Camaraderie Across The Benches

Joe Hockey is a friend of mine and like many of us he had a dual personality. When parliament was sitting it was on for young and old! When we were in the House we were combatants, but then we’d meet on the touch football field where we played together in the Parliamentary World Cup in 2003.

Sometimes I liken parliament to the theatre of World Championship Wrestling. People would come into the chamber, the bell would go ‘ding’ and we’d belt each other over the head with fake aluminium chairs, an all-in brawl with tag team wrestling. Then the bell would go ‘ding’ and you’d walk out together saying to your opposition “are you playing touch football tomorrow?” Joe and his press secretary were great mates on the football field. They’d put out the most outrageous press releases about me that were often false and I’d ask myself sometimes, ‘how they could do that but still be friends?’ but there it was. I am still good friends with Joe and caught up with him at his place in Washington for the Australian American Leadership Dialogue earlier this year.

Tony Smith is the current speaker and a good guy. He has a love of classic cars and once let slip, during a discussion on the limitations of the NBN, that you can’t have everything…that he’d like a 1955 Corvette but was unlikely to get one. I printed a big photo of the ‘55 Corvette and took it into the chamber, saying it represented the government’s attitude to the NBN. He took it in such good spirits that he asked me to sign a laminated copy, for his son, which I did. To get his own back, when I’d come into the chamber he’d say in a stage whisper “gee I don’t like that tie Emmo” and I’d look down and get self-conscious. He had the last laugh because there was one tie he said he didn’t like, and I’ve never worn it since!

They’d put out the most outrageous press releases about me that were often false and I’d ask myself sometimes, ‘how they could do that but still be friends?’ but there it was.

Steve Ciobo was another good guy. He was my opposite as Shadow Minister for Small Business and he asked a question early on and then went quiet for two, four then six months. I took the opportunity to start coming up with examples of very long periods in history. One was about a Buzz Lightyear figurine that was sent to the International Space Station and had been orbiting the earth for 450 days. I said: “I can advise the house that Buzz Lightyear returned to earth today, 450 days since he first went into orbit…which is exactly the number of days, Mr Speaker, since the member for Moncrieff last asked a question in the House.” Much later I pointed out that “…the siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days…which is exactly the number of days, Mr Speaker, since the member for Moncrieff asked a question in the House”.

…we leant over the dispatch boxes and shook hands. Now, the dispatch boxes are two sword lengths apart and it’s hard to reach across, but we did…

Steve took it all in good spirits. While to be effective you need to be a bit edgy, on one occasion I misjudged the edge and went over it. There was festival underway called OcSober, whereby people swear off alcohol for the month of October and Steve was participating. I pointed out that Steve had signed up to OcSober and I said, “that’s good” and the team behind repeated as one “that’s good”. I then produced a photograph of the Member of Moncrieff drinking a glass of wine and I said ‘That’s baaad” and the team behind me repeated as one “That’s baaad”. And then I said that he’d gotten drunk. This was very sensitive for a conservative politician and I realised that I had gone over the edge and my opponents were telling me it was a disgraceful thing to say. So, at the end of the parliamentary day I rose and said that “at Question Time I was having a bit of fun and I went over the edge and I didn’t mean any offence and I was sorry for giving offence”. Steve had returned to the House to hear my apology, having been given a heads-up on what I was going to do. When I’d finished speaking we leant over the dispatch boxes and shook hands. Now, the dispatch boxes are two sword lengths apart and it’s hard to reach across, but we did and I still keep in touch with Steve Ciobo on a friendly basis.

The camaraderie also comes from perhaps less expected quarters. On one occasion Tony Abbott went head to head with Mark Latham in a very spiteful parliamentary exchange, which was personal and nasty. It was the end of the parliament session and at the end of the day we gathered in the ALP Whip’s office; a whole group of us, spilling over into the open area. I had my guitar and we were drinking and singing American Pie, Bob Dylan and all the old songs. Then Tony wandered past and said, “can I come in?” and he came in, sat down and started singing. From there we moved on to singing hymns. I called Julia to come and join us and we sang together until two o’clock in the morning. You couldn’t have imagined a more rancorous exchange that day, but instead of going back into his tribe and saying, “we whacked them” Tony came and sat with our tribe, just on his own.

The humanity of politicians has been under siege for some time…but we’re all human and many of us have wives, husbands, sons and daughters. The general public doesn’t see the camaraderie that can and often does exist in Canberra.