Bob Ellis's Web Site
Main Essays Biography Books Contacts

He's probably blown it

They wouldn't be Liberals, I guess, if they thought connectedly. But it's worth noting how unconnectedly they think.

They think, for instance, that Wayne Swan should resign his seat for telling the House that John Grant got no 'no special treatment' when he should probably have said 'no special preferential treatment'. For the lack of that one word, though he'd saved the nation from world recession, and wonderfully preserved many tens of thousands of Australian jobs and fortunes from oblivion, he should give up his useful future and slink away into private life.

But Philip Ruddock should not resign his seat for telling the House that boat people were 'terrorists in disguise'. And Kevin Andrews should not resign his seat for telling the House that 'worrying evidence' remained that proved Mohamed Haneef should not get his passport back. And Alexander Downer should not have resigned his seat for calling David Hicks 'a trained killer' when he has caused less harm in his life thus far than the average Kings Cross bouncer.

And Peter Reith should not have resigned his seat for saying repeatedly he had clear evidence that children were flung overboard when he knew he hadn't. And Mark Vaile should not have resigned his seat for telling the House he 'had no idea' that two hundred and ninety-eight million dollars went to Saddam Hussein. (Nobody, curiously, has yet resigned over that. Perhaps nobody did it.)

And John Howard should not have resigned for channelling hundreds of millions to his friend Doug Moran, or trying to, and tens of millions to his brother Stan Howard, and hundreds of million to the Liberal donor Chris Corrigan.

No, none of these things should have happened but Wayne Swan, who channelled no money at all to his car dealer John Grant, not a penny, not a brass razoo, should resign for want of one word when tired and exasperated with the long exertions of saving the nation's economy; for leaving out the word 'preferential'.

Liberals aren't good at thinking connectedly, we know that. What is really surprising is that Malcolm Turnbull isn't either.

He said Kevin Rudd should resign then said he hadn't said that. He told Andrew Charlton he had the goods on him then failed to apologise to him when the goods proved a forgery. He said he read about the email in the paper on Friday when it first came out on Saturday. He said the email was 'concocted in the Treasury' and therefore Wayne Swan's fault when he knew full well that his own mole in the Treasury, Godwin Grech, was most likely the one who concocted it.

He said the ten million he gave, as Minister, to his campaign donor Matt Handbury to seed clouds uselessly with rain-making chemicals, rejecting his department's advice that he and his company get one million, was not preferential treatment, and not 'corrupt by his own definition', and he himself should not now resign for it.

He said the government was culpably extravagant and he himself would spend much less, though he himself accepted fifty million dollars from Goldman Sachs that US taxpayers lately had to give them back. He said climate change was so important and urgent we should buy up Indonesia's forests, then said it is still 'too early' to decide what our policy on climate change should be.

I spoke in an earlier piece of Malcolm's 'zig-zag streak of lightning in the brain', a phrase Asquith used about Churchill, and in my book And So It Went of his impatience, and a kind of intellectual violence he shares with Jeff Kennett and Bart Simpson and Margaret Thatcher.

He believes in handy short cuts, in magic formulas, in silver bullets, in soft underbellies and powerful uppercuts in an almost teenage way. I knew him well when he was a teenager, and he hasn't changed much, in my view. He famously tried to change a reluctant girlfriend's mind by writing letters to her cat. His physical violence against inanimate objects is legendary. He broke down our door once, crashing through into a fruitless hour-long argument, the way he does. The details are in the book.

This, though, is not his worst fault I think. His worst fault is a clinging, romantic, almost superstitious trust in the power of words. We would get the Republic, he believed, by merely changing the title of the Governor-General, and the people would applaud this minimal idea, and settle for it as their salvation. He did not realise that they needed more, emotionally and spiritually, than a rearrangement of words. We will get rid of Wayne Swan, he still believes, by applying strictly and legalistically the meaning of the words 'misled the House' without applying those words to half the Liberal Party, who mislead it all the time. This is evidence enough to get him on, the man who saved Australia, you'll see. Get him on those words. And other words are enough to get Rudd on. I mean, Rudd said there was 'no email', when there is an email, a forged email! Gotcha.

Will Malcolm survive as Leader of the Opposition? It's fifty-fifty I think. And the wily, charming, dauntless, unstoppable, unkillable Tony Abbott can never be written off in a time of strife like this one as a notionally stop-gap leader who, like John Howard, mysteriously persists in the job and tenaciously prevails. One more swag of bad polls, and there will be one, and Tony will make his initial plausible moves. And Malcolm may be gone by October, and Wentworth a marginal seat again.

And historians will argue for a while what it was that did for Malcolm. Was it a philosophical tendency that was more Labor than Liberal? Was it a weak head for white wine? Was it Asberger's syndrome? Was it Annabel Crabb? Was it the boisterous, egocentric moodiness of the motherless only child? Was it the head-swollen hubris, more American than Australian, of the self-made multimillionaire? Or was it a genetic predisposition, like that of Lord Randolph Churchill, to kick the sandcastle down? Can it be summed up as Impatience, or is that too simplistic a thought?

One thing that is certain is he was the Liberals' last best chance of revival, restoration, resurrection, as an honourable, cogent, humanistic party with some hope of regaining power.

And he's probably blown it.

And so, probably, have they.

A postscript: twelve lines from a poem handwritten by Malcolm still in our possession, one that survived the fire and, like a comic short story he wrote about himself and me back then when he was 19, too long to use here, in a fair simulation of my style, says a lot about the boisterous, melancholy, carousing, depressive boy he used to be.

Sober sins that crossed our fathers
Hallowed hangings by the bed
While old soldiers' faded sepia
Flickers faintly when they're dead.

Yellow papers under lino
Plywood wardrobes in the street
Weeping railings sadly gazing
At the shattered toilet seat

Never linger in the side-streets
Crisping sunny afternoons
You may touch a russet memory
That could stain a silver spoon.

First Published ABC website: Unleashed

© Bob Ellis