Here in the Press Gallery there’s a bell, located at the pigeonholes where snail mail is distributed, which summons journalists from their offices — no Pavlov jokes please — to find out about last-minute press conferences.
At lunchtime yesterday, with everyone assuming there wouldn’t be any announcement until mid-afternoon, someone from Bob Katter’s office rang it. Katter would be holding a press conference in his office. When? Now.
“Now” as in “and now, let the wild rumpus start.”
Before the election, a Katter presser would have attracted three journalists and their dog (Hacky the Gallery mascot, a rottweiler-poodle cross). Yesterday it caused a stampede down to Katter’s suite. Even hacks who never break out of a brisk mosey suddenly found an extra gear. Journalists caught out buying their lunches came bearing food as they filed into the Katter suite.
MPs’ offices are reasonably spacious, but there was little room for the swarm who crammed around Katter’s desk, filled out his office and flowed into the adjoining office, standing on furniture, trampling on handbags, leaning over one another to hear Katter deliver his verdict.
It was plain from the moment Katter began, with lavish praise of Kevin Rudd, that he’d end up backing the Coalition, on the basis that when you have to offend someone you sugar-coat the verdict first. The question-and-answer with journalists that ensued was chaotic and at times genuinely weird, particularly given Katter’s propensity to relate answers amid gales of cackling laughter.
Asked about how he would vote in a no-confidence motion if Oakeshott and Windsor backed Labor he said that he’d need to consider the full implications of his previous statement about support. And time again he harked back to indigenous issues as one of the key reasons for his decision to back the Coalition. Katter was, we should not forget, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the early 1980s. The Queensland Government’s Wild Rivers legislation — or more precisely the spurious campaign against it run by some media outlets and that inveterate and accomplished self-promoter Noel Pearson — appeared likely to claim another victim.
The ensuing Gallery logic, however, was that Katter’s break from the golden circle of rural independents meant Windsor and Oakeshott were likely to go Labor. Katter insisted he had no idea which way they would opt, so all that was mere speculation in any event, and by day 17 of #ausmasticates, speculation was a commodity available round these parts in superabundance.
In a building constructed on the basis of networks of knowledge, of insiders, of people whose lives embody the principle that information is power, every occupant, from the Prime Minister’s Office down, was an outsider, Out Of The Loop, because only the two remaining independents knew who was going to form government, and they weren’t telling, not, at least, until 3pm.
They had, at least, gone to the effort of booking a decent-sized venue, the main committee room, which was packed when Rob Oakeshott arrived, slightly mortified to find Tony Windsor hadn’t yet arrived and he’d have to hold court on his own for the moment. Luckily his fellow-independent was there shortly to take charge. And yes, both men had extended preambles to their announcements and yes, it was tortuous waiting for them to get to the point.
Sorry if people watching on Twitter thought all of us in attendance were a bunch of bitching, clueless hacks with no sense of the historic occasion for lamenting about the time Oakeshott, in particular, took to reveal his decision, but with each new introductory statement about his framework for his decision, with each new parenthetical remark that took us onto other issues, Oakeshott was ratcheting up the suspense, although it became harder and harder to see how he could do anything other than back Labor.
Windsor’s speech, rather shorter, was outstanding, the best speech of the recent campaign and its aftermath, not by any means for Windsor’s less-than-electrifying style, but for his blunt speaking about how the two major parties had come to resemble each other — he identified IR and asylum seekers as the best examples — and how rural communities needed to seize this brief moment to make a genuine difference before politics reverted to a more business-as-usual style.
Such insight and straight-speaking is all too rare in major party politics and if nothing else the hung Parliament has served to demonstrate how foolish the Nationals were to let Windsor go rogue, in the unlikely event they haven’t contemplated that a thousand times over since 21 August.
And thus an election in which over 12.35m formal votes had been cast came down to a single vote from the earnest young man from Port Macquarie, who insisted on explaining the entire basis for his decision before revealing it.
Bitter and disappointed Liberals yesterday were saying yesterday that Oakeshott and Windsor were always going to support Labor, that the whole process was a charade. Their disappointment is understandable — this was the toughest, most emotional way to lose — but that assumes all three independents have simply devoted the last fortnight to playing an extended game with us all.
It may have had moments of torture for everyone, but listening to all three of them yesterday suggested they had taken the responsibility thrown their way by voters and, ultimately, their 147 colleagues, very seriously indeed.