When the news broke that Peter King would seek preselection for his old seat, there was a brief prospect of poetic justice in Wentworth.
A dignified but unpretentious King emerged to make his pitch. “I’ve got more to give”.
In 2003, in the first great injustice wrought by Malcolm Turnbull on the Liberal Party and the nation, King was ignominiously removed in his first term as the Liberal member for Wentworth. Why? Because Turnbull wanted it and was confident that he was better than King could ever be. Had he no shame in removing a first term sitting member of parliament? No, “humility is for saints”.
Of course, King’s critics reached for the inevitable dig. “If he lost preselection, would he run as an independent like he did in 2004?”
But King could always answer this. “I am a loyal Liberal, but on rare occasions one is driven to make a stand on principle; a stand which pits one against his own party which he loves… It has been a long time since then and I have reconciled with Malcolm Turnbull. And like Ovid I have spent my time in exile. So has my lovely wife. But we are back. I am back and make no mistake I have more to give.”
This was the response of a gentleman and a scholar. Interweaving a classical reference, casually assumed to be recognisable. Bearing a candour which rose above the machine men and sycophants. A dying breed. A nation’s loss.
It makes one ask, how many Peter Kings has Australia been denied due to the vaulting ambition of one man? A man now tweeting from his parkside New York apartment with conspicuous spite.
Peter King. Brendan Nelson. Tony Abbott. Two Rhodes scholars. One doctor. All the penumbra of their colleagues and supporters, collateral damage. The hopes and aspirations of a generation of campaigners believing the Liberals were different.
In many ways, the entire party has been “Peter King’d”. Torn down in our first term by Turnbull. Unexpectedly. Inexcusably. Unapologetically.
The figure of King is important. That gentle, learned, but unceremonious type. In many ways characteristic of a party and a politics completely lost to Australia.
Malcolm Turnbull, to a remarkable degree for an individual, did a huge amount to destroy that inheritance. But what’s more unforgivable is that all those who supported him at various stages must have known this would end in catastrophe. His hubris, his unscrupulousness. Always tempting fate.
A lot is made of the ‘iron laws of arithmetic’. But the poetic laws of Aristotelian tragedy are just as binding. The protagonist’s fatal flaw, hubris, pushes him to a crime, sacrilege. He and the nation are cursed by the spilling of blood. And the inevitable catastrophe, the ruination of all, ends the play. This is what has characterised Turnbull’s prime ministership. The sense of inevitable catastrophe. Even he remarked after removing Abbott, that the same would probably happen to him. And so it has.
There was of course, in our tragedy, a MacDuff. Dutton has played the role of hero in the final act, felling the villain who killed the king.
But King is another unexpected hero in this drama. He suffered the humiliation of defeat while the party laughed and foolishly welcomed the intruder, he suffered in exile, returned to serve the community again for years, and then put himself before his colleagues again to be judged.
Despite being our villain’s first victim, Peter overcame the injustice, he had more to give and he tried to give it again. His love for his community, his party and his country remained despite every disappointment.
Let’s hope that the Liberal Party can salvage as much from its own wounds.
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