It’s not every day that I receive an invitation to a barbecue hosted by a former Prime Minister. But so it was last week, when a letter arrived from Kevin Rudd MP inviting me – as a newly enrolled elector in his Federal seat – to join him for a barbie in a local park.
I accepted with alacrity. Despite my years of working in daily newspapers, I’ve only ever once before been up close with a PM (current or former). Two years ago I was given a one-on-one interview with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. It went well and resulted in a better story than I (or, happily, my editor) had expected. After the formal interview was over, I asked Key for a photo together – my mother was demanding it! He laughed, put his arm around me, and we grinned for the camera.
And so, I thought a photo with Kevin “07” Rudd (Australia’s Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010) would be just the thing for my blog. But you will not see one here, and this is why.
The invitation said 12.30pm-2.30pm. I turned up at 1pm and there was no sign of Kevin, just a long queue of people at the sausage sizzle tent. Two large bright yellow marquees were set up on an expanse of concrete.
Strange how the word “park” had given me a vision of grass, but never mind. I joined the queue and got a sausage on a piece of dry white bread, topped with tasty fried onions and a choice of sauce (tomato or barbecue). There was a paper napkin to clean up any errant sauce, but nothing at all to drink. Not even water, or red cordial to rev the crowd up.
The only shade was a dappled patch under a couple of spindly trees growing out of holes in the concrete. A middle-aged couple scoffing sausages were already there, but when I joined them and murmured about the heat, they moved quickly away.
While I was still eating my sausage, someone said “Here he comes!” and along strolled Kev, wearing dark long trousers, a white open-necked shirt and a big smile. He shook a few hands and then sensibly moved under the marquee. More hand-shaking, and then I noticed that something odd had happened. A long queue had formed. A queue of more than 100 people waiting to shake Kevin’s hand and have their picture taken. I joined it and stood for a couple of minutes behind a man wearing an English style cloth cap. But it was hot and sticky out there, and the queue was crawling, so I moved to sit on some concrete steps next to the queue. I was content to wait and people watch until the queue got shorter.
I positioned myself near the top of the queue where Kevin was chatting to each group in turn. I seemed to be the only person there by myself. He had a line in patter: Hello, I’m Kevin, welcome to the neighbourhood. Where do you live? Which street? What school do you go to? The usual stuff. Anyone who had something specific to talk about seemed to lower their voices, and a woman wearing a bright yellow tag on her blouse that said “Kevin Rudd’s Office” took notes on her clipboard. Kev sipped on a bottle of water between handshakes. Smart man, he brought his own along!
The electorate’s an eclectic lot. Some had dressed up (high heels and skirts and makeup), but there were boardshorts and runners, jeans and t-shirts, saris, hijabs, a woman in full faux camouflage gear and mirrored sunglasses, umbrellas to beat the heat (very sensible). Babies in prams, university student house-mates, they’d all come along to see their VIP MP. One couple looked like they were still on their way home from a big Friday night out. Some were clutching their invitations, but I suspect that some were also simply passers-by, attracted by the aroma of free snags and the famous face.
After an hour, the queue was as long as ever. I had a chat to Adrian from Kevin’s office. Adrian was in charge of taking photos of Kevin and his guests if there was no-one else to do it for them. And if they’d not brought a camera with them, he took one on the office camera to send to them. Adrian told me that the barbecues are held every quarter in different parks around the electorate. I told him I’d made a tactical error in getting out of the queue and that the whole affair was not quite what I’d expected. “What did you expect?” he asked. I pondered. “Something more…social.” Ah, yes, said Adrian. It usually is, people usually stand around and chat to each other, and Kevin moves around in the crowd. But for some reason, today they’ve chosen to queue.
The spot in the queue where I’d been reached Kevin after about an hour. It still snaked back with another 100 people. I take another mark: a man in a red cap is the last person in the line. Ten minutes later, there are another half dozen people behind him. Time for me to go. The heat is making my head swim. The weather is too nice to waste Saturday on a politician.
As I leave, I thank Kev’s team behind the barbecue. Their queue has vanished and they’re munching on the left-overs. I tell them I leave reluctantly because I’d love to have a photo with Kevin for my blog. “Oh, too bad…” they say. “We’re so sorry.”
Kevin may be a good politician. He may be a good local MP. But the man needs lessons in how to throw a proper barbecue.