Saturday, December 20, 2008


Ramsey saw things as they were and walked a tightrope without a safety net

David Marr, smh

December 20, 2008

For a man who was absolutely right so often, Alan Ramsey could be magnificently wrong. Not weasel wrong in the political fashion he so deplored, but no wiggle room, up on the high wire without a net, entirely wrong. "Latham?" he asked himself on the morning of the 2004 poll. "I think he can get there."

He was rough on himself; he ran risks; and every time he came a cropper he picked his battered body up again and was back on the field next Saturday laying into the players, the ref, the crowd, the press, the linesman - everyone in sight down to the kid with the oranges at half-time.

This week is the last time Ramsey stakes out his familiar territory in the middle of the Saturday Herald. After 21 years, four prime ministers, eight federal elections and God knows how many hundreds of thousands of furious words, he's hanging up his columnist's hat.

Bad temper is hard to sustain. Mere rage isn't particularly attractive. In this trade we're schooled to keep our tempers and pretend detachment. Not Ramsey. And his readers loved him for breaking the rules. They loved his naked anger - and his subjects had little choice but to respect it - because Ramsey was one of the few in the Canberra press gallery who wrote from his heart.

So he was right passionately, wrong passionately and patronised at times by his hardboiled colleagues for taking a stand in their shifting world. He was a moralist - still is, of course, and will be to his dying day - and as an unflinching moralist he did the work over the last decade that mattered most to his readers: seeing John Howard for exactly who he was.

The old prime minister was not among the walking dead who came to Ramsey's farewell dinner at Old Parliament House a few weeks ago. What an extraordinary gathering. Ramsey, it seemed, had wandered into Madame Tussauds and offered the waxworks one last outing in the capital.
Andrew Peacock was looking trim, suspiciously trim. Bill Hayden had misplaced his equerry. Tony Eggleton represented the Pleistocene. Keating picked the eyes out of the room. Still busy. Max Walsh had the satisfied look of a man caught up in a financial catastrophe more appalling than any of the disasters he's spent his life predicting.

And Ramsey was king of them all for the night: subjects, sources, victims and colleagues. The breadth of his friendships on display was astonishing. One of the silliest men in parliament, Bill Heffernan, was in the same room as one of the sanest, John Faulkner. The senators had nothing to say to each other on this occasion, but each has spoken eloquently over the years through Ramsey.

In an age addicted to the grab, Ramsey never lost faith in the big speech. His head was full of Hansard. Yes, he quoted in slabs, but through great speeches he brought parliament and its arcane drama alive. And he did what commentators rarely do these days: he allowed his subjects their own voice. Not infrequently, they had the privilege of speaking from the grave.

As time went on, Ramsey lived with legions of the dead in his imagination. Perhaps because he had explored the territory too often himself, the border between this life and the next became rather hazy for him. He honoured the known and the unknown dead in his columns. History was alive in his analysis. One of Ramsey's signature lines is: "Nothing changes."

So the fact that he was out the back working frantically on his own speech that night - even while the video tribute was playing - surprised none of his many editors in the room. Ramsey is a chronic late filer. He is loved by his colleagues for this alone: that he is the worst of us, the one that's always last to finish.

If once or twice in the last couple of decades you weren't woken by the satisfying thump of the Herald on your doormat on Saturday morning, know that all the official excuses - the talk of paper breaks at the Chullora printing plant - were only ever a cover. Ramsey was to blame.

On the night of his farewell dinner he was coping with a late final version of an elegant speech of thanks to most of the people in the room. Ramsey was always a generous acknowledger of his debts. Perhaps it was the scribble over the typing read in dim light that led him to call Laura Tingle his "lovely wife Lorrie".

A coward would have surged forward at that point hoping to leave the gaffe behind. Ramsey paused deliberately. His face registered swiftly disbelief, despair, confusion and then, as the room erupted in ridicule, huge amusement at himself. Ramsey had done it again.

I never thought he got native title. Somehow refugees didn't engage his heart. These were quirks loyal readers like me bore for the satisfaction of finding Ramsey next week, say, spewing lava over the Howard government for its servility to Washington and neglect of the Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks.

Every election was Howard's last in Ramsey's mind. Then came 2007 and on the morning of the poll his readers found him at his scornful and triumphant best. Celebration calls for a slab of his own words. There is no one now, and no one coming along, who can write like this:

"The end of the line. Remember that heading in the Herald a few weeks back, after one of the opinion polls bumped up the Government's lousy standing a point or two? "Lazarus stirs", it said optimistically of John Howard. Wrong. It was just the flies moving.

"Yesterday, in the nation's Parliament, with hardly a politician to be seen anywhere, we got some election realism. Three rows of recycling bins, whacking big green ones with yellow lids. More than 300 of them.

"Where? In the basement corridor of the ministerial wing. The bins seemed a more apt commentary than all the desperate, last-minute Coalition windbaggery going on around the nation on what is about to descend on the Prime Minister after 33 years in public life and almost 12 years remaking Australia in his own miserable, disfigured image. They arrived two days ago and whoever they're for, 48 hours before a single vote is cast today, you felt somebody, somewhere, finally got it right.

"The end of the line."

It's said all political careers end unhappily. That's where journalists enjoy a distinct advantage over their raw material. Ramsey is not defeated. He's going simply because it's time. He will be missed.