It was with shock and sadness that I learnt of Christian Kerr’s passing this morning. Veteran Crikey subscribers will remember Christian — and his nom de plume, Hillary Bray — who was Crikey’s political columnist supremo and later national affairs editor, from our wild early days until early 2008 when he departed for The Australian. Rowan Dean posted a short tribute to Christian this morning at The Spectator.
A corporate lobbyist, Kerr joined Stephen Mayne to make the early Crikey what it became best known for — a gossipy shit sheet (his own words) that dished on anyone and everyone from inside the building and became the highlight of the day for its many subscribers within Parliament House. In doing so, they created an entirely new form of political journalism, delivered by what was still, at that time, the wonder technology of email.
It’s fair to say Christian didn’t exactly approve of what Crikey became after his tenure, and he was unabashed in letting us know. But that doesn’t change how crucial he was to our early success.
I look forward to Stephen providing a better account, but from my then-external view as a mere reader, the best part about Kerr’s tenure at Crikey was the unfiltered voice it allowed him. Christian was a profoundly gifted and often hilarious writer, with a devastating skill in picking nicknames for his targets (one he shared with Mayne).
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Fairly rapidly, a glossary of nicknames was required for readers, and duly provided; while Stephen devised my all-time favourite soubriquet of “Malthus of Maroubra” for immigration-hating Bob Carr, Christian produced such classics as Count Yorga (David Kemp), Crocodile Dummee (Warren Entsch), the Cowardly Lion (John Anderson), Ah! Satan (Natasha Stott-Despoja), the Lounge Bar Bore (Alan Ramsey) and Uptown Girl (Sophie Mirabella).
Nor did Kerr feel in anyway restrained by press gallery rules, providing this account of the 2000 mid-winter press gallery ball
Just how relaxed and comfortable was the prime minister on Wednesday night? It’s scarcely far from Parliament House to the Lodge — but let’s just say it’s lucky the little fella has a driver. The consensus from the night is that the Hon John Winston Howard, MP, prime minister, was extremely comfortable and relaxed. Hillary, of course, can’t possibly comment on that — but when he took to the stage, the PM greeted gallery president Malcolm Farr with a high five. He then told the assembled hacks that they looked beautiful, before launching into the shortest prime ministerial speech in living memory.
If these allegations are actually true, then Hillary welcomes the return of a drinking prime minister. It’s been a long, long time since John Gorton was caught climbing the fence of the American Embassy late at night with a bottle under one arm and a bimbo under the other. Way to go, Johnny H!
And when Kerr opined, either jokingly or not, about political history — ours or that of the likes of the US and the UK — you could be sure of what he said. He was a political aficionado as much as a pop culture geek, ever ready to slip a Bob Dylan reference into his copy. “Google it,” he’d urge readers if he was being particularly obscure.
I went to Parliament House early in 2008, sneaking away from my-then job in the Public Service, to do a handover with Christian, who led me up to a tiny old desk with an ancient PC in a corner of an office occupied by the late Alan Thornhill, the wonderful, now retired, Mark Thornton, Workplace Express’ gun correspondent Bernadette McBride and what was then an empty desk of the Australian Jewish News, later to be filled by the excellent Naomi Levin. When I left 11 years later all had long since moved on. Christian lasted seven years at the Oz before succumbing to News Corp’s relentless cutbacks.
There’s probably no more room for snark-filled, in-jokey political gossip in the media landscape. Social media provides more than enough of that as it is, anyway. Even many of those nicknames of 20 years ago no longer pass any sort of taste test. But there should always be room for wonderful writers. Christian was one of them.