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Laurie Oakes discusses 45 years in journalism -

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Laurie Oakes discusses 45 years in journalism

Broadcast: 29/10/2010

Reporter: Leigh Sales

Veteran political journalist and household name Laurie Oakes has just released a book called On the
Record: Politics, Politicians and Power.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: There are only a handful of people in Australian journalism who are
household names and one of them is the Nine Network's Laurie Oakes.

He's spent 45 years in journalism, most of them in the Canberra press gallery.

Few journalists can match him as a story breaker.

Probably most famously, he was leaked the entire 1980 Federal Budget.

But he also had an explosive leak during the recent election campaign, revealing details of the
conversation Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had on the night before the prime ministership changed
hands.

And of course, it shook up the campaign enormously.

Laurie Oakes has just released a book called 'On The Record: Politics, Politicians and Power' and
he joins me in our Sydney studio tonight.

Welcome Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: G'day Leigh, how are you?

LEIGH SALES: Good thank you.

45 years in journalism, how did this year's pretty extraordinary events stack up against the years
that have come before?

LAURIE OAKES: They're right up. Right up there with 1975 and the dismissal, up there with probably
the drowning of Harold Holt. I mean there aren't many stories bigger than the fall of Kevin Rudd
and none of them sneak up on you the way that did.

I mean no-one really expected that. It happened very suddenly, it was like an earthquake really and
stories just don't come any bigger.

LEIGH SALES: Even though it felt extraordinary, you write in the book that, looking back over your
work, over these years, you're struck by how many things stay the same, even things like these
leadership machinations?

LAURIE OAKES: Well that's right. I did a count and I think between John Gorton being toppled, he
was the prime minister toppled by Billy McMahon, and Kevin Rudd being toppled by Julia Gillard, I
think there were 11 leaders overthrown in that period. So this is not unusual in Australian
politics. I mean we regard our leaders as pretty disposable.

LEIGH SALES: What are some of the other things that have stayed the same? What are the themes that
keep recurring?

LAURIE OAKES: The main recurring theme is the gradual, inexorable takeover of power from the States
by the Federal Government. I mean it started from the first day of Federation and it's just been
going and going and going.

And every year there is a new development. I mean this year we had the sort of argument over health
funding and Western Australia is still holding out, standing up for States' rights. That's been the
continuing theme all through and of course, it's always 'the economy, stupid'.

LEIGH SALES: In April 1988 you wrote that 'Australians, it seems especially middle-class Australian
who make up the bulk of the population, are feeling remarkably insecure and vulnerable. They're
alarmed at the rapid pace of social and political change, bewildered by it and deeply pessimistic
about the future'. You could have almost written that in this election campaign?

LAURIE OAKES: That's right. I mean obviously these things go in cycles and that was obviously a
pretty similar climate to the current one, but certainly this year that's been the case and I think
it still is.

I think the hung parliament reflects that, but also the way politics is now being fought out. I
mean the sort of trench warfare that's still going on, what, three months after the election. I
mean it's a pretty nasty, gritty business and you know there's no sort of, nothing inspirational
about it.

It's, you know, Australia is in that kind of mood. It's disillusioned with its politicians.
Disillusioned, I think, with things like cost-of-living rises and the politics reflects that.

LEIGH SALES: You say it's cyclical, but are there ever periods where people aren't disillusioned
with their politicians?

LAURIE OAKES: Well yeah I think there are periods where people are, I mean there was a period under
Howard, I think, where we were 'relaxed and comfortable' as he would like to say.

I mean when Gough Whitlam first became prime minister there was an optimistic period where we all
thought that some wonderful things would happen and some wonderful things did happen, but some
pretty awful things as well.

For a while under Gorton, I mean Gorton was a sort of an inspirational leader, in the end he was a
failure, but for a while there we thought he was going to make a big difference. The country does
go through moods.

LEIGH SALES: We are talking about things that have stayed the same, but of course things have also
changed enormously and you write that technology is the big change in politics, in what way?

LAURIE OAKES: Well, because it's speeded everything up. I mean the new technology of communications
is really mind-boggling.

I write in the book about the 1969 election, Gorton versus Whitlam, and Gorton said something
campaigning in Sydney that I wanted Whitlam to comment on but he wouldn't do it unless he heard the
exact words and knew the context.

So I had to get an audio tape, hand it to a member of Whitlam staff, who got an aeroplane and flew
it to Perth, where Whitlam was campaigning, and Whitlam listened and then gave me a comment. Well I
mean now, of course, everything the prime minister said would be transmitted instantly, the most
interesting stuff would be tweeted straightaway.

The rest of it would go out on ABC News 24 or Sky and if I really needed to transmit an audio file
I would do it by email.

It's all instant, it's all real-time and as a result of that, I mean, journalists have got less
time to think and make judgments and get advice, so I think it affects the quality of our work.

But it also affects politicians. I mean politicians now have less time to consider issues, to -
they have little time to deliberate over decisions. They have to make instant judgments, the same
as journalists do, and the quality of their work has suffered as well.

