When Alan Ramsey retired in December last year he left a gap in the Saturday morning ritual at our house. Reading his Sydney Morning Herald ‘column’ (usually a whole page) aloud, with all its grumpy vehemence, its aggrieved sense of history (he’d been writing from Canberra for more than 20 years), its long screeds quoted from other people, its telling glimpses behind the scenes at Parliament House, had become as habitual as poached eggs on Vegemite toast. To judge from the mood of the crowd last night at Gleebooks we weren’t unusual.
The occasion was the recent publication by Allen & Unwin of A Matter of Opinion, a collection of 150 of his columns. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, I imagine this book will be an invaluable resource to historians of Australian politics, because Ramsey wrote without fear or favour, and did it with formidable intelligence and intelligence-gathering savvy. Last night he was ‘in conversation with’ Monica Attard. I suppose I had been hoping for some behind-the-scenes stuff, the goss as one woman put it – not who-did-what-with-whom-and-in-what-bedroom goss, but how-it-all-works-in-Parliament goss. Instead we got an hour or so of largely misanthropic and eminently crowd pleasing opinion (I count myself one of the pleased). Monica Attard started off setting up a game: ‘I’ll give you a name, and you give me one word in response.’ But Ramsey is probably physically incapable of a one-word response, and the ‘conversation’ consisted for the most part of Monica Attard and then audience members throwing him a name or a phrase and him ripping into it until he was thrown the next one: Bob Hawke (‘I couldn’t stand him, he was a narcissist, but he was the best Prime Minister of post-war Australia’), Kevin Rudd (‘a prim, prissy prick’), John Howard (‘Let’s move on’), Peter Garrett (‘Whatever you think of his performance, you have to realise that no one in his position would do any better, and he fights for what small victories he manages’), Peter Reith (‘one of Howard’s thugs’), the best politician he observed in his time in the press gallery (John Button, an excellent politician and an attractive human being), and so on.
It was all good fun, with frequent flashes of insight, but if you didn’t already know the broad story, there wasn’t a lot of information to help you orient yourself. And much of the game could easily have been renamed, ‘Say something definite to confirm my dislike of/contempt for X.’ I It was a relief when towards the end someone asked why he referred to asylum seekers as ‘queue jumpers’. ‘Because that’s what they are,’ he snarled, and just like that we’d moved beyond show-pony opinion to what could have become a heated debate if there’d been time. My impression was that Alan Ramsey welcomed that prospect.