THE SIGH

Short story

(Image sourced from The Australian Parliament House Website)

June fog shrouded the national Parliament – a huge birdnet of fog – draped over the isoscelean flagpole, the sloping roof-lawns. Thick still, at 11am.

Tracy didn’t notice.

Earlier, Tracy hadn’t noticed waking up in her rumpled bed. Or even while gobbling breakfast (a croissant) and driving to work at 7am to go through the Cabinet Committee documents once more. Her mind’s focus had been solely on the pile of files that were currently on the Taxi seat. Files she’d scrupulously compiled in seven colour-coded folders.

 

She jammed a Cabcharge card into the driver’s payment dock, snatched the receipt, and she and Jack exited hurriedly, Jack lugging the stack of plastic folders up the Senate entrance steps. The step-rails were wet with icy moisture, but she had no time to even consider a shiver. The two public servants were almost running. Tracy said: “Here, Jack give me some,” and grabbed the top four folders from the moving stack.

Puffing, Jack asked: “Why didn’t you bring the folders to the committee first thing this morning?” Jack was a junior from the clerical area, who’d been shanghaied into courier duty to help his manager.

“Don’t ask.” She liked Jack’s energy and his moussed coif, but when it came to bureaucratic hopes and fears, he had a lot to learn.

“What? Did the Dep-Sec think the Opposition wouldn’t raise the rural grants program?” Jack continued. “The whole mess was all over social media last week.”

“Don’t ask, kid,” she repeated, exasperated. “Leaving the folders down in the department was simply a stalling tactic. Let’s just get through security. It’s harder than ever to get into this building.”

They complied with chatty guards and metal detection machines. The TV in the entry lobby was tuned to the committee and she could see the Deputy Secretary on the screen, waving a pen, gesticulating a point.

“Come on Jack,” she hissed and they hurried across Kings Hall towards the committee rooms. The floor was shiny.

Just outside the Ministerial wing entrance, Tracy and Jack slipped into the closing lift, with its faux wooden paneling. As the short journey commenced to the top floor of Parliament, the lift’s husky voice whispered “level one” and ‘level two’.

Why would a paneled four-floor lift have a husky voice? Tracy thought. At least the husky voice had no responsibilities heaped on her ethereal shoulders. She was disembodied. Carried a bit of net weight every now and then.

While Tracy had the whole weight of the world in her arms. Well, half the weight. Jack carried the rest. The Regional Grants Sub-Committee files.

The door slid with a ding and Tracy reluctantly walked up the corridor to meeting room 2S2 on the Senate side.

While the walkway brimmed with space and natural light, each brisk step towards the committee doors seemed more suffocating, her chest constricting. The croissant she’d had for breakfast lodged in her stomach like a stick. Her folders were crammed with records which plotted the Cabinet sub-committee’s dire decisions, and they felt more leaden with every step. The blue carpet seemed to want to suck her under.

“Mind over matter, Tracy,” Tracy thought. She forced herself to breath evenly. But the very thought of being called up to the front table to be grilled by Senators was freaky.

Freaky but plausible. She had coordinated the sub-committee secretariat. She was responsible for the copious minutes in the folders, the notation of the recommendations.

She was Dead Meat.

“Jack,” she hissed. “Give me the rest of the folders. You don’t want to have to shout the section.”  For a moment Jack looked panicked, and quickly handed over his stack. Deal was – unless you were Branch-Head level or above in the Executive, the penalty for your face appearing on the Senate Estimates TV screen down in the office was a round of drinks for about 20 people. A fortune when half the workforce down in Prime Minister and Cabinet liked fancy cocktails.

“What should I do?”

“Sit up the back of the room,” she hissed, stacking the five remaining folders into the onerous pile.

She knew her Deputy Secretary was in a querulous, acidic mood because of what was in the files. Those odd spending patterns, mismatched amounts, even though everything was, well, sort of hunkydory.

Tracy knew there were problems, and in her mind, under her initial mental layer of “frightened” was a layer of “angry” and then one of “sad”. Angry she’d been forced to clean up the files. Sad she’d been dragged into this mess. She was a good person. Diligent from grade 3 primary school onwards, in fact from whenever she could first remember. 

Two weeks ago the article appeared in the paper about the $150,000 grant to the Minister’s cousin’s fish farm.

Oh. My. God!

