A modern woman

Karen Kissane profiles Jenny Macklin and finds a feminist with a fire in her belly for change but a considered approach to achieving it.

JENNY Macklin is cheerful with the people lining up for her autograph until one person mischievously asks her to sign herself “Jenny Macklin, Prime Minister”. The fact that she is the first woman to get within cooee of the title is part of the reason for the queue, but Macklin is quick to cut off this kind of talk, glancing at the reporter behind her. “Don’t say that in front of her,” she says firmly. Is this a sensitive issue, then? “Very sensitive.”
Yesterday Macklin, 47, was elected as the new deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. She is the first woman to hold such a senior position on either side of Australian politics.

She didn’t get there without a firm grasp of the rules, which include “thou shalt not covet thy boss’s job”, and “never count your chickens before they’re hatched”. So, while her deal was stitched up before the book launch at which she was signing autographs last weekend, Macklin was taking no chances in the lead-up to the vote.

Wandering through a north Melbourne community garden during the launch, which was for a collection of life stories by elderly local people, Macklin did not stand on ceremony. She was quick to notice when someone frail needed help easing into a chair; she grabbed a camera and offered to take photos when the authors were gathered together. She was “Jenny” to everyone.

“She’s got a very natural quality,” says Brian Howe, a former deputy prime minister and one of Macklin’s old bosses. “She’s not trying to … be something she’s not … And she’s a very good operator at the grassroots level.”
Such warm ways may be winning with the locals, but Macklin called on sterner stuff to cut a swathe through the ALP’s factional bloodiness to leadership. She has been in Parliament only five years but has earned her colleagues’ respect and in some cases their dislike for her tenacity and reputedly masterful grasp of policy.

Macklin is an intelligent, left-wing feminist who has the social-justice fire in the belly of old-time Labor but less of its propensity for headkicking. The acerbic Simon Crean has chosen her for his running mate, one ALP insider says, “because he knows he needs her in terms of the community they’ve got very different skills”.

Shrewd and cautious, Macklin refuses to speculate publicly about her future. “I haven’t even started this [job] yet; let’s see how we go … I want to do well at what I’m putting up my hand for.” She says she wants to avoid hubris because it irritates colleagues and voters alike. “It’s not looked upon kindly in any politician … You can’t afford it, especially with Australians. [They] have got wonderful antennae for bulldust.”
The Labor Left women who make up her Praetorian Guard are more outspoken about their hopes for her. “First female prime minister? I hope so,” says the ACTU president, Sharan Burrow. “She’s a strong woman, she’s tenacious, she’s extremely articulate and her knowledge base is incredible. She’s also courageous in terms of speaking out on what she believes in.”
For some she has not been courageous enough. She publicly sells the party’s decision to support subsidies of private health insurance, even though her views that the money would be better spent directly on the public health system are well known. (She called the Liberals’ introduction of the subsidy “the worst piece of public policy ever seen in this Parliament”.)
One observer who has had dealings with Macklin says she sometimes thinks she knows more than she actually does. Some (anonymous) detractors in her own party have muttered that she is not tough enough, or pragmatic enough, to make hard decisions; others on Labor’s Right have warned that she is a closet radical whose leftie urges would be uncaged if ever she won
power. So are we to expect a wimp or a rabid ideologue?
Neither, laughs Macklin. “I think I’ve had to make some pretty tough decisions …you’ve got to take the decision that’s made and run with it … You’ve got to accept that you’ve got a place to argue it, which is inside the party forums. I’m not elected as an independent. I’m elected as a member of the Labor Party.”
As for being too far to the left: “I have a very strong sense of social justice … and I know that one of our big tasks in the Labor Party is to protect people… But I’ve been in the Labor Party for 20 years and I know that you’ve got to take people with you.”
But for all her team-player talk, Macklin has sometimes dared to go out on a limb. The former Victorian premier Joan Kirner says: “I … will never forget when Howard tried to split the Labor Party conference on the issue of an IVF amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act stopping IVF to lesbians and single women. Many of the blokes were dithering around. Jenny just went straight out to the media and went right to the heart of it; that this was not about IVF but about a proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. She said, `We introduced it and we won’t be amending it.’ And then Kim [Beazley] had to come in behind her, much to our relief, and then people had to back Kim, even though it was pretty hairy. So she won’t be afraid to take leadership.”
Macklin has her critics within the party, most of whom are of a gender and a faction other than her own. She antagonised some colleagues before the 1998 election by successfully resisting efforts to impose an economic rationalist approach on the party’s child-care policies. Others are aggrieved now because she beat them to the deputy’s job. But Macklin is not quite as nerveless with the media as she can be in the party room. Personal publicity makes her uneasy. For this interview in her Heidelberg electorate office she chooses to talk from behind her moat of a desk, arms folded in front of her, pleasant but wary.

