Once were win­ners

The ABC takes a can­did look at the Lib­er­als’ years in power, writes Erin McWhirter

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Front Page -

PO­LIT­I­CAL jour­nal­ist Fran Kelly has had more than her share of bat­tles with John Howard. The Ra­dio Na­tional break­fast host grilled the for­mer prime min­is­ter be­tween 20 and 30 times dur­ing his 11-year run as the na­tion’s top boss and Lib­eral Party leader.

It was al­ways go­ing to be tough get­ting the man who weath­ered the wild po­lit­i­cal storms of the war on ter­ror, East Ti­mor, water­front re­form, the GST and a rocky re­la­tion­ship with trea­surer Peter Costello to step out of po­lit­i­cal mode to re­veal the man be­hind the leader in the can­did and con­tro­ver­sial ABC se­ries The Howard Years.

‘‘A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of my in­ter­views with the for­mer prime min­is­ter had been, shall we say, pretty ob­vi­ously tense,’’ says Kelly.

‘‘So yes, it was a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude he and I brought to this process (The Howard Years) and ob­vi­ously that is some­thing we had to have oth­er­wise it wouldn’t have worked. There­fore, we had meet­ings. He had a few test­ing ques­tions for me, I think be­cause we do have that his­tory. Lots of the in­ter­views in past have been con­fronta­tional and tense. We went into this with a dif­fer­ent frame.’’

Like­wise, Kelly had to drop her guard a lit­tle while in­ter­view­ing some of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial politi­cians, min­is­ters and pub­lic ser­vants, in­clud­ing out­go­ing US Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Bush, Alexan­der Downer, Tony Blair, Peter Reith and Costello.

She’d sat face to face with many of them be­fore, but this was go­ing to be dif­fer­ent. Thank­fully, a more re­laxed Howard emerged.

Though Kelly says he was his usual politi­cian self in their first meet­ing for the doc­u­men­tary — which occurred six months af­ter the elec­tion in which he lost power to Kevin Rudd— by their last meet­ing at the end of July he was more set­tled.

Was there more emo­tion be­hind his an­swers? A rein­vented man lurk­ing be­hind his eyes?

‘‘I think that’s true, es­pe­cially as the se­ries wore on,’’ Kelly says.

‘‘Ini­tially it was a lit­tle bit closer to the elec­tion re­sult . . . and I felt in some way that John Howard was still like John Howard the prime min­is­ter, so a lit­tle bit more guarded. But by the fi­nal one in July he had moved along to be­ing more comfortable about where he was now with the whole elec­tion loss, and I felt he was more open and re­flec­tive.’’

Howard was well-ac­quainted with La­bor in Power, the story of the La­bor Gov­ern­ment and for­mer prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke from 1983 to 1993 di­rected by Sue Spencer, who is also be­hind this doc­u­men­tary. How­ever, whereas Hawke’s for­mer wife Hazel gave an in­sight into him, Janette Howard re­fused to take part in The Howard Years.

‘‘We put in the re­quest and the an­swer was no. We didn’t get rea­sons,’’ Kelly says.

‘‘I sup­pose it fits with her whole way of op­er­at­ing through the Howard gov­ern­ment years. She wasn’t one to seek the lime­light and there were very few pro­file in­ter­views with the prime min­is­ter’s wife, which I think is a shame be­cause the con­tri­bu­tion Hazel Hawke made was ter­rific for the se­ries and ac­tu­ally ter­rific for Bob Hawke.’’

Mov­ing on:

John Howard grad­u­ally left politi­cian mode for his in­ter­views with (inset) Fran Kelly.

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