Flat White

Prime ministers past and the new parliament

4 July 2019

5:00 AM

4 July 2019

5:00 AM

Yesterday the larger than life contribution of Robert J. Hawke to Australian political life was recognised for the return of the 46th Parliament. Our newest Liberal Prime Minister spoke at the despatch box about the reform of Labor under his stewardship and his momentous achievements.

The day before one of the Liberal Party’s own former Prime Minister’s sat in the gallery. Unlike the red-carpet rolled out for Howard, the think tanks named in honour of Menzies, the reclaiming of Fraser by the party’s moderates as one who came to see the true liberal position, there has been little recognition of the achievements of Tony Abbott.

A man who, as Howard said in a room filled with the party’s selected few watching the count on election night, has led the party to Government from Opposition.

Only four people have achieved it. Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott.

It took Howard to say it. We haven’t heard it since. Too raw. Too soon. Perhaps he has to wait, they say.

With the loss of Abbott, the party has lost one of the greatest political campaigners of the Howard era. Peter Dutton is the only other man standing in the cabinet who learnt from Howard how to win elections from the inside.

I was 26 when I went to work with Abbott as a junior press sec. I had worked with someone previously who wasn’t so nice to me. Soon after I started with TA, I was expected to deliver a speech to him and I was missing a piece because I didn’t receive the information from the department.

I was fearful of retribution, due to my previous experience. Tony put his hand on my shoulder. He said “No one, Kristy, will treat you like that in any office I run. We’re a team, I wouldn’t have my daughters be treated that way, and I won’t do it to any staff member, man or woman.”

I never told him any of my previous experience.

He knew, and he made sure I could be the best political adviser I could be, with all the confidence that comes with having a boss that supports you.

He always had female senior staff- chiefs and press secs and senior advisers. A trailblazer for women in political staffing. In an era when we only had Kay Patterson and Helen Coonan, and the other Bishop, the first one who could have been leader, who gave it a serious effort, Bronwyn, in the cabinet, and women were thin on the ground, women with kids at school, forget about it. In this time, there was Tony, promoting women in staffing.

You could count on one hand the number of women at our Howard Government press sec meetings – chief of staffs, even less.

Except for our office.

That’s just my story. There are many more that are at odds with the Tony Abbott that is portrayed in the media.

I have my version.

I got my job because we had such a good time at my interview discussing Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years. An intellect and an Anglophile, a scholar of classics that somehow was seen as less intellectual than those who were academics of Asian history.

Both are valid and equal and relevant to Australia; where we’ve been and where we’re going.

My time with Tony, my time with the Howard Government and the people that ran it, at such a young age, has made me the political operative I am today.

I learnt from the best. Dirt files and all. Unpopular beliefs formed- that some may say have been validated tonight with the shock victory of the Morrison Government.

It has lost Tony Abbott, but it has given voice to the silent majority that he fought for.

It has elected a man who knows where he’s anchored to.

That phrase isn’t mine. I’ll credit it to the man who did say it.

Yesterday I listened to an interview with Greg Combet. It was a few years old – replayed on ABC iView. When I run, because we all run, us crazy political people, I listen to Compass and Insiders.

Like an operative.

Like actual music doesn’t exist.

Combet said: “When you get to Canberra, you have to be anchored. It’s what anchors you, your beliefs, everything you’ve done up until this point, knowing who you are, you can’t do it if you don’t have that anchor.”

It’s one of the smartest ways I’ve heard this rough business that we do described.

And he was good with words, Greg Combet.

He could’ve maybe got there.

He got tired. Him and Lindsay Tanner.

Sick of cars and planes and 24 hour TV.

Wanted to watch the waves at Newcastle and walk down Collins Street with their head held high, knowing they didn’t compromise their beliefs to do it. Smart men. Good men. Go the Bombers. Bugger the ACTU.

Tony and I watched together as Kevin Rudd appeared on Sunrise and we knew he was running. He said, “This guy is as fake as a two-bob gold watch, surely Australians could see through him?”

We continued to pump out stories of Rudd’s disastrous Queensland government track record. We kept fighting. It didn’t make a dent. He kept polling upwards.

Tony couldn’t understand how his faith in the Australian public had been so misplaced.

They didn’t see through Rudd, and it was one of the lowest points of our recent political history.

He didn’t hate Rudd because he hated Labor. He hated Rudd because he was disingenuous. It’s little known but he said his greatest adversary and most respected one was Jenny Macklin.

Both of them politicians who fought their corner and believed they were there to make Australia better.
Both now gone. Like Combet. Like Tanner.

Lost to a different time of what it meant to be a politician.

Ah, politics. You win some, you lose some. A funny game. It takes all you have and then some. And those two little girls on stage on election night, Abby and Lilly, will grow up knowing it.

Just like Frances and Bridget and Louise Abbott, and anyone who has been part of a political family, staff or blood.

There isn’t much of a difference in the end.

Tony has lost his seat, but those who know him reckon he went to sleep on election night with his faith in the Australian public reinstated.

And he can walk down the Manly Corso with his head held high.

Remember, only three others have achieved what he did – Menzies, Fraser and Howard.

What came next, we all have our view.

But, that’s just my version.

Kristy McSweeney has been a media strategist for the Coalition since 2004 and has worked for all four federal coalition administrations at a cabinet-level, and a couple of premiers. She advises private individuals on government engagement and is an official contributor to Sky News.

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