Christopher Pyne: Mouth from the South

Pyne is adamant that the article didn’t bother him. “Not in the least bit,” he says, casting a cheerful glance into the rear-vision mirror. “To be compared to all those people – I assumed it was a spoof.” In any case, he believes politicians have to accept the rough with the smooth. “People write nice things, people write ghastly things. There’s no point in getting too fussed about it.”

He just wishes his family would get that message. Soon after the story appeared, he phoned his Aunt Rosemary to wish her a happy birthday. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, darling, about that terrible Marieke Hardy piece.’ I said, ‘I’m not worried.’ ” His mother, too, was appalled. “I said, ‘Look, Marieke is a comedian, so this is actually not supposed to be a serious piece. She doesn’t genuinely think I’m as unpopular as Kyle Sandilands or Brendan Fevola. It’s part of the fun, you see?’ ”

Pyne is one of the most influential people on the conservative side of Australian politics. “He’s very much at the heart of the Coalition’s senior leadership group,” says federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. “I wouldn’t want to single out any one person as my uniquely influential counsellor, but nevertheless Christopher’s advice is always very shrewd and it would be a foolish leader who didn’t seek it.”

Abbott and Pyne have been close for about 15 years. “Everyone in politics has a mate they chew the fat with,” says a senior Liberal. “My sense is that the first person Tony would pick up the phone to talk to, to bounce an idea off or get some guidance about a particular thing, is Christopher. He is very guided by Christopher’s views.”

In the House of Representatives, Pyne is manager of opposition business – essentially the Coalition’s chief tactician, responsible for co-ordinating the attack on the government. “He is one of the best political strategic minds I have known,” says shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, while Liberal power broker Michael Kroger rates him as a possible future prime minister. “He is one of the federal parliamentary party’s best assets,” says Kroger, former president of the party’s Victorian division. “I think he’s a very talented individual.”

Undeniably, though, one of Pyne’s talents is for getting under people’s skin. During the term of the last parliament, the Speaker of the House, Harry Jenkins, ejected him from the chamber 14 times – more often than any other MP. After the federal election last August, Pyne was the first person in the new parliament to be thrown out. “Pyne is prissy, punctilious, irritating,” Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan has written. “Whenever he bobs to his feet or interjects, which is incessantly, I feel like lighting a mosquito coil.”

Michael Egan, chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney and a former Labor treasurer of NSW, is reported to have broken his mobile phone by throwing it at a television when Pyne’s face appeared on the screen. And it seems that plenty of others understand the impulse. When The Age ran an online poll last year asking readers how they felt about Pyne, two-thirds of the 22,672 respondents said, “Can’t stand him.”

Even his Liberal colleagues have mixed feelings about Pyne. Beneath his chipper exterior, they say, he is the sort of political enforcer who will do almost anything to achieve his ends. “Ruthless” is the word that keeps coming up in conversations about him. “Christopher is very much the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove sort of person,” says one of his friends in Canberra, shadow attorney-general Senator George Brandis. “There is no tougher operator here.”

Senator Nick Minchin was state director of the Liberals’ South Australian division when Pyne started carving out a career in the party in his late teens. “He seemed to be extraordinarily well-endowed with self-confidence and reeked of political ambition,” says Minchin, who, as a leading member of the Right, became a factional opponent of Pyne’s. “Look, he did rub a lot of people up the wrong way.”

As the senator sees it, Pyne has mellowed, but his fundamental character is unchanged. “Where there is power to be gained, he will seek it. Ruthlessly do numbers, ruthlessly pursue political goals without deference to what others might consider to be the niceties …

“Because he plays his politics hard, he does make enemies.”

Pyne parks the ute and walks jauntily towards the palliative care centre at Calvary North Adelaide Hospital. He is on his way to see one of his constituents – a man who has never met Pyne but admires him so much that he has invited him to his bedside on this, his 50th wedding anniversary. At the door of the man’s room, I take in a sombre scene. He is thin and pale, with hollow cheeks and a tube in his nose. His wife’s face is etched with anxiety and exhaustion. Undeterred, Pyne bounces in and introduces himself.

