In a vapid parliament of mediocre cut-out MPs, Christopher Pyne is one of the few genuine characters in Australian politics. He is not to everyone’s taste. Pyne is “very Adelaide”, in the mould of fellow Liberal Alexander Downer, and is a polarising figure with it: people either love him or loathe him. Julia Gillard famously denounced him as a mincing poodle.
Canberra observer and columnist with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Tony Wright is already feeling nostalgic: “It is all but impossible to imagine Australia’s Parliament without a Christopher Pyne: if he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him, but you’d need an uncommon imagination.”
It has been observed that the departing Defence Minister and Leader of the House is sparkling good company, a bon vivant and raconteur par excellence.
And yet, apart from enlivening Canberra and Adelaide dinner parties, and despite having one of the most prominent profiles in Australian politics, Pyne doesn’t have much to show for his 26 years in federal parliament.
His retirement from parliament – which he entered in 1993 as the member for Sturt as a 25-year-old – is significant not because it brings a glittering career to a close, but because it signals the crushing rout that awaits the shambolic Morrison government, very possibly the worst government in modern Australian politics.
Pyne and Defence Industries Minister Steve Ciobo add to the tally of ministers that won’t be contesting the next election, including Minister for Women, Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Foreign Minister Marise Payne and former small business minister Craig Laundy are also tipped to quit parliament.
Liberal leadership? No thanks
Whatever the reasons given by the ministers for their imminent retirement from parliament – and despite their loyal if meaningless assurances that the Morrison government will win the next election – each departing minister will have concluded that the prospect of at least six years in opposition was too much to stomach. Not even the prospect of leading what’s left of the parliamentary Liberal party after the next election was enough to stem the flow of departures.
Whoever takes on the Liberal leadership in the first instance will have the important job of steadying and rebuilding what is likely to be a shattered rump. Peter Costello, the loyal deputy leader bitter at being denied the prime ministership by the faltering John Howard, opted not to take on that healing role after the 2007 Ruddslide, instead choosing to quit parliament. The spluttering cascade of leaders began with the hapless Brendan Nelson.
Twelve years later, Julie Bishop has been cast in the Peter Costello role. The time will come when Bishop, the ever-loyal deputy whose one shot at the Lodge was stymied to make way for the bumbling Scott Morrison, will be decried by some, as Costello was, for putting her own disappointment before the wellbeing of the Liberal party. Costello left a leadership vacuum in his wake, as will Bishop.
Christopher Pyne could have filled that vacuum but plainly he has no leadership ambitions. (He ran for the deputy leadership in 2007 in a ballot easily won by Julie Bishop.) But his decision to leave parliament at a time when the Liberal party is facing an existential crisis could deprive him of his most substantial contribution to his party. How the “broad church” responds to the challenge of opposition, particularly in that crucial first term, could well decide the future of the Liberal party.
Return to the centre
The party’s shift to the right has been disastrous. It resulted in six lost years of unstable, indecisive, incoherent and barren government.
Whoever leads the parliamentary Liberal party after May cannot do so on the basis of business-as-usual. He or she has to start the process of reinvigorating the Liberal party, bringing it back to the centre ground and preparing it for government.
The indefatigable Pyne would have been ideal for such a role. As opposition leader he would be relentless – more terrier than poodle – doggedly nipping at the heels of Prime Minister Bill Shorten (get used to it). No one in the Coalition thinks faster on their feet, no one speaks with greater confidence. If Pyne was born to fill one role in federal politics, surely it would be that of an opposition leader nursing a shattered party back to health and holding a government with a thumping majority to account.
Pyne considers himself a leading moderate in the Liberal party but as a self-described “fixer” and an acknowledged tactician of considerable acumen, he has spent the past six years enabling a government beholden to the party’s right wing.
In the course of a 26-year career Pyne meandered his way through a succession of shadow portfolios, parliamentary secretary roles, a stint as Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing in the dying days of the Howard government, and several ministerial portfolios including Minister for Ageing, Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence Industry and his current portfolio Minister for Defence.
For an MP who has so little to show for his 26 years in Parliament saving his beloved Liberal party – “I believe in the party and always will” – might have been the challenge of a lifetime.
In choosing to retire Pyne has deliberately absented himself from the question of who will lead the party after May. (For the record, Pyne has stated that he believes the Morrison government will be returned.) His departure, he says, marks a “time to renew” for the Liberal party. It says “not my problem” even more stridently.
The Liberals can look forward to six more years of leadership instability after the May election.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher