Sweetness & Light

The Turnbull Skitterwagon

The year was 2015. Bob and Annette were in the market for a new car. Not that there was anything wrong with their old car, a sturdy Coalition Conservative, but they just felt in need of an upgrade. Perhaps something a little more luxurious, for longer trips.

So Bob and Annette drove down to their local Coalition car dealer, where they’d been buying their cars for decades. It was a fine retailer with a very solid reputation for value and honesty.

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Buyers never felt swindled when buying a Coalition. Sure, some of their models may have lacked a little in style, but they made up for that with market-leading reliability.

But when the couple arrived, they discovered that their trusted car dealership had been transformed. Gone were the building’s muted greys and blues, replaced by bright stripes and neon arrows. Workers were at that very moment installing a new sign above the dealership’s doors: “Turnbull Travel Company—Wheels of Tomorrow”.

Shaken, for they did not care for dramatic change, Bob and Annette tentatively stepped inside. They were greeted by salesman Dan, whose silvery suit appeared to be made from a flexible amalgam of enamel and chrome.

“Welcome to the future!” Dan said, his arms wide. “Welcome to your new world of innovation and excitement!”

Bob frowned. He cared even less for innovation and excitement than he did for change. A brief but awkward silence followed.

“Where are all the cars?” Bob finally asked.

“You mean, ‘Where are all the human-road interface relocation modules?’” Dan corrected. “Please examine this one. It’s our best-selling module of them all.” He pointed at a device. It had two wheels and streamers on its little handlebars.

“That looks like a scooter,” Bob said. “For a child.” He took a closer look. “A small child. Probably a girl.”

“The Turnbull Cyclobubble does have universal age and gender applications, yes,” Dan admitted. “But it also has the refined rechargeable electric authority to take full command of the open road. Within its fifteen-kilometre maximum range, of course.”

Annette did not seem convinced. “How would I do my shopping?” she wondered aloud.

Dan looked at her as though Annette had just asked for a mayonnaise milkshake. “Why, the same way everyone does their shopping,” Dan replied, struggling to contain his bewilderment. “You order it online and then the courier delivers it.”

(What is it with these people, Dan thought. This is the third time today someone’s asked me about shopping. Do these hicks draw their water from a well? Do they milk their own cows? Do they even know that almond milk is healthier and involves no exploitative animal commodification?)

Dan quickly remembered his sales training at the Turnbull Institute and replaced his scowl with a smile of immaculate duplicity. Bob’s interest, such as it was, had meanwhile turned to something that looked like a wheelbarrow tray with skateboard wheels attached. An attached sticker of the Turnbull Company’s founder appeared to be load-bearing.

“Excellent choice, sir!” Dan gushed. “The Turnbull Skitterwagon has no engine at all. It runs entirely on the natural magic of gravity. Ideal for those quick dashes down the hill of a morning to your local patisserie! The tray is made from fair-trade reclaimed aluminium, and the wheels …”

Bob cut the salesman short. “How,” he asked, “do I get this thing back up the hill?”

This was another question Dan had heard before. Did none of these people have staff? It didn’t make sense. All of the Turnbull Travel Company’s market research indicated that 95 per cent of consumers lived in mansions. On hills. With servants.

“We live in the suburbs and we want a car,” Annette said firmly. “Something powerful, for towing the boat.”

At last! Finally, Dan could see an opportunity to reach these impossibly particular buyers. They craved power! Of course they did. He winked knowingly at the couple. “Follow me,” he said, leading Bob and Annette across the showroom.

Dan stopped in front of a velvet screen, paused to take a breath, then whipped the fabric aside and pointed grandly at whatever had been concealed. Dan was pointing at exactly nothing.

“Forget something?” Bob asked.

“Forget? No,” Dan answered. “This, friends, is Mr Turnbull’s finest creation. It is his masterwork. It is the most powerful single entity in the known universe. It is,” he announced, “an idea!”

