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Learning The Labor Lockstep

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?

<p>Mike Flokis/Getty</p>

Mike Flokis/Getty

Author and former MP Maxine McKew

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.

“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.”

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.

“Less media, fewer handouts and a total ban on the wearing of hard hats and fluoro vests.”

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.

28 comments on this story
by William Smith

How is this journalism? In what way, at all, did the author attempt to check the veracity of Ms McKew's claims?

If I want to read the book, I'll buy the book. Your job, Bernard, a job you've singularly failed to carry out, is to question the assertions made therein.

I expect a lot better from the Daily Mail. You will fail as an enterprise if this is all you are offering.

October 29, 2012 @ 8:38pm
by Solid gold creativity (aka Narelle Hanratty)

I agree she has guts. She said it straight on Radio National this morning too. She side-stepped all the usual baiting, all the code words and phrases the journalists use when interviewing, and said things that were fresh and novel. Well done.

October 29, 2012 @ 9:16pm
by Darryl Perrett

Methinks Mr. Smith is a trog. Seems he thinks that the job of Bernard is to call Maxine a liar. 'To question the assertions". Whatever happened to personal opinions? Well founded and researched personal opinions? Must be 'questionable assertions' hey?
One could perhaps expect a little better from Mr.Smith. But perhaps not.

October 29, 2012 @ 10:19pm
by Peter Kington

This is a book review, not a news piece and as such is a disappointing offering from the Global Mail.

I confess to not having read McKew's work, nor will I, but from is offered above it seems to completely reinforce the message we've been given about the dysfunctional nature of the Rudd prime ministership.

McKew's 'evidence' that Gillard conspired against Rudd for longer than we've been let believe is, at best, circumstantial without a named source.

The whole thing seems like a bit of a yawn really.

October 30, 2012 @ 6:56am
by Peter Hanley

I agree with Maxine more - the biggest problem with the media today is that there is too much of it. All trying to make stories out of nothing.

I am off now to read Maxine's book.

October 30, 2012 @ 7:40am
by jeremy andrews

How many interviews has she given these media outlets she disdains in the last few days? Of course she's selling a book now and the media gleefully doing a great job of helping. .
If MSM want to write stories about dissent in a party, why not look at current policy issues where members are threatening to cross the floor and inform the public at the same time?
I don't know why we're supposed to believe Maxine McKew knew so much. She asked Kevin Rudd for his version - surely he would have been the person who knew least about a 'secret plot' against him?

October 30, 2012 @ 8:50am
by Bill

William Smith (29/10/2012 @ 8.38pm)
I think that you've read it in the wrong context. It isn't a story, it is an opinion piece. That is why it has the blog label at the top.

October 30, 2012 @ 10:15am
by Brian Blackwell snr

William Smith - I suspect you are a small part of the problem. Have you never heard of opinions, observations, reviewing, and so on? This is a look at a new book, a controversial one. The overview here is sensible and interesting. Those who want to counter the views, or call the author a liar, are free to do so. I think it's called free speech. And the right to hold an opinion.

October 30, 2012 @ 10:27am
by patrickg

Hi William, I think if you check the leader, you will see that this piece is actually filed under "blogs", not the journalism component of the site. Seems pretty acceptable for a blog entry.

Also, this is The Global Mail, not the Daily Mail (thankfully).

October 30, 2012 @ 10:37am
by Martin W (Xevram)

Interesting piece thanks, your opinions and views are pretty spot on in terms of the media and their lack of credibility. I have not read Maxine McKews book, nor do I intend to, quite frankly I would be more interested in the views and memoirs of Bob Hogg.
Perhaps you could approach him for an interview ?

October 30, 2012 @ 1:29pm
by Ben G Morgan

Interesting post (as opposed to story, agree with commenters above re blog vs article), if only because the majority of people probably won't read the book, yet we've been given a couple more glimpses of the breadth of content. From the media coverage, it's easy to think that it's a book about 'the coup'; so good to hear something extra.