Soon he is regaling the couple with tales of his childhood, when he often visited the hospital with his father, an eye surgeon. The nuns who used to run the place wore floor-length robes that hid their feet, he says. As a kid, he was convinced they floated along the corridors. Pyne chuckles. The man winces with pain. By the time we leave, though, the patient has sparked up so much that he is offering advice on re­arranging the shadow ministry. Move Joe Hockey, he urges in a faint voice. Nice guy but just not treasurer material.

“Don’t say that,” says Pyne, pointing at me in mock alarm. From the outset, he has been ambivalent about having a journalist tag after him with a voice-recorder. On one hand, he is worried about revealing too much. (“I hope I haven’t been too open and honest,” he says in a moment of candour.) On the other hand, he is a natural raconteur who adores having an audience. When at one point I check arrangements for an interview the next day, he says he has put aside 60 minutes. I say I doubt that will be long enough.

“I can’t talk about myself for more than an hour,” he protests. Then he laughs. “Who am I kidding?”

Although he is married with four young children, Pyne has been dogged for years by rumours that he is gay. Needling remarks have been made in parliament: Hansard records that in February 2009, the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, referred to him as “the member for skirt – that is, the member for Sturt”. Soon afterwards, NSW independent Tony Windsor used the same phrase, “member for skirt”.

When Pyne was appointed manager of opposition business, Julia Gillard expressed surprise that the then Coalition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, hadn’t given the job to Tony Abbott instead. Faced with a choice between a dobermann and a poodle, she said, Turnbull had opted for the poodle: “In a choice between macho and mincing, I would have gone for macho myself.” The next day, when Abbott was having his make-up removed after a television appearance, he joked that “Christopher would probably want his left on”.

When I ask Pyne about the innuendo, he is resolutely upbeat. “No, it doesn’t annoy me,” he says, suggesting that the cause of the confusion might be the way he talks. The Adelaide accent can be quite plummy – think former Liberal foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer – “and, you know, sometimes it’s misinterpreted”. At any rate, he says, “every person is different. And I’m quite comfortable with the person I am.”

He dismisses Abbott’s make-up gag as un­important: “That was just his towel-snapping humour in the locker room.” But a person close to Pyne says he was extremely hurt at the time, “not because of the insult but because the insult came from somebody he regarded as a friend. They were estranged for eight or nine months.” Abbott confirms that they fell out for a while: “It was an ill-chosen jest and, yes, there was a period when he was understandably out of sorts with me.”

Pyne’s dealings with Gillard were never warm. Once, when they clashed in the chamber during her term as education minister, he made fun of the way she spoke. “At least I’m not the Kath Day-Knight of Australian politics,” he said. “Good on you, Kath. Look at moiye, look at moiye!” Since the poodle gibe, though, relations have been frosty. Pyne tells me that when the two were members of a parliamentary delegation to Israel in 2009, they exchanged four words in a week: ” ‘Hello, Christopher.’ ‘Hello, Julia.’ She didn’t even say goodbye!”

Some say the nastiest gossip about Pyne emanates not from Labor but from right-wingers in his own party, who have targeted him because he is leader of the so-called “moderate” group (in favour of a republic, action on climate change and a compassionate stance on asylum seekers, for instance). “Those from the right of centre have done some pretty terrible things to him over time,” says former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone, who is godmother to his elder daughter. “They have been relentless in working against him in what I regard as an unforgivable fashion.”

One of his oldest friends, Adelaide corporate lawyer John Kain, is impressed by how well he has stood up to the scuttlebutt. “Many people would throw the towel in,” Kain says, “but I think the more of it that occurs, the stronger his resolve becomes. Rather than diminishing his fervour, it probably fuels it.”

Pyne’s parliamentary colleagues have long known that you cross him at your peril. “Cory Bernardi is dead,” he is alleged to have said of the right-wing Liberal senator with whom he has had a long-running feud. The comment was reported in a 1998 letter written to the South Australian Liberal Party president by Angus Redford, then a member of the state parliament. In the letter, a copy of which was sent to a newspaper last year, Redford claimed that Pyne had said of Bernardi: “Cory will not get any office in the Liberal Party. My blood will run cold before he gets anything …”

Redford tells me that since writing the letter, he has come to respect Pyne. “I think he’s 10 times more mature now than he was then,” he says. But no one disputes that Pyne still has a vindictive streak. “He is prepared to use all available tools to wreak revenge on those who attack him,” says Joe Hockey.

