24/02/2011 - 00:00

A soundproof room, a chair and a phone

24/02/2011 - 00:00


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A political insider’s view of the machinations behind the ousting of Kevin Rudd tickled State Scene’s fancy recently.

State Scene was away in rain-soaked and cloudy Melbourne when Perth’s devastating hills fires struck.

The reason for the trip was so I could attend a conference that canvassed a range of public policy issues, including global cooling, the threat to agriculture from the Howard and Gillard government’s Murray-Darling Basin water policy; and a particularly enlightening lecture by leading Australian bioethicist, Reverend Dr John Fleming, titled, ‘Defending the Vulnerable against Euthanasia’.

Three days later it was off to Victoria’s oldest and most respected Club, the Melbourne Savage Club, housed in an exquisite late 19th century mansion at 12 Bank Place, between Collins and Little Collins streets.

The Melbourne Savage Club boasts among its former members the late Sir Robert Menzies – who served as president from 1947 to 1962 – and notable Australian painters, Sir Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin.

There I heard an interesting lecture on China by The Australian’s Asia-Pacific editor, Rowan Callick.

Rather than do little or no justice to all these interesting lectures in the limited space available here, I have no doubt I’ll get many opportunities to elaborate on them as 2011 unfolds.

That said, I cannot allow two memorable stories to go unreported.

One of those attending the conference was a very in-the-know Labor Party insider who I could so easily have spent many more hours with if time had permitted.

He seemed to be familiar with everything going on inside the Labor Party and must have an enormous up-to-date personal library of Labor biographies, since he could so often support his contentions with references to particular authors and books.

But it was his detailed blow-by-blow description of the ignominious ousting of Kevin Rudd that was far and away the most interesting and gripping.

He seemed to know everything about the dysfunctional Rudd prime ministerial office; the ways and methods of its allegedly bright young policy wonks and boffins, and the seemingly never-ending wasteful big spending programs.

But the snippet I liked most was how one Labor politician – whom Mr Rudd had previously given a bitter and foul-mouthed dressing down during a private meeting in the prime ministerial office – got square with the PM.

The way this MP did this was to go into a sound-proof room in federal Parliament House and lock the door behind him.

Inside there was a desk and chair and one telephone.

The MP then did what all Canberra plotters have been doing since 1927; he opened his little black book of telephone numbers and spent the next couple of hours ringing up as many members of Labor’s caucus as possible and gave a detailed explanation of why Mr Rudd had to go, and the sooner the better.

“No-one has ever disclosed precisely what he said,” my informant said.

“But it must have been concise and convincing because he fitted in about 70-odd telephone calls in about two or so hours and Kevin Rudd was too scared to put his leadership to the vote in caucus.”

Unfortunately not even the insider has yet discovered what that telephone-calling MP in that soundproof room said to those 70 or so Labor MPs.

For that we’re going to have to wait for one of them to put it down in his or her autobiography.

During question time following Mr Callick’s Savage Club address, one of those present raised that often recounted anecdote that’s said to have emerged from former US president Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to Beijing to meet chairman Mao Tse-tung and China’s famous foreign minister, Chou En-Lai, who, in 1921, had joined a Chinese Communist Party cell in Paris.

One Google account of this anecdote goes thus: “Legend has it that, while preparing Richard Nixon for his historic visit to China in 1972, Henry Kissinger mentioned that Chinese prime minister Chou En-Lai was an avid student of French history.

“During his trip, Nixon met with Chou En-Lai in the walled garden of the Forbidden City.

“As they walked slowly around the lily ponds, Nixon remembered Kissinger’s comment.

“To break the ice, he asked Chou what he thought had been the impact of the French revolution on Western civilisation.

“Chou En-Lai considered the question for a few moments.

“Finally, he turned to Nixon and replied, ‘The impact of the French revolution on Western civilisation -– too early to tell’."

Not so, Mr Callick told the Savage Club’s guests.

He’s spent some time tracking down what actually happened and what it was that Chou was really asked.

He’s done this by actually finding and quizzing the American government official who was present during the Nixon-Chou meeting, when the pertinent discussion was held.

So, for the record, what in fact occurred was that president Nixon asked Chou what he thought had been the impact of the 1968 Paris student riots – not the French Revolution of 1789.

To this foreign minister Chou, after considering the question for a few moments said: “It’s too early to tell.”

Just having this so often-misquoted anecdote corrected made attending Mr Callick’s lecture worthwhile.

So much for conference and lecture anecdotes, what of the funniest email I received while away?

That came from a longtime Polish friend who sent the following.

Headlined, ‘A Well-Planned Retirement: A Perfect Example of Government Mismanagement’, it read: “Outside England’s Bristol Zoo there is a parking lot for 150 cars and eight buses.

“For 25 years its parking fees were managed by a very pleasant attendant. The fees were, for cars £1.40p, for buses about £7.

“Then, one day, after 25 solid years of never missing a day off, he just didn’t show up; so the zoo management called the city council and asked it to send another parking agent.

“The council did some research and replied that the parking lot was the zoo’s own responsibility.

“The zoo advised the council that the attendant was a city employee.

“The city council responded that the attendant had never been on the city payroll.

“Meanwhile, sitting in his villa somewhere on the coast of Spain or France or Italy ... is a man who’d apparently installed a ticket machine on his own, and then, had simply begun to show up every day, to collect and keep the parking fees, estimated at about £560 per day ... for 25 years.

“Assuming seven days a week, this amounts to just over £7 million and no-one knows his name.”

The moral of the three stories is firstly: politicians should never curse and swear at each other, otherwise, one day ...

Secondly, it confirms Winston Churchill’s one-liner: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Thirdly, what else do you expect in the world of taxes forever being seized from us by central, state, and local governments plus their quangos?

All keep slugging citizens.

People are so accustomed to being slugged they never think of asking why.

My Polish friend saw it differently.

He wrote in his email’s subject line: ‘We’re in the wrong business’.



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