Election 2002: The leader still on a learning curve

Robert Doyle’s lunch with the press didn’t go quite to plan. By Karen Kissane.

There’s nothing like a Freudian slip to liven up a political speech. Robert Doyle, Victoria’s would-be Premier, made only one yesterday, but it was a beauty. Trying to land a shot at Labor over allegedly shoddy accounting, he instead turned the gun on himself.

“I’m concerned about some of the shonky advertising . . . ,” he began. And caught himself. “Sorry. I will come back to that later.”
He didn’t come back to it, actually, or at least not until journalists in his audience at a Melbourne Press Club luncheon raised the question at the end of his speech.

The lunch was one of the few chances journalists have had for serious application of the blowtorch to the political belly. Steve Bracks had declined his invitation to come. Mr Doyle, who needs the airplay, accepted. It was bad luck for him that it coincided with a row over Liberal advertisements and publication of polls that suggest the Liberals are heading for a train wreck.

“If you believe (the polls), I will be the only Liberal member left after Saturday,” he joked at the start of his speech. Only one person laughed.

Mr Doyle has eased into the campaign harness. He was more relaxed and confident at the podium than he was just a month ago and now banters with members of the media ratpack. He teased reporters about being familiar with his 52 policies. “I know you have read them assiduously, every one,” he said, ever the jocular schoolmaster.

He got testy only once, when questioned a second time about the party’s repeated misadventures with political advertising. “I’ve just answered that,” he said, waving his finger reprovingly. Prime Minister John Howard, was equally dismissive when asked an awkward question while at Mr Doyle’s side later in the day. Mr Howard was there to lend the sheen of economic righteousness to Mr Doyle; Victoria would lose jobs if a less-than-thrifty Labor Government was re-elected, he warned.

But Mr Howard would not engage in debate over whether state Liberals around Australia were in disarray, and whether they needed to rebuild. “What’s the next question?” he said dismissively.

Did he think Mr Doyle could win? There was a small brave smile from Mr Doyle. The Prime Minister said he had told Mr Doyle that a lot could happen in the last four days. But that, if the polls were to be believed, Labor would win in a landslide. Mr Doyle’s smile disappeared.

The rest of Mr Howard’s appearance was taken up with questions about federal matters: X-raying baggage, the ABC board. It seems the price a state Liberal leader pays for the Prime Minister’s presence is his hijacking of your press conference.

At the luncheon, Mr Doyle had been asked whether he had enjoyed the ride. “What have I enjoyed most? The responsibility. You have a lot of people relying on you. You either thrive on that or it can be burdensome. I promise you I thrive on it.”
Even “matters of adversity” had been useful: “Even that teaches you something about yourself. It’s easy to be leader when everything’s going on smoothly. Anyone can do that. I guess the real test comes when you do have a setback . . . Then it’s a matter of how you deal with it. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about leadership. I hope that I was able in both those instances to do both myself and my party proud.”

They are the kind of sentiments he might have to call upon on Saturday night.

First published in The Age.

Election 2002: Doyle’s Doberman makes the most of his master’s voice

In Ian Hanke the Liberals have one of the best spinmeisters in the country, writes Karen Kissane.

Ian Hanke shaves his head before a battle. It has become part of his legend and Hanke, says one Liberal MP, “likes to think of himself as legendary”.

His head is shaved now; it’s often on the nightly news as he follows his boss, Opposition Leader Robert Doyle. Hanke is the party’s “spear carrier”, according to his old friend, former federal minister Peter Reith. Victorian journalists know him as Doyle’s minder, the backroom man who coaches the leader in salesmanship. The king of spin, 24/7.

When Doyle moves into damage control, it is Hanke’s advice he is probably following. Wherever Doyle goes Hanke follows, standing on the edges of his public appearances like a praetorian guard: impassive, watchful, chain-smoking with one hand and managing a stream of calls with the other.

Hanke became chief of staff to previous leader Denis Napthine when he resigned. Hanke’s first day was Napthine’s last.

But Hanke survived the transition. The Liberals had a new leader who was not yet on the public radar and Hanke is reputed to be one of the best political spinmeisters in the country. He was at Reith’s side through tumultuous clashes, including the bitter waterfront dispute. (Hanke later moved on, but Reith called him back to help manage the phone-card affair.)

Few doubt Hanke’s effectiveness. Even his opponents rail mostly at his politics, as if their main criticism is that he fails to use his powers for “good” instead of “evil”.

Federal Labor MP Arch Bevis was Reith’s opposite number when Hanke was Reith’s media adviser. He says Hanke pursued Reith’s union-breaking industrial goals with almost religious fervour. “If what the Victorian Liberals need is a man with a hard nose and a rhinoceros-thick skin who seeks out trouble to feed a fight to pursue extreme ideological goals, this man is their man.” He says no other apparatchik on either side of politics identifies as fiercely with the cause.

