On the night of 15 July 2014, The Australian marked its 50th birthday with a star-studded celebration (is there any other kind?) at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion.
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, was standing near my seat at my designated table, talking to The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly. As I approached him, the prime minister called out cheerily: ‘Niki, how are you?’
Instantly, my protective radar went up. The last time I had seen him, a few months before, at a drinks function in the cabinet anteroom for women in the media, he could barely bring himself to speak to me. I found out later that my invitation, and that of fellow columnist Grace Collier, had been prompted by Sophie Mirabella over drinks, after a dinner in Mirabella’s honour a few nights before.
As I was standing near the entrance to the anteroom with the ABC’s Alex Kirk, Abbott hadn’t been able to avoid me, but it was like trying to talk to a block of wood. His face was smothered in thick orange-coloured pancake make-up, his hair coloured and glued into place with hairspray. He looked like he had walked out of Madame Tussauds, which was apt, given what he had been and what he had become. He was not the Tony Abbott many of us knew — the larrikin, unkempt, undisciplined politician, the man known for his many acts of kindness, including to myself when my mother, Elpiniki, was ill. He had become someone, or something, else. It was Tony Abbott acting as prime minister.
He stood side-on to me, directing all his remarks to Alex, speaking to me only when I interposed. He moved on quickly to another group, after making small talk with Alex about her recent long holiday overseas.
After he moved on, the Sunday Telegraph’s political correspondent, the irrepressible Samantha Maiden, plonked herself beside me because she said she wanted to see the fireworks when his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, entered the room. Maiden was friendly with Credlin, but, like any good journo, had a healthy streak of mischief. ‘There won’t be any fireworks, Sam,’ I said. There weren’t. When she arrived, the three of us talked about shopping on the internet for clothes, then a bit later Credlin spoke to the gathering about the record number of women chiefs of staff in the Coalition government. There was no mention of the record low number of women in cabinet. Oops.
So this night in July, a few months later at The Australian’s celebration, I was on my guard as I stretched out my hand to shake Abbott’s. In the middle of the handshake, with no preamble, he said, ‘Now, Niki, can you please stop criticising my chief of staff?’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because,’ he said, ‘sometimes, when ministers tell you things, they are not true.’
‘You know what, Tony,’ I said, ‘sometimes they are.’