What Happens In The Party Room


First, a confession. This is a hard column for me to write, because as much as I am dealing with a very real and potentially damaging problem, I have to admit that to some extent, I may have, in the past, contributed to the problem myself.

I speak, of course, of the negative perception of politicians. I admit that I have been guilty of remarks that may have been construed as somewhat disparaging. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I may at times have been guilty of suggesting that politicians are not all that admirable, or even, strictly speaking, human. I have suggested that their dealings are not "above board". I have implied that they are not "the full quid". I have insinuated that they "eat babies".

But let me say this. While you may accuse politicians of being dishonest, of being slow-witted, of being irrational, of being cynically devious, of being malevolent, of being perverted, of being violent and abusive and inherently evil and bent on the destruction of all that we hold dear, there is one thing you could never accuse our political leaders of, and that is arrogance.

Which is why it is so outrageous that this week the papers were suddenly full of claims that Malcolm Turnbull — of all people, Malcolm Turnbull — was "arrogant".

The stunning allegation was made in an email sent to Coalition MPs by Wilson "Iron Bar" Tuckey, who gained his nickname in 1967, when as a Western Australian publican, he ate an entire steel girder; and whose reputation for straight talking, brutal honesty, and demented racist abusiveness has survived to this day. As the first Federal Minister with a criminal conviction for assault, he is a symbol of the Australian ideal that anyone can make it to the top of public life in this country, and that very few Federal Ministers are subject to close scrutiny of their personal lives.

Despite Tuckey’s undoubtedly sterling qualities, one must question his judgment in sending this email. Why would he label his leader arrogant? According to the email, it is because Turnbull "constantly ignores the collective wisdom of the party room". What sort of accusation is that? Who wouldn’t ignore the collective wisdom of that party room?

Accusing someone of ignoring the collective wisdom of the Coalition party room is like accusing someone of ignoring the intellectual gravitas of Denise Drysdale. Have you seen who’s in the party room lately? Christopher Pyne? Barnaby Joyce? Tony Abbott? Oh, no, Malcolm, mustn’t ignore their collective wisdom — that would be arrogant. Much better to go about slavishly following whatever wackjob gibberish that ragtag collection of religious maniacs, inbred farmers and emotionally retarded, jelly-backed private school mummy’s boys have dreamed up after running out of servants to spit on at the tail-end of their last wine tasting.

Let me tell you, Wilson, listening to the collective wisdom of the Coalition party room is a surefire way to transform yourself from a bright political prospect to a mentally ill vagrant within months. It happened to John Hewson, it could happen to Turnbull.

Tuckey attacks Turnbull for suggesting that the Opposition may, after some negotiation, support the Government’s emissions trading scheme. Well, what would you do, Wilson? Nothing? Just sit back and let events take their course? Climate change is the greatest threat to our civilisation in the history of mankind, and you want Malcolm Turnbull to place petty political partisanship ahead of the urgent need to create the impression of action. I warn you Wilson, future generations will judge you very harshly if they know you were the one who stymied the opportunity for minor, practically ineffectual change.

If anything, the response by Opposition colleagues to Tuckey’s intemperate outburst is even more disturbing. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said that Tuckey was like the "uncle who goes a little wild at a family wedding" and that he would "still be invited to Christmas dinner".

This raises all sorts of troubling questions. For one, do Coalition MPs really all have Christmas dinner together? Is this as revolting as it first seems? And if Wilson Tuckey is the wild uncle of the Opposition, is Turnbull the father? Is Hockey the eldest son? Is Julie Bishop the promiscuous aunt? Is Peter Costello the mad grandfather who is about to snap and kill them all with an axe? Doesn’t the public have a right to know what bizarre familial metaphors a prospective government of this country plans to enact upon gaining power?

The point is, Malcolm Turnbull is not arrogant. In fact, no politicians are truly arrogant. How could they be, when they devote their lives to serving the public and enriching the country, asking nothing in return except for money and power and a generous superannuation plan and good jobs for their immediate family and close friends?

And Turnbull is perhaps the least arrogant of the lot of them. Look at how he reacted to reports that he was one of Australia’s richest men. "No, no," he told the country, "it’s very flattering, but I’m not rich at all", his modesty inspiring us as he elaborated on his extreme poverty, while executing several serfs for poaching his pheasants. This just shows the humility of the man. He knows how much Australians love a wealthy plutocrat, he knows how much it would benefit his political career to pretend to have a healthy wad to flash, but he refrains out of good, wholesome values. Arrogant? Nonsense.

If anyone’s arrogant, it’s that Therese Rein, with her business empire and her giant sleeves and her "forgettery". A forgettery. Doesn’t that just make you want to march down to The Lodge and punch her right in her self-made face? What’s more, her daughter apparently grew up thinking the forgettery "was completely normal". Now, how arrogant would you have to be to let your own daughter grow up without telling her what a maladjusted, domineering, word-making-up harpy you really are? If you answered "pretty damn arrogant", you are correct.

Not that the PM himself is necessarily arrogant. He’s probably just too scared to stand up to her. But certainly there should be no finger-pointing at the Opposition Leader on the arrogance issue, when ensconced in the prime ministerial home itself is the Arrogance Queen, spreading her arrogance about like typhoid, like a great big arrogance squid, oozing arrogance ink all over the floor.

In fact, let’s cease the finger-pointing on all sides. It’s time to stop abusing and insulting our politicians, who work very hard under enormous pressure — from fellow MPs, from the media, from constituents, and from their own massive congenital flaws. Let’s cut them some slack.

And that means you, Wilson. You may find it quite the lark to sow discord in the party, given that you are over 170 years old and will not see another Coalition election victory, but spare a thought for those you hurt.

Spare a thought for Malcolm, who wants only to effect meaningful change, strike a blow for modern Liberalism, and light the occasional cigar with a hundred-dollar note. He does not need white-anting from a man who has been in Parliament so long he only just recently learned how to send an email, and tried to change the ribbon immediately afterward. What he needs is support, and unity. And that’s what we all need. Because democracy doesn’t function without a strong opposition.

I mean, it doesn’t function with one either, but there’s no need to make it so obvious.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.