And I think that's one of the reasons we're getting some pretty lousy decisions, is the extra
pressure put on politicians by this media cycle, or media cyclone as some people call it, they have
to re-agent instantly and the results, you know inevitably a bit shabbier than they would be if
there was time to think about them.

LEIGH SALES: But is there anything that can be done about that? Because the technology's there, I
mean what do you do about it?

LAURIE OAKES: Well there's not much you can do about it except be conscious of the problem and I
think sometimes you do have to take a deep breath. You do in journalism and sometimes, I mean, I
only started tweeting about six months ago and you say 'oh there's wonderful stuff on Twitter', but
you've got to remember, that you can't trust it, you've got to pull back and check it all out.

And the politicians have to do the same.

And I think Julia Gillard realised this. I mean she announced recently that she wasn't going to be
held by the news cycle. And I think by that she meant she would stand back and think a bit more
than, perhaps, Kevin Rudd did.

The Rudd Government was a slave to the media cycle, this whole speeded up, instant politics and if
that's what Julia Gillard means, I think she is smart. I think she can afford just to slow it down
a bit, step back and just take a longer view and more time to think about things.

LEIGH SALES: You write that politics has become more managerial than ideological. What do you mean
by that?

LAURIE OAKES: Well, I mean, ideology is dead. The Labor Party and Liberal Party are
interchangeable. I mean voters know that, everybody knows that; which is one of the reasons that
people are now voting for the Greens, voting for the Independents.

The two major Parties, I mean there is not a whisker between them. When Kevin Rudd won election,
the 2007 election by pretending to be John Howard.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott fought the last election by pretending not to believe in anything at
all, promising not to do anything. We won't do anything because it will cost money. It's sort of
pathetic, really.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think there are any lessons they would have gleaned from the 2010 election that
will make that change?

LAURIE OAKES: I hope so. I mean I think it's pretty clear that the punters are pretty disillusioned
by this, by two parties that don't believe in anything and don't inspire them and have no great
vision. I think it's pretty obvious that the voters didn't like that and I hope the politicians
wake up.

There is a danger that the hung parliament will make them even more cautious. I hope that's not the
case. I hope it has the opposite effect, that they realise that the only way to stop having this
kind of result is to break out of it by believing in something and by doing something dramatic and
important.

LEIGH SALES: After the election, Julia Gillard remarked that 'I think there are times when media
personalities actually think they're involved in the political process rather than commentating on
the political process' and that was interpreted in the media partly as a go at you. Were you a
player in the campaign?

LAURIE OAKES: Well I suppose I was. Journalists are always used and I was used in the campaign,
obviously. Information was leaked to me and the person who leaked it knew it would have been impact
on the campaign and I knew it.

LEIGH SALES: So how then do you decide when you're going to act on a leak like that?

LAURIE OAKES: Well if you don't act on it you're making a political decision, you're favouring one
party against the other. I mean all you can do really is report what you know and try to report it
accurately and try and put it in context.

I don't think you withhold information on the grounds that it might hurt the Government or help the
Opposition. A journalist can't do that.

LEIGH SALES: So is your sort of yardstick then, that you want as much information as possible in
the public domain? Is that what you're saying?

LAURIE OAKES: Yeah, and I think my job as a journalist is to try and find out what's happening, get
as much information as I can. But what I learn I should make public, it's what I'm paid for, what
the public trusts me to do and you're in the same position.

I don't think we can't keep secrets because we think that we know better than the voter. We can't
protect the voter from information. That's anti- journalism.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think about the consequences of what you report?

LAURIE OAKES: Of course. Which is why you, a) you try very hard to get it right, but b) you do try
to provide a context.

LEIGH SALES: You had an interesting section in the book about leaks and leakers and you note that
leakers aren't always the people at the top of the pile?

LAURIE OAKES: No, I mean some of the best leaks, or leakers, are people at the bottom. Because
politicians and senior bureaucrats talk in front of cleaners and car drivers as though they're not
there, I mean it's class thing. And people like that hear everything and sometimes they're not all
that discreet about what they hear, which is great for journalism.

LEIGH SALES: And you had a source whose job was just a pretty menial job involving documents?

LAURIE OAKES: Yeah, one of my sources had the job in a department of shredding documents. But
occasionally he'd see something interesting, but which I mean that he thought was wrong, that
revealed something that was wrong and he'd forget to shred that one.

LEIGH SALES: (laughs) Can a journalist be friends with a politician? Are you friends with
politicians?

LAURIE OAKES: Yeah, but it's hard to maintain a friendship if you have to report unfavourably on
the politician, but that's the test, I suppose. If you're friends with a politician and that
politician gets into strife and does something that requires adverse reporting, adverse comment,
then it's a pretty big test of the friendship and mostly then the friendship doesn't survive.

I mean, I've lost a lot of friends because I had to report on things that damaged them.

LEIGH SALES: Are they ever then real friendships?

LAURIE OAKES: Well, I think so. For example, Steele Hall, who was a premier of South Australia, was
a senator, was a member of the Lower House, you know I've known him for 30 something years, he's
still a very good friend.

Bill Hayden, I reported on Bill Hayden and wrote some pretty tough stuff about Bill, including
nicknaming him 'Bellyache Bill' when he was opposition leader, but he's still good friends.

