Dennis Altman I’m going to start by quoting you when you say, talking about your career as a journalist, particularly a radio and television journalist, that “there was plenty of robust exchanges but my style was more inquisitive than interrogative: I hope I conveyed the impression the guest was more important than me and I like to think I gave the interviewees the space to answer.” So I took that and I would like that to be the way in which we have this conversation. So I am guided by you.
Maxine McKew As I say I didn’t always live up to that but that was what I tried to do.
Dennis Altman Let me begin with the question that’s fairly obvious, which is why did you write this book, and why has this book come out at the time it has?
Maxine McKew I wanted to write my own story and in doing that I guess I wanted to reclaim some of the promise, the energy, the belief, the excitement, the drama that went into that 2007 campaign, both at a national level, and certainly in Bennelong. It was an extraordinary moment, I mean, it was a campaign that attracted all sorts of people, not necessarily traditional Labor people but a lot of people who wanted our politics to be different, who wanted to put the rancour and the bitterness of the Howard years behind us.
I wanted to capture that before it was lost in the mists of time because I think it was a special moment.
Then I talked about what it was like to be an average MP; you don’t get too many political memoirs, I think that take you into what basic life is like between the exchanges between MPs and constituents so I wanted to recapture that, and it’s part of the job that I loved.
Dennis Altman Of course you weren’t an average MP and I think that part of what the book is about is the rather strange experience of someone who is a) already is publicly well known b) not publicly associated with the party and c) comes into parliament and immediately becomes a parliamentary secretary. Looking back do you think it would have been better had you immediately not stepped into a parliamentary secretaryship but actually sat on the backbenches for a term and learned the arcane processes of how parliament works?
Maxine McKew Yes. Absolutely. I have thought about that but I guess given the way things played out I had close friends pushing me to ask Rudd for a ministry. I certainly didn’t think I was up for that and there are no prizes in politics for hiding away under a bushel.
It’s all about making the mark, it’s all about, these days, being an instant success, getting immediate runs on the board, demonising your opponents, and the whole contest of ideas is secondary or, I would argue these days almost buried. and that’s been part of the disappointment that I think I’ve noted and written about. But I think you’re right, I was an oddity, a political amateur up against exceptional political professionals and that was difficult for me to chart, but if I had a bit longer I would have found my way.
I suppose one other thing too I would mention is that my most significant political mentor in the Labor party is Senator John Faulkner. No doubt you can tell through reading the manuscript that I have a lot of respect for him, the way he has conducted himself in public life and indeed within the party.
But he was in the senate and I think I needed to find, if you like, a significant mentor in the house and say to that person, “Look, I have no institutional background for the party, new to the parliament and being in it is very different from reporting on it.” I think I needed to find a master/apprenticeship relationship.
Dennis Altman I wanted to take up these two terms; “the contest of ideas”, and then in effect the contest of people. Because although you’ve written a book that you hope people will read because people are interested in ideas, they are interested in what Labor stands for, they are interested in what changes came to Australia as a result of the defeat of the Howard government.
You and I both know that what people are going to read it for is to find another view of why Rudd was replaced as prime minister. So let’s begin with the contest of ideas. You were very clear that there needed to be a new set of values and ideas brought to Australia and that you think that came with the election of Rudd in 2007. One of things that rather puzzled me as I was reading the book is virtually no reference to a couple of crucial areas that I thought you would’ve talked about: one was foreign policy, and the other was asylum seekers.
Maxine McKew On the latter point I range over that in the first chapter with Paul Keating, and I return to it in passing, that’s true, so I haven’t gone through issues policy by policy. In terms of foreign affairs, I think the most critical thing, of course, that Rudd did, very early on, he was as swift and as bold in his vision as was Whitlam in terms of wanting Australia to be engaged in the wider world and very quickly he identified Australia had to have a seat at the top table, so what does he do? He gets Australia into the G20. He’s critical in pushing and pushing for that and I think that’s a substantial coup.
Of course, the other thing he did very early on was to say, “we are going to make a bid to have a seat at the Security Council”.
Dennis Altman But that’s not in the book.
Maxine McKew You’re quite right.
Dennis Altman So I can also remember very well, 2007, I went down to the Collingwood town hall where Lindsay Tanner was having his celebratory party. I was there at the moment Bennelong was called (it was full of people who I assure you had no idea where Bennelong is, I grew up in Sydney so for me there was something miraculous about that part of Sydney swinging to Labor) it was an extraordinary victory as we know.
