Martin McKenzie-Murray's skewering of the Canberra bureaucracy doesn't have enough bite to hit home

Author Martin McKenzie-Murray. Picture: Reuben Acciano
Author Martin McKenzie-Murray. Picture: Reuben Acciano
  • The Speechwriter, by Martin McKenzie-Murray. Scribe, $29.99.

Looking over the barely decipherable notes I scrawled as I read The Speechwriter, Martin McKenzie-Murray's debut novel, a few things stand out. Apparently, it only took me four or five pages to conclude that Toby, the book's titular character, is a "nerdish try-hard". Premature perhaps, but fair. After all, this a thirty-something guy who says things like "pissant" and "colour me chastened", a guy who talks about "reading the Russians". It's little wonder his colleagues call him a "weird prick".

"Satire..?", "Absurdist" and "FARCE" follow in fairly quick succession, each descriptor building to a disappointingly inelegant crescendo: "Implausible much?" I turn to page 86 to find that my query relates to a scene in which Toby is talking to his new boss at the Department of Arts, Innovation and Robots over Skype from a hotel room in DC.

"So you're in Washington for the inauguration, hey?" says John, the department's bald, overweight director of communications.

"That's right. It's very exciting".

"So who is it this year? Cowboys, Steelers?"

It's dad joke material, except that it isn't. John really doesn't know what's going down in DC It's also the kind of cheap gag that is usually accompanied by a "boom tish'", which is a shame because the scene isn't without its moments of comparatively higher-priced humour.

"I had expected everyone in government to share my interests, to be similarly electrified by them", writes Toby.

Setting aside his misgivings about John's inferior intellect, Toby soon finds himself in Canberra, and in the department's employ. Among the many demeaning jobs he's tasked with is a ministerial statement on the opening of a new toilet block at the Sydney Opera House. Working from the belief that "when life gives you lemons, make vintage Château Margaux", Toby produces a piece of overwritten nonsense that is top-and-tailed with Winston Churchill references.

"And so it is hoped that these new amenities will not only facilitate basic human relief, but allow patrons some quiet contemplation - just as Churchill found."

Predictably enough, Toby's boss is less than impressed. Apart from anything else, Toby sent the draft directly to the minister's office, a massive faux pas which leads John to explain a process that will be familiar to anyone who's ever come within cooee of the public service. "It goes through me, then the policy divisions, then the Dep Sec, then back to me, then we repeat this process roughly 37 times." Farcical? No doubt. Satirical? Not really. By this point I'm thinking The Speechwriter is more Tom Stoppard than Evelyn Waugh, and that's being generous, but back to the action.

Toby is hardly chastened by John's dressing down. In fact, what follows the toilet block stuff-up is a series of increasingly reckless stunts - each inspired, according to Toby, by his "nihilistic carpe diem vibe" - which do nothing to harm his career prospects. Instead, they light the fuse on the rocket that delivers him to the speechwriting mothership: the Prime Minister's office.

Measured against the yardstick of schoolboy humour, what then transpires could fairly be described as moderately amusing. Measured against higher standards and, well, the evaluation becomes somewhat less flattering. The Speechwriter is juvenilia laid on thick and you can see most of the jokes coming from a country mile away.

It's hardly a secret that our politics is a disgrace or that the public service is bloated with Bundy card boneheads. These are things that warrant debate and discussion. They're also fair game for some good old fashioned satire. However, that's not what's on offer here.

The Speechwriter seems less concerned with skewering the status quo than it is with laughing along with it, indeed maintaining it. You just don't get the sense that McKenzie-Murray is deeply troubled by the prevailing order of things, which is curious given the experience he brings to the table as a former government staffer and one-time speechwriter. Granted, this could have more to do with the author's execution than his intentions, but there's no disputing the end result.

It's not hard to imagine Scott Morrison smirking along to some of The Speechwriter's tired Canberra jokes before returning his attention to, I don't know, reputation laundering or posing for Instagram-worthy "content". Why? Because there's no bite here, nothing remotely threatening to those in power.

It's often said that contemporary culture is "beyond" satire. That's nonsense. There's much to be said about some of the issues the book skirts around, it's just that the author has opted for jokes about smelly prawns rather than a searing assessment of, say, the toxic workplace culture at parliament house or the ever-revolving door at The Lodge.

This story A tired, harmless Canberra romp first appeared on The Canberra Times.