Inside Story

The thoroughly modern politician

Books | Christopher Pyne’s memoir reveals more than he might have intended about the state of Australian politics

Frank Bongiorno 20 July 2020 1981 words

Among friends: Christopher Pyne as defence industry minister in Adelaide in March 2018. Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

The Insider: The Scoops, the Scandals and the Serious Business within the Canberra Bubble
By Christopher Pyne | Hachette Australia | $34.99 | 321 pages

Despite what the subtitle of Christopher Pyne’s memoir promises, The Insider reads rather like it was written by a man determined not to burn too many bridges. Precisely how much this restraint relates to Pyne’s controversial new role in the consulting firm EY, and how much it reflects his general disposition, it is impossible to know. But readers with appetites whetted by the revelations in Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir will mainly be disappointed.

It is a lively book, in a jolly-hockey-sticks kind of way, and Pyne doesn’t make too many demands on his reader. There is no deep introspection, no dark night of the soul comparable to Turnbull’s account of his deep depression after he was rejected as party leader in 2009. John Howard kept Pyne on the backbench for somewhat longer than his talents likely warranted, but Christopher seems to have taken it on the chin. We gain few insights into the effects of such disappointments, the emotional demands of politics, or the impact of a public career on one’s family life.

In fact, most of the people he encounters in his political career seemingly become “a friend of mine.” If true, it would suggest that the old line credited to Harry S. Truman — that anyone wanting a friend in Washington needed to buy a dog — doesn’t translate to Canberra.

Like Turnbull, Pyne can write; unlike Turnbull, he doesn’t leave the political scene bitter at the behaviour of a large coterie of enemies. Pyne says he wanted to be prime minister — don’t they all? — but he was never going to fly that high. And unlike all but a few of those who do fly that high, he was able to leave politics in a manner of his own choosing. If he did lose a friend or two along the way — he fell out with Mathias Cormann over the plot against Turnbull — he (metaphorically) kissed and made up.

In the House of Representatives at the age of twenty-five and there for twenty-six years, with only a very brief period as a lawyer, Pyne has had no career outside politics. That makes this book an insight into the modern political class, for which this broad career trajectory is now standard fare. Private school, law degree from sandstone university, student politics, a bit of time as a staffer along the way — he worked for Amanda Vanstone, who provides this book’s foreword — and then a political career before leaving for the richer material rewards of the private sector. This is what a modern professional politician looks like. If you don’t like it, well too bad: that’s how it is.

It has its benefits. Politics might be a profession unlike any other, but it is like all the others in demanding a certain kind of expertise to be done with any success. Pyne clearly has the skills that are needed to practise it effectively. He versed himself in parliamentary procedure and was rewarded when he became leader of the House during the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison era. He also has the gift of the gab and handles media well. He is among a group of politicians who, in collusion with political journalists such as Annabel Crabb (whose endorsement graces the book’s cover), have turned politics into a minor branch of the entertainment industry.

Pyne is quite frank about the degree of self-interested cooperation that occurs within this mutual admiration society. With some exaggeration no doubt, he informs us that “Crabb has made something of a life’s work of trying to make me look normal in the public eye.” Pyne is, of course, making a little witticism, but it is an accurate enough account of the role of some political journalists in providing free PR for fellow members of the political class. Not that this stops Pyne from whining elsewhere in the book about the leftist bias of the ABC. He also makes it abundantly clear how much he enjoys his minor celebrity by devoting a large portion of the early part of the book to (mainly) favourable reviews of his own media career. The question of whether this kind of thing is good for either politics or show business is beyond the scope of this brief review.

Pyne is said to be outrageously witty, and pants-wettingly funny; but while not exactly dour, this is not an especially humorous book. Sometimes, it is hard to know whether Pyne is being serious or whether he is just having another of his little jokes, as when he tells us: “while it’s hard to imagine now, there were real climate change deniers in the Coalition in [2009], some in very senior positions.” For most of us, this requires no stretch of the imagination at all. “[Peta] Credlin had always described me as being like family to Abbott and to her,” he also reports. Here, I would really like to give Pyne the credit for an especially subtle piece of humour, but I suspect it might be inadvertent. And I suppose there was a sense of humour at work in the appointment of former defence minister David Johnston — you might recall him as the bloke who said he wouldn’t trust the Australian Submarine Corporation to “build a canoe” — as an Australian defence exports advocate. This is chutzpah of a rare kind and it deserves our admiration.

Whenever I looked at or listened to Pyne, I was always reminded of the character in the third of the British House of Cards trilogy, The Final Cut, Geoffrey Booza-Pitt, played by Nickolas Grace. Wikipedia gets him right: “a lesser member of Urquhart’s cabinet… He is something of a ‘character,’ cheerfully upper-class with a slightly eccentric sense of humour, notable for wearing colourful waistcoats and bow ties.” This is not quite Pyne but it will do, and the physical resemblance in Grace’s portrayal is uncanny.