But, also for me, the two huge differences were that the Labor party under Rudd had very clearly differentiated itself from the United States administration around Iraq, and there had been pledges made about how we would treat asylum seekers. Yet I read your book and I’m bemused they play so small a part in your account of what this new set of values, this new Australia, was like. A lot of it is because you’re talking about your own interests, your own portfolio, and that was very interesting, but most people did not vote Labor in 2007 because they wanted you to be looking after early childhood education. I wonder, did you deliberately not choose to talk about the asylum seeker debate because it’s actually one in which the Labor party has backtracked on almost everything they said in 2007?
Maxine McKew On asylum seekers, it’s an area that I find particularly disappointing because when I say the Howard years are still with us as much as anything I am thinking of that issue because, as Paul Keating says, “we look miserable, unwelcoming and unkind,” but it’s true I haven’t gone over that in detail.
I have looked at this thematically and as much as anything as I say, it’s a memoir so its drawing on my own background my experience in government and particularly revisiting these views on Rudd’s removal.
But let me say to you right now, I have a lot of time for the way Chris Bowen is addressing this (the asylum seeker issue). Had I been in parliament when they revisited the legislation just in the last couple of months I would have voted for it, but with huge reluctance. I like to think I would have had the same reservations as, for instance, someone like Melissa Parke – put that on the record. I take the same view for instance as the UNHCR right now that there are huge questions about the amount of time people will be left on Manus Island. But overall, here we are, 11 years on from The Tampa and this issue is still turning us inside out.
We’ve developed almost a pathology about it, when in fact what Labor needed to do, and going right back to the time in opposition when Howard really busted the conventions on this, was articulate quite a different position, most importantly, to get the issue in perspective.
Dennis Altman So in effect you’re saying there is a failure by the Labor party and it’s a failure that runs through the whole period that Labor has been in government, from 2007 on, to change the basic nature of the [asylum] debate in Australia.
Maxine McKew I am certainly saying that the minute you get into government you realise how complex it is. I think we made the right start but clearly, as many numbers of ministers and others have said, it turned out to be a set of policies that in fact did increase the flow of people on boats. There has been, and I have to say this I still grapple with this, you cannot discount the exceptional level of community disquiet around seeing either people drowning or successive boats arriving, it looks as if we do not have control over our national security. Now, if as I say, we were to have taken steps …
Dennis Altman Now I am going to have to stop you on that because we have limited time.
Maxine McKew Sure, okay.
Dennis Altman You have already raised the question of Rudd’s removal and we know perfectly well that that is what most people are going to be looking for in this book. What you’re suggesting is that the story that Julia Gillard and her supporters have run for the last few years, namely that there was a crisis precipitated because her loyalty was called into question, that she made a very quick decision to say to Rudd that “I can no longer support you I will to challenge you” is not actually what happened?
Maxine McKew I am saying that is not credible. The view I have formed is that a sense of crisis was actually created around Rudd’s leadership and a principle tool in aiding and abetting that crisis was the use, or the misuse, of private party polling.
Senator John Faulkner, in his strongest statements to date, has said in this book that he is aware that private party polling was being shown around the caucus this is in the weeks before Rudd was removed. He condemns this practice and goes so far as to say that this is an act of “sheer bastardry”. I’ve talked to other members of caucus, and the former Attorney-General, Robert McClelland is also on the record in this book saying that in the week before Rudd was removed he was shown selective material that pointed to Rudd’s deficits and pointed to Julia Gillard’s advantages, superior leadership qualities. He was shown that material by a Gillard supporter, Brendan O'Connor. Further to that, another senior member of government has told me that in the days before Rudd was removed he was shown research that again pointed to Rudd’s deficits and he was shown this research by then deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
Dennis Altman Okay, let’s assume that’s all true, the real question …
Maxine McKew Let me just finish that, it paints a very different picture that this was a planned assault on Rudd by, if you like, an impatient deputy, who was backed by a group of individuals, who feel they are the owners of the Labor party. I am challenging head on the idea that there was some kind of spontaneous eruption by the caucus that removed Rudd, I think that’s a fairy tale.
Dennis Altman Let’s assume all of this is true, I am left wondering why a politician who is as smart and calculating as Julia Gillard, and I think those are two adjectives you probably wouldn’t dispute about her, why would she have wanted to do this before an election? Now I know, from having to talked to members of the caucus that it was certainly believed that after an election she would challenge Rudd.
There were certainly numbers already being calculated for the possibility of Labor going to the polls, winning, and a challenge from Gillard. What I don’t get from your book is an understanding of, why move the time she did were neither she nor her supporters able to see that this was likely to backfire as in fact it did and not be politically successful?
Maxine McKew It’s very interesting you say that, because until I began researching this book, I had never ever heard this theory that Julia Gillard may want to take over the prime ministership in the second term, had not heard it until I went back and tOlked to former colleagues and one after the other said, “oh well of course she realised that in fact all along the plan was for Julia Gillard to take over in the second term”.