Says Hanke, in the gravelly voice that is his other trademark: “I don’t mind a fight . . . I just like to hunt the bastards, basically.” But he says he’s not one to hold grudges. “Not like the Labor Party. They’re real haters. I think that’s one of their big drawbacks.”

Hanke, 44, is divorced and shares his home with his dog, Buster (“Union-Buster to his friends”). During a campaign – he is now doing his 16th or 17th – he moves on to a war footing. “My day starts about 4.30. I get up, have a couple of cups of coffee and some nails (cigarettes) and read the papers, marking them up with a highlighter, looking for how we went that day and points of attack for the other side.”
He’s at the office before six, trailing the leader during his morning gigs – “You can get a real feel for the campaign when you’re out on the stump. You don’t want to be isolated in an office” – and then bunkering down with him in the afternoon.

Doyle’s campaign, like Steve Bracks’, has been orchestrated for television grabs. Reporters find themselves on a car rally each day, with last-minute phone calls telling them to be at, say, Frankston at 10am and Mitcham at 1pm. The prize is the leader, with a different backdrop and possibly a different shirt, announcing a new policy.

The last-minute notice is to avoid demonstrators, Hanke says. “You don’t want to give a break to the other side. You’ve got to manage your environment so you get a good result for Robert. It’s very competitive in the news. Just trying to get a story up is bloody difficult nowadays.”

During the last federal election, his role was to keep Labor off balance. He led a team that scoured Labor press releases and transcripts for slip-ups; he then sent text messages to the mobile phones of reporters on the road with Kim Beazley. They later estimated that 90 per cent of Beazley’s press conferences had at least one question that arose from Hanke’s messages.

Hanke began as a cadet journalist at The Age in 1976. After stints with AAP and the ABC, he left journalism in 1982 to become an oil field diver. He entered politics in 1985 when the Victorian Liberal Party asked him to monitor the media during an election campaign. He has had time out since then – in public relations, and while running his own salvage and construction diving company – but most of his working life has been spent with the party.

In his 20s he represented Australia several times in the modern pentathlon (swimming, running, pistol shooting, fencing and horse riding). When not campaigning he still manages to swim and run.

Hanke says his job is to “precipitate the flow of information”. Told there are journalists who would be amused to hear that, he has the grace to laugh. Has he ever lied to journalists? “No.”

How about playing one paper off against the other?

“No. It’s not worth it. You destroy your credibility. The only thing you’ve got in this caper is your credibility, and if you shred it yourself you’re f—–.”

Reith says Hanke is useful to politicians because he is grounded. “Ian is never one to hold back. He tells you how it is. You’ve got to be sensible enough to listen. It’s very important . . . to have realistic assessments.” Some political journalists find him less useful, saying he never abandons spin long enough to talk political issues through.

But they enjoy his chutzpah. A few years ago Hanke crashed Labor’s Christmas drinks party at Parliament House in Canberra. An outraged Laurie Brereton demanded he leave. Hanke protested that he had paid $10 for his ticket. Brereton shoved $20 at Hanke who left, leaving $10 at the door.

If the situation had been reversed, Hanke says, he would have handled it differently. “I would have invited them in and said `Well, I’m glad to see you’ve come across’.”

First published in The Age.

‘I’ve seen leaders cursed by disloyal deputies. Not me . . .’ Election 2002

A sketch of Louise Asher’s life over the past three years would have a trail of symbolic gravestones. First she buried the Kennett government and her job as a minister along with it. Later came the loss of her role as treasury spokeswoman, the loss of her leader, Denis Napthine, and the loss of her job as deputy Liberal leader.

She has fallen from the Libs’ “woman most likely” – a status she had held for nearly 30 years – to one who is cited by some colleagues as a disappointment.

To outsiders, it might seem that she has joined the pile of female politicians who seemed destined for prominence but who crashed and burned.

Ms Asher will have none of it. Dr Napthine moved her from treasury because it was a backroom role and he wanted her to be more prominent, she says. As for the way she resigned as deputy when he was voted out of the leadership in August, “I made a voluntary decision to stand down”.

“It was a decision made out of loyalty. I regard loyalty as a characteristic that is fundamental to the worth of a human being,” she says.

Ms Asher confirms she was approached to do a deal to roll Dr Napthine for Robert Doyle, an approach she rejected: “It was put to me that I was unassailable in the position of deputy, in terms of raw numbers – which is not to say that others didn’t want the job.

“If I simply agreed to a switch of political support, then I would keep my job. But I don’t act like that. I didn’t want there to be any sense of my having been involved in any deal to undermine the leader I supported for three years as deputy.

“I have seen leaders cursed by disloyal deputies. I never would do that.” She believes she has her own reward: “I can sleep at night. I believe I acted honorably in that entire period.”

