Gardner in Civic Square after being reappointed the position of creative director for the Canberra Fringe Festival. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
Jorian Gardner is not sure where his desire to stir things up comes from. But it's always been there. And it's not going away.
''Maybe it might be a little bit of trying to prove myself. I was a ratbag of a kid and wanted to make something out of myself,'' he says.
''Some of it is bravado, some of it is a show to generate the interest and the attention we need for a project like the Fringe [Festival]. Sometimes it's what I perceive to be my job when I'm on talkback radio or in the political arena.
Gardner watches from the back of the press pack as then-minister John Hargreaves makes an announcement about the Fringe in 2009. Photo: Marina Neil
''When you get to a town like Canberra, which I think is a little bit staid, I just want to shake it up and I think people like that. They want it, but they don't know they want it.''
There's no doubt Gardner's abrasiveness and bombastic style has rubbed people up the wrong way in his various guises since he arrived in Canberra from Sydney in 2000. But, at the same time, his enthusiasm and passion have invigorated others.
An actor, producer, director, journalist, radio announcer, commentator, festival director, and small business owner, Gardner has become a figure looming large in the arts, media and politics in the past 13 years.
Gardner in the studio. Photo: Rohan Thomson
''Controversial'' seems to be his byword because he sees it as his role to push the envelope, provoke people out of whatever apathy he perceives. And anyone who doesn't share his vision may sometimes be dismissed as a ''f---ing moron''. He won't swallow the line. ''It just annoys me when I find bullshit out there,'' he says.
There have been some rocky moments along the way.
His departure in 2010 from WIN as its newsroom chief of staff is subject to a confidentiality agreement, but the circumstances around it are ''nowhere near as salacious as the rumours I've heard'', he says.
In mid-2012, he was suspended for two weeks from 2CC after suggesting on air that then-communications minister Stephen Conroy should wear a ''penis-cam'' under the cabinet table to look up Julia Gillard's skirt to see if she had the balls to make a decision. He now calls the comments a ''moment of madness'' and maintains he shouldn't be haunted by it for the rest of his life.
Then he resigned or was sacked from 2CC (depending on whether you believe Gardner or 2CC management) in late 2012 over staffing and newsroom management issues. (2CC station manager Michael Jones declined to comment for this profile, saying only that he wished Gardner well.)
Now he is back running the Fringe Festival after losing the directorship in 2009, when then multicultural affairs minister John Hargreaves merged the event with the National Folk Festival. Arts Minister Joy Burch obviously believes Gardner is the right man to run the Fringe, handing him the position, rather than opening the directorship to tender.
''He has a proven record of delivering diverse artistic programs that the community embraced, and I'm confident we will see this again in February when the Fringe returns,'' Burch says.
Hardly bowed by past experiences, Gardner says he does expect to ruffle some more feathers when the festival unfolds next year. ''I'm not saying there will be no controversy, because there probably will be. But it'll be a bloody good time and we'll have a debate about something along the way,'' he says.
For all his prickliness and metaphorical bomb-throwing, Gardner has some loyal fans.
Real estate agent Danielle Davenport (formerly Danielle Luton) says Canberra would be the poorer without someone like Gardner in all his larrikinism and cheekiness. ''He has a very gruff exterior but if you actually take the time, you realise he is a wealth of knowledge,'' Davenport says. ''He is a wonderful person to debate with and has actually been a very good mentor and sounding board for me a number of times. I think he's an absolute character and an icon of Canberra. He's definitely not beige.''
The former director of the Multicultural Festival, Domenic Mico, who runs the Smith's Alternative venue with Gardner, says he is often misunderstood. ''He is a lot softer in private and he does care what people say but that doesn't stop him from being controversial and all the rest of it,'' Mico says. ''I think Canberra needs people like him, really and truly. If we all sit on our hands and do nothing, we'd be asleep. I think his talent is really misunderstood. He's proven himself over many years.''
The US correspondent for Network Ten, Lachlan Kennedy, previously worked in the WIN newsroom when Gardner was appointed chief of staff in 2009. Kennedy says it was obvious Gardner's understanding of television news production was limited but ''he knew Canberra very well''.
''It's clearly why he got the job,'' Kennedy says. ''He loved Canberra's people, its places and tackling its issues - more often than not head-on. I've always respected that about him.''
