Image for Cheeky: Gunned down by Rene

First published November 2005

MARINUS THEODOOR HIDDING insists on being called Rene with the pronunciation “Reen”; more often than not he gets “Rennay”.

This tall, impeccably dressed, deeply religious man did more to damage our chances of winning the 2002 election than any other politician — Labor or Liberal.

At least with Rundle I knew where I stood: Runners never tried to hide his animosity and launched predictable upfront verbal assaults; Hidding was far more subtle and wreaked havoc from within while giving the impression he was working as part of the team.

He even went as far as to return to my front bench in an apparent burying of past hostilities, only to undermine me at every opportunity.

I had become wary of his motives after his earlier involvement in the Groom attack and the Estimates Committees “go home early” debacle; my suspicions proved to be well founded. Hidding could be charming and urbane on the outside but it masked an ambitious ruthlessness underneath.

He was never a big vote winner in Lyons, and was often jokingly referred to as Rene HIDING, because he was seldom sighted in his sprawling electorate.

Hidding is a former bankrupt, the result of a failed business venture. He’s never been forced to adequately explain his bankruptcy, especially as a potential leader who may one day control the public purse. What is known is that Hidding was declared bankrupt in May 1981 and was discharged in 1984. His occupation at the time was listed as a used car salesman.

He then decided that politics was the best form of redemption — after all, no one goes down the gurgler in Parliament and the money you manage is not your own.

And after an unsuccessful tilt at Federal politics he eventually ended up in State Parliament in 1996 as a member for Lyons. For obvious reasons, he studiously avoided financial portfolios and lived in fear of being exposed in Parliament by the Bacon Government. But Bacon considered Hidding innocuous and that he posed little threat to the Labor Party, so they basically ignored him.

I’d best describe myself as an agnostic, but have never had any problem with people of strongly held religious beliefs — provided they don’t try to foist them on their colleagues.

Rene tried it once — and never again. Early in my career, I received an invitation from Hidding to a “fellowship” luncheon in the parliamentary dining room. “Just a get-together to discuss any issues troubling us,” Rene said benignly. I talked my good mate Peter Hodgman into attending, against his wishes, and we turned up to find a small table had been set up in the banquet room adjoining the parliamentary dining room in a futile attempt at privacy; it was still in full view of everybody as they entered for lunch. I was surprised to find a local pastor present — and even more amazed when after the soup Rene produced a Bible and began reading from it to the 10 or so people present. Just at that moment a group of constituents from my electorate entered the dining area, came over to say “hello”, but stepped back apologetically when they saw the Bible and bowed heads.

What followed was a religious feast interspersed by sermons, Bible readings and confessions; Hodgman and I were the only heretics there. Rene confided that a Christian parliamentary group in Canberra was virtually running the Government agenda and most decisions were being taken in this type of heavenly luncheon environment.

“I’m trying to set up a similar group in Tasmania,” he said.

Hodgman and I escaped as soon as we could; the Bible lesson obviously had little effect as he unleashed a string of obscenities on the way back to our offices. “Just don’t invite me to any more of your bloody lunches,” he stormed, showing the interlude had failed to cleanse his vocabulary. We were never asked to attend any more “fellowship” luncheons; I’m not sure if any more were held or what effect they had on governance in Tasmania.

Guess what boss? Rene wants to ban New Year’s Eve

Although Hidding wasn’t averse to good food and wine, his wowserism often got in the way. Early in 2002, Gregson sauntered into my office and said: “Guess what, boss? Rene wants to ban New Year’s Eve.”

It was Gregson’s humorous way of telling me that Hidding, as our police spokesman, had called for curfews and other restrictions on Hobart’s New Year waterfront celebrations, which had been a tad unruly.

Hidding was a fast learner and had a good grasp of detail, but he was also responsible for some of the Liberal Party’s most bizarre schemes — nearly always designed to selfishly shore up his shaky seat at the next election. At one infamous meeting of the PLP at the Eastcoaster Resort near Triabunna early in 2001 he suggested we have a policy brain-storming session to throw up some ideas; obviously pre-planned, he immediately recommended damming the Derwent River on the New Norfolk side of the Bridgewater Bridge, about 12 kilometres from Hobart, essentially destroying one of the world’s most beautiful estuaries by draining Hobart’s famous harbour.

