Christian Kerr worked for Andrew Robb on the 1996 federal Liberal campaign and thinks his former captain will make an excellent member for Goldstein but the hard-hitting Lisa Liberal begs to differ in three no-holds-barred pieces for Crikey. See how the debate unfolded below and read to the bottom to see the full fascinating five round bout.


The problem with Andrew Robb

July 15 sealed section

The always hard-hitting Lisa Liberal writes:

What is it with Andrew Robb that causes him delusions that he should be given a seat in federal parliament and a blue ribbon one at that? Having shamelessly trailed his coat before the electorate Council of almost every blue ribbon Liberal seat in New South Wales, Robb is now touting for David Kemp’s Victorian seat of Goldstein.

Being comprehensively rebuffed by his home State, Robb now embarrassingly believes that he should be selected for a safe seat in another State – one he hasn’t lived in for 20 years.

His selection for a Victorian seat would send a clear message to the voters of that State that the Victorian Liberal Party does not have a candidate from within the State fit to send to Canberra and that other States’ rejects are the best it can do.

In any circumstances Robb has little to recommend him. He has never bothered to contribute to or participate in Liberal Party affairs outside his time as Federal Director for which he was richly financially rewarded.

Robb’s record of achievement in that role hardly recommends him for further office. While he sells himself as the architect and mastermind of Howard’s 1996 election, the truth is that election was principally designed and run by Howard.

Robb can however take full credit for the outcome of the 1993 John Hewson campaign. Hewson, lacking Howard’s experience and knowledge of campaigning, left Robb to run the campaign.

Having been an ardent supporter of Hewson’s GST, Robb made it the centerpiece of the election. In spite of Hewson announcing the GST months before the election, Robb and the federal secretariat did nothing during this period to convince the voters that they would be better off for the introduction of this new and apparently complicated tax.

Within days of the commencement of the election, Keating predictably was able to create doubt and anxiety about the GST. Robb’s response to the initial polling was to panic. He immediately pulled all GST advertising. Hewson was now in the middle of a campaign with no advertising about the core issue upon which he hoped to be elected.

Rob’s strategy of refusing to explain or defend the GST left Keating and Labor free to demolish and demonise Hewson and his new tax. The rest, as they say, is history.

Robb’s more recent political skills were on display when he headed up a failed campaign to fight for a Republic during the referendum campaign. Taking on the Prime Minister added to the touch of political wit, particularly for a sometime political lobbyist.

The fact that Rob survived calls from within the parliamentary party for his sacking following the 1993 election debacle is one thing, to attempt to launch a parliamentary career on his record is quite another.

CRIKEY: Check out Stateline’s effort on the Goldstein preselection possibilities here.

Christian Kerr defends his former boss

July 21, 2004

By Crikey political editor Christian Kerr

Lisa Liberal’s attack on Andrew Robb was silly. Silly and unfair. Michelle Grattan’s column in the Age this morning is absolutely right. “Andrew Robb’s emergence is good for the party and the Prime Minister.”

No impartial observer could possibly blame Robb for the 1993 election result.

If anything, 1990 was the unlosable election. Hawke was tired, his sheen had dulled and the economy was about to tank. The Libs, however, had an old and out of touch federal director in Tony Eggleton. His lack of street smarts and, the high-gloss but meaningless corporate style Bryce Courtney ad campaign he went for magnified Andrew Peacock’s weaknesses. Peacock might be a silvertail, but he always had a remarkable personal magnetism and knew how to work the campaign trail. “The Answer is Liberal” turned him into a joke.

The organisation Robb inherited was past it. The Party he had to work with was traumatised. And the leader he had to serve was brilliant, but fatally flawed.

John Hewson’s Fightback! remains a remarkable document. Its policy prescriptions tower over any of the patch up options offered by Prime Minister John Howard – recently described by Paul Kelly in the CIS journal Policy as a “two steps forward, one step backwards reformer”.

It exposed Bob Hawke’s policy drift, how entropy had struck the audacious and unprecedented economic reform agenda he, Paul Keating and Peter Walsh had driven. It destroyed his leadership and his authority. It successfully ended the career of one of our most popular political figures in a matter of weeks. And who was one of the most curial leaders of this campaign? Andrew Robb.

Fightback! failed because of Paul Keating’s political skills. We know John Hewson is a man with a soul. The public pain he has suffered over the last decade and his contributions to the Financial Review tell us so.

