Last week’s resumption of Federal Parliament for the New Year ends the Annual Political twilight zone where characters like acting assistant Treasurer Joe Hockey can soak up the limelight. Hugo Kelly, a former media advisor to Labor Deputy prime Minister Brian Howe, remembers with fondness political summer silly seasons past.
The sweetest thing about advising the Acting Prime Minister is sneaking into the boss’s office while he’s down the parliamentary tennis courts with his chief-of-staff, sweating off Christmas dinner in the hot December torpor.
Once inside, you grab a lite beer from the Acting Prime Ministerial bar fridge, ease into that deep rich leather chair, slide your feet up on the big broad desk, pick up the Phone of Power and call your mates.
After all, you’re a staffer – not a tennis coach.
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It’s nice pretending to be relevant; slumbering in the warm seat of power – and enjoying absolutely no responsibility. Because everyone knows the Acting PM carries no authority, no weight. Which suits summer in Canberra. It’s a comfy country town with upper middle class trimmings, and no-one outside the Bronwyn Bishop faction really wants to run the world.
Paul Keating was always obliging with Brian. When Howe went to Cabinet with his big ticket public infrastructure programs – Building Better Cities; wholesale public housing reform; expensive regional projects – he could count on Keating’s support. In turn, the charismatic streetfighter held us all in his thrall. And, when the time came for holidays with Annita and the kids, the PM seemed comfortable handing over the reins to Brian.
For years people wondered how Brian had chanced upon high office, and plotted his inevitable return to the suburbs, the knife of political progress wedged between his shoulder blades.
But a canny political antennae kept him a few quiet steps ahead of the mob that would replace him with a good looking, fine talking, media-savvy political facsimile. In the folksy tradition of Doug Anthony and Lionel Bowen, and with luck along the way, he climbed to the deputy’s job, then staved them all off for four years when he got there.
So every Christmas, Keating, like Bob Hawke before him, would call Brian into his office and give him his caretakers orders: Keep your head down, mate. Improve that backhand volley. Don’t call me unless the place is burning down. And, don’t diddle with the autopilot.
Easy stuff, really. Unless you’re a good looking, fine talking, media-savvy type like John Anderson. And you can’t remember whether the PM told you we’d be rounding up on the GST or rounding down: “Jeeeez! Why was I doing that crossword in Cabinet? Now, what would Costello do here…?”
How To Act Like A Prime Minister
It’s not all slouching by the tennis court. Being the Lucky Country, there’s generally a natural disaster or two sweeping through the bush over Christmas.
The worst in memory was, of course, Cyclone Tracy, crushing Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. Gough Whitlam quickly relieved Jim Cairns to oversee disaster plans, and carry out the mandatory visit to the horrible scene.
Compared to this national trauma, Brian largely escaped bushfires, droughts and flooding rains while on his watch. But as John Anderson showed this year, the worst crises during the summer break are usually all your own.
It’s surprising how often and how quickly power delusions set in once you’re suddenly the focus of some extra media attention, and briefly taste the top job. Intemperate comments lead to skewed headlines in the media summer silly season. You give a “soft” telly interview down on the farm, and pretty soon you’re confusing the nation over the GST – or leading a morals drive and inviting the media to focus on the marital fidelity of your fellow politicians.
Behaviour like this can spoil holidays. Before long, you’ve got the PM’s principal adviser on the phone wanting to know just when it is you plan the coup d’etat, and how many soldiers are massing at Bungendore, ready for orders to sweep into the ACT and overthrow parliament on your behalf? Or sometimes it’s the PM himself – and that’s just what you don’t want.
It’s wise to avoid this type of confusion, and wiley Doug Anthony was one acting PM who knew the traps of temporary incumbency. As National Party leader and Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition deputy in the late ’70s, Anthony headed off every summer to his caravan on the NSW north coast, where he ran the country, watered the concrete yard for the cameras, gave a couple of innocuous interviews and behaved himself.
He knew his limits, headed back to obscurity when Malcolm returned from Nareen, sired a ministerial successor, Larry, and lived to inspire as his legacy a mediocre cabaret troupe, the Doug Anthony Allstars. As Churchill said of Attlee: “He is a modest man, with much to be modest about”. And so should your average acting PM.
