Orwell, George (Signet Classic, January 1961, ISBN 9780451524935)

I receive a letter from Centrelink explaining that when I lodge next fortnight’s form I need to “negotiate a new Activity Agreement”.

When I go in that fortnight, they tell me again that we need to negotiate a new Activity Agreement.

The trouble arises because I want to negotiate the new Activity Agreement.

The clerk runs through the questions about my recent jobs, marital status and whether any Australian court have convicted me of a criminal offence in the last six months. He prints the new Activity Agreement and hands it to me to sign. I read it.

“Thanks for this.” I say, “I’ve gotta tell you it makes me happy that you’ve opened the negotiations with this proposal. In return, I propose one just like it except replacing the word ‘compulsory’ here on page three with ‘compulsory unless asleep’.”

“What?” he says.

“Here on page three,” I say, “where yours says ‘compulsory’ mine would say ‘compulsory unless asleep’.”

“You want to change the contract?” he says.

“Well,” I say, “I hope that once we finish negotiating an agreement that it’ll reflect enough of what we both wanted that neither of us will feel like we need to change it right away.”

“But you want to change it now?” he asks.

“I suppose you could look at it that way,” I say, “My proposal duplicates yours except that it changes the word ‘compulsory’ here to ‘compulsory unless asleep’.”

“I don’t think we can change the wording,” he says.

“Oh, no, wait,” I say, “I’ve only explained here what my counterproposal contains.”

“Your counterproposal,” he says.

His intonation makes it sound like a statement, but he appears to want me to say something, so I ask if I should use a blue pen or a black one when I write down the proposal.

“Uhm… I’ll go ask them,” he says.

He walks back to a security door to the glassed-in area and punches in his code.

Bleep bloop blip blip bleep ding burr-rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr… click-clack.

He stays in there at least fifteen minutes. I use the time to scrawl my proposal out onto notepaper.

“I decided to use pencil,” I say when he gets back, “so we’ll find it easier to rewrite in the next round of negotiation.”

“They said they can’t change the phrasing,” he says, starting to sound exasperated.

“How did they respond to my offer?” I ask.

“I just told you mate,” he growls, “They said they can’t change it!”

“Shouldn’t we negotiate the new Activity Agreement?” I ask.

“I’ve tried to mate,” he says, “But you keep babbling on about this ‘counterproposal’.”

“I’ve written out my offer here,” I say, handing him the notepaper, “I submit it as a proposal for the new Activity Agreement.”

“Christ almighty!” he says and gets up again.

Bleep bloop blip blip bleep ding burr-rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr… click-clack.

This time he returns in a few minutes.

“They said they can’t accept your, uhm…, ‘offer’,” he says.

“Oh, ok, no problem,” I say.

He sighs in relief.

“What counteroffer did they make?” I ask.

“What?” he barks, “Mate, if you won’t sign the agreement you’ll need to leave.”

“Today Centrelink and I need to negotiate a new Activity Agreement, right?” I ask.

“Yes!” he says.

“Well,” I say, “Of course Centrelink can reject my offer. Numerous offers might need to go back and forth when two people negotiate before they find a compromise they can both accept. So since they’ve found they can’t accept the offer I’ve made and since they’ve asked me here so we can negotiate a new Activity Agreement, what compromise do they propose instead?”

“Strewth!” he says and gets up again.

Bleep bloop blip bleep blip tweet tweet. He jerks the handle but the door stays shut. He has the code wrong.

“Goddamn!” he curses.

Bleep bloop blip blip bleep ding burr-rrrrrrrrrrrrr… click-clack.

By the time he returns a few minutes later, he couldn’t seem calmer. As far as I can tell, he smoked a reefer in the security room and a doctor managed to drain the extra blood from his forehead.

“Ok,” he says, “My boss says they can’t make any compromises. You’ll have to take it or leave it.”

“Why do you call this a ‘negotiation’ if Centrelink won’t accept any sort of compromise?” I ask.

“We have to negotiate a new Activity Agreement,” he answers.

“But what possibilities or positions do we negotiate between?” I ask, “Centrelink’s wishes and mine?”

“The Activity Agreement,” he says, still laidback.

“No, I mean,” I say, “Why do Centrelink advertise this as negotiating if they won’t allow their representatives to negotiate? How can you call this ‘negotiating’ something?”

“Well because,” he says. Then he just stops. He still has his mouth open but his mind seems to have gone blank – as if his doublethink centre shorted out and crashed the other language centres of his brain along with it. For ten full seconds he remains almost silent, uttering just the word ‘because’ twice in a disoriented whisper.

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  1. Dimitra Stathopoulos

    This… this actually happened, didn’t it? Did it? Please say it did.

  2. The dialogue wasn’t the same word-for-word of course, but the trends of the conversation and the weird silence at the end with him whispering and the problem with the security door were the same as best as I can remember

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