It has long been a tradition for Australian politicians approaching retirement to lecture their colleagues: “And remember, not all the good people in this house sit on one side.”

While undeniably true, their precept is seldom remembered in the heat of battle and almost never when rewards are being handed out.

When Labor won back office in 1972 after 23 years in Opposition, one of its more outspoken apparatchiks, Queensland’s Jack Egerton, gloated publicly: “And to the victors, the spoils.” He immediately claimed a directorship of Qantas, then still in government ownership, and spent most of the next three years seated in first class on international flights, waiting impatiently for the drinks trolley to come round.

Improbably, the grace and favour continued past a change of government: Egerton’s perceived hostility to Labor’s leader, Gough Whitlam, led Malcolm Fraser to offer him a knighthood, which, contrary to Labor policy, Egerton accepted. Whitlam described it as the most extraordinary ennoblement since that of Sir Toby Belch.

But in political history, Egerton was very much a one off. Long retired politicians are occasionally given a gong by the other side, but they have to be a long way from the action. The real spoils of office are indeed reserved for the victors.

When John Howard became Prime Minister, he circulated his ministers with a note that suggested that when they were making appointments within their portfolios, a certain amount of sympathy with the Liberal cause should not be seen as a disadvantage. This was rightly understood to mean they were not even to consider anyone who wasn’t a rusted-on, card-carrying supporter, and the principle was unfailingly followed. Howard’s mentor, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, once told him that the chief aim of his time in government should be to make sure that the 600 people who really ran the country were all of his choosing, and he did not forget the lesson.

This did not mean all of his appointments were bad; Andrew Peacock, for instance, was eminently well qualified to become our ambassador to Washington. But others were the worst and most blatant examples of jobs for the boys. A particularly egregious example was Senator Michael Baume, one of Howard’s most assiduous muckrakers, described by Paul Keating as a piece of parliamentary filth, who was given his remittance as Consul-General in Los Angeles. Howard, of course, could claim that he was just following the pattern set by his predecessors; see Egerton above. And indeed he was, which is what makes Kevin Rudd’s spectacular repudiation of the system so surprising and welcome.

Brendan Nelson, our ambassador designate to the European Union and NATO, is the 10th former member of the coalition to be given a job by Rudd, and they are all real jobs, not sinecures of the kind awarded to Baume. More have been promised; Peter Costello has already been told that if he can only face up to the idea of doing some actual work his prospects are excellent, and in parliaments across the country retirement from the opposition benches does not look like such a bad idea.

This, of course, is in Rudd’s interests; he is buying off some of Labor’s most credible potential critics, although it must be said that he has never gone as far as Whitlam, who enticed the DLP’s Vince Gair out of the senate with the bait of the ambassadorship to Ireland and the Vatican. And, of course, it also makes our Prime Minister look statesmanlike and inclusive, which, his critics insist, is the real point of the exercise.

But there is no evidence that Rudd is not sincere in his expressed desire to make use of the best talent available. He has never been a tribal politician; unlike Keating and Mark Latham, to name but two, he does not have a visceral hatred of the mere idea of the Liberal Party, and he has demonstrated a Christian capacity not only to forgive, but to embrace his former enemies. Except perhaps one: John Winston Howard still languishes on the outer. That is a bridge too hard to cross — or perhaps it’s just that nothing has come up that suits Howard’s peculiar talents. But come on: someone, somewhere must be in need of an impeccably credentialed roadblock.

Of course there is another way of looking at the argument that not all the good people are on one side. The story is told of the newcomer who took his seat in the House of Representatives and looked across the chamber. “There they are,” he breathed. “The enemy.” An old hand sitting nearby smiled sardonically. “No, son, that’s the Opposition. The enemy are the ones sitting all around you.”

The line may resonate with Malcolm Turnbull, currently on a privately financed trip to London. Normally a leader with Turnbull’s polling would be highly reluctant or less euphemistically scared witless about leaving the country unless he planned not to return; his job would be seriously at risk. Turnbull, however, owns the dubious advantage that his job is considered a death seat to which no one even vaguely competent presently aspires.

Still, taking leave at what is generally seen as a critical time for his own Liberal Party and for the coalition as a whole might be seen as an act of bravado bordering on nose-thumbing. Turnbull is indeed surrounded by enemies, and he needs to win at least some of them over if he is to have any real future in politics. He has always seen his life as a series of challenges; he is pushing this latest one right to the limit.

Or perhaps he is already resigned to losing it and is preparing for the next one. Might Rudd have something in mind?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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