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McKew recalls tales from the political trenches

Fed up with what she called the “miserableness” of the Howard years, Maxine McKew was persuaded by Kevin Rudd to stand in the 2007 election.

Her defeat of sitting Prime Minister John Howard in his seat of Ryde was an even greater victory for the incoming Rudd Labor government, after 12 years in the electoral wilderness.

But McKew had expected an elevation of the public conversation and a return to the kind of politics she had reported on as a journalist in the Hawke/Keating years, and was disappointed with the reality of Parliament.

“When I got to Canberra it was a very different environment,” McKew told session chair, Kerry O’Brien. “The intellectual integrity was gone.

“In the Hawke/Keating governments, the calibre was higher. They never buckled on the key reforms in spite of a difficult environment on the external front.”

McKew felt that the government, after successfully guiding Australia through the Global Financial Crisis, should have stood firm on all of its reforms, particularly the Emissions Trading Scheme.

“I was just disappointed that we didn’t have the guts to stand our ground and make the argument,” said McKew.

The unofficial performance indicators for an MP didn’t revolve around policy. Instead KPIs included how many times you appeared on Sky News and how closely you could stick to the script. Communications teams rule Canberra, not elected members, said McKew.

She recalled once being admonished for generating a front page story in the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Prime Minister’s media staff were livid, what if they had wanted to put out a message that day?

“They think it is their job to write the front page of the newspaper,” said McKew.

“And more than often they do,” replied Kerry O’Brien.

McKew has written about her experiences as a Labor party MP during one of the parties most turbulent periods in her book Tales from the Political Trenches.

Kerry O’Brien steered the conversation to McKew’s views on the latest developments out of Canberra.

A known Rudd loyalist McKew did discuss what she perceived to be “small weaknesses” in his working character.

“To be confident on an issue, Kevin likes to research the universe. Which is fine, if you’re a back bencher. As PM you need to trust the information that comes to you and ask relevant questions of it,” said McKew. “I’ve heard that he is working in that more methodical way now.”

McKew felt any deficiencies in Rudd’s management were inflated after his deposing. His small eccentricities, she thought, would have been managed by a more capable staff. She felt that Rudd’s new staff are equipped to run his office more efficiently.

McKew was scathing in her analysis of Julia Gillard’s infamous rise to leadership.

“She put her ambition ahead of the needs of her party,” said McKew, a statement that let to some rumblings among the audience and a few departures.

O’Brien asked what the moral difference was between Gillard’s quick assent to leadership and Rudd’s “constant and massive” destabilisation.

“In my view, he did what he had to do to keep himself alive politically,” said McKew.

“Because he made a judgement that he was the better person for the job?” questioned O’Brien.

“Yes. And he was right in that judgement,” replied McKew.

Emily Handley is a Southern Cross University Arts student.

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