Brown Study

Brown study

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

It is good to see that another personal memoir of Sir Robert and Dame Pattie Menzies has been published, this one by their daughter Heather Henderson. When I say ‘another’, there are of course very few of them and this essentially family one will therefore be particularly valuable in giving a more rounded picture of our great Prime Minister. Heather’s earlier book of correspondence with her father was the first step in explaining to a younger generation that Menzies was not the forbidding and overbearing character that his opponents and some in the press pretended, but an essentially family man who took time for so many personal demonstrations of affection. I regard myself as so fortunate to have had an afternoon’s conversation with him in 1976, especially as I was thinking of leaving the Parliament and he persuaded me to stay by saying that he had heard one of my speeches and had said to himself, ‘I should meet this man.’ His opening words were, ‘Have a whisky’; he had a detailed knowledge of Medicare; he said he would tell Fraser to sack Bob Ellicott and appoint me as Attorney-General; denounced lazy journalists who could not ask questions but just made assertions (nothing has improved since then), and of course reminisced about the law as one of the doyens of the Melbourne Bar. (An old solicitor told me that Menzies was such an effective jury advocate that he charmed awards of damages out of them so large that they could not be held on appeal). My visit was equalled only by the honour and pleasure of Dame Pattie’s launch of my campaign when I became the first Member for Menzies. My memory of this charming couple will be enhanced by their daughter’s charming memoir.

The visit of Prince Harry to mark the centenary of the Navy was a triumph. Poor republicans. Their cause took another setback, which happens whenever there is a royal visit or family event and this time it must have been put back another 50 years. I almost felt sorry for them. Well, not quite. Another recent appearance that made my heart beat faster was watching Julie Bishop take her seat as President of the Security Council, where Australia is now a member. It is good to see the country taking its rightful place among the top-drawer nations and in particular to see our Foreign Minister there, confident and in control. I hope we will not get diverted by the ritual and stately diplomatic dances that seem to take place at the UN and that instead we use it as a vehicle to promote some of the things we believe in and from which the world would undoubtedly benefit: free enterprise; liberal trade; the independent judiciary; and something done to stop dictators and repressive regimes from murdering and terrorising their own citizens. Naturally, it was also good to see our Prime Minister as such an accomplished statesman on his trip to Indonesia. He seemed to glide gracefully into his new role, obviously charmed his hosts, and his visit was mercifully free from the neurotic twitching, lecturing and condescension that accompanied all of Rudd’s overseas visits.


Talking of overseas visits, and domestic visits for that matter, the expenses of MPs are in the news again, not because the media wants to save tax dollars but because it is just a convenient excuse to denigrate their targets and introduce a bit of levelling to show them who is boss. Yet I simply cannot believe that Labor and Greens party MPs are free from the same apparent departure from the strange rules that govern expenses; I remember them as zealous beyond belief in milking the system for all it is worth and perhaps the way to flush them out is to ask for full disclosure from everyone. I am also sure that MPs would be grateful for some simple clarification so they know what is legitimate and what is not. Finally — and this is not just a plea from the old boys’ club — if MPs are to have their entitlements cut down in this embarrassing way, then it should be done properly and they should be given the same conditions as other workers, like overtime, penalty rates, annual leave and holiday loading; the taxpayer will find very smartly that they are getting a bargain already and that if the real cost of our parliamentary system is booked to the taxpayer, it will be much higher than the cost of going to a few weddings. After all, the unions and the media wax lyrical about the wonders of the centralised wage fixing system and modern awards, so how about a bit of uniformity for the oppressed parliamentarians?

I came across a new political joke the other day — or at least new for me. I had been performing my little trick of waking up at 4am, so you can imagine what sort of mood I was in. I reached out to see what book I would pick up and found a slim volume called The League of London, a series of pen pictures of diplomats, deposed kings and princes and assorted politicians who had taken refuge in London during the war. One of them was Dr Wellington Koo who was the ambassador of the Chinese republic. He was at a formal diplomatic dinner and sitting next to a pompus grandee who clearly had not had any training in cultural sensitivity, as he turned to Dr Koo during the first course and said, ‘Likee soupee?’ The good doctor finished his meal and was then called on to make the after-dinner speech which was a scintillating and sparkling performance, delivered in highly cultured English. When he sat down he turned to the nonplussed grandee and said, ‘Likee speechee?’

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