Kerry O’Brien re­flects on John Howard’s lega­cies

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For 12 of the 15 years that he pre­sented The 7.30 Re­port, the sin­gle most con­stant pres­ence in Kerry O’Brien’s work­ing life was John Howard.

“Ev­ery few weeks, and of­ten more fre­quently, we’d sit down to yet an­other in­ter­view,” the for­mer ABC broad­caster writes in his up­com­ing mem­oir. “It be­came a kind of en­durance test, par­tic­u­larly given the in­tense, sus­tained and at times malev­o­lent at­tacks on me and my col­leagues’ pro­fes­sional in­tegrity dur­ing much of that time.”

Now re­tired from the news busi­ness and re­leased from the obli­ga­tions of pub­lic broad­cast­ing, O’Brien is re­turn­ing fire in Kerry O’Brien, A Mem­oir, an 880page tome that tra­verses five decades of jour­nal­is­tic life.

Among ob­ser­va­tions on his own ca­reer – in­clud­ing celebrity in­ter­views, his early years in tele­vi­sion and a stint as Gough Whit­lam’s press sec­re­tary in op­po­si­tion – O’Brien of­fers a sear­ing anal­y­sis of Howard’s years in of­fice.

While cred­it­ing Howard for his will­ing­ness to face tough ques­tion­ing

“far more than he ducked it”, O’Brien con­cludes that the dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of Howard’s prime min­is­ter­ship – es­pe­cially the first half – was di­vi­sive­ness.

“What struck me time and again as I trawled through my in­ter­views was the sur­pris­ing num­ber of is­sues that flared up, not just be­cause they were in­trin­si­cally emo­tive but also, I be­lieve, be­cause of the con­fronta­tional way Howard dealt with them,” he writes.

Speak­ing to The Satur­day Pa­per this week, O’Brien says that if longevity in of­fice is a mea­sure of suc­cess, Howard – whom he says he al­ways liked per­son­ally – was cer­tainly suc­cess­ful.

But O’Brien sug­gests suc­cess in pol­i­tics should be judged dif­fer­ently.

“If you look at the mark that he has made on the coun­try and the im­pact that he has had, then I think his suc­cess falls away sig­nif­i­cantly,” he says.

“And I’m talk­ing par­tic­u­larly about is­sues like so­cial co­he­sion – is­sues where the kind of lead­er­ship that I be­lieve was re­quired was to bring the coun­try with you in your de­ci­sion-mak­ing, rather than di­vide the coun­try on the way through. Prob­a­bly the sin­gle most pow­er­ful pic­ture or pat­tern that comes through of the Howard years in this book is the pat­tern of di­vi­sive­ness.”

While Howard sup­port­ers will cer­tainly dis­agree with O’Brien’s cri­tique, the for­mer PM’s de­trac­tors have long ex­pressed sim­i­lar views. In sup­port of his ar­gu­ment, O’Brien cites Howard’s han­dling of a se­ries of is­sues: the emer­gence of one­time Lib­eral and now One Na­tion sen­a­tor Pauline Han­son; water­front re­form; na­tive ti­tle and par­tic­u­larly the re­sponse to the High Court’s Wik judge­ment; asy­lum seek­ers, in­clud­ing the in­ci­dent in­volv­ing the Nor­we­gian freighter Tampa and the so-called “chil­dren over­board” af­fair in 2001; and Aus­tralia’s in­volve­ment in the 2003 Iraq war.

“These were all il­lus­tra­tions,” O’Brien says. “Whether he set out to do so … I think it’s pretty clear that he saw these is­sues as there to be ex­ploited to help him win elec­tions, par­tic­u­larly in 2001. I think that we still see a dam­aged coun­try … we see a di­vided coun­try, partly as a re­sult of that. Those is­sues were parts of a mo­saic that we now see to­day, of what Aus­tralia is.”

He likens Howard to English crick­eter Ge­of­frey Boy­cott, whose play­ing ca­reer spanned two decades from the early 1960s – “a no­to­ri­ously dour, riska­verse bats­man who played a dead bat to many balls, but ev­ery­thing loose was usu­ally hit to the bound­ary”.

“Boy­cott might have been slow to score, but he also made a lot of runs,” he writes. Howard “pitched him­self as the safe, de­pend­able pair of hands who would lead Aus­tralians back into a ‘com­fort­able and re­laxed’ state after the tur­bu­lence of the Hawke–Keat­ing years and the re­ces­sion”.

But he queries how re­laxed the na­tion be­came as a whole.

O’Brien’s anal­y­sis of Howard is not all con­dem­na­tion.

He praises the swift move to tighten gun con­trol in the wake of the 1996

Port Arthur mas­sacre in Tas­ma­nia. He calls it coura­geous – “in­spired” – say­ing Aus­tralia re­mains safer for it and “no­body can take that away from John Howard”.

But in con­trast, on in­de­pen­dence for East Ti­mor – an­other of the suc­cesses Howard has claimed – he says the gov­ern­ment “pussy­footed around” for too long about in­ter­ven­ing to back it and that peo­ple died as a re­sult.

O’Brien sin­gles out Aus­tralia’s Iraq en­gage­ment for par­tic­u­larly scathing crit­i­cism, hav­ing com­pared the pub­lic state­ments Howard and se­nior min­is­ters made at the time with the truths that have emerged since.

On this and other is­sues, the win­ner of six Walk­ley awards for ex­cel­lence in jour­nal­ism con­cludes: “I do think that the pic­ture that was pre­sented to the Aus­tralian peo­ple was not en­tirely an hon­est pic­ture by any means.”