The Minister’s office denied that their boss even knew the guy was a cousin – in fact he was a second cousin once removed. Distant, and on a far, thin branch of the family tree. On a twig!

“Not good enough!” the media thundered. “Overzealous journalism!” the Minister’s office claimed.

Did the Minister’s excuse wash? Not even with Tracy.

When the item was published, and the handle #fishyfishfarm gushed in the twitter stream, she knew her work was cut out to diligently fix things up, and come up with some explanations.

Tracy entered the large paneled Committee room. Jack peeled back into the rear of the room, just excited to be an observer.

A battalion of men and women in suits, about thirty or so, sat in serried ranks in the chairs behind the long witness desk.  The Senators were seated already with their cups of tea and strained banter. The crap Senators sat self-important and pompous, the good ones just sipped tea, looking relaxed and utterly menacing. From behind their big horseshoe table the Senators faced the senior public servants who sat bolt upright, like a row of clenched teeth.

Behind the Senators was the black tinted glass of the broadcasting box. Wraiths behind the glass moved occasionally and manipulated the cameras embedded in walls cavities. The cameras would turn mystically, pointing at something.

Now in the heart of the political show-trial, Tracy began to panic and sweat.

The Finance and Public Administration Estimates Committee was the main game for every politics analyst and writer in the country. This was where the heavy duty departments, Prime Minister and Cabinet (her own) and Finance, were gutted and filleted by Opposition Senators three times a year. She knew her performance would be scrutinized by her whole department, along with lots of journos, politicians and sarcastic tweeters out there in the ether, as the catastrophe unraveled on the TV monitors, on tablets, on computers, on their phones.

Nightmare!

If she was called to the front table, she’d be pinned in the glare of the lights, and would drown under the stream of questions. And even though her hair was cut and coloured for the occasion (a nice nutmeg tone with darker streaks) and she was wearing a new grey suit (to match the streaks) she’d look stupid, inevitably.

Ploys to buck her up, like the expensive grooming, did not make her feel that much better. Because the questions would not be pleasant, and her face would be frozen and her voice stretched and stumbling. The documents were Cabinet-in-confidence, so she’d refuse to table them and look evasive as well, and “evasive” meant sneaky.

She’d look like a prize goose and she’d let everyone down, and have the senior Opposition Senator on the hammer of her whole branch. That’s was the fearful scenario – they’d skip her Branch Head, cut to the chase, and call the officer in charge of the secretariat (her!) and she’d be sitting there, under full scrutiny, the weakest link. And she’d be sitting next to the Deputy Secretary and the Minister for Finance (who was the repping Senator). That was her worst fear. What a mess.

Tracy surveyed the scene.

All the Senators seemed to be in position. Some Senators just sat there saying nothing for the whole day, in some sort of a Senatorial trance. Words going in one ear and tumbling out the other. She couldn’t understand why they bothered turning up except that the biscuits at tea break were exceptionally good. There were quite a number of non-performers at the head table, along with a harried Greens Senator who was covering two committees at the same time scratched his head in consternation.

She recognised the turgid, wispy haired Senator from the National Party who once asked the committee exactly what is an opportunity cost?  What a shocker! Another senator had retorted helpfully, horridly, that opportunity cost was the loss to the taxpayer from the difference between electing a smart Parliamentarian to a seat, and a dumb one. The National Party man didn’t even get the joke, though everyone snickered and grab was on AM the following morning preceded by the intro: “ … things got nasty in Senate estimates last night …”

Unfortunately at this point of the morning, the witnesses, including her Deputy Secretary, one Mr Denis Bradbury AO PSM, were at the mercy of couple of the smarter Senators, demanding accountability.

The two Senators sat with, no doubt, double-shot takeaway coffees from the Press Gallery coffee cart, and were switched on. Obviously briefed up, they hogged the microphone while the others just withered back like bleached grass because of shyness, laziness or because they couldn’t think of anything to say.

She reached her Branch Head who sat in the front row of the theatre seating, directly behind the Deputy Secretary and Minister, and slipped her the folders. Tracy made sure her face was averted from the cameras. She didn’t want to shout the section a round of cocktails. Would have cost more than $200!

“All Cabinet-in-confidence,” she whispered. The Branch Head who styled herself “firm but fair” smiled politely and nodded, sculpted blonde hair staying rigid with spray.

