The trouble with political memoirs is that it’s very hard to get the balance right between the book-length version of an after-dinner speech, with its jokes and stories; and an elaborate re-telling of recent history, invariably told to make a hero of the author. Christopher Pyne’s account of his part in the post-Howard years occasionally prompts a chuckle and sometimes has interesting things to say. By contrast, Malcolm Turnbull’s recent memoir is bitter and self-serving with betrayals of confidence on almost every page. While Turnbull was determined that no score should be left unsettled, Pyne is trying hard to be genial.
But by entirely omitting the plotting sessions (that were so discreditable to Turnbull, despite the slant he put on them), Pyne has written a less than candid book. It’s certainly one that’s far less instructive about the political cannibalism of a dismal decade in our public life.
As its title suggests, Pyne sees himself as the ultimate Canberra player. From the time, as a 25-year-old, he did the numbers to shaft a sitting member for pre-selection to his role in blocking Peter Dutton’s 2018 leadership bid, Pyne has been in the thick of any intrigue that’s going. Occasionally, in this book, he lets slip his methods: such as telling friendly colleagues to vote for him just to ‘save me from humiliation’, when he contested the deputy leadership in 2007. But of how he managed to ingratiate himself with people he then betrayed; and of how he became, along with Julie Bishop, the great survivor of four Liberal leadership coups in a decade, there’s nary a hint. Indeed, just when you’d think this legendary practitioner of the dark arts might have been most involved – with Bishop’s demise as shadow treasurer, for instance, Peter Slipper’s demise as speaker, or Tony Abbott’s demise as prime minister, Pyne becomes strangely coy. If there was any Machiavellian bastardry on his part, he’s not fessing up; even though, on his own admission, everything he did was driven by the need to win: for himself and his brand of progressive Liberalism.
It’s hard not to suspect self-censorship in his account of Turnbull’s downfall. He claims to respect Dutton, even though he thought he would be unelectable as prime minister; he says he’s an admirer of Bishop, even though he persuaded the Liberal left to abandon her in favour of Scott Morrison; Morrison, he insists, was not playing a double game, despite furiously working the phones; and he reckons he’s a great friend of Mathias Cormann, routinely staying at his home in Perth, yet – apparently – couldn’t even manage a What’sApp message to him in the vital 24 hours that might have averted the catastrophe, as Pyne still sees it, of Turnbull’s defeat. Still, even if it’s by what he leaves out as much as by what he puts in, Pyne’s book casts some light on this generally tawdry period in Australian politics.
He says of Brendan Nelson that he’s ‘a thoroughly decent individual…(who) had been a first rate minister… was solicitous of his colleagues and had established strong and lasting relationships with them, which is one of the reasons he surprised many pundits when he beat Turnbull’. Of Abbott he says, ‘I was in his inner circle and it was a rewarding place to be’. Abbott, he says, ‘had a tremendous capacity to make someone feel special through meaningful and carefully chosen words’. Presumably, Pyne made a note at the time of Abbott’s supposed January 2012 observations to him: that ‘you are incredibly smart, a total warrior and indefatigable. A combination shared by few of our colleagues.’
Re Abbott he continues, ‘As well as you did in 2011, you are going to have to be even better in 2012. The curse of being good is that people expect even better. You might also gently prod some of our more inert colleagues who have served before in cabinet and are not as hungry as those who aren’t. There are only two or three of us who can do this!’ Says Pyne, ‘when we were to part ways’, in September 2015, ‘that made it all the more painful. (Peta) Credlin had always described me as being like family.’
So what did cause Pyne to join the Turnbull coup, despite the Abbott government earning ‘an “A” for policy outcomes’, with even the 2014 budget working ‘a treat as a policy document’? Pyne wants people to believe that Abbott lost him by keeping him in the dark over same-sex marriage. Yet Pyne entirely omits the private dinner that he and Abbott had had at Chianti’s restaurant in Adelaide, a couple of weeks before the joint party room discussion, that Pyne called a ‘National Party branch-stack’; even though the Sunday Telegraph reported that he’d already told Pyne that ‘his preference was for a plebiscite’.
Apart from using same-sex marriage, plus the South Australian submarine cargo cult to end the prime ministership of the man who’d done the hard years to bring the Liberals back to government (thus prolonging the curse of the revolving door prime ministership), what is Pyne’s legacy? He was certainly an effective parliamentary scrapper. His relentless assaults on Julia Gillard’s infamous $16 billion ‘school hall’ programme were fitting payback for her jibe about him being a ‘mincing poodle’. And there’s little doubt that he’s indeed helped to enshrine the Liberal left, as he unwisely boasted to a factional get-together, in the ‘winners’ circle’ of the party and the government. According to his highly selective memoir, Pyne thinks that this has helped the Lib’s electoral prospects. This is despite the fact that the evidence is dead against him.
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Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are a sexual/political satire, The Dizzying Heights, co-authored with Ian McFadyen; and a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne
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