When Craig Laundy spoke at a reception to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act in June, he began by warmly acknowledging the gathered dignitaries. All except one. Finally, with a sharp sense of timing, he turned to Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission. “Don’t worry Gillian,” he said. “I’m saving you for last.”
Whispers and nervous titters rippled through the audience at the ornate Royal Automobile Club in Sydney. Triggs had just survived public attacks from Tony Abbott and other Coalition ministers over her report on the plight of child asylum seekers in detention. It had been one of the most brutal government character assassinations of a senior statutory official Australia has seen. Was Laundy about to nettle her even more?
On the contrary. He praised Triggs for her work and encouraged her to keep doing the job that Abbott and attorney-general George Brandis had reportedly tried to make her leave. “My door is always open to you,” he told her. She nodded an acknowledgement as the audience applauded.
Of course, an attack on Triggs would have made Laundy an outsider in this crowd. His fellow speakers included race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane and former Fraser government minister Fred Chaney, who launched Soutphommasane’s book I’m Not Racist But… at the same event. Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney-general, also spoke, and so did Penny Wright, an Australian Greens senator.
Where Laundy really has emerged as an odd man out is among his fellow conservatives since he entered parliament at the 2013 election. He stood up for Triggs in the Coalition party room in February, arguing that the real point should be to release children from detention. He threatened to cross the floor against the Abbott government’s plan to change the Racial Discrimination Act to allow hate speech; the government dropped the plan in August.
And last Friday, while Abbott was trumpeting his government’s “stop the boats” policy as Europe’s refugee crisis unfolded, Laundy publicly pleaded for Australia to take more refugees from Syria. “There but for the grace of God go any of us,” he said. His stand flew in the face of a powerful portion of the Liberal Party’s conservative base that opposes bringing in more refugees, but his electoral office was swamped with emails from the public, about 90 per cent of which supported him.
Laundy is an odd Liberal out in other ways, too. He is a small businessman in a party that once identified as the champion of small business but whose front bench is now dominated by lawyers, ex-lobbyists, political advisers and party officials. He is a liberal in a party that has shifted sharply to the right under its last two prime ministers, Abbott and John Howard. And he refuses to identify with the factions that now determine power in the Liberal Party. “I see myself as my own voice,” he says.
I met Laundy in late August in Burwood, one of the inner-western suburbs that make up his electorate of Reid. Named after Australia’s fourth prime minister, George Reid, the seat was for many years a Labor stronghold; incumbents have included former NSW premier Jack Lang and former Whitlam government minister Tom Uren. But Labor’s comfortable margin was cut when a 2010 redistribution brought in much of the neighbouring electorate of Lowe. Three years later the national anti-Labor swing made Laundy – as he later told parliament – “the first Liberal to hold this seat since it was formed” in 1922.
Yet the broader electoral geography still leaves him something of an outsider. Reid is surrounded to the south and west by the traditional western Sydney Labor seats held by opposition frontbenchers Anthony Albanese, Tony Burke, Jason Clare and Julie Owens. Once a working-class Anglo-Australian region, it is now a multicultural heartland. In Burwood alone, almost 60 per cent of citizens were born overseas, many in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and eastern Europe. Laundy reckons his seat is the second most multicultural in federal parliament, after Burke’s seat of Watson next door.
Outwardly, at least, Laundy himself seems a classic figure of old Australia. At forty-four, he is tall and boyish-faced, and on the day we meet he is dressed smartly in business trousers and a blue pin-striped shirt with no tie. His electoral office in Burwood Road is sparely furnished, with no sign of the lavish use of entitlements that had felled Bronwyn Bishop a couple of weeks earlier.
Laundy’s family story seems classic rags-to-riches. His paternal grandfather, Arthur, left an orphanage at the age of fifteen “with just the clothes on his back” and bought a hotel lease twelve years later. The family business, in which Craig worked for twenty-three years before entering politics, now comprises more than fifty hotels in New South Wales. Laundy still seems to identify as much as a businessman as he does a politician. “I’m a third-generation western suburbs publican,” he tells me.
He joined the Liberal Party only eighteen months before successfully contesting the 2013 election. And he reckons he is one of the first of what he calls a “Labor family on both sides” to support the Liberals, adding yet another layer of complexity to his outsider’s profile.
What attracted him to politics, and especially to the Liberal Party? “I was very frustrated with the former Labor government,” he says. “I believe in small government, low taxation and a genuine safety net. I thought that becoming an MP may be a chance to make a difference. I’d grown up in the western side of the electorate, the Labor side, and I had tentacles there through my involvement with churches, charities and sporting clubs. I have a lot of mates from my small business background who would never go into politics. They think I’m mad. So does my father!”
Laundy’s responses to social issues during his short parliamentary life have been driven by his practical business mind and family life, not by the ideology that drives some sections of the Liberal Party. His stand against the proposed change to the Racial Discrimination Act angered many on the party’s right. But, he says, it also reflected opposition to the change among his multicultural constituents.