Do you think it's only the politically engaged in this country that are sick of the spin; that want a decent level of debate? I feel like there's a bunch of us pseudo-intellectuals (slash 'actual intellectuals') constantly tut-tutting and agreeing with each other vehemently, but that the majority of people – particularly those of my generation, Gen Y – don't really care enough.

We've been conditioned to crave the sensational, the dramatic, the pathetic playground of parliament and doorstep soundbites. It's time we had some politicians who don't just whinge about it after the fact, but do something about it while they're in there.

(On another note, could I please be your sub-editor? I'll do it for free if only to have the above story without typos! So distracting.)

October 30, 2012 @ 1:40pm
by Martin W

(On another note, could I please be your sub-editor? I'll do it for free if only to have the above story without typos! So distracting.) LOL and a good idea.
Perhaps the"intellectuals" whatever that means, could agree on a strategy and push it forwards. An example may be some Truth in Media laws, Canada is one place that has had some experience with this...............................
"Unlike the United States, there is no qualified privilege in Canada to defame a public official or public figure provided the speaker has no actual knowledge of the falsity of the message conveyed. Actual knowledge of falsity is what is known as "malice" in the United States. In Canada, individuals can comment on the public facts about a public official relying on the defence of fair comment, provided that the facts are known provable, fairly stated (if they are set out), linked to the comment, the comment is honestly made and the comment itself is on a matter in the public interest. The philosophy of this defence is that if the public is armed with the facts and understands that the message conveyed is a comment on those facts, the public can decide for itself whether to accept or reject the comment as fair. On this basis, the defence of "fair comment" protects comments that many would regard as outrageous, ridiculous or obstinate. "

October 30, 2012 @ 2:33pm
by udi

whatever the merits of this particular blog post and whether it belongs here or someplace else, the sentiment it ascribes to MM resonates deeply with me. I am so sick of mindless vacuous spin and so crave substance both in our national discourse and the reporting of politics but despair of getting more than the odd smattering. perhaps I should find some benzodiazepine and just stop worrying about it all.

October 30, 2012 @ 2:49pm
by Flloyd Kennedy

Fascinating insight into what Maxine's book is actually about. Whether Mr Lagan's piece is a 'blog' or a 'book review' - and why can't it be both? - is inconsequential in the scheme of things. Some of the comments above read very like under cover Coalition commenters, trying to keep the message firmly on their agenda of Julia bashing at any cost. I'm now intrigued to read the book.

October 30, 2012 @ 2:57pm
by peter mccarthy

Glad to finally hear more about what is in the book. And thankfully it has more substance than simply the Leadership challenge which is entirely irrelevant.

Thanks for satisfying exactly what I was hoping for.

October 30, 2012 @ 4:00pm
by Richard Ure

It starts with the pathetic election coverage by the commercial television stations in particular. As most people have stopped reading newspapers, this is their main source of information.

The minders pull the news directors’ strings with their manufactured picture opportunities/stunts for the news bulletins and the news directors are too timid or lacking in imagination to refuse to assign crews to the performances. The minders call the shots with their itinerary secrecy and the television stations reluctantly play the game. Who will be the first to revolt and do the job properly? No one I suspect.

And when in government why do politicians have to go to some outside venue to announce their policy? What would Menzies do? With apologies to Gruen Planet.

October 30, 2012 @ 5:49pm
by Evan

Excellent piece. Thanks

October 30, 2012 @ 6:12pm
by ivorytickler

so much for democratic process indeed ......

October 30, 2012 @ 6:54pm
by Kerry

Well, I think it's pretty moronic, if not ironic, that a well-regarded media player with a string of awards for investigative, hard-hitting, political journalism hadn't picked up on this before, don't you?

October 30, 2012 @ 9:21pm
by John

More evidence that most gallery journalists ought to get a job. Look at the insights they might gain.