Interestingly if you go to the last chapter of the book Kevin Rudd has given me an on the record quote and it is the first time he has ever said that he had a conversation early in 2010 where he said “well look, I am not going to break any records and wanting to stay in this job forever, you are the heir-apparent, the job is yours at some future point”, he says on the record that is the conversation he has with Julia Gillard.
But to your point, why? Number one, I know that many people believed that an instant move against Rudd would have no consequences. There’s actually some interesting comments in previous books about this to the effect that, well the dogs will bark and the caravan will move on. It will seem as if, if Julia Gillard had always been prime minister. Well it didn’t work out like that because the Australian electorate reacted very, very differently and they saw it almost as an act of regicide. This has still continued to resonate.
Why did Julia Gillard and others move earlier? Well when they saw polls moving away from Labor the fear was, I think incorrectly because I just think we hit a bumpy patch which I think we could have ridden out, the fear was that we would lose the election and there would be no chance for anyone to be the next Labor prime minister. There would be a time in opposition, that I gather, and this has been said to me by others, that in fact, people became impatient, they started to hit the accelerator because the fear was that we would lose the election. I think that was quite wrong because, as I say, come back to the published polling. There is no point discounting Newspoll because I gotta tell you, everyone in Canberra lives and dies by Newspoll, every tick, every tock, and the lowest the Newspolling went was 50/50 straight after the budget. And that was coming off an exceptional high.
Dennis Altman I’m going to stop you because it is about the polling and it’s about the people who you see as being instrumental in … I’m really asking you to elaborate. My sense is that a great deal of this is was both a reflection of the way the New South Wales Labor machine operates, but also a very bad reflection of polling in New South Wales. You several times make the point that many of the party operatives were particularly obsessed with a particular vision and indeed a particular electorate, namely Lindsay, which your copy editors by the way placed in the wrong bit of Sydney, they had it in the South but they should have it in the west.
Maxine McKew It’s southwest.
Dennis Altman Well I think its northwest.
Maxine McKew Okay
Dennis Altman Well anyway the question is really how much this was being driven by a political culture that had grown up in New South Wales and how much do you think it was driven by other parts of the Labor party.
Maxine McKew You are right to point to a particular kind of brutish culture that comes out of Sussex street in New South Wales and keep in mind what had happened there it had been the killing fields in terms of state politics. In quick succession Morris Iemma was dispatched, not long after that Nathan Rees was dispatched, and then Kristina Keneally had to come in and took the party to one of its lowest votes ever. That was after the last federal election but its interesting, its not just New South Wales, what you had was an alliance of convenience between key operatives in New South Wales and in Victoria and the private polling that I have seen and that, in fact, I believe, Julia Gillard showed to one key member of the government to whom I have spoken, that material was based on polling of marginal seats in Victoria. The polling showed, again, we were in a losing position on one reading of that, and this is why I say the polling was selectively used, not everyone saw the data, the material was selectively shown.
Dennis Altman The one place that Labor picked up seats in 2010 was in Victoria.
Maxine McKew In Victoria that’s right. It was an extraordinary election. You’re right, we picked up in Victoria, did well in South Australia, we lost seats in New South Wales, of course again that was different, the regions held out very well in New South Wales, Sydney was a disaster, as I have explained we had huge swings in our most traditional seats, in our migrant-held seats. You come to today, people in Western Sydney are worried that there has been a structural shift in the vote, among new settlers and among second-generation migrants and of course the big swing was in Queensland.
Dennis Altman And I want to pick you up on this because I find the comment about the migrant, first, second-generation Australians very interesting and of course your electorate was one that had a large proportion of such people. But the reality is that Melbourne also has a number of seats that have the same sort of demography. Yet the swing didn’t occur there, and there is a sense which, reading your book, I have to say, reminds me a lot of the ABC in that it is far too Sydneycentric. That explanation doesn’t hold up when you take it to other parts of the country.
Maxine McKew Well you’re right, two things there, the anti-big Australia Campaign in effect the sustainable Australia not a big Australia that was aimed at Sydney, that was aimed at talk-back radio in Sydney. Melbourne is very different, you’re absolutely right, the migrant community and everybody else as I say there was a significant, probably a “home-town girl” factor but Victoria was very strong. There was absolutely no doubt that the kind of “let’s shrink the country” pitch was aimed at Western Sydney. You may recall that when Julia Gillard was on the patrol boat off Darwin, the MP who was there in the shot with her was David Bradbury, MP for Lindsay.
There is no doubt that this whole business of “Are we growing too fast?” “Have we got too many illegal boat arrivals?”, these issues were conflated and a big effort was put into dousing all of this down and it was about, if you like, an appeal to Sydney talk-back radio and helping sure up support in mono-cultural Lindsay.