Kennedy says Gardner's main attributes were his creativity and work ethic. ''I remember one weekend he basically painted the news office on his own, throwing out years' worth of rubbish,'' he says. ''It was probably the first sort of 'renovation' that place had seen for a decade. Jorian has always had a reputation of being rough around the edges, someone who wasn't afraid of a fight, or speaking his mind. At WIN, some of us understood that, others didn't. In my experience, he'd be the first to rip you apart but also the first to pat you on the back. As a boss, he was tough, but I appreciated that. At that point in my career I needed and wanted guidance, so such a straight shooter was nice. Besides, everything was usually forgiven by 7.10pm, anyway!''
Even former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope, who often engaged in one-on-one debates with Gardner during press conferences, says he always understood Gardner. ''I was always aware Jorian was a bit of a wildcard and would throw in deliberately difficult or perverse questions and I was always happy to joust with him,'' Stanhope says.
''And over time I got to know Jorian fairly well and I always enjoy his passion. Sometimes he is a bit off-the-mark in some of his comments, which at times lacked a little bit of discretion, but I always admired his passion and some of the very progressive stances Jorian takes. To some extent, I saw him as fellow traveller in relation to some of his personal and heartfelt views in social justice and human rights and the arts.''
Gardner, 40, grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney, his mother a copywriter for an advertising agency and later Avon, and his father a psychologist. He has a sister who is a senior public servant in Canberra and his mother also now lives in the national capital.
''I was raised in pretty much a single-parent household. My parents divorced when I was six or seven and I didn't have a lot of contact with my father until, well, I didn't speak to him for 20 years,'' he says.
''I was getting close to 40 and rang him up and said, 'Gee mate, this is a bit stupid, isn't it?'. So he came down and had dinner with me for the first time in 20 years and we had a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of wine, I made a roast, we got drunk, cried and now we speak every couple of weeks.''
Gardner was educated in Catholic schools, including the prestigious rugby school St Joseph's College in Hunters Hill. He says it wasn't a happy experience and he left before doing his HSC.
''It was ra ra. I was picked on. I played piano. I was in the group that included the goth and the other people who were a little bit different. I had a hard time fitting in there.''
The arts and acting were a refuge. He was a child actor for a time, working with the Australian Theatre for Young People. One memorable show was the 1988 ATYP production, Burger Brain: the Fast Food Musical - when 15-year-old Gardner appeared alongside a 16-year-old Toni Collette, who would go on to become an Academy Award-nominated actress.
The musical's writer, Dennis Watkins, still remembers Gardner from that time. ''I can picture his face, so he was definitely memorable,'' Watkins says. ''He was bright and enthusiastic. It was a great bunch of kids.''
Gardner worked in advertising for four years for the Australian Financial Review and in a series of publishing jobs including the On the Street music magazine. He worked briefly at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in its membership and front-of-house sections, bringing a jar of Vegemite into his meeting with new director, Scot Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, when she started in 1999, so she wouldn't forget him. He still lost his job four months later in a restructure.
At a loose end, Gardner came to stay with his mother and sister in Canberra in 2000 to help them renovate their house. (His mother and her former partner owned the Kwik Kopy centre in Civic, but have recently sold it.) He never went back to Sydney.
''And I tell you what, it has been one of the greatest things to ever happen to me because I love Canberra,'' he says. ''I consider myself a Canberran now. I hate going to Sydney, hate going to Melbourne. I like flying there, seeing a show, having a drink and staying in the Sofitel and leaving again. I don't miss it at all - the hustle and bustle. And Canberra offers you the opportunity to be whoever you want to be.''
And that's probably the telling thing. In Canberra, Gardner could become somebody.
He got involved in local acting, produced the Bunch of Fives festival, worked with The Street Theatre under various guises. He worked as a journalist for City News and edited the short-lived CAP magazine. During press conferences, he would persist with questioning until some politicians walked away. He hated accepting a line from a politician without challenging it, often twitching and seething up the back of the media pack before erupting with a well-pitched accusation or claim that often descended into a one-on-one debate between himself and said politician.
''I'll admit there's been a strategy there to annoy and have a poke because sometimes that will break down the truth and it makes it a bit more fun. I am up for having a bit of fun,'' he says, laughing. ''It's not about being a bastard to politicians because I can. I think we can have a more interesting dialogue, they can be a bit more honest with us, and I'll try to get it out of them.''
