When it comes to Wilson Tuckey, John Howard should have taken the advice Lyndon Baines Johnson gave when asked about keeping J Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pi-sing out, than outside the tent pi-sing in.”

Dismissing the maverick West Australian Liberal as a minister was always going to lead to trouble and the man fondly known as Iron Bar has certainly made things wet inside the Liberal tent this week.

For many months now, Mr Tuckey has been fighting the good fight on behalf of the major wheat growers of Western Australia to end the restrictive practice of forcing all wheat to be exported by one company.

The scandal of the bribes paid by the monopolist AWB to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein seemed a perfect opportunity to put an end once and for all to the idea of the single export desk which forced efficient WA producers to subsidise less efficient farmers over east.

Mr Tuckey’s efforts were to no avail. He might merely have been trying to put in to practice the free market rhetoric of Prime Minister Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello but that pair were having none of it. There are no National members from WA so the party’s ministers in Cabinet were not interested in the views of WA farmers.

Like true agrarian socialists they saw their role as sticking up for the inefficient easterners who did vote for them. Messrs Howard and Costello gave in without a fight rather than risk putting strains on the Coalition so close to an election.

Mr Tuckey arrived in Canberra this week displeased if not surprised and continued to huff and puff a little on behalf of his constituents. If he did not really expect to win in the Party room, he at least expected to get the support of his State Liberal colleagues. He was angry when the member for Pearce did not give it.

On Tuesday Mr Tuckey had a chat with journalists and was quoted in The Australian the next day in an article written by Samantha Maiden and Caroline Overington as accusing his West Australian Liberal colleague Judi Moylan of attempting to protect AWB.

“It’s outrageous”, Mr Tuckey said. “She’s up to her eyeballs in protecting AWB Limited, the corrupt company.”

Ms Moylan was not amused and rose yesterday afternoon in Parliament to claim to have been personally misrepresented and defamed.

“Mr Speaker,” she told a surprised House of Representatives not used to Liberals slanging off at each other in public, “I absolutely reject any allegations that I have supported corruption by AWB or, indeed, any other organisation or individual.”

If that comment surprised then Mr Tuckey’s response was even more startling. Rather than retreat he attacked again, as the Hansard record shows:

Mr TUCKEY: I claim to be misrepresented by the claim made in those remarks. They are inaccurate. I refer the House to the balance of that article where the member for Pearce is quoted as saying that she welcomed the ‘status quo’ and defended a group of remaining employees of AWB, none of whom blew the whistle on their executives prior to the—

Interjection

The SPEAKER: The member is debating the point. He will resume his seat.

With that skirmish behind him Mr Tuckey was on to further mischief in a way reminiscent of the role he played in the downfall of John Howard as Liberal Leader when Andrew Peacock replaced him in 1989.

While most of his colleagues were pretending that Mr Howard still had their complete loyalty, Mr Tuckey thought it time to say it’s never too late to switch leaders.

“Labor elected Hawke as their leader after the calling of an election,” he recalled for appreciative journalists who love nothing more than a leadership struggle, “and history tells us he not only won, he stayed there for a long time.”

What Mr Tuckey chose not to recall was the kind of politician Bob Hawke was back in those days. He had the rare advantage of combing the popularity of a knockabout reformed drinker with the experience gained by 20 years of public life outside of Parliament.

As one of the team who worked with him on strategy for that 1983 campaign I recall how little we actually had to do to help him become Prime Minister. He pretty much sailed through on his own with the most significant contribution I remember being getting him to agree that someone with some dress sense be employed to help him choose what he wore on the campaign trail.

Open neck shirts were hardly Prime Ministerial not that it would really have mattered what Hawke appeared in. Bill Hayden was right in saying that the drover’s dog would have beaten Malcolm Fraser.

John Howard is nowhere near as unpopular as the man he was Treasurer under. And nor is Peter Costello a Bob Hawke. More a Paul Keating type really.

Perhaps Wilson will tell us what happened to him.

Peter Fray

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