Australian politics, society & culture

The Strategist

Julia Gillard’s hard-nosed director of communications

John McTernan, Parliament House, Canberra, 20 April 2012. © Penny Bradfield/Fairfax Syndication

Nick Bryant

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For the warring tribes of the Australian Labor Party, the events of an opening-night party at the Adelaide Fringe Festival almost two years ago remain a matter of angry contention. The venue was the Stag Hotel on Rundle Street, its crowded balconies offering a view of the carnival parade below. Prominent guests included then premier Mike Rann, Labor MP Kate Ellis and Kevin Rudd, who was in Adelaide on government business. On a sultry night, with the beer flowing freely, the foreign affairs minister was in a playful mood, according to some who were there. At one stage, they claim, Rudd pretended to be Mike Rann’s personal bodyguard, demonstrating that he was not only fluent in Mandarin but also a dab hand at karate.

Kate Ellis would later tell of how Rudd was “talking down the prime minister”, saying he was going to “get his revenge”. But apparently he said more than that. A year after the event, on the eve of last February’s leadership spill, Samantha Maiden reported in the Sunday Telegraph that he had described Julia Gillard as “a childless, atheist ex-communist”. Rudd rubbished the claims, as did Mike Rann, but it didn’t look good. Interestingly, one now salient detail did not make it into Maiden’s story as it appeared in the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Herald Sun – though it was included in The Sunday Mail in South Australia – was the presence that warm night of a little-known Scottish political operative who was in Adelaide as a South Australian government “thinker in residence”. John McTernan formerly worked in Downing Street as Tony Blair’s political secretary. By the time of the leadership spill, he was employed as Julia Gillard’s communications director. Rudd supporters are in little doubt that McTernan helped to foment the Stag Hotel story.

A veteran of the decade-long war of attrition between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, McTernan arrived well equipped for the internecine conflict between Gillard and Rudd. In the week leading up to the February party room vote, he became a central figure in the six-strong campaign team that conducted conference calls every morning and evening, as if in full federal election mode: Gillard’s chief of staff, Ben Hubbard; her senior press secretary, Sean Kelly; the treasurer Wayne Swan; his fixer, Jim Chalmers; and the prime minister herself. Immediately after Rudd’s resignation as foreign minister, they spoke of “carpet-bombing” him so heavily ahead of the leadership ballot that he would not only lose the vote but be obliterated.

At Westminster, the Blair camp famously labelled Gordon Brown “psychologically flawed”, a phrase that amplified long-standing suspicions about the chancellor’s vindictiveness. In Canberra, the Gillard team adopted a similar line of attack, complaining that the ousted prime minister was by temperament incapable of doing the job. Swan himself fired the first salvo, issuing a written statement that blasted Rudd’s “dysfunctional decision-making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people including our caucus colleagues”. Then came Nicola Roxon, who complained of his “ludicrous” management style, Tony Burke, who bemoaned the “chaos” under his leadership, Stephen Conroy, who spoke of Rudd’s “contempt” for colleagues and, finally, Kate Ellis.

Senator Doug Cameron, a Rudd ally, had been warned by left-wing union friends in Scotland to be wary of McTernan, a staunch ‘Blairite’ on the right of the British Labour party. He was shocked that the attacks were so personal. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this in the history of the Labor party,” says Cameron. “It was stupid and undeserved. Politics is a tough game and you need tough people. But you also need smart people.” Others in the Rudd camp argue it was suicidal to trash a Labor politician who might one day return as leader – what they have called the “destroy the village to save the village” strategy. Still, it worked, at least in the short term.

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In Britain, where a cult of the political staffer has seen backroom figures like Alastair Campbell achieve celebrity, John McTernan remains relatively obscure. In Blair’s autobiography, McTernan merits just one mention. Nor was he the inspiration for the potty-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, the spin-doctoring star of the BBC hit series The Thick of It, as was suggested on his arrival in Canberra. With an English degree from Edinburgh University and a Master’s in librarianship, the soft-spoken Scot, now 53, might have seemed destined for a genteel career. But when in the late 1980s he became the Labour Party’s chief librarian, he turned his book-lined haven into a kind of political war room. During his years as a librarian he also served as a Labour councillor in the south London borough of Southwark, one of Britain’s tougher political nurseries. “Politics is a rough old sport,” McTernan once told the BBC. “[It] is a sport for grown-ups.”

