The transformation of Philip Ruddock

© reprinted with permissionI’m not sure who stopped sending them first, but I no longer exchange Christmas cards with Philip Ruddock. It’s no embarrassment for me to admit I was once a big fan of the man who is now the nation’s cold-eyed attorney-general.

And why wouldn’t I have been? When I first met Ruddock in the late 1980s, he was on the right side of all the major issues. That he was a Liberal, during John Howard’s first tour of duty as leader, made him all the more courageous.

He was a leader of the parliamentary group of Amnesty International (and actually adhered to its policies back then); he spent a lot of time on peace-making missions in Cambodia, when it was still riven by civil war; and he often shared a platform with one of Labor’s smartest, most progressive MPs, John Langmore, to lobby for a bigger foreign aid budget. Perhaps most tellingly, he was one of the few coalition members in a group called Parliamentarians Against Apartheid. Hardly controversial, you might think today, but recall Howard’s position on apartheid South Africa at the time: full economic engagement, no support for the liberation forces and fulsome endorsement of Margaret Thatcher’s view, which was that ‘Nelson Mandela is a terrorist’ and that majority rule was not a priority.

Don’t ever let Howard wriggle out of his record on race. He once told a group of small businessmen in his electorate that he ‘stood four-square behind Margaret Thatcher’ and her position on South Africa. (I know, I was there, reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald.) Howard now hints he might have been wrong about South Africa but he has never apologized to Nelson Mandela, who would have surely died in jail had the rest of the world followed the Howard-Thatcher-Reagan model of ‘engagement’ with the white supremacist regime.

If Ruddock’s stand on apartheid strained his relations with Howard, they were truly ruptured in 1988 when, in a brilliant political tactic, Bob Hawke moved a resolution in parliament opposing any immigration policy based on racial discrimination. A handful of Liberals “ Ruddock and the highly principled Ian MacPhee pre-eminent among them “ voted with the government. The look of embarrassment on Howard’s face as his party split is stamped indelibly on my mind.

I rushed into print with a profile of Ruddock headlined, ‘Lonely, wet and out in the cold’, emphasizing his estrangement from Howard and featuring a photograph of him posing with Senator Peter Baume, a deeply moral liberal Jew and another whom Howard had ostracized. Ruddock, who often grinningly told me his relationship with Howard was ‘a correct one’, was a true spiritual son of Malcolm Fraser, who despite being a sometimes divisive prime minister, always had unimpeachable progressive credentials on racial issues and led the international effort to destroy apartheid.

So what happened?

Shortly after the coalition’s 1996 victory, I wrote to Ruddock congratulating him on his appointment as immigration and ethnic affairs minister. I told him what he already knew: that I was not a conservative voter, but I added, somewhat naively, that I felt sure his presence in the government would moderate its more extreme tendencies. (I confessed I was naïve.) Unable to resist, I noted, pointedly, that Howard had excluded Ruddock from the cabinet. Ruddock’s reply was warm but diplomatic, making no reference to being relegated to the outer ministry. But that’s the point. Ruddock’s transformation from paragon of small-l liberal decency to iron man of the party’s hard right has been about acceptance, about winning the approbation of his leader.

A sense of being the perennial outsider seems to have haunted Ruddock. His father, Max Ruddock, a minister in the NSW coalition government, was never close to the premier, Robin Askin. (A reason for pride, I would have thought, given what we now know about the corruption of the Askin era.)

Ruddock has been in parliament thirty two years and yet, for the first twenty two years, he was never a player. Even though he was in tune ideologically with Fraser, the former prime minister never made Ruddock a minister, but recognized, instead, that Howard – whatever we may think of his ‘values’ “ was the superior politician and fast-tracked him into the treasurer’s job.

During the Hawke-Keating era, Ruddock was on and off the Liberal frontbench, always in the ‘soft’ social policy areas of immigration and ethnic affairs. He was “ unconsciously, I suspect “ a fig leaf for Howard, who had once suggested there were too many Asians coming to Australia. You could pick up any ethnic newspaper and see pictures of Ruddock, cup of tea in hand, in earnest discussion with a Vietnamese or Lebanese community leader. He thought that by taking a principled stand on race matters, he could fashion himself into a leader of the small-l liberals, someone with whom the party leader would have to deal. But after the 1990 election, after the purging of MacPhee et al, there were no small-l liberals left to lead.

So following the 1996 election “ after two decades in politics, clawing to be a Liberal insider “ Ruddock decided to become that ultimate political novelty: a surprise. He would be no wuss, who would buckle every time some bishop quoted Leviticus “ ‘And if the stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him’ “ or a human rights lawyer raised international law.

While the refugee detention camps in the desert were of Labor’s making, Labor was sufficiently ashamed of its own policy to try to keep them out of the headlines. After the 1998 election, in which Pauline Hanson’s One Nation won 900 000 votes, Ruddock moved into cabinet and became the proud spruiker for locking children and their families behind the razor wire. He referred to a refugee child as ‘it’ and spoke of asylum-seekers fleeing tyranny, including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as ‘people seeking a different resettlement outcome’. In the process, he traded estrangement from John Howard for deep disagreement with his own daughter. Kirsty Ruddock, a sincere stalwart of Amnesty International, famously revealed that she simply could not stomach her father’s policies. ‘It’s very difficult for me to be his daughter because I very much want to be my own person and I have very different views from him as well,’ she told ABC’s Australian Story. ‘It’d be fair to say that I’m very much opposed to the mandatory detention system and certainly the detention of children, in particular, and I’ve raised that with him on a number of occasions.’

By the 2001 election, Ruddock had achieved the ultimate affirmation of his value to the prime minister “ but it was not the roof-raising applause he received from the Liberal rank and file at Howard’s campaign launch. It was that moment up in far north Queensland, when a woman in a broad-brimmed hat raced up to tell him she thought he was doing ‘a fantastic job’, detaining some refugees and, as in the Tampa incident, turning away others. Her name was Elisa Roberts, a One Nation state MP. ‘It’s what Pauline Hanson always said should be done,’ Roberts told the Herald. (Actually, Hanson said she was appalled at the thought that desperate children would be refused entry to Australia.)

Now he is attorney-general, defending detention without trial, and intimidation without charge. Max Gilles captured Ruddock perfectly, and eerily, in his recent stage show, almost spitting out the name David ‘HICKS!’ with a sharp inflection on the ‘k’. As he pronounced Mamdouh Habib, it was with a drawn-out ‘H’, as in ‘Mr Hhhhhabib’, the phlegm almost rising in his throat.

But who are we to judge? Philip Ruddock is a Liberal hero now, on the A-team, a Howard insider. Still, if he cares at all about history’s judgment, he would do well to remember his Shakespeare and Antony’s words from Julius Caesar: ‘The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.’ Locking up children and ignoring international law to win your leader’s approval is one thing, but ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

Best Australian Political Cartoons 2004
– edited by Russ Radcliffe
– introduction by Phillip Adams

Published by Scribe, AUD$26.95

ISBN 1 920769 34X

Available at all good bookstores

A portrait of the year in politics from Australia’s finest political cartoonists, including Alston, Atchison, Brown, Katauskas, Knight, Leahy, Leak, Moir, Nicholson, O’Farrell, Petty, Pope, Pryor, David Rowe, Spooner, Tandberg, Cathy Wilcox, and many more. The cartoon used above is from a forthcoming collection of Bill Leak’s work soon to be published by Scribe.

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