Wednesday, 6 April 2011



The quivering bottom lip. The demon twinkle in the eye. The long pause to heighten suspense. It was so good to see Australia’s most vindictive political wordsmith back where he belongs recently, in front of the ABC cameras at 7.30 preparing to skewer his latest sworn enemy with a verbal barb dipped in venom and vitriol.
I could barely contain my excitement as I settled down to witness the Master-of-the-Tongue-Lashing at work. Would this latest cruel turn of phrase – destined to enter the lexicon of Australian political invective - be as exquisitely patronizing as the sadistically observed “running around shopping malls tripping over television cables” or as vindictive as “scumbags” and “unrepresentative skill?” Only one thing was for sure, given the documented animosity between the former Prime Minister and his latest target, the next Leader of the NSW Opposition John Robertson, this one was going to be a vintage toe-curler. 
Only it wasn’t.
“Lacking in Moral Authority” was the lackluster phrase that finally lumbered forth. I stared at the screen in dismay. What on earth had happened to the famed poison tongue? Had it been cut off and left to wander around like the one in the beer ads? Had the author of every conceivable insult from “mangy maggot” to “perfumed gigolo” lost his way with words? Had the Lizard of Oz ever before trotted out a construct as dull, bland and unworthy of his own linguistic legacy as “Lack of Moral Authority?” 
I shook my head in disbelief as Mr Keating awkwardly fleshed out his argument. Apparently, we now learn, it’s not enough to crunch the numbers, bully the waverers, knife your opponents, and blackmail the doubters. Now, to lead a political party in Australia you must possess this shiny, new, and hitherto unheard of quality. Moral Authority.
Mentally freewheeling around the phrase itself I found myself conjuring up images of the Pope, Mother Theresa, Bobby Kennedy, Bob Geldof, Desmond Tutu and a host of other saintly figures. Without a doubt, they all possessed Moral Authority by the bucketload. Some of them practically invented it. I struggled to match these quasi-religious types with my pre-conceived notions of John Robertson (union thug), Barry O’Farrell (north shore accountant), Kristina Keneally (ivy league cheer leader), Nathan Rees (council gardener), Bob Carr (nerd), Nick Greiner (soccer dad) or Neville Wran (spiv). Nope. Moral Authority did not spring to mind as being a commodity found clogging the hallways of Macquarie Street.
Not to be dissuaded, I set out to track down any examples of Moral Authority associated with other Australian political leaders. According to Google, our second-longest serving Prime Minister John Howard never possessed it at all, not even a skerrick of it, and by all accounts Kevin Rudd lost his somewhere in transit. (On a baggage carousel in Dubai I suspect.) Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both scrambled all over each other in a frenzied attempt to get their hands on the elusive little sucker in the mayhem following last year’s election, but it proved to be a particularly slippery object that managed to get completely lost in the melee. Perhaps Bob Katter picked it up and hid it under his hat.
So I headed back further in time. Did Bob Hawke ever possess it? The only thing that comes close to Moral Authority in Bob’s CV is his honest admission that he liked to “put it about a bit” and had decided to quit the booze and fags for a spell. Close, Bob, but no cigar(ette).
Then suddenly I thought I’d found it. Malcolm Fraser and Moral Authority at first blush appear like two peas in a pod. They even alliterate. Malcolm’s grasp on Moral Authority is awesome to behold. Alas, as I quickly realized it’s a phrase he bandies around freely when he’s criticizing everybody else for their lack of it – but I could find no evidence whatsoever of he himself ever having possessed the damn thing in the first place. Malcolm used to get extremely hot and bothered about The Lack of Moral Authority practically every time John Howard so much as sneezed. Iraq? Lack of Moral Authority. Aborigines? Lack of Moral Authority. Asylum seekers? You get the drift. Perversely, I’m not sure what the visual definition of a Lack of Moral Authority might be, but one can’t help feeling that the dubious image of a former PM stumbling around a dodgy Memphis hotel looking for his trousers probably fits the bill. Lack of Trousering Authority, perhaps.
Interestingly, Malcolm’s entire post-Prime Ministerial career appears to be one long, tragic quest – reminiscent of Monty Python’s search for the Holy Grail - to earn himself a dollop of Moral Authority, but no matter how close he gets to it, it will always elude him.
For one simple reason, according to Mr Keating. And that is that you can never possess Moral Authority if you’ve stabbed an existing leader in the back. In John Robertson’s case, that’d be Morris Iemma.
At this point in the interview we received - finally! - some vintage Keating imagery; “the dead men and women of Labor hung around John’s neck”. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The old bastard’s still got it, I conceded to myself. Now I could relax. A few moments later there was other half-hearted stab at a classic Keatingism, involving Mr Robertson “jumping on and off buses”, but that was obviously just a poor cousin of the “tripping over television cables” quip, so no points there I’m afraid.
But back to the argument. If Leader Assassination disqualifies you from possessing MA then Malcolm’s quest is futile (we all know he wielded the knife on Gough, no matter how much he protests the opposite), as is Bob’s (just ask Bill Hayden), and Julia’s is an absolute no-no. Embarrassingly, as was quick to be pointed out by many a pundit, that criteria also disqualifies Paul Keating himself.
And what of John Robertson? Does he really deserve the epithet of Lacking in Moral Authority? Let’s face it; his notoriety rests on the day he took it upon himself to physically shut down the NSW Labor Government by all means necessary. Based on what we now know of that shambolic lot, you could argue that gives him all the Moral Authority he needs.

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