Politics

Tim Smith and the death of political accountability

If there ever was a sign that the personal responsibility of the political class had evaporated, then the sorry show of Victoria Liberal Tim Smith provided it.

On the evening of 30 October, the then-Shadow Attorney General ploughed his newly-purchased Jaguar into a suburban house, after clipping another car. His breath test revealed a reading of 0.131%. For anyone, this would be a grave offence.

For a man who had aspirations to be premier one day and whose portfolio is based around the law, it was career ending move. Or it should be, in any other time.

For we have moved past the age of political responsibility into the realm of half-truths, fake news and obfuscation.

On Sunday morning, Smith released a short statement. He said he would step down from his ministerial position. He, however, failed to note he has crashed his car and was two and a half times over the limit.

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The former Minister then hightailed it to his parents’ home in the Mornington Peninsula to avoid the scrutiny. For a man who likes to be the attack dog for beleaguered and often weak opposition, this was an appalling lapse in judgement.

To the credit of Liberal Leader Matthew Guy, he fronted the media on Tuesday and said Smith would never occupy the front bench under his leadership.

Guy said:

“I made it very clear to Tim that he wouldn’t find his way onto the frontbench of any parliamentary Liberal Party that I lead. And I made it clear that I didn’t want him to nominate at the next election, and that I didn’t believe he should nominate for the seat of Kew.”

This correct call was nevertheless brave from Guy. Smith is a factional ally and the most well-known in his ministry. He regularly attacks the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and is a regular on Sky News. To lose him is a blow to Guy’s standing.

With polling numbers heading northward for the first time since the pandemic, and the Victorian Labor party in damage control from the IBAC hearings revolving around their own rampant branch stacking, the decision was a rare showing of political responsibility in Australia.

One would feel that Smith, after hiding for several days, would come to his senses and resign. But of course this is Australian politics. Nothing is that easy.

In what Liberal colleagues laughably noted was one of “three car crashes,” Smith performed an excruciatingly painful hour long press conference on Wednesday. When asked about his leaders’ statement on resignation, Smith used his best Trumpian line to highlight that “recollections may differ”.

As this disaster was unfolding, staff from Matthews Guy’s office were texting journalists to say that Smith was outright lying.  

Attempts at sympathetic reactions were attempted by Smith:

“Does one error mean that a career is over forever? I’ve worked my guts out for years and years. I’ve made a huge error and I’m asking for forgiveness.”

But former Fairfax journalist Benjamin Millar aptly summed up the performance:

‘I see a man so deeply steeped in lifelong privilege that he is truly baffled at the notion that accountability or consequences could ever actually apply to him.’

Normally one is inclined to side with people rather than events. After all, no one is infallible. But this is a man who has mocked everyone he has engaged with. Pedestrian identified together 47 times he called for people to resign. In the height of the pandemic last year, he derided the deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen to resign over a tweet.

In short: Smith is getting what has always been coming.

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Various Liberal members told the Nine mastheads that ‘he is delusional’ and ‘Tim just hasn’t grown out of his Scotch College dormitory.’ The Age reporter Sumeyya Ilanbey revealed that Liberals were angry that when Smith did eventually call them, he didn’t apologise for the crash; he was only wanting to canvass support.

Even the Herald Sun attacked Smith mercilessly. They reported that various Liberals were sick of Smith’s behaviour:

‘He’s prolonging the inevitable and doing enormous damage to himself and the party…He needs to start thinking about his next career.’

Two op-eds derided Smith and hounded him to resign. You know when the Herald Sun attacks a Liberal member, you are struggling.

Yet who is still supporting Smith? Whilst the State liberals are abandoning him, powerful federal politicians are staying put.

The Age reported that Michael Sukkar, Greg Hunt, Josh Frydenburg and Alan Tudge are all privately campaigning for Smith to stay on, in open defiance of the state’s Liberal Leader.

This should come as no surprise to anyone versed in federal politics.

This is a federal Liberal Party that has evaded all aspects of personal responsibility. It refused to stand down then Attorney-General Christian Porter over historic rape claims and did not urge him to stand down as a minister when he refused to say who donated to his defamation suit against the ABC.

When he eventually stood down on his own accord, they refused to refer him to a privileges committee on the advice of the speaker to investigate the funds.

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The various pork-barrelling accusations that have plagued the Coalition Government have only led to one minister resigning: Bridget McKenzie, who is now hilariously back on the frontbench.

This is the record of a Party which has feigned responsibility at every turn for sexual abuse scandals, climate change and the dreaded Robodebt.

How can it be any surprise, then, that they support a man who was two feet away from ploughing through an eight-year old’s bedroom wall? As former Prime Minister Tony Abbott lamented in The Australian:

‘It would be a discredit to our great party were a spirit of petty censoriousness to end the public life of one of our best Victorian talents.’

This hyperbolic statement from one of Australia’s least regarded former prime ministers is not a surprise. Neither is the Federal Liberal Party openly undermining their state leader less than 12 months out from an election.

But perhaps the saddest thing is the lack of surprise registered when a politician makes a grave error and still stays in his position. Until recently, this was a rarity. Even in the first term of the Howard Government, seven ministers resigned through various scandals.

The age of responsibility is dead. In its place lies a bastion of smouldering self-entitlement, whereby image is everything. Governments would rather weather the media storm, knowing that there are a lot of friendly media allies to placate their stance, than do the right thing.

It is no wonder so many are so disenfranchised with the political class in this country.

It is likely Smith will eventually have to go, even if it is not by his own accord. But in many ways, the damage is already done. The last nail in the political accountability coffin has been hammered in.

After all, if someone won’t quit after they drunkenly smash their car into a house, play hard and fast with the truth and then backstab their own leader, when will they?

Dechlan Brennan is a freelance writer advocating for mental health and welfare reforms in Australia.

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