The troubling rise of Australia's new Attorney-General

by Bernard Lagan / 17 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Australia Attorney General Christian Porter

Christian Porter, now Australian Attorney-General, and Governor-General Peter Cosgrove. Photo/Getty Images

The baby boomers have been pushed aside – in NZ if not yet across the Ditch.

On a clement Wellington mid-December evening, your correspondent attended the parliamentary press gallery’s Christmas party – a sparkly, frothy affair held in the open-air alcove between the Beehive and Parliament Buildings.

It was a polished and (to this sexagenarian) adolescent crowd of reporters, staffers, the connected and MPs – save for that timeless 72-year-old Winston Peters, who can still rock a suit and a cigarette, even though he gave up indulging in the latter for the election campaign.

Meandering towards the exit early in the evening was the gallery doyen Ian Templeton, a tall, rangy figure in a crisp white shirt. Templeton, who has spent 60 years in the gallery, was covering Parliament when Arnold Nordmeyer delivered his Black Budget in 1958, and he saw off 14 prime ministers. The Christmas party was his swansong; he retired last month.

I fondly remember Templeton attempting to pour Robert Muldoon a whisky at a party in the early 1980s. Templeton and the Prime Minister faced each other, swaying in opposite directions, and each time Templeton tried to pour, Muldoon’s glass drifted off. Soon, the PM’s trousers and shoes were drenched in spilt whisky. Muldoon kept repeating: “Have another go, Ian.” They might have been called the Silent Generation but their parties were not.

Then, the baby boomers only dreamt of being in charge. Now, with the exception of Peters, it is their successors, Generation X, who hold the reins. Jacinda Ardern leads New Zealand’s first real post-baby-boomer government. She has presided over a transition that the veteran Wellington political journalist Colin James, who also hung up his boots last month, sees as a clean break with the past, not just for 37-year-old Ardern’s generation but also for the many over-40s and over-50s who never swallowed all of the market-forces ethos. Or who’ve become disillusioned with it.

The breadth of the change in New Zealand was made starkly obvious when Ardern stood beside the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, at his official Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, in early November. Turnbull, 63, is a man who has visibly aged in his fraught 28 months in office.

Just before Christmas, he moved to rejuvenate his government, elevating five new and youngish MPs to his Cabinet. He also promoted Christian Porter from Social Services Minister to the position of Attorney-General – the country’s chief law officer.

Born in 1970, the chiselled former Cleo magazine Bachelor of the Year is no bunny: he served as senior crown prosecutor in Perth and studied political theory at the London School of Economics. Porter’s speedy rise through the ranks of the Turnbull Government – he was formerly in the West Australian Cabinet – is the more remarkable because he entered the national Parliament only four years ago. He’s been touted as a future PM, and his elevation can be read as Turnbull’s shoulder-tapping the man he thinks able to succeed him.

The relatively young Porter has a track record that unsettles many. When serving in the state Cabinet, he was an unashamed hardliner on law and order, upsetting many of his fellow lawyers and civil libertarians. He introduced mandatory prison terms for assaults on police and harsher penalties for drug dealers and vandals, and the prison population, particularly of Aborigines, rocketed. WA now jails Aborigines at a rate of more than 4000 for every 100,000 of the Aboriginal population – easily Australia’s highest rate and six times that of Māori in New Zealand.

That you can rise to the top in Australia with such a legacy is a measure of the breadth of the gap across the Tasman – regeneration or not.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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