Yet in period from the release of Fightback! to the 1993 election, Hewson never showed this. One of the most fascinating yet sadly ignored recent books on Australian politics, John Hyde’s dry, brilliantly summarises the position:

“Hewson failed when he failed to communicate Fightback!’s moral basis. Merely by being unusually frank he laid early claim to the moral high ground but he was not then able to defend it. Accustomed to non-judgemental neoclassical economics he avoided visions and values. While not denying that visions and values both provide ready refuges for rogues, people must see the goal and see that it is being approached by means that are decent. Voters are not economists, but they do care. Fightback! was defeated by a false moral/argument, namely that it prejudiced the poor.”

Paul Keating painted John Hewson as the feral abacus – and John Hewson let himself be portrayed that way. That is why the Liberal Party lost in 1993. It had nothing to do with Andrew Robb.

After years of Peacock/Howard battles, John Hewson won the unquestioning loyalty of a Liberal Party desperate to avoid signs of disunity. He won the support for an audacious package.

He was an economist, not a politician – but knew enough about how to use that fear of division to get his own way. He was also intolerant of criticism. Fightback! was produced with remarkably little consultation with the Liberal Party itself, let alone wider groups.

At the time of its release it was hailed, but as time went on began to unravel because its novelty wore thin and Labor were able to better to pinpoint its central weaknesses – Hewson’s value-neutrality. What could Robb have done? Look at how hard one of the Liberal’s best operatives of the last quarter century, Petro Georgiou, a man who should be a minister, had to fight to get Hewson to make his last minute Fightback! Mk II concessions.

With the wisdom of hindsight, selling a GST from opposition was madness. The Libs did not win a majority of the two party preferred vote in the 1998 election – flogging a GST with all the advantages of Government.

Andrew Robb cannot be blamed for 1993 – and Lisa Liberal has chosen to ignore that all the people in Hewson’s circle have never raised Robb’s performance or the performance of the organisational wing when talking about the loss. Fingers were pointed much closer to home.

Robb learned from his mistakes in 1993 and left nothing to risk the next time around. The fact that he was even there is tribute to the man.

Financial Review journalist Pamela Williams’ book on the 1996 campaign, The Victory, is scarcely objective, but it remains the definitive work on the subject. And very early on it is made clear that John Howard thought of removing Robb when he returned as Liberal Leader in 1995.

Robb survived. And the more one looks back on those times and Howard’s conduct since his panic of early 2001, the more it looks as if Andrew Robb and pollster Mark Textor were the two men who guaranteed that Howard became Prime Minister, running on a plan of attack they had devised from the lessons of 1993 and had ready to roll out, no matter who the leader was.

I cannot be objective about Andrew Robb as a staffer in the 1996 Liberal Campaign Headquarters. All I will say is that he was a leader who inspired love and loyalty and keep us fighting, 18 hours a day, over five weeks to victory.

I have not seen Robb since 2001. He remains for me, however, a symbol of a time when a Howard Liberal Government was a cause worth fighting, not a source of shame.

Robb has escaped much of opprobrium heaped on the Howard Government. This is a lucky escape. We should lay much of the blame for the wedge politics that have debased debate during the Howard years at his and Textor’s feet. Perhaps it is because he got out early – before the shiftiness that characterises Howard’s administration became so clear.

Robb is a Catholic. He is a republican. Look at his background. He is not your typical Liberal. All this has meant that people such as Greg Barns – and me – have held our fire.

Have we laid off him unfairly? Maybe. Let’s test him now. His candidacy is a sign of renewal. He has the potential to be an excellent Member for Goldstein. He also has potential to restore a sense of honour to the party I once loved.

Christian Kerr can be contacted at christian @crikey.com.au

Lisa Liberal hits back at Robb and Kerr

July 22 sealed section


By hard-hitting commentator Lisa Liberal

Christian Kerr’s defence of Andrew Robb reflects the sentimental infatuation of a young staffer for his boss while swept up in the new and heady excitement of a federal campaign. It is however a confused, misguided and porous defence of the man he claims to have “inspired love and loyalty in him over a five week campaign.”

Kerr obviously knows nothing of the Liberal Party’s 1993 federal election. His claim that “all the people in Hewson’s circle have never raised Robb’s performance or the performance of the organisational wing when talking about the loss” is absurd nonsense. He might start by asking Hewson how he viewed the abandoning of all campaign GST advertising. The criticisms within the parliamentary party room on Robb’s performance following the election are a matter of record.

Kerr tells Crikey readers that “Paul Keating painted John Hewson as the feral abacus – and John Hewson let himself be portrayed that way. That is why the Liberal Party lost in 1993. It had nothing to do with Andrew Robb.”

