Acclaimed journalist Stan Grant on meeting the Taliban and making Malcolm Turnbull cry.
Words are not deeds. You see this in Stan Grant’s eyes, hear it in his voice and sense it in his energy. After three decades as one of Australia’s most prominent journalists, half of that time spent overseas as a news anchor or special correspondent covering the world’s biggest news events, Grant came home to Australia in late 2012 in a questioning – and questing – frame of mind. During his time abroad, he’d asked tough questions of his interview subjects, but also of himself. Who am I? What do I stand for? Where am I going? How do I get there? Now, he wants to talk to his country again – reconnect with its songlines and mine its fault lines. At frst he did so under a familiar guise – journo crusader with Sky News, columnist with The Guardian, and current affairs host on SBS’ Awaken. Then things shifted. An eloquent and impassioned column about the vilifcation of AFL hero Adam Goodes exploded online, was hailed ‘a game-changer’ in Indigenous affairs commentary and won Grant a 2015 Walkley Award. Then, January 25 of this year, on the eve of Australia Day, Grant’s explosive, off-the-cuff speech – given last October to 100 people at the Ethics Centre’s IQ2 Racism Debate – was uploaded. The glorious rant went viral – one well-known media pundit even claimed it as “Australia’s Martin Luther King moment”. Australia’s reckoning had arrived and Stan Grant, proud Wiradjuri man, had delivered it. Today, he’s every bit the elder statesman. Neat as a pin, fred up by new nightly show The Point and ready to talk. We’re in Glebe, an urban Indigenous stronghold in inner-western Sydney. Grant lives nearby, with wife Tracey Holmes and their son Jesse, 14. His three older children with SBS host Karla Grant – Lowanna, 28, a psychology major, John, 22, a flm graduate and Dylan, 18, a gun footballer just starting university – are grown up but close to their father. Grant doesn’t look 53. Up close, in conversation, he doesn’t hold your eyes. But he sure holds your attention. As we talk, he gazes into the distance as if he sees what he’s saying – not as a journo commits words to a page, more like a politician carving deeds into a constitution. Still, words remain his currency – and they fow from him like a river in food.
GQ: Aside from being an author, Sky News international editor and The Guardian’s Indigenous affairs editor, you’ve just launched nightly news show The Point and made the Prime Minister cry in your first show. Stan Grant:
That was an utterly candid, sincere, completely unexpected moment. We were walking around The Lodge and Malcolm had shown us where he wrote the ‘Closing the Gap’ speech and he started talking about this lullaby he’d heard in the Ngunnawal language. He became sombre. And as we were setting up, he said, ‘Look, I want to tell you more about this.’ And he started telling me about imagining a mother singing to her daughter in a language under threat and how the daughter herself would have been under threat in life. And he just began to cry. It was a really human, very touching moment.
GQ: But you’re a cynical journalist. When it happened did you not think, ‘Election year equals crocodile tears?’ SG:
Anyone who thinks it was a calculated political move to get votes doesn’t understand a) politics and b) humanity. People are cynical about politicians and with good reason. There are a lot of words spoken about Indigenous people and a lot of political leaders who talk about understanding the challenges. But the fact is, when you’ve been told for much of your history that you’re barely human, that you don’t have the rights that other human beings enjoy, that you’re not considered good enough to be citizens, that your children can be taken off you, and that, essentially, your feelings don’t matter… to have the Prime Minister very directly
and very sincerely relate to that, shed a tear, and say he felt the same way we felt and could imagine himself in our lives was a powerful thing.
GQ: So is Malcolm Turnbull a prime minister for Aboriginal affairs at last? SG:
I’m sick of prime ministers leaving offce saying the greatest regret of their political life is they didn’t do more for Indigenous people. Bob Hawke promised a treaty and that didn’t happen. Paul Keating negotiated native title and gave the great Redfern speech but left the job undone. Kevin Rudd gave the apology but couldn’t close the gap. Tony Abbott said he’d sweat blood for Aboriginal people and left us as far from equity and equality as we ever were. Malcolm Turnbull is a deliberative guy. Anyone looking for snap judgements is going to be disappointed. First, he faces the challenge of winning government in his own right. Then he can show us if he’s going to be the decisive leader all Australian people – black or white – want or need.
