Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hard man hoist by his petard

Senator George Brandis.

Senator George Brandis. Photo: Steven Siewert

One does not have to be politically partisan to enjoy enormously the own goal which seriously threatens the career of George Brandis, Attorney-General. Nothing is ever so delicious as watching the karma of a person who has wielded the sword finding himself skewered by someone else.

Mick Young did it. Several times. Jo Dawkins nearly did it several times, but became so unnerved by the realisation that some of his enemies were in his own family that he got out of politics. Ian Sinclair doled it out with heartless if impersonal vigour, and, hard man of the hard men, did not complain when he got it back, with hiccups. Peter Reith was a hard man too, and felt the lethal wounds in his own body even before his assailants did. Like Sinclair too, he did not complain, but unlike Sinclair he tried, essentially unavailingly, to explain.

Both the friends and enemies, admirers and detractors of Senator Brandis will probably agree that he deserves the discomfort he is feeling. He is almost certainly not guilty of any sort of hanging offence - certainly not of any sort of criminality or fraud. But he may have committed an even greater parliamentary sin - of being a hypocrite. He has proclaimed standards for others to follow: he has called for others to be hanged, drawn and quartered for failing to meet the standard he has proclaimed. A wise man, or a cynic, should realise immediately that any such paragon must himself, or herself, be exemplary in one's own standards, particularly in the area in which one has moralised.

Brandis has a second problem that Peter Reith was quick to realise. A good many parliamentary scandals are difficult to explain to ordinary voters, the people who pass for juries in our democracy. Serious mismanagement, inefficiency, or incompetence can often be disguised in a fog of words. When Reith got into trouble with the bill for his mobile telephone, he was, in a sense, having just the sort of problem that any old punter might. Except that there are not many old punters around whose carelessness has led to a bill of $50,000 from misuse by others.

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Before it emerged, Reith was frantically trying to resolve the issue, known only to a very few. He did not have to be told that any explanation - of lending the phone to his son, who may have mentioned the password to others - was unlikely to cut much ice with the prime minister, the opposition, the media or the public.

When he was asked about the case, by Emma Macdonald of this newspaper, who obviously knew more about his situation than she let on, he did the right thing - of 'fessing up immediately. Reith had long been an attack dog, and knew perfectly well how excruciating, humiliating, and ultimately fatal any suggestion of cover-up could be. When the public was being invited to judge , it had the advantage of knowing the facts.

But if obfuscation or denial could not have saved him and would have only made public perceptions even worse, mere straightforwardness, a certain ruefulness and willingness to repay could not tilt the balance far in the other direction. That was in part because hundreds of ordinary folk, writing judgmental letters to editors and the like, understood the problem all too well, and understood all too well what empathy and understanding one received from Telstra, or Optus or the like, if one tried to avoid responsibility by using Reith's explanation. Even the passionate voter might see some ambiguity in the use of Alsatian dogs on the wharves, or deceptive and misleading conduct in the engineering of the wharves dispute. But an argument about a phone bill we could all understand, and no politician could claim to be more expert in the rights and wrongs than any man in the public bar, or teenager at the dinner table.

That was only part of it. Peter Reith had done his nation and his party some service. He was a skilful politician, and not without courage or scars. But once the phone bill fell on him, he was, he knew, doomed to be remembered primarily for the telephone bill. Thirty years hence it may well be in the first sentence of his obituary - as

the thing most people will remember. Reith was wounded.

He remained in politics for a little more than a year but announced his intention to get out of representative politics. His parting bequest to his party - during the 2001 election campaign - was the ''children overboard scandal, but that did not fall apart until after Reith had departed the scene, and for a while, the country.

It was during the unravelling of the children overboard affair that Brandis made his first political mark. He played chief defence dog for Howard as Senator John Faulkner used the Senate committee to lay bare political deception, witting official blindness and dirty tricks. Brandis could hardly help the facts emerging but could use spoiling tricks and any number of distractions to confuse issues. Once, he was reported to have privately called Howard a ''lying rodent'' but he denied this.

Brandis was originally a conspicuous moderate, but he has, in recent years, seemed to turn considerably to the right. Like Christopher Pyne, another usually characterised as a moderate, he delights in jousting in the culture wars as if he were a charter member of the Society of Retired Indian Army Colonels. He has become a great champion of freedom of speech for small but very persecuted and underprivileged right-wing Murdoch columnists, and shock jocks such as Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, or, as fatally over the expenses claims, Chris Smith. Any of these may be, for Coalition politicians, necessary evils; but one could never imagine any person of ministerial ilk, or a Menzies, actually socialising with such people 30 or 50 years ago.

A claim for expenses to go to a wedding is perfectly able to be judged by an ordinary voter. No amount of explanation about ''networking'', or the importance of drinking with journalists, radio ''personalities'' and other ne'er-do-wells will cut it. The public knows a rort when it sees one; it judges well-paid politicians more severely for one than a workmate. All the more when that politician has been putting himself up as exemplar, detached ethicist and judge and jury. There is more rejoicing in hell when an archbishop is caught in adultery than when a film star is.

In Australia, the abiding political sin is hypocrisy - doing something one has officially condemned if done by someone else. Our media is generally tolerant of political drunks, drug abusers and the promiscuous, provided their conduct is reasonably discreet and does not seem to compromise public duties. But any ''family man'' (or woman), or person who moralises about others, is fair game if caught out. So too is anyone thought to be self-indulgent with expenses, especially if he has been critical of abuses by others. Brandis was the chief Coalition attack dog on Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson, and liberal with innuendo about possible misbehaviour by Julia Gillard.

Every party has people with long memories and people who ''research'' the backgrounds of opposite numbers and throw the mud, either for attack or defence. Brandis was not even particularly good at that job, and sometimes, it seems, was overused by Abbott at the conscious expense of some ambitious backbenchers. He is now too disabled for calvary attacks on the enemy, let alone artillery attacks.

Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large. jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia.com.au


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