“Thanks,” the Branch Head said curtly in a conspiratorial whisper. “The Senators have asked for the applications but won’t get them as they have Cabinet stamps, but there may be timing questions. There’s a prepared table showing when the applications were submitted?”

“Yes. It’s table three in the front of folder B. The first is the …”

“That’s all we need to throw the dog a bone!” hissed her boss unclipping the one sheet of paper Tracy had pointed to. The Branch Head slipped it in another folder. “The rest’s off-limits. Take the other folders and sit up the back and I’ll wave if I need you.”

The Branch Head turned her attention to the committee again, in total command of the paper trail.

Tracy backtracked with the seven folders, feeling relieved and off the hook.  She sat down on the nearest vacant chair beside a man in a suit, but noticed the man, who looked familiar, was writing shorthand notes. A gallery journalist. Yechhh! She stood up, went round the back of the room and sat with a couple of familiar faces from her Branch – Matilda and John – both Exec Level 2’s who’d wandered into the committee room for the shits and giggles. Jack was sitting beside them, entranced. They nodded to her with grim little smiles on their faces.

“It’s Tracy the Tracer,” said John with a wink.

Tracy tried to quench the adrenaline that was still animating her, and relax. Once out of the spotlight, this was the pleasurable vicarious quality of Senate estimates that underlings enjoyed. A moment in time to judge the quality of your superiors. Where skills (and the public service code of conduct) were severely tested. They immediately whispered that the Dep Sec wasn’t going too well.

“Hi Tracy – he’s struggling” said Matilda.

“He’s in no-man’s-land,” said John, out of the side of his mouth.

“Buried to his hips in the Minister’s mud,” said Matilda.

“Lot of incoming. Bodies everywhere,” said John.

“They’ve been demanding the grants criteria documents for the last half hour. Almost took it outside to an in-camera session,” said Matilda. “You’d have missed the last barney when you drove up, but Bradbury actually admitted we recalculated the costings.” 

Jack, sitting on the other side of her comrades, chuckled.

“Bring it on!” Jack said, quite loudly.           

John and Matilda frowned without looking at the young man, while Tracy grimaced, smoothed her skirt, and finally overcame her palpitations. She took a deep breath and tuned into the Q and A. Voices were tense.

“No Senator, you cannot interpret the figures like that…” said the Dep Sec.

“Well how could you interpret them?” said the young and chubby Senator in a lethal voice of sweet reason.

“I think … ” said the ponderous Minister, with the silvery hair of an accountant, “You’ve asked that question several times, and I think Mr Bradbury has answered it….”

“Not properly,” said the Senator.

“Are you questioning Mr Bradbury’s competence, Senator?” snapped the Minister.

“I think it’s very rude of you to say such a thing,” said the Senator. “All I am doing is exploring further Mr Bradbury’s answers. I’m attempting to be as courteous as possible. That’s my job. I’d ask for common courtesy from you as well, Minister.”

He went on: “Now Mr Bradbury, you say that the department has allocated these funds on the basis of need, and yet, most of the funds, the vast bulk, have gone to marginal electorates held by the Deputy Prime Minister’s party.”

“That’s not the case,” said the Finance Minister.

“With respect, I’m asking Mr Bradbury, not you, mate.”

That’s okay, she thought, the Minister was covering for the Dep Sec now, though it made the Dep Sec look weak and defensive. But hell – the final decisions for the grants were by the Minister and his egregious staff in the Cabinet sub-committee. The Minister might as well help with a bit of bluster.

“With respect!” boomed the Minister at the impudent Senator, “Have you got wax in your ears?”

Down in the Department, heads would have turned to the TV monitors and no doubt the newsrooms in the gallery. Raised voices. There would be a hashtag #waxinhisears all over the ether. This was the sort of moment that took off into the media. Moments that she dreaded.

“Haha,” chuckled Jack next to her. “Wax!”

“I have told you before Senator,” said the Minister in his slow, world weary voice, “Those funds, those vital infrastructure funds that this Government is delivering, are for rural and regional towns – and unfortunately for your party, you don’t hold as many of those seats as we do. That is why you are out of power, and why more is spent in rural Australia.”

“Yes, but that’s not quite true, is it Mr Bradbury,” said the calm, lethal, chubby, persistent Senator. “Because the grants in seven or so rural and regional seats we do hold, are a lot less than the grants going to Government seats. And some of your seats get two or three grants. It’s an inequitable split. That’s what your figures tell you.”