“Where you see nothing, Mr Turnbull sees opportunity,” the salesman continued. “Where you see nothing, Mr Turnbull sees change. Where you see nothing, Mr Turnbull sees every possibility that has ever been or will ever be.” Dan’s tone become more businesslike as he added the conclusion he’d memorised at the institute:

“Recommended retail price $185,999 plus GST, including all dealer and on-road costs. State sales taxes may apply.”

Bob and Annette didn’t catch the price, because by then they were backing away towards the showroom entrance. But then the strangest thing happened. Just as they’d almost escaped, the pair were stampeded by evidently eager buyers barging their way inside.

There were dozens of them. Then hundreds. Annette even recognised a few. There was that Fairfax woman and the bald ABC chap. Politicians, too. The man with that high-pitched Adelaide voice and the skinny Perth lady. And they were all throwing deposits—$5000, $10,000, $20,000—at a delighted Dan. Turnbull’s idea was a particularly brisk seller.

Bob and Annette kept their aging Coalition Conservative. It was good for a few miles yet. As the years went by, Bob noticed that his formerly unfashionable vehicle had actually begun to appreciate in value. After her shopping trips, Annette found herself frequently removing handwritten purchase offers left under the Conservative’s wiper blades.

Late in 2018, Bob and Annette found themselves stuck in traffic outside the Turnbull Travel Company’s building. Dan was overseeing two removalists as they loaded the showroom’s stock aboard a truck. The showroom’s windows were covered in boards and the demonstration Skitterwagon was on the footpath, loaded with a toaster oven and a broken microwave.

As they drove away, Bob and Annette heard Dan say something to one of the removalists. They couldn’t be entirely sure, because of the traffic noise, but it sounded like: “Can I interest you in a used Rudd?”


AS THE UN’s recent climate conference ground along in Katowice, Poland, Donald Trump’s thoughts were elsewhere. “The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris,” the US President tweeted. “Protests and riots all over France.”

Indeed there were, at first in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s increased diesel taxes, aimed at combating climate change, and then spreading to include Islamic immigration, excessive government regulation, education costs and Macron himself. Signs calling for “Frexit” began to appear amid the flames.

(Incidentally, France and other European nations previously encouraged diesel consumption by offering tax breaks. Stinky, slippery diesel was felt to be a more economical and therefore a more earth-friendly fuel, and is the reason why beautiful Paris these days sounds like a vintage tractor race. And then the French government reversed its diesel policy, again on environmental grounds. Way to go, France.)

Macron first suspended then ultimately abandoned his tax hike, which unfortunately proves—as shown by certain religious folk—that violence works. Trump’s Paris tweet continued: “People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to Third World countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment.”

Trump is so far ahead of the curve on climate politics that the curve is no longer visible in the presidential limousine’s rear-vision mirror. Australia stands to learn a great deal from his example. Meanwhile, that climate chat in Poland at least resulted in the finest lines ever published by the Trump-hating New York Times on anything to do with climate change.

This is how America’s newspaper of record covered the climate convention’s commencement:

The Polish Coal Miners Band, dressed in smart black uniforms and wearing traditional miners’ caps, struck up a tune as confused-looking delegates arrived at the convention center in Katowice, a city in the heart of southern Poland’s coal mining country.

Coal was proudly displayed in cases around the convention pavilions. Coal, fashioned into jewelry, was for sale.

The message of the host country was not subtle. Coal, known as black gold here, is king. And while Poland was happy to host the United Nations’ 24th annual climate change conference, that was not about to change.

Nor should it. As Polish President Andrzej Duda told UN delegates, “There is no plan today to fully give up on coal. Experts point out that our supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them.”

Australia’s coal supply is even more plentiful. If our 40,000 coal industry employees continue mining black coal at 2015 production levels, our stocks of black coal should last until at least 2127. Our brown coal reserves are scheduled to run out sometime in 3112.

That’s many generations of coal mining bands down the road. In the shorter term, what do you imagine might happen if Australians copping four-figure quarterly power bills adopt the French attitude?

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