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The lonely passion of Tim Wilson

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.
Adam Lindsay Gordon, Brighton poet

Zoe Daniel, independent: “I’m not wearing teal this evening. I’m an independent, asked to run by the Voices of Goldstein…” (Then some nicey-nicey stuff, very polite.)

Martyn Abbott: “Only Labor can deliver a government that will fix climate change…” (Nicey-nicey, very polite.)

Alana Galli-McRostie: “The Greens’ target of 75% reduction by 2030 is the only one that matches holding warming to 1.5%” (Nicey-nicey, very polite.)

Tim Wilson, nostrils flaring: “The so-called independents are subverting democracy. Zoe Daniel is getting secret money from Climate 200. I don’t follow who my contributions are from, and the quotes about ‘dead net-zero’ from Matt Canavan you’re throwing at me are all dishonest distortions…”

On the raised stage of the auditorium at Brighton Town Hall, the candidates were really getting into it at last.

Daniel in the middle, tall and commanding in a white-and-orange T-shirt; flanked by Abbott, the Labor candidate, a young man in a black suit, first suit perhaps, shoulders so oversized they flew up round his ears every time he gestured; and Galli-McRostie, young and dark-haired; and at the end, the one we had all come to see, Wilson, his big head bobbing in expostulation above his tailored suit — and if it ain’t tailored, this is the most ready-to-wear ready man in history, which may be the point.

He’s filled out a bit since he got hisself bumped into Parliament, but still full of the excitable adult-kid energy that got him noticed in the first place. He never left his seat, but he never stopped moving, punchy, ducking and weaving. He came in and out of the bright lights trained on the stage. Daniel came back at him, and he came back again. He sounded threatened, hostile and petty. He was either screwing this up, or he’d decided the fix was in, and the only way to win was to come out of it, head bloody but unbowed. 

* * *

Warm night in Brighton, soft blue light over the vast Victorian pile of the town hill, the gardens and the modernist UFO landing pad of the council chambers, the old Victorian seaside town spreading down the hills to the beach, now filling with sheer-white modernist knock-offs. In the distance against the moon, the tower of the grammar school, and an hour before the candidates forum the good burghers are already filing in, more casually dressed than I remember a Brighton crowd being, a lot of people in teal Zoe and Oxford-blue Tim T-shirts, a sprinkling of red and green. A few lavender-haired matrons, men in 3XL cream Lacoste polos and maroon slacks from Raoul of Church Street, some from the place’s LA period of the ’80s and ’90s, when everyone dressed in calico, greying Farrah Fawcett hair.

Stalls and the balcony filled quickly, the parquet floors shone, the stucco walls seemed to sweat with the tension. Our Sir Robert Menzies appeared here, many times, Doc Evatt, and your correspondent, aged six, with the rest of the Sunday school doing Godspell all in cut-down kaftans — of which, in 1974, there was no shortage. Tonight I stared up at the municipal seal, a lamb cropping grass, and was as confused by it now as then. Day by day, to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly. Hey I still got it!

Tonight Wilson was hoping for a more buttoned-up miracle to get him through this difficult patch, in which his stellar, ever-rising career could become the punchline to a political joke that will echo down the decades to come. He had come in breezy, fast, pouring himself out of the comm car, looking like he knew it was a stitch-up, and of course it was, a little bit. The baseline condition, that climate change is real, was no problem, he’s no denier, but two high school girls were invited to preface the thing with an appeal from the youth for action against our imminent extinction. “Our planet is dying and the most urgent action is needed immediately,” they said, truthfully, but prior to a candidate about to advocate a 30% reduction in seven years, and net-zero on the never-never, it was probably fixing the odds a little. Day by day…

But let’s face it, we were only here to see how Wilson handled this, baited for 90 minutes on his impossible position, being the decarbonisation assistant minister in a government that doesn’t believe in climate change. Still, there had to be some questions for the others. Galli-McRostie of the Greens was effective, by knowing, or acting, as if she knew that she had no talent for improvisation whatsoever, with the solid determination of a commo from the ’50s (they also spoke here) or a shark rotator pitch person.

Neither she nor Abbott let Daniel off the hook on a) her unwillingness to commit to turfing the Libs if she held the balance, and b) her promise of 60% reduction by 2030, compared with the Greens’ 75%. Has to be said, ex-ABC journo Daniel hasn’t yet got the hang of being at the rough end of questioning, responding tetchily to repeated questions as to who she’d back in a hung Parliament. She can’t say Labor, of course. But there is no logic to anything else.

