Politics is a hard game, a pyramid of pain, an inferno reverso. You see someone in your local branch, social movement, chamber of commerce, union and you think “that bloke/ette’s a bit of a bastard — they’ll always be one stage more ruthless than I can ever be. Better stay out of their way unless the fight can’t be avoided.”
Then you watch them step over the bodies and get to the bunker-mansion on the hill — where they are absolutely outgunned in the ruthlessness stakes by people who are barely human beings. As for the decent, well you can forget them altogether.
The upshot is that you rarely see in politics, people who comprise a standing majority of the population — the doubtful, the diffident, the all-at-sea, those who live only and through a community, a role, a firm place in the spectrum. Political leadership is largely a self-chosen profession — people who even get close to it are autonomous in the way that most of us not. They have, at some stage in their lives, consciously or otherwise nailed themselves down.
Some, like Bob Hawke, have done it through a sheer combination of ability and an enormous foundational fund of love. Others, like Keating, make a very specific and conscious self-assessment at an early stage and project themselves forward. Still others, like Malcolm Fraser, have beneath a fairly troubled personality, an inheritance of privilege, which also has an ethical component – one reason why Fraser’s politics have changed so comprehensively without changing his basic essence.
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Occasionally, when a movement is in trouble, people will rise to the surface whom you would otherwise never encounter. In the UK, after William Hague lost the 2001 election, no Tory would take the poisoned chalice, so it fell into the hands of Iain Duncan Smith, a quiet, withdrawn thin-lipped methodist type, passionate about addressing the disintegration of family life in the UK — and utterly unsuited to the leadership, from which he disappeared without trace.
In Australia, Brendan Nelson fell into that category — a man whose greatest public service was as head of the AMA, after which he was a second-rate minister spending more time establishing his conservative credentials, and then a hopeless non-leader for nine minutes. Most of his post-AMA life has been a total waste, compared to what he could have done as a medical commentator, reformer, or just plain doctor.
But compared to the general run, these people are giants of ego, power and force. It’s only sometimes that we meet people further ‘down’ the pyramid — and thus a fortnight ago we all met Godwin Grech.
Grech, it was obvious from first sight, was not one of the public service’s axe-wielders, big swinging whatevers. His diminutive stature, his bespectacled mildness, his shoe-gazing performance, instantly suggested that this was someone entirely out of the usual round of poltical argy-bargy.
His performative evidence – a sort of self-narrative of public service anguish – his alliterative name, his demeanour had us all reaching for the literary metaphors. He was Akaky, the ‘hero’ of Gogol’s Overcoat, he was Dickensian, he was out of Dostoyevsky and Kafka or — for David Penberthy, from his vast cultural reserves, “something out of John Grisham”. Bless. He was out of film noir, and on and on we went.
As it turned out, it wasn’t much of a stretch. Grech was both a punctilious lifelong public servant, and a long-time Liberal informant. He was a government employee, but a firm believer in the market. He had lived in Canberra’s now-vanished Macquarie Hostel for years before moving into a house described, after an AFP search, as “neat as a pin”.
And he is now suspected of concocting a fake email that would, had it passed muster, have landed the government in a major crisis.
Whatever the truth of that latter allegation, it was obvious that something was going on with Godwin. After his explosive evidence to the Senate Committee, he was taken to hospital — whether a physical ward or a psychiatric facility – by people who seemed to realise aforehand that the whole thing would be too much for him.
So who is Grech? Initially he seemed to be the public servant from central casting – the type who gained meaning and purpose from the tight framework of tasks and projects that the service sets. Then it became clear that he was, well, needy and obsessive – firing off emails at all hours of night, and ccing everyone in. There has been talk of a life-shortening chronic illness, which may or may not be true. And then there were revelations that he was a serial leaker.
And then the question became central — who is Godwin Grech? Was he less Joseph K, subject to the endless effects of power beyond his control, than someone dying on the vine, capable of being tempted from mere leaking to … something more?
The question goes to the heart of the sequence of events between Grech’s first Committee appearance on June 4, and his extravaganza on June 19. For the question is not only whether Malcolm Turnbull and Eric ‘Erica’ Abetz met with Grech before he gave his second bout of evidence — the question is whether, implicitly or explicitly, they tempted Grech to produce the sort of evidence they needed.
If Grech emerges to say that either or both intimated that if an email could “appear” anyway anyhow, it would be a great help, then both Abetz and Turnbull are history.
But even if it emerges that Grech (if it was Grech) concocted the email in response to their interest and attention to him, then they are still in the sights, for the scarcely less heinous sin of drawing in and using someone who was not part of the game, who was, even if he turns out to be guilty, an innocent.
This would not go to the judgement of Turnbull and Abetz, but to their basic humanity — their abandonment of a vestigial sense that some people are, to put in terms they both profess to observe, one of “the meek”.
The trouble for Turnbull and Erica is that everyone recognises this in their own lives, in their workplace or wherever. There are some people you don’t play, some people of whom you don’t assume a reciprocal resilience or toughness. That may be patronising, but it’s nevertheless true. We all do it, and to most of us it is done, in different contexts. It is a rare human being who is not, in one framework or another, pathetic, and deserving of gentleness.
Dag Hammarskold put this well in Markings — the book of aphorisms he wrote while running the UN.
Detailing the unmasking of an inadequate colleague he wrote (I’m paraphrasing):
Time and again he failed to perform and blamed colleague, and it was let go. Eventually we had to confront him. Fairness to the others demanded it. When all his failures had been laid out before him he said: “but why did you let me go on? One day one of you praised me for something I did and I was so pleased.”
So in the end it was true. We were to blame. It is always the strong who are at fault.
Abetz is a lost cause and doesn’t matter. But if Turnbull comes to be seen as a man who, with the blood of victory and ambition in his nostrils, lacked this basic sense — that at some points you accord people their full humanity by not regarding them as equals — then the reaction will be not one of mere dislike, but something approaching disgust.
Whatever their politics many people, in the eternal Canberra of 4am wakefulness, would admit they see more of themselves in Grech than in Turnbull, and make their judgements accordingly.