Tit-for-tat week with Labor the winner

Sydney Morning Herald
5 May, 2007
By Alan Ramsey

You've been taken for mugs. And Bill Heffernan is handy fodder. All that confected outrage after the latest edition of The Bulletin went on sale on Wednesday, and for what? I'll tell you. The press and the politicians are having election-year party time with remarks a year old. They were first published in a 4500-word profile in the Herald magazine, Good Weekend, in May last year under the headline, "Hard Man of the Hill". Did anyone froth and fume at the time?

No, they didn't. Did John Howard insist Heffernan publicly apologise to Julia Gillard? No, he didn't. Did Gillard or Kevin Rudd or the then Labor leader Kim Beazley utter a word? Nothing. Nobody in politics said anything. Except Heffernan says Rudd rang him after reading the Good Weekend article to thank him for his leadership "endorsement", and the Labor women of the NSW Legislative Council named Heffernan a big winner at the annual Ernie Awards for chauvinism.

A year later and voters are being had.

Why? Farmer Bill, the Junee senator with the hard mouth, is far more entertaining and distracting than the industrial relations debate, the real political story of the week. Heffernan reportedly giving Gillard one up the sexist bracket is great copy, open to enormous political spin. All the colour and movement of populist personal politics. Dangle the lure and the hysterics can't help themselves. Heffernan is always alluring copy.

It was John Lyons, a former Herald editor, who did the dangling this week. Lyons put together a three-page article for The Bulletin on Heffernan's newest role as chairman of "his great mate and mentor, John Howard's" so-called Northern Task Force. The Lyons story was all about how Heffernan had recruited Lachlan Murdoch and Noel Pearson to help him "transform Australia's north" as "the food bowl of Asia". It wasn't about Gillard or Rudd at all. It simply leaned on a few juicy quotes, as an aside, recycled from a year earlier to inject some bite, and when it was published this week, Lyons's very worthy article appeared under the equally worthy headline "Bill and Lachlan's Excellent Adventure".

And that's the point. In his research, Lyons had come across Greg Bearup's Good Weekend profile last May. So when he interviewed Heffernan for his article, it was Lyons, not Heffernan - in chatting about the Bearup profile - who raised what Heffernan had said about Rudd and Gillard a year earlier in the context of Kim Beazley's leadership. Compare the relevant sections of the two articles.

Greg Bearup, Good Weekend, May 27, 2006:

"By the time [Heffernan] finished his calls [in front of a TV set at Heffernan's homestead], The 7.30 Report is on and Beazley is again looking feeble. 'So,' I ask, 'if you were the ALP numbers man, who would you be backing to replace Beazley?' 'Ah, well,' he says, rubbing his stubble, 'to be honest, Kevin Rudd. Rudd is not a bad sort of bloke, you know.' What about Julia Gillard? 'Na. Na. Na,' he says, like an axe on a chopping block. 'I mean, anyone who chooses to deliberately remain barren, they've got no idea what life's about. We've got a few on our side as well. I've said this before, the most difficult job in the world is the priesthood and the most important job in the world is parenthood. Rudd's got three kids. He knows what a bucket of nappies is all about.' Having reduced Gillard to the status of an unproductive Hereford, it's back to The 7.30 Reportů"

And further onů

"Even the National Party's Barnaby Joyce, who felt Heffernan's wrath for crossing the floor and voting against the Government [on two occasions] has something nice to say about him. 'If you were broken down on the side of the road he'd be one of the few [MPs] who'd stop and help you,' Joyce says. But in politics, I ask, if he had something to use against you, would he do it? 'No doubt,' says Joyce. 'He'd f--- you over for a cold pie."'

And in an aside on the Catholic priesthood: "Heffernan is a strong advocate of priests being able to marry - 'They wake up at 4 in the morning with a horn, just like the rest of us."'

John Lyons, The Bulletin May 7, 2007:

"Heffernan is as unpolitically correct as they come. Over breakfast [at a Sydney hotel], he says priests should be able to get married 'because priests, like the rest of us, wake up with a horn at 4 in the morning'. The people at the next table suddenly become interested. I ask if he said 'horn' and he says, 'Yes, a horn. I presume you know what I'm talking about.'

