Maxine McKew: How I wrote but never followed the political script

22 Nov 2012

There are few people in the country more qualified to talk about the nexus between politics and the media than former journalist and MP Maxine McKew.

At a breakfast event for Network Central Thursday morning, McKew dished out some of what she's uncovered during her dual media/political career in front of a gathering of women (and a couple of keen-eyed men). But she was also quick to dash the idea her book Tales from the political trenches is any sort of Kevin Rudd propaganda.

"Kevin is not the ghostwriter of this book. This is my story," she told me as the poached eggs arrived at our table. In fact, McKew says she spent just two hours off-the-record with Rudd for the book. 

McKew is every bit as self-possessed and charismatic as you would expect, and her book is so much more than a Kevin '07 retrospective. It's a tale of leadership, discipline, and intellectual anarchy in Canberra. She says she spent three decades asking questions and she entered politics to work on some of the answers.

"I've always moved towards the intellectual energy, but when I got to Canberra that was hard to find. Not because there aren't bright people there, but because our public discourse is crude and shrill, rather than sane. To me, it's always been a contest of ideas, but now it's a personality contest," she says.

McKew says her decision to run against then prime minister John Howard -- who she describes as "a fierce political warrior" -- in the seat of Bennelong for the 2007 election was her "jumping off the cliff moment".

"That's something all women can relate to, I think. I never thought I'd do it, and no one ever said to me when I was younger 'this girl will grow up to beat a prime minister'. In my school report it said 'Maxine is quite bright, but can't concentrate for any period of time'. Then I got into the media, where our attention spans are getting smaller. The best thing you can do is ignore those early reports, especially as women."

She recalls her start in journalism in the '70s, working three jobs to save for a ticket to London, where she landed a role as a news typist. She surrounded herself with people who were generous with their knowledge: inspiring people who taught her to live the news.

McKew landed a job with the ABC with characteristic, even cheeky, initiative. From London, she rolled a piece of BBC letterhead printed paper into an aged Olivetti typewriter to write her application for an ABC cadetship back home. She believes she was accepted as an ABC cadet due to the authority of the BBC insignia.

The savviest decisions McKew has made, decisions that have earned her enormous respect in both media and politics, have involved shirking other people's doubts. This was no more obvious than when she ran for government in 2007.

"The conventional wisdom was that I couldn't pull it off, that I couldn't possibly win that seat. At the start of that year, Kevin gave me a 20% chance of winning ... I didn't neatly fit into the ALP tribe, and I was accused of not being a team player, but I wasn't going to trade away what I was."

One of McKew's first moves in office was to strike the phrase "working families" from political communication. She met resistance at first, because Labor's family appeal had leaned on the catchphrase for years. If McKew had her way, she'd probably take to the phrasebook of political PR with a red pen. Her frustration with what she sees as "dumbed down language and the politics of gesture" was clear as she spoke this morning. The journalist turned politician is hyperaware of the words we use to capture political thought. Unfortunately, she thinks our political debate might have to reach an ultimate low before it can improve.

"Actual policy-making is secondary to communications now, which it never was in Keating or Hawke's time. The owner of the future in Australia will say 'this is not how we're playing anymore, I'll talk to the Australian people only when I have something to say'. Less is more, and if politicians need to spend less time in front of the camera and more time making policy, they should.

In politics, you're supposed to follow the script."

McKew has spent a lifetime writing and rewriting the script, but never following it. Her refusal to recite someone else's doctrine is the key, not only to her success, but to her enduring wisdom.

Kate Leaver

Kate Leaver is a journalist, columnist and radio producer.

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