Laurie Oakes reflects on 50 years of Australian political journalism

'You can't lead effectively if no-one gives you the kind of advice you don't want to hear.' Laurie Oakes

Fifty years after entering the cut-and-thrust world of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes has lost none of his passion for bringing politics to the people.

Leaks, scandals, dishonesty, bravery – journalist Laurie Oakes has written all the big stories that have broken in Australian politics over the past 50 years. He is to many the voice of politics in the country – a voice feared by weak politicians and trusted by everyday voters watching the six o’clock news.

Oakes is the journalist who aired one of the biggest scoops in Australian politics: the leaking of the 1980 Federal Budget speech. Oakes read the entire document live on television two days before Treasurer John Howard was to deliver it, catching the government completely by surprise.

Some years later, he also revealed details of the so-called “Kirribilli Agreement” in which former prime minister Bob Hawke had agreed to hand over the leadership to his treasurer, Paul Keating. Hawke reneged on the deal.

Renowned for fiercely guarding his sources, Oakes learned his trade the old-fashioned way, getting his stories in the pub or at secret meetings in both the inner and outer sanctums of parliament. He’s seen prime ministers lie, dodge and fail. He’s also seen them shine, lead and succeed.

Oakes views himself as a keen participant in the democratic process and an observer of the players within it.

“The importance of what I do is enabling democracy … so people know what politicians are doing, so they know what they are voting for, why they are voting … and also to reflect the views of the voters back to the politicians,” he says. 

"You can’t lead effectively if no-one gives you the kind of advice you don’t want to hear".

Observing behaviour, noting response, watching reaction is a craft that Oakes has perfected, and his conclusions make for compelling reading and viewing.

During a recent interview with CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley for INTHEBLACK, Oakes rated all the prime ministers he’s reported on over the years, from John Gorton to Malcolm Turnbull.

CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley, left, with journalist Laurie OakesToday’s politicians lack elementary political skills, Oakes told Malley, while conceding their jobs have been made comparatively harder by the relentless demands of the 24-hour “news cyclone”. 

The press gallery doyen also discussed the crucial impact that the right teacher can have on an individual’s life, and he expressed his strong views on racism – something he simply can’t tolerate or understand.

Alex Malley: It’s a fascinating life you’ve led, Laurie. You were born in Newcastle [New South Wales] to Wes and Hazel Oakes – tell me about them.

Laurie Oakes: My father was an accountant for BHP in Newcastle and he later became a company secretary to mining companies. My mother was a shop assistant until she got married … in those days, when women got married they had to give up their jobs, so after that she was a stay-at-home mum.

My younger brother and I used to fight all the time and make life miserable for mum!

Malley: When you were about six, your dad transferred to Cockatoo Island off Western Australia. I understand they were formative years, because you made great friends with the local Aboriginal kids.

Oakes: If I’ve got strong beliefs about anything, it’s about racism. I loathe racism; I don’t understand it. It does go back to my childhood on Cockatoo Island … I got to know the Aboriginal people, not just the kids. There was a boat – the island launch, quite a big boat – and there was a white captain. But the bloke who actually ran it was an Aboriginal guy called Alf Brown. 

He would never be captain because he was Aboriginal. But when we arrived on the island [Oakes’s father had travelled there earlier], I’m only five or six and my little sister is five months old, I remember my father saying to my mother, “When you hand the baby down to the wharf, you’ll see two brown hands; they’re the ones to trust” – and that was Alf Brown.

Malley: Ron Oliver was a name that appeared in the history of Cockatoo Island at the school and he saw something in you very early.

Oakes: Cockatoo Island was a one-teacher school; there were only 20 or 30 kids, because there were only a few hundred people on the island. You wouldn’t think you’d get much of an education at a one-teacher school, but I got a great education there. Ron Oliver was a really gifted teacher, and he’d decided I was someone who could write.

He said to me that I could be a journalist. Now I didn’t know what a journalist was – there were no newspapers on Cockatoo Island; we used to get our news through Radio Australia. But that was the first mention that this might be my fate.

Malley: I understand that you didn’t hear a lot of political conversation in the home but then in later years noticed that your dad had some interest?