The howls of laughter — especially from me and Ray Groom, who represented the Hobart city electorate of Denison — soon turned to alarm when we realised he was serious.

His idea was to trap fresh water from the Derwent’s source and feed it to drought-stricken farmers — who just happened to be in his electorate on the western side of the bridge — before it could reach Hobart and the Great Southern Ocean. What happened on the Hobart side was another matter and seemingly irrelevant in Rene’s grand plan.

Napier chided us for being negative about new ideas, and gave Rene the go-ahead to investigate the matter further. He sought the advice of an engineering firm and several weeks later came back triumphantly to announce that the idea was feasible; it could be done for a measly $25 million including a spillway and lock to allow boats to travel through. Oh yes, and ladders for fish to climb up and down as well (this was some relief because initially we thought boats and fish were goners). Even more terrifying was the fact Rene was keen to make a public announcement as soon as possible.

Groom and I desperately tried to talk him out of it; so did stunned environmentalists, who predicted the end of the entire Derwent estuary. But protests fell on deaf ears as Hidding, backed by some farming interests, proudly unveiled his plan, saying it had been thoroughly researched. The State Government was strangely quiet; Labor was doing its homework.
A few days later in Parliament, Paul Lennon rose in response to a Dorothy Dix question about the merits of Rene’s plan. Hobart’s very own Russ Hinze started to hyperventilate and turn purple as the air-bags under his eyes inflated; a sure sign of impending disaster — for the Libs.

Rene’s reputation was in tatters

Apparently, the State Hydro Electric Commission had been commissioned to look at the Hidding proposal. Lennon bellowed out the report, lusting over every word: The estimated cost would be at least $1 billion, not $25 million as Rene said, because of silt 30 metres deep; the dam would have to be at least a kilometre long; wildlife would be wiped out; the harbour destroyed. And so it went on. Hidding sank lower and lower in his seat next to Napier as it became obvious Lennon wasn’t going to suffer a heart attack (Rene’s only hope) because he was enjoying himself too much. Napier, loudly supporting Rene initially, fell silent. When Lennon finally sat down, like a bloated diner with gravy dribbling down his chin after devouring Liberal lamb shanks, Rene’s reputation was in tatters; and the dam had been well and truly breached.

While the dam proposal was so absurd it was laughable, Rene’s next plan to win the hearts and minds of Lyons was downright sinister; it resulted in the most shameful moment of my parliamentary career. His newest scheme also sprang seemingly innocently from a PLP meeting: during a discussion on policy, he casually raised the idea of revisiting the tough bi-partisan gun control laws brought in by the Howard and Rundle Governments after the Port Arthur massacre.

According to Rene, many in his rural electorate were upset about the severity of the crackdown,  which was far tougher than in other States. I couldn’t believe my ears. We were the party that had introduced the legislation and the State where the killings took place; now, we alone of all states, wanted to tamper with the laws. The two most fervent anti-gun campaigners in the party were me and Peter Hodgman; we blasted Hidding for an ill-conceived idea that would destroy what little credibility the party had left.

Amazingly, he had some sympathisers around the table, and Rene suggested he bring back a discussion paper to see if there was “any room to move”. Napier, obviously alerted by Rene about his plans, was enthusiastic. I was horrified but not overly worried because there was no way the party would entertain this nonsense — especially with Rundle and the Attorney-General at the time of Port Arthur, Ray Groom, still members. I didn’t give it another thought; except to joke with Hodgman and Swan about another “Renal Rant”.

We underestimated Hidding’s determination. He knew he’d never convince the party to change gun laws in isolation; so he came up with the idea of developing a new traditional recreation policy, virtually a blueprint for all the “huntin’, fishin’ ’n’ shootin’” red-neck splinter groups in his Lyons electorate. And, of course, buried in the thick document were amendments to the Rundle gun laws. Hidding spent months beavering away on the policy document with Liberal staffers. It was the first real policy (apart from an ad hoc population paper) of the Napier leadership and its unveiling by Rene at a party meeting at Kermandie Lodge in the Huon Valley in July 2001 was much-awaited. Freezing rain and wind whipped off a grey Huon River as the Libs sat contentedly by a huge log fire going through Rene’s comprehensive document, which purported to “reclaim the state” from over-regulation of public assets and services.