Whatever does Kerr imagine is the role of a campaign director during a campaign? It was of course in the absence of a defence of “Fightback” that Keating was able to exploit fear of such a radical change in the taxation system.

Kerr’s claim that “Robb learned from his mistakes in 1993” is at least an admission that he made them. The truth is Howard dictated the strategy and direction of the 1996 campaign and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

Robb’s damage to the Party did not finish with the 1993 campaign. In 1994 he stupidly employed in the federal secretariat, a well known Labor Party advisor and confidant who promptly accessed very damaging confidential Liberal Party polling on Hewson and passed it onto Kerry O’Brien. Hewson, who had known nothing of the polling until confronted by O’Brien, was ambushed with it on Lateline.

The federal secretariat became riddled with distrust and suspicion; the leaking did enormous damage to the Party and Hewson was subsequently dumped in favour of Downer. Kerr might like to also ask Hewson to comment on that unhappy circumstance and of Robb’s judgement in employing a person with intimate and well known Labor Party links.

What in particular Robb brings to the parliamentary party is not explained by Kerr other than, according to Kerr, Robb is “a Catholic a Republican and not your typical Liberal”.

What is known is that for a good part of his working life Robb has been employed as a CEO for voluntary organisations and more recently has become a political lobbyist on the back of the political connections he made as Liberal Party Federal Director. Both sides of politics have more than enough political hacks.

In incessantly commending those whom he perceives may share his political views and condemning those who don’t, Kerr invariably replaces sentiment with substance. It adds nothing to the sum total of human knowledge.


Christian Kerr responds to Lisa Liberal – again

“Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”

Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Yes Lisa, I admit it. I’m a sook. I’m “sentimental”. That’s why I’ve written what I’ve written about Andrew Robb. But it’s better for a political leader to inspire love and loyalty than get shot by their own mutineering lieutenants, don’t you think?

I’ve only ever met two farmers from the Western Australian wheat belt in my life – John Hyde and Peter Walsh. I don’t think either of them were sooks. Especially not Hyde. Lean, lined, lanky blokes who have lost an arm in a threshing machine tend not to be. So let’s just look at what he had to say about why Fightback! failed again, shall we?

“Hewson failed when he failed to communicate Fightback!’s moral basis. Merely by being unusually frank he laid early claim to the moral high ground but he was not then able to defend it. Accustomed to non-judgemental neoclassical economics he avoided visions and values. While not denying that visions and values both provide ready refuges for rogues, people must see the goal and see that it is being approached by means that are decent. Voters are not economists, but they do care. Fightback! was defeated by a false moral argument, namely that it prejudiced the poor.”

The sentimental stuff, in other words.

I don’t know where you were in 1992, Lisa, but when I watched Question Time in the Reps every day that year, that’s exactly what Paul Keating used to flay the Liberal Party – day in, day out. Heaven knows the punters had enough reasons to hate Paul Keating after the recession we had to have – but John Hewson never seemed able to tackle him over who cared most for ordinary Australians.

Hewson held the policy high ground. There’s no doubt about that. We all know what Keating’s counterpunch, the “One Nation” economic statement and it’s L-A-W law tax cuts were worth. Still, come 1993, voters rejected the “visiting professor” who, they believed, simply regarded them as interesting subjects for experiment.

Why? Because his economic experiment was all he would talk about. It was central to his leadership. It was all he gave his campaign director, Andrew Robb, to work with. Robb didn’t do a bad job at all.

Remember that pamphlet that went into every letterbox in the country within days of Fightback!’s release, Lisa? Two volumes of Access Economics wonkery down to a double-sided A3. Not bad. But that was the only sort of thing he could do because nothing, not anything, would get Hewson to change his approach. All we got was the economics. Not the values.

Remember, Lisa, how these were the days where “disunity is death” was still etched on everyone’s minds? We’d just put all that Howard/Peacock stuff behind us. No one was going to disagree with the leader. That’s why we ended up with a policy package imposed from above.

Lisa, you must be getting old. You seem to forget the grip that John Hewson had on the Liberal Party. Hewson had us in a grip so tight that we decided we could sell a GST, the abolition of tariffs, massive IR changes, Medicare co-payments and a revision of the welfare system from Opposition.

It was, of course, much too complicated. Much too much. All at once. And with completely no context other than the economic.

Petro and a few others got him to see sense and tweak it at the edges at the end of 1992, but it was too late then.

