Tony Abbott’s captain’s kick at his chief whip, Phillip Ruddock has received decidedly mixed reviews.
One of the prime minister’s critics, Andrew Laming, described it as a scapegoating of Godzilla proportions; others have called it yet another case of shooting the messenger, or just the scraping off of one more barnacle.
Abbott’s supporters claim that Ruddock was negligent in telling his master of the scale of the threat to his leadership, perhaps ducking the fight to preserve it or, worse still, actually condoning the rebels. Or maybe it was just a case of a perhaps overdue recognition that the Liberal ancient had passed his use-by date.
Ruddock has so far declined to explain, and Abbott insists he just needs to engage more with the backbench, and that Ruddock is a friend – well, with friends like these… From the voters at large there has probably been more bewilderment than indignation; most of them have forgotten about Phillip Ruddock years ago.
But the fact remains that Abbott’s ruthless and unexpected removal of the venerable member for Berowra is an assassination, even a form of parricide; Ruddock is, after all, the father of the House of Representatives and has been a well-respected, even avuncular figure for many of his colleagues. And while his 15 minutes of fame have long since passed, Ruddock has, in his long career, been a significant and controversial presence.
He emerged from a tumultuous by-election in his original electorate of Parramatta in back in 1973, and was seen as a moderate, almost a radical in the context of a Liberal Party still struggling to adjust to the rigours of opposition after 23 years in government. During a long time on the backbench he became one of a small group opposing the drift to more right wing policy stances, which was exacerbated during the leadership of John Howard. In 1989 three of them actually crossed the floor to support Labor’s bill to ban race as a criterion for immigration after Howard had publicly complained that the level of Asian immigration was too high.
However after Howard won the 1996 election he appointed Ruddock as minister for immigration. Ruddock’s previous supporters said that the new minister had sold his soul to procure advancement; certainly Ruddock’s views became markedly more conservative, defending and expanding mandatory detention of asylum seekers and bring in Temporary Protection Visas.
After the children overboard furore and the 2001 Tampa election Ruddock was responsible for the so-called Pacific Solution, setting up on the camps on Nauru and preventing potential refugees from receiving legal access. To the fury of his opponents, throughout that period he retained his membership of Amnesty International, ostentatiously sporting a label badge although the organisation had asked him to remove it.
For all the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Ruddock was regarded as a well-respected figure within the Liberal party, and thus there was concern and even outrage at his abrupt and peremptory dumping last week.
Following a reshuffle in 2003 he was moved to attorney-general, but his hard line attitudes continued. He passed legislation to make any form of same-sex marriage illegal. As a result of his ministerial career he became highly divisive figure, a hero of the right and an arch-demon of the left. When the coalition lost office in 2007 he did not seek a front bench role in opposition, and when Tony Abbott won the 2013 election, he was given the comparatively junior position of chief whip.
For all the controversy, or perhaps because of it, he was regarded as a well-respected figure within the Liberal party, and thus there was concern and even outrage at his abrupt and peremptory dumping last week. Abbott has said that he is very good at fighting Labor, but not much good at fighting Liberals. However, the example of Ruddock showed that he was at least prepared to give it a good try.
Indeed, he spent the first few days of good government lashing it all over the place, often with very mixed results. A gratuitous swipe at Bill Shorten calling a rise in unemployment a holocaust was followed by a grovelling apology, and what was intended as a king hit at terrorist suspects could have prejudiced their trial.
And the Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Trigg, was hit with a haymaker – a series of them in fact – when she released her report on children in detention. It appeared that Abbott had not actually read the report, which condemned, impartially, both side of politics. Abbott complained it was stitch-up, and dismissed it on the grounds that the abuses now documented were in fact fewer than those under Labor, so everything was now fine.
There were demands that the Commission, or at least Trigg, should be sacked immediately. Professor Trigg had been the target of a prolonged and sometimes strident campaign against her by the Murdoch press, which was now ramped up with a vicious attack on her personal life. Unsavoury and unedifying, but she was hardly the first Human Rights Commissioner to be targeted.
In 1997 the former High Court Judge Sir Ronald Wilson produced his landmark report Bringing Them Home, a searing two-year study into the plight of the stolen generation of Australia’s Aboriginals. As prime minster John Howard rejected the demands for an apology to the victims, and his office and his media acolytes ran a sustained attack on the report and on Wilson’s own integrity.
The anthropologist Ron Brunton said the accounts had been embellished and commentator Michael Duffy suggested that the first-hand accounts were actually false memories, implanted by sympathisers on the left. Some demanded that the report should be referred to not as the stolen generation, but the rescued generation. And again the denigration was personal: Howard’s advisers told journalists that Wilson could not be trusted, he was soft, suffering from guilt over the role of the church because he had been the president of the Uniting Church of Australia. And so it went on, and so it goes on.
Abbott has clearly learned from Howard, although he lacks his mentor’s subtlety. Abbott has always believed that the best, indeed the only, form of defence is attack. At a long-ago bout in Oxford, an admiring reviewer said of the then Rhodes scholar: ‘No –style Abbott’s a real smasher!’ He won both that fight and a university blue, and in the 35 years that have followed, not much has changed. Our prime minister is still reluctant to consult and conciliate when unbridled aggression will suffice – and it’s more fun, too.
Abbott supporters maintain that he has come through the last week both defiant and even triumphant. And on that magnificent note, as he himself concluded in the last chaotic question time, he is looking forward to another week of good government.