The Independent Member for Lyne
The most surprising thing about Rob Oakeshott was always his naiveté. He was hardly a neophyte; he had spent 12 years in the NSW Legislative Assembly, the notorious bearpit, and six of those as an independent, a constant target of the National Party he had deserted. When he arrived in Canberra in 2008 most people expected a tough guy. Instead, they got a pussycat.
As this fascinating apologia pro vita sua makes clear, Oakeshott’s unruffled demeanour was driven not from artlessness, but from idealism: he was and remains that rare beast in modern politics, a dreamer. He seriously believed that politics was a medium for the betterment of the human condition, and never lost his faith.
It led him down strange paths: he once tried to persuade Malcolm Turnbull to serve in a government of unity (whatever that was) under Julia Gillard, he suggested involving Aboriginal elders in the selection of an Australian president and he introduced his own bill to try to break the deadlock over asylum seekers. All, of course, were failures, but in their own way they were worthy failures. He had no regrets about the time and effort he spent pursuing them.
He achieved little on the national stage, while doing lots for his own electorate – and good luck to him. That’s what local members, especially independent ones, are supposed to do. But it is hard not to believe that he has his regrets about having left so little mark over the three tumultuous years when he and a handful of colleagues shared the power to make and unmake the government. The thought of doing so crossed his mind once or twice but he was, it appears, never really tempted. He remained loyal to Gillard, whom he admired, and left parliament exhausted and perhaps frustrated, but never disillusioned.
He remains dedicated to the great cause of reform, and if some of his prescriptions still sound a little unformed, only the most jaded and cynical can doubt his good intentions. Oakeshott concludes his heartfelt and somewhat wordy memoir by describing it as a love story, to his wife, Sara-Jane. But it is also a love story about politics itself – the great game, which to Oakeshott was never just a game, but a means to a glorious but perhaps unachievable end. Naive, perhaps. But in these troubled times we could do with a few more like him. WP
Allen & Unwin, 392pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "The Independent Member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott". Subscribe here.