The Australian’s then editor-in-chief Les Hollings was seduced by Joh, John Stone and Katherine West to be a clandestine part of the Joh for Canberra campaign. He secretly met a number of time with Joh and Sir Robert Sparkes, a likeable old duffer but with some weird ideas (John Button once had lunch with him and told people afterwards that he didn’t understand a thing he said).

Hollings put enormous pressure on his Canberra bureau to give the Joh push some prominence. National correspondent Paul Kelly and his Canberra staff saw it as the “hokum” that it was, but came to the conclusion that the only way to deal with it (short of mass resignations) was that if Les Hollings wanted “Joh for Canberra” he would get Joh for Canberra.

Kelly met with Sparkes and other key players at the National Party Conference in Canberra and was given detailed information on the push – on a background basis. Kelly and The Oz Canberra bureau put Joh on the front page every day, probably to the extent of precipitating the National Party split from the Liberals and certainly forcing other mainstream media to play catch-up and take the Joh push more seriously.

As seen from Canberra, the Sydney backbench, which included chief sub and now editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, was either wildly enthusiastic or sullenly compliant. The Canberra bureau knew exactly what was going on and how to deal with Les’s obsession. In hindsight, however, we were probably complicit in the utter b*stardisation of the political process.

It will be interesting, when the full story is finally written, to learn what part Andrew Peacock, the souffle that tried to rise twice (to parody Paul Keating’s famous comment) played in fanning the Joh flames. After the 1987 election, John Howard made it pretty clear to Kelly and others on The Australian that they and their editor-in-chief Les Hollings wore a lot of blame for his election loss. He was probably right and he hasn’t forgotten it to this very day.

CRIKEY: This is getting more interesting by the day. Keep it coming in to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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