In a Taylor spin

The boys in the photo are still wearing their tuxedo jackets as they dive, arms tangled together, through the bonfire, and crash to the ground, unsinged. Others strip to their underwear to make the leap. One, perhaps not so lucky, is doused with a fire extinguisher by his peers. In the background, their boat is engulfed in flames, embers streaking the black night.

The ritual – a celebration indulged in by rowers at Oxford to mark their win at the summer’s biggest race – was captured by Dafydd Jones in the ’80s. “The whole event was slightly mad,” the photographer told The Guardian in 2018. “After a long, boozy dinner, groups of suited men would run arm-in-arm and jump through the blaze … It was dangerous, but nobody seemed to care.”

Jones’s images from this time, at Oxford and at Cambridge, evoke a cloistered world of wealth, privilege and youthful hedonism that was alive and well in these elite universities. The machismo was palpable, he said; the arrogant disregard for consequence is obvious.

Angus Taylor would arrive at Oxford just a few years after this particular boat burning – a graduate of Sydney’s prestigious The King’s School and a Rhodes Scholar. He joined the university’s rowing crew, where he met, and befriended, men who would become powerful figures.

History would suggest a man with Taylor’s pedigree was fated for success in Australian politics. Instead, his career has come to be defined – and imperilled – by scandal.

Watergate dogs him still, the central role of his Oxford rowing mate Chris Gradel in the $80 million deal an unseemly coincidence. But it’s the allegations that someone in Taylor’s office may have doctored documents to smear Sydney’s lord mayor over her travel expenses – currently being investigated by New South Wales police – that may prove his undoing.

Although not if Scott Morrison has any say in the matter.

The prime minister is resolute that there was nothing untoward in his ringing up NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller to check on the investigation. His is the arrogance of a cop’s son who thinks you can sort things out with a call to the sergeant.

Taylor’s is the arrogance of a man who thinks greatness is his birthright.

In 2014, a year into his political career, The Australian Financial Review lamented that Taylor’s promise was being squandered by the Abbott government. Speaking with the paper at the time, the then backbencher didn’t parse his words.

“The distinctive thing about me is that I hate – I mean really hate – fart-arsing around,” he said. “I insist on getting things done. And yet that is what government specialises in. It specialises in fart-arsing. In stopping anything from happening or insisting that the longest route is taken. I do delivery. That is what makes me different.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 30, 2019 as "In a Taylor spin".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.