character. Many failed to assimilate. For example, they would keep left on motorways and signal before they changed lanes. What was that all about?
So Duff and Holton-Lacey concocted the 'Try For a Baby Bonus', where anyone could claim a government benefit if they could show that they were genuinely trying to conceive children. Many couples provided video evidence, which somehow found its way from the benefits office onto the internet. The government responded swiftly by putting it behind a pay wall, a move that single-handedly eradicated Australia's budget deficit.
Duff found it hard to understand why, despite all these measures, he was still flagging in the opinion polls.
'Look, you're on 33 percent as preferred Prime Minister. The other guy's on 48 percent,' said Holton-Lacey, handing a press clipping over the desk.
He pointed to a table of figures. 'Millard Dempster 33 percent.'
Duff gave an exasperated sigh. 'I'm not Millard Dempster, he's the opposition.' He looked up from the numbers. 'Don't you even know who I am?'
He liked to keep the Prime Minister's ego in check. The easiest way of doing that was to occasionally forget who he was.
Holton-Lacey did, of course, know Duff's name. It did sometimes slip his mind, even though he had quietly tolerated their relationship for years. This time though, the mistake was deliberate. He liked to keep the Prime Minister's ego in check. The easiest way of doing that was to occasionally forget who he was.
'So how am I really rating?'
Holton-Lacey pointed to the 48 percent figure.
Duff read out the name alongside it. 'Wilton Poncey, he's with the Greens.'
'You must be included in the "other" figure of 19 percent,' suggested Holton-Lacey.
'It doesn't surprise me,' said Duff. 'If you can't remember my name, how can we expect the voters to?' He noted that Holton-Lacey didn't show the slightest sign of embarrassment or remorse.
'Maybe we could put photos on the polling forms,' came the reply. They both knew this was a bad idea. Although Duff craved notoriety, a low profile would always be their best policy.
'Just get me to Krakistan,' said Duff.
'Whatever,' said the Prime Minister, having another of his strops. He banged his hands on the desk and stomped his feet a little bit.
'I'll see what I can do,' said Holton-Lacey, who knew how to handle the Prime Minister when he got into these moods. He had two very young children at home.
'Don't just "see what you can do". Get me over there,' Duff said, his temper starting to get out of control. There was more banging of fists on the table. 'I want to go to Kandistan!'
'Look,' said the Finance Minister gently, reaching into his jacket pocket. 'I've got some chocolate.' He dangled it in front of the PM's face.
Duff smiled and grabbed it from him. It seemed to do the trick. He stopped talking about Kyrgyzstan and returned to close to adult conversation. It lasted only a few seconds though.
'I can't open it,' whined Duff, fiddling with the wrapper. The Finance Minister helped then quickly launched into the real reason he had come into the Prime Minister's office.
'I need to talk to you about VastTel,' he said. The approach worked. Duff was distracted.
'What about VastTel?' he asked, only a slight whinge in his voice.
'We're hearing disturbing rumours that there are moves to introduce efficiency measures there,' he said. 'I'm sure you know what serious implications this could have.'
The Prime Minister was only too aware. It had been many years since they'd hatched their plan for the company, employing the unemployable, and now more than half the population was on the payroll. If the company started laying people off the country would be left with thousands, maybe millions, on the dole.
'The flow-on effects could be massive,' said Holton-Lacey. 'Economic collapse, poverty, riots — people will call for a change of government.'
Duff was struggling to take in the gravity of the situation.
'How many people work there now?' he asked.
'At last count about eight million,' said Holton-Lacey, adding that the official figure was closer to the 45,000 mark.
'But it's not just the lay-offs,' he continued. 'At any one time about 15 percent of the population is on hold to VastTel customer service. I'm worried that if they make big improvements in that area we could be left with a huge number of people with time on their hands. You know what that means Prime Minister...'
'I do indeed,' said Duff, latching on to the issue. 'With all that extra free time they'll want amenities, like parks and theatres and galleries.'
'Exactly,' said Holton-Lacey, who had worked hard to ensure such things, arty things that made people capable of free thought and expression, were replaced with huge, lifeless shopping arcades where the population could mill around, trance-like, spending money.
The Australian government had been one of the first to realise that if you wanted to avoid freedom of expression, and the dangerous repercussions that entailed, then build vast indoor malls that sucked every shred of identity from the country and demolished any hope of a national psyche. But if large amounts of the population suddenly became unemployed they would have no money to shop and might start congregating in other places — outdoor spaces with trees and flowers and stuff.
'People might start discussing things,' warned Holton-Lacey.
'Yes, I see the problem,' said the Prime Minister, trying to sound concerned about the possible economic collapse of his country, but still in a huff over Kyrgyzstan.
'This is our single biggest issue right now. Put simply Prime Minister, we need to do everything we can to ensure that VastTel remains an inefficient, bumbling bureaucracy. The survival of our nation depends on it.'
'Have you a plan?' asked Duff, spinning the world globe on his desk trying to find anywhere that finished with 'stan'. He was staggered to realise there were so many countries in the world. He'd previously thought there was probably only six or seven, and only that many if you included Tasmania separately.
'As a matter of fact, I do have a plan.' Holton-Lacey held up a fairly slim document, with the words 'Redundancy Program' written in bold letters and an official 'for your eyes only' stamp across the centre of the page.
'Yes, yes,' said Duff, still looking for Kyrgyzstan. 'Oh, why do they make the type so small on these things,' he said, flicking the globe so hard it spun off its axis and rolled across the floor, stopping at Holton-Lacey's feet.
Duff smiled for the first time in the entire conversation. 'It looks like you've got the world at your feet,' he said, rather pleased with himself.
'Yes, it looks that way,' said Holton-Lacey, smiling a little as he glanced down at his document. 'If only he knew what this Redundancy Plan entailed,' he thought to himself, before kicking the globe back rather quickly, hitting Duff right in the Balkans.
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.