The Governor-General and Mrs Hayden
have pleasure in inviting Mr P.J. Hunt
to dinner on Friday, 2 November 1990
at Government House, Canberra, at 7.30 pm.
Lounge Suit. Cars at 10 pm.
Sounded pretty pleasurable to me too.
I was invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ACFOA (the Australian Council For Overseas Aid). ACFOA is the umbrella organisation for the overseas aid industry. All the members of the ACFOA executive were invited.
Government House in Canberra was originally built as a sheep station and it retains the feel of a rural mansion, even if it is more mansion than rural these days.
The drive to the front gate is down a long and elegant avenue of trees. We arrived a bit early. We'd been told the gatekeeper would not let us in until the appointed hour. So we stopped by the road to wait.
Within minutes others of our party arrived and stopped. Soon we looked like a revival meeting waiting for the preacher to arrive. I was tempted to start up a Scripture Song but it was a rather ecumenical group, and I didn't want to embarrass those who wouldn't know the words.
As 7.30 came, we drove the 200 metres to the gate as if we had all arrived exactly on time. Which we had.
The gatekeeper checked our names off as we presented our Entree cards. Unlike most databases in the real world, his list matched our list. Then each car drove up under the portico and uniformed people opened doors, saluted, said, "Welcome to Government House," as we got out trying to look like this happened to us every morning at the office, and someone took the car out of sight.
Inside we were each given our name card inside which was a seating plan for dinner and the name of our partner.
Spouses were split up and I found myself partnering Margaret Armstrong, wife of Bill, head of the Overseas Service Bureau--the Australian Volunteers Abroad folk.
Judith and I were already split up, on account of it being too difficult for her to come. She was still in Melbourne not altogether regretting missing the ordeal.
A very tall young man in a Rinso-white uniform said in a very loud voice 20 cms from my right ear, "YOUR EXCELLENCIES, MAY I PRESENT MR PHILIP HUNT."
I was reminded of an old radio program in which they sent up this sort of thing. "May I present Mr and Mrs Come, and their son, Fairding Come."
There, large as life and suddenly quite intimidating were the Governor-General and H.E. Mrs Hayden.
Mr Hayden said something to me that I didn't listen to, so I replied, "Good evening, sir."
Mrs Hayden said, "How are you?" and I replied, "Good evening, Ma'am," taking a step into the room as I spoke.
In that moment I realised my response demonstrated I had not listened to her question, so I lobbed "Fine thank you" back over my shoulder as I continued to walk into the room.
Mr and Mrs Hayden stood alone in the door plotting how they could ensure I never got invited again.
Tony Hill, the G-G's speech writer gave me an orange juice and proved a relaxing and accomplished conversationalist and my heart rate went down to 350 by the time dinner was served.
We found our partners in a series of swerves and manoeuvres rather like a geriatric game of musical chairs and marched to table.
The table seemed to be 500 feet long and Margaret and I found our way to the middle where we were seated next to the G-G and his partner, Dr Merran Evans, the pleasant wife of our foreign minister, Gareth.
About as many servants as guests ensured our chairs and serviettes were tucked in and that we tucked into a three course meal which we had to spoon onto our plates from a huge serving dish held near one's left ear.
The seating arrangements were skilfully designed so that people who had any real business with one another were separated. I discussed life in general with Margaret and Merran and discovered our foreign minister's wife is a Ph.D in Econometrics (with which I pretended to have a passing familiarity). She lectures at Monash, and having seen the dearth of textbooks on a visit to Uganda with her spouse, she collected over 1,000 surplus books from her colleagues and shipped them over. I suggested she should set up a relief agency called MEESA (Merran Evans Educational Support Agency).
Sitting opposite me was Philip Ruddock, the shadow minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. He spoke with the G-G about his visits to Vietnam and Cambodia with World Vision.
The G-G spoke with me and Merran about golf, horse riding and cross-country skiing, among his latest passions. I was tempted to talk about Richard, the Steve Vizard show and the dandelion weeds in my lawn, but suddenly it sounded a bit dull.
After dessert the servants delivered a bowl of clear water and a knife and fork.
Fortunately I had the presence of mind to observe that one could not do anything to a bowl of clear water with a knife and fork. The fruit came soon after and the purpose of the finger bowl was made clear.
When the G-G had finished one of his many sentences he stood up, catching most of the rest of us between adjectives. Our chairs were withdrawn and we staggered to our feet to retire to the drawing room for coffee.
En route, my partner on my arm said with a start, "Oh Heavens, I've still got my serviette." Not just any old serviette mind you, but a Government House embroidered napkin.
"Put it in your purse quickly," I advised, figuring petty crime the lesser embarrassment.
I cornered our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for 30 seconds to ask about tax deductibility for Romania.
"Yes, I thought you would ask me about that. Splendid idea, but you will have to ask the Treasurer. He decides things like that." Then he added, "I thought you were going to whinge about something."
"Not at all," I replied, "I am often praising you." Perhaps he noticed a tinge too much sarcasm in my voice.
Later someone commented about the P.M.'s vigorous responses to Bishop Hollingworth and I commented, "I'm trying to work out why when Hollingworth delivers 20,000 postcards to Hawke they get national media attention; yet when I deliver the same number of postcards to the Foreign Minister we see hardly a ripple. Next time we should conspire together to have an argument."
"We don't usually need to conspire, to have an argument," replied Senator Evans.
"Gimme a break," I replied simulating woundedness.
Wendy Poussard from the International Women's Development Agency, and Wendy Rose from Save the Children, presented Senator Evans with some Guatemalan worry dolls, "because you have had so many worries lately." (In Guatemala, children tell their worries to tiny peasant dolls and put them under their pillows. In the morning, their worries are gone).
At the stroke of 10, our hosts said good-night and disappeared. The man in the Rinso-white uniform invited us to the front door where our cars arrived. "So that's what Cars at 10 means," I thought. I wondered when had been the last time that the most expensive car in an official dinner party had been a Commodore Berlina.
We had enjoyed a splendid meal, and a special experience. Whether the occasion had done much to change the worlds of the poor I must leave in the Lord's hands.