DESPITE RUNDLE’S STRONG ENDORSEMENT to remain leader, there were still plenty of tensions in the Liberal camp.

Peter Hodgman still fumed over his futile leadership challenge. And the new openness we’d all hoped for when most of Rundle’s mates had retired just wasn’t there — with now Rundle, Napier, Groom, McKay and Hidding in charge.

There was some attempt at unity, but nobody really had their heart in it. For all that, none of us realised a chain of events was about to unfold that would divide the Liberal Party for the next four years.

Rundle was unable to bring down a Budget before the 1998 election, so new Treasurer David Crean performed the task. The Opposition gets a chance to scrutinise the Budget and score political hits shortly after when the Budget Estimates Committees are held. We had targeted reluctant new Health Minister Judy Jackson — who had run sobbing onto the street when Bacon told her she had the job — as an obvious weak link in the Bacon cabinet.

Our new health spokesman, former Speaker and a practising doctor in real life, Frank Madill, was ideally suited for the task and I’d never seen him so fired up as on the morning of the Estimates; he paced up and down and I thought we’d have to lead him up the stairs on a rope to keep him under control. In the health estimates committee room, Madill sat opposite Jackson eyeballing her at every opportunity, ready to spring to his feet to ask the first question.

The meeting was declared open and Madill shot up, but before he could utter a word Jackson asked for permission to make a statement. She accused Rundle’s former health minister and mate, Pembroke McKay, of raiding $12.7 million from charitable trust funds to prop up the State’s health budget before the last election. Madill sat open-mouthed as Jackson outlined a trail of deceit and subterfuge with money removed from 320 special accounts including funds destined for child cancer victims, traumatised Port Arthur staff and AIDS sufferers. Madill was deflated. He knew nothing of what had happened but now the hunter was the hunted and he had to try to defend McKay’s actions.

Apparently the funds, under the care of the Liberals, had been placed in the general health pool, although they would have been available to the charities if called upon. All hell broke loose. The Tasmanian president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Bryan Walpole, likened the Liberal raid to the behaviour of disgraced business fugitive Christopher Skase before he fled the country. Tasmanians were appalled. No matter what excuses the Libs used to justify the siphoning off of funds, the behaviour looked immoral and was an electoral nightmare. The matter had never been brought before Cabinet and Peter Hodgman, Frank Madill and I all expressed dismay at the Rundle Government’s actions.

Pall of gloom and frustration

Neither Rundle nor McKay ever made any attempt to explain their behaviour to the party room and the Estimates Committees continued with a pall of gloom and frustration hanging over the Liberals.

I was a member of Committee A and we had no portfolio areas for scrutiny on the Thursday of Estimates week, so Liberal Party Whip Rene Hidding told me to take the day off. I didn’t argue because I’d had a tough few days questioning Bacon on state development and small business, not to mention the health funds fiasco, which had drained us all. So, I was glad of a rest. Away from the tumult in Parliament House, I quietly fumed over the health funds rort and particularly the way Rundle and McKay had left us in the dark and now expected us to take responsibility for their outrageous actions. It was three days since Jackson’s revelations and Rundle still hadn’t given an explanation to party members — but expected us to field complaints from irate constituents.

To make matters worse, instead of being contrite Ray Groom had gone on TV blaming Treasury for the raid — against the time-honoured convention of not dobbing in your staff — and in the process completely contradicted Rundle’s story that the funds had not been spent. It seemed that we would be forever hamstrung by what had happened in the past.

Unbeknown to me, Rundle had apparently given a long overdue briefing to party members about the funds fiasco at a meeting that morning. But I was absent with the blessing of the Party Whip. I was feeling down and worried about where the Liberals were heading when the ABC rang up requesting an interview and I agreed. In retrospect, I should have shut up, and had I known of Rundle’s briefing I may well have. Peter Hodgman and Frank Madill had already had their say, but I went further and said using the money had been “morally wrong” and the Liberals needed a “new look” for the next election. Naturally, Rundle and Groom took that to mean without them.