It was all getting a bit raw. For Wilson especially, who was making his own rebellion against extinction tonight. Like many, I have been fascinated by this man since seeing him, young and slender, on The Drum, one of only 20 or 30 Institute of Public Affairs gunslingers the ABC invited on its program, and his subsequent fame, as an out gay man in the Liberal fold, boosted by a profile in The Sunday Age noting that an oil painting of Ronald Reagan hung in view of the conjugal bed.

That plastered smile, which seemed wider than the face, the deliciously stripped nature of his ravening ambition — on The Drum he once asked a biographer of Sylvia Plath why people wrote poetry, there being no money in it — and with a moral suppleness capable of defending free speech, supporting the national exclusion of controversial speakers he disagreed with, and calling for the water cannon on protesters. What great times we’ve had!

But is it now to end? When Wilson won preselection for the seat of Goldstein, it looked like he had hauled himself up, dripping wet, on to fortune’s swimming pool patio, in a seat covering an area that had been Liberal for 70 years. True, he would have to wait out the Morrison era, then a period in opposition, but the party would have to liberalise eventually, and then cabinet, and then? We have all been there for his ambition. He tilts his head like he’s already posing for his official portrait.

It was all going so well, and, well, now look at it. He’s in the worst place in this town since beachside resident the late Don Lane bought a full-length coffee table. Despite the party machine, and the donations whose amount and origin he won’t tell us about, the fight for the seat is not going his way. He is staring political extinction in the face, and he is not handling this affront to his destiny with all the aplomb that he could, which is to say that he is losing it every five minutes, and it is a joy to watch.

* * *

The questions come at him, down from the balcony and up from the stalls:

“The proposed Bass Strait wind farm, why did it take so long to be approved when gas projects get waved through?”

Wilson (snarling): “Well, I hate to break it to you, but I signed the deal with this very pen, this very pen [holds up what looks to be a typically bogus fountain pen].”

Daniel: “Except it was already done by a private consortium, you just had to –“

Wilson: “With this very pen…”

The audience roared back at him. 

What is remarkable about Wilson is that in a profession that requires it, he is utterly without charm. It is quite distinctive: there is something almost abnegatory about the way he seems never to miss an opportunity to set people’s teeth on edge. For a man dependent on the kindness of strangers, his gamut of emotions appears to run from the perfunctory to the insincere to the dismissive and contemptuous, a true Blanche du Blerrgggh.

The more he tries to grow into the role of permanent local member in the old style — he is one more fleshy chin away from a starch-white wing collar — the less convincing it gets. Fair play to him to front up to a hostile crowd, though for a climate debate in his own seat he didn’t have much choice. And it must be like some nightmare of old, 600 or so people whose purpose is none other than the destruction of your life’s ambition baying at you from amid the shining parquet and gleaming stucco, the bourgeois auditorium, forever in your own head. It’s the sort of thing from which you try to wake yourself up from within a dream, screaming if necessary.

But he can’t. This is what got him here, a local party willing to take a chance on is what may escort him to the door — people willing to question the party orthodoxy, and at some point unable not to. What appears to have flummoxed him is facing an auditorium of people whose movement of conscience takes them in the direction of difficulty, and the real possibility of failure, and who do it anyway. His nerve didn’t fail him. His imagination did, and that’s why he is staring defeat in the face. 

* * *

The crowd streamed out into the still-warm night, Wilson dashing for the comm car, tight smile as he went past, one never able to shake the sense that it’s all cosplay for him, grey suit for kaftan, while dozens of tealed Daniel supporters stood around under the portico arranging door-knocking schedules, Wilson’s blue army vanishing. There is a surge of energy here that cannot be denied, the long-lost, genuinely progressive liberalism, anchored by former member round here, Ian MacPhee, all driven out of the party by John Howard and co.

Will Wilson go? God almighty, what a moment that will be, should it happen. Will he be dignified if he does, Edwardian, kind to his shattered staff, take courage in his own? Or will it just all explode, two decades of it, cursing all the enemies ranged against him just getting what he wants dammit! Will it be am-dram Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? 

At the Brighton Hotel “victory” party, starting composed and then screaming “Wire hangers, wire hangers!” before someone tackles him to the floor as the cameras keep rolling. God, I won’t be able to watch, I won’t be able to not watch. But then, who knows? Who knows? From a thousand houses may come the lavender-haired mob who didn’t make it here tonight, to bump that nice young man into Parliament once more. Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord.

Nice day for the beach.
— Adam Lindsay Gordon