Oakes: Politics just wasn’t discussed when I was a kid at home; I’m not sure why. But I found out later that my father had actually been a member of the UAP [United Australia Party], which is the forerunner to the Liberal Party.

“Public servants are now afraid, quite legitimately, to talk to the press, and I think that’s a bad thing.”

The impartial journalist

Malley: You’ve said you’ve voted for both sides of politics at different times. Is it important that a journalist is willing to vote either way?

Oakes: I’m not sure you’ve got to be willing to vote either way, but you do have to be willing to stand back and not let your own political views influence your reporting. You can have opinions and you can express opinions, but you’ve still got to be able to report reasonably impartially on what politicians are doing.

The importance of what I do is enabling democracy … so people know what politicians are doing, so they know what they are voting for, why they are voting … and also to reflect the views of the voters back to the politicians.

Malley: At 21, you were made political roundsman and I recall a comment you made about [former Sydney Daily Mirror editor] Zell Rabin, who showed you an article and said, “What do you think of this?” 

Oakes: I was a very new state roundsman. I had only been covering state politics for a few weeks and this editorial that he showed me was about education policy of the new government. Zell Rabin was a very young editor, a very good editor, [and] I thought he had written it. I threw it back and said, “I think it’s crap, Zell”. He said “Yeah, so do I. Rupert wrote it”.

Rupert Murdoch had written it, so that was a lesson to me: I decided not to be a “yes man” to him. But he wasn’t a “yes man” to Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch gets bad press, quite often for very good reasons, but … I think he wants you to stand up to him if you work for him.

Effective leadership

Malley: It’s interesting, because in leadership if you are running something and everyone says effectively “I think you’re clever” every time you ask them a question, you are isolated aren’t you?

Oakes: You see it all the time in politics. We’ve seen it with what happened to the Abbott Government – no-one would take him on because of the command and control system he had round his office. The same happened with [former prime minister] Kevin Rudd; he was guarded too closely and people were frightened to tell him he was being stupid. You can’t lead effectively if no-one gives you the kind of advice you don’t want to hear.

Malley: Do you think there’s enough observation in public reporting today?

Oakes: There can never be enough, really. It’s one of the reasons I love television, because the viewers also share in the observation process and make up their mind. They develop suspicions or admiration or whatever. It is important the way people respond, the way people act, the eyes, voice is important. There isn’t as much [observation] as there used to be, partly because journalists are too busy.

The 24-hour news cycle – they are all tweeting and Facebooking and making live crosses into the television news every five minutes. They don’t get the time I used to have. There’s been a loss of personal contact and that has led to less opportunities for that kind of observation. 

Malley: To the issue of leadership and what’s happened in politics: How do you see leadership has changed in the past 50 years you’ve been reporting on it?

Oakes: Leading has got harder, and it’s partly because of the changes in the media – what’s now known as the “news cyclone”, where instead of one deadline a day there are dozens. Politicians feel they have to keep producing stories throughout the day. Leaders don’t get as much time to think, to prepare, to plan. [Former prime minister Robert] Menzies could take a six-week boat trip to England to go to the cricket. No leader can do that now.

Malley: Is it harder to get information out of the politicians today?

Oakes: Politicians spend years working out how to be subtle and avoid and con the press. They get better and better at it. To be fair, I think journalists have probably become more demanding as well, so part of the public relations set-ups and the spin is in response to increasing – and some unreasonable – demands from the media. The combined result is that you have this massive machinery to protect government from media investigation of inconvenient questions. 

And it’s not just politicians; the public service, too. A few years ago it was just accepted that if I wanted background on how something works, I could ring the relevant bureaucrat. Not any more. That bureaucrat knows that he or she has to refer me to the minister’s office, so I end up with a spin merchant who doesn’t know anything about it anyway. It’s not a particularly satisfying system.

Public servants are now afraid, quite legitimately, to talk to the press, and I think that’s a bad thing. The Crimes Act basically makes it a crime to tell a journalist anything. It’s one of the ways governments these days prevent leaks.

“I don’t think it’s healthy if big companies can buy a political result. But ... money talks in politics.”

Challenges for today’s media

Malley: From what I can gather, there’s a lot less journalists doing a lot more work.

