The revelation of Malcolm Turnbull’s daring foray into political satire at the Midwinter Ball brought to mind some of the other memorable moments that have stunned and delighted the crowd at the Canberra glitterati’s night of nights over the years. Kept from the public at the time thanks to the pact of silence between pollies and press, Crikey satirist Ben Pobjie (who swears he has actually been to a Midwinter Ball, and we believe him) reveals* them now in the new spirit of openness.
2001: Bronnie’s Big Night Out
Former minister and speaker Bronwyn Bishop was generally noted for her decorous nature, but there was one occasion on which she let her hair down (not literally, of course; that bun has never been seen in its natural state). At the 2001 Midwinter Ball, government and opposition MPs alike were treated to a display the likes of which most can only dream of witnessing, as the Hon. Mrs Bishop, to roars of approval, danced for a full 10 minutes atop her table. The routine grew more and more energetic, before Bronnie ended up simultaneously doing the splits and casting her underwear with gay abandon into the crowd (it earned over $10,000 for charity).
2003: The Man of Steel Minstrel Show
Prime Minister John Howard’s sense of humour was rarely mentioned during his reign, but the Midwinter Ball was always a chance for him to show his comic chops, and he really pushed the envelope at the 2003 ball, when the long-serving PM, instead of delivering a speech, performed a medley of classic New Orleans party tunes. Some were shocked by this break with tradition. Others were more shocked by the fact that Howard performed the entire set in blackface, in what he claimed was a heartfelt tribute to the genius of Professor Longhair. As he rolled boisterously through “Tipitina”, “Junko Partner” and “Iko Iko”, the crowd was divided between applause for the PM’s surprisingly energetic piano-playing and condemnation for the PM’s surprisingly energetic racism. The incident was never reported, but to this day Howard claims he was the inspiration for Chris Lilley’s character “S.mouse”.
2004: Latho’s Menagerie
The Australian political landscape got a blast of fresh air in 2004 with the arrival of maverick opposition leader Mark Latham, and the Midwinter Ball was no exception. Latham brought the house down with a full hour of mesmerising animal impressions, including a startlingly realistic portrayal of a gibbon filling out a tax return, and a hilarious imaginary conversation between former NSW premier Jack Lang and a gazelle. It was only when Latham’s now-notorious “sub-waistband” elephant impression made its appearance that the mood of the room turned from joy to nausea.
2006: Who’s On First?
The presence in Parliament of two politicians called Abbott and Costello was a gift from the comedy gods, and the then-minister for health and then-treasurer embraced the inevitable at the 2006 ball with their unique take on their namesakes’ most famous skit. Those who were there speak with awe of the spectacle, particularly Tony Abbott’s bold willingness to go off-script by responding to the Treasurer’s query “who’s on first?” with the answer “Me.” From there it got increasingly chaotic.
2008: Rudd’s Lecture
The usual morning-after photo galleries from the 2008 Midwinter Ball took longer than usual to arrive in the papers, for a very simple reason: the ball had lasted a full three days. This was because newly minted prime minister Kevin Rudd, upon taking the stage, ordered the doors to be locked and proceeded to present an exhaustive 70-hour lecture on Chinese culture and history, half of which he delivered in Mandarin. When the ball finally ended, many attendees compared it unfavourably to the Black Hole of Calcutta.
2009: Milne’s Melee
The 2009 ball was relatively quiet, apart from one memorable moment halfway through, when journalist Glenn Milne emerged from under a table holding a plastic sword and demanding “satisfaction”. Five minutes later, Milne, three security guards, and an unidentified Channel Nine employee lay unconscious.
2011: Gillard Goes Hard
Julia Gillard made a memorable stand against sexism with her “misogyny speech” in 2012, but she’d struck a similarly powerful blow, unseen by the public, a year earlier at the 2011 ball. Taking her cue from Indiana Jones love interest Marion Ravenwood, Gillard eschewed a lengthy speech, instead simply challenging every man in the room to a drinking contest, and quite literally drinking more than 50 of them under the table. The pile of senseless, vodka-bloated carcasses was an astounding sight, and those close to Ms Gillard say she was as lucid at the end as she had been at the start: while a doctor who was present expressed amazement, saying that the amount of alcohol consumed by the prime minister would’ve killed several dozen normal women. For her part, the first woman PM simply burped twice, ate an entire raw chicken, and walked home.
2013: Parliament Catches Crabbs
The 2013 wall was unique in being the only Midwinter Ball so far to take the form of an extended episode of Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet. Held in Barnaby Joyce’s house, only 16 people actually attended, and all got food poisoning.
2015: Bill Works Blue
The 2015 Midwinter Ball is perhaps the most notorious of all, as it was the site of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s legendary “Blue Address”. Shorten assumed his position behind the podium full of confidence and began dishing out some of his famous “zingers”. However, when his negative-gearing puns and gags about “what if Tony Abbott was Schapelle Corby” fell flat, the aspiring comedian grew increasingly desperate, and increasingly abusive. Accusing the audience of being “po-faced little f***s who wouldn’t know a f***ing joke if it jumped up and bit them on the f***ing c***”, Shorten proceeded to ramble semi-coherently about the differences between men and women, and make some deeply defamatory remarks about the cast of Sunrise, before repeatedly shouting “What’s the deal with Twitter?” with tears running down his cheeks. When he was finally dragged off stage, Shorten was attempting to mime a hypothetical sexual encounter between Laurie Oakes and Sophie Mirabella.
2016: The Stolen Ball
Last year’s ball was mostly notable for the amount of money it raised for charity: $345,000; and for the fact all of it was stolen by James Ashby, who used it to buy a yacht.
*Reveals, invents. Potato, potahto