Macklin makes a face when asked what strengths she will bring to her new job; self-promotion is really not her bag, she points out, before taking a deep breath and nominating her solid background in policy development and the fact that she is a fresh
face. “I think probably the most important thing is not having been a member of the government,” she says.

Macklin will head the party’s policy review but it is not yet clear whether she will be shadow treasurer. It’s been reported that she was pressed not to take the portfolio, even though it is the traditional entitlement of a deputy opposition leader. MPs Stephen Smith and Bob McMullan are also believed to want the job. Historically, not all deputies have taken treasury, but in Macklin’s case it would be a dilution of the feminist victory.

Macklin denies she is under pressure and says Crean has made it clear the decision is hers. “It’ll be up to me and my view is that I should choose basically where I think I could make the biggest contribution and where I’ll be the most use to the party.”
But there is also the question of whether experience in this senior portfolio would benefit Macklin and her career. “That is definitely an issue,” she acknowledges. “I’m thinking about that. One should never get stuck.”
She will be deputy to a man who the party’s own polling suggests is the most disliked figure in the federal parliamentary party, but Macklin says she has found Crean good to work with. “I’ve seen the other side of him a lot, particularly going back to before he was in the Parliament. He’s actually very inclusive. He’s the sort of person that tries to bring people with him … I think people will see that in a way that they haven’t been able to, particularly over the last three years when he’s really had the tough job [of shadow treasurer].”
What Macklin says about Crean is what others say about her. Rhonda Galbally, founding chief executive of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, watched her chair the national health strategy review. She was inclusive and took people with her because of her consultative style, Galbally says. “People felt as though their voices were being heard and as if they were being taken seriously.”
Professor Stephen Duckett, dean of health sciences at La Trobe University, worked with the Victorian Health Department and attended round-table meetings run by Macklin. He says she took the same approach to conflict: “She would try to understand why there was divergence of views, trying to clarify the conflict and work out what commonality there was.” At the same time, he says, her policies show she is no pushover: “There are a lot of pressures on shadow ministers to wheel things into policy. You’ve got to resist the blandishments of the lobby groups if they don’t fit where you want to go. And she does.”
What is most likely to trip her up? “She’s a woman, and the evidence is that when women stick their head above the mediocrity line, they become targets in the very blokey atmosphere of Parliament House.”
This is another line Macklin does not wish to pursue. “It’s been very tough for the women who’ve put themselves forward; I’d be foolish not to see it. But politics at the most senior level is tough for both men and women.” What keeps her there, she says, is the conviction that she can help drive change: “I’m an absolutely strong believer that you can make a difference.”


Born Brisbane, 1953.

Family Partner Ross and three children aged 25, 19 and 13.

Educated Wangaratta High School, then studied for Bachelor of Commerce (Honours), University of Melbourne.

Entered Parliament March 1996 as MP for Jagajaga, Victoria.

Labor Party career Opposition health spokeswoman and ALP senior vice-president.

Lives Ivanhoe, in Melbourne’s north-east.

First published in The Age.

Election 2001 The leaders – INSIDE THE LOSING CAMP

His staff stood stiffly at the back of the room, tears in their eyes. His wife and two older daughters flanked him, their eyes shining, struggling for brave smiles. He was the crowd’s hero too, despite the defeat; when he said he would return to the back bench, they roared their displeasure: “We want Kim! We want Kim!”

“Don’t make this any harder than it is,” he begged them.

Kim Beazley had come to end his bid for the prime ministership at the Star Ballroom, a squat building with vinyl chairs and laminex tables in the centre of an industrial estate in working-class Rockingham, in Mr Beazley’s WA electorate of Brand. It was decked out for a party that had became a wake.

When word spread that he was on his way the party workers stood, as one would for royalty, and formed a guard of honor for him. Close to the time, the room hushed. But they broke into cheers when he arrived and began to walk through the room, half a head taller than anyone around him.

He gave a warm, generous, impassioned speech, one that fitted the man former prime minister Bob Hawke had described earlier in the evening as “one of the most decent men I have ever met in public life”.