During his three and a half years in Downing Street, he was one of the few Blairites to earn the respect of Brownites. He was also renowned for his ruthlessness, and for being a hater. He is a colossal name-dropper, who has traded on his friendship with Blair. Australian colleagues depict him as undermining rather than confrontational, and say he tends to needle people in meetings rather than shout them down. “He likes mind games,” says one. “He’s not an eyeballer,” claims another, “but uses his intellect in a destructive way.” In conversation, he likes to portray himself as bookish, even cerebral. He gives the impression of enjoying a measure of attention, and notoriety, that he never attained at Westminster.

His critics freely admit his talent for the twin essentials of modern-day spin doctoring: messaging and framing. Ever so slightly dishevelled, he looks the part. His pasty complexion suggests too much time spent in political back rooms, even though he apparently comes up with many of his best lines while swimming laps in an open-air pool in the Canberra suburb of Dickson. He talks at times in a sly half-whisper, and with great exactness, as if calibrating the potential political impact of every word.

A frequent visitor to Australia over the past decade, he built up a formidable network of ALP contacts. So when Ben Hubbard sent out an email to Canberra staffers asking for possible candidates to perform Gillard’s communications role, an aide to Bill Shorten immediately thought of him. Shorten rang McTernan in Britain to tell him he should sit down with the prime minister. They were brought together in Canberra for a one-on-one meeting, and that evening he was offered the job.

As head of communications, a taxpayer-funded post, McTernan sees his primary role not in dealing day to day with the press gallery, but rather sketching the grand arc of the government’s narrative to influential commentators. The umpires, he calls them. The Australian’s Paul Kelly, the dean of the commentariat, is a high priority. So, too, is Laurie Oakes, because of his influential Saturday column in News Limited tabloids.

In a move straight out of the playbook of Tony Blair, who flew halfway around the planet to address Rupert Murdoch and his squadron of executives on Hayman Island, McTernan has courted antagonistic opinion leaders. For Miranda Devine, it was end-of-week drinks at Bambini Trust, a fashionable bar in Sydney’s CBD. For Andrew Bolt, it was lunch at Caffe e Cucina, a Melbourne institution. For Piers Akerman, it was an agreeable meal at Lucio’s in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

“He was a charm bomb,” recalls Devine, a columnist with the Daily Telegraph. “He’s super-smart and energetic.” Over several bottles of red, they talked about his Scottish childhood and books. “He’s certainly got the gift of the gab.” Bolt was equally effusive, telling Samantha Maiden, a McTernan favourite, that he was “tremendously intelligent” and “culturally literate”. Akerman was not so impressed. In reference to senior Labor figures’ personal attacks on Rudd and also Tony Abbott, Akerman labels McTernan a “one-trick pony” – a common complaint.

Chris Uhlmann, the political editor of ABC’s 7.30 program, takes an even dimmer view: “I think he’s completely gutless.” Uhlmann received the silent treatment from McTernan following a testy post-budget interview with the prime minister in May. McTernan had complained afterwards to 7.30 host Leigh Sales, and warned that his boss need not venture onto the program. But Uhlmann’s attempts to contact McTernan, with texts and phone messages, failed to elicit a response. “If he’s got a problem with me, he should say so,” says Uhlmann. “He should have the spine to talk to me face to face.” Only in recent weeks has McTernan finally been in touch.

Editors at the Australian Women’s Weekly, the country’s most widely read magazine, have also been unimpressed. For its Mother’s Day edition, Women’s Weekly requested a photo shoot with Julia Gillard’s mother, Moira, a soft feature magazine staff presumed would be given an immediate green light. But they never heard back from McTernan’s office. When they learnt that the prime minister, an avid knitter, was working on baby clothes for Penny Wong’s daughter, they asked for the knitting pattern. Again, silence. To critics, the episodes show that the Briton has not yet mastered Australia’s media terrain: no women’s magazine in Britain has the clout of Women’s Weekly. To his fans in the capital, it proves his mind is on the bigger picture.