In Gillard’s case, he focused on undermining her Building the Education Revolution scheme – a $16-billion construction program designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy while modernising Australian schools. It should have been a sure-fire vote winner but Pyne went after it with ferocious tenacity, so successfully publicising isolated cases of waste and mismanagement that by the time Gillard left the education port­folio to replace Rudd as Labor leader, the scheme was widely seen as an electoral liability.

Tony Abbott gives Pyne a healthy share of the credit for the Coalition’s better-than-expected result in the 2010 federal election. “I think the Prime Minister seriously underestimated Christopher Pyne,” Abbott says. “To her cost.”

A wisteria vine curls around the verandah posts of Pyne’s house in a leafy Adelaide suburb. When we arrive, a luridly coloured plastic gun is lying on the floor just inside the front door. A few steps further on is a toothbrush, which he picks up and examines with interest. “I think that might be mine,” he says.

Christopher Pyne drives his ute after a press conference in Adelaide in 2010.Credit:Glen McCurtayn

The place is otherwise tidy and quiet. His three eldest children – twins Eleanor and Barnaby, who are 10, and Felix, 8 – are at school. Two-year-old Aurelia is out, too, though she soon arrives home with Pyne’s wife, Carolyn, a warm and down-to-earth woman who is studying English literature at Adelaide University. (According to Pyne, his wife is unconvinced by his theory that he puts people offside because of his politics rather than his personality. “Carolyn says, ‘I’m sure that’s true sometimes, and other times perhaps it’s not, darling.’ She thinks I miss a few social signals.”)

Pyne and I retreat to his small study, where Aurelia joins us, clutching a chocolate biscuit. “Do you want to sit on my lap for a minute?” Pyne asks. “Don’t you put that chocolate on me, will you?” Before long, the toddler is called away for her nap. “Time for a little snoozette,” her father says brightly.

One wall of the room is lined with volumes of history and biography. Pyne says he rarely reads anything else, though Carolyn is always trying to persuade him to try novels. Not long ago, she gave him The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. “She said, ‘It’s about the Holocaust.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to read it. It will upset me.’ She said, ‘Look, it’s not a sad one. You’ll really like it.’ ”

As predicted, Pyne couldn’t put the book down. He was on a plane when he turned the last page – Liberal MP Kevin Andrews’ wife, Margaret, happened to be on the same flight. “I got to the end,” Pyne says, “and I was sitting next to Margaret with tears streaming down my face, sort of sobbing.

“She said, ‘What on earth’s wrong?’ I said, ‘My wife tricked me. She’s given me this book and it’s very, very sad and she told me it was not sad. It’s about a boy in the Holocaust who gets gassed by mistake and it’s too dreadful.’ ”

A few weeks later, he ran into Margaret Andrews again. “She said to me, ‘You know, of all the people in the whole world, I would never have thought that you were so sensitive. I’ve been telling Kevin ever since about that hilarious moment on the plane.’ ”

Pyne was born in 1967, the youngest of five children in an affluent middle-class Catholic family. His father, Remington, was a distinguished ophthalmologist who was South Australia’s Father of the Year in 1976. Pyne’s mother, Margaret, has always been a staunch Liberal supporter, and Pyne often sided with her in lively discussions around the dinner table. “Everybody had strong views,” he says. “We could argue about everything under the sun.”

Pyne’s nemesis, Cory Bernardi, lost his position as a shadow parliamentary secretary in 2009 after alleging that a fellow Liberal – understood to be Pyne – had once told him that he joined the party only to get into parliament, and would have joined the ALP instead if he had lived in a Labor electorate. A preposterous claim, Pyne tells me indignantly. “It’s in my DNA to be a Liberal. I was wearing ‘Turn on the Lights’ Liberal badges to school during the election campaign in 1975, when I was in grade 3.”

If that gives the impression that he was irritating even as a child, his old school friend Tim Heffernan, an Adelaide lawyer, says he was in fact well liked at the city’s Saint Ignatius’ College. “He was quite a different kind of kid,” says Heffernan. “He had a very strong personality. He could tell a great story and he had a very quick wit.”

