Libs carved up by a lethal fighting rooster
The old saying is true, you do have to watch the quiet ones. Derided by his former leader Mark Latham as a “rooster”, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith showed this week that he is a particularly lethal fighting rooster as he methodically dismantled his shadow, Julie Bishop, over the forged passport scandal.
The expulsion of the Israeli diplomat and the subsequent argument over whether Canberra had gone too far has been discussed at some length on The Punch and elsewhere.
All I will say about it here is that it was not an issue (and would probably never have become an issue) which was the subject of animated discussion in shopping centre food courts around Australia.
No votes were going to shift over the possible fracturing of our relationship with Israel as a result of Kevin Rudd’s alleged heavy-handedness. If you asked the average voter what they knew about the passport affair, it’s unlikely the response would have got beyond “Didn’t we expel a spy, or something?”
But thanks to the haplessness of Julie Bishop and those around her, the only other feature of the passport story which ended up registering in voterland is that it became another Liberal Party stuff-up. Hot on the heels of Tony Abbott’s heat of the moment/gospel truth locutions last week, the fact that Julie Bishop said a very silly thing, and then spent the whole next day pretending she hadn’t said it, could not have come at a worse time for the Opposition. Rather than cutting her loose, the decision of
Abbott and others to back her in meant the Opposition sustained collateral damage.
It was Stephen Smith who deserves the credit for making sure it became a significant story.
Smith has long been an almost invisible man on the national political scene. To describe him as unobtrusive is an understatement. He seems almost agoraphobic. With his mousy voice and his tiny frame and his refusal to engage in chest-beating about his own achievements or to ridicule his opponent’s failings, Smith has made absolutely no impact on the national political stage.
Until this week, where he put on a surprising communications masterclass for anyone with an interest in political discourse.
Smith was able to do a number on Julie Bishop not because he stood at the dispatch box loudly berating her as reckless and irresponsible. It worked because he was quiet and restrained. He sounded like a fair-minded parent who had returned home early from holiday to find their teenage son in the backyard pool with 28 mates and the contents of the liquor cabinet strewn across the lawn - not angry, just very, very disappointed.
“She has broken a long-standing convention,” he said.
“She has put our national security at risk. We saw her breach a very sensible long-standing practice that all governments, that all political parties have adhered to. We don’t comment or speculate about intelligence practices.”
Smith was helped in his cause by the enthusiasm with which the Israeli media took up Bishop’s claims, letting him hammer her over the gaffe for a second day.
It was a measured and sustained attack and one which helped Labor land a solid blow on the Libs. It worked mainly because Smith didn’t look like he was milking it, and didn’t resort to abuse.
Parliament is full of speakers who appear to believe that the only way to tackle an opponent is to affect the style of Paul Keating. You hear people such as Lindsay Tanner or Craig Emerson trying to blend a bit of Aussie patois with some complex policy point, repeating their sentences to further ape the Keating style. It’s totally pointless as when it came to invective Keating was so clearly in a class of his own, sounding like a cross between Sir Les Patterson and Ezra Pound as he used vernacular and surreal imagery to deride his opponents as maggots and cream-puffs, feral abacuses, low-altitude fliers and delicate little beauties.
Politicians on both sides of the house should reflect on Smith’s performance as he was bowled up a series of predictable dixers with which to pummel the shadow foreign minister. He didn’t overdo it, he just calmly established that Ms Bishop had deliberately claimed on radio that Australia’s intelligence services also used forged passports, and then tried to squirrel out of her clanger with a misleading three-sentence clarification , and a series of incredible denials by her and others the following day.
It was refreshing to see a politician avoid the bombast and confected disbelief which passes for oratory these days.
Much has been written throughout the media over the past couple of weeks about how Australia is at something of a low point in terms of choice between its political leadership and political parties, as Kevin Rudd jettisons his principles and Tony Abbott undermines his credibility by admitting that his own statements aren’t always reliable.
If we are living in dire times, we have the political rhetoric to match.
Tony Abbott has taken plain speech to Dr Seuss levels as he shifts his aim from the emissions trading scheme and lines up the resources super profit tax. It’s “big” and it’s “new” and it’s “bad” and everyone who is vaguely acquainted with the Liberal Party is parroting the line throughout the land, making it almost annoying as Rudd’s “working families” ahead of the 2007 poll.
Having been on the bench for a couple of years, “working families” have themselves re-emerged in the past couple of months, with Kevin Rudd saying that working families should be worried about the return of Workchoices in a different guise, or that working families should share in the mineral wealth which rightly belongs to us all.
The return of the term has had one benefit –you can still struggle to understand a word Kevin Rudd says, either in press conferences or the parliamentary chamber, as he is so prone to using acronyms that he renders himself unintelligible.
He’s spent much of this sitting week telling the house that working families want an RSPT and that it’s only the MCA which says otherwise. Most working families would think the RSPT has got something to do with Aretha Franklin, and wouldn’t know the Mineral Council of Australia from the Museum of Contemporary Art.
To this end Stephen Smith did us all a bit of a favour by doing a civil, thoughtful and comprehensible number on an opponent who had invited the criticism with her highly regrettable conduct.
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