Lisa, you suggest that I should ask “Hewson how he viewed the abandoning of all campaign GST advertising”. Surely you know that defending Fightback! at this stage would have only played into Labor’s hands? Scarce resources would have been spent reinforcing the Labor’s arguments against the package. We were in a no-win situation. Every time one wave of attack was turned, another would have been breaking over us.

We invited negative messages and negative ads – the most effective campaigning combination. And that’s why I say Andrew Robb had learned from his mistakes when 1996 rolled around.

He had a different leader – one who didn’t particularly want him – but at least he persuaded him to make himself the smallest possible target and to wrap the policies he offered in some sort of philosophical cover. The headland speeches weren’t much, but they were better than the WordPerfect table that provided the sole breaks from the text in Fightback!.

As for these lines, Lisa – well, really! “Robb’s damage to the Party did not finish with the 1993 campaign. In 1994 he stupidly employed in the federal secretariat, a well known Labor Party advisor and confidant who promptly accessed very damaging confidential Liberal Party polling on Hewson and passed it onto Kerry O’Brien. Hewson, who had known nothing of the polling until confronted by O’Brien, was ambushed with it on Lateline.

“The federal secretariat became riddled with distrust and suspicion; the leaking did enormous damage to the Party and Hewson was subsequently dumped in favour of Downer. Kerr might like to also ask Hewson to comment on that unhappy circumstance and of Robb’s judgement in employing a person with intimate and well known Labor Party links.”

C’mon, Lisa, say it. We’re talking about Malcolm McGregor here. One of my type. A cleaned up addict with a soft spot for RFK. So what? What does McGregor do now? Exactly! He’s working under deep, deep cover for the Federal Government. He’s John Howard’s spinner for the spooks. Who would have ever thought he’d even get his security clearance back?

McGregor may have been a former Labor campaigner. Doesn’t being able to second-guess your opponents help? Isn’t there always someone around whose job there is to do that? McGregor was not only perfectly suited to that role. He was – is – an excellent operator with plenty of experience gathered on the ground in the United States.

Tony Eggleton also had a fondness for hiring people outside of the party to work in the secretariat when he didn’t want his staff playing factional politics. You remember that, don’t you, Lisa?

And while McGregor was a naughty boy to leak the polling on Hewson, it at least allowed let us get rid of him when it had been clear for a very long time that he had failed. Any veteran of politics should appreciate the irony. The Libs needed a former Labor man to do the dirty work for them and dump the garbage.

I’ve always had the impression that you were a pro, Lisa. That you played hardball. You surely understand that the silly “gentlemen versus players” distinctions are maintained in the Liberal Party but that everyone else had long since dropped when we started referring to tests against England, not the MCC, hold your cause back.

Why oppose training and developing a professional political class within your own party? Why oppose someone like Andrew Robb? Don’t you want to have people who can turn humiliating defeat into triumph then bow out – but still find the time to help keep the finances of your most important state division in the black – ready to parachute into a safe seat when the opportunity arises?

I’ve admitted my prejudices. People like Greg Barns and myself, people who are normally ashamed of the roles we played in the shabby charade that is the Howard Government, have probably left Robb alone in the past because he is a republican, because of his Catholic roots. If he’s the candidate for Goldstein, if he’s headed for the frontbench, he’s fair game. Consider the bias gone, Lisa. The scales have fallen from my eyes.

I don’t know who you are Lisa but I’m presuming you understand power and are or were a genuine Liberal Party player. You almost sound as if you don’t like Andrew Robb because he was someone you could never control? Different faction perhaps? You claim my thoughts on Robb add “nothing to the sum total of human knowledge”. Will knowing where you’re coming from? I’ve come out, why don’t you?

Lisa Liberal responds one last time

Sentimentality and loyalty to an old boss have their place however not in search of the truth. Christian Kerr seems to believe that he can obscure the reality Andrew Robb’s performance as federal director and merit as a future parliamentarian by stamping his foot louder at every objection.

Sheltering behind repetition and fulmination might do for student politics however Kerr should be well beyond that. Kerr begins his further piece by telling readers that he is a sook but former federal Liberal MP, John Hyde whom he calls to his aid is not because he is “lean, lined and lanky and lost an arm in a thrashing machine.”

Apparently tall thin men who have lost an arm in a machinery accident are not sooks. What a curious start in defence of Andrew Robb.

The repetitious invocation of Hyde’s name does nothing for Kerr’s case. Neither a verse from Dylan Thomas nor a paragraph from Hyde’s book makes him an authority on either. Hyde, best remembered intellectually as a poor man’s Bert Kelly, lost any claim to the moral high ground as far back as 1981 when he sold his soul to Treasurer John Howard by supporting and voting for retrospective taxation legislation.

