pyne

He’s got more to give

Christopher Pyne has been in the federal parliament since 1993, or my second year at university. I only vaguely remember the “GST election” of that year, since it was only later that year I got caught up with a bad crowd and got involved in the right-of-centre politics; in other words it’s a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. This means that Christopher has been in representative politics for 24 years. He was a minister in the Howard government, spent six years in the shadow cabinet as a consigliere and part of the praetorian guard for two leaders, Malcolm Turnbull and then Tony Abbott, and by the time the next election comes, he would have spent another six years in the cabinet, again as a consigliere and part of the praetorian guard for Tony Abbott and then Malcolm Turnbull again. Most objective observers would say that Christopher has had a pretty good run in his quarter of a century in Canberra, surfing through a variety of senior positions and across many crucial portfolios, most recently as the Minister for Rat-fucking the Defence Minister, I mean the Minister for Defence Industry. The Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne, it should be recalled, is one of Christopher’s oldest friends and factional allies.

Most objective observers would probably also say that having had a pretty good and long run, Christopher should perhaps bow out on the high point of his career and give someone else a chance to fill his Sturt shoes (his predecessor, Ian Wilson, whom he rolled in a preselection when 25, has been in the seat for 27 years). Like everyone else who has given so much time and energy to federal politics, Christopher too deserves a chance to spend more time with his family and his hobbies.

But apparently he has got more to give:

Veteran cabinet minister Christopher Pyne has openly declared to Liberal colleague and first-term MP Nicolle Flint that he would seek her federal seat in South Australia should his own seat be abolished or redrawn unfavourably in a looming electoral redistribution.

Mr Pyne issued the warning of his intentions to a private meeting of South Australian federal MPs and officials in Canberra on September 14. It is understood that the four South Australian federal MPs — including Ms Flint, who was elected to the seat of Boothby in last year’s election — were present at the meeting, as well as the SA division’s president, former South Australian premier John Olsen and party state director Sascha Meldrum.

Christopher denies the report.

After the next election, the Liberal Party will most likely be back in the opposition. Even if the Coalition by some miracle manages to reverse its current and long-standing electoral plight and win one for the true believers, what more exactly is Christopher expecting to get out of his career? Deputy leadership? (Shadow) Ministry for Foreign Affairs? (this, after all, has been his long-standing ambition – to be Australia’s face and voice in the world) But why would whoever leads the party at that stage keep on rewarding and promoting a yesterday’s man, when so many younger and hungrier members and senators are waiting for their chance to shine?

Coincidentally, this story by Mike Seccombe, has popped up in the last few days, bringing back some blasts from the past:

The request from Christopher Pyne was simple but unexpected. Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership was in trouble, and he was hoping GetUp! might help do numbers for him.

It was the last Saturday of November in 2009 and the phone call was to Simon Sheikh, then national director of the activist group.

“He complained that conservative organisations, particularly the Australian Christian Lobby, were contacting MPs to advocate support for Abbott,” Sheikh says. “He asked if I could organise for people to email or call MPs in support of Turnbull.”

Pyne had specifics in mind. He offered to provide GetUp! with a list of about 10 undecided MPs, whose votes might be swayed by a lobbying campaign. Given the events of this week, it seems particularly curious in hindsight.

Sheikh and Pyne had established a reasonable relationship, although the MP had expressed his frustration that GetUp! did not sufficiently distinguish between moderate Liberals such as himself and the party’s conservatives.

But Sheikh had some sympathy for Pyne’s request: the progressive agenda of GetUp! would likely fare better under Turnbull’s continued leadership than it would under Tony Abbott’s.

Ultimately, however, Sheikh declined. As an excuse, he said GetUp! could not organise it in the available time. The truth was he didn’t want GetUp! involved in the Liberal Party’s internal machinations. A few days later, on Tuesday, December 1, Abbott won the leadership by just one vote.

In retrospect, Sheikh thinks he made the right call.

“I doubt that GetUp! could have had any impact,” he says, but concedes also that given “how bad” the Abbott government subsequently proved to be, he sometimes wonders “if we should have done anything we could”.

The call did plant the seed of an idea, however. The following year, GetUp! first contemplated a strategy of targeting individual politicians. They got as far as drawing up a hit list of those they saw as “holding back change”.

A senior Liberal politician seeking the assistance of an anti-Liberal lobby group to shore up the leader’s position against the majority of his own party (I’m talking here about the rank and file, rather than the more evenly split parliamentary wing), all over an electorally idiotic stance of supporting Labor’s Emissions Trading Scheme policy?

Anyone surprised? I can’t say I am. In 2009, I was there in the thick of the action, playing my own extremely minor supporting role in preventing the electoral suicide of the party I joined 15 years earlier. It was clear to me then that we got into this strife through a combination of terrible judgment exercise by the people in charge and cowardice of others around them. The ultimate tragedy for the Liberal Party was that while “we changed the leader to change the policy”, essentially the same people stayed in control of the party, unchastened by the whole experience, eventually played their part in destroying the Abbott prime ministership (with much help from the Abbott/Credlin duumvirate) , and then helped to inflict Malcolm Turnbull on the Liberal Party yet again.

It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to say I expected the second coming of Malcolm to be as bad for the party as the initial incarnation – and I haven’t been disappointed. Initially I had some faint hopes that Malcolm has managed to learn some lessons from his original stint on the top, and that in any case, whatever else, he will at least fight for economically sound policies. Boy, was I stupidly optimistic.

In the end, it’s not even the fact that Christopher has had a very long and a very good run in federal politics. It’s the questions over his judgment and loyalty that ultimately should force the party to ask itself: really, how much longer?

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