Press gallery doyen Laurie Oakes has announced his retirement, at 73, from the Nine Network after almost 50 years reporting on federal politics. The legendary correspondent will finish up on August 18, telling Nine he’ll find it hard to give it up, but he is looking forward to spending more time reading crime thrillers.
Oakes is famous for his scoops — he received the 1980 budget days before it was released, he revealed Labor’s plan to accept a cash donation from Iraq’s socialist party in 1976, and he released the details of a leadership pact made between Paul Keating and Bob Hawke in 1988.
In 2010, he derailed then-prime minister Julia Gillard’s National Press Gallery speech when he attended — a surprise, in itself — and asked questions based around his knowledge of a meeting between Gillard, her predecessor Kevin Rudd and then-defence minister John Faulkner the night before Rudd was rolled as PM.
And just a few weeks ago, he shook up the international media with a leaked tape of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull doing an impression of US President Donald Trump at the off-the-record Midwinter Ball.
Most controversially, he broke the open secret of Cheryl Kernot’s affair with Gareth Evans in 2002, saying her book neglecting the topic amounted to a “falsehood”. The episode has been largely absent from tributes to Oakes published today. He hinted at the “secret” Kernot had in a column in The Bulletin, before revealing the affair on Nine (Stephen Mayne published the explosive details in Crikey before Oakes’ Nine broadcast). At the time, Oakes said the decision to reveal the five-year affair was difficult, but according to an ABC report at the time, said: “The problem is there is no right answer in a situation like that.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported Oakes’ explanation of the revelation:
“As a result of that, aspersions were cast on a whole lot of other people, blame was cast as to what happened to her, when obviously this underlying thing, this steamy affair, was crucial to what happened to her, crucial to her lapses of judgement. Look, it even decided when Gareth Evans left politics.”
Early last year, Oakes told The Australian the scoop he was most proud of was when the Whitlam government planned to appoint Democratic Labour Party senator Vince Gair as ambassador to Ireland in 1974 to manipulate Senate numbers.
His former editor at The Bulletin, Fairfax’s Garry Linnell, wrote for his publications today that Oakes was “as intimidating to editors as he was to seasoned frontbenchers”.
“Had he not pursued journalism, he’d have made a good dentist. Your tooth would have been out before your mouth was open,” Linnell said.
Oakes has been scaling back his work over the past few years — he hasn’t been doing Sunday political interviews, which were once essential viewing for political junkies, or travelling overseas with the gallery journalists. He told the ABC’s 7.30 in 2010 that he would “phase out slowly”, and that the overseas travel was “a young person’s game”.
He started his career as a journalist at University of Sydney’s paper, Honi Soit, and worked for the Daily Mirror, Melbourne Sun-Pictorial and Ten before moving to Nine in 1984, where he remained for the rest of his career.
He was one of the last of the old guard in the gallery — one of the “God correspondents”, as Margaret Simons called them in her 1999 book Fit to Print: Inside the Canberra Press Gallery. There are only a couple of reporters still working who worked in Old Parliament House, with close direct access to politicians and public servants.
Oakes’ last day will be August 18.