|JULIA Gillard delivered a heartfelt apology last night: to Liz, the wife of the retiring Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston.
"I'm a little bit in love with your husband," the Prime Minister said.
Kicking off what she called "the festival of Angus" with a farewell dinner at the Australian War Memorial, Ms Gillard declared: "Tonight we're honouring the man because Angus Houston is so completely an officer and so completely a gentleman.
"Liz, I wanted to say to you tonight some words you might find quite hard to hear. And that is every woman I know is a little bit in love with your husband.
"I know that might be difficult news, but I've tested this proposition with the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, who's a little bit in love with your husband; I'm a little bit in love with your husband and Kate Harrison, who works in my office and was John Faulkner's former chief of staff, is in love with your husband in almost an unseemly way!
"So every woman is a little bit in love with Angus. And we're a little bit in love with Angus because of his qualities, and they just shine through."
Ms Gillard praised Air Chief Marshal Houston's loyalty and sense of duty and compassion from his early days in the RAAF to his custodianship of the ADF in its most testing time since the Vietnam War.
Borrowing a quote from Winston Churchill and bending it a little, Ms Gillard said: "Angus Houston is a modest man with little to be modest about . . . From one Ten Pound Pom to another, we're going to miss you."
Noting that the defence chief had served under five ministers, all of whom were at the dinner, Ms Gillard said she'd been trying to think of the best collective noun for a group of former defence ministers. "Mob seems too informal, gaggle too disrespectful -- so I've settled on pride, a pride of former defence ministers."
Defence Minister Stephen Smith noted that when these defence ministers past and present made their collective farewell in the cabinet room at parliament earlier, he'd prevailed on the Air Chief Marshal, who is 193cm tall, to sit on the table so the rest of them looked normal.
When it was his turn to speak, Air Chief Marshal Houston -- the defence chief since 2005 -- thanked a long list of people "but especially the men and women of the Australian Defence Force".
He saved his most heartfelt gratitude to those on Table 14 -- veterans of multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan he had asked along to represent their peers.
At the end of it all, the Air Chief Marshal startled and delighted the throng by taking the microphone and, backed by the Defence band, bursting into a rendition of When I'm 64.
And, perhaps to repair any damage done by the Prime Minister, he declared his undying love and gratitude to Liz.