Oakes: The encouraging thing is that reporters will always report. But it is getting harder for them. Media organisations don’t have the resources they used to, to help their journalists or even protect journalists. It’s very hard now to spend weeks on an investigation because media organisations are short of cash; the digital revolution [has] undermined the business model of most media organisations. 

And because they don’t have much money, they are willing to accept stuff that politicians give them. A few years ago, you wouldn’t have accepted a video from a politician; it would have been regarded as propaganda. Now it happens all the time.

You can see the future if you look at the Obama White House: they’ve set up this big digital media organisation – it’s a newsroom and they produce a weekly news bulletin and live streaming. Their photographers cover events in the White House that the White House press corps is just not invited to. 

I know the White House press corps resents and worries about it, with some reason, and that is slowly happening here.

Business and Politics

Malley: I’d like to talk to you about the interaction between business and politics. Has it diminished? Is it growing? 

Oakes: It’s growing and the lobbying industry is growing – and that’s really the interface between business and government or between other organisations and government. When the Rudd Government tried to introduce the mining tax, BHP and Rio Tinto did the massive advertising campaign and defeated that measure. That’s becoming more the norm.

I don’t think it’s healthy if the big companies can buy a political result. But no-one wants to offend BHP either … money talks in politics.

Malley: But leadership is about offending people sometimes isn’t it?

Oakes: It is. And you’ve got to know who to offend and then how to win in the ensuing battle. It’s having the guts to take it on in the first place. [Former Australian prime ministers] Keating, Hawke and Howard in various ways did it; I think modern politicians are less inclined to do it. Maybe it’s tougher now, but modern politicians – we’ll see whether [current prime minister] Turnbull fits into this – they’ve lacked basic political skills.

Someone like Paul Keating, from the age of 15 he was learning at the knee of [former New South Wales premier] Jack Lang about how you do politics; Hawke learned in the trade union movement.

Today’s politicians don’t seem to have learnt basic political lessons. [Opposition leader] Shorten, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd – they all fell foul of elementary things; politics 101 really. 

Previous PMs: how Oakes rates them

John GortonJohn Gorton
(1968-1971)

John Gorton was a bit of a renegade and a larrikin and a ratbag, but he was a great nationalist, he was gutsy and he was a terrific bloke. He was knifed by Billy McMahon and certain media proprietors. 7 out of 10.

Billy McMahon
(1971-1972)

Billy McMahon was an extraordinary bloke. He was devious, nasty, dishonest. He once asked to borrow a tape recorder from the radio station I worked for. When we went to collect it later, he claimed it was his. I had to point to where it said “Property of radio station 2SM” engraved on it. The fact that he was Prime Minister of this country was a disgrace. Minus 100 out of 10.

Gough WhitlamGough Whitlam
(1972-1975)

Gough was larger than life. Gough was crazy brave. He worked hard; he put together a plan of what he wanted Australia to be and he put it out there publicly and argued for it. He reformed the Labor Party. He had a lot of guts; he had a lot of vision. He could have been a great prime minister, except that he wasn’t interested in economics and he couldn’t control his people. 8 out of 10.

Malcolm Fraser
(1975-1983)

There were two Malcolm Frasers: he was always very conscious about race [and] he loathed racism; as prime minister, he was a disappointment. He was a really tough, ruthless politician that showed no compunction about blocking supply in the Senate to force the governor-general to sack the Labor Government [in 1975]. But once he came in, he had two record majorities; he could have done anything but there was no reformist agenda at all. He carried on some of the work of Whitlam in Aboriginal land rights.

He made the decision, which Whitlam opposed, to allow in Vietnamese refugees – again showing how true he was on issues of race. But on economic reform, his government was a bit of a waste of space. 7 out of 10.

Bob HawkeBob Hawke
(1983-1991)

Bob Hawke turned out to be a good prime minister. It surprised me a bit, because I’d known Bob Hawke before he gave up drinking. He had an image in his mind of what a prime minister should be, and for the duration he turned himself into that. It was an amazing act of will. He was lucky he had a good Cabinet that basically Bill Hayden had put together before he lost the leadership [to Hawke]. 9 out of 10.

