A feature of being in politics is that about 50 per cent of the public are constitutionally inclined to be critical of whatever you do. Others, of course, give you the benefit of the doubt, deserved or not. It’s an inherently (albeit largely necessarily) divisive business. I’ve always admired (and sometimes rather envied) people whose work is universally applauded, such as doctors, or, more recently, Australian military personnel.
On 23 January, Margie and I went to Perth for the conferring of the Victoria Cross on Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. The speeches, from the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, the defence minister and the chief of defence were gracious and commendably brief. The government invited me to speak too. The highlight of the day was the pride of the military, especially the serving soldiers and families of the Special Air Service, of their achievements in Afghanistan. Two years ago, Trooper Mark Donaldson won his VC for rescuing an Afghan interpreter under withering fire; Corporal Roberts-Smith for charging machine guns to relieve his comrades. Every VC winner has put others’ safety ahead of his own. Such selflessness is both a challenge and a reproach and put me in mind of Dr Johnson’s dictum that ‘every man doth despise himself for never having been a soldier’. I no longer wonder how contemporary Australians would respond to the challenges of war. The virtues of the silent movie generation live on in the iPod one.
It was also the last day of duty for Claire Kimball, a senior member of my press team. The role of political staff is often misunderstood. They’re not there to ‘programme’ their bosses or to flatter them. They provide information, advice and feedback but, above all, they help the politician to be his or her best self. It’s an intense, consuming role mostly without the public scrutiny but also without the plaudits that come with elected office. Even the most dedicated sometimes need to reclaim their lives. Claire has been one of the very best.
My Australia Day started with Geoff Heugill and Ky Hurst’s fundraising swim around Farm Cove in Sydney Harbour for the Black Dog Institute. Everyone is different but, for me, physical exertion is therapeutic. I try to start every day with an hour’s exercise: a run, a bike ride or, if at home in Sydney, a surf off North Steyne. Margie and I have just bought a double kayak so paddling is now another (more family-friendly) option. After the argy-bargy of Question Time, my sanity break is usually half an hour in the parliamentary gym or pool. People often ask how I find the time but, for me at least, it seems to make the working hours more productive. It’s good that there are now so many mass participation events that not only raise money for good causes but promote the message that almost everyone can exercise.
Margie and my daughters then joined me and the Manly Young Liberals at a Salvation Army barbecue at the Queenscliff Surf Club to raise money for flood relief. About $3,000 was collected, mostly from selling sausage sandwiches (Woolworths donated the food) with a couple of large cheques from passers-by. There was much grumbling about the mooted flood levy but it didn’t stop people from being generous.
It wouldn’t be Australia Day without various worthies demanding that our country become a republic and change the flag. At the beach, nearly everyone under 20 was sporting a temporary tattoo of the flag that’s supposed to be such an anachronism. At Warringah Council’s Australia Day citizenship ceremony (attended by Bronwyn Bishop, Mike Baird and other local MPs) there were no complaints about the flag or the Queen. Our first homegrown republican was the Rev John Dunmore Lang, who published Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia back in the 1850s. Over the past century and a half, we’ve added national independence to the freedom that, even then, was thought to be every Briton’s birthright. It was all achieved under the Crown, of course. The quest for a republic will remain an intellectual parlour game long after this generation of constitutional antagonists has gone to the kingdom of heaven.
Last Friday, local federal MP Scott Buchholz guided me around the flood-ravaged parts of the Lockyer Valley. At the Gatton, Grantham and Murphys Creek recovery centres, he knew all of the coordinators, most of the volunteers and many of the people who had suffered through the floods. Troubleshooting is a key role for good local MPs. To help local people restart their lives, earth-moving contractors, working for free, had rebuilt a causeway which council bureaucrats said didn’t meet specifications. Thanks to Scott’s intervention, it seems that common sense is going to trump legalism.
To the best of my recollection, this is the 14th straight year that I’ve addressed the Young Liberals’ annual conference. It’s more or less compulsory as party leader. Even before that, though, I’d invariably spent part of the holidays working on a script. As a performance, an extempore speech is nearly always better, but some occasions deserve a ‘for the record’ address. Indeed, writing a speech forces you to marshal arguments and confront weaknesses in them that might otherwise be glossed over. Scripting a speech is an important mental discipline. The result should be an enduring insight into a public figure’s thinking and values. The use of speechwriters seems to mean that interviews are now regarded as authentic in a way that formal speeches aren’t. This is a pity, because speeches (fully prepared ones at least) should be the product of the kind of considered reflection which ‘spur of the moment’ comments simply can’t have.
My failure to support the flood levy was ‘frankly disgusting’ said Treasurer Wayne Swan. If he’d written it down before he said it, it might have occurred to him how shrill it would sound.