Feud, glorious feud

When it comes to high-profile mud-slinging among the cultural, political and commercial elite, Sydney is in a class of its own, writes Deborah Snow.

FORGET the Opera House, the bridge or that famous crescent of sand at Bondi.

Nothing screams Sydney more than a juicy feud between the rich, powerful, notorious or prominent denizens of this teeming city.

Maybe it's the fault of the harbour, with its mansion-studded foreshores and flashy cruisers, which put rank, status and wealth on eye-popping display. (Melbourne's money is tucked discreetly behind high garden walls and Perth's river is hardly in the same league).

Perhaps it's the steamy summers, the maddening traffic, the animal spirits or the brawling etched deep in the city's DNA courtesy of its convict origins.

Whatever reason you care to pick, Sydney stages a more riveting feud than anywhere else in the country. Power and money drive most and politics is always fertile ground.

For sheer longevity and entertainment value, it's hard to go past the epic falling-out between past Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, once politically indispensable to each other.

Outbursts tend to be triggered whenever one has the effrontery to burnish his own record at the other's expense, as happened in mid-2010 when Hawke's second wife, writer Blanche d'Alpuget, published "Old Silver's" biography.

Keating was infuriated with d'Alpuget's suggestion that his lack of a formal education was behind his eclectic range of hobbies and passions.

"The preposterousness of it is faint-making," he said in a return fusillade, adding in a letter to Hawke (which he made public) that the latter had been hobbled for years as PM by an "emotional and intellectual malaise".

For his part, Hawke launched a well-aimed barb on ABC TV's 7.30 about the Keating-esque propensity for bitterness, congratulating himself on being "more of an optimist about life, I think".

The exchange had another former Labor leader, Bill Hayden, sadly shaking his head and describing the pair as "old men croaking like cane toads".

Hawke threw one last New Year's Eve party at The Lodge in Canberra in 1991 before handing over to his one-time treasurer and usurper. Fairfax writer Tony Wright, who was an invited guest, quotes Hawke as saying, "There's a f---ing load of French champagne in the cellar here; make sure you drink the lot of it so that c--- Keating doesn't get a drop."

That the mutual animus has persisted in the more than two decades since is a testament to sheer staying power, if nothing else.

"Paul never forgives," says one-time Labor kingmaker Graham Richardson, whose own relations with Keating have long since crumbled into dust.

The executive director of the conservative Sydney Institute, Gerard Henderson, and former Labor leader Mark Latham are another pair of political adversaries who have taken to each other with gladiatorial glee.

According to Henderson, their dispute – of more recent vintage – was triggered when he wrote about Latham's run-in with a taxi driver, which left the man with a broken arm.

Writing under the banner of "Henderson Watch", the acid-tongued Latham has appointed himself monitor and critic of Henderson's "Media Watch Dog" blog, which is hosted on the institute's website.

"There are two types of people: those who like Gerard Henderson, and those who have met him," Latham sniped in a recent post. "He is that most despised of Australian characters: a non-stop whinger."

Henderson, he adds, is addicted to pedantry "like heroin". "Without his weekly fix, his existence has little meaning or purpose," Latham says.

An unfazed Henderson served it right back, describing Latham as looking like "a director of Dodgy Brothers Funerals Pty Ltd who is about to advise relatives of a recently departed that the corpse has gone missing".

With a flair for alliteration, he occasionally refers to Latham as the "Lair of Liverpool".

"What I find about Mark," Henderson says, "is that he is very good at criticising others, and doesn't mind so much being criticised himself. But if you laugh at him, he gets terribly upset. So I just laugh at him occasionally . . . and have a bit of fun."

Spouses of feuding parties often get recruited to the battlefront, as occurred when hostilities erupted between the Williamsons and Bob Ellis. Playwright David Williamson once explained that it all started with the rambunctious Ellis "suggesting that I was a nice chap, but a fairly dumb engineer who sprinkled a few of his plays with swear words and therefore attracted a lot of public attention – attention which should have gone to other, better writers, like himself".

Williamson's wife, journalist Kristin, leapt to her husband's defence and Ellis's wife, Anne Brooksbank, then took up the cudgels, too. For a while it looked like a replay of Shakespeare's Montagues versus Capulets.

Last year, Ellis monstered Williamson's play Nothing Personal on his Table Talk blog, writing, "As always, these Williamson characters speak in uncontradicted explicatory paragraphs, dumbed down to the level of those Women's Weekly subscribers who increasingly crowd the matinees".

Williamson struck back: "Your level of viciousness towards your targets says more about you than them."

The business world now looks to be cooking up a classic Sydney tale of friend-turned-foe with the rift developing between the former Qantas chief and chairman of Tourism Australia, Geoff Dixon, and the man he hand-picked to succeed him in running the airline, Alan Joyce.

Once they were regular dining companions, but Joyce has taken extreme exception to Dixon's recent association with a group of investors seemingly intent on overturning the Joycean strategy.

Well down the business food chain, big Jim Byrnes and colourful financier Ian Lazar have had their running battles well documented in the Sydney media. Last year, Lazar reported that several of his beloved dogs were missing, a mishap with which Byrnes has roundly rejected any association.

Asked about relations between the pair, Byrnes told the Herald, "I haven't spoken to Lazar for over a year. He's a little germ, he looks like a racoon, he's just an awful individual."

Fortunately for most participants in the city's stoushes, few end up as badly as one did for standover merchant and debt collector Michael McGurk.

A man boasting many enemies, McGurk was shot dead in his Mosman driveway in 2009.

In July, a magistrate's court heard that millionaire property developer Ron Medich, who maintains his innocence, allegedly wanted McGurk murdered because his former business partner was making him the "laughing stock of the eastern suburbs" and "a fool in front of his wife [Odetta]".

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop