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Bringing The House Down

There was a time when federal parliamentary Question Time was the best show in town. The people came in droves in hope of seeing one of then Treasurer and Prime Minister Paul Keating’s sporadic star rhetorical turns.

Now, sometimes, it was disappointing; sometimes he skated over the edge into crude and brutal language. “Dogs returning to their own vomit,” is the one most often recalled.

But his best moments were classic parliamentary theatre. He had a rare ability to mock his opponents in such a way that they too had to laugh. He drew material from an astonishing range of sources.

Thus he might pick up on an exhibit of Australiana at the Old Parliament House down the road and suggest John Howard be included with all the other 1950s relics like “Astor TV, the AWA radiogram and the Morphy-Richards toaster”.

When John Hewson became Liberal leader and brought forth his comprehensive plan for economic reform Fightback! it in turn brought forth from Keating a long-running gag based on the Warner Brothers cartoon series Road Runner.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Julia Gillard chuckles as Greg Combet dispatches barbs from the despatch box.

For those unfamiliar with the cartoon (there may be one or two of you out there), its premise was simple. Wile E. Coyote tried to catch the speedy Roadrunner, and always failed. His attempts usually involved ridiculous complex devices, often assembled from parts which came in boxes marked “ACME”. Invariably they would blow up in the coyote’s face, or he would fall into a canyon, or an anvil would drop from the sky onto his head.

Well, Keating got himself a copy of Fightback! and slapped a big “ACME” sticker across the front and kept it in the top drawer of his desk beside the despatch box.

Whenever he felt the urge, he would reach in and grab it, and start riffing on the Rube Goldberg-like complexities of Hewson’s plans, suggesting that the anvil would fall on his head — and in due course, it did.

Or Keating would find parallels between politics and the cracker nights of his childhood: John Howard reminded him of “that thing called the flower pot” which “often, when you lit it up, it went pffft”, while Bronwyn Bishop was the catherine wheel which would “go off and they'd take off, spreadeagle the kids, burn the dog, run up a tree and then fizzle out going around in circles”.

There were innumerable other examples: he drew them from popular culture, from classics, from Labor history. The firework thing was inspired by a comment by one of his heroes, Jack Lang, who Keating quoted as having once told him:

“Look, I'll tell you this, Paul, never be worried about the skyrockets of politics. At first a shower of sparks and then a dead stick falls to earth.”

To be present on one of the days when Keating was “on” was a rare pleasure. And the galleries, press and public, lapped it up.

But the show ended on March 2, 1996, when the ineffably dull John Howard came to power.

To be fair, there was Howard’s deputy leader Peter Costello, who could occasionally put on an entertaining turn in Question Time. It has never the same, though, and it possibly will not be the same again.

But there is now again a comic talent in the House of Representatives: Climate Change Minister Greg Combet.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — he’s that serious, bespectacled chap who we sometimes see on TV. Straight shooter, safe media performer, but not riveting.

In the house though, he can be very funny. And, as mentioned in a previous blog, he now has a wealth of material to work with, as reality shows Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s dire predictions of the effects of a carbon tax to be false.

On Wednesday Combet riffed on the carbon tax price effect on staples like milk and cereal. On Thursday he chose as his subject the effect of the tax on Australia’s spring racing carnival.

Having noted that Abbott had predicted the carbon tax was a threat to “the whole Australian way of life”, Combet hastened to assure racing fans that there was no cause for alarm.

“Treasury modelling showed the carbon price impact on sport and recreation will be only 0.3 per cent, or around 20 cents a week,” he said.

“Fashion at Flemington [the style slice of Melbourne’s track], it’s going to be okay because last week’s CPI [consumer price index, the measure of inflation] showed women’s clothing… the prices actually fell by 0.2 per cent in the September quarter.”

What people who cared about racing needed to understand, he continued, was that Abbott’s scare campaign on the tax was “the biggest shakedown since the Fine Cotton affair in 1984.

