Belinda Neal: Did we really know who she was?
For all the humiliation and ridicule Kevin Rudd faced over his brief stint as Prime Minister, for all the personal criticisms Julia Gillard has had to endure, for all the background sledging suffered by Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull before the elevation of Tony Abbott, who himself has faced plenty of flak, there is another politician who can rightly claim the unpleasant mantle of the most vilified MP of this parliamentary term.
She wasn’t even a minister, not even close, and wielded no influence over the lives of Australian voters beyond her little patch of paradise on the NSW Central Coast.
But despite her lack of clout, Neal ended up being clouted more gleefully and more frequently by the public, the media, and her many detractors across politics over her headline-making habits as the member for Robertson.
Nothing was out of bounds. Her voice, her appearance, her size, her marriage – it was deemed by almost everybody that there was something ugly about Belinda and she was beaten up accordingly.
So much so that, even when her politician husband John Della Bosca (who has just quit politics) admitted last year to a six-month affair with a woman half his age, there were plenty of men who were cheering him on for straying. A surprising number of women did so too.
Tory Maguire wrote a piece at the time saying that on the grounds of compassion and decency Neal should be afforded a reprieve of at least one day, possibly a week, and ideally something more indefinite, as she dealt with her husband’s actions and they tried to repair their marriage. The response from many readers was emphatic – Nope, this is Belinda Neal, and we’re going to keep on going on as hard as we like.
The initial impetus for this groundswell of abuse was the Iguanagate affair, which aside from being the silliest-ever application of the “gate” suffix to denote political scandal, was also a silly little scandal in its own right.
What was essentially a routine quibble with a couple of young waiters over the quality of the service at the Gosford wine bar Iguanas exploded into an impassioned national debate which dominated the news cycle for a full fortnight.
It did so because Neal’s behaviour suggested a sense of entitlement, which grates with the Australian sense of a fair go in this terrific little meritocracy of ours.
And it was all that was needed to trap Neal in a shocking pincer movement, whereby she was being berated by members of the public who hitherto knew nothing about her, and ratted out by members of her own party who knew plenty about her.
Neal’s greatest offence that night on the Gosford waterfront was to utter the immortal line “Don’t you know who I am?” when the service was found wanting.
The sentence encapsulated and inflamed the sense, held most strongly within the ALP, that Neal had enjoyed a bit of an armchair ride throughout public life.
With the active public and private support of her factional powerbroker husband, a former NSW Labor secretary and Right Faction stalwart, Neal had won and then lost a Senate position, sought the intervention of Labor’s national executive, and ended up sneaking in the back door anyway by snaring pre-selection for Robertson.
And here she is in a restaurant telling the teenaged waiters, probably on minimum wage, should get off their backsides and just bring them the damned drinks.
The abuse of Belinda Neal which I mentioned above is something I am quite familiar with, because I was responsible for publishing much of it in The Daily Telegraph.
In the aftermath of Iguanagate we almost needed two dedicated telephone lines at the newspaper – one to deal with calls from Central Coast constituents bagging her, the other to deal with calls from within the ALP.
Her constituents fed us the story about how she had been red-carded for allegedly kicking a teenaged female opponent in a non-friendly friendly in Woy Woy; from within politics, there were dark tales of how Neal was some kind of white witch who kept photographs of her enemies in her freezer to place curses on them.
In record time both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard went public to declare that Neal clearly had some kind of behavioural problem – a “pattern of behaviour”, Ms Gillard called it – and ordered her to attend anger management classes.
She never did. But when you look at Neal’s behaviour since the Iguana affair, you could argue that she never needed to.
Neal is no longer a political story but she is a personal story as she appears to have totally re-invented herself in the wake of this unusual waiter-related scandal, the subsequent fallout which saw her defeated for pre-selection, and what may well have been her final political act on Thursday when she announced that she would not be running as an independent against Deb O’Neill and would remain a member of the ALP.
My belief now is that Neal was never going to run as an independent at all, but that she delayed the announcement until this week so that she could publicly demonstrate the one quality she has always been accused of lacking – the capacity for being reasonable.
She looked dignified and decent as she addressed the local media on the Central Coast, wishing her successor well, and saying she hoped the woman who supported her mandated couch time with an anger management consultant would be elected prime minister.
In the statement Neal issued, she sounded as if she was almost pleading for some belated recognition that she had done absolutely the right thing in her departure from the Robertson.
Indeed one of the final paragraphs of her three-page statement included this polite plea:
“Please note I could have walked away from my constituents the day the election was called but I made a commitment in 2007 to serve the people of Robertson and I have done so until the curtain closes on my tenure as the Federal Member for Robertson.”
Neal’s actions on Thursday completed her transition from unpleasant party pariah to level-headed human being.
It’s a side of her that many people will never have seen. This is because in the past she had rarely if ever shown it. It is also because she had been so successfully slotted by the public, the media, and her colleagues as the very epitome of political entitlement, that the quite unpleasant agreement that nothing’s too tough for Belinda was the order of the day.
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