One of the refrains of Right-wing politics in Australia is to condemn political correctness. I agree — we should have a frank and truthful debate about people running for public office and the policies they present to the Australian people. Basic facts should not be regarded as taboo, simply because they might be seen as impolite or insensitive. This is what it means to have freedom of speech.
During my time in elected office, everything that could have been said about me was said. One of the favourite topics of my Right-wing critics was my testicular cancer in 1994, which required surgery to remove the offending testicle, followed by radiotherapy. The priority for young men with this condition is to get it early (feeling for lumps and ridges) and not be so manly or embarrassed as to avoid medical assistance.
My treatment required leave from parliamentary duties, so the nature of my illness became public. Thereafter, I never heard the end of it. In the House of Representatives, for instance, Tony Abbott tried to score political points by referring to “testosterone enhancement therapy”. During my time as opposition leader (2003-05) comments like this were common, usually in more explicit terms.
Even years after leaving Parliament, Right-wing critics have enjoyed pointing out that I have one remaining testicle. They call it freedom of speech, and I have never sought to restrict this freedom. In the spirit of the ever-popular “Henderson Watch“, let me quote from the great man himself. Writing on behalf of the Sydney Institute in July 2011, Gerard Henderson invented a quote in which I am supposed to have said:
“Like Napoleon, I have only one testicle. But I’ve got three kids whom I am bringing up to hate Liberals, Catholic priests and red-headed feminist atheists who become Labor leaders. Just imagine how many haters I could have sired if only I had two balls in the air.”
Then in an editorial note, he declared:
“Great stuff. Any chance of (us) hacking into Mr Latham’s medical records for next week? That could be lotsa fun — and quite revealing.”
Naturally, no one in politics or the media objected to these comments. No one said Henderson had stigmatised testicular cancer, discouraging young men from seeking treatment. In the eyes of the political class, he was exercising freedom of speech. Once more, I agree. Henderson should say whatever he likes about me. If it makes him feel better in his otherwise miserable, pedantic existence, then I’m happy to help.
What I will not tolerate, however, is attempts by Australia’s Right-wing cadre to censor freedom of speech in the legitimate analysis of the Liberal finance spokesperson, Andrew Robb.
Since mid-2012, Robb has sought headlines in promoting wacky plans for the most discredited and wasteful theme in the history of the Commonwealth: northern development. It’s a return to the failed economic planning of the 1960s, when governments thought they could turn the wastelands of northern Australia into a new Garden of Eden. All they needed to do was add water. It’s how white elephants like the Ord River and Humpty Doo irrigation areas were built with taxpayers’ money. Nothing has changed in the north — the soils are still poor, the pests debilitating and the heat unsuitable for most crops.
Yet Robb has promised to develop a “northern food bowl”. His colleague Barnaby Joyce has described proposals to build 100 dams at a cost of $30 billion as “a good policy, we’ve got to do it”. In Thursday’s Australian Financial Review, I criticised this approach, in part, pointing out that: “The chances of a troubled character like Robb successfully planning the transformation of northern Australia are zero.” I described Robb as troubled because this is how he has described himself.
Eighteen months ago, in promoting his credentials as a future Liberal leader, Robb released his memoirs — unusual in itself for a sitting MP. The book also set out Robb’s lifelong struggle with mental illness. It described his dysfunctionality each morning, how he “lacked confidence and felt very reluctant to make decisions”. It recalled how his wife “had to be on suicide watch” when Robb started treatment for his problem in 2009. The book’s title summarised the extent of his troubles: Black Dog Daze — Public Life, Private Demons.
My AFR column said nothing about Robb that he had not said about himself. But then political correctness kicked in. The Australian‘s Cut and Paste section (which uses Henderson as one of its research assistants) described my comment as “ugly”. On Sky News, Chris Kenny wanted me to apologise. Robb himself called the comments “deeply dangerous”.
And the mother of all hypocrisy: Australia’s self-appointed guardian of free speech, Andrew Bolt, said my article should have been censored and questioned whether the AFR should retain me as a commentator. This confirms one of the golden rules of Australian public life: when Bolt talks about free speech, it is free speech for himself, not others. His instincts are dictatorial, not libertarian.
The most revealing section of Robb’s book is chapter 16, “An Act of Treachery”. Here he explains how, in late 2009, he deceived his leader Malcolm Turnbull about the true state of his condition and the impact of his medication. He exaggerated his circumstances as part of a cunning manoeuvre to roll Turnbull in the Liberal party room on the question of supporting the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme. This effectively ended Turnbull’s leadership, hence Turnbull’s well-made accusation of an “act of treachery”.
This was also a shockingly cynical act by Robb, a strategy to milk his illness for political advantage. In reading his book, it is difficult to have sympathy for him. He comes across as an opportunist, seeking out the fastest and most convenient route to high office. He will say and do anything to get ahead. It is appalling to think that Right-wing barrackers and elements of the mental health industry are now trying to position him as untouchable.
Given Robb’s track record of treachery and cynicism, he deserves more scrutiny than other federal MPs — not less.