One of the earliest memories of my childhood was standing outside Greystanes Public School, at age 9, handing out HTVs for the Liberal Party. It was a bit of a hopeless cause – the ALP Member, Jack Ferguson, held the seat of Merrylands with a huge margin and this was the era of the second Wranslide. Indeed, in 1981, the leader, Bruce McDonald, lost the seat he was contesting to the independent Ted Mack. I remember listening to the radio being held by the ALP bloke, listening to Newtown defeat Eastern Suburbs in the semi final, ensuring an easier grand final for Parramatta, I was told. It was a pleasant afternoon – the Labor people were nice to the young Lib.
I was there in order to help my parents, who were both members of the Liberal Party. My mother was well known to Liberals before this time, probably due to her singing skill. I apparently once played in the backyard of the Member of Lowe, Billy McMahon and his wife Sonia during a Liberal Party thankyou BBQ for supporters. Mum spoke warmly of Billy, saying that he was a nice, gentle man who listened to people (which is why, to this day, I get annoyed when political writers are dismissive of McMahon – he seemed to be one of the few pleasant, genuine people to become PM). Apparently I got along quite well with Debbie McMahon – pictured here on the left many years later.
The Liberal Party to which my parents seemed to be a genteel, comfortable group of people who were polite and liked tea. That was certainly how Mum used to talk about the Liberal Party. When John Howard was PM, she liked him because he seemed to imbue that vision of the comfortable, tea drinking party of the 1950s and 60s.
I remember the night they came back from a branch meeting, not long after my 1981 HTV experience. They seemed upset and Mum said to me years later that they quit the party because young, rude, brash and loud people had come in and taken over, ruining their enjoyment of the membership. It didn’t stop them supporting the Liberals over the years – though my father was interested in independent minded politicians and even running as an independent for our local council in his later years.
As we farewelled my mother at her memorial service today, I was reminded that she lived in a gentler time, where politics was generally done in a gentle fashion, where politeness was the dominant theme – though I am sure historians would jab their fingers at 1975. Mum was a positive, gentle spirit who wanted to help people and saw that the Liberals did that in her eyes. It might have been a touch naive, but I could see why she liked the party. The leaders were well spoken professionals. People like Malcolm Fraser, John Dowd and the like were polite, well meaning Wets.
My mum didn’t have an inkling of a reality of John Howard’s era – that he was, to an extent, the pleasant face covering a neo-liberal putsch that saw rampant individualism and privatisation grasp the nation. She wouldn’t have understood the way he encouraged people in 2001 to grasp the rabid xenophobic nationalistic seam that has long been a part of our national character. She certainly wouldn’t approve of the current shape of the Liberal Party, led as it is by a man Mum would have seen as an ill mannered, oafish thug suited more to the Labor Party of the 1960s than he is the position of Liberal Leader. She certainly wouldn’t recognise the likes of Scott Morrison or Cory Bernardi as being Liberal. She would also have been confused with the likes of Ray Hadley being such ardent Liberal supporters.
The Liberal Party of Mum’s philosophy would have had the well spoken, kindly Malcolm Turnbull as the current leader. Same as she would be happy with Barry O’Farrell, who seems to be more in the John Dowd mode of leader. Polite people who make small changes to things that need fixing – or at least seem to.
It’s a changed time. I’m glad my mother didn’t have the faculties to realise the way the oafish thugs have dismantled the Federal Liberal Party of her day – as well as the sort of people they recruit to spread their absolutist, dumb talking points delivered with little sense of style and decorum. More Tea Party than Tea Drinking.