ACT Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson was asked to comment on Gardner. He was not available and the response from his office was ''a firm no comment''. Antipathy from the Liberal ranks towards Gardner perhaps stems from the 2008 election campaign, when then-opposition leader Zed Seselja was due to announce - in an exclusive story written by Gardner for City News - that the Liberals were going to duplicate the Gungahlin Drive Extension. The night before the story was published, then-chief minister Jon Stanhope came out and said Labor was going to do the same thing, despite earlier stating duplicating the GDE was not a priority. Some on the right of politics believe Gardner leaked his own scoop to Labor.
Gardner vehemently denies it. He says he did meet that day with both senior Liberals and with Stanhope's then chief of staff Jeremy Lasek, but the first he knew about Labor's rushed GDE promise was when a press release went out at 5.40 that night.
''I betrayed no confidence, I did not leak my story to Labor,'' he says.
Gardner says he is used to being accused of letting his own political leanings affect his work.
''I've been accused of being biased but you ask Katy Gallagher what my interview was like with her on 2CC the night before the election,'' he says. ''She left the studio shaking. I put her through the wringer and was really having a go at her. But Katy doesn't hate me like Jeremy Hanson hates me, because she's a better politician, frankly. Some of the other people just can't take it. They don't understand the game. Stanhope did, Katy did, Andrew Barr did.''
Yet he also suggests one of the reasons he didn't last at 2CC was that he was a ''left-winger on a right-wing station. Do you think it was going to work out?''
Gallagher, meanwhile, says ''shaking'' might be taking it too far but she agreed the interview with Gardner was difficult after a long campaign. ''I always found Jorian to be an independent thinker and unpredictable,'' she says. ''When he was in journalism, he was the one person who I never knew what question he was going to ask or if it was going to be about what I was actually talking about.''
Gardner says WIN chased him for the role of its chief of staff and he went into the job believing his role was to shake up the newsroom, inject some of his professional incredulity into the journalism and not do things the way they had always been done. He says he even met in Canberra with WIN's reclusive owner Bruce Gordon, who discussed an Australia-wide news service. He believed he was a star on the rise in the network. (WIN declined to comment on the claims about the meeting with Gordon and also reiterated that Gardner was subject to a confidentiality agreement.)
What Gardner can say is that following his departure from WIN in 2010, he had a kind of emotional breakdown. He sought some help from medication and used exercise, better eating and positive thinking to get through the dark period.
''While I can't go into the specifics about what the circumstances were [at WIN], I can tell you they're nowhere near as salacious as the rumours I've heard,'' he says. ''I remember not long after it happened, someone going up to my mother in a foyer and saying, 'I heard they called the cops on Jorian and they're going through his stuff at WIN'.''
Gardner says the rumours and innuendo did hurt. ''There's a public Jorian and a private one that other people know. I'm not a bad guy,'' he says.
Gardner says he will be forever grateful to 2CC and announcer Mark Parton for having faith in him and throwing him a lifeline by asking him to be a producer for the breakfast show. He says he enjoyed his time at 2CC ''immensely'', despite the controversy of the comments about Gillard and other issues. ''Anybody who expects a shock jock to go on air and then not make waves is a moron. I'm sorry I hang up on listeners. I'm sorry I made controversial comments but that's what I do.''
Gardner says he was approached once to stand for politics but won't say for which party or by whom. He will never rule out running for office. He supports issues such as public art, gay marriage and the decriminalisation of marijuana.
''I don't know which party would have me,'' he says. ''I would probably be suited to something like the Australian Sex Party because I think they have more progressive views than the Greens.''
And he has a life away from all the hoo-ha.
''I do have a girlfriend,'' he says. ''There is a significant other in my life, with whom I've had a tumultuous relationship for some time.'' His girlfriend has a young daughter from a previous relationship and Gardner often cares for her. The sight of him with his young charge at a Peppa Pig concert earlier this year showed yet another side of Gardner, one that revealed the showman has a heart.
''For the last couple of years, all I've ever wanted to do is be a dad,'' he says. ''I love kids. I've become a lot softer in the last few years. These experiences have hardened me but they've also softened me.''