“I was ut­terly fear­less”

She’s the for­mer TV jour­nal­ist who ran against John Howard in 2007 – and won. Max­ine Mckew looks back on the most in­tense pro­fes­sional pe­riod of her life.

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Laura Jayes an­chors Newsday, Mon­day– Thurs­day at 12pm, on Sky News LIVE.

Let’s go back to the night of the fed­eral elec­tion of Novem­ber 24, 2007, af­ter you walked away from a high-pro­file TV ca­reer as an an­chor on the ABC to run against then-prime Min­is­ter John Howard in the Syd­ney seat of Ben­ne­long. What were you feel­ing that night? It was just an over­whelm­ingly happy and op­ti­mistic time. I was tak­ing on the most suc­cess­ful po­lit­i­cal cam­paigner in John Howard, [but] I never thought it was an im­pos­si­ble task. I never felt over­whelmed by it, which is odd. Look­ing back, I also think I was ut­terly fear­less. That’s not al­ways been the case in my life. But in 2007, I just went for it. Why do you think you were so fear­less? Well, you know, I wasn’t 23; I was 53. I had done just about ev­ery­thing in jour­nal­ism that I wanted to do. I was gen­uinely up for a very dif­fer­ent chal­lenge. I had noth­ing to lose. There was hon­our in try­ing, so I went for it. The em­bers for get­ting into politics were there for years, but you de­cided to stick with jour­nal­ism for quite some time. How did you re­main im­par­tial, given you were work­ing for the ABC? I’ve al­ways had very strong con­vic­tions about cer­tain things. But my ap­proach to in­ter­view­ing was al­ways to do my home­work and give peo­ple a fair hear­ing. I think prom­i­nent fig­ures on both sides of politics agree that’s the job I did on Late­line. The one ex­cep­tion was when Pauline Han­son ap­peared. I gave her a real bol­lock­ing and sub­jected her to a highly in­ter­ro­gated in­ter­view. I look back and I’m not sorry, but to tell the truth I cer­tainly didn’t ex­tend the same kind of ci­vil­ity I think I ex­tended to most guests. What would you say to those who might say you were just a celebrity can­di­date who es­sen­tially de­feated an­other celebrity can­di­date? Well, they did say that. And what I say is that I went out there, a chick from the ABC who beat the prime min­is­ter. And three years later, a ten­nis player beat me [Mckew lost the seat to for­mer ten­nis cham­pion John Alexan­der in 2010]. And I have only re­cently come out of ther­apy. What do you mean by that? Was it a se­ri­ous shock? For as buoy­ant as 2007 was, 2010 was en­tirely dif­fer­ent. I was up against it – not ex­clu­sively, but pri­mar­ily be­cause Ben­ne­long was, and is, a con­ser­va­tive elec­torate. Peo­ple were pre­pared to vote for change in 2007. They were not pre­pared to vote for what many of them saw as de­cep­tion and be­trayal in 2010 [when Rudd was re­placed as PM by the ALP in favour of Ju­lia Gil­lard]. And knock­ing off a first-term prime min­is­ter, they just went, “Ah, ex­plain that to me again?”

But a good lo­cal mem­ber can go against the times. So do you take any per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity? Oh, ab­so­lutely. There are things I could have done dif­fer­ently. La­bor wanted me to run a very neg­a­tive char­ac­ter-based cam­paign against John Alexan­der, based on his back­ground, and ques­tions around his sta­tus and prac­tice as a prop­erty de­vel­oper. I re­fused. As a back­bencher, how much can you do to ef­fect change in politics? In those three years, do you have a great­est achieve­ment? Well, I was a par­lia­men­tary sec­re­tary straight­away, so I wasn’t a back­bencher. But yes, you can. I’m in­cred­i­bly proud of the work I did in early child­hood; I led the re­forms they’re ben­e­fit­ting from to­day. I try to ex­plain and still peo­ple say, “We know MPS do great things… but why is Can­berra so dread­ful?” Well, the Fed­eral Par­lia­ment is made up, for the most part, of en­er­getic, con­sci­en­tious peo­ple. They want to do the right thing, they’re there for the right rea­sons. But that in­di­vid­ual ef­fort is not adding up to elec­tive ef­fort. We seem to have lost the art of col­lec­tive, cre­ative pol­icy mak­ing. There was a time – cer­tainly the ’80s through to the ’90s and even in the first pe­riod of the Howard years – where we were able to make de­ci­sions that ben­e­fit­ted the na­tional good. We’ve lost that. Now there is quite a de­struc­tive bel­liger­ence. That per­haps started with the change in lead­er­ship in the La­bor Party mid-term. Then the Lib­eral Party copied it. Take us back to 2010 when Kevin Rudd was ousted by Ju­lia Gil­lard. It was a shock then, but it’s not when it hap­pens now. I do think knock­ing off a first-term prime min­is­ter set a very bad prece­dent. It be­came the new nor­mal for lead­ers to be tar­geted in a very short space of time, and what have we had? Five lead­ers in 10 years. We’re re­ally good at flick­ing peo­ple and it’s part and par­cel of where we are to­day. Did you see part of the fall­ing apart of Rudd in the 2013 cam­paign [when he in turn was re-in­stalled as leader in place of Gil­lard]? My view was that La­bor be­lat­edly went back to Rudd be­cause they were des­per­ate. And it is true Rudd saved a bit of fur­ni­ture. La­bor was left in a bet­ter po­si­tion in the 2013 elec­tion be­cause they brought him back as leader than they would have un­der Ju­lia. I’m con­vinced, and a lot of other peo­ple are too, that that’s the only rea­son they went back to Rudd. They thought, yes he’s very po­lar­is­ing within the cor­po­rates, but still a pop­u­lar fig­ure in the com­mu­nity. And he failed to win back more sup­port and more seats than had they re­mained with Ju­lia. The whole thing was poi­sonous. Can I ask you more broadly about women in politics? When Ju­lia Gil­lard stood up in the “Blue Room” at Par­lia­ment House, she said the fact that she was a woman wasn’t ev­ery­thing, it wasn’t noth­ing, it was some­thing… There is great fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion and we’re in a far bet­ter po­si­tion. In Queens­land, when I was a young re­porter, there weren’t any fe­male lead­ers for me to in­ter­view. I think there was one fe­male sen­a­tor for the Lib­eral Party, Sen­a­tor Kathy Martin. It was a long time be­fore we started to see num­bers go up. Again in the ’80s you think of Bob Hawke: first cab­i­net, one woman. Su­san Ryan. One woman! So what are you up to now? What is your pas­sion? When you win every­one wants to know you, and when you lose peo­ple look the other way. [So] I’ll be for­ever grate­ful to Michael Traill. He was run­ning So­cial Ven­tures Aus­tralia, of­fered me a job and I worked as their ed­u­ca­tion ad­vi­sor in Syd­ney for about a year. That led to my role at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne as a vice-chan­cel­lor’s fel­low. In the last cou­ple of years, I’ve joined boards and still do a fair bit of public speak­ing. I’m con­stantly rein­vent­ing, but it took a few years to get over one of the most in­tense pro­fes­sional pe­ri­ods of my life. I loved it, but it took its toll. I prob­a­bly didn’t, and still don’t, have the right tem­per­a­ment for politics – [it] counts for a hell of a lot. You’ve got to have a plate of ar­mour on some days. The best po­lit­i­cal lead­ers I know are highly mo­ti­vated, have a strong set of con­vic­tions that they don’t trade away, but are also prag­matic and know when to make con­fes­sions. When you get that rare mix in Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal life, you’re re­ally cook­ing. And that’s what we’ve lost.

“When you win w every­one wants to know you. When you lose they look away”

THE CAN­DI­DATE (clock­wise from right) Max­ine Mckew makes his­tory, un­seat­ing John Howard in the 2007 fed­eral elec­tion in the seat of Ben­ne­long; as tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter and mod­er­a­tor on ABC’S Late­line; in her role as La­bor MP with for­mer Prime Min­is­ter...

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