An Unexpected Opportunity
‘Is your book going to be very boring?’
She is half my age and she has asked me this without malice or humour, as if it were the only logical question to follow. I had just laid out my vision for the work where boxed notes on asylum seeker policy would be placed alongside refugee stories – like a textbook.
Then she says, ‘Why don’t you interview the prime ministers? Sometimes you can get a ticket to Melbourne for a hundred dollars.’
I look at her and marvel at the audacity of youth. But after she leaves, I manage to swallow my pride and pull up my search engine. I learn that Malcolm Fraser tweets regularly. He even responded to an abusive message that he is not the humanitarian saint the media paints him to be. With nothing to lose, I send him a Facebook message.
Weeks later, a little red balloon above the speech bubble icon notifies me of a message from no less a person than the twenty-fourth prime minister of Australia. He has given me his email address. In July 2014, I send off seventeen carefully researched questions and wait eagerly for his reply.
I wait for days, then weeks, and eventually forget all about it. In September, I am standing in the second checkout queue of my local Foodland, flicking through my emails when I read this on my phone: Would you be available to come for a meeting with Mr Fraser? Upon hearing that I will be flying in from Adelaide, Mr Fraser’s assistant offers to organise a phone conversation instead. But this is too good an opportunity to pass up.
On Wednesday, 24 September 2014, I lunch alone at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne. My lunch – iced lemon tea and wonton noodle soup – is going to cost me $25, probably twice what I would have paid at student haunts on Swanston Street nearby. This is, however, the nearest restaurant to Mr Fraser’s office at 101 Collins Street and I don’t want to be in a fluster before the meeting.
At a quarter to two, I step from the bright noon light into a darkened foyer with towering columns and sculptures in reflective pools of water. Light and sound are muted. This is a place of money and power. I share a smooth and silent elevator ride with a woman carrying freshly pressed clothes from the dry cleaners. In the small TV monitor, I watch newsflash footage – a young man who threatened and stabbed police officers has been shot and killed. Apparently, he had links to Islamic State.
On the thirty-second floor, Mr Fraser’s assistant advisor introduces herself as Sarah. She ushers me into his office at two o’clock and I whisper to her, ‘How long do I have? Is it still one hour?’
‘Yes, if that’s OK.’
Inside the door, Mr Fraser is standing up to shake my hand. He towers over me, looking somewhat stern, almost exactly like the photo on the back jacket of his latest book, Dangerous Allies, his critique on the political relationship between America and Australia.
I reach into my Crumpler bag and pull out a box of Bracegirdle chocolates – uniquely South Australian. I also give him a copy of my father’s memoirs. He doesn’t say anything. He sits down behind his formidable desk and looks at the book. Still standing, like a schoolgirl in her headmaster’s office, acutely conscious of the silence, I try to fill the space between us with words.
‘This is my father’s story and it includes the history of Malaya, Taiwan, and Singapore. He was born in 1940. My aunt was born in 1930.’ I am rambling, trying to find connections; he was also born in 1930. He looks at me quizzically.
‘You weren’t born in 1930,’ he says, finally.
‘No, not me, my aunt.’
‘That’s more like it,’ he smiles.
I relax, a little. He invites me to sit. On the desk between us lies a printout of my seventeen questions, with annotations and the odd question mark.
‘So, how shall we do this?’ he asks.
Because I don’t think one hour will be enough to cover everything, I say, ‘I might rephrase some questions and rearrange them for time.’
I press the red button on my voice memo app and ask ‘How did you know that it was good and right for people of different races and backgrounds to come to Australia when, in the 1970s, Australia was predominantly Caucasian?’
The next instalment of ‘Australia: Island of Refuge #2‘ will be posted next Friday, 8 March 2019.