Groom was good looking, confident and urbane

I first met Ray Groom in 1969 when we were both selected in the Tasmanian football team to play in the national carnival in Adelaide that year. I was playing with Penguin on the North-West Coast and it was my first state side; Groom had just returned home from a successful stint with Melbourne in the VFL — including a best and fairest award — and was planning to go into his father-in-law’s legal practice in Burnie.

He was good-looking, confident and urbane; and when the car taking us both to Hobart for State practice picked me up outside my newsagency I was overawed by his presence. Groom was aloof and hardly spoke; as if to confirm his superiority he dressed in a white shirt and striped tie while the rest of us were in jeans and T-shirts. Even during the carnival when we played side-by-side against the might of Victoria, South Australia and West Australia we hardly exchanged a word.

He was duly elected to Federal Parliament in 1975 and became a junior minister before being sacked by Malcolm Fraser in favour of Michael Hodgman, ensuring bad blood between the two for evermore. Groom resigned in 1985 but moved to Hobart to work for then Premier Robin Gray, who persuaded him to stand for Denison in the State election of 1986 where he easily won a seat.

He then repaid Gray by taking part in the bloody coup — orchestrated by Rundle — to overthrow him and took over as Opposition Leader and then Premier in the Liberal landslide of 1992. Groom led the Libs into minority government in 1996 and then resigned in favour of Rundle. I had never forgiven him for not keeping his word over the Aquatic Centre and our uneasy relationship had continued in Parliament. Our rivalry at the 1998 State election was personal and intense; in fact, we saw each other as bigger threats than either Labor or the Greens.

The atmosphere was murderous

The Liberal party room — so called because it’s where members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party hold their meetings — is at the end of a long, cold corridor that snakes through the mortuary-like Opposition headquarters at Parliament House. It’s a depressing place. The single heavily draped window looks out over Salamanca Place and photos of previous Liberal Leaders gaze disapprovingly off the walls at proceedings taking place at the simple Tasmanian oak table standing on the green-carpeted floor. The old Libs’ disapproval would soon turn to disbelief as they were about to witness events never before seen in an Australian parliament.

On Friday November 20th, the last day of the Estimates, the morning newspapers ran the line that I’d deliberately skipped the party meeting the previous day and gone out and blasted the Libs. Nothing was farther from the truth, as Hidding knew. But he’d apparently “forgotten” to tell my colleagues the reason for my absence.

I walked into the party room shortly after 8.30am and sat at the far end of the table nearest the thick mahogany double doors, next to Frank Madill. There was always a “pecking-order” for seats and members got very upset if you took the wrong one. The atmosphere was murderous, to say the least. Rundle and Napier were sitting sullenly in their normal places at the head of the table flanked by Hidding and Ray Groom, who glared menacingly at me as I sat down with a cheery “good morning”.

There was no reply. Groom was fuming at the media beating he’d taken over his pathetic attempt to blame Treasury for milking the health funds; he had also carried the can for Rundle and former health minister McKay, who were none too keen to face the blood-thirsty journos. Peter Hodgman and Bill Bonde were also there. The room had obviously been discussing Bob Cheek because the conversation stopped dead as soon as I entered. Hidding read the previous day’s minutes and had hardly finished the last sentence before Rundle, with the obvious support of the rest of the mob, went on the attack.

“Right, Bob, tell us where you were yesterday,” he sniped. “You didn’t bother to turn up for our meeting and then you go out and bag us. You’re bloody disloyal. I want you to make a statement to the party right now about your disgraceful behaviour.” It was an obvious set-up. The beleaguered party wanted a new scapegoat — and I was it.

I patiently explained my conversation with Hidding on Wednesday night in which Rene had given me the day off because my committee wasn’t sitting. There was a stunned silence as everybody’s gaze turned to Hidding. “Oh yeah, that’s right,” Hidding said lamely. “I forgot to mention it.” Oh sure, the Whip had forgotten to tell the party meeting that he’d given me the day off? Pull the other one. But at least the air had been cleared.