“You cannot interpret these figures like that,” said Mr Bradbury. “All grants have been evaluated rigorously by local coordinating committees, then the Department.”

“With final selection by the very partisan Cabinet subcommittee,” snapped the Senator.

“After evaluation and recommendation by the politically neutral Department,” said the Minister.

Tracy’s heart sank again. Against her better judgement, she had added the projects that the department hadn’t ticked on merit to the list, after being instructed to do so by the Minister’s chief of staff (and the Dep Secs approval).

The list became too wide. Some very flimsy proposals had received Cabinet approval. And then the committee chose projects that hadn’t even been ticked, including #fishyfishfarm, but being a ‘Cabinet’ decision, those non-recommendations were hidden.

*

Months ago, she’d carried similar folders for her Branch Head to the Minister’s office. The grumpy old Chief of Staff with his jowl-wobble, and a sardonic young staffer had sat in a sunlit meeting room with the TV monitor turned low and they’d gone through the folders prior to the meeting with the Minister.

The staffer had said: “you need to widen the choice. Widen your recommendations. The political mix is not good enough,” offending Tracy as they’d spent two weeks finalising the list.

Tracy’s Branch Head had looked at the staffer girl, who frankly looked no more than 23 and with a curt tone, said: “they’ve been rigorously assessed against the criteria, Melinda.”

And the blood had rushed to Tracy’s head who blurted: “If we widen the choice, you’ll get hammered in Senate Estimates….” Melinda had glared daggers at her. And the jowly old Chief of Staff had said: “yes, well….you can handle that. That’s what you’re paid for, after all.”

Tracy had been appalled.

*

Tracy was still freaking and seething all at the same time as she watched her prediction come true.

The chubby Senator said: “But are you happy with the decisions made against the published criteria? Are you happy that dodgy projects were picked by partisan politicians on the Cabinet subcommittee, Mr Secretary?”

There was a pause. The Minister didn’t intervene this time. Instead he sipped his tea. The Dep Sec was left swinging in the breeze and expected to answer a political question. OMG! thought Tracy. OMG! She felt Matilda tense beside her. She heard Jack inhale and stop breathing.

There was a frisson in the room. One of those great political/media/departmental frissons where everyone watching knew that the Dep Sec’s next words could be lethal – for both him and for the Government. Even his lengthy pause before answering was pretty bad. It signaled he thought the process of grant allocation sucked, and that he had to choose words very carefully if he didn’t want to lie to the committee.

”Senator, I’m happy with all projects that are ultimately considered by the Cabinet subcommittee, because they were all eminently worthy of grants,” said the Dep Sec blandly.

“Not bad,” whispered Matilda. “Dead … pan.”

“But you can’t be happy that the average grants total to regional Government electorates is around $2 million each, and to Opposition electorates is less than a million?”

Another pause.

“Senator, all grants are different,” Mr Bradbury explained. “We aren’t comparing apples with apples. Some projects are by nature more expensive than others. Electorates are not like children where you have to be absolutely even-handed and they get exactly the same flavoured chuppa-chup.”

Wow! thought Tracy. I’d never have the guts to say that! #electoralchuppachups would probably rip through the twittersphere.

The chubby Opposition interlocutor was tapping his pen sharply and not looking impressed at all. Everyone in the room knew the Dep Sec was creating some metaphoric McGuffin – a weak diversion to steer the committee from the dodgy political fix that was the Cabinet Committee process. It wasn’t working. Two Opposition Senators conferred in whispers and the chubby one smiled.

He opened his mouth with a riposte and began, in a sardonic tone: “Mr Bradbury …” when the clock-spotting committee chair, a Government Senator, quickly blurted: “It being twelve thirty, its now time for lunch”.

The room fell silent, stunned. 

At the same time Deputy Secretary Bradbury’s impassive mask dropped, and then a great gust of nervous anxiety blew across the table into his open microphone. The Dep-Sec’s sigh boomed and reverberated through the committee-room speakers like a powerful wind through some narrow canyon.

Laughter broke out throughout the room and swelled in a genteel wave. Polite, but nonetheless, laughter. The Senators chuckled as they tapped their folders into place. Committee staff laughed. A couple of journos in the next row grinned at each other and nodding knowingly. Even Tracy chuckled, tho’ it was a chuckle of a nervous nature.

Everyone had laughed.

Except the Minister.