Paul Keating
(1991-1996)

Paul Keating, like Gough Whitlam, was crazy brave. Nothing frightened him. He set out what he wanted to do, he campaigned for it publicly and he was interested in economics. He saw the need to explain it to the public, which he did through the press gallery. He spent a lot of time trying to explain to us why he was doing what he was doing. He had wonderful facility of the language, so that when he said something you remembered it. 9 out of 10.

John HowardJohn Howard
(1996-2007)

John Howard turned out to be a good prime minister. What he did with gun control was very brave. He was a tough prime minister, ran a very orderly government; he did control his ministers pretty well. Someone like Peter Costello, there was a lot of tension there but Howard was careful to use Costello’s talents and not drive him away. 8 or 9 out of 10.

Kevin Rudd
(2007-2010; June 2013-September 2013)

Kevin Rudd probably should have been a good prime minister, but he had no power base in the Labor Party; he had no empathy with the people who he worked with. He tried to do too much, tried to control too much and it all fell apart.

It would have been better if he had a Cabinet that had the guts to tell him that he was doing things wrong, but they didn’t. They should have tried before they tore him down. He got us through the global financial crisis and that was pretty important. 5 or 6 out of 10. 

Julia GillardJulia Gillard
(2010-2013)

Julia Gillard was great as deputy; she was a great parliamentary performer. But when she seized the prime ministership, she wasn’t ready; she didn’t know what she wanted to do and her judgement was terrible.

It’s true that because she was a woman, she faced difficulties that she wouldn’t have faced as a man. But even so, the problems she faced were not caused by that. If she’d come to the job later, she might have been good enough. She changed in the job; instead of being herself, she tried to become too cautious, too deliberate, lost her ability to communicate and interest people. 5 or 6 out of 10.

Tony Abbott
(2013-2015)

Great opposition leader. If you were just judging the result of an opposition leader, you would give him 10. But as prime minister, 5. He didn’t know how to do basic stuff. You promise a whole string of things that you won’t do and then you do them in your first budget – you’ve got to know that’s going to hurt, unless you’re really stupid, politically. 5 out of 10. 

Malcom TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull
(2015-present)

I think the business experience is important; it’s good for people to do something else before they are in politics. Some of the best performers in the Whitlam Government and the Hawke Government, they’d been shearers and some of them had run small businesses. Turnbull messed up the opposition leader’s job and that is good, too, because he’s had his fingers burned … and he says he’s learned from his mistakes.

Malcolm Turnbull is a bloke with massive self-confidence, massive self-belief. You do need that, but you also need to hide it and one of his problems has been that he hasn’t managed to hide it. He’s appearing a little more modest these days.

He actually had a pretty hard early life, brought up in a single-parent family … He’s got this big house in Sydney on the harbour and from the deck, if you look to the left, there is a block of flats he can see where he and his father used to live in the bad old days. He can remind himself, if he wants to, what it was like then. He’s still got that connection, and I think that works for him.

His favourites:

“My favourite interview was with Rajiv Gandhi when he was prime minister of India. He was like a teacher; he wasn’t like a politician. He was a gentle soul. I flew to New Delhi and it was a lovely interview. He had survived an assassination attempt two days before the interview and we talked about what that felt like – people wanting to kill you – and then months later they did.

Paul Keating was a joy to interview. Even when he hated you, it was always interesting.

Hawke, too, was prepared to let his hair down and be Bob Hawke. One of the problems with today’s politicians, maybe with the exception of Turnbull, is they are too frightened to be themselves; they are too frightened to go off script. It’s one of the reasons the public doesn’t really believe in them, doesn’t trust them, because they look too artificial.” 

The one he’s most proud of:

“There was one with Keating where I’d been in the sin-bin for six months and he came back on the Sunday program and dropped three front-page stories in one interview, including the privatisation of Qantas. In terms of breaking news, that was the best one.”

The most memorable:

“The interview that I remember most vividly is with [former Australian politician and trade union official] Craig Thomson about his credit cards and hookers. I had to be very careful in that interview because there were legal issues involved. It was a tough subject. I went in hard and … the replies I got were astonishing.”

This article is from the March issue of INTHEBLACK.

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