Stop Acting, Start Doing
Once the PM returns to claim the keys to the Dassault Falcon twin jet, the game changes. From acting, to doing, Brian swung back into political mode. His portfolio experience was broad and his understanding of the wheels of policy, deep.
Much time was spent travelling the country anointing new infrastructure projects – mosquito drains in Dubbo; housing and public facilities in Newcastle; the Brisbane-Gold Coast rail link; medium density (ie: civilised and humane) public housing in the depressed Elizabeth in SA. Not always the kind of events you’d see big name politicians back in the mid ’90s, when large-scale public infrastructure smacked of centralised planning and worse – Big Government.
But Howe understood very well the dynamics of regional development. While the Coalition was talking income tax cuts and small government, he put in place the regional infrastructure that strengthened Labor’s relationship with the bush. The eastern Labor Premiers Bob Carr, Peter Beattie and, most spectacularly, Steve Bracks, owe considerably to this heritage. And John Howard is now reaping his own regional legacy; failure, mounted on anger, fuelled by neglect – and nailed to bush communities like an old faded calendar on an outback dunny door.
For a press secretary, the task of getting the message out to the media on infrastructure was a challenge – especially when the big projects had been announced, re-announced then announced again, and the electronic news bulletins had moved on to the cut and thrust politics of the day. By early ’95 the government was showing signs of entropy, with public servants leaking damaging details of proposed Budget cuts, and John Howard taking control of the Opposition, after the disastrous Downer experiment. The media wasn’t looking for good news stories.
Inside the Government, rival political agendas were eating away at Brian’s hold on his position. This was feeding through to a press gallery which increasingly saw Howe as flaccid deputy. They remembered him giving a tub-thumping, book-slamming anti-GST media conference in 1993, getting fired up and storming straight into a cupboard on his way out in front of the giggling gallery pack. They looked at his portfolio – Housing and Regional Development – and scoffed at its irrelevance to “the main game”. They called him the weatherman because of his Les Patterson style of expectoration when delivering impassioned doorstop press conferences. No one wanted to stand in front of the weatherman at doorstops, especially in Canberra’s winter when liquid freezes on your skin.
Early on, I organised a series of ministerial briefings with some of the brighter sparks of the press gallery, trying to get some of Brian’s issues back on the agenda. But one-on-one interviews with the media were not the forte of a man strong on policy detail but short on catchy media grabs.
A few minutes into one briefing with Margo Kingston and Anne Davies, Brian starts sinking into his chair, his voice slows and reduces to a gruff whisper until he resembles Brando’s godfather. The reporters give up trying to get new, fresh information after half an hour. On her way out, having wasted an hour of her life, Margo tilts her head and looks at me as if I’m a One Nation supporter, or some similar crackpot: “Good luck,” she smiles. “You’ll need it.”
Partisans & Pragmatists
In politics, there’s generally two types of media advisor: the partisan, and the pragmatist. Our ideologically committed partisan would die in the trenches for their political party and/or boss. John Howard’s current media man, Tony O’Leary, fits this profile, as does former Hawke press boss Colin Parkes and long time federal Labor media man David Epstein. Which is not to say the partisans can’t be pragmatic: Epstein, as head of Animals, Labor’s national media liaison service, was as calculating and risk-averse a character as you’ll find in politics. Malcolm Fraser’s press secretary David Barnett is one of the many ideological warriors who have taken jobs as pr flaks.
The second type take a more detached view of their role. They are more likely to see a political pr job as part of the continuum of their career, typically slipping back into journalism after their spell in politics.
Many, like me, see advisory position as a chance to examine government on the inside. Journalists are intensely curious, and drawn to the action – whether it’s a burning building or the fire of political office. Barrie Cassidy, Bob Hawke’s press secretary, is one who jumped back into the press gallery after a stint as Hawke’s formidable media man.
Partisan or pragmatist, it’s never easy to dissemble to your former colleagues in the media. Every press secretary with any depth of experience comes upon the dilemma: a journalist has come across a secret that politics directs cannot get out. Ultimately, you must either say what your boss tells you to say – or quit.
