Press "Enter" to skip to content

That Politicians Have Lost Their Sense Of Humour

This is the text of Gough Whitlam’s contribution to a debate at the Sydney Town Hall.

The Order in the House debate was on the topic: “That politicians have lost their sense of humour.”

Ma’am, Prime Minister, Men and Women of Australasia –

I unsuccessfully stood for the New South Wales Parliament in 1950. A year later a Labor MLA named Howard was caught in bed with another man’s wife. A private inquiry agent gave evidence that Howard was wearing only his sox. When Howard next spoke in the House there were constant interjections: “Why were you wearing sox for sex?” At last he replied “So I wouldn’t catch a social disease”. Immediately there were cries “What social disease did she have?” He replied “Tinea”. I couldn’t again stand for a Parliament where the humour was so vulgar. I should add that Howard’s conduct made him very popular in the cattle country he represented. He survived till 1968. His surname was Fowles. The judge who heard the case said he had barnyard morals.

In 1952 I was elected to succeed Bert Lazzarini in the House of Representatives. The Country Party never forgave him for saying that their members sat on the fence with both ears to the ground. I soon learned that the Federal Parliament could also be vulgar. Rowley James, who had been crippled in a car accident, noisily entered the House during question time. Having settled in his seat, he noisily placed his walking stick on his desk. He then leaned to one side and broke wind. Speaker Cameron was so exasperated that he called him to order. James challenged him, “Mr. Speaker, what did I do?” Cameron was speechless. Eddie Ward scarcely helped by raising a point of order.

Cameron: Yes, yes, what is the point of order?

Ward: Mr Speaker, I move that the honourable member’s interjection be recorded in Hansard.

Cameron for once was powerless to quell the uproar.

His son Bert James was more subtle. As the Caucus returning officer he prepared the ballot papers for a Senate position contested by our only woman, Dorothy Tangney. He listed the senators in alphabetical order, Bishop, Cant, Poke, Tangney.

I wish I could claim that Queensland, Jim Killen’s home State, has a more decorous Parliament than NSW. He will remember Sexy Rexy Pilbeam, the Mayor of Rockhampton, who was shot by his secretary when he broke off their affair but survived. As with Howard Fowles, his conduct made him very popular in cattle country. In 1960 he stood for the new State seat of Rockhampton North. He was roundly cheered by the workers at the two abattoirs when he brazenly declared: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” It was not till 1969 that Labor found a better candidate in Keith Wright.

Killen gave me a great opening when, after he was sacked as Minister for the Navy by Billy McMahon, I mentioned that the new minister was of a different calibre.

Killen: Larger of smaller?

Whitlam: The new man is of lesser calibre but a bigger bore.

I recently had to defend Killen, who is a High Church Anglican. He reads the Old Testament lesson in the Cathedral in Brisbane every Sunday. He would never be allowed to read the lesson next door. He sounds like an Old Testament prophet. One of the congregation told me that Killen would be more enlightened if he sometimes read the New Testament. I protested that he had read some of the epistles. In fact, when he was Fraser’s Minister for Defence, he mentioned to his Turkish counterpart that St. Paul had written many letters to people in Turkey, the Colossians, the Ephesians and the Galatians, but had received no replies. The Turkish Minister for Defence contradicted him. He said that Turkey had one of the best postal services in the world.

After he returns from the Cathedral Killen and I frequently phone each other. He is a monarchist. Last Sunday I told him that Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald had recently reported an offensive Spoonerism about the Queen Mother. Spooner was the Dean of Windsor who transposed the initials of key words. In the present case, “our queer old Dean” became “our dear old Queen”. Column 8 recalled that the Mayor of Henley on Thames was showing the canoes and punts to the Queen Mother. She hesitantly asked him:

“Pray, Mr Mayor, what is a panoe?”

In December 1997 Alan Ramsey, who has an unrivalled memory for the peccadilloes of politicians, wrote that Menzies had called Calwell “a piece of scum” and that I had called Billy McMahon “a runt”. I sent him a fax:

I used the word for an aspiring Prime Minister, not a Prime Minister (Abiding Interests, page 23). It was apt but cruel. A person as tall as I should not have used it. Never in the House did I use the word which comes to mind. The nearest I came to doing so was when Sir Winton Turnbull, a member of the cavalleria rusticana, was raving and ranting on the adjournment and shouted: “I am a Country member”. I interjected “I remember”. He could not understand why, for the first time in all the years he had been speaking in the House, there was instant and loud applause from both sides.

The conduct of members very much depends on the conduct of the Speaker. Cameron soon had his revenge on Ward. He scolded members for not making proper obeisances to the Chair. Ward again took a point of order. “How low must members bow?” Cameron snapped back: “I have yet to learn how low the honorable member can get”.

Speaker Jim Cope was better. Billy Wentworth asked him whether he would discuss with the President of the Senate the possibility of having Blue Poles laid out on the floor of Kings Hall so that honourable members could reproduce the means by which the basic painting was allegedly done. Cope answered in his best style: “I will do so, provided the honourable member agrees to sit on the biggest pole for some time”. Silly Billy was knocked off his perch.

I now live in the singularly disadvantaged electorate of Wentworth. Since the 1930s it has been represented by a series of jokes who were not jokers. Eric Harrison defeated the Labor candidate in 1943 with the slogan “The road to Moscow is Jessie Street”. Andrew Thomson, who goes down well at the 19th hole, went to David Williamson’s latest play and accused my ministers of corruption. Corruption is no joke. The only Federal minister guilty of corruption in the 1970s was a Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Fraser sacked him as Treasurer and Minister for Finance ten days before the 1977 Federal elections.

Our Prime Minister is ideologically dependent on two jokers appropriately named Abbott and Costello. To advertise the GST they use Rousseau’s slogan “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains”. Rousseau inspired a revolution in France. His slogan will produce a change of Government in Australia.

Well may we say “God Save the Queen” for nothing will save the team for the negative.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024