Dennis Altman Yes, I meant to check that I don’t believe Lindsay is as mono-cultural as you claim but because we must move to an end, I wanted to move to an area that you don’t talk about but has come now very salient in discussion of contemporary Australian politics. That is sexism and the of course recent debates about sexism and/or misogyny in Australian political life. What was your experience, going into the Australian Parliament as an already established public figure? Did you come across the sort of sexism that is now being claimed as the normal experience of women entering the political realm?
Maxine McKew I feel I’ve been in the middle of the gender wars for years, when I joined the ABC as a cadet journalist, I was considered the only “girl” and that’s how we were regarded, the only “girl” so I’ve been through all this for years. In terms of Labor politics, certainly the sexual politics is pretty rough and ready, you might recall in the early section of the book it was made very clear to me by Eric Roozendaal, a former state secretary of New South Wales that a safe seat could be found for me but it would be a highly conditional proposition. I remember him looking at me in Sussex street and saying “well the question is Maxine, who would own you? Us or your hubby?” That is not untypical. Now I didn’t fall down faint but I didn’t want to be owned by anyone.
You might call that patriarchal, sexist, whatever you like, but this whole question of how you navigate your way through the Labor party as a woman or indeed as a free-thinker, an independent-thinker, someone who insists on playing the game a certain way, such as, if you like, John Faulkner, is I think the biggest issue the Labor Party is facing.
Dennis Altman I want to come to that as the final question. Towards the end of the book you talk about, in effect, the need for Labor to regain some overall sense of what it stands for, what its values are, what it offers as an alternative to Australia. I have to say that I can’t quite tell where the difference is in what you see as Labor standing for and what Julia Gillard sees Labor standing for.
Maxine McKew Well I think the difference is that I’m not interested in sectional appeals. I’m not interested in the Labor party that only argues to smaller and smaller groups. We’re on somewhere between 32 and 34% because we’ve lost the broad based coalition.
Now whether you look at Gough Whitlam or Bob Hawke or Paul Keating or Kevin Rudd, they were only successful because they knitted together a broad based coalition. The Labor base, the progressive middle, self-employed individuals, migrants in our major cities. We have lost that capacity to speak across the board. We are playing class warfare, we’re playing gender warfare, and we are playing the geographic divide, I mean, early this year Julia Gillard was talking about the “North Shore versus the rest”. There are actually Labor voters on the North Shore.
Dennis Altman Can I say that is one comment the prime minister made and you come back to that three or four times in the book. Again I would say this is your Sydney-centrism coming through because the rest of the country – we don’t really care about it very much
Maxine McKew I’ll take that, I’ll take that criticism.
Dennis Altman Thank you but let me just ask as my final question. I had a very interesting day a couple of months ago with three wonderful back-benchers in the Labor party up in Canberra and one of them said to me, “for me the Labor party is the party of markets and multiculturalism” would you accept that? Is that your Labor, your vision of the Labor party?
Maxine McKew Well it’s certainly part of it but it wouldn’t be an exclusive definition. I don’t get hung up on political theory. As you know, centre left parties around the world now are grappling with this business of a crisis of belief: in a post-modern, certainly in a post GFC world is the role of a centre-left party? I think when I look at Labor governments, that I have lived through, you know, Gough Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, they have all been individuals who have made modern Australia. And it is an extraordinary place. I believe that Labor at its core is there to make sure most people have a decent life and particularly those individuals who are least able to care for themselves. Now I think there’s many many good things that in the five years that Labor has been in office [the party] has done to address those and to stay true to those values.
My concern is that here we are at the five-year mark and I think its fair to say that most Australians would struggle to identify the positive distinguishing features of this government. I compare that to the first five years of the Hawke-Keating government. In a very different external environment it was very clear at the five-year mark what they stood for, and it was a liberal economy with a strong social safety net. More importantly they had built a coalition of support: business, capital, community groups even though there is a lot of pain in that period there was a broad understanding about the shared endeavour.
Now if I’ve got a regret or a regretful note in this book is that at the five-year mark, Labor has not successfully done that. If anything, you’ve got a situation where, as I say now, involved in this contest of fears where tiny, tiny insignificant things are argued over instead of what Keating would have called “the bigger picture” and of course that has to be how we make our way in the world.
I’ll just finish that by saying here we are doing this interview in a week where a Labor treasurer has made some very odd decisions. At a time where mining revenue is coming off, we’ve just taken a billion dollars out of universities. Now if we ever need to be investing in our intellectual firepower its now, Asian century: it’s gotta all be about how smart we are in engaging with this region.
Dennis Altman I can think of no better way than ending a discussion for The Conversation than an appeal for more money to go into universities, that will make you extremely popular with our readership. Thank you very much and were we on television I would of course now hold up the book and wave it at everyone.