GQ: You’ve said Australia needs Indigenous politicians and it’s happening – Queensland senator Jo Lindgren, great-niece of Neville Bonner, first Aboriginal in Federal Parliament, entered the Senate last year; NSW parliamentarian and Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney now wants to be the first Indigenous woman in the Lower House. And Pat Dodson, father of reconciliation, has become a Labor senator for WA. Stars are seemingly aligning. SG:
It’s an indication of the maturity of the country and the growth of the Aboriginal political struggle. We’ve moved from the fringes to the centre. There’s still the need for voices of protest – there always will be – but there is also a need for people who can work within the system with pragmatism. Now that we’re breaking through, we need to take the next step and rise through the ranks to genuinely occupy positions of merit based on our capacity to speak to a broad range of issues. I’d like to see the treasurer of Australia as an Indigenous person. The foreign minister. The trade minister. Now we need to make that presence felt in a meaningful way.
GQ: Pat Dodson said, ‘See you in parliament, Stan.’ So, will you enter politics? SG:
It’s something I’d like to do and something I believe I can do. No one in that parliament has the broad range of experiences and expertise I do. I’ve lived in fve different countries and reported from more than 70. As a journalist, I’ve covered the great events of our time. I can speak about world affairs, global economics, international politics. Working for CNN and travelling the world gave me a unique vantage point on my own country and deepened my perspective. I mean, how many federal members have sat down to lunch with a member of the Taliban? Or stood in the blood of a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan?
GQ: We know what you stand for. The riddle is who would you stand for? SG:
I know I’d be up to the cut and thrust of politics. It’s a matter of if I can see myself in one place, one seat, one party. To cast myself in with one lot on the basis of some sort of adolescent ideology is just ridiculous. Anyone with half a brain votes on the issues and the merit of the people at the time. To stand for a party, I have to actually ask myself: whose team am I on? As a journalist who’s been genuinely impartial, that’s diffcult to decide. There’s a lot of underwhelming people in Canberra there to stick their hand up and keep their mouth shut. I’ve had exploratory discussions to say, ‘OK, you’re interested?’ ‘Yeah.’ But I want to know what they think and care about. There are elements of all the parties I’m comfortable with, but where am I most comfortable? And what seat is available – and winnable? These calculations narrow the focus. The fact that it’s an election year makes it a more diffcult timesensitive decision.
GQ: You’d be giving up a booming media career to run. Is that a major factor in your decision? SG:
I wouldn’t go into politics for an ego trip – god, I’ve had enough people blowing smoke up my arse of late. And I wouldn’t go into politics for the money – I’d wipe two-thirds off my income. So there’s no fnancial incentive. And there’s no great yearning for power for its own sake. What there is, is an actual desire to be persuasive, to engage with the media, to say: I’ve seen all sides of the world and I believe in the capacity of Australia to come together around what I consider to be the cornerstone, the most signifcant issue that sits at the heart of this country, and that is the original grievance between European settlers and Indigenous people, the dispossession of our land. I believe I can shift that issue.
GQ: Does the level of scrutiny a politician endures scare you? SG:
There’s no great skeletons rattling around in my closet. I wouldn’t worry about the slings and the arrows.
GQ: And you’ve dealt with it before – your very public stoush with Seven on starting a relationship with Tracey in 2000. SG:
Seriously, the way I grew up, the things I saw and dealt with, no-one, nothing, can touch me. Nothing. And add to that the real tough reporting – going out there, organising an interview with the Taliban and al-qa’ida, entering into their territory, you sit there and interview them. You don’t know if they’re gonna let you go. So what’s this? Some stupid obsession with the media… it didn’t change who we were. If you know who you are and you’re true to yourself and you’re an honest and good person, let the media say what they like. I’m completely detached from that stuff.
GQ: Fair enough. You often mention what you’ve seen – the death and the destruction. Has such taken a toll? SG:
When you’re on the frontline, reporting takes a toll. The hours are long. There’s constant anxiety... For me it became a slow burn – the despair of childhood collided with current affairs and contemporary events. Refugees in Pakistan looked like people I grew up with, removed from certainty and hope but with the same desire to survive. All those years abroad as a reporter I was living my own history in real time. And that connection brought on a deep period of trauma. I was depressed. I lost the joy of life. I lost my verve. I wasn’t sleeping. It took a long time to unravel all that stuff. But now I have a real sense of purpose. When you have that, nothing can touch you. Bigots can have a go at me but I’m impervious – I couldn’t give a damn. I’m just moving on, doing what I want to do, talking about the things I want to talk about.
GQ: You joined ABC TV in 1987 as federal political correspondent. Is that where you fell in love with politics? SG:
Those extraordinary Hawke-keating years. Labor was lost. Then Hawke comes in, leads them to government and forms the single greatest cabinet in Australian history, the best minds of a generation. The popular appeal of Hawke, the gladiatorial Keating, brilliance across the board in John Button, Kim Beazley,