There isn’t much to Booza-Pitt except buffoonery and self-interest. There is rather more to Pyne than that, even if he seems to go out of his way to sound like an upper-class twit. This is no better illustrated than by his repeated references in the book to the fictitious couple of Amanda Vanstone’s invention, “Bob and Nancy Stringbag,” who are supposed to represent everyday Australians. That Pyne can do this without any apparent awareness of how condescending and elitist this looks says a great deal about what a quarter of a century as a professional politician will do to you. Bob and Nancy are essentially (white) noble savages: they have no interest in politics and are completely preoccupied with the everyday:

They enjoy life’s simple pleasures — camping with the kids, buying presents and sweets for their grandchildren, having one too many shandies with their mates and girlfriends but not judging others for the same peccadilloes… They see themselves as fair-minded and take their time to come around to change… They loathe being told what to do or what to think by their self-appointed betters.

And on it goes. It probably hasn’t occurred to Pyne that he looks rather like one of their self-appointed betters — such as when he thinks it worth remarking to Peter Dutton, while visiting Queensland, that quite a lot of the latter’s constituents are wearing ugg boots. The untutored Pyne assumed they were low-income, non-Liberal-voting types (Dutton corrected that impression for him). I suppose he deserves a tick for being willing to expose his own snobbery.

Even allowing that he occupied defence portfolios, Pyne is partial to military metaphors. He quotes a note he made in 2012: the strategy to get rid of the Gillard government is “war on all fronts at all times.” The tactics are “to engage and attack the enemy at every opportunity.” Abbott liked Pyne because he was a “warrior.” Pyne and his fellow Liberals are forever getting into “the trenches.” “I never shy away from a fight.” “I lead my troops towards the sound of battle, not away from it!” His time in Turnbull’s office dealing with the leadership crisis of August 2018 was like being in a tent of the Yorkists or Lancastrians in the War of the Roses. “Thursday morning was like the centre of the battlefield.”

And on and on it goes. Political psychologists would have a field day with this material, coming from a politician who has never been a soldier and never been on a battlefield, and who affected something of a dandified public image. Julia Gillard, it might be recalled, cruelly called him a “mincing poodle.”

“Has anyone ever seen one better?” he asks about Abbott as opposition leader, to which the answer would surely be “yes,” because Abbott’s aggression so poisoned the political well that he was unable to adjust to government and was gone in two years. “Like all good generals, Abbott led from the front,” we learn. In reality, it’s bad generals who lead from the front, because, like Major General Sir William Bridges and Tony Abbott, they tend to get shot down there. Pyne at least realises that Abbott’s was a miserable government, and he barely goes through the motions of trying to show that he was a successful education minister. (He wasn’t.)

Along the way are a few opinions and facts that some future political historians might decide to tuck into a footnote. He thinks that Scott Morrison has clean hands in relation to the falls of both Abbott and Turnbull. (Turnbull, in his own memoirs, suggests otherwise.) He thinks Abbott would have lost an election in 2016 if he had not been tipped out. He claims authorship of the idea of requiring a party-room majority to sign a petition calling for a spill of positions in August 2018. He was also responsible for Australia’s policy of supporting West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state — a blundering formulation, now adopted by Donald Trump, that had its origins in some opportunistic posturing to win the Wentworth by-election in 2018. He says that the party’s marginal seat polling indicated Turnbull would have won the 2019 election.

So what does this career of more than a quarter of a century in Australian federal politics amount to? Pyne assures us that he was responsible for “an entire reinventing of defence in Australia.” He spends a good deal of time telling us of his efforts to flog Australian-made military hardware to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He claims some influence in securing defence industry investment for his hometown of Adelaide. He says he is the “father” of the Australian Space Agency. He is generously willing to share with Marise Payne credit for the “Pacific step-up.” He claims that he delivered the moderates to Scott Morrison in the leadership contest. (Is he seriously suggesting that without his influence, they would have voted for Dutton?) He finds he is a “hawk rather than a dove” on defence and foreign policy — “I was comfortable taking a stand” — but given that his career has never required him to make a significant stand on anything much, it’s hard to take the claim too seriously.

In the end, The Insider has value as an insight into what a representative specimen of an Australian professional politician looks like in the early twenty-first century. There’s no need to worry much over which party he belongs to. In the world of the Canberra insiders, such differences are superficial. When Labor’s David Feeney had to take his leave from parliament after forgetting to declare some investment property and falling foul of section 44 on citizenship, Pyne wanted to give him a job as a defence exports advocate. After all, he was “a very decent fellow.”

In good time, I’m sure, he would also have become “a friend of mine.” •