The Kooyong colt

When the news came through yesterday that ex-Liberal party leader and prime ministerial aspirant, Andrew Peacock, had died, I thought about my dad.

They’re more or less the same generation – Peacock perhaps a couple of years older, and that makes a forceful point in itself – so much so that I sent an SMS to my dad asking how he was getting on. Peacock is of a generation and era that my dad belongs to, which was current when my father was at his peak. Peacock is gone now, and others, and soon enough, those remaining will pass, such as John Howard (good riddance), and at some point, my father, too.

The news of Peacock’s death resonates for that reason, but for other reasons also.

In the mind of many, he represents a lost opportunity for the Liberal party. In the seventies and eighties, he was the glamour boy of Australian politics – handsome, charming, witty, not a little vain, and very capable. When Labor was in power through the eighties, Peacock vied for the Liberal party leadership with John Howard.

They were very different characters and hated each other’s guts. Whereas Peacock was polished and hob-robbed with movie stars and on the international stage, Howard was mousy and conservative, dour and very much the accountant he was. Those were the superficial differences in style, but underneath were differences much more fundamental to the future of the Australian Liberal party.

Peacock was what they called a small l liberal – a dying breed these days. He was reasonable and socially progressive and beholden to no ideology. Though later Howard would claim direct descent from the Menzies years (legitimately, in some instances), Peacock better embodied the sense of fair play and common decency of earlier times.

They swapped leadership several times and, at different times, ran for prime minister. Peacock was famously lambasted by Keating as the soufflé that wouldn’t rise twice. And Howard was commonly thought of as a failure and an unimpressive little figure. In between, John Hewson ran for the Liberal party in 1993 and lost. After that, there was a succession of leaders while Peacock bowed out of politics altogether and ultimately left the field to Howard.

As we know now, Howard won the 1996 election on my birthday celebration (there were tears at the party, and a few angry words, and finally some soothing tokes). He reigned for 11 nasty years and changed the course of Australian life and politics (much for the worse), as well as the Liberal party.

Menzies wouldn’t recognise the Liberal party today. It has little in common with the party he started 80 years ago. It’s now hard-core conservative, more alike to American conservatives than the Tory England of the Churchill era that Menzies championed. It’s reactionary and narrow-minded, much like Howard himself, though these days it lacks his rat cunning. It’s the party of bullies and entitlement, of which corrupting and lazy incompetence is a natural by-product.

It might have been different had Andrew Peacock prevailed all those years ago. He’d have taken the Liberal party down a different path – kinder, more democratic, less self-serving. It’s a party I might have contemplated voting for as a reasonable alternative. These days, nothing less than a brain injury would see me vote LNP.

The era of Peacock also happens to be the era I grew up with politically. I was dimly aware of the dismissal of Whitlam in 1975 by the Governor-General, so momentous was it, but politics didn’t really take with me until the eighties.

I wouldn’t say I grew up in a political family, but we were a family who took an interest in the goings-on around us. I recall in the seventies, we went to Surfers Paradise during the school holidays and stayed in a high rise on Cavill Avenue. One night, dad was in the pool late and met Phillip Lynch, Malcolm Fraser’s first treasurer (before Howard, funnily enough), and returned telling the tale. That piques my interest, but it was only really about 1982 that I began to follow it keenly.

Dad was always a Liberal voter, and more so now – he’s got more conservative as he’s got older, which is the pattern, they say. We’re poles apart, more so now than ever, especially since I seemed to have bucked the trend and become more progressive each year.

I remember well the politics of the eighties, which was often great theatre and pretty exciting. It was also a time of fundamental change that re-shaped Australia – for the better, in this case. Being a young man of ambition, I was right on board with it. I admired Bob Hawke and thought that Paul Keating was the best thing since sliced bread – still do. That government was full of talented politicians hungry for change. I don’t think there’s been a government in my time nearly as talented or as intellectually capable as the Hawke government of the eighties.

And on the other side were the Libs, trailing in the wake of Hawke and Keating and trying to stay relevant. Peacock was one of them, always stylish and with a swagger that suggested that he had a rich life outside of politics. Not so much Howard, who I think was trapped within his resentments. It was that resentment that drove him and the bitterness of the eighties that soured his outlook and made him the wretched prime minister we all had to endure.

Peacock escaped that. He had a grand and interesting life and was a decent, honourable bloke on top of it. He’s dead at 82, but it was a good go.

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