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Ferreting out the truth

imageCheeky: Confessions of a Ferret Salesman
By Bob Cheek
Published by Pipeclay Publishing
Paperback, 398pp, illustrated
ISBN 0 9758303 0 9
rrp $29.95

Your man with a thin skin, a vehement ambition, a scrupulous conscience, and a sanguine desire for rapid improvement, is never a happy, and seldom a fortunate politician.

Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister (1875)

When I decided to migrate from Sydney to Tasmania ten years ago, people questioned my sanity. “You’ll freeze,” they said. “They’re all throwbacks down there,” they warned. “But it’d be a nice place if it had an economy.”

Weary of big-city journalism and the pressures of living with four million go-getters, I wanted to be free of the clamour of the chattering classes and the endless knockabout of politics. I made the move anyway, and for the last decade I’ve paid little attention to what passes for political life on this self-absorbed island, being too preoccupied with doing the best I can, a very overcrowded profession in these parts.

Vitriolic, spiteful, blame-laden paybacks …

That’s why I at first declined the opportunity to review this book. Not only was I little more than dimly aware of Tasmanian politics, I also loathe books by politicians; too often, they’re either self-serving, self-justifying accounts painting the author in rosy limelight or they’re vitriolic, spiteful, blame-laden paybacks — one recent and egregious example, which managed to do both at the same time, is a case in point.

Either way, their authors assume that the reader will be politically aware enough to understand allusions to this affair or to that scandal, so I saw myself as insufficiently qualified to do justice to this book. Some fairly unsubtle arm-twisting by the editor didn’t change my mind and he was obliged to resort to outright bribery, which did; anyway, it was hard to knock back a book by a ferret salesman.

The first pleasant surprise is that Cheek can write, a legacy from his early career as a journalist — but I wish he’d go and bite a few of our local hacks, who would all benefit by studying his clear, breezy and refreshingly jargon-free style.

A talent for shooting himself in the foot …

The second is that he’s completely honest, which is why he should never have gone near politics. Nearly everyone gets a bagging, but none gets as big a bagging as Cheeky gives himself; he admits his naivety and paints a portrait of himself as a brash outsider with a talent for shooting himself in the foot, usually when it was in his mouth.

Tasmania was in the doldrums with rising unemployment, a stagnant economy and a dull, bumbling government composed of stale old time-servers and dilapidated show ponies. Bob wanted to give it a boot in its fat, complacent trousers, but he didn’t reckon with the insolence, rapacity and staying power of the Liberal Old Guard; nor did he have the essential political skill to recognise a poisoned chalice when he saw one.

US Presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy once observed that “being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and stupid enough to think it’s important.”

As a former footballer, Cheek’s attitude to politics was “Let’s get the team on song and kick a few goals.” He didn’t see that everyone else wearing the Liberal guernsey was playing an entirely different game to a far more flexible book of rules.

An exclusive, impenetrable network of cronies …

And a lot of the politics wasn’t important. Tasmania isn’t run from Parliament; as Cheek gradually realised, the real powers that be are rarely-visible pressure groups, deeply entrenched and deeply cynical sectional interests and an exclusive, impenetrable network of cronies.

That’s why the Punch-and-Judy show in Parliament doesn’t really matter all that much. Cheek’s time there is a tale of low farce, hilarious fecklessness, superlatively acrobatic treachery, deadpan hypocrisy and comical party-room fisticuffs (literally). He has more than a passing resemblance to John Cleese, and with Paul Lennon playing Aunty Jack, Jim Bacon as Fu Manchu and an unsuccessful stand-up comedian as campaign manager, the stage was set for a long-running comedy of errors.

The media weren’t kind to him, either, but Cheek’s propensity for taking pratfalls must have been hard to resist. And Enoch Powell’s dictum that politicians who complain about the media are like ships’ captains who complain about the sea is doubly true for ex-journalists who go into politics. There’s not much the hacks like more than a bit of cannibalism.

If, after the battering he took from the press, the Labor Party and, worst of all, from his own side of politics, Cheek had written the usual failed politician’s apologia, no-one would have been surprised. Instead, he’s done the unexpected and produced a ruthlessly honest and at times compelling account of a shattering and ultimately humiliating experience.

One jarring note

There is only one jarring note, and that is his Johnniolatry. In the presence of Howard, a politician who has achieved the remarkable feat of being charismatic and tedious at the same time, Cheek behaved like the captain of the school XI getting a pat on the head from Ponting — he was either literally speechless with awe or so overwhelmed by the aura of benign majesty that he set his jaw in motion without first checking whether his brain was engaged.

That apart, Cheek sends a revealing shaft of daylight through the stuffy, cobwebbed corridors of that squat sandstone pile in Salamanca Place, exposing the backroom plotting, the astonishing rorts, the jealously guarded petty fiefdoms — and the fact that in politics there’s far more cock-up than there is conspiracy.

I never thought I would recommend a book by a politician, especially by a Liberal politician, but this one stands out as a genuine page-turner, revealing how politics is really done down here. It’s worth ten tomes of theory or two tonnes of Hansard; read it and laugh as you learn.

Fred Baker

Cheeky: Confessions of a Ferret Salesman is available online at the thisTasmania Store.

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