In my case, the Australian was on the phone wanting to know why Brian was planning to scrap negative gearing. A sacred cow which had grown to underpin the private housing market, Brian believed there were more efficient and fair ways of encouraging housing investment. He was exploring them with a small group of policy advisors, when a senior bureaucrat apparently let news slip at a business meeting.
I was told to deny it, and deny it I did. Equivocating would have sent a green light to the reporter. Saying you can neither confirm nor deny a story more or less confirms it. But mature journalists know the score – if they’re confident in their sources they will run the story anyway, and quote your denial. And the Australian did just that. Once the property sector read the news, there was no way the Government could endure a big campaign on the issues, and negative gearing stayed.
Bruno & Rino’s Big Behemoth
While its advisable to keep a cool, pragmatic head, it’s not hard to step over the line and become a participant. One of the iconic political issues in Victoria in the ’90s was the plan by Bruno & Rino Grollo to build the world’s tallest tower at the inner city Docklands development. Jeff Kennett strongly supported the Grollo behemoth, but many in the community saw it as monumentalism out of control. Brian had been quiet as debate raged. And when a study showed it would cast a gigantic shadow over Melbourne, this was too much for me.
I’m rampant, drafting the hardest-hitting declamatory press release you’ll never see, telling the Grollos not to thrust their rapacious shadow over our community. In I rush, to show Brian what a good soldier I am.
Greeting the good news with a sigh, he gives me the weary, tolerant expression kept for those comrades who may be mouthing the right words but just don’t quite understand the Mission.
“You obviously don’t know how much these people give us.”
I obviously didn’t. Leaving the room, doomed press release limply in hand, is that laughter I hear?
Later, I check how much of the ALP the Grollos “own”. It’s a relative pittance.
They’d donated some $50,000 over the previous 12 months – somewhat less than the Coalition got.
I’m not the right person to act as Howe’s political coroner. I’ll leave that to more impartial minds. In my mind, a throwaway line dismissing a media release he’d never asked for in the first place is hardly a hanging offence; hardly cash-for-consideration. Arguably, the Grollo tower was a State Government planning issue, and not much would have been achieved by grandstanding from Canberra.
Howe, a leathery, weatherbeaten political activist and minister-of-religion-turned-minister-of-government, had that rare political skill of never taking himself too seriously. Which meant that people nearly always underestimated him. And if you were to assume from this anecdote that Howe put the needs of party donors in front of good policy – I think you’d be underestimating him, too.
But the episode taught me not to try to read his mind. Mind reading is just one of the skills media flaks attempt, while constantly overstating the importance of their role. They don’t generate policy (although many try), and theirs is often a reactive role; dampening down negative media sentiment as much as trying to build good headlines.
In the runup to Budget ’95, big cuts were on the agenda. Even Paul’s patronage couldn’t save us from Beazley’s razor this time. Worried bureaucrats huddled in the office with Howe and various policy advisors trying to work out how to rescue programs pruned hard by Cabinet’s expenditure review committee (ERC).
I head outside, and almost get run over by Beazley heading for another cutting session. “Thanks for looking after my boss in ERC!”
Kim stops for a moment: What?
“Thanks minister – I hear positive reports on our Budget…”
Eyes lively with shining malice, Big Kim leans back, exhaling gales of deep deep laughter. The noise echoes down the corridor blowing briefing papers and public servants in its wake and rumbling through the double glass doors into the Press Gallery half a mile away. In the foothills over the Murrumbidgee, cockatoos flap and cackle in the unseasonably warm breeze. Nature is happy, Kim is happy, so I’m happy.
As Kim chuckles his way down the corridor blessing the poor fools in the SL, I’m reminded of a friend’s insightful words: People ask me: “Why are journalists biased towards Labor?” And I always say: Because Labor’s more fun.” Exit: visionary, Enter: mediocrity
By now, the people have decided they no longer want the nation led by an intense, brooding visionary. They want High Office returned to mediocrity, Chesterfield lounge suites and the two-dimensional world of a suburban solicitor. With Labor’s federal secretary Gary Gray’s polling showing certain, decisive and shocking defeat at any election held this millennium, succession planning is quietly afoot. Labor needs an electorally appealing deputy to Paul – someone to soften his image. The two candidates are a respected Labor minister, a man whose stature has grown with a succession of senior Cabinet portfolios under Hawke and Keating. A robust citizen with a heritage steeped in ideas and commonsense ideology – and Carmen Lawrence.