The public would be outraged

Many changes were admirable: for example, abolishing national park fees and employing more park rangers. But the remainder was a “grab-bag” of crude sops to radical self-interest groups in Lyons, which had lobbied Hidding for change. The document was nothing more than a red herring. Towards the back, snuggled under a seemingly innocent heading of “Recreational Hunting”, was Rene’s main agenda — watering down our gun laws.

The changes appeared innocuous enough, especially in the way they were worded. Hidding’s main thrust was to reduce the age when kids could hunt with firearms in the bush under supervision — from 16 years to 12 years. On the surface this appeared reasonable, because it brought us into line with other states, some of which went as low as 10 years.

But the reality was that we had tougher laws because the Port Arthur tragedy occurred in our State, and no one was left untouched by the aftermath; however hard you tried to disguise this arguably justified change, the public would be outraged and the media would be relentless in its condemnation. Rene tried to gloss over the gun changes in the context of the whole document. “There’s so much in there no one will notice, “ he said confidently, believing his own hype. “The main headline will be ‘Park Fees Abolished’.” I was gobsmacked and, along with Peter Hodgman and Swan (who also represented Lyons), we expressed our disgust and demanded that the gun law changes be removed from the policy.

“Don’t you realise that the only headline you’ll get out of this policy is ‘guns for 12-year-olds’ and all the good stuff will be wasted,” I said, drawing on my experience as a journalist to know exactly how the media would react. “We’ll all be seen as a bunch of bloody rednecks.”

Hidding argued passionately for keeping the firearm changes. We looked expectantly at Rundle and Groom, the duo who had handled the Port Arthur aftermath and seen first hand the human suffering, to bring Hidding to his senses. They stared at the table, strangely silent.

“We can see some merit in bringing them into line with other states,” they mumbled unconvincingly, when asked what they thought. It was a fait accompli. Hidding had lobbied them hard beforehand not to oppose his “pet” proposal; and they disliked the Cheek camp enough to sell their souls on this issue. To be fair to Groom, he probably knew at that stage he was quitting politics and wouldn’t be around to face the music.

Napier wanted to be seen as one of the boys

Napier, despite the fact that this change would lose every female vote on the island, wanted to be seen as one of the boys and strongly supported the gun law changes. So much so, that she planned to release the policy as part of her keynote address at the upcoming Liberal State Council in Launceston the next month — in front of the Prime Minister, who had been responsible for the tough new laws. Hodgman, Swan and I looked at each other in amazement.

“Let her announce it next month. That’ll be the end of her leadership when she does,” Swan muttered to me across the table.
Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for her, Napier didn’t get to announce the guns policy. I’m sure it would have destroyed her and, in the process, catapulted me into the leadership with little opposition. But as fate had it, Ray Groom resigned and I took over from Napier a few days before State Council. I made it clear I would not follow through on her planned policy release; even though it meant writing a new keynote speech in the space of a few days. This upset Hidding, who claimed I was reneging on a Liberal policy decision.

I was happy to announce the recreation policy at a later date — minus the guns. The Hidding camp wouldn’t agree; so the policy gathered dust. Behind the scenes, Hidding agitated strongly for its release and alerted the media to its existence; he also had the party room onside with only Swan and I holding out (Peter Hodgman had now resigned). The matter came to a head at a party meeting in late 2001. Predictably, we were being pummelled in the media for not standing for anything and being devoid of policy; a complaint levelled at all main opposition parties when elections are looming.

“We’ve got a good policy, why don’t we release it?” the party room demanded. I had to make a decision. The media knew about the policy and if I didn’t release it there would be more “Liberals split” stories; if Hidding announced it people would ask who was the leader; if I went against the majority and left the guns out it would be leaked anyway and my leadership would still be undermined; if I did nothing there would be a party revolt. On the other hand, I knew we would be massacred by the media and it would be a huge vote loser in the cities, especially with women who were terrified of firearms. I decided to ask Rundle again what he thought. Apparently, the former reformist, big picture premier was now a populist, strongly backing Rene.

