Today I had lunch with the Prime Minister.
It was not a one-on-one, sadly (or maybe thankfully), but in fact a Queensland Media Club lunch, graced by the Right Honourable John Howard MP, Prime Minister of Australia, a bunch of Liberal and National party heavyweights, a contingent of press secretaries and government advisers, and a relative shiteload of local Brisbane businesspeople.
So many people in suits.
So much pressure to use the right cutlery and not spill iced Pepsi down the front of my shirt.
Anyway, I was sent to cover the event, being the station's "political" journo at the moment. I'll get to why my presence why inevitably unnecessary later, but first I must tell you about my First Ever Attempt to Ask the Prime Minister A Question.
Mr Howard was in town for a little bit of pre-election campaigning, cunningly disguised as... pre-election campaigning. He gave a speech extolling the achievements of the Coalition government over the past 11 years, and warned against installing a Labor government which would only tear down those achievements, and take us back to the bad old days of union dominance, high interest rates, and non-involvement in arguably illegal overseas military action. Well, maybe not that last one.
I sent my father a brief text message, the old Conservative that he is: "Having a nice prosciutto chicken with your mate Johnny Howard. So close I could throw a glass of Shiraz over him".
Response from father: "Do that and forget your inheritance!"
At the close of his speech, the assembled media were invited to ask questions. At that point, I started becoming nervous. Very nervous. So nervous, in fact, that my stomach started knotting, I began feeling ill, I began rocking softly back and forth in my chair. The microphone passed to me after three questions; I couldn't do it, and passed it on.
Then I started thinking. "I have to do this. I HAVE to. I have to ask a question. For pride. For my own self-confidence. For all those who keep calling me a journalist when I personally feel like the biggest fake in the world. This might go some way to convincing myself that I can actually be an honest-to-God journo, able to look the devil in the eye (figuratively speaking, of course), and ask something relevant, something meaningful. And maybe get an answer."
So I psyched myself up. I wrote the question out on the back of the copy of the speech, which Howard's minions, I mean press secs, had distributed to us before he began. I signalled for the mic, and it was cheerfully passed to me by a nice journo from The Australian. (I'd kinda half-hoped he wouldn't relinquish it, but suddenly it was in my hands). I gripped it tightly, and worked myself through the sharpest pang of stage fright I've ever had. I can't remember a time I was that nervous - and I've done all manner of stupid things in public and on purpose. But this arena was different: I wasn't in control. Howard was effortlessly in charge of his surroundings - watched on by business people and party members, why wouldn't he be?
But I would do it. I would do what my democratic right entitled me to do - question my elected leader. My sweaty fingers grabbed the mike, I held it halfway up to my dry mouth, as the Prime Minister finished his response to the previous question:
"... no man has ever uttered a truer expression, and that is: fairness in the workplace starts with the chance of a job. And by that yardstick fairness is at a 32-year high in Australia at the present time. Thank you."
And with that, he closed his folder and walked briskly away from the podium.
My heart, stomach, liver, appendix and colon flipped.
I had finally pysched myself ready to ask a question, I had the mic, I had the words in my brain just waiting to be spurted out, I was ready... and he finishes. Finishes.
Could. Not. Believe. It.
The tight knot of nerves in my stomach exploded in a burst of part relief (I'll admit it), but mostly anger. Not fair, not fair, that's not fair. Not when I was so ready, and so fired up.
I should have asked the first time the mic passed me, it's true. But it would have been crap, and blethering, and stuttered, and non-sensical. Moreso, I was too chicketshit.
So I learned my lesson today. Ask, and ask quickly. Don't be intimidated by the flashy lights and white linen of the Sofitel ballroom. Question and be damned.
Next time, Gadget. Next time...
And by the way, if you're interested in the question, it was in response to the PM talking about his "vision for 2020, a time when today's children will be young adults". In passing, he mentioned that for a country like Australia "there'll be no holiday from history or from the long struggle against terrorism." (my italics).
So my question was to be:
"You mention in your vision of 2020 that Australia will still be threatened by terrorism. Does this mean that the so-called "War on Terror" cannot be won, and will we still have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when today's children are, as you say, young adults?"
I reckon it would've been a good 'un, too.