You’re a bloody coward

I settled back ready for the rest of the meeting, confident that I’d defused the situation. Groom had other ideas. “I think you’re bloody weak, you’re a bloody coward,” he screamed from the other side of the table, totally out of control. Groom is normally reserved and arrogant. I had never seen him like this before.

“You’re a bloody coward, a bloody coward,” he kept shouting.

I was taken aback. And so were the others, although there was no attempt by Rundle or Napier to intervene.

“I don’t really care what you think, Ray. But if you carry on like that you’re obviously the coward,” I replied.

“Let’s step outside and settle it,” Groom threatened, as he went to get to his feet. I thought he’d gone mad and tried to ignore him, thinking that Rundle would take control of the meeting.

“Come on, step outside, you coward,” Groom taunted again. I realised, incredulously, that he was serious. Rundle was going to let it go and I was going to have to defend my honour.

“Well, if that’s the way you want it, Ray,” I said and reluctantly got to my feet, turned around and headed for the door, which was only a few metres behind me. I remember thinking “this is bloody stupid, because all the staff will see us having a fist fight in the corridor”.

It was a king hit

I had my back turned to the room with my hand on the brass door handle ready to open it. Groom, who had been sitting on the left-hand side of the table, rushed around and hit me from behind. He swung a punch that caught me in the right eye and momentarily stunned me.

It was a king hit.

As I staggered, Groom wrestled me to the ground and I hit the deck. I was shocked and enraged by the assault and attempted to scramble back to my feet so I could retaliate, as the other Libs finally reacted and piled into the fray. Several grabbed Groom, but they had trouble containing me and the next thing I remember is Frank Madill’s ample frame sitting on my chest so I couldn’t move. Others followed suit and I was pinned to the ground.

Everyone was in shock but, incredibly, we all sat back at the table and the meeting continued. Not once did Rundle or Napier or anyone else admonish Groom for what he’d done. It appeared they were secretly pleased. Groom kept apologising profusely. “I don’t know what came over me,” he kept mumbling.

“Well, we all know who the coward is now, Ray. And your apology is not accepted,” I said.

Peter Hodgman remarked on how my cut right eye was rapidly swelling and I should get treatment. Dr Madill gave me an ice pack and moved me onto the antique couch at the side of the party room. An Agathie Christie-like surreal atmosphere now enveloped the morbid room as Rundle attempted to push on with his agenda, occasionally casting nervous looks in my direction. As much as they tried to ignore the corpse on the couch, they couldn’t. I felt faint. I had a “mouse” over my right eye, a cut hand where I’d tried to fend off Groom, a sore neck and my new suit was torn in several places.

The other PLP members, suddenly realising they were witnesses to a crime, viewed my worsening injuries with alarm, bordering on panic, and the conversation turned not to my welfare but how to keep details of the assault within the party room. Our staff in the offices outside had heard the ruckus and they knew something had happened. Rundle’s main concern was what the media would think of my injuries. The meeting was halted and I was spirited out of a side door of Parliament House and into my car.  Hidding supervised the “escape” and then sidled up to me and whispered: “Mate, I’m so sorry. That was terrible what just happened.”

I gave him the look of utter contempt that he deserved.

I drove home alone.

Sick and sore

Back at my house I was feeling sick and sore. I found it difficult to comprehend what Groom had done. It’s one thing to offer me outside but to king hit me from behind when I was opening the door to take up his invitation is another matter. If we’d squared up to each other — eyeball to eyeball — and then he’d swung at me that was fair enough.

This was the sort of cowardly assault you’d expect from a Manhattan mugger, not a Member of Parliament and colleague. I decided I needed evidence in case I took legal action against Groom. I rang one of my friends on the Denison electorate committee, Phil Butler, a former CIB detective, who came down to my house and took several photos of my bruised and battered eye. I then went to see my Sandy Bay GP, Dr Robert Newton, who treated the injury. When Stephanie and Lucy saw me they thought I’d been in a car accident. They were horrified. I decided to sleep on it and decide next day what action to take — if any.

