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.