At Adelaide University, Pyne studied law but knew his future lay in politics. He joined the Young Liberals, becoming state president and national vice-president. In his spare time, he became an expert on arcane rules and regulations of meetings procedure. “I used to think, ‘Oh yes, this is a very interesting piece of standing-order history.’ ”

Pyne was 20 when his 59-year-old father died of a heart attack in 1988. “It wasn’t too good, actually,” he says. A pause. “It was dreadful. I still think about it all the time.” Concluding that life was too short to waste a minute, he put up his hand to be a Liberal candidate in the South Australian state election the following year, standing against premier John Bannon in a safe Labor seat. “I had absolutely no prospect of winning,” he says, “but I thought it would be good practice, and of course it was. My mother would drop me off on a street corner and I would door-knock for hours and hours.”

After a brief interlude working as a solicitor, he made the audacious decision to try to wrest the seat of Sturt from Ian Wilson, a pillar of Adelaide society who had held it for the Liberals for more than 20 years, having inherited it from his father, Sir Keith Wilson. Pyne had been Wilson the younger’s campaign manager for the 1990 federal poll. Now, in a move that outraged many in the party, he was challenging him for the right to stand for the seat at the next election. “For a whippersnapper like Christopher to take on one of the lions of the Establishment in his own seat and beat him – it was more than just a political event,” says George Brandis. “It was a bit of a social upheaval in Adelaide, I gather.”

According to Hugh Martin, the Liberal who had signed Pyne up to the party in the first place, the contest wasn’t pretty to watch. “Ian Wilson is a lovely person and a gentleman,” says Martin, an Adelaide insolvency consultant, “and I don’t think he envisaged that he needed to fight and get in the gutter. Whereas Christopher has never been scared of getting into the gutter. He will fight anyone, anywhere.”

Bitter allegations of betrayal and branch- stacking were followed by a series of appeals by Wilson’s supporters. “It was very drawn out and really very stressful,” says Pyne. “Everything that’s ever happened to me since, I’ve always thought, ‘Well, this is nothing in comparison to that terrible preselection.’ ” Eventually confirmed as the candidate for Sturt, he won it for the Liberals in the 1993 federal election (which the Coalition lost). The following year, he married Carolyn Twelftree, having decided on their first date that he would propose.

“She’s not a Catholic but she’s a Liberal,” he told his mother. Margaret replied, “One out of two isn’t bad.” Pyne is a serious, Mass-going Catholic (despite his tag as a moderate on other issues, he is strongly opposed to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia). He was pleased when Carolyn decided to convert but says it was entirely her decision: “I think it’s a personal thing. If people want to be religious, good luck to them. If they don’t want to be, well that’s their business.”

He was only 25 when he took his seat in Canberra – the youngest person in parliament, and possibly the brashest. One of his friends says that soon after Pyne’s arrival, John Howard told him he was standing for opposition leader and asked for his vote. According to the friend, “Christopher Pyne said to Howard, ‘Look, mate, your time is over, why don’t you get on your horse and ride into the sunset?’ ” The friend guffaws. “Of course, John Howard never forgot that.”

For most of the 11 years of the subsequent Howard prime-ministership, Pyne languished in minor roles, repeatedly overlooked for promotion. He was finally made minister for ageing – perhaps the least glamorous portfolio of all – but had the job for less than a year before the Coalition lost government in 2007. In opposition, he supported Malcolm Turnbull’s bid to be leader and ran unsuccessfully for the position of his deputy. He was a close ally of Turnbull’s – Julia Gillard referred to them as Batman and Robin – but switched his allegiance to Tony Abbott just before the 2009 leadership ballot that Abbott won by one vote.

Since then, Pyne has come into his own, proving himself not only a feisty parliamentary debater and formidable back-room fixer but an adept media performer, in demand as a guest on radio and television. Publicity invigorates him and he is delighted to hear that this story is to be published the week parliament resumes after the summer break. “Everyone will be talking about me,” he says.