Early the next morning, Groom was on the phone. He wanted to make an appointment to see me to “sort out our differences”. He offered to buy me a new suit and was very conciliatory. Despite what had happened, I had no wish to drag the Liberal Party through the mire in any legal action. I was more seeking redress in the form of an acknowledgment from Groom about his cowardly behaviour. And then he floored me again.

“Well, what happened in the party room, Bob, was that I pulled you back as you were opening the door and you fell over and hit your eye on the door handle,” he said.

I was flabbergasted. “You slugged me from behind, Ray, and everybody in the room saw it,” I said.

I’ll consider my options, Ray

I changed my mind about meeting him.

“I’ll consider my options, Ray,” I told him.

If Groom was going to be in a state of denial I would have to take the matter further. I rang my campaign manager, Bullbars Bennett, a partner in Hobart law firm Dobson, Mitchell and Allport, and we agreed that I should seek legal redress. Bennett arranged for me to meet his partner, Michael O’Farrell, on Monday November 23rd, and O’Farrell drew up a deed of release to settle the matter in which Groom admitted that he’d called me a coward; that he asked me to go outside; and that he’d assaulted me from behind. I also sought recompense of $650 for my ruined suit; legal expenses; $36 for medical expenses; and $1000 to be donated to charity.

Parliament was sitting the next day, Tuesday, and at our normal party meeting I told the PLP that I intended to take legal action against Groom.

Nobody said a word.

“Well, that means you’re going to have to call all members of the PLP as witnesses,” Groom said defiantly, knowing how much everybody wanted to keep it quiet. Again, Rundle’s only worry was what the media would say when I fronted Parliament with a “shiner”. My eye was still very swollen and discoloured. There were suggestions that I should miss parliament altogether and feign sickness.

I refused.

“Make up a story that you hurt it playing sport at the weekend,” Rundle suggested. This would have been the easy way out — and probably the end of the story — but I wasn’t prepared to lie. As luck had it, the Parliament picked that day to take its traditional once-a-term picture of members sitting in the House of Assembly chamber. So, I was under more scrutiny than ever — and my black eye is now on the wall of Parliament House for posterity.

The media gallery and the Government were abuzz when I walked into the chamber. I ignored them and got on with business. But talk persisted throughout the day — especially in light of my comments the previous week about the party needing a fresh look.

I used a rather pathetic throwaway line to the media when they confronted me at lunchtime.

“I zigged when I should have zagged,” I said, trying to laugh it off. But, of course, it only fuelled the fires. The rumour mill exploded. The “zagged” comment became the quote of the year.

It was now in the lawyers’ hands

Rundle suggested that Father Time was catching up with me. “I think he must be slowing down a bit in his old age,” he quipped to reporters. The other Libs stayed tight-lipped … at this stage. I put up with the ribbing for the rest of the week and as my eye subsided I thought the matter — publicly at least — was over.

Behind the scenes it was far different. Groom had appointed prominent Hobart barrister David Gunson, of Gunson, Pickard and Hann, to act for him. It was now in the lawyers’ hands, as my legal counsel, O’Farrell, demanded Groom own up to his actions and sign the deed of settlement. It was getting to the point of no return. Incredibly, the leaders of the Liberal Party, Rundle and Napier, made no attempt at mediation or to sort out the stalemate behind closed doors.

There’s little doubt the matter would have gone a lot further if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Denise Swan, herself a lawyer and Liberal member for the sprawling electorate of Lyons. Swan had missed the party meeting on Friday for the same reason I missed on Thursday — she wasn’t required for the committee sittings. But she was aghast at the potential fallout and, of her own volition, started to act as an intermediary between me and Groom. Swan turned up at my office a week after the incident with a cheque from Groom for $1086 plus a letter apologising for his actions — but outlining a fictitious version of events, which made it completely unacceptable.

I sent back a handwritten reply to that effect.

Groom kept sending versions via Swan, each time getting closer to the truth, but still not admitting he hit me from behind. 