“And the ring in that day was called Bold Personality… and that’s all we’ve had.”

It was time for the “Liberal Party stewards” to intervene and consider a substitution, he suggested, and offered a form guide of alternative Liberal leaders.

One time leader of the Opposition, Goldman Sachs man and renowned barrister Malcolm Turnbull?

“A classy thoroughbred if ever there’s been one. He was badly checked by the Member for Warringah [Abbott, who deposed him] in the 2009 race.”

Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey — who was absent, having just been chucked out for interjecting?

“He’s hungry for a win but he’s demonstrated yet again today that he’s not up to Group One racing level.”

What about deputy leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop?

“Three times runner up. Surely a chance at last.”

And Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison had promise but for the fact that he was spooked by foreign horses.

It was a good riff. Not quite Keating perhaps, but it had the same effect: even the Opposition benches laughed, Malcolm Turnbull appearing particularly amused.

Not as amused as Julia Gillard, though. One gets the feeling she is looking forward to further mirth at the expense of the ACME Carbon Tax scare campaign.

23 comments on this story
by Fiona

Mr Seccombe, it is a pleasure and a privilege to read your work!

November 1, 2012 @ 7:12pm
by Russ

Aaah, Paul, we miss you. But Greg, you're a promising understudy, you had me laughing like Julia, who had me crying over misogyny. Misquoting Paul, they're doing them slowly.

November 2, 2012 @ 5:55am
by Rosalind

Mike Seccombe shows the other Canberra journos how it done.

November 2, 2012 @ 6:54am
by Mal

Thank goodness for some humour instead of the hate on exibition

November 2, 2012 @ 10:01am
by Gwyntaglaw

The dogs and vomit reference is a Biblical quote, remember:

"As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." - Proverbs 26:11 (also quoted in 2 Peter 2:22).

You can call it crude; but thousands of priests and preachers have made the exact same reference for pretty much the same reason.

November 2, 2012 @ 10:14am
by John

Thank you Gwyntaglaw. I never knew that and now I do.

November 2, 2012 @ 2:37pm
by Gillian Lowe

Good stuff! And part of the joy of that session was that it so unexpectedly came from the usually funereal Greg Combet. Thank you for sharing it with people who may have missed it.

November 3, 2012 @ 8:25am
by WillVill

Nicely done....

November 3, 2012 @ 8:29am
by Rex Smitheringale

I suppose humour is better theatre than not, but question time really has become a joke. Isn't it supposed to be a forum in which Ministers of the Crown are questioned on the performance of their portfolios? A Minister appraising opposition members might be entertaining, but it doesn't inform me and I would hazard a guess it didn't answer whatever question was put to him. And I have no doubt Combet and his staff sat around in his office that morning thinking up some way to make amusing observations about the opposition and a plan to bget it in to question time, regardless of the question asked. Personally I'd like to see him and his staff sitting around trying to craft some open honest answers about his own performance. And am I cthe only one who cringes and groans when I hear some of the Doroth Dixers these block heads come up with. "Can the Minister inform the House what a fantastic bloke he is..." Rubbish really.

November 3, 2012 @ 8:34am
by gabrianga

Perhaps an ideal time for the stewards to swab the Front Bench. Following the Emerson "vocal act" and now Combet's pathetic effort as a comedian methinks someone is spiking the drinks at the Member's Bar.

Hope your other eye heals soon

November 3, 2012 @ 9:19am
by Norm

Yawn. Mike Seccombe having another juvenile 'go' at the Opposition. And he gets paid for this?

November 3, 2012 @ 9:29am
by Marian Rumens

Great description of Greg Combet which is why his unexpected wit was so amusing. Just shows, you can make your point with wit just as easily as with nasty invective. I know which most people prefer

November 3, 2012 @ 9:50am
by Kelly

I miss Paul... a lot! He's the reason I got interested in politics, and it has never been the same since.

