Even potty-mouthed Paul Keating considered Peter Walsh, who died this month, to be in a class above him for rough-house political invective. Blame ‘Old Sid Vicious over there’, Keating told an angry Labor minister Gary Punch when his ham-fisted cabinet submission was demolished in a Hawke government pre-budget Expenditure Review Committee. Obituaries have, properly, concentrated on Walsh’s outstanding performance for five years as Finance Minister until 1990 when he quit, ‘disillusioned by some of my colleagues and frustrated by policy directions which did not address the country’s real problems… This government [Hawke] has a stench of decay and I don’t want to be part of it’. Not that he was a Keating fan; after Keating not only tried to get Hawke to sack Walsh over a disagreement on progressive tax scales but also ‘was vilifying me to the press’, Walsh took the view that Keating was drifting increasingly ‘into self-delusion’. And Walsh had no time for fellow ministers like Graham Richardson (‘grubby manoeuvres’), ‘sleazy’ Ralph Blewett and Rosemary Crowley.
But if he was Sid Vicious dealing with his own side of politics, he was several notches up the bastardry scale when abusing Liberals, particularly as part of his acknowledged campaign to annoy, harass and unsettle Coalition ministers in the Senate. Not even Keating, who was happy to call John Howard a scumbag, ever descended to the depths that Walsh plumbed in his pursuit of a campaign of personal vilification based on his view, expressed in his autobiographical Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister that ‘I was willing to believe the worst about almost all Liberal Politicians’. So, with no evidence whatsoever, he repeatedly falsely accused former POW and Fraser government Minister Senator John Carrick of having got fat in Changi by collaborating with the Japanese. When Carrick’s fellow POW, Labor’s Tom Uren denied it, Walsh recorded in his autobiography: ‘I realised it was not true and understood why Carrick was so obviously angry every time…[so] I stopped proffering opinions in the Senate about Carrick’s diet in Changi’. For those who suffered from his verbal assaults, his advice was simple: ‘Without a thick hide you should not be in politics’. He revelled in his reputation as ‘the Government hard man’ and was happy to label individual Coalition parliamentarians and supporters as crooks, tax cheats, liars, prostitutes, corrupt, blackmailers and bagmen with shonky, shoddy business ethics.
But the most striking thing about Peter Walsh was that he fitted the remarkable pattern of offensive vituperative personal discourse used by those senior Labor figures who rejected the traditional Labor/union protectionist, interventionist, over-regulated economic policy approach with its inefficient state-owned enterprises and stultifying industrial relations regimens. Those that broke the mould and sought to free up markets and reform the financial system, did so accompanied by the unpleasant aura of personal abuse of political opponents. Keating’s devastating invective, John Dawkins’ rough and tough parliamentary reputation, earned in his often ill-directed but very damaging personal attacks on alleged ‘Liberal bottom of the harbour tax cheats’, Lindsay Tanner’s unpleasant barbs and Peter Walsh’s ‘Sid Vicious’ persona were key elements in their campaign. With an economic agenda far closer to the Liberals than to their own Labor Party, these reformers had to reinforce their anti-Liberal credentials in order to carry their party with them. The legally-protected forum of parliament provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that even though they were wearing the Liberals’ economic clothes, they were still true Liberal-haters at heart as shown by their campaigns of smear, abuse and reckless accusations – all free of the risk of financial consequences from legal actions. There developed a clear relationship between the closeness to the Liberals’ economic direction and the vehemence of personal attacks on individual Liberals. Having to put up with bastardry is a small price to pay for economic reform; Labor needs another Walsh.
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Michael Baume is a former Liberal Senator and The Speccie’s financial guru.
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