Far from an outsider or innocent
No innocent ... Independent MP Rob Oakeshott. Photo: Reuters
THERE were six people in the room. Morris Iemma was there with his top advisers to meet Rob Oakeshott and his key staffer. It was 2007; Iemma was premier of NSW, Oakeshott was an independent state MP. Oakeshott had a list of requests. One was that he be considered for an appointment as a minister in the Iemma Labor government.
Iemma did not dismiss the request. Before deflecting the matter, he consulted several senior ministers, including treasurer Michael Costa. News of Oakeshott's amenability also went back to Labor headquarters in Sussex Street, where Mark Arbib was running the state. This is the meeting Oakeshott says he does not remember.
Costa remembered it vividly last Tuesday when Oakeshott mentioned, during his soliloquy about where he was going to cast the deciding vote in the 2010 election, that he had been offered a ministry by Julia Gillard and would consider the offer.
Costa, a fiery character, started talking. Word of the 2007 meeting made it into the media. Oakeshott was asked about it the next day. He responded by telling one reporter the story was ''bullshit''. He attributed it to ''faceless men'' of the Labor machine.
But there were no faceless men. There was Iemma, who not only confirmed to this column that Oakeshott had offered himself as a minister, but also provided details of the meeting. He recalled Oakeshott saying he may resign his seat, returning it to the Nationals. Costa supports Iemma's recollections, and Costa is the opposite of faceless.
On Friday, at a press conference, when Oakeshott was confronted with the reality that the story of his request for a ministry was coming from senior people speaking on-the-record, his response was: ''I don't have any recollection of any conversation.''
This is not good. This is not credible. When Prime Minister Julia Gillard made an offer of a ministry to Oakeshott, she did so in the context he had been previously amenable to such an arrangement.
By the time he made his announcement on Friday he had no choice but to refuse, because the offer was not just a fundamental compromise of his independence, and not just an affront to the anti-Labor landslide his electorate has just delivered the previous week, but he had just been exposed as having prior form when it came to such footsie with Labor.
In fact, the entire edifice of political innocence that Oakeshott has carefully built around himself is not credible. This self-created mythology reached its climax last Tuesday, during his dance of the seven veils, before revealing his final, crucial vote.
Oakeshott has never been an outsider, or a political innocent. He grew up on Sydney's north shore, where his father was a prominent doctor, and he attended Barker College. While still a student he went to work for the federal Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, who told me last week: ''Oakeshott did work experience with me in my electorate office. It was unpaid work. He was a student. It was well before he went to work for Mark Vaile.''
After graduating from the University of Sydney (honours in government), Oakeshott worked briefly at the Road Transport Forum before going to work for Vaile, the newly elected National Party federal MP for Lyne.
Three years later, after the Coalition took power in Canberra, he went to work for the Coalition's public relations operation in Canberra. Later that year his connections with Vaile were leveraged into Nationals preselection for the safe state seat of Port Macquarie, which sits within Vaile's federal seat of Lyne. Oakeshott was just 26.
Six years later, in 2002, he became an independent, a decision vindicated when he thumped the Nationals' candidate in the 2003 election. Just as he had first entered Parliament via a byelection in 1996, he entered Federal Parliament via a byelection in 2008 when Vaile departed early after the Coalition lost government. Oakeshott rode a voter backlash to an easy victory.
Last month, he was re-elected with a commanding majority. But Lyne also delivered an emphatic anti-Labor vote. In the House vote, the combined primary votes of the ALP and the Greens was just 17.2 per cent. This crushing anti-Labor vote was replicated in the Senate vote in Lyne, where the Coalition won 45.75 per cent of the primary vote to Labor's 30.3 per cent. The conservative parties' combined Senate vote was 53.7 per cent, to the Labor/Greens's 38.5 per cent. The anti-Labor/Greens vote in Lyne was the second biggest in the country.
When Oakeshott negotiated with the major parties after the deadlocked election as one of the three rural independents holding the balance of power, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, proposed a permanent $1 billion-a-year increase in regional infrastructure spending. It was an offer both much larger and with fewer contingencies than Labor's counter-offer.
From all this, Oakeshott conjured for himself a mandate to create a Labor-Greens government. It is exactly what his electorate had just rejected. Oakeshott then stage-managed his vote as the climactic vote, delivering a speech presenting himself, like Jimmy Stewart in the classic, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, as the loveable cleanskin who took on the machine and won. But Oakeshott was actually delivering power to the ultimate machinists.
That was six days ago. It seems longer. It must seem so to Oakeshott, who has discovered that the media world beyond the adoring Port Macquarie News is a different place, a place where Oakeshott has become Potshott.
He has spent nearly 20 years working towards this moment, his time in the national sun. But with the glow comes the heat.
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