While it has cost her in career terms, she is in the safe seat of Brighton, which means her ticket to parliamentary life is still secure. And her working relationship with the new leader is sound enough for her to have survived in shadow cabinet.

She is one of the few old hands with ministerial experience on Mr Doyle’s front bench, which puts her in the running for a senior ministry if there is a Liberal win. “If we win the election, I would hope that Robert Doyle would put me in a ministry. I certainly think I’ve behaved in a way that (has earned it) . . . I’ve done exactly the right thing by my party, but I’ve also done exactly the right thing by me.”

How are the Liberals under Mr Doyle different to the Liberals under Dr Napthine? “There had been infighting in the Liberal Party and to pretend there wasn’t is a nonsense. One of the differences is that the backbiting has stopped, and that’s stopped because of a very conscious effort from Denis, in particular, to make sure that Robert really has a fair go in the run-up to the election, because it’s in all our interests
to win.”

Ms Asher emphasises that Mr Doyle in turn has been gracious. “If Robert had been petty and vindictive, he would have dumped both Denis and myself. He hasn’t been. He’s indicated a willingness to want to work with all his members, particularly his most experienced members.”

One of her campaign tasks is to lend her profile to needy candidates. Frank Kelloway is standing for Bellarine, a seat the retiring Liberal incumbent holds by only 1.2 per cent.

He takes Asher down to Queenscliff to meet local figures who want to catch her ear: the fishermen who want their slipway redeveloped, the music festival folk anxious to assure their funding and the small business owners who want government help to market their peninsula. Asher is sympathetic and businesslike, zooming in on their concerns and juicing them for the figures that will back up their arguments.

The issues are different in her own electorate. “Labor wants to shut my police station and sell valuable Brighton land and transfer the whole thing down to Sandringham. And I’m worried about Labor’s metropolitan strategy, which I think would result in very tall buildings in Brighton,” she says.

Her Brighton constituents will increase by one after the poll when retiring National Party MP Ron Best leaves his Bendigo seat to come and live with his wife for the first time. “We’ve been together for nine years now and we’ve never lived together,” she says. “I normally only see him at weekends or if parliament sits.”

She thinks her relationship has helped keep her steady through the past three years: “I think I’ve changed since I’ve married and since some of those global things have hit. Stepping down is not life-threatening.” In any case, she grins, the “career-driven woman who’s been forging up the greasy pole since she joined the Liberals at 19” is still in the race: “I’m absolutely here for the long haul.”


· Born: 26 June 1956.

· Entered Parliament: 1992.

· Seat: Brighton.

· Ministries: Small Business and Tourism, in the Kennett government.

· Married to retiring National Party MP Ron Best.

First published in The Age.

The night Mr Showman took on Mr Competent


Robert Doyle rolled Denis Napthine on the basis that he could sell the Liberals better on television. That might well be true. But he cannot yet outsell Steve Bracks.

Last night showed that he has yet to extricate himself from the ball and chain of the Kennett years, and his television persona had an element of showmanship that some will admire but others will abhor. Smiling too brightly and too often makes one’s opponent look more grounded – and more sincere.

Doyle knew he was up against Mr Nice Guy, and he was careful not to slug him. He had been well prepared for this first big gig, but his first few answers were slow and stilted, as he tried to rein in the naturally ebullient delivery.

Facts were at his fingertips, and he scored hits. He attacked the drop in the surplus, cited the Auditor-General’s warning that the state’s economy was vulnerable and asked whether the poll, and the debate, had been called now so the government could duck scrutiny.

He had modified his position on his own costings; caught on the hop at a doorstop, he had promised independent costings but said his auditor would not be named. Apparently having realised this position was untenable, last night he had a name ready.

But he fudged to escape questions about the credibility of his policies in the wake of the Kennett years. It is his side that is now struggling to escape “guilty party” status, and it is proving a sticky task.

He tried to establish himself as an expert on hospitals, serving only to remind his opponent that he was parliamentary secretary for health while Kennett closed hospital beds. Had he been involved in those decisions? The question is still unanswered.

Bracks claimed that Kennett had also promised to increase police but had cut them; why should the public believe Doyle? He responded with the point that swinging voters must believe if he is to win them: that he is a different man to Kennett.

He might have had more success in convincing them of his sincerity without his final hand-on-the-heart declarations of love for this state. America is the land of gushing patriotism. Australians tend to save theirs for the great historical moments. This debate was not one of them.


The apparent genuineness with which Mr Doyle talked about the Liberals having learnt from their years in opposition: “Over the last three years, this is a different Liberal Party. We’ve had a hard lesson. We’ve had to go out and listen to people . . . and we have done that. We have done the hard yards.”

Asked if he had anything good to say of his opponent, Mr Doyle was unable to avoid seeking a political point. He followed Mr Bracks’ carefully judged reply with a limp: “I think he’s a nice guy. I’m just very concerned that not a lot’s getting done.”

First published in The Age.