Last week saw the unexpected retirement of Theo Theophanous from politics.
“I had to bring in new people which we did with John Brumby which included incidentally people like Bracks, Thwaites, Hulls, and Holding; all the high flying people that we brought in to change the perception.” – Theo Theophanous
Theophanous has been a controversial figure renowned just as much for his ability to work hard as he is for being a street-fighting political heavyweight in Victoria’s Labor machine. Some saw Theophanous as a Machiavelli-like figure hell bent on power.
However he sees himself as being Aristotelian; a practical politician looking for change.
Theo Theophanous emphasises his role in the 1990s in the push to revitalise of the Labor Party in Victoria and in doing so assist in changing perceptions of its economic credentials.
However the final chapter of his political career was marred by a charge of rape, which he consistently denied and was finally acquitted of.
The experience of the last couple of years has left Theo Theophanous battered and bruised and has seen him withdraw from the political arena, seriously hurt but not defeated. Theophanous became a Minister twice, the first time in 1991 as the first Minister of Greek background in Victoria and as he says emphatically, “no one can take away that title from me.”
In 2002 he returned to the Ministry after an extended term in the political wilderness after unsuccessfully running for the Federal seat of Batman and comments he made about John Brumby’s leadership while he was Opposition leader.
Theophanous is sanguine in discussing his experience standing aside for Martin Ferguson in the Victorian Federal seat of Batman, despite the fact that he had overwhelming support at local level.
While he was disappointed with the Labor Party, Theophanous emphasises he did not feel betrayed. “I’m a person who understands the practical side of politics and people wanted to get Martin Ferguson in and were prepared to do anything to achieve that.” The Theophanous backstep saw him decide to focus on State rather than Federal politics.
“I had the desire to go into Federal politics and had I been successful at that time I think I would have finished up in a Federal Ministry. But that was not to be; that was pivotal in the sense that I had to then look at what could my contribution be at the state level.”
In 1999 Theophanous reached his political nadir when he was forced to resign as the Leader of the Opposition for the ALP in the Upper House. “I had been the Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House for 6 years and John Brumby was the [Party] Leader.
It was about nine months out of the elections [when] I made some public comment about how we needed to change direction, which John took personally as being directed at him and so he asked me to resign.”
His resignation from the Labor leadership team came despite the fact that he had “worked for 6 years to reshape the Labor Party” an arduous task by any measure.
“I had to bring in new people which we did with John Brumby which included incidentally people like Bracks, Thwaites, Hulls, and Holding; all the high flying people that we brought in to change the perception.”
Theophanous also takes credit for helping “change Labor’s economic credentials”. “I publicly went out and criticised the economic management of the Cain – Kirner government.”
His impact resulted in the Labor Party adopting a set of principles for economic management and financial management which as Theophanous says, “we have stuck to religiously ever since that time and that is what got us into government.”
There is still the bitter taste in his mouth as he remembers how the process of change and reform lost him the leadership at the time.
“I was disappointed in that… I wasn’t put back in as a Minister immediately after the election which we won narrowly and I had to wait for 3 years.” However upon reflection Theophanous is philosophical.
“I say to people that the way in which you can summarise a person is not how they handle themselves on the way up; it’s how they handle themselves on the way down”. John Brumby, ultimately, supported his return back into the Ministry in 2002.
Theophanous underscores Brumby’s ability to “forgive and understand that people have a contribution to make.”
The relationship between Brumby and Theophanous was a complex one which the latter described as one based on “honesty and respect”. “Before becoming a Minister… I had to look John in the eyes and ask him: ‘Do you hold any grudges John?’ and his response was ‘I don’t’ and that’s a measure of the man,” Theophanous goes on to say.
“By the way I think he was also genuinely very emotional and very supportive over the last 18 months. I think he really felt for me and for my family.”
The tension is palpable when he talks about his experience of having to deal with the rape allegations over the last 18 months.
The allegations saw him stand down voluntarily from his Ministerial position, pending the outcome of the investigation into the allegations that he raped a woman in his Parliament office in 1998.
On Christmas Eve 2008 he faced charges of rape. But it was a shaky indictment, which collapsed like a house of cards, during a two week committal hearing. Theophanous is equivocal if it wasn’t for the rape charges against him he would not have retired from politics and that he would have had another term as a Minister. He is also equivocal that he should not have been charged.
“The truth of this is that anybody looking at this objectively would say that I should never have been charged. I mean you’ve got to remember what the Magistrate said. Never mind what I say; never mind what anyone else says.
The Magistrate described the case as not having any credibility, reliability or truthfulness. You cannot imagine how any Magistrate could have been more critical to say that the police case was not truthful is a huge indictment of the case that was brought [against me].
Then to go on and say that the woman and her brother had concocted evidence, they falsified evidence, manufactured evidence and then to say that the main [investigating] police officer had lost all objectivity, these were the words of the Magistrate.”
Theophanous goes on to claim that his lawyer and other independent lawyers who looked at the brief could not understand why he was charged on the basis of the evidence in the brief; “It depends on what your objective is,” Mr Theophanous said.
“If your objective was to charge knowing that this would end the political career of somebody irrespective of the outcome then that was successful. If your objective was to actually get a conviction you would never get a conviction based on the evidence.”
However the former politician is quick to deny that he was claiming a conspiracy against him.
“I’m not saying that and I’m very careful to use words that I hope are not misinterpreted. What I’m saying is that I don’t know what the objective was but I do know that independent people who have looked at the brief have said that I should not have been charged. But having been charged means that whatever the outcome I would lose my position as a Minister in the government.”
He pauses and considers his response when he is asked what are his feelings towards the woman who made the allegations of rape against him.
“That’s a good question. You know I’m a Christian person. Part of being Christian is to forgive and that part is the most difficult thing, because it’s very difficult to forgive in these circumstances; when you do feel anger and even a sense of betrayal because I knew the woman and she was a friend of a friend… so I have mixed feelings towards this woman. Sometimes I feel sorry for her because of her psychological state [but] it’s very hard not to feel that this was an act of pure evil.”
As the interview starts to come to a close I ask Theo Theophanous whether it was coincidental that both he and his older brother, disgraced former Federal MP Andrew Theophanous, have been embroiled in controversy.
“If you believe in Quantum physics then you will believe that everything in the universe is linked in one way or another. The problem is in identifying those links and in being certain about the nature of those links. I think the most that
I want to say about this issue… the best I would say is… perhaps I prefer not to say anything about it. One of the things in politics is that if you make a comment then you would always be asked to justify or verify that in some way and I don’t want to get down that path in this interview or in any other for that matter.
I think that there are many things that future students of politics might want to explore about what happened both to me and to Andrew and also about our political careers which have been pretty amazing really for the sons of a migrant working family.
But perhaps those things are better left for those investigators and academics.
Theophanous is guarded when asked whether he will write a book about his life is politics. “I may well do that but not in the short term, because I want to do some other things first…Writing a book on these issues would absorb me just as much as fighting things… at shadows. I want to do some new, other, exciting things and if I still feel as though I need to make a statement in 5-10 years time… if I’m up to it there’s plenty of documentation.” However he is coy when pushed on whether that was a threat? “Well I did qualify by saying… if I’m up to it!”