By Linda Beattie
Defeating all odds, acclaimed journalist Maxine McKew defeated Prime Minister John Howard for the seat of Bennelong in the 2007 Federal election. One of the most tumultuous periods in Australian politics followed, and then in 2010 Maxine became one of the casualties of a disastrous election campaign.
Her political career was cut short in the wake of a leadership change between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Author of The Battle for Bennelong Margot Saville interviewed Maxine about her book Tales from the Political Trenches and what went wrong, and got her perspective on the current political climate at a session at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.
On Federal election night, 2007, after Maxine McKew unseated John Howard, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, sent her a five-word text of congratulations, “You are a giant slayer.” Like the biblical battle between David and Goliath, the contest had started for Maxine with disdain from her opponents, disdain turned to fear as the political parvenu gained in the polls and, finally, stomach-churning anxiety as Bennelong balanced on a knife-edge.
Labor’s victory had been historic in every sense. Maxine McKew had beaten a sitting Prime Minister, a feat achieved only once before, in 1929 when Prime Minister Stanley Bruce lost his seat. In the contest of ideas, Kevin Rudd had brought his national campaign into Bennelong with senior members of the party, such as Julia Gillard, Bob Hawke and Bob Carr visiting to connect with voters and expound core Labor values. In Tales from the Political Trenches, Maxine wrote, “The seat was watched with the same fascination normally reserved for a Melbourne Cup race.”
Maxine stopped short of claiming victory on election night and instead ended her speech with the much quoted line from poet Robert Frost, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.” The final tally for Bennelong, announced eight days later, was a 16 per cent swing in the primary vote against the Liberals. It had only ever been a Liberal seat.
So what went wrong later? It was one of the questions Margot Saville put to Maxine McKew who had ready a long list of what went wrong, not the least being that Labor failed to claim the success it had engineered during the global financial crisis.
“After the coup against Rudd, we squandered our political capitol. We sent out confusing messages on asylum seekers and climate change. There was a never-explained concept of a ‘sustainable Australia’ and a new detention centre in East Timor. The campaign strategists substituted policy for dog-whistling sloganeering,” she said.
Maxine said Labor’s campaign should have been crafted around “economic salvation”. But, as she said, “that would have meant acknowledging Rudd’s central role in managing the GFC and saving Australian jobs”. She excoriated those in the Labor Party who, she says, “ambushed him”.
About the current political climate, Maxine said, “A small powerful clique now rules the Labor Party. Those individuals will have a long time to contemplate the reality of an Abbott Government. In their delusional state, they probably think that Abbott will be a one-term wonder. I suspect not.”
Maxine McKew was always interested in politics. Educated at All Hallows, Brisbane, she recalls that she was seven when the nuns had her class on their knees daily, praying for the election of the first Catholic American President, John F. Kennedy. The sudden loss of her mother two years earlier meant she learnt her first life-lesson that “there are no certainties”. Later when her father re-married, she learnt her second, “those with power make the decisions”. In her adult life. as an award-winning journalist, she would interview with ease those who used their power to make decisions.
Her media career began in London typing copy in the BBC’s news room. She remembers only one moment of tutelage: a staff member told her, “We put the ‘u’ in Labour here, dear, where it properly belongs.” Her stint at the BBC helped secure a cadetship at the ABC in Brisbane and so began her 30 years as a broadcast and print journalist, culminating in her taking over from Kerry O’Brien as host on Lateline.
It was while working in the ABC’s Canberra studios that she met her partner, Bob Hogg, the then National Secretary of the ALP. As Maxine said, Bob was a shrewd campaigner who, during the 1980s and 90s had kept Labor winning tight elections in successive State and Federal elections. “I have always gravitated towards intellectual energy and Bob was someone who would see new pathways, where others saw only obstacles. Over a meal with Bob, one freezing night in Canberra, the dye was cast. I was hooked.”
Contrary to popular belief, it was not Kevin Rudd’s idea that Maxine contest John Howard’s seat, although he readily endorsed it. Bob Hogg had identified several elements that made Bennelong contestable. Maxine said the most appealing element for her was “it was an open race with no debts or obligations. If I pulled it off, I wouldn’t owe anybody or be owned by anyone. During the campaign, it was Bob who put ‘the steel in me’ to take the fight up to Howard.
“Our relationship works because we are opposites. Bob is introspective, a loner, who can live from inside his own head, he doesn’t need people. I am outgoing, mercurial and can’t live without people. That’s what I loved about campaigning, being with people and listening to their needs. Then, as an elected member of Parliament, representing their needs. I miss that very much,” she said.
Maxine’s perspective on the current political climate is bleak. “We have two abrasive leaders who have coarsened our national discourse. We should be having a grown-up discussion about asylum seekers, not substituting debate for shrill shouting across the chamber. We need an elevated national conversation about our future.
“But overall the tragedy for Labor over the past six years is that two talented people, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, could not find a way to work together. They have complementary skills but the premature ambition of one defeated the other. In the end the Labor Party is the loser.”
Since leaving politics, Maxine has taken up an offer as Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Melbourne University. She also works as an advisor on education to the not-for-profit group Social Ventures Australia and is a member of the board of Per Capita. As the sold-out event at the Sydney Writer’s Festival indicated, she is also a sought-after speaker.