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One of the three musketeers

By Helen Pringle - posted Tuesday, 7 September 2010

In Alexander Dumas’ novel, the three musketeers live by the motto “all for one, one for all”. The three rural independents who are pivotal in the formation of a new government have been portrayed in the press as having the uniformity of outlook and common purpose of Porthos, Athos and Aramis. The three independents are all former Nationals who are said to be of conservative political background, and to have been supported by conservative electorates.

The former Nationals leader Mark Vaile recently lectured Rob Oakeshott along these lines about where his political allegiances should lie. Vaile, who held Oakeshott’s seat of Lyne until 2008, noted, “Rob’s background is still, I would have thought, conservative. He is from a conservative family.” Vaile also argued that the seat of Lyne is conservative, concluding that “All those indicators ought to point to him supporting a conservative government”.

However, Rob Oakeshott’s record in federal parliament doesn’t point that way at all, and the media speculation about his affinities with the other musketeers seems oddly removed from any examination of his parliamentary record.


In his first speech to the Australian parliament on October 22, 2008, Oakeshott began with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land - and a request that the parliament “revisit this question of a daily acknowledgement within this chamber for traditional owners, a simple, symbolic but respectful act that will assist in building a better Australia”. In emphasising a (local) place-based form of representation, Oakeshott argued that the commitment to build a better place is, however, “a borderless commitment”. He talked of the importance of global citizenry, the United Nations, international human rights, the Millenium Development Goals - all rather contentious commitments for a “conservative” in Australia to uphold.

Oakeshott’s first speech was not a one-off. For example, he referred to the problems of domestic violence, urging men “to remember and enforce on all friends the fundamental golden rule of being an Australian male: you do not lift a hand in anger against a woman, no matter what the circumstance.” He returned to the question of violence against women in a speech on White Ribbon Day in 2009, in a tone again most uncharacteristic of what are commonly referred to as “conservative” positions.

That Rob Oakeshott is a decent man, however his political allegiances are labelled, is important, but it is less at issue than the question of what is the character of his electorate. Oakeshott’s record in parliament might lead us to suspect that what Mark Vaile describes as the conservative seat of Lyne has elected the wrong person (twice). But perhaps Vaile just doesn’t know his own electorate very well, or what its citizens are capable of being.

Vaile describes Oakeshott’s background as “conservative”. Oakeshott’s own portrait of his background makes Vaile’s label seem terribly simplistic:

All [my parents, parents-in-law, and my extended family] value their independence of thought, all place a great value on service, and all are achieving incredible things. My immediate family has professors and doctors with Australian honours, nurses, AusAid workers in Mindanao, journalists, company secretaries, executive search managers, ACCC solicitors, tax lawyers, political consultants, returned navy personnel from the Iraq war, naval fitness instructors, painters, and very busy mothers of three. Politically, we have family members who worked for Lionel Murphy and other family members who worked for John Howard. It is an understatement to say we are an eclectic bunch, who sharpen our saws on each other at Christmas lunch and who love each other dearly.

And our family is long on form on the concept of service and on the concept that the only life worth living is a life of service - whether it be my great grandfather, George Oakeshott, in his work to help build a capital city called Canberra, as well as his architectural work on Sydney buildings such as Customs House and the Intercontinental Hotel; or whether it be my wife’s extended Yow Yeh mob, an Australian story that started in the most marginalised of ways through the slave trading of North Queensland and the various xenophobic actions that followed. It is a story full of struggle and inspiration, where the family patriarch earned his break in Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents, and from there, bought a house and encouraged all seven daughters and two sons to place a value on education, and now this significant network of very proud South Sea Islanders are running many aspects of community life in Australia. For me, that is exactly the way it should be …

Oakeshott’s portrait strikes me as not only more true than Mark Vaile’s simple assertion of a rural conservative electorate. But more importantly perhaps, this picture of family and home also attempts to do justice to the fundamental decency and generosity of Australians.


I think that part of what Rob Oakeshott is saying is that when people are addressed as rednecks, they will respond as rednecks. In a speech on torture and the death penalty on February 22, 2010, Oakeshott’s argument seems to be that a politics of respect requires that issues are posed in a way that requires people to listen to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature”. Oakeshott argued:

We are responding to [the] community in an irresponsible way if we just throw the question out to the community and say, “Do you agree with the death penalty or not?” We are going to get a range of views, and I reckon we might even tip into the side of more people saying yes than no. But if we provide detail and evidence around a particular case, its particular circumstances and the facts of the case and then ask, “Do you think the death penalty should apply?” then, I would hope - and, more often than not, I have faith in our community - that commonsense would apply and most people in the community, once they understood the facts and the evidence trail, would say no.

To the question of whether we are here to serve the majority view within our communities, I would say, “Yes, we are, so long as it is done on a factual base and our representation is responsible”.

In this context, then, I think it is not inaccurate to call Oakeshott a “conservative”. But his conservatism is of a very different kind from that of, say, Mark Vaile. Like his namesake the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, the member for Lyne is a conservative in his care for concrete human experience rather than for brute abstractions. This perspective on what matters suggests that Oakeshott, perhaps unlike the other musketeers, will make trouble for whichever side of politics he comes to support. And that kind of trouble is a very good thing in politics.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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