Surprise is a delight in politics. But there is no surprise in a caricature. And this is what our politicians have become.
Julia Gillard: unionist, lawyer, political staffer, Western Bulldogs fan, unmarried and shock, horror, once interviewed in her own house with no fruit in her fruit bowl.
Tony Abbott: conservative Catholic, apprentice priest, married with three daughters, Rhodes scholar, boxing champion, anti-abortion, a hard man with a hard line.
We want to know the identities of our politicians more as policies merge closer together. We want to know their character because we can’t believe they will deliver their promises. We hope to get a handle on how our leaders will frame policies in the three years in between elections when we have no control.
But how well do we know anybody – in public or in private? As a political reporter, I have been part of boxing our politicians and public figures. History and politics are not served by ambiguity. Everyone wants a pronouncement. Is he right or wrong? Is she black or white?
Identity is a little more nebulous than that.
One of the more interesting characters kicking around Macquarie Street in the 1990s was Malcolm McGregor. Talk about black and white.
He lived politics 24/7. He was renowned as ruthless, like the rest of the NSW Right. He worked for former NSW Labor leader, now foreign minister, Bob Carr. McGregor shared Carr’s love of history and had an amazing knowledge, spanning Australia, the US and the military.
He could quote ground breaking political speeches and some obscure ones besides. He was funny, charming, and did a mean impersonation of Paul Keating. A reformed alcoholic, his was a life lived at 1,000 miles an hour.
He shocked us all by switching to work for the Liberal Party, including John Hewson as Opposition Leader. He would not be put in a box. And then, he returned to the Australian Army. He has been a platoon commander, an infantry soldier, a teacher of his beloved history and most recently as Lieutenant Colonel, speech writer and advisor to the Chief of Army, David Morrison. He was made a member of the Order of Australia for exceptional service to the Australian Army.
For all his other talents, McGregor was ever the cricket nut. He has that beautiful capacity to write cricket for non-believers. So it was that he began writing a An Indian Summer of Cricket (Barrallier Books, 2012). As the creative process began, so did a gender dysphoria first diagnosed in the 1980s.
Back then, McGregor had chosen to ignore it and “man up”. But as the writing and despair continued, McGregor decided he would make the biggest change of his life. He would become a woman called Cate. It was like mate, she said.
The overwhelming response to her sex change from the triumvirate of Macho Industries – politics, army and cricket – was surprise. And immediate support. Morrison refused her resignation twice, telling Cate: “I’ve got your back covered”.
Malcolm (left) and Cate (right) McGregor. Image via The Herald Sun.
Old mates like political editor Malcolm Farr have written lovely quiet pieces paying tribute to her courage. I have nothing but admiration for her. Cate’s book hit the shelves under her previous name Malcolm and she is now writing cricket for the Australian Financial Review.
And another surprise. One of the most thoughtful reviews is in The Spectator, written by Tony Abbott who has known McGregor for 30 years. In it, he urges McGregor to consider writing another book for those “on the precipice of changing their lives.”
“Like the best cricket commentary, it’s the digressions that make the story,” writes Abbott.
“How do we encourage people to be selfless when we won’t even let them be hard on themselves? These doubts, I suspect, stem from lack of sufficient faith in the power of our ideals and in our capacity to adapt. McGregor’s life might actually be answering questions that the book merely poses.”
Ironically for Abbott, the voting public has a decided lack of faith in the power of our politician’s ideals. McGregor’s decision to stand up for who she was is in stark contrast to most modern politicians.
Interestingly, since the prime minister has stood up and shown aspects of “the real Julia” – with her sexist speech and her fierce rebuttal of the AWU allegations – she has enjoyed a marked increase in support. Though the Coalition has the upper hand in the polls, Abbott has yet to tap that vein. He is more concerned with being a small target – controlled and on message.
He has been reining himself in ever since he set his sights on the prime minister’s office. All we know of his voice is “stop the boats, end the waste, there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”
Tony Abbott: a more complex man than he lets on? Photo by Andrew Meares via AFR.
But every so often, observers get a glimpse of a more complex man. Read The Spectator review for just one glimpse.
Earlier this year, he delivered a speech about reading. When putting a care package of books reflecting the Australian story for his daughter taking her first overseas trip, he chose Breath by Tim Winton. A beautiful coming of age book through surfing and sex. Is this Abbott the conservative?
When speaking at the Governor General’s ceremony to award Daniel Keighran a Victoria Cross, he quoted Dr Samuel Johnson for the second time.
“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” said Johnson. Do they? Does the rest of Abbott’s post-feminist generation feel that way?
The Government has succeeded in making Abbott a caricature. I reckon Abbott would be much better served by letting his authentic voice out. He may even climb out of that box.
*Tony Abbott photograph on page one by John Woudstra, via smh.com.au.
*Gabrielle Chan is The Hoopla’s political correspondent. She is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience, having worked most recently as a regular columnist with The Australian. She has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She blogs at www.gabriellechan.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellechan.