A common lament in political commentary is how parliamentary life has changed beyond recognition. The end of Cold War ideology and rise of the 24/7 news cycle are among the many factors blamed for this transformation. It is reassuring, however, to know some things in public life remain constant. During the last parliamentary session, Jessica Wright from the Fairfax stable reported how:
Politicians are being driven to drink to cope with the demands of the hung parliament, according to the only medically qualified MP in federal politics, the West Australian Liberal MP Mal Washer.
What does he mean ‘being driven to drink’? They have been on the squirt since Barton was a boy. This was certainly the view of Andrew Jones upon his election to the House of Representatives for the seat of Adelaide in 1966, aged 22. The young Liberal described alcohol as the devil’s urine and claimed ‘half the MPs in parliament are drunk half the time’ — meaning they were really on the piss.
The honesty of the Jones boy caused a kerfuffle. He had breached the first rule of parliamentary life: what happens in the bar stays in the bar. Thankfully the puritan was defeated at the 1969 election, suffering a 14 per cent swing. Legend has it he told his Prime Minister, John Gorton, that ‘not even Jesus Christ could have held Adelaide’. Clearly, too many voters had supped from the devil’s cup, in the shape of a schooner glass.
With Jones out of the way, politics returned to normal. In November 1973 Gough Whitlam hosted a reception for the visiting New Zealand Prime Minister. As the waiters moved around with their drinks trays, their best customer was Dr Jim Forbes, a Liberal MP and former Gorton government Health Minister.
The next day Whitlam told the House, ‘I regret my hospitality last night was abused.’ Across the table, Opposition Leader Billy Snedden accused Whitlam of ‘being gutless’, to which the great Gough replied, ‘It is what he put in his guts that rooted him.’ These days, senior ministers are ejected from the House for referring to the Three Stooges. In 1973, Whitlam survived, but not without Forbes pursuing him outside the chamber and calling him a ‘filthy bastard’.
When I entered federal parliament in 1994, Labor’s elders loved to tell the story of the NSW backbencher who had celebrated too heartily on the occasion of Bill Hayden’s retirement from politics in 1988. Upon leaving Hayden’s farewell party, the MP tried to make his way home by taxi. When asked for his address, however, he could only reply, ‘Queanbeyan’. This one-way conversation continued until the cabbie conceded defeat and dumped his dishevelled passenger back at the doors of Parliament House. It was the least fruitful ALP taxi ride until I ran into Mustafa 13 years later.
Fast-forward to 4 December 2003 and a late-night sitting of the Senate. The leader of the Australian Democrats, Andrew Bartlett, harangued the Government Whip, Jeannie Ferris, in a dispute over five bottles of wine stolen from a Liberal Christmas party. Here I should let the incomparable Alan Ramsey take up the story:
End-of-year parties went on right across the parliament. Bartlett got a bit shickered and made a complete ass of himself. Next morning he sent Ferris a written apology. But she wrote back, claiming not to believe his apology, accusing him of having called her a ‘fucking bitch’ several times, of having ‘grabbed’ her arm, ‘bruising it’, and suggesting he seek treatment for alcohol abuse.
Once upon a time, when women MPs hardly ever made it into political life, incidents like the one involving Bartlett would likely never have become news. If he’d grabbed a bloke by the arm, sworn at him after a fracas over who’d been hopping into whose Christmas wine, they’d have had a swing at each other then the whole matter would have been hushed up.
Yes, the good old days. Tell that to Dr Washer and young Jessica Wright, who apparently believes Parliamentary benders are new, or at least new enough for a newspaper.
More than most, Ms Wright should understand the pressure of working in federal politics. Her father is Tony Wright, a stalwart of the Canberra Press Gallery, who rocketed to fame with a magnificent cameo in The Latham Diaries. In February 2004 Wright senior was so stressed by my bus tour through northern NSW he sought relief in the hippy town of Nimbin. That night he turned up to a dinner function I hosted in Lismore looking quite pleased with himself, glassy-eyed but nonetheless serene. Unlike Bill Clinton and Tony Abbott, he had inhaled.
One of the strange themes of Amanda Vanstone’s time in politics was to call for mandatory drug-testing in Parliament House. Big Mandy, herself a serious victim of the munchies, surely had in mind the Press Gallery, not the honourable members elected to serve our nation. They were, in any case, much too busy with the breathalyser.