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ACT's Jon Stanhope back and in the job queue

Former chief minister Jon Stanhope is back in Canberra not only on the hunt for a job but with so much unfinished business you can't imagine him out of public life for long.

He returned four weeks ago after two years as administrator of Christmas Island, a job he says was "cathartic", helping him leave behind the chief ministership, but also leaving him full of anger at the neglect of Christmas and Cocos islanders.

Back to base: Jon Stanhope relaxes at home in Bruce after returning from Christmas Island.
Back to base: Jon Stanhope relaxes at home in Bruce after returning from Christmas Island. Photo: Graham Tidy

So complete was the breakdown in relations between Mr Stanhope and the federal bureaucracy that the department stopped replying to his correspondence a year ago, about the time he requested advice from the Australian Government Solicitor on the scope of his job – he thought it "a real job", they thought it "essentially a vice-regal appointment" – legal advice the department now refuses to show him.

"The quality of the administration is scandalous," he says. "The abuse of the goodwill of the people of Christmas and Cocos Island is totally unacceptable, the Commonwealth should be ashamed of itself."

Back in Canberra, his first sortie into public debate was on Kurtley Beale, when he wrote a letter to the editor outraged at the closing of ranks around a rugby player whose behaviour he condemns.

On Wednesday, he speaks on Labor's refugee policy at a public meeting at the Australian National University, challenging Tanya Plibersek, Anthony Albanese and Andrew Leigh to look him in the eye and say turning back the boats is consistent  Labor values.


He has other beefs with Labor, not least the reforms to directly elect leaders and boost grassroots influence. He characterises the changes as smoke and mirrors, insisting the unions through the factions still have a "brutal" stranglehold, with no will for change. Labor trumpets new members but it's mostly churn, he says, new members learning very quickly the extent to which they're excluded from decisions and leaving again.

Mr Stanhope's unfinished business reaches also to smaller scales – he has a long-held idea to commission busts of the five Canberra Nobel prizewinners, for one. This is in the field of public art for which his chief ministership is remembered, and as we meet on Friday a woman approaches him on the subject.

"Nobody ever stops and speaks to me about human rights or refugees or the Alexander Maconochie centre," he says.

Likewise with the arboretum. For all its recognition as a Stanhope legacy project, "there are far more important things than a pretty forest", he says. "I love the Alexander Maconochie centre more." As chief minister, he dreamed it would be the world's best for human rights; he laments the dream hasn't been realised.

"If I was offered a job at the Alexander Maconochie centre that was appropriate to my qualifications and capacity, I would take it over a job at the arboretum," he declares, since we're on the subject of his future.

Mr Stanhope, 63,  who welcomed his seventh grandchild on Sunday, plans to start looking for work in the new year. Precisely what he's not sure, but by "a process of elimination", he is looking to the non-for-profit sector.

"I don't want to be a lobbyist, I don't want to be a consultant, I want a real job but I'm not quite sure what it is yet," he says. "I'm very much available."

You get the impression it might involve a high-profile appointment in the city, and you also can't help thinking he still yearns for politics, perhaps on the big hill.

Mr Stanhope concedes one of the reasons he left Canberra was his struggle to give up the power and influence, the sheer involvement, that went with being chief minister. And from that viewpoint, it did the job. Christmas Island hasn't eliminated his interest in politics, but local issues don't seem to hold much immediacy for him. He dismisses questions on light rail saying he's "just simply not up to date with any of the inside information". He also dismisses suggestions it's a vote-changer.

"There is nothing at the moment on the landscape, including the tram or Mr Fluffy, that suggests to me that the people of Canberra would throw Katy Gallagher out of office, I just don't believe it."

His does have an "anxiety" about the 2016 election, though, and it's the possibility of a backlash against the Greens. Pointing to the "shellacking" delivered to the Greens in Tasmania after they entered coalition government with Labor, he says a similar backlash could allow right-leaning independents to take the final seat in the five-member electorates, delivering government to the Liberals. This observation will either stir or annoy Shane Rattenbury. Jon Stanhope back in the role he plays so well.


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