In the end I got sick of the byplay and drafted a letter myself, in conjunction with O’Farrell, outlining the correct version of that fateful meeting. I had earlier checked with Peter Hodgman to make sure his recollection was the same as mine. We sent it to Groom demanding he sign it in unamended form or otherwise we’d make good our threat to start proceedings against him.

There was a flurry from Swan as Groom finally started to get the message — literally. Another letter arrived with Swan on December 1, finally admitting his guilt. It was close, but not close enough. Another version on December 2nd with a cheque for $1086 — suit $650; medical $36; legal $400; but no $1000 for charity — settled the matter to our satisfaction.

The only difference was Groom saying he tackled me from the “rear right side” instead of “from behind”. It was near enough.

He’d admitted his guilt and everybody who witnessed the event knew what happened. My honour had been satisfied. I wanted to put the whole sorry matter behind me and get on with life.

By this stage, the Labor Party and media knew roughly what had happened — but without the exact details. Somebody in the PLP, or a staff member, had spilled the beans. The Government were beside themselves with glee. The only problem for Bacon was how to get the truth out into the public arena without seeming to be “muck-raking”.

On Wednesday, December 2nd, the second last sitting day of 1998, they decided to use parliamentary privilege during Question Time to link Groom to the event. In a series of seemingly light-hearted comments — but with a huge sting in the tail — they waded in. The media, who had been too worried about defamation writs to write the truth, were fully briefed about what was going to happen. The media gallery was packed and there was excitement in the air.

Boxing legend

Government backbencher Brenton Best labelled Groom “Sugar Ray” after the boxing legend “Sugar” Ray Robinson.

“Ray, get up and hit him again. Get up and sort him out,” Attorney-General Peter Patmore shouted across the chamber when I attempted to ask a question.

“How are you getting on with Ray, Bob?” said Deputy Premier Paul Lennon.

And “get your knuckles registered Ray”.

And so it went on. We just had to sit there and cop it. Normally, you’d leap to your feet and seek to make a personal explanation to defend yourself, but I wasn’t prepared to lie in Parliament. The hour-long Question Time seemed to go on forever. We didn’t have to admit our guilt; our silence said it all.

Bacon used an answer to an unrelated question to pressure Rundle into showing some leadership over the matter.

“He’s got a member running around with a black eye and everyone in Parliament knows what happened in the party room and he can’t do anything about it, or won’t,” Bacon said, enjoying every moment of our humiliation.

“This is the king-hit merchant. All anyone wants to know now is when, because everyone knows who did it, Bob.

“When is the leader going to finally say to the person that everyone knows gave you the black eye that it is about time to stand up and apologise …”

After Question Time, Rundle was beside himself. He called me to his office and was full of recriminations.

“I told you this would happen if you didn’t make up some story about how it happened,” he wailed. “You should have taken my advice.” He wanted to know what I was going to say. “Nothing,” I said. “I’ll make a statement tomorrow saying it’s all been settled,” knowing that I and Groom were on the verge of making an agreement. Rundle holed up in his office and refused to speak to the waiting media throng.

It didn’t matter. Groom and Cheek and that black eye were all over the TV news and on the front pages of the newspapers.

The Mercury treated us like two prizefighters

Our humiliation was complete.

The Mercury treated us like two prizefighters with side-by-side pictures and personal details — height, weight, age — prominently displayed. The ribbing from my friends never stopped — and I had to try to laugh it off. But privately I seethed. I made a statement the next day saying the matter had been settled to my satisfaction, without naming Groom as the assailant, or even confirming that it had happened in the party room. Groom officially made no comment; but everyone knew. The only thing they didn’t know was the way it happened. It was small solace, but I felt some comfort in knowing that I had a signed letter from Groom admitting his guilt.

Not surprisingly, Rundle emerged from his bunker to take the credit for settling the matter behind closed doors when in fact he’d done nothing.

If it hadn’t been for Denise Swan, the matter may well have ended up in court.

I found out later that Groom had very nearly resigned from Parliament over his actions; and had in fact called his family together to ask them them whether he should. They persuaded him that he should stay on.

From, Cheeky. Confessions of a Ferret Salesman Place your order in the column on the right, of the front page!