He thanked everyone who had helped him. He said he was 99 per cent saddened by the result, but one per cent of him delighted in the extra time he would now have to spend with his family after 21 pressured years in politics.

And he appealed to Australian idealism in a way that had been muted throughout a campaign where he had felt obliged to stand with the Prime Minister on asylum seekers: “We are a great nation. We are a nation with a capacity to be better. We are a nation with a capacity for a generosity of heart.

“There are bleak angels in our nation, but there are also good angels as well. And the task and challenge for those of us in politics is to bring out the generosity that resides in the soul of the ordinary Australian.”

After his speech, he walked back down the guard of honor to a song with the chorus, I think the world is turning black. A young woman told him, “I think this means we need better education.” He laughed and slapped her on the back. “You’ve waited SO long,” said a grandmother, sympathetically. A man shook his hand and said, “We did our best.” Replied Mr Beazley, “We certainly did. We more than saved the furniture.”

Steering towards the exit, he suddenly veered back into the room after catching sight of a small elderly woman. She said proudly, “You give us all heart to go on.” Beazley grinned and grasped her by both shoulders: “My mother,” he told the crowd, “is the membership officer for the Cottesloe branch of the Labor Party, at the age of 80.” (His father was in hospital following hip surgery).

Earlier in the day Mr Beazley’s daughter Hannah, 22, had tried to look on the bright side of the possibility of loss. Handing out how-to-vote cards for her father, she said, “For me, for completely selfish reasons, there’s positives in both. If he wins, it will be what we’ve all worked for the past 20-odd years as a family.

Yesterday afternoon in South Perth, just as election booths were closing on Australia’s east coast, there was a wedding in a church opposite the Beazley home. Outside the church a lone piper played Amazing Grace. There was no saving Kim Beazley – but then, it is a hymn often played at funerals.

First published in The Age.

Beazleys join the vote people Election 2001

Kim Beazley made his mark on the ballot paper with his wife, Susie, looking over his shoulder. “This is as close as it comes to knowing his intimate thoughts on politics,” she quipped.

Susie Annus kept the quips coming, as is her wont, but yesterday there was a nervy edge to her delivery. Beazley himself looked not so much nervous as weary, his eyes red and his voice a little husky. His daughter Hannah, 22, who had spent the morning handing out how-to-vote cards for her dad, felt no need to hide her feelings: “I’ve got about a dozen swarms of butterflies going around in my stomach.”
The Beazley family had come to Rockingham High School, in his home electorate of Brand, Western Australia, to vote in what might be Beazley’s last election as a candidate, or the one that will take him to the Lodge. He moved across the parquet floor of the school gym like a dancer at the centre of a country set.

The party faithful did manage to touch the hem of his cloak. “Was that a curtsy?” cried Annus, of a little old lady greeting Beazley. The reply was a second curtsy.

Three elderly women who accosted him about how, as pensioners, they deserved a cut in their rates, were congratulated on their tactics. “Well done, ladies,” he said, amused. “You’ve just run a great campaign on national television.”

He had the grace to pass on the photo opportunity with the baby girl who had been waiting for some time in her best pink dress. He decided the pack should get out of her face, which was crumpling at the sight of all the cameras.

But he accepted the two wilted roses, casualties of the Perth heat, offered him by another voter – one was Double Delight and the other Paradise, she said: “And maybe tomorrow morning we’ll all be in paradise.”

He planted himself in the shade of a large gum tree to say his last public words before the defining speech he would probably have to make later. “I’ll tell you what keeps me alive in politics,” he said. “What keeps me alive is the smell of those suburbs in Western Australia near to the beach. It smells like relaxation, and it smells like home, and there is no better way to conclude an election campaign.”

But did he smell victory? “The polls this morning say this is a tight one,” he said. “It’s a miracle we’re in this situation. When we began this election campaign all the polls told us that the Labor Party was facing annihilation.”

He talked again about the domestic issues he had tried so hard to put on the agenda: job security, education, families and aged care. “A nation is judged by how it treats its children and its elderly,” he said. “If a society fails its children and its elderly, it’s a failed society.”

And he said he was angered by newspaper posters that reported the Prime Minister John Howard as blaming the navy for the schemozzle over the asylum seekers video: “When I was defence minister … I accepted responsibility for the services who reported to me,” he said. “That’s the job of the PM. He doesn’t shift the blame to the people who defend this country.”