It later took Andrew Peacock as Party Leader to expunge the indelible stain on the Liberal Party of that odious piece of legislation by vowing that never again would the Liberal Party impose a retrospective tax.

Equally, Hyde is certainly no authority on campaign nuances. He never did understand the art of politics or campaigning; needlessly losing a relatively safe seat for the Liberal Party. It was apparently with considerable pride that Hyde thought it to his credit that he frequently instructed his electors in the terms used by his eighteenth century idol, Edmund Burke when Burke addressed his constituents at the declaration of his poll. “Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Hyde was apparently unaware that the good burghers of Bristol promptly rewarded Burke for his candor by casting him from office. Hyde suffered the same fate. Hyde’s claim that Hewson failed because he did not convey “Fightback’s moral basis” is nonsense. There is nothing altruistic about Australian voters. Enough voters were simply not convinced by the Liberal Party that there was a net gain in it for them. Hewson’s stumble over the wedding cake was not confusion over the morality of the tax.

Be that as it may, it is simply wrong to claim that Hewson did not explain “Fightback” beyond its economic virtues. Repetitious claims to the contrary will not change that fact. It is true to say that Hewson’s cause was not helped when he appointed the largely dim Fran Bailey as Shadow Minister to sell “Fightback.” So successful was Bailey in the task that she lost her own seat.

Kerr makes my point when he trumpets that Robb’s contribution to the “Fightback” campaign of enlightenment during the months leading up to the election was the distribution of a sole double sided A3 to every letter box. Having done nothing to assist in explaining the merits of “Fightback” prior to the election, Robb compounded his sin by refusing to do so during the election.

Robb’s failure was nothing less than an enormous blunder which probably cost the liberal Party government. Ignoring the need was never an option if the Liberal Party was to win. Sine qua non. The punters were never going to vote for something they did not understand particularly when the Liberal Party was so in fear of explaining it.

Kerr rushes to name Malcolm McGregor as Robb’s employee who stole polling information from the Liberal Party then sets out to glorify McGregor’s theft. I chose not to name McGregor because the article was about Robb’s judgement, not McGregor’s conduct.

Kerr, obviously in commendation of Robb employing McGregor has this appalling comment to make about McGregor’s theft. “And while McGregor was a naughty boy to leak the polling on Hewson, it at least allowed us to get rid of him when it had been clear for a very long time that he had failed. Any veteran of politics should appreciate the irony. The Libs needed a former labor man to do the dirty work for them and dump the garbage.”

Perhaps that obscene justification for McGregor’s treachery is equally a reflection upon its author. According to those close to Robb, following the O’Brien interview with Hewson, McGregor approached him to volunteer an absolute denial of being party to the theft. If Robb’s account is to be believed, McGregor is a liar and a thief.

There are those who view politics as being without known values; below morality, decency and acceptable human behaviour. For my part I do not.

Andrew Robb’s disastrous management of the 1993 federal election showed that he was hopelessly out of his depth and totally ill equipped for the task. His subsequent employment of McGregor did have significant adverse consequences at the time, not only for Hewson, but more particularly the wider Party. It also took a considerable period for the federal secretariat to regain the trust of the parliamentary party.

If Kerr honestly holds that Robb was responsible for the 1996 election strategy he is still hallucinating. Jeanette Howard had more input. If he thinks Loughnane and not Howard is going to be responsible for devising the 2004 federal election, he is still in recovery.

Kerr asks “Why oppose training and developing a professional political class within your own Party.” Presumably other than Robb he also has in mind, Petro Georgiou whom he claims should be a Minister. Unlike Robb, Petro certainly can lay claim to having run an excellent campaign. Together with the creative genius of Noel Delbridge and the excellent qualitative research of the late George Camakaris, Georgiou conceived and executed an outstanding Victorian State election strategy. It was to be adapted over in the West at their subsequent State election victory.

Georgiou’s transition to federal politics is quite another matter. He has been shown to be remarkably inept. Based on his performance as Victorian State Director and former Ministerial staffer, Howard offered Georgiou a parliamentary secretary’s position immediately upon coming to office, just two years after Georgiou entered parliament. Georgiou refused the promotion because he believed he deserved more. Leaders, least of all Howard do not forget rebuffs. Georgiou should have known that. Now an isolated dissident, he is further than ever from the Ministry.

It is perhaps time for Christian Kerr to gather up his sentiment and bias and move on to defend new heroes.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW