Life

Just as political opponents may form friendships based on their shared circumstances in Canberra, the relationship of biographer and subject is equally complex. By Karen Middleton.

Anthony Albanese and his biographer

Anthony Albanese (left) and Christopher Pyne chatting behind the speaker’s chair during question time.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / LUKAS COCH

Not long before he left Australia to take up his post as ambassador to Washington, Joe Hockey talked about his friendship with Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese.

The pair had known each other 20 years, members of the parliamentary entry class of 1996 who bonded over a shared concern about aircraft noise in Sydney and an emotional visit to a Palestinian refugee camp as part of a delegation in 1998.

On that occasion, Hockey paid for his Bethlehem-born father, Richard, to join him on the trip. Richard Hockey had anglicised his name from Hokeidonian on arrival in Australia in 1948, and Albanese found he and Hockey snr had much in common, having both grown up without a father around.

On return from the trip, Hockey jnr and Albanese established the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine.

Their friendship over the years since would prompt Hockey to heap praise on the outspoken Labor left-winger as the former treasurer ended his own political career last year.

Albanese was, Hockey declared, a man whose word was binding. “I like him,” he said in an interview we did for my biography of Albanese. “And he’ll always be welcome in my home.”

But asked if he’d ever actually had Albanese in his home in all those years of being mates, Hockey looked sheepish. He’d been caught with his rhetoric outrunning the reality. He burst out laughing. “No,” he admitted. “…But I would happily have him in my home.”

While doing research for the book, the strange nature of political friendships kept floating to the surface.

As is often the case when looking in a rear-view mirror, some of these relationships are closer than they appear. Albanese is, for example, much closer to former prime minister Kevin Rudd than even many of his colleagues realised.

But there are other relationships that, to the casual observer, may seem just like ordinary friendships but are actually missing something.

Labor frontbencher and Albanese’s factional colleague and mate Mark Butler notes the practice of friendship in the parliamentary vacuum is somehow slightly different to its practice outside.

“Often people talk about, ‘How are your kids?’ ” Butler told me. “But really, they don’t know them. They’ve never met your kids. It’s not that they don’t care – it’s just that they’re not the sort of friendships you have with people where they’re invested in your personal life.”

He described the nature of politics as being “a game of relationships”.

“It works when you’ve got people who know and trust each other.”

He said Albanese was very good at those relationships. “He does take it to a human level in a way that many others don’t, here.”

Butler noted that inquiring about another politician’s family was generally well meant and sincere – indeed, in the case of Albanese and Hockey, it was based on warm personal contact.

But Butler noted that, in general, these small-talk questions between politicians were often lacking in the substantial knowledge or genuine concern that long-time friends outside politics might invest in each other. And yet, some of these people have known each other for decades.

“At the end of the day you don’t really understand their family,” he said. “You’ve never been to their house. You might have met their wife or husband at an event for three minutes. You sort of know about it, but you don’t know it.”

It’s not uncommon for friendships to flourish across the aisle. The nature of parliamentary existence – away from home, keeping strange hours and facing the collective scrutiny and frequent wrath of constituents – encourages a sense of solidarity.

As parliamentary bureau chief for The West Australian newspaper for many years, I was struck by the ease with which MPs and senators of all stripes from Western Australia mixed at our annual Christmas drinks.

Shoehorned into our small parliamentary bureau, they chatted happily and partook of our hospitality without any sense of partisanship.

The hours spent in each other’s company on long-haul flights, and the shared experience of the sheer distances they had to cover every week or two, generated more than civility – it produced a quite genuine friendliness.

One year, a cross-party posse accepted a late-night dare to wear reindeer antlers in the house of representatives the following day, with the offer of a charitable donation as the substance of the bet. They earned a good-natured Christmas reprimand from the speaker, donated the money to the agreed charity, and raised a couple of thousand dollars more for the cause besides.

These political opponents got along because they got each other’s particular circumstances. And although my colleagues and I were based permanently in Canberra, they knew we got them, too.

An endeavour of the nature of a political biography also tests the relationship between biographer and subject, particularly when the biographer is a journalist and the subject a senior politician with whom they have an ongoing professional interaction.

It’s a complicated exercise, requiring a considerable degree of trust. In this case, given the kind of personal story being told about Albanese’s search for his absent father, there was emotion at times in the back and forth. A clear understanding of the terms upon which the interviews were being conducted was vital. They were on a background basis to begin with, and I then requested what I’d like to put on the record.

The same process was applied to interviews with everybody else, with very few agreeing on the spot as to how they would be quoted. I had to get beyond those who wanted to praise “Albo” in order to find some of those who didn’t. And Albanese and I had to ensure that we could resume the standard journalist–politician relationship with all its associated tensions at the end of it.

It may say something about keeping friends close and enemies closer that some of the most generous assessments of Albanese did, indeed, come from his friends across the aisle.

Albanese and senior Liberal Christopher Pyne have forged another of these relationships, cemented when Albanese was leader of the house during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership and Pyne was his opposite number.

They would meet behind the speaker’s chair to negotiate the logistics of procedure or the process for a vote, in circumstances of minority government where everything had to be worked through.

Pyne appreciated Albanese’s frankness and unwillingness to join in the personal name-calling that some of his Labor colleagues had no hesitation about.

“He has never … consciously said he would do something and done the opposite,” Albanese said of Pyne.

Pyne returned the sentiment. “When I gave Anthony a commitment, I never broke it,” Pyne told me. “When he gave me a commitment, he never broke it. And there were times when we were asked by both our leaderships to do things and I remember saying, ‘I can’t do that.’ ”

Pyne described it as “a rare relationship”.

“I have no other friend in the Labor Party.”

But neither is under any illusion that their first loyalties are to their own parties and each is quick to score a political point against the other when the opportunity arises, as it does routinely, given their Friday morning joint appearances on the Channel Nine Today show.

In the end, there is a limit to the stretch in these political friendships.

Would Pyne and Albanese stay friends after politics? Perhaps they might have the occasional drink but more than that seems unlikely. They are, after all, fundamentally different people brought together by time, place and vocation.

What’s the old saying about what you should get if you want a friend in politics? The answer: get a dog.

Trouble is, with the fly-in fly-out nature of the trade, with the amount of time spent away from Canberra, a dog would probably starve to death.

 

Albanese: Telling It Straight, by Karen Middleton, is published by Penguin Random House.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Albo on the table". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.