The campaign trail ended, Beazley’s next stop was hospital. His father, Kim Beazley senior, had gone in for a hip operation on Monday, and Kim junior had not yet had a chance to visit him. Then it was to be back to his electorate office with his family and close colleagues to watch what he expected to be a white-knuckle count.

“I don’t know where your heart is,” called out a Labor supporter in the grounds of the school.

Beazley knew. “In my mouth. In my mouth.”

First published in The Age.

Election 2001: The last post plays for Beazley


FLYING from Adelaide to Perth on election morning, would-be Prime Minister Kim Beazley and his wife, Susie Annus, still seemed buoyant. The ominous opinion polls of the previous couple of days had left the rest of his team a bit flattened, but Beazley cheerily chatted to journalists and joined their sweep on the election result. He tipped a Labor win by seven seats, with three independents.

He had more faith in Australians than they had in him.

The Beazley who went to Perth’s war memorial yesterday to lay a wreath for Remembrance Day was visibly bruised. He moved heavily. When he spoke to reporters, as briefly as could be managed without rudeness, his voice was so soft as to be barely audible. Earlier in the week his minders had said he would do a doorstop interview that day, win or lose. But it turned out to be one ordeal he couldn’t face.

He stood still in his black suit through the Last Post and the wail of bagpipes, those rituals for irrevocable loss. After laying a wreath he stepped back and briefly laid his right hand on his heart. Asked later what he had been thinking of during the service, he said: “I was thinking actually of service personnel, not politicians.”

His plans for this week? “I’m going to go to Canberra and clean out the office.”

Would he be taking Susie to Paris? (They had joked during the campaign that if he won, he would take her to Canberra, and if he lost, he would take her to Paris.) He barked a black laugh. “It’s back here for me.” And he stepped into his car and shut the door.

Beazley’s election loss on Saturday is one of Labor’s great tragedies, and not just because the party is sentenced to another three years in opposition. The defeat has also KO’d the leadership of a prince of the Labor tribe and ended a family dream.

Kim Beazley comes from a family of ALP stalwarts. His father, Kim senior, spent 32 years in Federal Parliament. Kim junior first “entered” parliament in 1949 as a baby in the arms of his mother, visiting his father.

He was captivated by politics from the age of 12, when his father used to leave him sitting in the speaker’s gallery on the floor of the Old Parliament House for hours at a time. “I used to imagine myself as part of the process,” he has said. “It seemed to be a place where things were done.”

Beazley was a Rhodes scholar and studied history at Oxford before returning to Australia with his first wife, Mary Paltridge, and the first of his three daughters. In 1980, at 32, he won the marginal Western Australian seat of Swan and became an MP. (He later switched seats and now holds Brand.)

He was marked for responsibility early. He was Australia’s youngest ever defence minister and served his apprenticeship in several other big portfolios, including education and finance, during which he oversaw the sale of public institutions including Qantas, CSL and the last half of the Commonwealth Bank.

In many ways he has been a highly successful party leader. As the new Opposition Leader in 1996, he prevented the party from collapsing into infighting after Paul Keating’s devastating election loss. At his first election as leader, in 1998, he won even though he lost, unexpectedly clawing back much of the 1996 landslide to the government.

He has intellectual depth, a flair for passionate oratory, few enemies and a reputation as a genuinely decent man. He was once described as the first Labor leader since Chifley not to have a major personality disorder. But unless he becomes Lazarus with a double bypass, his story, like his father’s, will end as one of unfulfilled political promise.

For Beazley senior, early hopes that he might one day be prime minister were dashed by the Labor schism over communism in the 1950s. Beazley junior has also been in part foiled by circumstance: he was ahead in the polls until the Tampa sailed over John Howard’s horizon and fate played the wild card of international terrorism.

Beazley’s efforts to keep domestic issues such as jobs, health, education and aged care at the top of the campaign agenda were repeatedly torpedoed as the war on terror and the controversy over asylum seekers continued to dominate the news.

After 1996, Beazley had decided that the party had to win back blue-collar men in their 40s and 50s who had deserted Labor because they were feeling insecure in the world. This time he hammered the same issues of job security and security of access to health and education, not just because the opinion polls showed that these were Labor’s strengths, but because, perhaps, he thought addressing these anxieties would help defuse the hostilities over refugees.

