Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Andrew Bolt is an exceptional writer. His sentences are short and sharp; his words fizz with fury. He grabs the reader’s attention from the first line and refuses, like a dog with a bone, to let it go until he’s done.
No wonder he’s the nation’s best-read columnist. A staggering 11.7 million Australians pick up a paper featuring his column each week and around 3.5 million actually read it, according to Roy Morgan sectional readership data.
But his column is only the start of his influence. The Bolt orchestra plays all through the week, making his tunes impossible to ignore.
There’s his Sunday chat show, The Bolt Report, with an audience of 233,000, and he’s regularly called in to pontificate on Ten News. Then there are his daily rants on Melbourne radio station MTR where he shares a 40-minute slot with Steve Price.
But most importantly, there is his blog.
Bolt blogs like a man possessed. It’s not unusual for him to start posting entries before 6am and continue until midnight. No other Australian commentator uses the medium as effectively to ram home a point, whip up outrage, tear down opponents and mobilise supporters. His site, which has been running since 2005, attracts almost 275,000 unique browsers a month, making it the most-read political blog in the land.
Despite this enormous reach, there’s no shortage of ideological foes ready to dismiss Bolt as a blowhard beloved only by wingnuts on the far-right. To Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton, he’s “Melbourne’s village idiot”; to author John Birmingham he’s a “worthless blood clot”.
But Paul Howes has a warning for his comrades: underestimate Bolt at your peril. The union boss rates Bolt as a “devastating advocate” for conservative causes — as does Mark Latham.
The former Labor leader, who once called Bolt a “fraudster” in federal parliament, is now certain his one-time bête noire wields more power than shock jocks such as Alan Jones or Ray Hadley. “He’s more intelligent than these other characters,” Latham tells The Power Index. “He’s more articulate, better informed and, on the issues, he’s a more effective campaigner.”
On the other side of politics, Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger is also a Bolt booster: “It’s extraordinary how powerful he is.”
Kroger says Bolt doesn’t just preach to the converted: “He converts the doubters, he makes arguments for people — that’s why he’s influential.”
So influential that in 2006 Kroger tried to enlist him as a replacement for left-leaning MP Petro Georgiou in the blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong. “Bolt would have won any preselection,” says Kroger, “he is a revered figure among Liberal voters.”
Hard as it is to believe, this is the same man who spent the first 30 years of his life as an unsuccessful drifter.
The son of Dutch immigrants, Bolt was born in Adelaide in 1959. An intensely shy boy, he found making friends even harder because his teacher father was always on the move — to Darwin, the Nullarbor, the Eyre Peninsula and Murray River to name a few.
Bolt’s nomadic life continued after finishing high school. After a year packing flowers and working in a paint factory in Holland, he started an arts degree at Adelaide University, then dropped out to take up a cadetship at The Age. But he didn’t belong there either.
“I was surrounded by other cadets who’d gone to university and got a degree, or were the daughter of an ex-editor of the paper, people that lived in South Yarra, that sort of thing, and they were all familiar with all the code words that I didn’t have,” he told the IPA’s Tony Barry earlier this year.
So back to Holland he went, then to Darwin to be with his belly dancer girlfriend and take a job as a staffer for a federal Labor — yes, Labor — MP. He would later go on to work for the aNiMaLS, Bob Hawke’s much-feared National Media Liaison Service, followed by an unsuccessful stint as publicity director of the South Australia State Opera.
In 1989 he begged The Herald‘s Melbourne editor Eric Beecher for a job, and the wanderlust found his home. He has worked for News Limited in Melbourne ever since.
But it took more than a decade for him to make a real mark.