Notice something about many of Malcolm Turnbull’s critics? Ron Boswell? Wilson Tuckey? Bronwyn Bishop? They’re relics from the 1980s. Turnbull’s Herculean labour of making the Coalition relevant in the post-Howard era is made all the more difficult by the stain-like persistence of a number of backbenchers who not merely occupy seats that could be used to launch the careers of the next generation of party talent, but actively undermine their leader.
“They’re like dead people who don’t know they’ve died,” one Coalition figure said. “They’re just hanging around.”
Here’s Crikey’s guide to the Coalition’s Ghosts of Un(civil) Dead.
Wilson Tuckey: An MP since the last term of the Fraser Government, Tuckey has made life difficult for any number of Liberal leaders, including John Howard, whose first stint as leader was ended in a Tuckey-engineered coup. Having quickly earned the label “outspoken”, Tuckey’s comments on AIDS prompted a radio wag to re-do Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky in his honour in 1988.
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Now primarily known for semi-coherent interjections from the back of the chamber in Question Time, and his near-clockwork efforts to get expelled on Thursday afternoons so he can get the early flight back to Perth, Tuckey is facing no preselection challenge and will be 78 at the end of his next term. O’Connor is one of the country’s safest seats; even with a 4% swing against him in 2007, Tuckey is currently on 66.55%.
Brownyn Bishop: A Senator from 1987-1994 and the Member for Mackellar since, Bishop failed to turn her Senate Estimates fame in the Hawke-Keating years into, well, anything at all, having been touted as a possible leader after the 1993 debacle. “If the answer’s Bronwyn Bishop, it must be a stupid question,” said former senator Chris Puplick, whom Bishop had steamrolled in her quest for glory.
Bishop managed the occasional junior ministry in the Howard years but never shook off the faint smell of kerosene from her brief time in the Aged Care portfolio, and ended up trying to evolve into a Parliamentary procedure guru and possible Speaker. Echoes of that delusion can still be heard when she rises in Question Time, peers barrister-like over the top of her glasses, and makes an entirely irrelevant point of order.
Rumours persist Bishop will be challenged by John Brogden but she is believed to have a strong grip on the seat, if not quite as tight as in previous contests. A very safe seat — 62.42% in 2007– thus goes begging.
Philip Ruddock: The father of the House, Ruddock arrived during the Whitlam years as a young liberal and human rights advocate, causes which he has continued to serve faithfully and strongly ever since. He assured Crikey last year he wasn’t going anywhere and was very busy with his committee work. Ruddock suffered a big swing in 2007 but still sits pretty in his northern Sydney seat on 58.94%. Alleged to be under pressure from the NSW Right, particularly because he’s not a happy clapper — something hard to believe given Ruddock is always overflowing with joy — which gives a clue as to just how right-wing they are in NSW.
Ron Boswell: First elected to the Senate in 1983, Boswell is a bit like Steve Fielding — or more accurately two Steve Fieldings — without the intellect. Never managed a ministry under Howard but was briefly a Parliamentary Secretary for Roads, where he was as happy as pig in muck. For a long time he was regarded with some esteem by commentators for his sterling work in fighting off first the League of Rights and then Pauline Hanson, and was a strong Coalitionist, a stance that he has left behind since 2007. Convinced that the planet is getting colder, Boswell suspects the latte set are out to drive farmers off the land purely out of spite. And that’s just the Liberal Party. Under the Liberal National Party deal, Boswell’s Senate spot is grandfathered, and in any event he doesn’t face the voters again until 2013, at which point he will be a living Hogarth portrait.
Pat Farmer: The running man was lured into politics to replace John Fahey by John Howard, who gave him a Parliamentary Secretaryship. Since 2007, Farmer hasn’t been a happy chappy and has mused about bailing out and getting a real job. Controversy over the location of his home — on Sydney’s lovely North Shore, rather than in the semi-rural confines of south-western Sydney where his electorate lies — hasn’t helped. Macarthur is unlikely to survive the NSW redistribution anyway; if it remains, it should be a strong Liberal seat given its profile but Farmer barely held on by a thousand votes in 2007 and Labor will be eyeing it for 2010. A strong candidate will be needed to ensure the Coalition doesn’t drift one seat further from victory.
Joanna Gash: One of the few members of the class of ’96 left standing, former small businesswoman Gash has reached no great heights in her time and won fame only for her study tour reports, which make for extraordinary and none-too-flattering reading. Gash copped a big swing last time around but still sits on 54.07% and if her South Coast seat is in play next year there’ll be a few higher-profile casualties than her. Another safe seat going begging.
Paul Neville: The avuncular — aren’t they all — National hails from the Bundaberg region and dutifully represents the interests of the rum company in Federal Parliament. Neville arrived in Parliament in 1993 — before that he was in tourism and before that he ran a theatre (as in, the dramatic type, yes) and settled for the exciting life of committee chairmanships in the Howard years. The genial Nat fancied himself as a media policy guru, primarily based on his frustration about the lack of regional radio journalists who wanted to interview him, and to this day regional radio networks rue his handiwork in 2006.
Neville’s seat should be prime National territory but demographics and seachange have undermined it; he copped a huge swing in 2007 and only held on by 1.7%. That’s unlikely to be repeated next time but the Prime Minister is spending the day in his electorate today opening things so maybe Labor fancies its chances. New talent, perhaps of the more feisty style of Barnaby Joyce, may be needed to shore it up.
Julian McGauran: The National who defected to the Liberals brings one thing to his party and one thing only: money, and lots of it, from the family’s vast pastoral interests. Julian lacks the fierce intelligence of his brother Peter — yes, that’s sarcasm — and his long list of committee appointments belies one of the most undistinguished political careers of recent decades. He has been around, with a three-year spell on the sidelines, since 1987 and after an epic battle back in March, secured third spot at the next election, meaning he’ll be there until 2017 unless the Greens knock him off.
Michael Johnson: The fabled world traveller, long-time Crikey favourite and magnet for overseas Chinese branch support should have a safe seat — John Moore held it for 25 years — but took a 6.6% swing in 2007 and is now on 53.82%. An impressive talent for self-promotion hasn’t translated into political success for the youngster, unless you judge it by Frequent Flyer points, and the LNP must surely be able to produce better talent now that it has got the conservative act together up in Queensland. Trouble is, the LNP deal means Johnson is secure.