While some are irked by everything about Pyne, from his cocky demeanour to his crinkly hair, others would crawl over broken glass to have a drink with him. “He is singly the most entertaining person I’ve met in politics,” says Joe Hockey. “If I were to have the ultimate fun dinner party, Christopher Pyne would be at the table. He keeps going all night.” In Adelaide, Hugh Martin describes him in one breath as “lethal”, in the next as “a very charming person. It’s hard not to like him, even when he is at his hardest and most conniving.”

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott says he doesn’t know what to make of Pyne. He has been puzzling about him since last October, when Pyne stymied his own private member’s bill for a judicial inquiry into the schools building program. After spending months pushing for the inquiry, Pyne was absent from the House of Representatives when he was scheduled to call for a vote on the bill – he dashed into the chamber a few minutes too late.

“That was very weird,” says Oakeshott. But it got even weirder when Pyne held a press conference to announce that he had intended to drop the bill anyway – and later introduce it in the Senate – because he had come to realise he lacked the crucial support of the independents in the lower house. “What’s this guy about?” Oakeshott remembers thinking. “I’d not had a conversation with him about my position. I could well have voted for it.” Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese says there is no mystery about what happened. “Pyne just stuffed up. He missed the vote.”

As government leader in the House, Albanese is Pyne’s opposite number and deals with him behind the scenes. “I spend some of my time defending him to people,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘How the hell do you put up with that bloody Christopher Pyne?’ ” He answers that it isn’t as difficult as they might think.

“Pyne is certainly not stupid,” Albanese tells me. “He’s not a reactionary. I don’t think he’s a bad person. Unlike most people in the Labor Party – and indeed in his own party, I suspect – who find him really bloody annoying, I don’t dislike him at all.”

Retired Queensland parliamentarian David Jull got to know Pyne well in the 14 years they shared a flat in Canberra. After Jull had a lung removed in 2005, Pyne went out of his way to help him with day-to-day chores, carrying his bags and even making his bed each morning. “He is inherently a decent person,” says Jull, who nevertheless has no illusions about what drives him: “He is a political animal and that’s what life is all about.”

The notion that the present hung parliament should be kinder and gentler than those in the past seems to Pyne to be absurd. “The opposition’s job is to probe the weaknesses of the government,” he says. “To hold them to account. To find the weak wildebeest in the pack and bring them down.”

Nevertheless, he adopts a self-righteous tone when he discusses the Prime Minister. “I think that issue about the mincing poodle rebounded badly on Julia Gillard, not me,” he says. “The Australian public doesn’t like smearing. It doesn’t go down well here.”

His words are in my mind a few days later when I talk to Rick Sarre, the University of South Australia law professor who stood for Labor against Pyne at the 2010 election. Once preferences were distributed, Sarre had 46.6 per cent of the vote in Sturt and Pyne had 53.4 per cent. The mild-mannered academic believes he might have done better but for a smear campaign against him.

Three weeks before polling day, Adelaide’s Sunday Mail reported that a “reference being circulated to media outlets” pointed to the fact that Sarre acted as a lawyer in the 1980s for a man who was subsequently jailed for sexually abusing children. When, after serving his term, the man pleaded guilty to previous offences, Sarre submitted a character reference to his sentencing hearing. Sarre is convinced that the resurrection of the case, with the between-the-lines implication that he was soft on child molesters, took the gloss off his candidacy. “My name and ‘paedophile’ in the same story was enough,” he says.

Pyne denies allegations that he was seen in the Sunday Mail office carrying a dossier a couple of days before the story was published. “The Sunday Mail wrote a story based on the court records,” he says. “I think they found it from Google, which is not very hard.” In any case, Sarre harbours no resentment towards his rival. Pyne is “a consummate politician who fought a very strong campaign and continues to convince the electorate that he is worth electing”, the law professor says.

When I relay these comments to Pyne in his Parliament House office, a pitying look crosses his face. “He’s a nice fellow, Rick Sarre,” he says. “He should never have run for Sturt. He was a very worthy opponent but there wasn’t the sense that he wanted to snap my carotid artery.”

Pyne smiles sadly. “There was no killer instinct to Mr Sarre.”

This article orginally appeared in Good Weekend on Saturday, Februrary 12, 2011.

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