On becoming communications director in November last year, McTernan identified three candid priorities. First, the government had to staunch the flow of blood from its self-inflicted wounds. Second, it needed to end the self-harm. Third, it had to build a record of accomplishment. At the start of this year, on a whiteboard in his Canberra office, he listed the economy, skills and schools, the carbon tax, the Gonski review and the national disability insurance scheme as key policy areas. Scrawled in marker pen was also a list of problems to “box off”: boats, pokies and, again, carbon. Then came his own bold equivalent of the famous dictum from Bill Clinton’s war room, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It came in the form of a question, an audacious one at that, given Gillard’s reversal on the carbon tax: “Who do you trust?”

McTernan had been impressed by Gillard when they first met, in 2005, at a shadow cabinet dinner. His trip had been arranged by the ALP’s then national secretary, Tim Gartrell, and, watching Gillard perform in question time, he’d been struck by her command of the House. As prime minister, however, it was clear she had failed to find a voice that was both authoritative and authentic. In McTernan’s view, which holds that ministerial statements should be decipherable by his elderly Scottish mother, Gillard used too much jargon when talking policy. She also needed to humanise herself by making known her passions for education and immigrant success, including her own, which McTernan reckons is one of the great ‘only in Australia’ stories.

Alas, Gillard’s first set-piece speech under his tutelage, at the ALP national conference last December, was disastrous. In her homage to former Labor leaders, she gracelessly snubbed her predecessor, and its most memorable line, “We are us,” which McTernan approved but did not write, was pilloried in the press.

Damage limitation was further required following the Australia Day “riot”, when Tony Hodges, a Gillard press secretary, had to step down after it emerged he had tipped off Aboriginal protesters at the Tent Embassy in Canberra about Tony Abbott’s presence in a nearby restaurant. A month later Gillard agreed to appear on ‘The Comeback Kid?’, an ABC Four Corners documentary focusing on the 2010 removal of Rudd as prime minister. Under fierce cross-examination from the reporter, Andrew Fowler, Gillard appeared flustered when probed about her use of ALP internal polling against her predecessor. Ahead of the program, the prime minister’s office had asked the ABC team whether it had a “gotcha moment”, and afterwards complained of an ambush. They also expected Rudd to be interviewed, but he had declined. Regardless, the line of questioning should not have surprised Gillard’s press team.

Nine days after the broadcast, in a dramatic middle-of-the-night announcement from Washington, Rudd resigned as foreign affairs minister to contest the leadership. McTernan believes his boss’s turnaround commenced later that week. In front of reporters in Adelaide, she ended what allies have called the “guilty silence” surrounding Rudd’s 2010 removal. She tore into Rudd, describing the “chaos” within his government and also his attempts to “sabotage” the 2010 election campaign. The real Julia, the warrior Gillard, was back.

After Rudd’s evisceration by the government’s inner circle, new enemies soon came under fire: the right-wing billionaire activists, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, who McTernan thought had stepped straight from central casting. Again, the treasurer led the attack, taking to the pages of this magazine to warn that “the rising power of vested interests is undermining our equality and threatening our democracy”. McTernan had been told that what might be construed as class warfare would not work in Australia – Blair avoided it in Britain, as well – but it helped to switch the conversation from carbon and boats. Better still, the battle was waged on Labor ground, focusing on Labor values. McTernan makes no secret of his admiration for ‘Swanny’, who has played such a central role in Gillard’s rehabilitation.

Labor insiders have been taken aback, however, at the extent to which a political operative brought in from overseas has become embroiled in factional fights. “He can’t resist the palace politics,” says a former colleague. In welcoming McTernan as his state’s “thinker in residence” at the start of 2011, Mike Rann described him as “one of the world’s foremost public policy experts.” (Returning the hyperbole, his guest noted that South Australia was “poised for greatness”.) But Rann soon became uneasy at seeing his friend forge close ties with the rivals who later ousted him as premier.

