John Howard Iraq War
Former prime minister John Howard who Hillary Bray declared war on (Image: AAP/David Moir)

When Antony Green unexpectedly showed up at one of our Crikey subscriber nights at the Green Park Hotel in Paddington almost 20 years ago, I quickly rang Christian Kerr at home and urged him to come down.

Sure, our mad, bad and dangerous to know Hillary Bray gossip columnist had some day job lobbying deadlines for his big German construction company employer Baulderstone Hornibrook, but having the legendary ABC election analyst on board was a big catch, so he quickly hopped in a cab.

For someone so keen to meet a Green at the Green Park, it didn’t quite follow that Christian later became such an implacably trenchant critic of the Greens as a political party, but the relationship with Antony Green started that night when Christian approached him in the downstairs bathroom with a simple, hushed “I’m Hillary.”

Looking back yesterday on a 19-year friendship with the urbane but troubled renaissance man, Antony Green is prepared to make an admission — which is quite telling as we debate whether anonymous social media accounts should be banned.

“Yes, like many other people, I would send Hillary stuff that I would never put out under my own name, whether it be insider knowledge or a suggested choice insult,” Christian’s favourite Green told Crikey.

The depth and breadth of Christian’s Crikey sources is still only starting to become apparent. Former Liberal Party staffer turned refugee advocate and barrister Greg Barns is another prepared to ’fess up as part of his tribute to a man who helped turn coverage of Canberra on its head, commencing with the launch edition of Crikey on February 14, 2000, some four years into the Howard era.

“Yes, I was a proud Hillary assistant,” Barns said last night, reflecting on the man he first met when both were small-l Liberal staffers in Parliament House during the first three years of the Howard government. Barns worked for John Fahey and Christian served Robert Hill and Amanda Vanstone.

“I was occasionally a substitute Hillary to the point of even being a fake Hillary and the convenient fall guy whenever the accusations flew as to who the real Hillary was,” Barns said.

Another prolific source was retired northern beaches small-l Liberal Don Wormald, 67, who once contested a preselection contest against Bronwyn Bishop and recalled yesterday that Peter Costello accused him of being “the second L” in Hillary.

“I looked at my records yesterday and discovered 300 pages of stuff spanning more than 60,000 words that I’d sent to Christian on behalf of the NSW moderates as us proud small-l Liberals took on the religious right,” Wormald said. “He was so quick, so funny and an absolute font of knowledge.”

Unlike Barns, who knew Christian before Hillary launched and was in on the giggle from the outset, the Wormald relationship started out anonymously online but, like so many of the connections made during that period, later flourished and remained strong right up until his shock death on Tuesday night.

Bernard Keane wrote a lovely tribute to Christian yesterday but was wrong to attribute any of those political nicknames for real people to me. Bob Carr as “The Malthus of Maroubra” was 100% Christian.

Unsurprisingly, some people didn’t much like their nicknames. Barry O’Farrell was regularly derided as “Fatty O’Barrell” and on leadership questions the views of the “Anyone but Barry” faction received a regular airing. Wormald recalls that this prompted the future NSW premier to confront him in his electorate office one night and “show me the door with great alacrity and a degree of force”.

Like the breadth of his sources, there was so much more to Christian than anyone really knew.

His biggest editorial coup was a succession of scoops in 2002 which effectively destroyed the Democrats, triggering Crikey’s first short-listing for a Walkley, as was noted in this tribute to Christian when he regrettably defected to News Corp in 2008.

No one ever really pointed out that when it came to Christian outing himself as Hillary Bray to The Sunday Age in 2004, he chose to do it through a former Democrats staffer, Susan Brown. Again, another Hillary correspondent who became a trusted friend. Susan has written separately on how this happened and her relationship with Christian.

Christian’s family background is about as old Adelaide and small-l Liberal as you can get.

One of his direct great-, great-grandparents on his mother’s side was George Goyder, the original surveyor-general of South Australia and the Northern Territory, who drew the Goyder Line, beyond which agricultural development was not to be pursued.

His parents, Nick and Eveleen, were classic small-l Liberal social justice campaigners. Christian was a baby in their arms when they were arrested for marching for Indigenous Australians not to be treated like flora and fauna ahead of the 1967 referendum.

Nicholas Kerr was a journalist who had a papal knighthood and edited The Southern Cross newspaper for many years, before becoming a minister in the Uniting Church. He died in July and his remarkable life was captured in this obituary.

Arguably the most important professional relationship in Christian’s life was with Christopher Pyne, who is godfather to one of his two children. They have been close for almost 40 years. They even sound the same. The pair of moderates met at Adelaide University and quickly transferred from student politics to the real game when they orchestrated the 1993 stacking of the seat of Sturt, as Pyne audaciously defeated the incumbent Ian Wilson in a preselection battle with Christian running the numbers and the strategy.

Christian then spent three years running Pyne’s electorate office until the 1996 Howard victory, but it only took four years after that for Christian, tacitly supported by Pyne, to effectively declare war on Howard’s right-wing faction via his Hillary Bray columns as “the rodent” took the party steadily to the right on issues such as reconciliation, refugees and the republic.

Pyne consequently remained out in the cold for most of the Howard years when it came to ministerial gigs, but then came to the fore during the Turnbull years. Turnbull was one of many paying tribute to Christian on Twitter yesterday, along with fellow moderate Marise Payne.

After he returned to the Liberal fold as a political journalist for The Australian in 2008, Christian took the time to try to mend some of the fences he’d broken. This included a personal and private apology direct to Howard for some of the early things Hillary had written about him.

The Hillary columns might have been uncomfortable for Howard but the content was absolutely captivating for Crikey readers. As Brown summed up in her piece: “The insight and accountability s/he created with a gossip column was extraordinary … He set a fire in Australian politics.”

And for that, the Crikey community owes Christian Kerr an enormous debt of gratitude. May this inspiring trailblazer rest in peace.