‘Completely screwed over by one person I trusted implicitly’: Tim Smith bares all

‘Completely screwed over by one person I trusted implicitly’: Tim Smith bares all

Tim Smith insists he is not a snob, but he is amused by the question.

“I think I have been maligned as a snob,” he says. “I quite like people taking the piss out of me. I have never had an issue with that.”

Liberal MP Tim Smith at Baby Pizza, Richmond. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Smith's upbringing was the epitome of Melbourne establishment. Raised in Camberwell, he was educated at Scotch College, one of the state's most expensive schools. He spent a year at Rugby, one of the oldest boarding schools in Britain. Back in Melbourne, he attended Ormond College at Melbourne University and was a member of the Australian rowing team.

“I am a walking stereotype but I think when people actually get to know me, they are surprised that I am down to earth and good company,” he says.

“I reckon I have more in common with the world views of some more marginalised members of Australia than the so-called workers’ representatives in the parliament.”

Smith joined the Liberal Party at 21 and was elected mayor of Stonnington, one of the state’s most affluent municipalities, at 25. By 31, he was a member of state parliament, representing the seat of Kew in Melbourne’s leafy inner east.

But his privilege and connections couldn’t save his political career. That was terminated on Power Street, Hawthorn, in November 2021 when he crashed his new Jaguar into a fence and subsequently recorded a blood-alcohol reading twice the legal limit.

In that instant, his career, friends, and his raison d'être was gone, even if he didn't realise it at the time.

Smith says his younger self – the little boy who loved the military, the monarchy and politics – would be “shocked” and “very disappointed” by how things turned out.

“I did something stupid and if I hadn’t done it, this never would have happened,” he says. “But I also got completely screwed over by one person I trusted implicitly.”

He doesn’t say it, but Smith is referring to his one-time close friend and political ally Matthew Guy.

A waiter interrupts. It’s a dreary Melbourne day and we are sitting at a small table at Richmond’s Baby Pizza, a buzzing and modern restaurant that has a fun atmosphere and serves up Insta-worthy Italian dishes. We order antipasti to start.

When Smith, who I have dined with before, told me which restaurant he had selected, I was surprised. A woman with a slicked-back Kardashian-inspired ponytail sits at a nearby table in a sports bra and leggings.It’s not his usual haunt.

In media and political circles, Smith is regarded as being good at lunch. He can regularly be found enjoying good food and banter with Melbourne’s movers and shakers at up-market eateries such as French brasserie Bistro Thierry in Toorak or Flinders Lane restaurant Cecconi’s. But Baby Pizza is owned by Chris Lucas who, like Smith, was a strident critic in the media of Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdowns.

The gnocchi at Baby Pizza, Richmond. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Perhaps it was a symptom of his boarding school experience, or his years as an elite sportsman, but Smith seems uncomfortable in his own company and found lockdowns unbearable.

“Did I drink far too much during lockdowns? Yes, 100 per cent,” he says. “But all the finger-wavers that accuse me of making excuses, I am not. Lockdowns did have an impact on people in the real world. This did impact people’s lives.”

As a dining companion – even a sober one – Smith is fun and affable, which stands in contrast to the hardline persona he developed during the pandemic years with his constant attacks on Premier Daniel Andrews and his COVID-19 policies.

A combination of his political ideology and personal misery during lockdowns meant he became one of Andrews’ biggest critics. He labelled the premier a “liar”, “friendless loser”, “control freak” and a “loony”.

“I went a bit over the top with language. I allowed myself to be characterised as a head-kicker as opposed to a considered contributor,” Smith concedes. “I supported the first lockdown but after that, I really thought what was going on was profoundly stupid.

“When most of my colleagues were hiding under the doona for the best part of two years when this city was locked down, I fought, and I am proud of that.”

Before COVID-19 hit Australia and Smith became one of the Victorian Liberal Party’s most outspoken and prominent MPs, he already had a reputation and influence at odds with his rank.

From a young age, he mastered the art of networking, knowing who he would need in his corner to help him fulfil his ambition to enter politics. At his 30th birthday, former Morrison government ministers Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg and Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger all gave speeches.

Smith credits his late friend and former Labor minister Jane Garrett for teaching him how to lunch. “Before I met Jane, as far as I was aware, lunch was a milkshake and a sandwich.”

Despite their opposing political views, the two politicians became close after meeting at a “mayors’ retreat” in the Dandenong Ranges in 2010 when she was mayor of the City of Yarra and he was elected mayor of Stonnington.

“Jane was hilarious. We hit it off immediately,” he says. “She was very principled, but the most important thing about Jane was that she taught me that you can genuinely disagree with someone and not hate them.”

Despite this friendship across the aisle – which is not common in today’s politics – Smith is a serial provocateur and political brawler. Recently, he has also been critical of the Victoria Liberal Party, slamming its policy to legislate a 50 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 and slamming the Coalition’s support for a treaty with Victoria’s Indigenous people.

