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The Incumbent: Chapter 6

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

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 wasn't very impressed with Adam Willis' performance that morning. It kick-started what was turning out to be an intolerably bad day. He'd just been presented with his daily digest of voting intentions and it made for very sober reading. For the seventh month in a row more than three quarters of the population couldn't recall who he was. Many had heard the name and suggested he might be a minor sportsperson, or a celebrity chef. Less than a quarter knew he was the Prime Minister.

His Finance Minister, Ted Holton-Lacey, managed to get himself on television a lot, yet when he offered to step in on some of these appearances the minister didn't seem keen.

'I don't think it's a good idea,' he'd usually say. The commercial networks each had a prime-time program that purported to be current affairs, but the producers repeatedly refused to have Alvin Duff on. They'd said they already featured too many celebrity chefs and they really wanted to cover politics. When told that Duff was, in fact, the Prime Minister and might know a thing or two about politics, they became a little more interested and Duff would be scheduled, only to turn up on time and discover he had been bumped because new research had subsequently shown that chefs really did rate and Gerard Undies — host of the UK hit show Oh what a lovely flambé! — was in the country.

The vast majority supported a Prime Minister who didn't seem to be doing anything, the preferred approach for a population whose general expectation was that, when someone from Canberra got involved in anything, they tended to stuff it up.

'Sorry,' the producers would say, 'people just don't know who this Duff character is.'

'He's the leader of the government!' Holton-Lacey would regularly remind them, but it evoked little interest. If Duff had just an ounce of charisma then perhaps it would have been possible to give him some air time. Or if he could balance a soccer ball on his nose. Tricks were always good.

'Teach him to cook,' one producer had suggested, really as a throwaway remark, but it was given very serious consideration in the cabinet.

Duff also didn't have the looks for television. He'd lost some of his boyish charm from his campaigning years, piled on the weight and turned pale and blotchy. News producers preferred to keep their screens filled with young people plucked fresh from college with good skin, tight bodies and unnervingly white teeth. So, instead of showing Duff making a statement to the press, a young underage reporter would paraphrase it, normally misconstruing what had been said, in a live cross from an equally young female anchor who was, beneath the desk, still wearing her school uniform.

On the positive side, low awareness of who was running the government seemed to be helping with the opinion polls. Awareness of who Duff was had hit an all-time low, but the vast majority supported a Prime Minister who didn't seem to be doing anything, the preferred approach for a population whose general expectation was that, when someone from Canberra got involved in anything, they tended to stuff it up.

There was only one issue that seemed to be destroying this equilibrium of apathy — boat people. They were foreign, they had strange accents, smelt odd and, as talkback hosts repeatedly reminded everyone, they were almost certainly terrorists. They refused to assimilate, as evidenced by their refusal to join everyone else in complaining about migrants, and they all ended up on the dole, except those who were trained chefs, who would get a job on daytime television.

Holton-Lacey had managed to stem the flow with his so-called 'Outsource Solution'. It had little to do with his role as Finance Minister, but he tended to drive all decisions in government. This was one of his most successful ideas. It had slowed the huge number of boat arrivals from Iraq, Afghanistan and Wales — the Welsh had convinced the UN to add them to a list of genuine refugees after a landslide UK victory for a Tory government. They also claimed the status of climatic refugees, based on the fact it always seemed to piss down and they weren't getting enough Vitamin D.

Under the Outsource Solution, asylum seekers arriving off the coast of Australia were intercepted by Navy vessels and sent to the Philippines where they were employed in a government-sponsored call centre, possibly for the rest of their lives. It seemed to be a big disincentive to most people, who preferred persecution to call centre work, although the Welsh didn't seem to mind. The weather was even better in the Philippines and, as they were a very tuneful nation, they could perform the on-hold music live. Perhaps companies could start taking requests; 'An operator will be with you shortly, in the meantime what would you like me to sing to you?'

Boat arrivals from Wales weren't top of the agenda when Duff and Holton-Lacey met that morning. It was the attack on VastTel by Adam Willis.

'We've get to stop him doing this,' Duff said to his Finance Minister.

'I have a plan,' said Holton Lacey. He had a plan for everything, which concerned the Prime Minister a little bit. Did he have a plan for him, he wondered.

'I'm glad, ' said Duff. 'Because I think someone should have a word with him. He really is getting too big for his boots.'

Holton-Lacey agreed to fix the problem.

'Perhaps I could go on his show,' suggested Duff, looking excited at the prospect of an appearance on the country's top rating breakfast program.

Holton-Lacey sighed.

'It's not going to happen Prime Minister,' he said. 'If you want notoriety I think you're in the wrong job.'

Duff knew he was right. Nobody wanted to talk to a dull old Prime Minister. He couldn't even find a publisher for his autobiography. The largest book company had hinted that they wouldn't be able to meet likely demand.

'Really?' Duff had said, excited by what appeared to be the first sign of public interest. 'You won't be able to meet the demand?'

'Yes,' came the reply from an editor who had struggled through the first chapter, 'the photocopier's broken.'

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.

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