Books Australia

Out of his depth

12 June 2014

1:00 PM

12 June 2014

1:00 PM

There are individuals who, when fate hands them the opportunity for greatness, have risen to the challenge. Rob Oakeshott was not one of them. On the evidence of this book, when he found himself holding the balance of power after the 2010 election, he blew his chance to make a real difference. The picture that emerges is of a man out of his depth, a man who, now it is all over, is left wondering how it happened, how it all went so wrong.

He spends the first part of the book walking through the negotiations that followed the election outcome. But in hindsight it is clear that Gillard did not have to ‘negotiate’ at all. There was never any chance that Oakeshott, Windsor, Bandt and Wilke would side with the Coalition (no-one knew Katter’s intentions, a situation that remains to this day). Gillard did not have to ask the cross-benchers for their support: she could have simply walked into the meeting room (after keeping them waiting for a while) and told them what they were going to do for her. You don’t like it? Tony’s just outside, you know.

Nevertheless, for reasons of her own Gillard felt the need to hammer out an agreement, and Oakeshott set great store by the document. Hugs all round, a ‘kinder, gentler polity’. Amigos all; the media loved it. But the ink was hardly dry on the Brave New World before it began falling apart. It is not clear whether Gillard had no intention of keeping to it or if she had made promises that did not survive the party room. Even some of the smaller things in the agreement — an impartial body to oversee campaign debates, for example — were dumped, eventually.

Oakeshott skips around the critical point that he had, prior to the election, pledged that if he held the balance of power, he would do what his electorate wanted. There is no question that the voters of Lyne did not want him to side with Labor. But for a man who claims to value integrity and community connection Oakeshott had no apparent difficult in simply blowing them off. Even worse, at one point in the book he tries to quote Edmund Burke to legitimise ignoring his electorate — and for that there can be no forgiveness.

If Oakeshott thought that his position meant that he would be able to influence government decisions, he proved to be mistaken. For example, an issue of great interest to him was gambling reform (he had been shadow minister for gambling when he was in the NSW parliament, sitting as a National). Gillard gave him some commitments, but the whole thing came to nothing when the factional heavies and the Labor-connected clubs applied backroom pressure. The strange thing is that Oakeshott is entirely understanding of Gillard’s position, of her need to keep her own people on side. This happened again and again, on one issue after another: the mining tax, asylum seeker policy, the carbon tax. Meanwhile, the government’s fiscal position was sliding into a black hole and the debt was piling up. Oakeshott was unconcerned at the looming disaster, apparently seeing government funds as a bucket with no bottom.

The way in which Oakeshott excuses Gillard’s pattern of making promises to him and then breaking them is grating, despite Oakeshott’s acceptance. You can almost hear the Labor tacticians sniggering behind their hands. If there is anything worse than watching someone being dudded, it is watching them collude in the process. At one point he talked to Gillard about appointing him to the education portfolio. Gillard said she would think about it. It probably gave the cabinet a good laugh, at least.

Oddly, Oakeshott wonders why the Coalition treated him as a Labor proxy. His confusion here is illustrative of a deeper problem: he never really thought through the consequences of his actions, and how they would be perceived. Well, Rob, the Coalition saw you as being on the ALP side because that is precisely where you placed yourself, and you waved around a piece of paper to prove it. What, exactly, did you think was going to happen?

If those who did not despise him considered him to be a lightweight, perhaps it was because of his penchant for silly stunts. In one case, he gave a speech in parliament in the indigenous Dhanggati language. It might have been heartfelt but it looked like a gimmick, a cheap trick. Symbolic, Oakeshott says. Ah, symbolism, the last refuge of the unconvincing.

All of this might be acceptable if The Independent Member for Lyne was actually a good read. But it is not. Amazingly, given Oakeshott’s inherently interesting role, it is rather boring. And, as a narrative, confused. It starts out as a day-by-day account but then Oakeshott takes a detour into his time in state politics. Then he goes to a discussion of issues that interest him, then it’s back to the tactics of the hung parliament. Then a meandering chapter about his decision to leave. But after that comes another 40 pages of musing about things like the ABC, the republic, reconciliation and so on. It’s vaguely Left-ish and rather mushy. One cannot help but be reminded of the lengthy speech preceding his announcement that he would back Gillard: guff and bluster, signifying nothing.

What might be Oakeshott’s political epitaph? That he meant well, perhaps. That he was not a bad person, just a befuddled one. It doesn’t seem like much, and considerably less than it might have been. Which might, indeed, be entirely appropriate.

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