“They believe that free speech is a right in Australia, and that rights also involve responsibilities. My pragmatic argument says that too. Pragmatic thinkers on both sides of parliament are in the minority. Ideological thinkers on both sides are in the ascendancy.”
Laundy’s support for Triggs’s call to stop incarcerating child asylum seekers also won him few fans in his party. “If there are findings of hers that allow us to run things better, we should accept them in good faith and act upon them,” he says. This hardly chimes with Abbott’s dismissal of Triggs’s report as a “political stitch-up.” Laundy also wants a more inclusive approach from government to Australia’s Muslim community, despite the Abbott government’s pursuit of a national security policy that seems to cast them as potential enemies.
“There is a marginalised Muslim minority heading to jihad,” he says. “You have to question the cause of the problem first, and I think that’s been missed. The second or third generations of Australian-born eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds have battled with education and finding jobs. That’s where susceptibility is born. We have to stop them ending up at the plane gate to Syria and Iraq. The Australian public responds negatively, and the vicious circle makes them more marginalised. The role of leadership, in government and the communities, is to step in and break the circle. It’s a long-term exercise.”
On same-sex marriage, though, Laundy is not rocking any Liberal boats. He and his wife Suzie attend Catholic churches in the electorate with their three children, and he opposes same-sex marriage on grounds of that faith. At first, he supported a conscience vote in parliament. “The conscience vote that the Liberal Party stands for is important to me,” he tells me. “I would never be a member of a party that you can’t vote against if you want.”
He was later reported to have changed his mind, and to oppose a conscience vote, on this issue at least. But since the bitter Coalition party-room debate in August, which endorsed the government’s opposition to same-sex marriage, Laundy says he once again has an “open mind” on a conscience vote. He argues that the debate has become “aggressive” on both sides, and that those who chose to vote against gay marriage could be vilified. “On the gay marriage side, I’m criticised as a bigot and a homophobe, which I’m definitely not. But I see fault on both sides.”
A few days after our meeting, Laundy escorted foreign minister Julie Bishop to Burwood Girls High School, one of Australia’s most multicultural schools, where she addressed senior students, including some from neighbouring schools. Bishop spoke about women and careers, and fielded questions from the girls about Australia’s human rights record and military involvement in the Middle East. But her visit was quickly swamped by a row over same-sex partners and censorship that erupted a few days later.
The school had planned to show Gayby Baby, a documentary about children of same-sex parents made by Maya Newell, a former student at the school. It had already been shown at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals, and at Parliament House in Sydney. Two days before the scheduled school screening on 28 August, the Daily Telegraph splashed a front-page story headed “Gay Class Uproar,” with the banner “Parents outraged as Sydney school swaps lessons for PC movie session.”
It later emerged that parents had been informed of the screening and given the option of not allowing their daughters to attend. But the furore sparked by the Murdoch tabloid was enough for NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli to order a ban on screenings of Gayby Baby at all the state’s schools during class times. (It passed unremarked that Julie Bishop’s address at the Burwood school had also happened during class hours.)
Laundy publicly supported his state Liberal colleague’s ban on the film. After talks with local parents and community leaders, he claimed “many parents” were concerned the screening in school hours “may create difficulties for their children on the basis of their family’s religious or personal beliefs.”
Beyond this issue, though, Laundy finds his inherent liberalism frequently stalled by the realities of life in politics. If frustrations with the former Labor government drove him into politics in the first place, the process of achieving change as a parliamentarian troubles him just as much, if not more. Again, he comes back to a business analogy.
“In small business it’s about outcomes, not process. My criticism of politics is that the focus is on process ahead of outcomes. In business, before I renovated hotels I talked to staff and customers and worked out what they wanted, then made a decision. In politics, cabinet makes the decision, but then hands the policy to the marginal backbench seat-holders and tells them to go out and sell it. That’s counterintuitive. After two years in politics, the pace of change and the length of time to get decisions is frustrating for me.”
The trend on both sides of politics to recruit candidates from within the party machine makes things even more frustrating for those from a broader background like Laundy’s. “They know the system from a young age and are prepared to live within it. For people like me who come from outside, it’s a big change to make.”
With a federal election due in just a year, Laundy doesn’t conceal a sense of irritation over the Abbott government’s inertia on economic reform. “I get frustrated when discussions are about do we apply a GST on tampons. You should be talking about reforming the whole tax system, as well as federation, and preparing the country for the next forty years.”
The Abbott government’s entrenched opinion poll deficit has rattled many backbenchers, especially those who may have nowhere to turn for lives outside politics if the government falls in 2016 and they lose their seats. On this score, Laundy once again could be an odd man out. He won Reid in 2013 with a 3.5 per cent swing. But if the still-marginal seat eventually swings back to Labor, he will be happy to say he tried. “I’d rather lose my seat standing for something, and standing for reform, than govern for the sake of governing,” he says. And if that happened? “I can go back to my family business job any time.” •