October 31, 2012 @ 7:26am
by Helen Carmody

isn't this all a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, i mean come on maxine made a career out of what she is complaining about. obviously she has the right to construct her memoir in any fashion she likes, but it all comes off a bit cheap and easy. the political and media class are one and the same and they specialize in talking amongst themselves. increasingly politicians and journalists, (the term seems interchangeable these days as most journalists don't seem to understand what their function is and most politicians want to be media stars), are star struck androids rolled off a production line somewhere in western sydney.

October 31, 2012 @ 8:30am
by Philippa

It sounds to me like she never stopped being a journalist, or perhaps even Maxine McKew, to do this job. Membership of the ALP generally means accepting party discipline. I really enjoy the insights and actually even agree with some of her directions, though they could be levied at the media as much as at the ALP itself. What I don't like are the revelations, I think party discipline should last, if you want to join the party you must like it enough to accept it even when it inconveniences you.

October 31, 2012 @ 10:38am
by John Davis

It just again reinforces my view that we have politicians who would not get a job elsewhere in real life. Except with one mighty exception - Malcolm Turnbull.

October 31, 2012 @ 1:07pm
by Gail

Bernard, you write:
It helps enormously that this is not a dry book written by an another embittered former Labor MP ...

I simply can't agree with you on that. I think that she is very bitter.

October 31, 2012 @ 4:40pm
by Kate C

I guess the thing that really strikes me about Maxine's perspective and the commentary that's surrounding it is how unknowing - I hesitate to use the term naive - of the political system she and other journalists appear to be. There seems to be a genuine shock at finding that politics is a managed system rather than a kind of gathering of idealists bursting to give their own point of view. Managing the messages and asserting discipline across the parties has been the modus operandi of political parties for many decades, not just a recent phenomenon. What fresh things she thinks she's saying is a mystery to me. She just comes across at best as disingenuous; at worst as rather self-serving and experiencing - god help us - Relevancy deficit syndrome!

October 31, 2012 @ 4:40pm
Show previous 25 comments
by Ian McFarlane

Well said Kate! I agree, and I'm a Maxine fan - in fact, we used to call her Saint Maxine in our household. And to think, that having won John Howard's Federal seat, she then lost it to a washed-out tennis player whose political nous never seems to rise above what Monty Python aptly described as the "bleeding obvious".

November 1, 2012 @ 3:47pm
by Ken Olah OAM

By Kolah

"Allowed others to create a sense of crisis" - give us a break, Maxine. The polls were in free fall and the media were having a hay day with Rudd's increasing inability to communicate, constantly changing priorities, goals and strategies, his dysfunctional and arrogant Office, lack of consultation, failure to progress key policies etc etc At the end of the day, it's not about individuals or "power" but the program of change that is best for the country.

November 5, 2012 @ 10:25am
by Michael Faulkner

Thanks Bernard for one of the better and more thoughtful reviews of this book.

One of the interesting points from this book surely, is that Maxine McKew, having been a close observer of politics in Canberra for 3 decades, and having accepted a very different challenge of running for the ALP in Bennelong in 2007, blows John Howard right out of his electorate seat. As a political event, this was extraordinary locating Howard, as almost alone among Australian Prime Ministers, in terms of their respective departures from national politics.
However, having become a political player rather than merely an observer from 2007, McKew then makes some discomforting insights. She finds that ALP politics are played in ways not as she might have imagined, nor as she thinks she may have observed and understood earlier in her life as a journalist As a critique of national politics, her perspective thus provides some valuable and rare insights that we need to take heed of. And of course, in terms of what came to pass within that electoral cycle after December 2007, of course she would have been disappointed, and with more insight and greater wisdom, disillusioned with both processes and events.
Indeed, in that stance, she shares a good deal with many of those who have commented so caustically and so cynically about Bernard's review, or about McKew herself, and who unwittingly through their words, provide just a bit more testimony about the steadily growing gulf between ' managed media politics, Canberra style', and the wider Australian electorate.

November 14, 2012 @ 10:54pm
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