Brian has no intention of handing over to Lawrence, whose office is conducting a sweet little campaign to unseat him via a stream of silly leaks and off-the-record briefings to selected journalists. A former health minister, Brian took a passionate interest in Aboriginal health and housing, preaching self-determination and maintaining good relations with the then ATSIC commissioner, Lowitja O’Donohue. Intensely annoying to the Lawrence office, which saw Aboriginal health as its own patch.
During the Lawrence agitation, Laurie Oakes is on the phone on Friday afternoon wondering if Brian wants to come on the Sunday program. In Labor circles, Oakes has a reputation as the media man who matters. Certainly, he’s a disciplined interrogator, and has the power to deliver news direct to the heartland electorate tuning in to Nine at 6pm. And the Sunday interview often sets the tone for the week’s political coverage.
Everyone’s on edge about this kind offer. Overstating my case, as usual, I declare: “Brian will have lost authority if he turns this down.” Principal advisor Rob Hudson reminds me of the Oakes file – primarily a couple of Bulletin pieces explaining in strong terms why Brian is a liability as Deputy PM and should go. Looking forward 48 hours, I can imagine Brian’s entrails lying on the studio floor, with Laurie the Lion clawing triumphantly at the Christian corpse. I’m ready to fire. With policy advisor Leith Greenslade looking on, and steam rising, I dial Oakes: “Are you going to do the right thing this time, Laurie!” I practically shout down the phone. That’s my way of saying: “Thanks for the kind invitation, Laurie. Brian would be delighted to come on your show.”
The interview is benign, but with paranoia descending over the office, it’s hard to see everyone getting out unscathed.
Beazley’s office, meanwhile, concentrated on doing their job – keeping government spending in check, ruthlessly and efficiently. Brian’s snap decision to stand down in mid-’95 gave Lawrence no time to marshall votes in the party room, and Caucus elected Beazley unopposed.
Not that the new deputy was going to save Labor from defeat. At best it could only staunch the electoral bleeding.
In the final, horrible days of election ’96, Labor’s doomed fight to retain power lurches towards Stalingrad. Keating is refusing to talk to Gray, who’s calling the PM mad, while Treasurer Ralph Willis’ people wind him up and let him run around Parliament House waving forged documents allegedly showing a Jeff Kennett-John Howard conspiracy to defraud the nation. Beyond desperation. Madness.
By this time, I’m long gone from the scene. With a small payout, I back the Coalition to win the election at 4/6 with Centrebet in the Northern Territory. Easy money. It ‘s the best price for a two horse race since I backed Schillachi at 9/2 in the ’92 Galaxy. Only difference was I watched Schillachi give Rembetica eight kilos and a thrashing under Damien Oliver. We cheered the mighty Grey all the way down the Randwick straight, and toasted him into the night, and didn’t we curse the man who gelded him. When John Howard wins me my money it is Mardi Gras night, it’s raining all down Oxford Street and I wind up the next day with a different sort of hangover altogether.
After an extended holiday in Sydney, my flatmate Scoop instructs me to see Janet Hansen: “She’s a lovely lady, and she’s looking for a corporate PR person with Richard Ellis.”
Hmmm, Richard Ellis. Yes, I’ve heard of him. “It’s not a him. It’s a real estate agency. They sell office blocks in Sydney, and factories in Footscray and penthouse apartments on the Gold Coast. They’re a 200 year old blue chip professional services firm and you must behave.” Thanks Scoop.
He is correct on all counts, and the next week I’m writing my first press release about Milton. The suburb, not the poet. We’re selling a fine new industrial estate down there, with a strong lease covenant and freeway access; suits vinyl cladding facility, wholesale distribution centre, or similar.
Labor is a fading nightmare, and the joys of corporate public relations stretch before me.