He hinted as much in his speech conceding defeat on Saturday: “As we look at security internationally, we look first at security in the hearts and minds of those around the kitchen table. Because there’s no doubt at all that a sense of generosity in the hearts of an average citizen often starts with a sense of security at home. And if they do not feel a sense of security, then their capacity to feel a generosity is often marred.”
Before the campaign started, Beazley had taken the advice of the public relations man for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, losing weight and making his sentences less wordy to help get his message across. He insisted that he wanted the job, attempting to defuse concerns that he wasn’t hungry for power and lacked “ticker” (a charge that had haunted him for years, to the point where he once told an interviewer with exasperation: “What do you want me to say? That I am a big enough prick?”).
But none of it was enough to get him over the line. Now his political legacy can be assessed much as his biographer, Peter FitzSimons, concluded in Beazley three years ago: “He could take some satisfaction when flying back to Australia – on an aviation system he helped to organise and to finance, through defence security zones he helped to set up, above regional alliances made with his guidance, at the hands of people he had a hand in educating and training, using telecommunications systems working on his own basic model … – that he had made a genuine impact on the life of the nation he was born to.”
But to this must now be added, in the eyes of many concerned about human rights, the grave demerit of his having supported the Howard Government’s stance on asylum seekers – a strategy that did not even have the saving grace of electoral success.

Beazley spoke on Saturday night of being 99per cent saddened by the result, but 1per cent pleased to have more time with his family. Before stepping off the podium after he conceded defeat, he and his wife and two older daughters embraced in a circle, for a moment shutting out the watching world.

How well he will cope with life on the political sidelines is another question. One of his spokesmen yesterday confirmed that Beazley would not stand for the leadership (despite many calls from party members to his electorate office begging him to reconsider) but will stand by his promise to serve out his term as MP for Brand.

Beazley has previously told of having had a black year in 1992, when portfolio changes after Keating seized the leadership from Hawke pushed Beazley from the centre of the government.

On the other hand, Beazley grew up above the political shop and learnt early of the life’s triumphs and brutalities. One hard lesson might stand him in good stead now. In November 1963, Kim Beazley senior had told his children that, at long last, their beloved Labor was about to win an election. The Beazley children cursed and wept when the party lost.

Beazley demanded that his father explain how such a terrible thing could happen. The answer was sad but firm. “That,” his father said, “is politics.”

First published in The Age.

The tyranny of history: Geoffrey Blainey

GEOFFREY Blainey is a more careful man these days. He edges around explosive topics such as race, wary of anything that might lead to “Blainey ignites debate” headlines. He screens his telephone callers with an answering machine and insists on being interviewed on what he calls “neutral ground”, away from his home. “Security problems,” he mutters cryptically.

He chooses the kiosk in the centre of the Fitzroy gardens and with old-world courtesy is there before the appointed time, sitting outside with the camellias and the birdsong, carrying a just-in-case umbrella for Melbourne’s spring weather. With his navy blazer, diffident manner and white-haired comb-over, he has the air of a retired country doctor or lawyer.

In fact, he is neither retired nor retiring. Australia’s most public and most controversial historian might be 70 but he has never been busier. He is chairing the national council for the centenary of Federation, writing an autobiography for Penguin, updating his classic The Tyranny of Distance and enjoying the success of his latest book, A Short History of the World, which is into its fourth reprint. Tomorrow he begins delivering the ABC’s prestigious Boyer lectures for 2001 on the theme “This land is all horizons: Australian fears and visions”.

“I think it’s a mixed blessing to give them,” he says, chuckling. “Your views may be picked up … ” And used against you? “Yes. I’m pleased to have been asked but some part of me thinks it would have been better if I hadn’t accepted them. One would like to set out one’s views in such lots as one thinks appropriate rather than in six Sundays in a row.”

The man, like his speech, is formal and reserved. He laughs, in a quiet, patrician sort of way, only when analysing how the world responds to him, like when he is asked if his lectures will be controversial: “That remains to be seen.

“I myself don’t go in for controversies. It sounds preposterous, I know, (but) I don’t go out of my way to say things that will arouse antagonism. It’s just that a lot of my views are different to other people’s views, and a lot of my views I’ve never expressed for fear of” – here comes that chuckle again – “widening the range of controversy. That’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about religion.”

There are two views on Blainey and controversy. For those who admire him as a standard-bearer of the new right, Blainey is a martyr to freedom of speech who was effectively forced out of his position as professor of history at Melbourne University in 1988 for telling unpalatable truths about race:
that multiculturalism divided and weakened society, that levels of Asian immigration were testing the limits of tolerance, that land rights for Aborigines would mean apartheid.