Dur­ing the 2001 so-called “chil­dren over­board” af­fair, Howard main­tained that he was never in­formed that his min­is­ters’ mid-elec­tion-cam­paign claims of asy­lum seek­ers throw­ing chil­dren off a boat into the wa­ter were false.

O’Brien quotes Howard as hav­ing said: “Well, Kerry, I can only an­swer truth­fully for my­self. If I’m not told some­thing, I’m not ly­ing to the Aus­tralian peo­ple if I main­tain a po­si­tion that I re­main in ig­no­rance that some con­trary ad­vice has been given.”

Of that, O’Brien says: “It’s al­most like an echo of the three wise mon­keys, you know? Hear no evil, see no evil, there­fore there is no evil.”

The vet­eran jour­nal­ist is equally crit­i­cal of Howard’s re­fusal to con­demn Pauline Han­son’s at­tacks on Asians and Indige­nous Aus­tralians.

“He did not di­rectly dis­agree with her at all,” he says. “He was try­ing to have his cake and eat it. He was try­ing to still ap­peal to those peo­ple who might have been at­tracted to her by talk­ing to his dis­like of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and by say­ing, ‘She has a right to say these things.’ ”

Ev­ery ma­jor party leader since Howard took of­fice comes in for crit­i­cism to vary­ing de­grees in O’Brien’s mem­oir – Kevin Rudd for fail­ing to act on cli­mate change as promised, Ju­lia Gil­lard for lin­ing up with “fac­tional hacks” to over­throw a still rel­a­tively pop­u­lar first­term prime min­is­ter, Tony Ab­bott for out-of-touch flip-flop­ping and Mal­colm Turn­bull for hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal tin ear.

O’Brien de­tails some of their achieve­ments, too, in­sist­ing the bou­quets would have been more plen­ti­ful had he been writ­ing about any of the is­sues or lead­ers as a stand­alone ex­er­cise.

Of the cur­rent prime min­is­ter, Scott Mor­ri­son, he ob­serves to The Satur­day Pa­per: “He has shown no in­di­ca­tion that he can break the re­cent mould of lead­er­ship in this coun­try.”

And O’Brien is par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten.

He de­scribes Shorten as a

“mystery” who ap­pears to lack con­vic­tion or pas­sion in pub­lic.

“Most po­lit­i­cal ob­servers are vir­tu­ally as­sum­ing that La­bor is go­ing to win the next elec­tion.” O’Brien says. “The only ques­tion mark over that out­come is that Shorten has ab­so­lutely failed to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of the Aus­tralian pub­lic. And in opin­ion poll after opin­ion poll, the pub­lic is re­flect­ing the view that he is not a con­vinc­ing leader.”

But he cred­its Shorten and La­bor with break­ing from the “timid­ity in pol­i­tics” in shap­ing their tax pol­icy on neg­a­tive gear­ing.

On jour­nal­ism, O’Brien laments the loss of re­spect for wise el­ders who “car­ried the his­tory in their heads” and un­der­stood how power is wielded.

“I think his­tory is too eas­ily for­got­ten and that wor­ries me,” he says, not­ing news­rooms are get­ting younger and younger.

While ac­knowl­edg­ing the skills and ac­com­plish­ment of many younger jour­nal­ists, he says: “We learn as we grow older that life is much more com­pli­cated than we pos­si­bly saw it when we were 20 or 25 or even 30 … We come to un­der­stand that things are not black and white, that there re­ally are shades of grey … [that] should be part of the pic­ture that we paint, and we write.”

O’Brien prof­fers his own ideas for ad­dress­ing some of Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cal prob­lems.

On asy­lum seek­ers, he pro­poses that Gareth Evans and Julie Bishop – both for­mer for­eign min­is­ters who un­der­stand pol­i­tics and have good con­tacts in­ter­na­tion­ally – be com­mis­sioned to con­sult re­gional neigh­bours and de­vise an al­ter­na­tive to the off­shore de­ten­tion sys­tem.

And he says there should be a royal com­mis­sion into the fu­ture of work – along the lines of the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment’s royal com­mis­sion into hu­man re­la­tions – to ad­dress the ur­gent chal­lenge tech­no­log­i­cal change poses to job op­por­tu­ni­ties and the struc­ture of so­ci­ety.

O’Brien’s book, to be pub­lished on Novem­ber 14, also re­veals the jour­ney he has been on. Re­search­ing con­vict an­ces­tors led him to dif­fi­cult sus­pected truths about their en­coun­ters with Indige­nous Aus­tralians. For him, the whole is­sue of Indige­nous his­tory has be­come an in­sis­tently ring­ing bell.

So how will the gin­ger-haired man the right-wing com­men­ta­tors dubbed “Red Kerry” an­swer those who might sug­gest his mem­oir merely proves their sus­pi­cions about him?

“I would ar­gue that I did keep my own per­sonal po­lit­i­cal views un­der con­trol – or in the pri­vacy of my own head – as I was go­ing about my work as a jour­nal­ist,” O’Brien says.

“And I am now no longer in that same en­vi­ron­ment. How can I write an hon­est mem­oir that does not of­fer some re­flec­tion on the things that I care about?”

Re­ply­ing to those who have asked or won­dered about his dis­tinc­tive red hair, the for­mer tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter in­sists he has never dyed it and it’s not a wig.

Al­though it’s the women in pol­i­tics and on tele­vi­sion who most fre­quently are sub­jected to com­men­tary on their ap­pear­ance, his as­sur­ances are a re­minder that men cop it too.

At least that’s one thing Kerry O’Brien and John Howard have in

• com­mon.

Re­tired ABC jour­nal­ist Kerry O’Brien.

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

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