“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.
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...