South Australian Liberals also bristled at McTernan’s short stay in the state, not least because he has so far failed to produce a final written report, which was the purpose of his handsomely remunerated post. The subject, notes shadow finance minister Rob Lucas with irony, was public sector efficiency. “We’re waiting with bated breath,” says Lucas. Liberals have also gone after him for being questioned under caution during the ‘Cash for Peerages’ scandal in 2007, though he was later exonerated. When David Pisoni, a Liberal MP, goaded McTernan about the affair on Twitter, he seemed to scratch at a raw wound. “How about being a man,” @johnmcternan shot back. “Got something to say? Say it. Out loud. No sneering. No innuendo.” Pisoni was flabbergasted: “I went fishing with a 10 lb line, and got a 100 lb fish.” The episode affirms McTernan’s political style, where all-out attack is seen as the best form of defence.

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In terms of on-message discipline and delivering pithy sound-bites, McTernan is said to rank Tony Abbott among the two best opposition leaders he has come up against. (Alex Salmond, the wily Scottish Nationalist leader, is the other.) But immediately after Gillard became prime minister, in an opinion piece for the Guardian, McTernan identified a weakness: “Abbott’s appeal to the Liberal base is more than balanced by his difficulty with women voters.”

During the 2010 election campaign, Labor strategists had compiled a list of the Liberal leader’s more unreconstructed remarks and were poised to use it. They had tested the sexist quotes on sample groups, and the polled reaction was fierce. But the prime minister overruled their use, because she feared the Liberals would counterattack with allegations about her past dealings with corrupt AWU officials during her time at a Melbourne law firm.

Up until recently, her most piercing attacks on Abbott targeted his policy obstructionism: the ‘Dr No’ strategy. By October, however, the prime minister’s office had decided to change tack. The AWU controversy was thought to have been neutralised, in part by initiating a news conference where Gillard answered reporters’ questions on the subject until there were no more. Second, allegations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, that the young Abbott had intimidated a female student by punching a wall next to her head, had received a lot of attention. For McTernan, timing is everything: character attacks are most effective when they augment existing doubts. And with the opposition looking to exploit the Peter Slipper scandal, with its bizarre anatomical texts, the time was right for a counterattack.

As Gillard entered the chamber on 9 October, the now famous ‘misogyny speech’ was little more than a few of sheets of paper listing three or four bullet points and a litany of Abbott’s sexist howlers. Abbott himself supplied another, indeed the coup de grace, when, in referring to the government “dying of shame”, he echoed shock jock Alan Jones’s despicable words about Gillard’s late father.

Gillard seized the moment, and the global effect was astonishing. At a bar in Canberra the following evening, a 19-year-old barmaid told McTernan how impressed she’d been by the speech. Had she watched question time? asked McTernan, according to the account that appeared in Laurie Oakes’s Saturday column. “I’ve been reading jezebel.com,” she said, referring to the American feminist website, which was full of praise for Australia’s “badass” prime minister.

Afterwards, when McTernan drew fire from the Australian’s Chris Kenny for introducing character assassination in an approach “vaguely foreign to the accepted norms of Australian politics”, McTernan again took to Twitter. “Mate, just a heads-up,” he tweeted to Kenny in reference to the Macquarie Dictionary’s post-speech revision of its definition of misogyny. “I did that dictionary thing in England, too.”

The polls suggest that McTernan’s hard-hitting tactics are working. But Labor critics complain he has not come up with a positive message for the government, and that the internal attacks on Rudd will yet backfire. “We’ve moved from unqualified disaster to just disaster,” says one. Regardless, McTernan will endure. If Gillard somehow wins the next federal election, he will be hailed as a genius. If she loses, as he has told journalists, his professional reputation will survive intact because her position is seen as irretrievable. In that case he will likely return to Britain and campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. McTernan has that freedom: on the battlefields of modern politics, he’s a strategist, not a warrior, so the wounds are not his to lick.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a senior correspondent for the BBC. He is the author of The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality and the recently published Adventures in Correspondentland.
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Published in The Monthly, December 2012 – January 2013, No. 85