Once were winners
The ABC takes a candid look at the Liberals’ years in power, writes Erin McWhirter
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.’’
John Howard gradually left politician mode for his interviews with (inset) Fran Kelly.