by: Chistopher Pearson
From: The Australian October 27, 2012
RECENT Australian governments have all had a number of what are known in the trade as practitioners of the dark arts on the payroll.
In Paul Keating’s time there was the national media liaison service, aptly known by the acronym aNiMaLS. When he came to office, John Howard abolished it. While he turned a blind eye to a couple of ministerial staff members doing some digging, in his day there wasn’t a dirt unit.
In Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, beyond the normal checking of matters on the public record, the dark arts were partly outsourced. The opposition also entertained some misgivings about the caucus support and training unit. Under Julia Gillard, the unit morphed into the caucus communications team, which operates behind frosted glass in parliament house.
In June last year, Samantha Maiden reported in The Sunday Telegraph that she had seen the team’s instruction manual, which reminds operatives that “every flower must grow through dirt”. It also contains images of Malcolm Tucker, the spinmeister from The Thick of It, based on Tony Blair’s communications director, Alastair Campbell, who is famous for his abusive and threatening behaviour and his smears. To cap it all off, Gillard has also appointed John McTernan, a tactician and spinmeister who formerly worked for Blair, as director of communications.
McTernan’s approach to politics is not so much combative as unapologetically thuggish. He once wrote: “If you get to senior positions, you have to be able to kill your opponents. It is not pretty, it’s not pleasant, but if those at the top can’t kill, then those at the bottom certainly cannot. High politics demands very low political skills, too.”
South Australians won’t be surprised to learn this was someone Mike Rann had chosen to bring to Adelaide at considerable expense to be the city’s Thinker-in-Residence, with a brief that included advising on managing the public service. When Gillard’s polling problems were at their most intense, Rann urged her to hire McTernan.
It is widely believed McTernan was ultimately responsible for the Australia Day race riot in Canberra and that the staff member who lost his job over the incident, Tony Hodges, was too junior to have acted as he did without permission or encouragement from above. We may never know precisely what happened and how the blame should be allocated, but in any event it’s a most unwelcome development in a governmental culture when someone in the PM’s own office imagines he can get away with deliberately provoking an affray.
It’s said, and not only by the Coalition, to reflect badly on both McTernan’s judgment and his grasp of local conditions because while race riots may be common enough in Britain they are few and far between in Australia and we take them very seriously, especially when they involve indigenous people and pose a threat to the safety of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. If this is indeed a new variation on Graham Richardson’s “Whatever it takes” principle, then it’s taking it too far.
Former attorney-general Robert McClelland may perhaps have had this incident in mind, or may have been speaking more generally, last week when he said: “McTernan’s influence has been unhelpful to the government’s cause. He has brought a particular, combative media style from the UK that Australians are not comfortable with.”
McTernan is also credited by some Rudd supporters with advising Gillard on the ministerial reshuffles that marginalised and then excluded several of them, and the strategy that saw a half-dozen ministers carpet-bombing Rudd in the days before the leadership ballot. It was the first time I can think of that cabinet colleagues publicly called into question a former prime minister’s mental fitness to hold office and commitment to Labor values. What’s more, since Rudd never looked like having the numbers it was overkill for the hell of it.
On the latest initiative credited to McTernan, the misogyny front, I’m told Anthony Albanese foreshadowed Gillard’s speech to caucus, which was designed to be delivered in reply to a Dorothy Dixer. When Tony Abbott surprised her with a motion to remove the Speaker, she didn’t want all the rehearsal time she’d spent on it to go to waste. So she declaimed McTernan’s lines, regardless of the fact she was defending Peter Slipper, whose text messages had indeed bordered on the misogynistic. [bordered on? I’d say outrightly were both misogynistic and sexist! – PC]
We’re told that in Britain similar smears of sexism and, indeed, reverse sexism worked for a while, but Australians don’t strike me as being as ideologically driven. Thus, this introduced alien culture will fail.
It may be that the misogyny front has maximised Gillard’s share of the female vote and lost her a lot of working-class men who’ve seen that kind of baneful carry-on passing itself off as righteous indignation before. [Australian males mostly despise Gillard, full & proper analyses of reputable opinion polls decidedly reveal – PC]
One thing is clear. In taking advice from McTernan, Gillard is deliberately embracing an alien political culture, one that thrives on division and class hatred and that most Australians will deplore. [And another thing…Gillard herself can be reasonably and fairly thrice be accused of being sexist herself – in RPA Campaign Bulletin #42 I will be alluding to this matter and will itemise the three occurrences – PC]