The common touch of politics
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The common touch of politics

BACK in 1987 my father happened to be on holidays in Ireland when Prime Minister Bob Hawke was visiting Dublin. Travelling with the media circus covering the trip, I told Hawke's press secretary Barrie Cassidy that dad would like to meet the prime minister.

Cassidy asked dad's name and suggested that at the following day's press conference in the Berkeley Hotel, instead of sitting with the journalists, I sit in the audience alongside my father on the aisle.

When the press conference finished, Hawke marched down the aisle with photographers in tow and on reaching my father, stopped, held out his hand and said, ''G'day Bill. Good to see you.'' The photographers duly snapped and dad was thrilled. Today, at 95, he still has the photograph proudly displayed on his mantelpiece.

That was the art of politics at its best. It is no accident that Hawke was at one time our most popular prime minister - more popular than Kevin Rudd, though some present day reporters don't seem to know it - getting a 75 per cent approval rating in the Nielsen Poll in November 1984.

Good politicians understand that they must play up to their electorate and respect and pay attention to their colleagues.

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Later, as a press secretary to John Button, Leader of the Government in the Senate, I saw for myself how good some politicians could be. In shopping centres and at football grounds, Button would frequently be accosted by constituents - that is anyone over 18 who had ever lived in Victoria. He not only recalled conversations he had had with these people, he usually remembered their names and their kids' names.

On the coalition side John Howard, as a minister and prime minister, treated people, including those who challenged him, with great respect. Like all good politicians, when talking to someone he appeared to be listening closely to what they had to say. To the observer the attention seemed 100 per cent genuine. Bit by bit this plays a part in electoral success.

But not all have the talent. We know of the prime minister accused of damaging his own party, having a dangerous reluctance to consult Cabinet and an obstinate determination to get his own way. He was also charged with ridiculing the public service.

This, of course, is John Gorton as seen by Malcolm Fraser when he resigned as defence minister and brought down Gorton. Gillard supporters could be accused of plagiarism for using the same material in their criticism of Rudd.

Poor old Gorton had it worse than Rudd. He too led his party to an election win, only to be removed 17 months later, with the media speculating on a coup a mere three days after his election victory.

It's worth noting the amnesia, as journalists and politicians described the recent Labor leadership battle as the most vitriolic ever. Take, for example, former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson. He wrote an interesting column observing the media frenzy, as television crews staked out Parliament House from 6.45am on the day of the Gillard/Rudd vote. Richardson said there had never been a more public brawl than this skirmish.

True. But the emphasis here should be on the word ''public'' because there is no question that behind the scenes the exchanges in the past were every bit as vicious. Although he didn't mention it in his column, Richardson must surely recall the conversations he had with Keating and his supporters in the late 1980s as Keating angled to bring down Hawke. As political correspondent of The Canberra Times I was tipped off about one of these - a car-phone conversation Richardson had where he referred to the prime minister as ''the c..t''. Keating more than matched the language in his response. According to the Sydney Morning Herald's Alan Ramsey, some very choice language - all of it X-rated - was used to describe the prime minister. Later, after the 1990 election, when Hawke failed to give him his preferred portfolio of Transport and Communications, Richardson's resentment grew and he vowed to ''get the bastard''.

Mind you, this talk of brawling for leadership positions is all relatively mild compared with the black art of politics in the good old days. According to Gavin Souter in his monumental book Acts of Parliament, one leadership contender in the tenth parliament was probably a murderer. Thomas John Ley (Nat., Barton), a former NSW Minister for Justice, entered federal parliament under the illusion that he was destined to lead the National Party in place of Stanley Bruce. During a particularly nasty campaign, the sitting member for Barton, Frederick McDonald, publicly accused Ley of attempting to bribe him to fail to lodge his nomination. Ley sued for slander and, after the election, McDonald presented a petition to the Court of Disputed Returns, calling for Ley's election to be declared void on the grounds of bribery. Shortly after the petition was listed for hearing, poor old McDonald vanished, never to be seen again.

According to Souter, this was not the first time someone in Ley's vicinity had vanished without reason. Defeated at the next election, Ley emigrated to England where, in 1947, he was found guilty of murdering a man. He was sentenced to death, declared insane and died within a matter of months in an insane asylum.

In recent years the only incidents coming close to this (but not related to competition for party positions) are the disappearance of anti-drugs campaigner and one-time Liberal candidate Donald Mackay in 1977 and the murder of NSW state member for Cabramatta John Newman in 1994.