Kerry O’Brien nearly broke some news last Friday night. Not news of the normal kind that flows from one of his 7.30 Report interviews where one of his guests says something interesting. No. This time he nearly blurted out a real fair dinkum scoop where a journalist tells his national audience a secret.

The scoop that almost was came when the old red-headed one had finished with the commentary on the new red head and was interrogating opposition leader Tony Abbott.

“Well, let’s come to back to your credibility then if you’re happy to test it,” intoned Kerry in his most serious voice. “There’s confusion about what you really told your party room on Tuesday. According to the official Liberal Party room briefer to journalists, a senior lawyer who one might expect to be pretty good with the facts on detail, you said, according to him, ‘wictory is within our grasp. We are within reach of a famous victory’.”

The mysterious official Liberal Party room briefer! The man I wrote about last Wednesday when I noted: “Isn’t it cute how the parliamentary press gallery continues to play the game of not telling us the name of the senior Coalition figure who gives the formal briefing to journalists after the party room meetings.”

Normally journalists don’t even report that they have been spoon fed a version of what went on but the truth slipped out last week as the gallery members tried to defend themselves from accusations that got their victory quotes wrong. Abbott tried to pretend he had spoken to his colleagues not about the prospect of “a famous victory” but rather made the more mundane assertion that the next election was “certainly winnable, but there’s an enormous long way to go”. The lads and lasses of the gallery were indignant that their honour was being attacked in such a fashion, but such are the rules of the Canberra game they were not prepared to name the name of their key defence witness.

And nor was O’Brien when push came to actually informing his public. Instead he just teased us further with his “senior lawyer who one might expect to be pretty good with the facts on detail” reference and left it at that. Kerry too is clearly still a member of the comfy little political club on the Canberra hill, but at least he had narrowed the field; narrowed it in a way that made the opposition leader decide he had better admit that his earlier denial of the “famous victory” quote was not one of those truths he had written down but one of the spur-of-the-moment variety of comments which was in the “kind-of-a-lie” category.

Thus this little interview interchange:

ABBOTT: Yeah, yeah. That wasn’t all I said. That wasn’t all I said.

O’BRIEN: So you did say that?

ABBOTT: But that wasn’t all I said. And the fact of the matter is no election is unwinnable. No election is unlosable. I’ve always been the underdog and I expect to continue to be the underdog, but I’ve gotta say this: we will put up a very good fight.

O’BRIEN: But you did say that. So you’re confirming that you did say those words: “Victory is within our grasp. We are within reach of a famous victory.”

ABBOTT: There is no doubt we must have been within reach of a famous victory, otherwise the Labor Party would not have dumped their leader in a fit of panic about its prospects.

O’BRIEN: But do you accept that right through the campaign these words are going to come back to haunt you about what is gospel truth, something that you will read from a prepared text and whenever you’re shooting from the hip, as we are in this interview?

ABBOTT: Look, Kerry, Kerry, you had a good night with me a few weeks ago.

O’BRIEN: This isn’t about me having good nights with you, Mr Abbott; this is about your credibility.

ABBOTT: But the point is, Kerry, I will let the Australian public make a judgment about me. That’s what happens in politics. But I tell you what: the Labor Party made a judgment about me this week. They made a judgment that if they stayed with Kevin Rudd, they were gonna lose.

There are many conclusions that might be drawn from this amusing little political sideshow but I will just conclude with one. George Brandis SC, shadow attorney general and deputy leader of the opposition in the Senate, is not a man who Abbott wanted to provoke by suggesting for a second time he had got his words wrong when briefing the press after a Liberal Party party meeting.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey