IT WAS THE FEISTIEST and bitterest rivalry in conservative politics in Australia, and on 5 September 1985 it seemed that John Howard had prevailed over Andrew Peacock after a botched attempt to replace Howard as deputy Liberal leader resulted in his ascension to the top job. Of course, this episode simply raised the curtain on several years of simmering, seething hostility. But in defeat, Peacock exhibited a candour that few politicians deploy today.
I must apologise for yet another of my little stints on walkabout; my world has had me preoccupied with other matters this week, and these have kept me from finding time to post. Indeed, with just such time available tonight I’ve spent it snooping around YouTube looking for old curios, and having found “something interesting” thought I’d publish some comment on it whilst working out, over the next day or so, where we’ll pick the present day conversation back up.
I did one of these flashback pieces once before, talking about the surprisingly gracious speech former Prime Minister Paul Keating made upon conceding defeat back in 1996; it got a lot of reader attention at the time (and still has “bursts” of topicality, based on the metrics I can see as the administrator of the blog), so I will be very keen to see what people make of this. If there is demand for the “flashback” idea I’m happy to do them, but only once in the proverbial blue moon: too many would turn the column into a history book rather than a discussion forum providing comment and analysis on what’s going on in the world of politics.
But my little hunting trip tonight (or, to be more exact, this morning 🙂 ) took me to the press conference given by former Liberal leader Andrew Peacock in the aftermath of his resignation on 5 September 1985 and the subsequent elevation of his deputy, John Howard, to the leadership on the same day.
The reason I have decided to share this and talk about it (and readers can access the clip here) stems from the candid, fluent and direct approach Peacock deployed in the face of heavy questioning by journalists, and the rather ironic fact that subsequent events showed the sincerity of some of that candour to be…well, a little less sincere than his emphatic statements might otherwise have suggested.
The thing that I find worth revisiting in the context of an ongoing discussion of Australian politics, some 30 years later — and in some ways like the Keating piece — is the degree of directness in Peacock’s remarks, and the contrast it provides with the sort of thing we might expect from senior politicians (of all political stripes) today.
There is no obfuscation, or a hiding spot constructed from the repetition of idiot-simple phrases that make little sense; Peacock takes each question and — as can be best expected of a politician at all — answers them, and answers them meaningfully.
If we were to reflect, with total honesty, how many of the current crop of MPs in senior roles would do so as eloquently?
Younger readers might not recall Mr Peacock — the so-called “Colt from Kooyong” — acknowledged by friends as a polished political performer, and by critics as a one-trick show pony; either way, this media conference is an accomplished performance, and whatever Peacock’s shortfalls might have been when it came to questions of substance over style, credibility in the harsh glare of a press pack was never one of them.
Personally — despite his status as a Liberal moderate — I liked Peacock enormously, and supported him over John Howard throughout their rivalry; the Howard who eventually became Prime Minister in 1996 was of course a vastly different (and changed) entity to the awkward, sometimes tentative and downright unpopular Liberal leader who battled through the mid to late 1980s. “Mr 18%,” the now-defunct Bulletin magazine once headlined him, with the mocking subtext “Why on Earth does this man bother?” in reference to the abysmal personal approval ratings Howard routinely recorded.
The emphatic, persistent and genuine-seeming declarations of support Peacock pledged for Howard, that Thursday afternoon in Canberra, were exactly the right noises to make, and struck all the right notes; Peacock’s unconditional public offer to serve Howard was accepted, with the latter appointing him shadow minister for Foreign Affairs: a portfolio he held in government under Malcolm Fraser, and a role that to this day evokes memories of the affair he once had with American actress Shirley MacLaine, who famously declared that she would give the then-Foreign Affairs minister “a foreign affair he would never forget.”
Even so — and despite the commanding farewell performance as leader in 1985 — politics is politics; and the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Of course, as time wore on it became clear that the rivalry with Howard was far from resolved despite the suggestions of Peacock that day; in fact, shortly before the 1987 federal election Australians had a graphic glimpse of what Peacock really thought of Howard, and readers can reminisce about that, too, by clicking here. (Just don’t play this second clip with small children — or prudes or wowsers — in earshot).
And on 9 May 1989 that rivalry boiled over again, as Peacock and his lieutenants executed a snap coup against Howard to return to the Liberal leadership: the man of style — the “great campaigner,” who had run the Hawke government surprisingly close at the 1984 election, just 21 months after the Fraser government has been tossed out — was deemed likelier than his colleagues to lead them back into office than the man of substance.
And Peacock might have become Prime Minister in 1990, too, had a handful of his mates opted not to appear on the ABC’s Four Corners programme shortly after the 1989 coup to brag, admitting to the treachery and outright lying they had engaged in to terminate Howard’s leadership. The episode left a permanent taint on Peacock’s second stint as Liberal leader, and probably destroyed much of the momentum he might otherwise have generated heading into the first of three “unloseable” elections fought by the Liberal Party in the early 1990s.
In any case, this performance — the dignified, direct and graceful performance after relinquishing his position to a detested political foe — is, to me, an illustration of the finery and sophistication that once characterised our polity, and is nowhere to be found today.
What do readers think: is there room for this kind of thing, or is the use of simple slogans as battering rams a crude but much more effective way to operate? And with the benefit of three decades since the event, was Peacock worth the hype, despite his two election defeats, or was the Colt from Kooyong simply a prancing show pony with nothing more to recommend him?
I’ll be interested to see your thoughts. And later today, I’ll be back with something on retail issues pertaining to current events.