the assassin’s knife

It was hot – inside and out. The sun was out and Spring had turned into an early Summer. Though the forecast was for a cool change in coming days, the heat only had to last 24 hours for an ill-wind to blow through the corridors of power.

In Australia, Canberra is the centre of power. Some would say it’s the centre of bullshit, where power-hungry politicians gather together to argue, disagree and deceive one another to their own benefit. They are supposed to work as the people’s representatives, gathering information through committee to bring to parliament to pass as legislation. Legislative reform is what it’s called by some, a waste of time and the taxpayer’s hard earned money is what it’s called by others. But those that believe that Canberra is a place of waste and mismanagement have little or no regard for the importance of democracy as a form of government.

You see, in Australia, all registered voters get to vote, unlike most African nations, unlike the economic powerhouse that is China, unlike many nations on earth in fact. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re male or female, property-owners or not, eighteen or eighty-eight. We all get to make a choice at the ballot box.

‘Choice.’ There’s a word that defines democracy. The freedom to speak, to gather, to worship, to write, to disagree, even the freedom to be obnoxious – they are all based on the freedom to choose.

Yet this day, the people would not get to vote. Only the elected members of the Federal Liberal Party would get to vote this day; the select few, the chosen ones, those with a vested interest in the outcome, those with a chip on their shoulder for not being promoted to the upper echelons of power. And those already there.

So for those of you who don’t enjoy the privilege of voting in an elected representative, this will flip your mind. It’s happened three times in the last five years in Australian federal politics. But the most recent was just last night.

The air-conditioning kept all members cool. Canberra in Spring rarely got this hot. Thankfully, they were busy, sitting, thinking – or maybe just sitting. “I’ve gotta get outta here,” one said to another. “My husband can’t get to the local pharmacy today so I’ve got to go and pick up some Zeflex from Chemist Warehouse before it closes.” See, even politicians have errands to run.

The Leader of the party looked at his watch. He had other places to be too and his mind was focussed on the upcoming by-election on the weekend. He’d been spending a lot of time in Perth, Western Australia, of late helping his young and very electable candidate, Andrew Hastie, campaign. Hastie. Now that’s something you don’t want to be in politics – hasty with a ‘y’, done with insufficient forethought and excessive speed, quick-tempered.

The Leader’s time in Perth kept him a continent away from the corridors of power, where his colleagues were gathering for the week ahead. Sunday had brought with it rumblings and murmurs of a leadership spill. Something was happening. The media reported on it Sunday night. Sometimes these reports could be discarded as ‘wishful thinking’ on their part, for they were, in general, anything but a fan of the Leader, but this time the leaking was coming from the Leader’s front-bench, and it was now more than just a dripping tap, it was a flood.

Julie Bishop, also from Western Australia, was most likely the source. Trustworthy is not a word one uses to describe her, having served as Deputy Leader to four different leaders. A survivor with a Machiavellian character, she was crafty, cunning, and brought with her numbers.

‘Numbers.’ Politics is a numbers game. If you plan to oust the leader from within, be sure to count the numbers first. A challenge without support is baseless. Bishop was smart. She’d been seen out socially at functions with the Challenger recently and almost certainly played a role in the leadership spill of seven months earlier.

She wasn’t hasty, far from it. Rather, she had stayed the course and waited, and waited, whilst behind the scenes bringing supporters into ‘the tent.’ The Leader would have known he couldn’t rely on his colleagues for support. But the old saying ‘it’s better to have the enemy inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in’ applied here.

As the Leader rose from his seat in parliament that day, Bishop rose too and tapped him on the shoulder. The sense he felt on his shoulder that moment must have felt like an iron bar being hit around his head, a desultory whack rather than a gentle tap.  From that moment on, the Leader knew his time in that role was all but over. A fighter from way back, he would not give in easily. Not unfamiliar with the boxing ring in his younger days, he was the fittest member in the parliament – but also the most loyal. This strength of character was also a weakness, at least in the business he’d chosen as a career, now spanning twenty years.

In a piece for The Monthly, Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian, and friend of the Leader, describes how he came to love him;

[He] and I were lying on the sand at a surf beach some distance out of Melbourne. The surf was way too rough for either of us to go in. Suddenly a woman came up to us screaming. Her son had been pulled out by a rip and was in bad trouble … [He] was a strong swimmer and pretty much without hesitation jumped in, swam out to the kid, took hold of him, dragged him down the coastline a bit to get past the rip, and brought him safely to shore. He was not a bit interested in the mother’s thanks.

His relationship with the Challenger went back many years, with one the head of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, the other the head of the Republican Movement. The Leader won that battle, and Australia to this day remains a Commonwealth. And, when The Challenger was leading the party in 2009, and a leadership spill was called against him, the Leader put his ‘hat in the ring’ at the last moment. He won that battle too.

But he would not win this one. Although he did win the battle of character. For no-one could say he had knifed anyone. Remaining a leader to the end, he used his final statement in that role as a message to the media – desist from sensationalism. In the leader’s words;

“Refuse to connive and dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife.”

Democracy isn’t free. New leaders in Canberra take note.

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