His critics, on the other hand, fear his remarks fueled racism and see him not as a victim of controversy but as its beneficiary. “It’s done him wonders,” says Henry Reynolds, now research professor in history at the University of Tasmania. Reynolds, who has written of the damage done to Aborigines by colonialism, holds what Blainey would call a “black armband” view of Australia’s history; Reynolds believes it better than a “white blindfold”.

Reynolds says controversy has made Blainey a household name. “He’s the darling of the right, he’s in high standing with the government, he’s been given an AC (Companion of the Order of Australia); why would anyone think it’s cost him?

“As I see it he’s highly respected and, as a member of the Melbourne Club, is a friend of many corporate leaders. He’s comfortably entrenched in the Melbourne establishment, and what better place could there be in Australia?”

Another historian, who did not wish to be named, was irritated by the suggestion that a symposium held in Blainey’s honor earlier this year could be seen as an attempt to bring him out of an intellectual gulag: “I didn’t know he was in one. He seems to me very well published, very well reviewed and to be given ample newspaper space whenever he wants it – if that’s `in the cold’…” There is no doubt, though, that in the eyes of many on the left he remains unshriven.

Blainey says that his decision to take early retirement was a good one because life on campus had become difficult and now he has more freedom to speak. Was he hurt? “I accept that if you’re standing by a hot fire you’re going to get singed.” If he had foreseen the consequences, would he have kept his mouth shut? “It’s impossible to answer, isn’t it? If I say `Yes, I wouldn’t have said anything’, you portray yourself as a coward, don’t you?”
`This land is all horizons’ is a quote from poet and journalist Mary Gilmore, who seems an unlikely hero for the conservative Blainey given that she was a socialist and a feminist. But she was also one of the most revered of the first generation of nationalist writers, and Blainey is a fervent nationalist.

He says many of the topics in his Boyer lectures, as in his books, are part-geographical. One is on the tension between conservation and earlier goals of population and national development: “In the 1950s and ’60s it was believed that we had to get a big population in order to defend the country and that the people should be widely spread to aid defence and development.

“I think the solution we’ve adopted in recent years as a nation is that large parts of tropical Australia have been almost quarantined from development by putting them as nature reserves or Aboriginal collectives. That may turn out to be a solution that the rest of the world may recognise; on the other hand, the rest of the world might say, `here’s all this space, and you’re not using it’. I’ve got another one on the divide between the city and the country … The economic grievances have been here for a long time but the cultural gap is more important. One of the gaps is that (country people) have got a different attitude to defence. The further away you live from the city the more you’re interested in defence.”

Blainey will also speak on nationalism and heroes. His lecture on the rise of the green movement (“though green is the wrong word for a country as brown as this”) has already caused some twitches at the ABC. Blainey will argue that today’s politicised greens were preceded by Australians such as the poet Dorothea Mackellar who first attempted to create widespread affection for the landscape among its European settlers.

“Someone in the ABC expressed concern before I’ve even given the lectures about my distinction between between `dark greens’ and `light greens’,” he says, “presumably because they’re dark greens and don’t like the word. I think they would prefer to think there’s one united green movement.”

He does share some common ground with greens in that he has a sense of awe about the natural world. In his Short History, he writes more than once of what it must have been like for generations of humans who slept outside under the stars. “I think a sense of wonder about the universe is a religious feeling,” he says.

“The dark greens … believe the world is in a state of crisis and that the green issues transcend any other issue. I think the dark greens are profoundly religious, in an unorthodox way in 19th-century terms, but they’ve got a belief that there is an inner harmony, and they may or they may not believe in the creator but they see (the world) as a wonderful task completed. I’m a light green; I’ve got a strong sense of the wonder of the universe.”

When he was recently in outback WA for centenary celebrations, his train stopped at a rail station in the middle of the night to watch an Aboriginal concert. “I wanted to get away from the lights and the train to see the stars, because the stars in the desert, it’s one of the great sights in the world.”

Blainey developed his feeling for landscape and space growing up in country Victoria – Leongatha, Geelong and Ballarat – as the second of four children of a non-conformist Methodist minister. He’s still religious, he says hesitantly, “without quite knowing what to do with it. I don’t find any denomination I wish to belong to”.

As a child he would use his father’s membership card to borrow travel books from the local mechanics’ institute to study how they were written. “I had a very strong desire to write when I was very young, without knowing it.” At 13 he won a scholarship to board at Wesley College and later did his PhD in history at Melbourne University.

