On the day of the 2015 leadership spill, this reporter found himself in Jones’ office – chatting anything but politics over a cup of tea – when Sky News broke the news of Turnbull’s challenge on Abbott.
Out of the loop with his colleagues, he was emotional and viewed it as a major breach of trust with voters. All this despite some of his closest friends being in the centre of the action.
Jones didn’t enjoy the cut-and-thrust of politics. A few years after losing his seat in 2016, he was suspended as a member of Queensland’s LNP for criticising the party’s relationship with billionaire Clive Palmer, whose collapsed nickel refinery near Townsville left a trail of destruction. He told me at the time he felt the party didn’t want people like him.
“I loved the parliament, but I was shit at politics,” he texted.
Despite having voted for Bob Hawke’s Labor Party in 1983 and Paul Keating being his political hero, he became a Liberal because of life circumstances, including as a champion of small business.
He raised his two daughters as a single father for a short time before meeting his second wife, Linda. Fiercely principled, he would eventually challenge the views of his more socially conservative colleagues as he grew into his own skin.
When former senator Cory Bernardi controversially linked the levels of crimes committed by young boys and promiscuity among girls with single-parent households and same-sex parents, Jones gave him both barrels.
“I do know what it’s like to be doing the washing at three o’clock in the morning and making sure that your daughters’ uniforms are ironed ready for school,” he said. “If the children are loved and respected and cared for, they’ll be OK.”
His spontaneous outbreaks of humour could bring his colleagues to hysterics but also despair. Despite his intellect, they feared he was too much of a clown to hold a marginal seat and would never be taken seriously.
But Jones refused to rein it in, telling people that as an auctioneer, he’d always found it easier to do business with people if they had a smile on their face.
This extended to breaking up tense debates in the party room over health policy, including things such as health star ratings on food packaging and a sugar tax. His self-deprecating fat jokes may not have been PC but were the stuff of legend.
“I’ve lost so much weight I can fit into things I haven’t been able to in ages … like elevators and taxis,” he once told his colleagues.
“I even started my own church – the Church of the Fatter Day Saints. We have communion, but it’s buffet style.”
When Hockey lost a considerable amount of weight following surgery, he offered Jones a few of his tailored suits that no longer fitted. Big Ewen would like to retell this story by flashing the embroidered initials on the inside of his jacket and say, with a wry grin, that Hockey was up for reducing the deficit because he’d only asked for “a few thousand dollars” in return.
Jones had an encyclopedic knowledge of music and was forever urging all he met to buy the latest album of some Australian band his daughter Emma, a music writer, had recommended.
He was the driving force behind a memorable series of live gigs in Parliament House, which involved a handful of rock legends, including Jimmy Barnes. Having told parliament officials it would be a small acoustic gig, it was nearly shut down when the former Cold Chisel frontman belted out Flame Trees – with Jones having ordered the sound engineer to lift the volume to 11.
The next year it was moved far away from the ministerial wing, to the roof.
In the past few years, his Facebook commentary, amid the gags, hinted at his underlying frustration at the general drift of leadership in the country. But it rarely got personal or partisan. He wouldn’t mind telling you he had as much love and respect for Labor MPs Graham Perrett and Sharon Bird as he did for Liberals Dan Tehan or Peter Dutton.
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