Monday, 13 May 2013

Canberra’s Night of Nights

Written by

Ben takes us behind the scenes of Canberra’s night of nights, and pulls back the curtain of glitz and glamour to reveal the hard work and dedication of the artists who make it all happen

“This really is our grand final, you know? Our Oscars. Our Eurovision.” The young intern hands me a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a donut, and scurries away, no time for idle chit-chat when there’s work to be done.

I’m on the floor of Swan Central: the enormous hangar-like structure from which the Federal Treasurer manipulates the economy and controls all of our lives, and it’s D-Day. The Federal Budget will be handed down tomorrow, and the vast spaces of the top-secret facility are crammed with people and equipment, as Swan’s staff ensure that the production goes off without a hitch.

I sit down with Arthur Spandon, one of the senior choreo-budgeteers in charge of Tuesday night’s performance. “I started out in dance,” he explains, “but then I was headhunted as part of Labor’s push to make budgets more exciting for the audience. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but then I realised that budgets are a lot like dances really.”

I’m fascinated. “How so?” I ask. Spandon looks startled, and runs away without another word, but I think I’m getting his drift. Like a dance, a budget needs to have everything in precisely the right place to make sure nothing goes wrong. Each foot must land in the right position, or everything might collapse. Tomorrow night Wayne Swan will do the dance of fiscal responsibility, and the several thousand people working like bees all around me are here to make that dance a thing of beauty.

“It’s obviously a huge production,” says Steffi Asteroth, Swan’s chief of staff and au pair. “There’s so much riding on this. And so much time and effort has gone into it. The costumes alone took eight months to sew by hand, and we’ve had forty different drafts of the script. And a Budget doesn’t come cheap: every year they get more sophisticated; this year’s will have over 200 special-effects shots in it.”

Special-effects? Yes: in the old days a Treasurer did things in the practical way; if he needed to ascend to the ceiling of the House, it would be done with wires. But today such effects are managed with CGI – from where I sit I can see Swan himself rehearsing in his motion-capture suit – and Asteroth has been in charge of overseeing the effects team to see that it’s all seamless. When Swan starts manipulating the hologram of the solar system floating in front of him in order to explain the cuts to the arts budget, there’ll be hell to pay if any glitches show up.

So what’s it like overseeing a production that, by most conservative estimates, is three times bigger than any Hollywood movie ever made? “I’ll admit there’s a lot of pressure,” says Asteroth, frenetically kneading a Whitlam-head stress ball. ‘But if you’re committed to Labor values, like I am, you welcome that pressure. You embrace the chance to serve your country in this way.

Yes, Labor values. Among all the set designers and lighting rigs and gaffers and horse wranglers milling about the budget floor, the sense that everyone is part of something bigger is palpable. I can see Swan trying on his feathered Treasurer-Helmet in a last-minute fitting, and it’s obvious just how much this man cares about the movement of egalitarianism and freedom, of which he has inherited the legacy.

As Asteroth shows me around the wardrobe department, the sequins seem infused with the blood, sweat and tears of workers long dead. This will be a spectacular production, yes, but the spectacle will all be in service of fairness and social progress. The theme song, “Prayer For The Small-Revenued”, written for the occasion by Bernard Fanning, makes the purpose of this Budget clear.

But what will actually be in the Budget? Asteroth refers me to head writer Graeme Foofcleft, who shows me the storyboards. Giving “spoilers” would obviously be unforgivable, but Foofcleft makes a point of emphasising some things.

“It’s about character,” says Foofcleft. “A lot of past Budgets have been very plot-driven, all about clever twists and exciting chases. Like unexpected tax cuts, health insurance rebates and so on – all about where the story’s taking place. But with this we’re going back to basics and asking, who are the people of the Budget? They’re just like you and me – in fact technically they are you and me – so let’s explore that a bit, let’s get to know these people, these mums and dads and dole bludgers, and look at what makes them tick. It turns out that getting lots of money from the government makes them tick mostly, so we’ll be exploring that side of things a bit.”

There’s no doubt it’s an ambitious endeavour: pulling off an entire country’s Budget armed only with one man’s crazy dream, a multimillion-dollar budget and a huge staff. What drives a man like Wayne Swan to keep on doing this year after year? Steffi Asteroth knows treasurers better than most: she orchestrated Peter Costello’s famous “Napalm budget” of 1997, and she was a focus-puller when Paul Keating released fifty leopards into the chamber during the 1985 budget. She’s seen budgets from inside and outside, and she takes a moment to ponder the question.

“It’s love,” she declares at last. “Wayne Swan loves this country, and he loves its people, and he genuinely believes they deserve the best Budget money can buy. He wants to make his mark, he wants to leave a lasting impression upon Australia, and that’s what keeps his passion burning. He once had me over to his place for a key party, and he said to me then, ‘Steffi, when I die, I just want to be remembered as a man who changed the world and held millions of people’s lives in the palm of my hand.’ That humility is typical of Swanny.”

And it’s true: all his staff seem to adore him, and all are single-minded in their pursuit of Budget excellence. As I watch the Treasurer being fussed over by technicians fitting him with explosive squibs, I can’t help but marvel at his commitment to making his mark. Truly this is man who wants to leave a legacy of sensation, wonder, and equitable but responsible redistribution of wealth. And for Wayne Swan, this Budget is the acid test of that legacy. As Fraser said to Howard, you’re going out there a nobody, but you’re coming back a star.

Ben  Pobjie

Ben has not one but TWO hilarious books out now. Surveying the Wreckage and Superchef.

Follow him on twitter @benpobjie