He becomes vague when asked about his political development but confesses to an adolescent admiration for Chifley, the train driver who managed to become a Labor prime minister, and even a passing flirtation with socialism until he was 17, when the attempt to nationalise the banks jolted him out of it.

Blainey has always been known as a private man. The forces that shaped his personal history may or may not become documented in the autobiography he has partly written – to the age of 40 – and now set aside. He has several explanations for why he put it on hold: he thought he’d done enough; he wants to come back to it later to check if his recollection of events is accurate; he finds writing his own story boring. “When you’re writing a book about something else, you’re researching all the time and finding out things you didn’t know before, and it’s exciting. Your own life – your memory has sorted it out already, hasn’t it?”
Or perhaps, for someone whose writing has been preoccupied with the verifiable external world, the more internal landscape of autobiography is difficult. He says he is surprised to recognise, in the course of this interview, how his rural background and family’s views have strongly influenced his own politics: “You’ve given me this awful realisation that I’ve just been walking around in circles all these years. There’s the headline: `Blainey runs on spot: No progress!”‘

HE does hold firmly to ideas. He has written a new chapter for The Tyranny of Distance, defending his thesis from today’s idea that the tyrant is now dead, killed off by modern communications and travel.

“You could have put that argument in 1850 when the telegraph was invented; you could have said distance was dead when aeroplanes started to move across the world. But the main reason why Sydney has jumped ahead of Melbourne as the financial capital in the last 40 years is because Sydney is three hours nearer the outside world on most plane routes. I think distance is still very important.”

Blainey believes his professional strengths include the great variety of histories he has tackled and the clarity of his writing: “In fact, I wouldn’t be in much trouble if I wrote obscurely, would I? I could say what I liked and no one would take any notice.” Tom Stannage, professor of history at Western Australia’s Curtin University, disagreed with Blainey’s views on race and land rights but says: “It’s hard to think of a major issue in Australian life that he hasn’t touched on.”

Stannage says there have been times when reactions to his outspoken views have caused concern for Blainey’s personal safety, but Blainey never held grudges himself. Stannage contributed to a book that criticised Blainey, but Blainey later cheerfully agreed to lecture Stannage’s students on the public role of the historian. “He argued the case for the historian to engage with the central issues of the day and to interpret the past as it bore on them with as much integrity and control as you can muster.”

At the end of the interview, Blainey suggests taking a particular path out of the gardens because its flower borders are in bloom. Before parting he stops before a a bunya-bunya and launches into a dissertation on the way Aborigines used to gather around it for corroborees. Ever the pedagogue; ever the sense of history.

The 2001 Boyer Lectures will be broadcast over six consecutive Sundays starting tomorrow night, November 11 at 5pm on Radio National.


Geoffrey Blainey, historian

Born: Melbourne, 1930.

Educated: Melbourne University.

Career Highlights: The books The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads and A Short History of the World.

Lives: Melbourne, with his wife, biographer Ann Blainey.

First published in The Age.

PM counts his blessings as the pulpit sends a saintly message Election 2001

KAREN KISSANE   St Augustine, said the preacher, had watched barbarians destroy the Roman Empire and wrestled with the question: Can it ever be right to wage war? John Howard, sitting in the front row of the Duntroon chapel for a service for Australian troops being sent overseas, turned swiftly towards the pulpit, suddenly on alert.

He had no need to worry. It turned out that St Augustine, and the military chaplain delivering yesterday’s sermon, had come to the same conclusion as the PM: there are greater evils than war.

Monsignor Bill Fuller, principal chaplain at Duntroon military college, went on to tell a church full of Australian Defence Force personnel that young Australians were being asked to fight for freedom and justice and the dignity of every human being.
He said they needed the support of all Australians and should be spared attitudes or statements “that could even be seen as abetting the enemy”.

The Prime Minister would have been able to say thank you for a wonderful service with utter sincerity.

Things military remained the theme for the rest of Howard’s day. At lunchtime about 60 anti-war protesters gathered outside Canberra’s National Press Club with a more raucous style of rhetoric: “Another Yankee war, another Yankee whore”, “How do you spell Afghanistan? V-I-E-T-N-A-M” and “Howard: stop killing Afghans”.

But the roars of “Howard out, refugees in” did not faze the Prime Minister and Mrs Howard, who smiled brightly as they left their car. Inside, Howard gave a speech about leadership, national security and sound economic management. During question time, he seemed to enjoy tussling with journalists but did not hesitate to use his authority to quell the overly persistent.

