Tony Staley: The last of the Liberal hard men

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The Liberal Party was down on its luck.

Tony Staley, the party’s president – a former member of parliament and minister – and perhaps the last of the Liberal hard men, decided he needed to give it an artful hand.

Tony Staley with former prime minister John Howard.Credit: John Woudstra

It was 1994. The Liberals were holding their federal conference in Albury where, 50 years previously, Robert Menzies had formally constituted the party.

But now the Liberals had been powerless for 11 years, with the Hawke and Keating Labor governments lording it over the land.

Tony Staley at the Liberal Party’s Albury conference in 1994. Credit: Andrew Taylor

John Hewson had failed to bring Keating down in 1993.

Staley, a complicated man who read the classics, walked on calipers after a near-death car crash in 1990 and had spent decades metaphorically disposing of Liberals who displeased him, had dealt with Hewson by publicly withdrawing his support for him, a spectacular intervention in parliamentary affairs for a Liberal president.

Now, with Hewson gone, the Liberals, to the astonishment of almost everyone, and the merriment of many, had installed Alexander Downer as their new leader.

Staley knew Downer couldn’t last, but he needed him to have a win, any win, for the sake of the party.

The conference was asked to grant the Liberal executive more power to jettison candidates who were judged so unsuitable they could damage the party. It was an obscure motion, but dressed up as important.

It needed a three-fifths majority to pass. But – horrors – a count fell short.

Staley wasn’t having that. He ordered a recount.

This time, Downer grew confused and voted the wrong way.

“Not to worry,” said Staley, and declared there would be yet another vote.

Delegates who’d gone outside for a smoke were rounded up and the question was put again.

This time, Staley simply declared from the chair that the motion had passed, though there were no scrutineers and no one could be sure about the numbers.

Downer survived a few more months until – with Staley’s enthusiastic assistance, John Howard replaced him, led the Liberals back to power and kept them there for more than a decade.

The Labor Party’s “whatever it takes” fixer, Graham “Richo” Richardson, was at the Albury conference in the guise of a Channel Nine reporter, having quit the Senate some months previously.

He was open-mouthed with admiration at Staley’s audacity.

Richo declared even he couldn’t have pulled a stunt as outrageous at the Labor Party conferences he’d once helped stage-manage.

Richardson’s judgment was acute: Tony Staley without much doubt was among the shrewdest, toughest and most influential Liberal Party figures of the late 20th century.

Tony Staley in 1976. Staley was appointed minister for posts and communications in 1977.Credit: Fairfax Media

I once wrote that Staley, who died this week, knew where all the Liberal bodies were buried because he’d buried most of them. He phoned the next day to declare his delight with the description.

His relentless and eventually fruitless pursuit of Keating’s business dealings surrounding the sale of a piggery to powerful Indonesian interests infuriated Keating beyond measure.

“I can only say of him – twisted in body, twisted in mind,” fumed Keating, clearly referring to Staley’s physical disfigurement following his car crash.

Another former Labor leader, Mark Latham, went for the same form of attack in 1994, calling Staley “that deformed character”.

Tony Staley in 1998 with then-prime minister John Howard.Credit: Mike Bowers

I phoned Staley, seeking a response to Latham’s effort. I was greeted by loud laughter and the signature rumbling tone of Staley’s voice declaring, “I seem to have struck a chord.

“But of course, my comment is no comment,” he added, for his motto was never grant an enemy the satisfaction of a response.

Yet this most political of men was also a romantic who gained his comfort and inspiration from reading poetry, among other intellectual pursuits.

Launching a book in Melbourne in 2006 on the poet James McAuley, Staley spoke of how reading poetry helped him keep in touch with the “real” world.

“In the ‘real’ world of political belief and action, James McAuley’s poetry had a huge impact on me. When I had some big and lonely decisions to make, James McAuley’s work inspired me, and gave me the courage to act.

“One example of this is when I made the decision, entirely on my own, to resign as assistant to Billy Snedden, the leader of the opposition, and begin the campaign to make Malcolm Fraser leader of the party, and ultimately, prime minister.

“Two McAuley poems gave me the courage to do what I had to do. One of which was Innocent by Definition, the other, the savagely satirical, Letter to John Dryden, in which he coins phrases like ‘democracy has become democratism’, amongst others.”

The full title of the first poem is, in fact, Liberal or Innocent by Definition.

Staley was certainly a Liberal. But innocent? Perhaps he was being satirical himself.

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