Former Labor state minister Mary Delahunty has spent the past feverish week following Julia Gillard through the maze of Canberrra’s Parliament House. She explains how yesterday’s leadership madness unfolded.
Our chromed federal Parliament building soars high into the clear Canberra sky, 100 years after the sod was turned to build the nation’s capital. This week inside, adults lost their senses.
I came to this isolated temple over a week ago, first to cover the launch of the National Cultural Policy — a sturdy and well received 10-year plan — and to follow the Prime Minister around for a piece on women and power for The Griffith Review. I sat through question times observing the body language, the huddles, the swagger of those off-camera and away from the despatch box.
I tagged along for prime ministerial events and speeches — Julia Gillard’s diplomatic task in welcoming the historic visit of the president of the former pariah nation of Myanmar, through to yesterday’s historic and moving formal apology for Australia’s forced adoption policy. I sort out MPs, old colleagues, staff and mates in the media. All the while the temperature around this place rose.
“What do you know?”
An echo chamber of chrome and airless light.
Labor leadership, the elephant stumbling through every truncated conversation and every television monitor in every room, corridor and coffee shop. Journos interviewing each other and telling us what to think. Newspaper headlines shriek that the hated (at least by the newspaper execs and moguls) new media laws must be a lightning strike for the leadership question. But who’s asking the question?
At the weekend the PM sent up a flare.
”If I haven’t flinched yet, why would I flinch now?” she told Fairfax’s Michael Gordon. And in a further message to her fractious caucus and a cocky Opposition Leader, “you have to be a hard bastard to get it done”.
Thursday last week began with good news for the country on jobs. Few Australians would have got to hear about it because the media, new and traditional, suddenly went off on a frolic with cameras jamming both ends of the ministerial corridor. Why? Because an inventive opposition backbencher decided to tweet a fictitious special Labor caucus meeting at 4pm that day. No substance at all, but it drowned out the jobs figures and caused a few hearts to race.
By Monday the place was tense. The PM did her job with the President of Myanmar and later sat at the long heavy parliamentary chamber, calmly waiting for question time. Tony Abbott sat across from her still as a mirror. His backbench was chirpy, hers distracted. A wise old owl told me modern politics is “deregulated politics, anything goes”.
I blame the architects. The shape of this Parliament keeps the caucus in one place, ministers in another, media and public in other sharply segregated areas. Given the design and the distances, a mere mortal must walk fair distances to actually speak to anyone. Most communication seems to happen via mobiles and monitors.
Yesterday at 1pm, one of these remorseless TV monitors catches our eye. “Breaking news, Simon Crean has lit a match.” Everyone bolts.
Overhead the sky darkens and seems to close over the place.
I bump into a cabinet minister eating a sandwich as he walks resolutely. “Busy day”.
“We’re not done yet,” the Prime Minister declares three or four times in her response to Abbott’s attempts of a motion of no confidence in the government.
A bit later I spot another party veteran on the trot towards the Senate. In answer to my question “why?”, he replies with an air of deep knowing: “Because this will save the Labor Party.”
Oh really. My reading is that the public will be disgusted. But what do I know, I’ve only been in this glass and metal foxhole for a few febrile days.
So it comes to pass that a party elder sacrifices himself, the self-appointed messiah squibs it, a vote doesn’t happen and the PM with her Praetorian guard of caucus supporters returns to her office. Staff cheer her. A smile, “now it’s back to work”, with the rest of the country wondering what does go on in that building.
*Mary Delahunty is the author of Public Life: Private Grief, former minister in a Victorian Labor government and founding National Director of Writing Australia Ltd.