We have chartered a ferry to take our 180 guests from Circular Quay to Fort Denison for the dinner to celebrate Quadrant magazine’s 500th edition. As we go aboard, with the captain insisting he must leave at 6pm sharp, author Nick Cater tells me his partner and the Australian’s opinion editor Rebecca Weisser is stuck in traffic and he will wait for her at the Quay. They will come out to the little island by water taxi, and pick up any other late arrivals too. Our principal guest for the night, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is also coming by water taxi, along with some staff and federal police minders. At 7pm I am waiting on the Fort Denison wharf to welcome him and can see his vessel in the distance. It appears crowded with people, far more than we expected or can seat at our tables.
As they step onto the wharf, however, I see it is not just the PM and his entourage but Nick, Rebecca and a dozen other latecomer guests. At the Quay, they had phoned for a water taxi only to find them all booked out. But the taxi driver ferrying the PM told them he would return after dropping off the official party, and take them out then. When he heard this, Mr Abbott insisted they all get aboard and come with him. Having been out at Fort Denison earlier in the day and seen how carefully his staff and police planned security for his visit, I am sure they paled at the notion. Nonetheless, PM and hitchhikers all seem well-pleased with their impromptu excursion. Only in Australia!
We start with drinks on the lawn of the fort’s upper level. The harbour puts on a show for us as only it can. To my huge relief, the weather is perfect — a balmy evening and the wind drops right on cue. To the west, the sun goes down between the bridge and the Opera House, and a wisp of cloud appears on the horizon just in time to create a dreamy sunset. To the east, the full moon rises through the heads. The harbour’s resident tall ship glides by silently like a giant swan; a puff of breeze fills its mainsail. I hum to myself the old Ray Davies song about another water city: I am in paradise.
We go downstairs to the restaurant where the enthusiasm rises several notches when I welcome our two principal guests, the new prime minister and our prime minister emeritus, John Howard. The words ‘Prime Minister Tony Abbott’ draw a cheer they could probably hear back at Circular Quay. However, the applause meter registers loudest when I introduce Mr Howard and quote from an article in Quadrant’s March 2008 edition titled ‘Australia’s Greatest Prime Minister’, where John Stone says: ‘The overall verdict is in, my opinion, undeniable… Having come to office at a time when Australians were consumed by false debates about “national identity” and two ill-informed High Court judges have spoken about our “history of undeniable shame”, Howard, like Thatcher and Reagan, gave us back our sense of pride in being Australian.’
At the speaker’s table, I seat the Prime Minister next to that fine journalist and bon vivant, Trevor Sykes. This was a serendipitous choice because I didn’t know at the time that when Trevor was editor of the Bulletin in 1984, he gave Tony Abbott his first job as a journalist. Trevor tells me afterwards that he thought young Abbott would make a fine journalist but six months later the trainee left for Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. In his address to our dinner guests, the Prime Minister says he feels humbled to stand before so many of his mentors and betters.
Introducing him as speaker, I recall for guests another Quadrant dinner in December 2009 to launch The Howard Era, a collection of articles from our magazine surveying the virtues and flaws of the Howard government. That night, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. All but one of the authors who contributed to the book attended. The excitement, however, centred on the one author who could not be there. Three days before, our author had been elected by a margin of one vote the Leader of the Federal Opposition. Our dinner guests were unanimous that the Liberal caucus had made the right decision. They had elected a man who had the right stuff to lead them to victory. It took a little longer to happen than most had hoped, but we all knew then it was only a matter of time before Tony Abbott became Prime Minister.
I suggest to guests at our 500th edition dinner, especially those looking for an insight into the style of leadership to expect from the Abbott government, that they go back and read his piece in The Howard Era. It is his reflection on how John Howard handled the job, especially chairing cabinet and handling colleagues, and what he learnt from this particular mentor.
One thing I have to keep reminding myself: we can’t call him Tony any more. From now on, it is Mr Abbott or Prime Minister. I happen to agree with Julia Gillard’s defenders who say that, while in office, she was not given the respect the position deserved, especially constantly being addressed in public by her first name. In her case, of course, she had only herself to blame. In the 2010 election she called herself ‘the old Julia’, and ‘the real Julia’, so could hardly complain. One painless way all of us — voters and representatives alike — can help preserve our democratic institutions is by showing them a little more respect.
Keith Windschuttle is editor of Quadrant.