November 3, 2012 @ 7:59pm
by Marcvs T Cicero

Another journo who hates the Lib/Nat Coalition and uses every opportunity to bash them

November 4, 2012 @ 9:30am
by GrumpyOldMan

Yes indeed. When it becomes impossible to argue with conservatives about the logic of any policy debate, or when they create their own 'facts' to support a return to times when they could feel 'relaxed and comfortable', the only course of action becomes to 'do a Paul Keating' on them.

Humor seems somewhat foreign to the conservative mentality because they always take life so seriously and are so fearful of change. They are rarely able to see the funny/ridiculous side of any current situation. Perhaps that is why they complain that the vast majority of standup comedians are 'left wing'?

November 4, 2012 @ 10:59am
by Jeff Poole

The only sane response to the ridiculous is ridicule. Keating was smart and knew the truth of this.

I'd enjoy Combet's little excursion into equine metaphors a little more if it wasn't for the fact that both wings of the Climate-denying and xenophobia-loving ALP/LNP Coalition of the Ignorant are in a race to the bottom where ridiculousness is concerned.

Just a little bipartisan race fixing really.

1. Australia no longer exists - if you're a refugee arriving by boat, aeroplane arrivals are fine though.
2. Climate change is a huge problem so both parties are in furious agreement that the Reef MUST be protected - apart from the half dozen new coal and gas ports and tens of thousands of vessels that will drive our planned 80% increase in fossil fuel exports
3. Aborigines are full citizens - except they're not when it comes to equality of opportunity, housing and freedom to spend their money.

November 5, 2012 @ 9:34am
by Ken Olah OAM

By Kolah

Thanks for your article, Mike, I really enjoyed it. While it's good to laugh, the Coalition's unrelenting campaign against anything remotely likely to be effective on climate change is far from funny. As for you, Marcus, go back to the mainstream media where you'll find plenty of "journos" to your taste.

November 5, 2012 @ 10:02am
by Shane Marsh

Oh, I love Combet. For a long while I have thought he was the sleeper in Cabinet. Remember him in the drama of the days of the waterfront dispute?

November 5, 2012 @ 2:21pm
by Victor

This a pretty pointless article, another 'smarty pants' journalist. Yes I will retire to the other media just thought it possible that this media outlet might add some grit. If you were going to examine the ridiculous 'dorothy dixers', that is when I find I can iron 3 shirts during the replies and the inevitable supplementary and await the oppositions turn only to find another flummoxed answer from the PM , her 'handbags', and motley former unionists.................blah. Sorry just took another sexist look at my watch. Back to the Drum

November 5, 2012 @ 3:34pm
by C S Phillips

Comments from the conservatives proves the point that they either don't understand comedy as a powerful way to get the message across or don't have a sense of humour. They think personal attack and abuse is OK though aka Alan Jones, Tony Abbott and Christopher Pinecs

November 6, 2012 @ 8:58pm
Show previous 20 comments
by C S Phillips

And the reason for Dorothy Dixer's which is standard practice for both parties is that the Opposition never ask any questions, just call frivolous suspensions of standings orders. I challenge most people to name any shadow minister's portfolio other than Hockey and Morrison and the questions they have asked in the last 2 years on any matter other than carbon tax and boats, boats .....

November 6, 2012 @ 9:05pm
by Ian

Victor, what's so "smarty pants" about celebrating great rhetoric? Good thing your type didn't dominate when the great speakers of the past were in Parliament - how dreary would THAT be if all "smarty pants" authors and speakers had to be as dull as can be - yes, the insufferably dull PM who came after Paul Keating.

The radicals like Tony Abbott who just abuse and insult with no wit would let us forget such greats of the past.

Thanks for the reminder Mike S - will keep a lookout for Greg C.

November 6, 2012 @ 9:20pm
by Mary

Is this quality journalism.? Nothing serious is going on in Australia and the world today? But thanks for detailing how Labour resorts to the gutter due to lack of decorum , especially from those who hold high positions and purport to be leaders, alas with lack of dignity.

November 7, 2012 @ 10:07am
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