The first time I met Quentin Bryce, I was a scruffy 17-year-old law student decked out in the obligatory undergraduate attire of T-shirt and football shorts. I was one of the generation of University of Queensland students who had their introduction to criminal law in her tutorials. Fast forward nearly four decades, and I am sitting across from her at the ornate writing table in the drawing room of Government House, subscribing the oath of office as Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts. She teases me about my ‘wild’ signature. I tell her that I am flattered she remembers my handwriting. ‘It’s deteriorated,’ she rejoins in a mock schoolmistressly tone. The Governor-General has more than a few detractors on my side of politics, but I have always found her generous and gracious. The way she has conducted herself in her office has been faultless.
A feature of the ceremony is the variety of Bibles on which members of the new government are sworn. Many have been family treasures for generations. Senator Scott Ryan (who, as parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Education, will have the vital job of expunging modish left-wing ideology from the national curriculum) comes forward with a family bible so large that it takes both hands to carry it — a handsome antique volume lavishly ornamented with Celtic crosses. Joshua Frydenberg (parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister) is sworn in on the Bible on which his beloved mentor, Sir Zelman Cowen, had been sworn in as Governor-General nearly four decades ago. It suits the times that all but two members of the new Government choose an oath rather than an affirmation.
After the ceremony is over, we repair to the dining room for drinks. The doors open onto an apron of lawn running down to the lake. It is a perfect early spring Canberra morning. There is the atmosphere of a family outing, as children run excitedly around and proud parents pose for photographs. Yet underlying the happiness of the occasion is a mood of deep seriousness. All of us are conscious not just of the honour, but the weight of responsibility with which we have been entrusted. The pleasantries last for less than an hour before we return to Parliament House and the first meeting of the Abbott ministry.
Among those invited to Yarralumla are Alan Stockdale, the Federal President of the Liberal party; Brian Loughnane, the Federal Director; and Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s chief of staff. Our election victory would not have been possible without these three. Alan did exactly what a party president should do — he kept out of the media, while giving constant but unadvertised support to the parliamentary leadership and the professional staff. Brian’s performance as campaign director has been beyond praise — he is the ultimate calm professional, who always kept us focused on our key messages. If Brian made the trains run on time, Peta kept the show on the road, running the Abbott office with consummate skill and always being a source of shrewd advice. While Labor’s operation seems to be run by attention-seeking novices or high-profile overseas imports, the Liberal party is run by grown-ups, for whom what matters most is competence. The almost flawless election campaign they delivered is a testament to their quiet skilfulness.
It is said that the real test of a person’s character is how they behave in adversity, and the reaction of Labor politicians to their electoral defeat is revealing. The tone of Labor’s departure from office is set by Kevin Rudd’s embarrassingly self-indulgent and delusional concession speech. Other departing ministers reveal themselves too. Joe Ludwig and Craig Emerson are the souls of courtesy, offering well-meant congratulations. Not so Tanya Plibersek, with whom I share a Q&A panel on the Monday after the election. She snarlingly rates the performance of the late government as ‘nine out of 10’, before a cheering Ultimo crowd as deeply in denial as she is.
I am to move into the office which had been occupied by Penny Wong. The arrangements are a significant logistical feat, however, as there are 11 days between the election and the commissioning of the new government, there should not be any problems. The process is handled with efficiency and delicacy by the Parliament House staff. But we are told on the eve of the swearing in that the Senator has still not vacated. The image of Wong as a parliamentary Miss Havisham, sitting grimly at her desk days after her former ministerial colleagues have departed, clinging to a time which has long since passed, will stay with me for a good while.
The early days are important to set the right tone, so I ensure that my first appointments are to pay courtesy calls on the four heads of jurisdiction (the chief justices of the High Court, Federal Court, Family Court and Federal Circuit Court). My junior minister Michael Keenan and I also visit the Attorney-General’s department. Roger Wilkins, the ineffably suave secretary of the department, resplendent in his trademark bow tie (purple today), introduces us to a surprisingly large gathering of hundreds of public servants, who crowd the ground floor and three levels of balconies around the atrium. He makes some teasing remarks about being on the same side in Senate Estimates for a change.
As we walk into the foyer, the first thing that strikes the eye is a bust of Sir Robert Garran, the secretary of the department for 32 years, in whose honour the building is named. Among his many achievements, Garran was the principal draftsman of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936. In its original form, it ran to a mere 82 pages; he proudly described it as ‘a thing of beauty and simplicity that would not have shamed Wordsworth’. If we could rediscover the elegance and linguistic simplicity of legislative drafting in Garran’s day, that itself would be no small achievement.
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