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A gift for friendship

South Australian senior Labor minister Jack Snelling pays tribute to Christopher Pearson, the leading conservative columnist who was Tony Abbott’s friend and mentor

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

Beauty was important to Christopher Pearson. He hated the ugliness of much of modernity. His two homes were full of precious books, art and antiques collected over a lifetime. The basics of life were routinely neglected so that he could purchase something beautiful he’d found. Even in recent years when things were tough, he could never part with any of these items.

When I first met Christopher Pearson I was a newly elected backbench MP in the South Australian Parliament. We struck up a firm friendship based on our mutual interest in politics and religion. Under his tutelage, my interests broadened to include music, the arts and literature.

He enjoyed taking people under his wing and it was always interesting to see Christopher with the young. While generally speaking he was of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ school, he enjoyed engaging with those young people in whom he detected a spark of intelligence. Much of his time was taken with mentoring young prodigies, the most notable being the celebrated pianist and author Anna Goldsworthy.

Christopher had a gift for friendship. I think it was this as much as his writing that led Tony Abbott to describe him as ‘the glue that held conservative Australia together’. His greatest pleasure was derived from introducing people and seeing new friendships bloom in their own right. He wanted to share his friends, not hoard or jealously guard them. Christopher certainly provided me with an entrée to prominent Australians in politics, journalism and the arts with whom I couldn’t otherwise have hoped to form friendships.

Much has been written about his homosexuality and what might superficially appear to be the contradictions in his life. He was a lover of the 1970s South Australian Chief Justice John Bray, and deeply involved in the campaign to decriminalise homosexual relations. But refusing to conform to gay ideology made him a hate figure to some on the Left.

Christopher didn’t define himself by his sexual orientation. In his essay ‘The dubious business of coming out’ in Peter Coleman’s Double Take, he traces his growing disenchantment with Gay Lib. As the movement went from being mild and middle-class to increasingly ideological and authoritarian, he fell out. He hated the pressure to ideologically conform and was uncomfortable at the way some homosexuals were pressured to come out and the unnecessary pain that was caused.

This led to a lifelong antipathy towards identity politics. His later interest in indigenous policy, especially his crusade on the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair, was borne of these early experiences.

But what set him apart from other conservatives was his breadth of interests. He went beyond the home turf on which conservatives feel most comfortable: economics, industrial relations and fiscal policy. He wanted to do battle with the Left in the policy areas where they had traditionally gone unchallenged: indigenous policy, the arts and the just treatment of same-sex couples.

Christopher wasn’t as easily pigeonholed as many of his friends and enemies would make out. He was, to use a term coined by George Orwell, a Tory Anarchist. If you were to attempt to find a common theme in his writing it might be best summed up in a line from a letter Orwell wrote to Malcolm Muggeridge: ‘The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.’

Thus he found allies from across the political spectrum and considered himself the unofficial patron of ‘Club Sensible.’

In 1999, he became a Catholic. I was coming home late one night from an ALP branch meeting when the phone rang. It was Fr Ephraem Chifley OP. ‘Pearson has submitted to Rome. I’m receiving him tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. You’re his sponsor, and you’ll have to drive him.’

Dutifully, but a little sceptically, I called on Christopher at 7.30 a.m. to take him to church. Sure enough, there he was, ready and waiting. One thing about CP is that once he made his mind up about a matter, he went through with it.

He was given the Sacraments and began life as a Catholic. He took his faith very seriously, observing the fasts as well as the feasts, saying his prayers and attending Mass. He loved the splendour of the ancient form of the Mass, but hated the philistinism of parts of the Australian Catholic Church.

He loved poetry and published, edited and mentored many of this nation’s greatest poets, including Les Murray. It was his love of beauty that drew him back to the Christian faith and he drew great solace from the works of John Donne:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were
done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through
which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death
thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Christopher died peacefully in his sleep, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, at the home that he loved.

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