As an aspiring politician one thing I will take away from the resignation of John Brogden is that politics is an unforgiving game. One silly remark is all it takes for a carefully built edifice to come crashing down.
Most of us have told off-colour jokes at one time or another. Often the punch line will be funny exactly because it is outrageous. Plenty of people happily laugh at jokes about Michael Jackson and the Neverland ranch, yet no one would suggest for a moment that any of them condones child molestation. Plenty of people tell racist jokes yet, in the end, believe that racial equality is not only desirable but vital in a free society. I have told jokes about homosexuals, but I made a homosexual man the godfather of my son and I am still regarded with suspicion by some in the Liberal Party because, 11 years ago as Queensland Young Liberal president, I was a vocal advocate of gay rights.
My point is that when John Brogden said what he said about Helena Carr, he was being silly, but he wasn’t being a racist. He was being insulting, but he wasn’t for a moment trying to suggest that Helena Carr was any less human. If anything, the insult was directed at Bob Carr rather than his wife.
As Brogden said in his resignation conference, if someone had said something similarly insulting about his wife, he would have been furious. Mr and Mrs Carr had every right to be furious, but should a promising career have ended?
I think that people would have understood that Brogden’s remark was not one that truly represented how he felt. He has the runs on the board as a liberal who strongly advocates human rights for all people, who despises the sort of bigotry now attributed to him. Before he became leader, his parliamentary office was a shrine to one of the 20th century’s great human rights advocates, Bobby Kennedy. He learnt his politics from people like Chris Puplick, Peter Baume and Malcolm Fraser - hardly the teachers of a racist or a sexist. His truest political friends are all from that mould.
That is why I think his decision to resign was unfortunate. Of course he would be blemished by his conduct, but some of the most successful politicians of our age have been tarred, sometimes unfairly, with the racism brush. John Howard was called a racist in the 1980s merely for saying that we ought to regulate who we let into the country. Now, in an era when Enoch Powell’s sense of foreboding seems much more reasonable, that sentiment is middle of the road.
Following the Media Watch demolition job, it seems clear that the filth published by the Daily Telegraph the day after Brogden’s resignation was fabrication. Equally, it seems likely that the knowledge of its imminent publication was a factor in Brogden’s decision to resign. It is going too far, I suspect, to say that such publication was, on its own, the cause of his subsequent misadventure.
One thing I have observed about Brogden over the years is that he is an inherently decent person. His instinct, once the Liberal Party was threatened, was to deny himself a run at the premiership, because he thought it was better for the party he serves. The thing is, having been a member of that same party for nearly 20 years now, I know how hard it is for political parties to come by people of the calibre of John Brogden.
That problem is personified in Morris Iemma, the Premier of New South Wales. Iemma and his backers have tried quickly to build for him some mythology about an émigré made good. Contrary to what the ALP would like the punters to believe, he has, it seems, never had a job that wasn’t within the gift of the New South Wales Right. That organisation owes its existence to the trade union movement which has, for more than a century, been the breeding ground for institutional racism in this country.
For Iemma to burst forth in howls of mock outrage in response to revelations of Brogden’s misbehaviour was to deny Iemma’s real cultural heritage - that of the faction that has made him what he is. That heritage is one of sex on the floor of parliamentary offices (remember Joe Tripodi), of sex on the desk in parliamentary offices (remember John Brown), of physical beating of political opponents (remember Peter Baldwin).
Equally galling, and unbelievable, was the foray of Peter Beattie into this matter. Beattie claimed that he had not heard any talk of that sort in any political forum since the 1950s. Leaving aside that he was a child living with his grandmother in Far North Queensland in the 1950s, it is simply unbelievable that this other test tube baby of the union movement would not have drawn support over the years from the sort of people for whom institutionalised racism is not only a fact, but a desirable pattern of behaviour.