In politics, people of substance are in an elite minority

Being substantial in your attitude is the essence of longevity in federal politics, a realm that is dominated by politicians, but is not exclusive to them. Being substantial comes with a code of behaviour otherwise known as professionalism.

It does not mean being colourless, but it does demand a predictable set of guidelines that allows others comfort in how participants are dealt with, giving those at a distance the expectation of fairness and impartiality.

The Pope is held in high regard not solely because of his office. There have been some very average Popes. But the moral logic of his actions is a source of comfort to many and this predictability is grounded in an exceptional discipline. It is a trait that some are blessed with, while others are perceptive enough to tutor themselves. It is not the single heroic action that encapsulates the person but the wider experience over time.

Dodgy is plural; the repeated unexpected actions that make others uncomfortable. Dodgy floats from town to town on a raft of promises. Dodgy believes that results are a ''scratch-it'' ticket where the prize is owed to you by innate luck. Dodgy believes that people are fools and statements and facts will never be cross-checked. Dodgy is clothed in mannerisms that mimic the grace of professionalism.

Michelle Grattan is substantial. She is substantial because there are never any surprises in how she treats you and you are given every chance to be explicit in your position so it is relayed with factual impartiality. Certainly the commentary is hers and, I have always thought, to the left of the political spectrum.

Commentary is her right, but the reader, I believe, will be tempered by the facts that Michelle Grattan is forensic in eliciting from you via innumerable calls at virtually any hour of the night. If Michelle said you said it, you said it, and she has checked the facts with you and if required, corroborated with others reliably attached to the issue.


When Michelle is talking to you for a story, she makes it explicit that you are about to be in the paper. You do not have to worry about Michelle greasing up to you in a bar with a faux familiarity as a preamble to an inconsequential printed paragraph whose only effect is to extinguish the final flicker of unscripted honesty between the fourth estate and the legislature.

Michelle came to Canberra in the time when there must have been the maturity to understand the boundaries. There was an implicit understanding so the inception of a story could be gained by going out to a pub in Kingston and finding out what was going on up top and out of view in Parliament. The follow-up was done ''on the record'' the next day with the hapless target being able to bale or at least be slightly more considered.

Pub to paper can be a good story and as a genuine Australian cultural resource it assists transparency and that is crucial to democracy. Top-tier stories were accessible before the advent of mobile phones in public venues late at night. Now the story is scripted at a ''time-to-arrive, time-to-leave'' restaurant in the presence of media advisers. Some would say that is professional; well, I believe it can be sterile and evasive.

Michelle Grattan occupies that realm of journalistic professionalism that is not limited to but includes Laurie Oakes, Kerry O'Brien, and Dennis Shanahan. They have a stable of high-tier, highly reliable sources and the professionalism to deliver a story that is fair in its facts and general assessment.

Down the scale are other journalists trying to decipher the story from the entrails of chickens delivered by mid-tier staffers of mid-tier players. Their bosses are living a vastly more subdued life than those of politicians last century and have been sent to bed early in central planning bubble wrap. The next Michelle Grattan will be struggling to get to the story before it is done.

Authentic inside information is becoming harder to access because the culture has changed. The final vestiges of old Parliament House familiarity have disappeared with the advent of phones that take videos and Twitter. In its place is a growing cynicism not helped by the Obeids of the political world who proved there were things you never knew and others would never tell you.

Barnaby Joyce is the Nationals' Senate leader and the opposition spokesman for regional development, local government and water.