Federal Politics

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Hughes tribute a stylish interlude in jaded parliament

THE power of the spoken word, reduced to an arid, carping thing in an Australian Parliament consumed yesterday by opposition triumphalism over the government's acquiescence on the Pacific Solution, found itself revived in memory of one of Australia's great raconteurs, the author and art critic Robert Hughes.

Malcolm Turnbull captured the floor of Parliament and the jaded ear of its occupants to revisit in style the accomplishments and wit of Hughes, who died only a week-and-a-half ago.

Hughes was a subject close to Turnbull's heart - he was the uncle of Turnbull's wife Lucy and a man known with affection as WU - Wicked Uncle - to the Turnbull children, Daisy and Alex.

''Rambunctiously rebellious all his life, the objects of his often scathing criticism would have loved to have dismissed him as an uncouth Australian,'' Turnbull said. ''But the depth of his scholarship and his erudition, matched with a remarkable eloquence, made that impossible.''

Turnbull himself employed his particular talent for wicked eloquence to artfully skewer his own leader, Tony Abbott, while recalling Hughes' advocacy of the Australian republican movement in the lead-up to the referendum of 1999.

''I think he had a swing at you, Tony, at one of those debates,'' he chuckled.


''He missed,'' Abbott the loyal monarchist replied.

''What a loss for the nation would it have been if he had connected,'' quipped Turnbull.

Still, he had come to praise his wife's uncle, not to bury his leader, and as Abbott and his colleagues waited to taunt Julia Gillard over the much-jabbered matter of stopping the boats, Turnbull spoke with passion of Hughes' masterpiece, The Fatal Shore. He didn't bother noting it was about the nation's first boat people.

''His account of Australia's convict system, The Fatal Shore, is probably the best-read Australian history,'' Turnbull said.

''It exposed in Bob's compelling prose the sadistic brutality bound up in our nation's founding - a system that not only dispossessed and all but destroyed the native people, but then flogged and tortured the prisoners it had brought to the other end of the world.

''Bob used to say that America was founded as a religious experiment and our country was founded as a jail, but he went on to note that if you ever wanted proof that vice and crime are not genetic, on any view Australians were less violent, more law-abiding and more justly compassionate than Americans.''

Finally, Turnbull drew his tribute to a close: ''Farewell, Uncle Bob. Surely there will never be another WU.''

It took hardly more than a heartbeat for Abbott to leap to his feet to thank the Prime Minister for adopting his own policy of sending asylum seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The brief excursion into parliamentary oratory worthy of the name was over.

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