Learning The Labor Lockstep
By Bernard LaganOctober 29, 2012
The former journalist Maxine McKew tells a wonderful little story early in her new book, Tales from the Political Trenches, a memoir of three years inside the Labor Government. A little story, but, nevertheless, hugely telling.
But it didn’t happen in her years inside; the moment came some four years earlier — in 2003 — when the Labor Party sounded out McKew’s interest in running in a safe western Sydney seat. The then NSW premier, Bob Carr — now foreign minister — was encouraging. Later McKew had a conversation with Eric Roozendaal, one of the Labor Party’s deeply faceless men, who, at that stage, was the Labor Party’s NSW secretary — and a king maker to those with political ambitions.
Roozendaal, says McKew, had one question: Who will own you? Us or your hubby?
McKew’s partner was and is Bob Hogg, the well-regarded former national secretary of the Labor Party in the Hawke-Keating years and a man with little time for the miniscule attention spans of the backroom men of the NSW Labor Party.
As McKew writes, by the time she entered the lift outside Roozendaal’s office, she was out of the running — having realised that the price of a safe Labor seat was going to be a long dance to whatever tune was played by the NSW Right faction of the Labor Party.
McKew's book has garnered huge attention for what she writes about Julia Gillard’s role in the lead-up to her historic ousting of Kevin Rudd from the Prime Minister’s office in mid-2010. McKew argues — and presents evidence — that contrary to her assertions, Gillard was no passive player; impatient for the Prime Ministership, Julia Gillard, writes McKew, allowed others to create a sense of crisis about Rudd’s leadership and then cut the elected Labor Prime Minister down, pretending it was in the national interest to do so.
McKew had a ringside view into the first three years of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government, having won a seat in the House of Representatives by beating the former Prime Minister, John Howard, in his Sydney seat of Bennelong.
The new detail is fascinating for close followers of national politics but, of course, those events are now two years old; and in February this year Kevin Rudd got his chance to return to the Prime Minister’s office — when the Labor caucus held another caucus ballot — and, resoundingly, lost to Gillard by 71 votes to 31.
The greater value of McKew’s book lies in its insider’s view of the Rudd Labor Government’s hope-filled beginnings, its achievements, its strangulation by big, ill-considered policy adventures, the ousting of Rudd and, finally, Gillard’s record as Prime Minister. It helps enormously that this is not a dry book written by an another embittered former Labor MP or one keen to re-write a legacy; McKew was a top drawer ABC television and, later, a print journalist for the now-gone Bulletin magazine in which she reported scoop after scoop by getting her well-known lunch companions to open up.
She writes and reports this story well. What’s gripping are the little details that tell of the top-down control that both Rudd and, later, Gillard’s offices extended into the corners of MPs professional lives. Free thinking and authentic responses are bleached out of the back bench by snarling minders — who claim to have the authority of high ranked ministers, or the Prime Minister — and their ubiquitous talking points that came most days, and that MPs were expected to memorise and parrot.
On each day of a Parliamentary sitting week, back bench MPs were effectively rostered on, as McKew describes it, to swell a scene in front of a television camera, look straight ahead, speak with empathy about Gillard’s working families document and pulverise the opposition.
McKew thought the whole process moronic. She wasn’t alone. A senior colleague with years in Parliament told her: “When I turn on Sky TV and see a string of our back benchers all saying the same fucking words that have been approved for the day, I just feel a kind of despair because you know no one knows what they’re talking about. There is no connection with the real world.”
The world that seemed to count, McKew writes, was the tight construct that existed in the minds of the government’s media advisors, whom she describes as having more power than sense.The content of the day's talking points was non-negotiable, and those MPs who dared suggest that their constituents might look to hear an identifiable member of the species were treated with contempt.
Once, when McKew made the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on the (unlikely) subject of the Government’s plans for childcare policy, she was called at 6am the next morning by Rudd’s media supremo, Lachlan Harris, who barked: “This is not what we wanted to see on the front page.” Ownership of the front page, she came to learn, should be decided every day by the Prime Minister’s office.
McKew was made to confine her interviews from then on to regional radio.
McKew does say that both sides of politics are equally fixated on tightly controlled messaging and invest a huge amount of energy and resources every day in influencing what people read, hear and see. But she does say the whole media management thing is one of the biggest distortions she’s seen in 30 years in the media and that Kevin Rudd presided over periods when it was done without flair or finesse. And while she accepts all governments and large corporations must have communications strategies, she argues that they should be servers — not drivers.
But McKew concludes that the all dominant media minders in government remain clueless about the way they are contributing to the dumbing down of democracy.
What is to be done?
Time for a bit of authenticity, for a start. This would require journalists — especially the bulk of those in the Canberra press gallery — to start reporting less about the tedious, daily conflict of political contest and the clash of personalities, and more about the contest of ideas and policy.
And, says McKew, a recognition that in our noisy, crowded media space, a little less might actually be more.
She writes: “Less media, fewer handouts and a total ban on the wearing of hard hats and fluoro vests. Our screens would be transformed and political journalists would be forced to look inside the policy cupboard for stories. Imagine the political leader who only spoke when they had something to say? Perhaps once a fortnight instead of six times day. It might restore a bit of gravitas. We might think there was something special about it, and pause….and listen.”
And that’s from the pen of a woman who made a living for three decades relying on people willing to front up to her microphone.
Three years on the inside gave her a different view and she’s had to guts to say so.