The imminent retirement of Christopher Pyne, christened the mincing poodle by Julia Gillard and the most irritating person in Australia by just about everyone else, is not just another deserter from the sinking ship.
It also signals the effective demise of the shrinking moderate faction within the Liberal Party. There are still a few vestiges left, the most senior of them Marise Paine and Simon Birmingham. But they are not factional warriors in the style of Pyne, who took on and outlasted his state’s arch conservative, Nick Minchin, the man who gave us the prime ministership of Tony Abbott.
His serious allies – George Brandis, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Kelly O’Dwyer – had already jumped overboard, and the word is that Craig Laundy is about to. It is hardly surprising the Pyne has elected to join them, leaving the field to those whom O’Dwyer said were perceived as homophobic, women-hating, climate deniers.
Of course, this is not the way he puts it. For him, it is just a matter of looking for a new career path, and at the tender age of 51 he should have no trouble in finding one – perhaps in the area of defence, about which he has been so enthusiastic of late. It is difficult to see him as a hard-nose merchant of death, but then, it was difficult to imagine that he could have been a successful politician – an MHR 26 years and a senior cabinet minister for the last six.
And perhaps his most important role has been as Leader of the House – chief parliamentary tactician under three prime ministers. In that role he wlll be tough to replace, whether in government or, as seems more likely, in opposition.
Of course, he insists that the coalition will survive – he can hardly to otherwise if he is to avoid the impression of yet another rat deserting the sinking ship. And he is equally confident about the Liberals holding his seat of Sturt, a must win for Scott Morrison’s minority government. But the omens are not all that good: his majority, after preferences, was just 5.6 percent at the last election, with the South Australian polls suggesting even this is marginal.
And Pyne has rightly boasted about his high personal vote. At the very least precious resources will have to be diverted to get his successor over the line, and Morrison can ill afford them.
But the damage goes deeper than that – what are usually called the optics are terrible. ScoMo, as always, says he is not distracted, that he remains dedicated day and night to the sacred task of saving hardworking Australians from the imagined (by him) horrors of Bill Shorten.
And there are even those who try and make it into a positive – after all, his exit and that of his assistant minister, Steve Ciobo, will make room for another woman, Linda Reynolds in cabinet, bringing the number up to a record seven – well, six when O’Dwyer leaves. (As an exercise, can you name the other five without cheating? I’ll bet you can’t.)
But Morrison can hardly pretend that is just another casual resignation, one that can be spun as an ageing member seeking to spend more time with his family. Pyne is – was – a figure of substance, one whose absence will be noticed.
As a friend commented, he may not have been all that much, but he was about the best they had. Thank you and good night, Christopher.