"[Heffernan] repeats earlier comments that Gillard is 'barren', and thus unqualified for leadership. 'I won't walk away from that. So, rude, crude and unattractive as it was, if you're a leader you've got to understand your community. One of the great understandings in a community is family and the relationship between mum, dads and a bucket of nappies.' "

The "earlier comments" are Heffernan's Good Weekend remarks from last year. Heffernan didn't "repeat" them. Lyons raised them and Heffernan declined to recant. There is a difference. But that got the "barren" quote back into print, along with the "bucket of nappies" and what happens "at 4 in the morning".

This time, with Gillard under heavy fire in the headlines for her supposed "war on business", a line vigorously pushed by the Government and various business stooges, the recycled Heffernan quotes got picked up by an "outraged" Labor and an enthusiastic press. Three women Labor MPs issued statements insisting Heffernan be taken out and shot (well, almost), while Rudd pronounced on radio: "Bill Heffernan today has launched another personal attack on Julia Gillard for not having children and he said this disqualifies her from becoming deputy prime minister."

Heffernan had done no such thing, but Rudd asserted piously: "If Mr Howard is a decent man, he will do two things straight away. He'll repudiate Senator Heffernan and he'll discipline Senator Heffernan." Next day, after Heffernan, prodded by Howard, had apologised, though gritted teeth, Rudd was still huffing: " I see this as much more of a referendum on Mr Howard's character."

The rest of us see it as a very long time until polling day.

Gillard was just as egregiously verballed after she appeared on Sydney radio with John Laws on Monday. Asked if she was concerned at the prospect of a corporate advertising campaign against Labor's industrial policies, Gillard said: "I'd be concerned if the business community got itself into the political fray. I'd be concerned if they became, if you like, propagandists for Mr Howard." And she added: "Look, in an election year, the political contest is a pretty hard, fast place to be. It's a contact sport if you like, and a lot of injury. And I don't think it's a wise place for Australian business to be, out on the field, in the fray, getting those injuries on the way through."

And when the Government started shrieking that Gillard was threatening business leaders if they didn't stay clear of the election fight, and the newspaper headlines responded, Gillard, a die-hard Victorian fan of Australian Rules football, explained her remarks had been no more than a "mangled" footballing analogy. And that, for anyone of common sense, was obviously all it was.

But not in an election year. Not with the Government in deep trouble in the opinion polls. And not in a federal parliamentary Labor Party which, after 11 years in the wilderness, is, for the most part, utterly spineless at any sign of setback. Yet by week's end it was the Government that was backing down on industrial legislation, not Julia Gillard. "PM retreats" said the Herald's front page yesterday.

It got the week in context.

A colleague emailed last night: "When it comes to John Howard one has to look through the smoke and beyond the mirrors. And we all know the Work Choices 'safety net' he has now cobbled together is aimed at saving the neck of one person and one person alone. But if you look away from the safety net you will see a rolled-gold key Howard has just delivered himself. It is not only a get-out-of-jail key, but a key to fit a treasure chest that holds many millions of dollars.

"Over past weeks it's clear Howard has been frothing at the prospect of a heavy artillery ACTU advertising blitz at election time that the Coalition did not have the party funds to match. And anyone who can smell a rodent a mile off would have smelt it a week or two back when Howard said it would be illegitimate for the Coalition to use taxpayer funds to promote the Government's Work Choices laws. Good heavens no!

"'Finetuning' of Work Choices now offers the pretext of another of those mother-of-all 'public information' campaigns, the nearer the election the better. Similarly, watch how they explain the far-reaching effects of renaming the Office of the Employment Advocate as the Workplace Authority and changing the Office of Workplace Services to become the Workplace Ombudsman. We only need think back to the obscene Medicare-Plus campaign three years ago to get an idea of what is about to descend on us. As you might say, thank you once again, taxpayers."

Indeed. Voters are always the mugs.

Media articles are posted for the purpose of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under "fair use" provisions and may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owners, except for "fair use."