Australian politics, society & culture


How Christopher Pyne Puts Up with Himself

June 2013Medium length read

Christopher Pyne’s face has turned pink. That thin voice – part aristocrat, part magpie – is straining in its upper register.

“Anzac Day is critical to understanding the nature of the Australian character and the history of our nation. They’re all making light of this. It’s a hilarious joke. But it’s not a hilarious joke. If Australians don’t understand the central nature of Anzac Day, they cannot understand Australia today. They can make as many Anzac biscuits as they like.”

Changing gears between electoral engagements in Adelaide, Pyne opens the car window and counts the wars in which Australians have fought: the Boer War; the South African War; actually, he recants, they were the same. A day earlier he labelled the national curriculum “black-armband” – too much frontier guilt, too little reverence for settlers. He has been defending the position since. “Australians value freedom!” he yells out the window. “That’s the reason! We value freedom! We believe in liberty and freedom! That is how you understand Australia!”

He regains composure and laughs lightly. “How was that?”

Christopher Pyne fought his first election at the age of 12, in a mock ballot at Adelaide’s Saint Ignatius College. Young Pyne wanted to play the Liberal candidate. When the teacher chose “a less popular boy” to stand against the well-liked Labor candidate, Pyne “smelt a rat”. He started campaigning for the Liberal contender and won. Five years later, at 17, he joined three organisations in a single day: the Liberal Party, the University of Adelaide’s Liberal Club and the Young Liberals. He ended up in senior positions with each.

“Touch wood, but I’ve never been defeated in an election,” he says with unbridled cheer. “I like the process of trying to get people to support you and I like winning.”

Pyne is not quite undefeated: he lost one election, as a 22-year-old running against the South Australian premier, John Bannon. But that was half a lifetime ago. At 45, he is now the manager of Opposition business in the House and the likely next federal minister for education. Tony Abbott leans on him for strategic advice. While we talk, the Victorian powerbroker Michael Kroger calls for a private discussion. “It is,” he says, “exhilarating.”

Pyne’s electoral office is a suburban house. His desk is in what would have once been the master bedroom. Out the window, past a row of unpruned roses and a rangy lavender bush, he looks onto a men’s hair salon and an image of a topless woman offering something called “beauty sensations”. Behind his chair is a picture of him leaning in to meet Pope John Paul II. “That’s Rorke’s Drift,” he says, indicating an illustration of the 1879 Anglo–Zulu battle. “It’s an allegory of me fighting the Labor Party.”

The day starts with his signing birthday cards. Constituents get one for their 21st birthday, and for each major birthday afterwards. Next is Facebook, which Pyne monitors himself. “I have 6026 likes on my Facebook site, which is a few more than yesterday,” he says happily. “I usually go through the comments, because there will always be a rogue troll who pops their name down not because they like me but because they don’t like me, which I can’t fathom. And I remove them because this is a ‘likes’ page.”

Pyne likes to be liked. Old women stop him in the street to thank him for things, and he mostly remembers their names. His office is staffed almost exclusively by adoring women who keep pictures of a young Pyne pinned to boards above their desks, alongside pug dogs in ties and religious paraphernalia. On a filing cabinet is a picture of Julia Gillard beside the phrase “Flying Start”. The first letter of each word has been crossed out.

“My wife sometimes says, ‘I don’t think that person likes you.’ And I say, ‘How could they not like me? What are you talking about?’ And she says, ‘I think you’re missing the social signals.’ I’ve been in [parliament] for nearly 20 years … and if I took the comments that have been made about me personally, it would be hard, really, to keep doing this job.”

Pyne is likeable. He is from a long line of Adelaide wets: socially progressive on all but some Catholic issues (stem-cell research, euthanasia); expansive on the notion of a just society; silent on the issue of gay marriage. He succumbs incorrigibly to jest, at one point clasping his hands between his thighs, his feet up on the desk, singing Danny Kaye’s ‘Wonderful Copenhagen’. Mostly, however, he talks about winning. A picture of a wet-chested Michael Klim, the swimmer, looks down over his office. “That was my favourite moment from the Sydney Olympics,” he says. “The Americans said they would smash us like guitars and he won! We won!”

At a lunch at the Morialta Uniting Church, Pyne recognises the surname of a 94-year-old woman from one of his birthday-card lists. He says she is in a local Liberal branch. She can’t remember. They talk about pets instead. “I prefer little dogs,” says Pyne, once mocked by Julia Gillard as a mincing poodle. He begins a long history of his household’s pets, which she struggles to follow: a turtle called Alexander; a hen called Tinker Bell, lately deceased; a guinea pig born at Easter and called Mary; Matilda the labrador; some goldfish recently poisoned with blueberries. “It’s not a great thing to be a pet in the Pyne household,” he tells the old woman. “Long lives are few and far between.”

Pyne is always the first to clap after speeches. He is first to his feet for prayers. There is something of the child in his desire to do well. He was just 20 when his ophthalmologist father died. Almost immediately, he was running for parliament – so young the Liberal Party had him take his face off election posters. He grew up very quickly, and then he stopped.

“I’ve almost always been exactly the same,” he says. “I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been the same.”

As Pyne goes to leave the church lunch, an elderly woman approaches to complain about the protected-species status of snakes and crocodiles. They are invading residential areas and nothing can be done about it, she says. Pyne says he will look into it and she beams. Another old woman comes past to thank him for a birthday card. He smiles winningly. “I sign them, you know?”

About the author Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is the editor of the Saturday Paper and the author of Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen.