A young woman wearing a hijab nervously asked a male government MP a very simple question one morning.
“What about discrimination law when it comes to getting jobs?"
The hulking man, who most would confuse for an ex-rugby league player was Queenslander Ewen Jones, rising star of Australia's conservative Coalition government, and the question was asked at a Group Training Australia session at Parliament House in September.
It clearly rattled him and by his own admission he jumped down her throat.
He turned to the young woman who was wearing a dark brown hijab.
“I basically shut her down. I said I’ve never discriminated against anybody… I don’t like people using discrimination as an excuse,”
Jones then turned on his heel and walked out.
The Queenslander got 100 metres down the corridor and stopped. Frustrated at himself, he turned and went back to the woman in the training room.
With a cooler head, he asked, “can I just readdress that?”
“I answered that as a white, 55-year-old male who has never suffered any discrimination of any kind… I didn’t think about it from her perspective and of course I’ve never hired a Muslim. I’ve hired Aboriginal people. So you try to think (you’re not discriminatory), but you hire what you're like and 90% of policy at any company is not written down.”
“I apologised for what I had said and how I had shut her down.”
Jones recounted the story to BuzzFeed News as “young Callum”, one of his staffers, struggled with a venetian blind in his new government whip’s office in Parliament House.
The MP was right, his three hired staff members that we met were all white but to the 55-year-old, snapping at the young Muslim girl had such a profound effect on him, it’s informed how he understands the “white, Ango-Saxon men” who dominate parliament and the far right who threaten the unity of the new Turnbull government.
There's a common thread to the comments about Ewen Jones at parliament.
“He’s the funniest guy in this place.”
“He makes me laugh so much.”
“If he wasn’t an MP, he’d be a stand-up comedian.”
In the first few months of BuzzFeed News taking up space in Canberra’s press gallery, politicians and journalists kept pointing to the Member for Herbert, Ewen Jones, when we asked for the funniest person in parliament.
From a good Queensland farming family, Jones is an auctioneer by trade, who plied his wares at Pickles Auction House in Townsville. That was before complaining one too many times about “those dickheads” in politics.
He was pushed to throw his hat in the ring by his second wife after swearing about the hopeless showing by the LNP in the Queensland 2009 state election at a backyard BBQ.
“Nah only dickheads go into politics mate,” he apparently told his wife, while driving home from the social event.
Three years after sitting in his car, he won the seat of Herbert and has quickly been promoted from noisy backbencher, to vote-counting whip.
In his new office, sitting in front of a shrine of different Queensland jerseys and caps, we asked for a sample of the type of iconic, “strayan” comedy that he’s become known for in the halls of power. He pointed to his time selling homes.
“When you’re an auctioneer you’ve got to be very front of mind. When something appears you MUST use it,” said Jones.
He went into auctioneer mode, pointing at imaginary bidders around the office.
“Like. I’d say, ‘If you’re at 5-7, who wants to be Wally Lewis at 5-8?’”
(Wally Lewis is a legendary rugby league player who played five-eight.)
“If you’re at 2-2 you won’t get me into one of those. But you’ll get me into a 4-4.”
(A 4x4 is an all-wheel drive car.)
When he answers the phone and is asked, “how are you?” he sarcastically replies, “If I was any better I’d need to take something for it. But all the better for having spoken to you.”
When talking about Kevin Rudd in Queensland he said about the former PM, “he’s all froth, no beer mate. The glass is full but there’s just nothing in it.”
And when politicians talk of the “pub test”, Jones argues, mate, he is the pub.
“I’m very much a public bar kind of guy. I’m very comfortable in the front bar,” adding more than a tad cynically, “It’s easier to get someone’s money out of their pocket if they’ve got a smile on their face.”
Jones then starts ranting and raving about modern music and it’s unstoppable. His eldest daughter writes for a Brisbane music blog, Howls & Echoes and puts on concerts to raise awareness for domestic violence. She flicks her dad links to new music and Jones starts expanding on everything from Tame Impala's guitar solos to the new record from his favourite band, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.
His other daughter is a “committed One Directioner” and he jokes, “we have problems with her.”
Like some others in the moderate camp of the modern Liberal party, Jones’ political hero is someone across the aisle.
“PJK (Paul John Keating) is my political hero. His self-belief. That absolute confidence,” Jones then puts on a faux, stuffy wanker-Keating impression: “If you just SHUT UP *hitting the table* and do what I told you to, this country would be ok!”.
He calls Keating the Donald Bradman of Aussie politics - the mercurial cricketer who is still the greatest player in the history of the sport. So we asked Jones, which Aussie cricketer is new PM Malcolm Turnbull?
“Malcolm Turnbull is a consensus builder and a team leader. He’s Richie Benaud or Ian Chappell. He leads the team and says, we win or lose, but we don’t play for the draw.”
It’s Jones’ moderate Liberal views and his elevation to government whip that is seeing the media searchlight swing onto him. It's put him on a collision course with the super conservative, right wing of his party.
Last year, he slapped down conservative senator Cory Bernardi in the Coalition party-room, who had been speaking against the rights of gay parents.
Jones - who was left by his first wife and made to fight for custody his children - received a round of applause from colleagues for standing up to the senator.
“I’ve been a single parent, I know what it’s like to do the washing at 3am in the morning to make sure the uniforms are ironed. I think it’s the quality of the role model, male or female, not the sexuality of the parents that matters,” he told Fairfax Media.
Jones vs Bernardi Part. II occurred this year, when the South Australian senator labelled some people fleeing the Syrian conflict as “opportunistic” during the debate over whether to take more refugees.
"Good on you Cory!" joked Jones, walking down the press gallery, flashing the cameras a sarcastic thumbs up.
"Do you really expect anything other than that from someone like Cory?” he asked, dismissing the comments and advocating for a huge 50,000 new places for refugees in Syria.
Along with Jones’ sparring partner, Cory Bernardi, there’s a small but boisterous right wing group of government senators who stand to make the most mischief for the cabinet in the next 12 months.
“People do have a right to be bigots you know.”
The statement from Attorney-General George Brandis landed with a thud on the Senate floor in March last year.
He was talking about changing Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act - laws which make it a crime to insult someone based on race, colour or national or ethnic origin - and the ‘right to be a bigot’ line set in motion a car crash for the conservative cause to change the law.
Australia’s indigenous community and various ethnic groups howled in protest, as PM Tony Abbott was forced to shelve plans to scrap the laws. From that moment on, right-wing senators and their cheerleaders in the media led by Andrew Bolt, were incensed.
Now there’s a new moderate PM who has no intention of touching 18C, Bolt and other right-wing commentators have spoken openly about a breakaway conservative party within the senate. It would likely be led by senator Cory Bernardi.
Back in Ewen Jones’ office, the Queenslander had some strong views on watering down anti-discrimination laws and the far right wing giving the government grief in the senate. Although he loved the idea of “American-style” freedom of speech he was more affected by a particularly pointed conversation with indigenous MP Ken Wyatt.
“(Ken) asked, ‘whose eyes are you looking through about the watering down of 18C? Are you thinking about it from a perspective of the white Anglo-Saxon male? Or are you thinking about the person who is sitting in a wheelchair, or has a different colour skin, or dresses differently or can’t defend themselves?'".
“I think why people are against the watering down of these laws, because this parliament is predominantly white Anglo-Saxon men who’ve never seen discrimination.”
Those "white Anglo-Saxon men" are Jones’ party colleagues. It’s not just Bernardi but fellow lower house Queensland MP George Christensen, who attends the anti-Islam Reclaim Australia rallies which attract small but aggressive crowds in towns around the country.
And therein lies the current split in the government: two men whose electorates border each other, Ewen Jones the more moderate, laid back bloke from Queensland, aware of privilege, supporter of marriage equality and advocate for Muslim refugees, and George Christensen, the MP from Mackay, fearful of Muslim migration and not scared to kick up a stink about it.
So how will the popular, "funny guy" - newly tasked with whipping agitators into line - both call out racism in his own party and try to change the minds of people like Christensen?
Does he even try?
“It’s like what a mentor of mine used to say about these sort of blokes: ‘AH AH AH! *sticking his hands up* I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts!”
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Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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