Tales from a journalist, not an insider
It’s time: Kevin Rudd joins Maxine McKew during her election campaign in 2007. Photo: Robert Pearce
Legendary Australian journalist Alan Reid often said that reporters in Canberra should stick to observing the animals in the parliamentary zoo rather than seek to befriend them - that way lay destruction. The truth of Reid's observation is amply confirmed by what happened to a fellow journalist, Maxine McKew, during the three years after her triumphant defeat of then prime minister John Howard in the seat of Bennelong in the 2007 election.
McKew's experience in Bennelong and then Canberra forms the basis of her newly published book, Tales From The Political Trenches. It has generated a fair amount of media attention, though, in truth, it is rather insubstantial. The reasons why it is a non-event are significant, though, as they tell us much about the plight of modern Laborism.
McKew, like the rest of us, first heard about the impending coup when it was announced on television.
McKew served only one parliamentary term. Her media career, in contrast, was far longer. Beginning in the 1970s, she worked for 30 years as a journalist at the ABC, where her career highlights included hosting This Day Tonight and presenting 7.30 Report and Lateline. The growing political dominance of Howard after the so-called Tampa election in 2001 caused McKew to reassess her priorities.
Increasingly, she wanted to move on from being a highly respected journalist. It was not enough to be an experienced, authoritative and non-partisan media figure. It was time to come up with answers and solutions to the nation's challenges, as opposed to merely asking questions. An opportunity beckoned in 2003 when the NSW Right faction of the Labor Party tried to headhunt McKew. Past and present worthies of the faction - such as Michael Easson, Bob Carr, then NSW party secretary Eric Roozendaal and his sidekick Mark Arbib - were involved.
The NSW Right was ready to parachute McKew into a safe seat. In return, she was expected to pledge total fealty to the faction. Yet Roozendaal ensured that the Right's opening was rebuffed when he angered McKew by asking her outright: ''Who will own you? Us or your hubby?'' (Her partner, Bob Hogg, is a former national ALP secretary.)
If McKew wanted to go to Canberra as a free agent, she would need to bypass the factional powerbrokers. The planets finally aligned when Kevin Rudd, just after he became Labor's federal leader in 2006, asked McKew, a fellow Queenslander, to stand against Howard in his seat of Bennelong.
McKew did not need to be persuaded. Rudd, she knew, planned to appeal to ambitious skilled and professional people who had an eye to the future and who were weary of Howard. So did McKew. She accepted the offer.
McKew joined the ALP as part of the process of getting her preselection rubber-stamped. It was purely a formal act. The ALP's peculiar tribal culture and mores remained unknown territory.
The contest between Howard and his challenger in Bennelong was marketed in the media as a struggle between David and Goliath. But in slaying the prime minister, the challenger relied on much more than a single slingshot. An army of volunteers doorknocked across the electorate. The campaign office was staffed with wise old Labor hands, such as John Faulkner and Jan Burnswoods. Rudd won the federal election of 2007. McKew was one of the successful ALP candidates.
For an all-too-fleeting period, it was hoped that Rudd's takeover from Kim Beazley as party leader had ended - and not merely perpetuated - the revolving door of Labor leaders that had operated in the Howard era. However, it was soon clear to McKew that a decade of endless intrigue and leadership challenges had taken its toll.
On arriving in Canberra, she detected no broad agreement in the upper echelons of the party on what the new government's key principles should be. She searched for ''integrated policy firepower'' but failed to find any. Under Rudd, there was no robust contest of ideas across the ministry, nor in the caucus.
McKew is eloquent in confirming the received wisdom on this point. Spin, she agrees, prevailed over substance from the start. The new government was consumed by busyness, announcements, doorstops, photo opportunities and scoring points on Sky News. The official line that needed to be upheld at all times on any issue was contained in talking points handed down by the prime minister's office. It ran an ''oppressive and ridiculous'' system of command and control to ensure everyone stayed on message.
This robotic environment made it impossible for ministers to deploy effective or inspiring language. Rhetoric was clunky where it needed to be heroic. McKew indicates her media background was no advantage at all to a government that was failing to communicate. Yet she did not want to simply renew her previous life and be a regular and eloquent TV presence.
Happiness was a rare commodity for McKew in Canberra throughout the Rudd years. She was never able to work closely with the prime minister. Instead, in November 2007, he appointed her as parliamentary secretary to then deputy prime minister Julia Gillard, with responsibility for early school education and childcare.
There was no chemistry between the two women. ''I had a workable relationship with Gillard, but it could have been better'', McKew says. There were no regular meetings and the parliamentary secretary was never included in substantive policy discussions.
In June 2009, McKew switched over to become Anthony Albanese's parliamentary secretary. A year later, Rudd was knifed. McKew's account of what happened in June 2010 suffers from a fatal flaw. By her own choice, she was a stranger to the incestuous world of ALP factionalism and its faceless operatives. Yet this was the jungle from which the ambush came. Right-wing sub-factions in caucus engineered Rudd's removal.
McKew, still glorying in her freedom from ''faction bosses'', is hardly in a position to write a gripping insider's tale of the assassination based on direct observance or participation. No amount of hours spent after the event chatting with former colleagues can make up for this deficiency. On the evening of June 23, 2010, McKew was a guest at the Korean embassy when events began to unfold over at Parliament House. She, like the rest of us, first heard about the impending coup when it was announced on television.
McKew's political career ended in short order after Rudd was terminated. She contested Bennelong again in the 2010 election, this time unsuccessfully. She now attributes her defeat in part to personal animus directed against the new Prime Minister, Gillard. Many voters in Bennelong apparently had ''difficulty in accepting a woman who was unmarried, and who didn't believe in God''.
This testimony to the power of prejudice in multicultural Bennelong is a genuine revelation in a book that's short of startling insights. Someone who is not a factional beast simply cannot provide a vivid account of the change of leader in 2010. Other than by indicating the chronic dysfunctionality that formed the backdrop to the assassination, McKew provides little aid in shedding light on Rudd's fall. The publicity surrounding her book's publication is, consequently, very much a beat-up.
Stephen Holt is an independent Canberra researcher.
Tales From The Political Trenches, by Maxine McKew. Published by Random House, November 2012. RRP: $29.99