A reporter who insisted on asking him about his personal view on the sale of Telstra was told tartly, “I’m stating government policy and my preference is exactly the same as government policy – what a surprise!”

A journalist who questioned the effect on national unity of the debate about “the desirability of people from other countries” received a stern lecture. “Just what are you inferring by that? … I think that is a false representation of our position … We have not sought to exclude people on the basis of their race or country of origin. It’s got everything to do with the circumstances in which they have sought to come here.”

At one point the Prime Minister offered a laurel to his opponent. Asked what positive things he had to say about Kim Beazley, he conceded the strength of the Labor leader’s credentials on defence: “I disagree with him on a lot of policy issues … but if there were a war cabinet I’d put him in it. But I’d be the prime minister!”

Later, he visited a defence technology business where he was shown computer simulations of laser targeting equipment, complete with the rat-tat-tat of machinegun fire, before dropping in to the nearby office of Gary Nairn, the Liberal MP for the bellwether electorate of Eden-Monaro.

Don’t feel pressured, he told the local party faithful, but political omens suggested that if they manage to get Nairn over the line, they would also return the Coalition to government.

Howard got down on his haunches to greet two-year-old Attila Ovari, who toddled over to the PM and planted a kiss on his cheek. “What’s this?” asked a delighted Howard of the little red car clutched in the boy’s hand. “My Beemer,” said Attila. Nothing like catching them young.

First published in The Age.

Beazley shiny and sharp on his feet Election 2001

The word “union” had not passed Kim Beazley’s lips while he explained his vision of the future, a journalist told him sharply. “You’ve cut me to the quick, Jennifer,” he said, wryly. “Let me correct that problem by immediately announcing the word `union’!” The audience laughed.

He’d already warmed up the room with that dead cert, a Bronwyn Bishop routine; his face visibly relaxed from the moment he scored a laugh with “elderly Australians deserve better than Bronwyn Bishop … Money in, Bronwyn out”.

He scored another by saluting Treasurer Peter Costello’s contribution to the campaign: “I’m sure that one day Peter Costello will be asked by his grandchildren: `Granddad, what did you do in the 2001 election campaign?’ And his answer will be: `I confirmed the Liberal and National parties’ plan to sell all of Telstra. Date, time, place and price.”‘

The National Press Club in Canberra is a gig where the audience is part of the show, but Beazley had the first half-hour to himself. Cheerful and expansive – not surprisingly, given his good news in yesterday’s polls – he delivered his speech with an actor’s polish and vigor, emphasising key points with orchestrated hand gestures like a man conducting his own symphony.

He ranged over his vision of an Australia with secure jobs and decent schools, hospitals and aged care, “where people turn to each other and not against each other, in difficult times”. “What I offer is a government of hope, not fear.”

But he was talking to the Canberra press gallery, not a roomful of true believers, and during question time his vision was held up and examined like a tattered cloak needing repairs.

How did all this caring and sharing sit with his party’s stance against asylum seekers? Was the boat people issue uniting Australians? Would a Labor government continue to turn boats away? Beazley deftly avoided attempts to skewer him. He called journalists by their first names, a pollies’ ploy that from some seems condescending but which seems to establish Beazley as your knockabout bloke. He made little jokes to take the edge off their questions.

And he shifted the focus from the personal tragedy of asylum seekers to the need to stand up to the “criminals” who smuggled them. “I hate it; I hate to see people making money off the generosity of my people,” he said firmly.

He was equally quick-footed when invited to attack the government over its claims that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea. He believed what governments told him, he said sweetly. “Because governments are supposed to know those things.” But if the naval officers of great integrity who command our warships had a different story, the video of the alleged incident should be released.

He was questioned about topics that are suspected to be close to his heart but which have not been close to his campaign, such as the republic and reconciliation. Were they electoral poison? Beazley said he wanted to stay close to “the kitchen table”, to the issues worrying ordinary Australians who felt more insecure. In industrial relations, “the pendulum has been tipped too far from ordinary workers”.

He kept his cool in every way. Like the audience, he baked under the glare of television lights for two hours. But while others mopped red and shiny faces with large handkerchiefs, he developed a gentle sheen only in the last few minutes of his performance.

He even joked about his fate. Asked what, as a trained historian, he thought a future historian might make of him, he laughed. “(It’s) a profession which I profoundly hope not to return to any time soon.”

First published in The Age.