“Forget about the big stuff and concentrate on the small issues that affect the average people in your electorate,” Runners expostulated. “This will be a vote winner in country areas and that’s where the election will be won — not in the cities.”

Babes with arms

What about Port Arthur? “This is only making the age uniform nationally,” he parroted. Was he setting me up? Probably. But I decided releasing the policy intact was better than continuing internal fighting. Maybe I’d overestimated the public reaction.

Guns Day was December 10th, 2001, at Ulverstone on Tasmania’s picturesque but rugged North-West Coast, 300 kilometres from Hobart but as far as I was concerned not nearly far enough away. Originally, we planned to go into the heart of red-neck territory in Smithton, but we decided it was too isolated to get any media coverage; in retrospect, that would have been perfect.

My minders set up a lectern in a small park beside the Leven River. I felt ridiculous standing at a lectern in a park in the middle of nowhere, ringed by squawking seagulls and gawking reporters, both waiting to scavenge a few scraps. Gusty winds made it difficult to stand, let alone speak, but I bravely leaned into the teeth of the gale and began to unravel my political career. Needless to say, I was unconvincing: when I came to the guns part, ridiculously, I lowered my voice hoping nobody would hear. Thankfully, the hard-bitten political journos had not bothered to make the trip from Hobart, and the regional reporters didn’t immediately twig to the “smoking gun” in the policy. My hopes rose; maybe I’d got away with it. Unfortunately, when the policy was dissected by more senior editors ensconced in air-conditioned comfort, the mood turned ugly. An ABC radio interview concentrated on guns; it was nasty, and I stumbled. I wanted to scream out: “Yes, you’re bloody right, I didn’t want to release this monstrosity”, but leaders can’t do that.

The evening TV news was like a war zone; everything in the policy but guns was ignored with background vision of death, destruction, shooting ranges, the Port Arthur massacre and Iraq war scenes. North-West paper The Advocate, expected to be the most sympathetic to our cause, ran a huge front-page banner headline saying: “BABES WITH ARMS” with the kicker: “Liberal plan for gun use by 12-year-olds”. Young mums, families of murder victims, Port Arthur survivors, old ladies, they all came out and condemned our policy.

Hidding had arranged for his splinter groups to come in behind me with support. I wish they hadn’t. Tough-looking desperados dressed in bullet-laden khaki, fingering rifles menacingly, said what a good bloke I was. Incredibly, the Hobart-based Mercury, where I dreaded the worst, led on the park fees and was the only media outlet not to pick up the hidden menace in our recreation policy.

My darkest hour in Parliament

That soon changed the next day when editorials and letter writers roundly condemned our action. I was copping all the flak — as I should have as leader. In our gym in Hobart, Stephanie fended off angry members who threatened to resign because of what I’d done. I’d warned her of the consequences but she had no idea the reaction would be so strong. “Why did you do it?” she lamented. I had no answer; I’d sold out all my principles to try to keep the party together. I rang Hidding to to get some consolation by saying “I told you so”.

“You didn’t sell it properly,” he complained, still defiant. Hidding tried to defend our stance but met the same fate under a barrage of adverse public opinion. I felt sick; it was a nightmare that never seemed to end. I don’t believe the changes to the gun laws gained us more than a handful of votes, even in Lyons; but it certainly lost us heaps, especially in my electorate of Denison.

The Bacon Government was fairly restrained; waiting to see if it would resonate in rural areas despite the outcry in the cities. It was best summed up by Police Minister David Llewellyn, also a member for Lyons, who said. “Why would the Opposition want to tinker with the State’s gun laws, given they were introduced under a Liberal Government and voted through Parliament unanimously?”

All I could think of doing was ringing my family to apologise. Without doubt, this was my darkest hour in Parliament; my day of shame. Denise Swan wanted me to back down and reverse the decision using weight of public opinion as an excuse. But that would have exacerbated the problems. I often wonder whether the WMD laughed themselves to sleep at night as the anti-gun campaigner turned into the red-necked villain? I suspect they did.

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