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National Affairs

Irregular guys

9 April 2009

We want political leaders to be like us, but at the same time not like us, writes Norman Abjorensen

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Kevin Rudd with Captain Matthew Cooper and Co-pilot Shane Peacey aboard a RAAF C-130 Hercules during his controversial visit to Papua New Guinea last month. Glen McCurtayne/AAP Image

Kevin Rudd with Captain Matthew Cooper and Co-pilot Shane Peacey aboard a RAAF C-130 Hercules during his controversial visit to Papua New Guinea last month. Glen McCurtayne/AAP Image



SO, THE PRIME MINISTER snapped at a flight attendant for serving him a meal that he had not ordered. The fact that it even made the news is interesting in itself – but the political coverage of the past event-packed fortnight has excelled itself in its sheer breadth. The ABC, for example, detected an omen in the Australian flag blowing over during a prime ministerial press conference in London, while the Australian, never missing an anti-Rudd opportunity, devoted the better part of page one to the seating arrangements of the G20, presumably to demonstrate how minor a player is the prime minister.

The real question that nobody seemed inclined to ask about the mid-air contretemps was how the RAAF could get it so wrong. One might reasonably assume that the VIP squadron is well trained; this suggested otherwise. If this is some kind of benchmark, then how secure are our aerial defences? The point is that the prime minister had every reason to voice his disapproval – a point presumably taken out in the electorate, given the non-impact it had on his rocketing approval rating, but not conceded by the Australian.

This leads inevitably to the question of what we expect from our leaders. Well, we want them to be like us, but at the same time not like us. We ask the impossible.

The fact is that political leaders dance to a different drum, however hard they work at concealing it. That they got to where they are is testimony to the fact that they are markedly different. Blanche d’Alpuget – and she is one who should know – wrote in the National Times many years ago that we err when we apply normal codes of behaviour to political leaders: they are warriors and operate on a different plane altogether.

The Americans have a term – a “regular guy” – that corresponds to what we in Australia call a “good bloke.” That is, a person like us who plays by the rules, is easy to get along with, doesn’t make demands or rock the boat; someone who offers a pleasant and unthreatening face to the world. It is doubtful whether any regular guys have made it to the White House; very few have made it to The Lodge.

Yet there are always surprises. No American president played politics as hard or as rough as Richard Nixon, and no one would ever mistake him for a regular guy – he was anything but. Yet hard, ruthless, cynical, lying Nixon had a compassionate streak. Bob Dole, who ran against Bill Clinton in 1996, lost the use of his right arm from a war wound, and he recorded how in his long political career only one man ever routinely offered without hesitation his left hand when they met – Nixon. (Of course, this might well have been the scheming Nixon, realising that one day he might need Dole’s support.)

Robert Menzies strode the Australian political stage like a colossus, dominating Australian politics (and the Liberal Party entirely) for the best part of two decades after the second world war. Many people admired Menzies – and there was much to admire – and just as many despised him. A gifted orator, a superb parliamentarian, a canny strategist and a most able lawyer – a man who argued before the High Court before he turned thirty – Menzies was in a class of his own. And he knew it.

Jack Curtin, wartime Labor prime minister (who, incidentally, shared an intimate and trusting relationship with Menzies that would be quite unknown in the modern era), once observed that the great failing of Menzies was that he would rather score a point than make a friend.

Ben Chifley was perhaps the closest we have had to a good bloke as prime minister. A man capable of toughness and unafraid of making decisions that might hurt friends, Chifley had a decency and a humanity in a class of their known. The best known story is that of the woman who, believing she had dialled the Manuka butcher, proceeded to read out her weekend meat order. The recipient was the prime minister – his private direct line number only one digit different from the butcher’s – and he calmly wrote down the order and then telephoned it through to the butcher. When a staffer chided him, telling him he was too busy for that, Chifley would have none of it. “Mrs Murphy is busy too,” he shot back.

Another exception was Harold Holt – an open, sunny and approachable man who was liked by all who knew him, political friend and foe alike. Holt’s secret was that he was what he presented himself as and was always relaxed with people – and it showed. His successor, John Gorton, could be a good bloke when it suited him, but he drank a lot and was subject to mood swings. People who relaxed too much in Gorton’s company often regretted it; he could often say very disarming things that wounded people. He trusted almost no one.

His hapless successor, Billy McMahon, should never have made it to the top. He worked hard – at his various portfolios and his networks – but he was widely disliked among his colleagues, and few trusted him. There are also q uestion marks about his state of mind when he was prime minister. For example, he once told a colleague he was puzzled why a certain ABC reporter called at The Lodge every now and then and collected the top-secret briefings. (It was actually a foreign affairs official.) The same colleague also recorded how McMahon liked to venture out into King’s Hall in the old Parliament House and randomly introduce himself to members of the public, often shaking hands with his own backbenchers whom he did not seem to recognise.

Gough Whitlam, who defeated McMahon in 1972, was another Menzies in his own way – an intellectually gifted man very conscious of his intellectual superiority. Whitlam could be difficult, but he could also be charming. A legion of Hansard reporters and other parliamentary staff recall an always courteous Whitlam introducing himself when they started.

But Whitlam always liked the last word. After an amusing parliamentary joust with fellow classics scholar Jim Killen over the pronunciation of the name of the Latin poet, Cicero, Whitlam encountered Milton Cockburn, then a Labor staffer and later editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and asked him who he was. On hearing his name, Whitlam insisted that it was pronounced Coburn, not Cockburn. “That’s a bit rich coming from a bloke who can’t pronounce Cicero”, shot back Cockburn. Whitlam was taken aback. “Well, aren’t you a cheeky ****!”

Malcolm Fraser was always prickly (and still is). He was never relaxed in the public gaze; he never let his guard down. Fraser was too aware of enemies everywhere ever to relax entirely. His stiff, unbending presence stemmed partly from this, but also from a certain shyness. In private conversation, Fraser could be thoughtful and reflective, but this seldom showed in the public persona.

Bob Hawke, who played the professional good bloke, never concealed the fact that he could do without his colleagues. He made it abundantly clear he was there because he was the most popular man in the land, and he cared little about what they thought. Hawke had no capacity to suffer fools, and when his party turned against him in 1991, some old scores were being settled.

Paul Keating never pretended to be a good bloke, never even professed an interest in sport. He had come a long way from western Sydney, and it showed. The vote against him in 1996 was a very personal one. His succesor, John Howard, was always too dull to be a good bloke – always too intense, too try-hard. When he backslapped or lifted his arms in the air at a victory speech, it never looked real. Howard was simply too much the professional politician all the time.

And Kevin Rudd? Well, he has a little bit of all of the above, save perhaps for McMahon’s madness. But it’s early days yet. And it’s worth remembering Wayne Goss, Rudd’s old boss, commenting that Rudd had worked hard for many years trying to be normal, but hadn’t quite succeeded. But, said Goss, who wanted a normal man as prime minister? •

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Republican presidential candidates are gathering for the race, but many seem reluctant to line up at the starting gate, writes Lesley Russell in Washington

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Photo: Gage Skidmore/ Flickr

Photo: Gage Skidmore/ Flickr