He believes the Victorian Liberals should focus its efforts on the outer suburbs and regional seats and offer a point of difference from the Labor Party by moving further to the right.

“I am a cultural conservative, an insufferable constitutional monarchist, I don’t support change for change’s sake and I do think we are undermining the institutions that have served us well,” he says.

Is he is religious? “Not really.” He voted against Victoria’s assisted dying laws but didn’t oppose the idea. “In principle I had no issue with it, I just think you can’t legislate it.” He considered himself pro-choice but believes Victoria’s abortion laws are “extreme”.

“I am far more passionate about protecting the Crown, protecting the flag and the fundamentals of the national state than I am about various life and death issues, whether it be abortion or euthanasia.”

His political outlook wasn’t inherited from his parents, who were never members of the Liberal Party. “We were a right-leaning family, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my parents voted for Bob Hawke,” Smith says. “They might kill me for saying that.”

Asked why he is more conservative than his parents, he says: “I just was, I don’t know why.”

While I knock back two glasses of red, Smith sticks to mineral water. After the crash that ended his career, he vowed not to drink alcohol again while he remained in public life.

“I have had a drink since the crash,” Smith says, “but it’d be fair to say I was drinking far too much, and now I am not.”

We return to the week he crashed his car and the subsequent fallout: a train-wreck radio interview, an excruciating press conference, and how two of his closest friends and political allies, Frydenberg and Guy, turned their backs on him.

In the days after the crash Smith cried a lot. “I couldn’t believe it. I was in tears,” he says.

“Wherever they teach crisis management at university, mine will be a case study of what not to do.”

The antipasto plate at Baby Pizza, Richmond. Credit:Chris Hopkins

It’s clear that Smith still harbours anger and frustration towards Guy, not for failing to save his career – Smith knows he was the sole cause of that – but for letting him think he should stay and fight.

One of the first people Smith called immediately after the crash was Guy, whom he described as “hugely supportive and very sympathetic”. The following day, Guy even drove to the Mornington Peninsula where Smith had fled.

Publicly, Guy told the media he had told Smith that his “unequivocal” position was that he should not contest the 2022 election.

“I made it very clear to Tim that he wouldn’t find his way onto the frontbench of any parliamentary Liberal Party that I lead. And I made it clear that I didn’t want him to nominate at the next election, and that I didn’t believe he should nominate for the seat of Kew,” Guy said at the time.

Putting down the cutlery he is using to eat his pepperoni pizza, Smith insists the opposition leader not only encouraged him to recontest any preselection for the seat of Kew, but promised to lobby Liberal Party members privately behind the scenes. According to Smith, who took contemporaneous notes, Guy warned him there would need to be “distance and probably public division” but said: “I can’t win an election without you.”

According to Smith, Guy said: “We’re going to pull through this.”

Smith held on for a week but eventually announced he would quit politics at the November 2022 election.

Despite the division, their friendship initially survived the crash. But it ended early this year when Smith alleged Guy again hinted that he could help him get a spot in the state’s upper house to prevent him from quitting parliament before the November state election.

“Matthew offered me a seat in the upper house ostensibly to prevent a Kew byelection before the federal election,” Smith says. “It then became abundantly clear to me, by about the end of March, the offer of a winnable upper house seat was a tactic, but it wouldn’t eventuate.”

After the crash Smith fled to England. “I just love the place. The people, the traditions, the architecture,” he says. “I had to get out of Melbourne because it was too awful.”

While in the UK, Smith, who was double vaccinated, contracted COVID-19.

“I was struggling to breathe. I was really, really sick,” Smith says. “I was laying there in litres of my own sweat, alone, half dead in a hotel room in Henly as they were giving away my seat.”

When asked what he plans to do when his political career expires in November, he quotes former British Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn, who said on his retirement: “I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so.”

Smith’s political views couldn’t be more divergent from Benn’s, but he supports his sentiment.

The salami pizza at Baby Pizza, Richmond. Credit:Chris Hopkins

“You do an awful lot as an MP that has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “There are ways to remain in the debate, being a voice for what I think the future of our country should be.”

Away from politics, Smith says he would like children “down the track” and will get married “when I fall in love with someone”. Liberal colleagues have suggested a family would have helped his political prospects.

“Thank God, I didn’t have a wife and kids after last year’s performance,” he quips.

At 38, Smith remains hopeful that he could one day run for his beloved Liberal Party again, but says it’s unlikely he will return to Spring Street. “I am not ruling anything in or out.”

Except Melbourne. He says he no longer loves his city and is unlikely to stay. “Melbourne is the epicentre of woke Australia,” he says. “There is a certain demographic in inner Melbourne, particularly the inner east of Melbourne, who do my head in.

“When I was growing up, people weren’t so angry. I am not angry, I am just sick of the finger-wavers, the self-righteous, the judgy types.”

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