Janet Albrechtsen is a right-wing rage machine. She slams the ABC as a “Soviet-style workers’ collective” and attacks asylum seekers who complain about their “positively five-star” detention centre accommodation. When a mental health lobby group asked her to stop using the term schizophrenic as an insult, she fired off a column accusing them of being “word-morons”.
Albrechtsen polarises her colleagues and receives mountains of hate mail (readers have called her everything from a “stupid bitch” to a “Nazi propagandist”). Left-wing politicians froth at the mouth when you mention her name. Former Labor leader Mark Latham described her as a “filthy hypocrite” and a “skanky ho who would die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party”. Greens leader Bob Brown said: “Nastiness is the hallmark of her writing.”
But the opinionista seems genuinely bemused when The Power Index asks her why she gets up so many people’s noses.
“Maybe it’s the tone of my writing,” she suggests. “Some people say I write like a man — whatever that means.”
Albrechtsen looks like a Nordic newsreader — blond, blue-eyed, tanned, teeth so white they’d glow in the dark — but she’s rarely seen or heard besides the odd appearance on Q&A. This undermines her influence, as does the fact her readership is small compared to Piers Akerman, Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt. She doesn’t blog and she doesn’t tweet. Issues that infuriate her — judicial activism, the United Nations’ failings, the evils of proportional representation — bore most ordinary punters, and her rigid free-market beliefs dilute her mainstream appeal. Albrechtsen is a vigorous supporter of huge CEO salaries, workplace deregulation and the privatisation of government assets.
Nevertheless, she wields real influence among Australia’s political, legal and business elites. Albrechtsen’s readership at The Australian may be small but it’s highly educated and highly engaged. Her ruthlessly analytical columns generate more feedback than all the paper’s other writers combined. On some Wednesdays (the day her column is published) she receives 500 reader emails before breakfast.
She’s carved out a niche as Australia’s answer to Ayn Rand: anyone who’s anyone in conservative intellectual circles reads her, as do the bigwigs in the Liberal Party.
Albrechtsen is a risk taker and an agenda setter. She’s willing to run hard on issues that no one else is talking about, then bang on about them until she gets her way. The best example is her decades-long campaign against an Australian bill of rights. “All my legal friends said: ‘Why would you write about this? Only lawyers care about a bill of rights.’ But I thought it was an issue that went to the heart of our democratic system, and I was right. People feel very strongly about it,” she says. After a long and expensive consultation process, Kevin Rudd eventually abandoned plans to introduce a rights charter — in no small part because of opposition whipped up by Albrechtsen and her allies. The issue is now off the agenda for a generation.
Whatever Latham says, she’s no Liberal stooge. “I’m a small ‘l’ liberal — I’m not a member of the Liberal Party,” she says. “I have no concerns about criticising the Liberal Party whatsoever.” John Howard lavished praise on her as The Australian‘s best columnist and appointed her to the board of the ABC. That didn’t stop her bagging him for splurging on middle-class welfare or calling for him to resign before the 2007 election.
“It was a talking point in our world,” says The Australian‘s former opinion editor Tom Switzer. “The entire APEC conference was overshadowed by Janet’s column.”
Howard called her and tried to convince her to change her mind but, like her idol Margaret Thatcher, the lady wasn’t for turning. On election night, Howard admitted to her that she had been right.
One of her more recent targets is Malcolm Turnbull. Albrechtsen — who lives in Turnbull’s affluent eastern Sydney electorate of Wentworth — championed him early in his political career and pleaded with him not to retire when he lost the Liberal leadership. Now, she wouldn’t mind seeing the back of him. “Politics is a team sport,” she says. “Malcolm needs to decide if he is going to be part of the team or not. If not, he probably shouldn’t be there.”
Albrechtsen, the daughter of Danish immigrants, grew up in a lower-middle class neighbourhood in Adelaide. She graduated in law with honours from the University of Adelaide and moved to Sydney to work at top-tier law firm Freehills. It was there she met her future husband, John O’Sullivan, the head of investment banking at Credit Suisse. The pair has three children aged under 18.
Albrechtsen left Freehills after four years in 1992 to pursue her long-standing interest in journalism and was given a trial run in the business section at The Sydney Morning Herald.