So you can, you can have friends, but the friendships are tested.

LEIGH SALES: I wanted to ask you about politicians' private lives. You got caught up in the debate
about that around the Cheryl Kernot, Gareth Evans thing which you've gone through before so I don't
want to go through that, but it is an issue that comes up all the time pretty regularly, we've seen
recently with Mike Wran and Troy Buswell.

In your view, when is a politician's private life relevant?

LAURIE OAKES: Well, not very often, which is what made the Kernot thing so difficult for me. I
don't believe in reporting on politicians' private lives and that to me was such an obvious case I
couldn't avoid it. But normally, you know, I mean I just don't do it.

And it's got to impact, the private situation has to impact, I think, on the politics, the public
duties, the kind of actions they take, the decisions they make, the perceptions of voters. It's got
to be pretty clear and I thought the Kernot-Evans thing was, other people disagreed.

LEIGH SALES: Were you comfortable, say with the Mike Wran reporting?

LAURIE OAKES: Look, I don't know all the facts. That's the point. You know there have been half a
dozen recent ones and unless you know all the facts it's hard to make judgments. But in general I'm
pretty reluctant to get into that.

LEIGH SALES: I know it is a clichéd question but I think viewers would be interested to know your
thoughts. Who do you consider to be the best prime minister that you've covered?

LAURIE OAKES: Well, probably Hawke, Howard and Keating, in different ways.

I mean Hawke, I think, was amazing in the way he turned himself from a really ugly drunk and a
pretty shameless womaniser into what he believed a prime minister should be. Had this image of a
prime minister and from the moment he decided to go for it he turned himself into that person and
that was an amazing act of willpower and he was a pretty good prime minister and he sort of
maintained that demeanour all the time he was prime minister.

You know Keating was just a ball of energy and fire and got things done and, you know, tried all
sorts of things and you know that made him a really good prime minister, too, in a different kind
of way. I wish there were more politicians like Paul Keating.

And John Howard, you know, sort of steady and turned himself into a statesman. As Opposition Leader
John Howard was a joke and he made every mistake in the book and when he lost the Opposition
Leadership we all thought that was the end of him.

But he'd learned from all those mistakes so that when he got another chance, he made the most of it
and he didn't miss a trick. I mean he turned himself into a pretty good prime minister.

LEIGH SALES: As for the worst, you write of Billy McMahon, that 'he took your breath away because
he was such a lying, incompetent, embarrassment'. Anyone top that?

LAURIE OAKES: Well I was pretty kind to Billy there. I mean I've never seen a worse prime minister
than Billy McMahon, I mean he couldn't help himself. He lied, he pinched things from hotels when he
was prime minister. Billy McMahon was a pretty unfortunate sort of choice for the Liberal Party I'm
afraid.

LEIGH SALES: Do you ever feel the pressure of being 'Laurie Oakes', of having such a big
reputation?

LAURIE OAKES: Yeah, yeah, but it's also a privilege. I mean I, I really, a lot of people trust me
and that's a responsibility and I feel privileged about it. Most people are very nice to me and I
like that. I'm really flattered by that. Sometimes I feel a bit worn down by it, but mostly I sort
of get on with it, really.

I think I've got a pretty clear idea of what I should do, which is just reporting what I see and
hear and know and it's not that complicated.

LEIGH SALES: Kerry O'Brien announced his retirement this year, how will you...

LAURIE OAKES: He hasn't quite quite retired, he's back on Four Corners I think (laughs).

LEIGH SALES: (laughs) From the daily journalism. How will you know when it's time to go, when
you've had enough?

LAURIE OAKES: I don't know. I think probably I'll probably phase myself out slowly, I think. There
are some things I don't do now. I don't travel overseas with prime ministers anymore because that's
a young person's game. I mean doing a day's work in New York, flying overnight and then doing a
days work in London I mean...

LEIGH SALES: That's hardly even a young person's game (laughs).

LAURIE OAKES: Well I can't do it anymore, so I've given up overseas travel with politicians and you
know gradually I'm slowing down a bit. I'm learning to delegate, but I still love it.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think that the phasing down period is a sort of a while away to phase it down
completely?

LAURIE OAKES: I don't know. I don't know.

LEIGH SALES: Do you ever get bored?

LAURIE OAKES: No! No, politics is never boring. Politics is the greatest kind of journalism I think
because it doesn't get boring. As the book says, a lot of things remain the same, but there were
whole new things every day too.

And someone tweeted earlier this year, they'd read something I wrote about Paul Keating and said
they wished they had been in journalism when Paul Keating was around, and then we had the whole
Rudd thing, you know and I assume that person is now glad that she was around for the Rudd event.

It just never gets dull. You can't get bored with politics if you're reporting on it. I can see why
sometimes the punters do, but if you're in the midst of it, watching these people, they're all
great characters and they're all you know, sort of Machiavellan. And they've all got their own
little agendas and trying to work out what they're doing and how they're doing it is fascinating.

LEIGH SALES: Laurie Oakes, it was a pleasure to have you in, thank you very much.

LAURIE OAKES: Thanks, Leigh.