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No discipline among right-wing rats

By Ian Smith - posted Tuesday, 14 September 2004

This year's federal election will be remembered for many bemusing things, but surely one especially hard to believe element is the attacks on the Prime Minister and his Government by men who were once ideological soul mates. Self-righteous former prominent politicians, party representatives and advisers criticising the leadership of 2004 or airing their bits of scuttlebutt are seemingly particular to latter-day politics.

They are symptomatic of so many hearts in our culture of complaint that feel now is the time to bleed publicly. John Hewson, Liberal leader from 1990 to 1994, used a recent weekly column in the Australian Financial Review to accuse John Howard of being a "master manipulator" and suggested that "it's about time that the press gallery compile a list of specific questions" to ask the Prime Minister. Incredible.

And John Valder, former federal Liberal party president in the 1980s, has even called Howard a “war criminal'' for his role in liberating Iraq.


Having fought for so many of the same things the Prime Minister stands for, are we really to believe that the likes of Hewson and Valder have made Damascus-like conversions to the Left?

The author of Fightback has supposedly discovered a deep love of human rights and an abiding desire to protect the environment. At least Valder is consistent in his actions, if not his ideology. In his brief tenure as party president, as Paul Cowdy reminded us in a letter to this newspaper, Valder “helped to create a decade of wilderness for his party by declaring the self-fulfilling prophecy that division is death''.

And although we have trodden only a few metres along the campaign trail, there have already been cameos seeking to upset the agenda by previously innocuous party officials such as Queenslander Russell Galt (who's he?). I'll wager that a certain former prime minister, who has so far resisted the urge to enter the fray, is probably sitting around weighing up the temptation.No doubt there will be more to come forward. But they would be unwise to do so. Such anti-Howard utterances have become to politics what Entertainment Tonight is to the world of drama and the arts.

As the campaign gets into full swing, it's important to put all of these contributions in context. They are not particularly rational. They are the utterances of grumpy old men. “Grab me the oxygen of publicity mask”, they holler.

The Opposition may pick them up and run with them for a day, citing such comments as reflective of “the real'' Prime Minister or his colleagues. But while their words are watched by many inside the beltway, they are listened to by only a few. They matter little in terms of influencing marginal seats.

Watching the campaign during the past week, I have wondered that if the boot were on the other foot, just how the Labor hierarchy would countenance such treachery in its own ranks.


Speaking as a conservative, I find one of the few admirable aspects of the ALP is its iron discipline. The views of the Hewsons or Valders would not be politely tolerated. They would be rejected out of hand - as “rats''. Such individuals would be told in no uncertain terms that such public utterances would be detrimental to the party, not to mention their own lifespan.

Oh, how I sometimes long for our own Robert Ray. The Right side of politics, however, is a broad church. That means accepting that some of your associates may have different opinions from your own. There is a way to express them, privately to a few over the dinner table, in the pub or trackside. But they should not be allowed to distract one from striving for a common purpose and that is a fourth term conservative government.

As someone once remarked: “It's not the work that's hard, it's the discipline.'' This era of the whistleblower most excites those who are doing the blowing. The media reports on their comments, apparently taking them as wise as the gospel according to John. But it seems some grumpy old men fall for the journalists' trick. They believe that Michelle Grattan and Malcolm Farr, Laura Tingle and Laurie Oakes are their friends when all the latter are searching for is a source.

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This article was first published in The Australian September 8, 2004

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About the Author

Ian Smith is Chief Executive Officer of Gavin Anderson & Company (Australia) and is part of the company’s worldwide Executive Committee. He is a regular speaker at conferences in Australia and contributor to The Australian newspaper.

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