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LIVE: Thursday in Canberra — Bob Ellis' spill diary

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Our man in Canberra, Bob Ellis, fills us in on up-to-the minute news from in and around Parliament on this historic day.

Bob Ellis with Bob Carr in the halls of power.
Bob Ellis with Bob Carr in the halls of power.


9.55 am

In a dream I am directing a remake of Newsfront when a truck hits my parked Volvo and I am awoken rudely and, as it turns out, nearly killed. The back door is wrecked, the right side mirror sheared off and the petrol cap missing and the corpulent, black-bearded, remorseful truckie anxious for my health. He didn’t see me, he explains, in the lambent yellow sunrise by yellow Lake George in my parked gold Volvo and a car on the right was crowding him and he swerved left and creamed me inadvertently. He gives me his mobile number and I decide I like him. I drive on listening to Oakeshott on Fran Kelly evasively rejoining the media debate, shower in Watson and go to Parliament, to Aussie’s, josh with Soutphommasane the teenage philosopher who does his Bob Carr imitation, and then in a lift apprehensively to Shorten’s office.

Things occur there of which I should not speak.

After a while I go down to the Great Hall to watch the Sorry Speech, Gillard’s feminist defiance of Rudd’s great Aboriginal moment; I can do this too. Watch me.

12.35 pm

Gillard’s great speech on forced adoption (‘a gynaecological Gettysburg’, I told its writer, Carl Green) transfixed its life-bruised audience, among them Malcolm Turnbull, standing beside me and for a second or two in tears because, I guess, of the lesbian novelist mother who abandoned him at nine to a father who put him in boarding school.

The stories told were Guantanamo-cruel. Girls’ legs forcibly widened and shackled; pillows preventing young mothers from seeing their firstborn or holding or suckling them; one who looked for years at every baby, then every adult, in the street, wondering ‘Is it him?’; the drugs administered to make sure the distressed young mother signed her baby away to the church or charity; the kitchen and laundry slave-labour some did till the day of the birth; the shame some went hime ti in their suburbs; the wondering, years later, ‘Is he alive?’ I thought of a red-headed girl who so bore and so lost a son that might, I learned later, twenty years later, have been mine though she had anotyer story, and wondered if she was in the room, or dead, or if she ever caught up with him, and whether I should also.

The speech ended and was acclaimed; for once the Prime Minister had used a microphone well; no hint of a harsh tone, no skerrick of unfeeling impassivity or hypocrisy tainted, this time, what she said. It was a fine, fine speech and should be a high school text forevermore .

Then Abbott got up and spoke well too, adverting immediately amid a shocked hush to ‘the late Kathy Donnelly’, the impregnated girlfriend he would not marry and forced to adopt what seemed then to be, and for twenty years thereafter, his only begotten son. She had a second illegitimate child, he revealed, but kept that one, defying the Catholic world she grew up in, and there was no more admirable person he knew.

It was a tough gig, and showed the honest conscience I admired in him; and admire, I suppose. But then he said ‘birth mother’ and shouting began: ‘I’m not a birth mother!’ And he strove to speak through it, then apologise for it, but it continued, and the images, of women cursing, that he least needed were recorded, and his leadership for that hour was in trouble.

But an hour is a long time in politics, and soon Simon Crean was on his feet, hoping by shouts to cause an avalanche.

1.45 pm

Crean pulled the pin half an hour ago, Albo having told Gillard ‘I can’t do this any more’, Skynews is calling it for Rudd and in Shorten’s office the word is ‘No change’. Gillard will not call a spill and it is not known if she will be at Question Time or if there will be one. Carr has not responded to a my call and email twenty-five minutes ago. It's 7.25 pm yesterday in New York and he may be amenable to a draft.

2.10 pm

Gillard has announced a leadership spill at 4.30 and Abbott has moved No Confidence.

‘This is a government in deadlock', he says. 'This is a house in crisis. A house divided against itself cannot stand. For your party’s good, you should go. For our country’s good, you should go.’

3.07 pm

I will rewrite these entries with more thought and grammar after the fact, as it were posthumously, in the next few hours and tomorrow, adding in paragraphs that were secret for a while but now can be spoken.

The No Confidence got 73, Gillard 71, but 76 were required for it to pass. A girl in Shorten’s office was weeping.

My young backroom friend says Gillard has breached caucus rules by not giving two days’ notice but maybe nobody cares.

It is possible I died this morning and all this is purgatory.

I was recharging my tablet in Carr’s office when a bald, bilious bureaucrat evicted me. I cursed him and the mimeograph he rode in on and went, dangling wires, downstairs. A thirty-fiveish friend of mine who works for Crean and moved his young family to Canberra to work for him last year refused a coffee saying he had to clean out his desk. There is a quiet hubbub in Aussie’s, some watching television, some not. Hawker is not sure Rudd has the numbers and Rudd not sure as yet, perhaps, that he will stand.

