No, I don’t think so.’
One raised bushy eyebrow, a slight cocking of the head, a piercing glint in the steely blue eyes and a faint, almost imperceptible downward movement at the corner of the mouth. When John Howard disagrees with you, ‘No I don’t think so’ is said with such scary finality that, well, ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’.
Suddenly I knew how Peter Costello must have felt. Peter had probably wandered breezily down onto the lawns of Kirribilli, glass of chardy in hand, smirk at the ready, and quipped something or other along the lines of, ‘Hey mate, great view, don’t you reckon it’s about time I had a go at being leader, fair shake of the sav and all that?’ To which Mr Howard would have responded in the manner outlined above, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ And that would have been that.
My encounter with the HDNRM (Howard’s definitive negative response mechanism) occurred live on national TV, so unlike Mr Costello I had to think on my feet. Whereas Peter probably wandered off to inspect the seagull droppings down on the foreshore wall, a furious grimace on his face, desperately plotting how he could find his way around this intractable, immovable object, I opted for an alternative approach.
After all, it suddenly dawned on me that I had made a rather sweeping generalisation (is there an unsweeping one?) about politics and the Labor party in particular purely on a gut-feeling. Whereas Mr Howard had formed his particular (and opposing) view over some 40 years living, breathing and dominating the hothouse of Australian politics, I had formed my view about, er, a fortnight ago in the shower. Given that only one of us could possibly be correct about my wild assertion, I took an educated guess that in all likelihood it would be him.
My contention was that nobody closely associated with the Gillard/Rudd fiasco would ever be elected Prime Minister of this country, so therefore the Labor party ought to cut to the chase and move straight on down to the next tier of potential leaders; the Andrew Leighs, Nick Champions, Steve Jones’s and so on. Anyone untarnished with the brush of the last six years.
‘No I don’t think so,’ said Mr. Howard, swivelling in his seat so that I copped the full force of the HDNRM. Up until that point, we’d been getting along like a house on fire. Admittedly, we’d been talking about satire and humour in politics, an area we both agree is not only critical to political expression and free speech, but is done less well in this country than, say, in the UK. (If you missed the coverage on A-PAC, fear not, I intend to rush out a complete autographed six-CD DVD box set in 3-D Blu-ray and Dolby Surround sound complete with a free copy of my book fresh from the remainders bin in time for Chrissy).
Mr Howard’s reading of the Labor leadership situation was this: neither Bill Shorten nor Anthony Albanese (for those who still can’t tell them apart, I’ve coined the moniker ‘Alborten’) has much hope of becoming PM because history has taught us that the first leader of a freshly defeated governing party never makes it to PM; or at least such has been the case since the second world war. Think Chifley, Snedden, Whitlam second time round, Peacock, Beazley, Nelson. Sure, there’s always a first time, but the political future doesn’t bode well for Alborten, no matter how many gay quotas they espouse or no matter how many Michael Douglas speeches they plagiarise.
Which leaves Burke, Bowen, Plibersek and a couple of other leftovers from the Rudd/Gillard era who we can assume will before long replace whichever of this hapless duo happens to win/did win on Sunday. (Notice how quickly I’ve abandoned my assertion that being tainted by Gillard/Rudd counts against you and have simply surrendered to Mr Howard’s persuasive technique. There’s nothing else one can do. Just ask Peter.)
Of the three, I’m putting my money on Chris Bowen. Literally. I went and bought his book the other day. It’s cheaper and way slimmer than my book, but to be honest it’s even more satirical, particularly with chapter headings such as ‘Labor: The Party of Growth’ and ‘Labor: The Party of Small Business’. In the best comic traditions, Bowen describes Mark Latham’s treatise about the failings of modern Labor (Not Dead Yet) as ‘constructive and welcome’, while describing how liberal the Australian Labor party are by quoting, er, Vladimir Lenin.
Chris looks desperately earnest and sanctimonious when he comes on the telly, and always reminds me of a politically correct but not very good Year 3 teacher at a parent-teacher evening (Teacher: ‘Your son really must try and concentrate in class. His attitude is simply not good enough.’ Parent: ‘Well, maybe if you actually taught him maths and English rather than whining on about climate change all day he might show a smidgen of interest.’)
But the reason Chris will be the first leader of the Labor party to give Tony Abbott any cause for concern is because he understands that individuals matter. His phrase is ‘social liberalism’, which allows him to wang on about Hawke and Keating, but I suspect what he really thinks is that most people in his electorate are — for want of a better phrase — Howard battlers. They want to work hard, get rich, buy jet-skis and stick on a roof extension. They aren’t interested in gay marriage (mainly because for many of them it is against their religion, which for the most part is probably Islam) and all the other drivel that Alborten goes on about is way off their radar. As indeed it is off the radar of most Australians.
True to form, the Labor party have designed a system that will guarantee permanent leadership instability and lifelong hatreds. With the desperately uninspiring Tanya Plibersek apparently a shoo-in for the deputy position regardless of whether it’s Shorten or Albo who wins/has won, the one man who has actually made a decent fist of being opposition leader these last five weeks now finds himself out of a job. Will Bowen and his supporters calmly sit back year in year out while Labor fail to land a glove on the Coalition?
No, I don’t think so.
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Rowan Dean is the associate editor of The Spectator Australia and author of Beyond Satire.
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