When the gravel-voiced Ian Macfarlane walked into Julie Bishop’s Parliament House office on Wednesday afternoon, it started out as the delivery of a political death threat. But Mr Macfarlane’s call on the deputy leader of the Liberal Party quickly exposed him to be a lousy mafioso.
“Andrew Robb wants to be the deputy leader,” he told Ms Bishop, “and we’ve got the numbers.”
Ms Bishop, famed for a death stare which the satirists of the Chaser depicted as powerful enough to explode a garden gnome, had a one-word reply: “Really?” She was unimpressed.
It seemed that Mr Robb and Mr Macfarlane hadn’t heard their leader the night before when Tony Abbott said: “I want to say how pleased I am with the performance of the team, particularly the performance of my deputy, Julie Bishop.”
Undeterred, Mr Macfarlane announced: “We’ve got 30 votes.”
“You’ve got a way to go to get 50 per cent of over 90 votes,” Ms Bishop responded.
The shadow minister for resources had overlooked a basic of arithmetic. Mr Macfarlane started backtracking immediately: “Well, we haven’t really started crunching the numbers. We’ve made some assumptions.”
He went on to explain that it wasn’t really about Ms Bishop. Mr Robb’s real target was Joe Hockey, the shadow treasurer, he said.
Mr Robb was being blamed for the opposition’s embarrassment over the exposure of problems with its costings in the election campaign, said Mr Macfarlane, when it was Mr Hockey’s fault.
There were two ways for Mr Robb to knock off Mr Hockey, Mr Macfarlane explained. One was to persuade Mr Abbott to dump Mr Hockey. And if that failed, he would challenge Ms Bishop for the deputy’s post so he could then name the portfolio of his choice, the prerogative of a deputy.
Ms Bishop told him that it was a pretty hamfisted way of trying to persuade Mr Abbott, coming around to intimidate her and to make threats against Mr Hockey.
As Mr Macfarlane left, a staff member entered with news. Mr Robb had issued a statement – he would not run for the deputy leadership. Mr Macfarlane started to speculate about what had gone wrong. With no answers forthcoming, he left.
As threats go, it was a joke. If the Mafia were this bad at delivering death threats, they’d have to get out of the crime business.
What had really happened to the one-day wonder of the Robb challenge?
Mr Robb had phoned Mr Abbott that morning to tell him he wanted the deputy’s job. Mr Abbott answered that he’d prefer to keep things as they were. Mr Robb said he’d take some soundings in the party to see how much support he had and Mr Abbott made no attempt to stop him.
But later in the day, Mr Abbott called back with his considered view. It was important to maintain stability, he said. Mr Robb respected his leader’s wishes and abandoned his short-lived effort.
It was just that Mr Macfarlane, a mafioso without a don, didn’t get the news.