The twin-engine turbo-prop lands in a downpour, skidding to a halt outside the terminal. ‘We haven’t seen rain like this in Burnie for 18 months,’ the taxi driver tells me. ‘What’s in all those bags?’ A bicycle, I tell him. And a tent. He gives me a pitying look and wishes me good luck.
Camping is a tradition on Pollie Pedal, the charity bike ride founded by Tony Abbott, now in its 18th year. These days they book the Prime Minister into more solid accommodation, along with the team of fixers and advisors that he unavoidably carries in his wake. This year’s excursion to northern Tasmania is one of the shortest rides ever – 500 km over four days – truncated in the hope that the PM could ride the lot. Events intervene, however, and Abbott arrives fresh from Canberra with the news that he’ll be flying to Melbourne in the morning for Malcolm Fraser’s funeral and to Singapore on Sunday to pay his respects to Lee Kuan Yew.
The PM is there at the start the next morning in suit and tie, mingling with the pedalers as they pre-load with toast, cereal and bananas provided by some of the 19 volunteers who keep the show on the road. Abbott invites the Salvation Army’s Captain Kelvin Alley, a Pollie Pedal veteran, to deliver a benediction as the riders prepare to roll out. With more than 5,000 metres of climbing ahead Alley turns to Psalm 121 for inspiration: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.’
Before departing the PM anoints Angus Taylor, the muscular Member for Hume, as acting ride captain. Taylor, a Rhodes scholar who was brought up on a sheep farm near Nimmitabel, NSW, rides like a pro, driving the pace at the front of the A-bunch with two other strong riders, prime ministerial advisor Craig Maclachlan and Australia Post’s Dugald MacArthur. Stephen Hodge, a six-time Tour de France rider and unofficial Pollie Pedal coach, says he’s never ridden with a stronger parliamentary rider than Taylor: ‘He reminds me of Labor’s Bernie Ripoll in his heyday, but as an all round rider Taylor has the edge.’
I grab premium position in the campground at Deloraine with absolute waterfront views on the banks of the Meander River. I’m relieved the rain has stopped as I pitch my $29.95 K-Mart tent. Taylor’s tent looks like it could survive a blizzard on the northwest ridge of Annapurna. Martin Cross, chairman of Medicines Australia, arrives in the style of Evelyn Waugh’s William Boot with a tonne of equipment including, quite possibly, cleft sticks and a collapsible canoe.
The long weekend of riding weaves in and out of the marginal seats of Bass, Braddon and Lyons. Years of pork barreling means we encounter few if any potholes. However, commissaire Graeme Northey, known to riders as Kommondant, warns of another cycling hazard; the region’s reputation for road-kill.
The A-bunch is pounding along at 45 km/h when our acting captain takes a tumble. I see it happen, as if in slow motion, from two wheels back, swerving to dodge the splayed MP. Taylor lands as smoothly as a Hollywood stuntman, bouncing back on his feet to utter Tommy Simpson’s immortal last words on the slopes of Mount Ventoux: ‘Put me back on my bike.’
Yet as seasoned cyclists know, while skin heals Shimano doesn’t. The bracket holding Taylor’s derailleur has snapped. Mechanic Braden McKay tries to find a replacement part with no luck. Fortunately, Lyons MP Eric Hutchinson pulls some strings and Taylor is soon leading the pack on a borrowed Colnago.
The 50 riders on Pollie Pedal this year raised over $500,000 for Carers Australia. Along the route carers turn out to tell us their stories. One lady tells me the gruesome details of her husband’s workplace accident that turned her into a full-time carer. ‘When they put him on the Disability Support Pension we were heartbroken,’ she said. ‘It carries such a stigma.’ The DSP’s reputation as a rorted entitlement makes life harder for those who genuinely need it. To support Carers Australia’s noble endeavours, go to carersaustralia.com.au.
On Sunday, with the PM en route to Singapore, we’re joined by Joe Hockey – sans lycra – at the Bridstowe Lavender Farm. The Treasurer is here to meet a Tasmanian celebrity, Bobbie the Bridstowe Bear, whose animated adventures are an internet sensation in China. A photo on the wall shows China’s Xi Jinping embracing Bobbie during his visit to Tasmania last year.
Successful businesses in Tasmania learn to fly under the radar, fearful of the attention of the Greens, a party intent on banishing all productive industry from the island. The misanthropic moral crusaders recently turned their attention to fish farming, instigating a Senate inquiry with the support of Labor. The fish farmers mistake was to grow their business too fast. ‘It’s actually my role as a Senator to provide checks and balances to such rapid economic expansion,’ the Greens’ Peter Whish Wilson tells the ABC.
The PM flies back overnight to join the ride for the final day, a 100km circuit from Launceston. At Cressy on the Norfolk Plains he performs his Clark Kent act, quickly changing into a suit for a press conference on the tax white paper before slipping back into his riding gear. The kids gather to wave him off, seeming remarkably un-phased. Surely, I said, this must have been the first time a prime minister had dropped by. He’s the first since Julia Gillard, one pupil tells me, before another pipes up: ‘and Kevin Rudd.’ Cressy, needless to say, is in a marginal seat.