I find Soutphommasane queueing for coffee and we both do Whitlam imitations. I seek to phone Chloe Shorten and ask her to ask her mother the GG to ask Bill to form a government ‘in the old, familial, ancient Roman way’ but her number, dad blast it, has changed. Carr is in his usual bubble of grandeur, alternately dozing and reading Eugene O’Neill out loud on a night train to Washington and his machinery is diverting his calls. I email him under the heading 'Aye Caesar, But Not Gone' and beg him ‘Do the right thing’.

He and Dick Adams, who has flu, are two less votes for Rudd, I am told, and he probably needs them.

3.50 pm

Skynews has a device like a petrol gauge counting down to the dread hour, 4.30. A subtitle says Albo is in Rudd’s room right now. Richo says Albo has been intriguing for months and Rudd, unsurprisingly, may let him down, the way he does.

4.15 pm

In the press alcove near the party waiting with a lot of strangers for the culprits to walk by I think how unnecessary all this is. So much is known about Abbott and so little was used.

4.19 pm

Rudd is not going to challenge.

What an odious little putz.

He’s like a rich boy, prodding his pet tarantulas, because of the thrill it gives him.

Fuck him and the paperclip he rode in on.

4.29 pm

Albo arrives and, beaming, says Rudd has done the right thing. He has stood by his decision, announced after the last challenge, not to stand again if overwhelming numbers were not begging him to do so. He, Albo, wasn’t aware of what Crean would do, and if Crean stands for deputy, he will vote for Swan, he said, and then, ‘Sorry, there’s a meeting I’ve got to go to.’ And he went away.

5.15 pm

Joel Fitzgibbon came by to stand among the potplants and say he would for six weeks consider his position.

Gillard learned well from Crean when they were friends how to move quickly and bring on the ballot before the detested adversary Beazley had time to hit the phones. They installed Latham this way in 2003 and, ten years later, she has done it again.

I go back to Shorten’s office and on the stairs meet Bill as always. He gives an amazed big grin and says he will talk to me later. My friend Walladge rings from Perth and recites Yeats to me.

5.50 pm

There is a big bottle of Black Label whisky in Shorten’s office which, sampled, proves to be mainly water — like, in a way, our old friend the Labor Party. Abbott on the television drones on to the point of pain, we wuz robbed, he gripes, and Gillard should call an election now — right now. The images of women shouting at him in the big hall recede from human memory, and they could have done him damage. And this was only six and a half hours ago. Simon’s timing was, as always, really bad for the party.

In the office, it is suggested she should forgive him, bind some wounds, give him back at least the Arts which only last week he rejuvenated.

Carr will have slept through all this. Half his luck.

7.30 pm

A lot of carousing in Shorten’s office and much laughter when Oakes calls Rudd ‘a joke’.

Another MP is there besides Shorten and reveals what tte numbers were.

Sixty to thirty-seven.

8.10 pm

I am enjoying the revelry, relief and analysis in Shorten’s office and the palpable happiness of Shorten himself who will never now, never, ever have to deal with Rudd again, but I have said I will go out with my young friend Jim (not his real name) and after a delay I go with him past a graduation ceremony in the Great Hall into the wet car park, where I am photographed beside my wrecked car, and, after getting briefly lost, we fetch up in an Indian place in Kingston. Doug Cameron comes in and I give him some lines and wonder if, at last, Gillard will give this principled amusing talented man a gig in a Ministry now losing its younger talent (Husic, Saffin, Marles) and looking wobbly once again.

We eat well and drink a wonderful red with a young woman from Jim’s office, I am filmed reciting ‘Aubade’, the hymn to death by Larkin, and then we kick on to a footpath restaurant where the noise is large and Brandis, not altogether happy, stands drinking beer with some acolytes. Another Liberal accosts me and I insult him but I don’t remember the details now; I am old and forgetful.

1.30 am

We drink on, shouting against the noise. Other backroomers come and go. All are convinced we look like idiots and we lost even more votes today. I am not so sure. I drink soda water for half an hour, and, dropping Jim at his flat, make it back to the motel in my ruined car, pleased in a way I survived to see all this. Pleased to have survived.

5.03 am

I wake at four, and write the following:

Hard to see how these events helped Abbott much. Sixty to thirty-seven is nothing like ‘chaos’ or ‘civil war’ or just cause, as he now argues, in his mad-dog, premature-ejaculating way, for an immediate election, any more than his one-vote win against Turnbull was back then, back then.

The day also showed that he, by deserting a pregnant girl he said today he esteemed above all others and failed to marry twice, and so assisted with resurgent shaming, blazing publicity into an early death, or such is my view, was a rat with women and brought back the ‘character issue’ which he himself has lately used so unfairly and maliciously and slimily against Slipper and Thomson and Kernot, and the issue as well, if Thomson or Cameron or McTernan cares to use it, of how many girls he slept with when dressed as a priest in those for years when he was, quote, ‘not as celibate as I should have been’, and whether such a man, such a betrayer of women, such a breacher of promise, such a breaker of sacred vows, such a bungler of contraception, such a smircher of the cassock, should be trusted with authority anywhere or even, by his own standards, a vote in the House.

When nations are empty up there at the top,
When order has weakened or faction is strong,
Time for us all to pick out a good tune,
Take to the roads and go marching along.
March, march — how does it run?
O any old words to a tune.

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