'Rogue Nation': The rise of independent political figures

Pauline Hanson
Working for a politician has its ups and downs. Image: Getty

Reporting from the backrooms and corridors of Parliament House in Canberra to the streets of post-industrial Burnie in Tasmania, the struggling rural communities of Gippsland and the Queensland heartland, Royce Kurmelovs captures with perceptive, real-time analysis the rise of Australian populism.

With kind permission of the publisher, we are delighted to bring you this extract from Royce Kurmelovs’ book of the independent political figures in the Australian parliament, Rogue Nation

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Chapter Six: ‘A study in perspective’ 

The second-worst job in politics is that of media advisor.

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In politics, the media advisor is a spokesperson, a diplomat, a marketing advisor, a confidant, a personal driver, a speechwriter and an intern. Their job is to handle all communications with the outside world, to maintain the integrity of the brand, to be across every issue the candidate is across, to frame the image, keep an eye on what’s happening in the background and to play defence when reporters play offence.

Most of all, their job is to make sure people can always tell the hero from the villain. Politics is a game of images and perceptions played out on people’s television sets, a whirring twenty-four-hour beast with a powerful hunger for visuals and commentary, a non-stop, never-ending appetite for novelty and a fish-bowl memory. Every event is dissected for what it means. A panel of experts can spend six hours pulling apart a political speech, examining each word for clues to its true intent, when time pressures meant it had taken just twenty minutes to dash off the text. Two commentators may bicker and yell for an hour and never really say anything. The media does not care whether you are having a bad day. The media hungers for content and the machine must be fed.

To operate in this environment, a media advisor must learn the politics of the Canberra Press Gallery, the closed shop that houses the cream of the nation’s associated press. They are the old lions and young guns who have climbed the ladder to be closer to the action and get themselves invited to the same political functions and cocktail parties as the people they cover. There they develop relationships and so write the tacit contract that exists between the Parliament House press corps and their subjects that ensures them access.

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And just like their subjects, the Press Gallery has its own internal politics. It’s print publications versus digital media, free commercial TV networks versus the ABC versus Sky News. Don’t tell Today you’re booking them the same weekend as Sunrise. Don’t go on the ABC without doing the commercials. Be careful talking to that Fairfax editor, he’s got a nasty reputation. That guy from The Australian couldn’t report the weather straight. Is the boss too busy to talk to that reporter? Well, the next headline will cut them to pieces.

A smart media advisor plays this game well. They know which reporters’ calls should be returned immediately, and whose can be triaged. They know which commentators hate the boss, and which are friendly. They know how to deflect
attention when things go bad, and what line to run that gets the message across but also defuses the tension.

When it goes right, it can be magic. When the Australian BBHO syndicate challenged Gina Rinehart for control of the Kidman Cattle Empire, the whole story had the feel of an old-school western. Rinehart was the black hat, the mining oligarch backed by Chinese money intent on taking over one of Australia’s biggest agricultural businesses. The white hats were the four cowboys from wealthy agricultural families whose initials gave the syndicate its name, led by Sterling Buntine, a man built like a mountain who had secured finance to help the group go toe-to-toe with Rinehart.

To get the word out, Buntine had sought help from Nick Xenophon and Bob Katter. The all-Australian bid neatly fitted with Nick Xenophon’s Buy Australian push and squared easily with Bob Katter’s defence of the country’s farmers. They were also both veteran political operators who knew how to make a lot of noise.

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Together they had called a joint press conference and made a few personal phone calls to critical editors, and when it came time to roll out, Xenophon, Buntine and Katter had left Katter’s office on the House of Reps side of parliament where a News Corp photographer had been shooting their photo. Together, they walked out to meet the press, who were waiting in Mural Hall, level two.

Nick had always disliked the entourage look, and never let his staff escort him on the way to a presser. Katter’s chief of staff was the only one present from his office at that moment and she went ahead to see if anyone was there. The moment she turned the corner, she doubled back. Her eyes were wide with fear and awe.

‘There are more cameras than I have ever seen,’ she said. Every camera in the building seemed to have been switched on for the showdown between the two giants, and as Buntine took his place behind the branded microphones, his hands holding his prepared statement shook. For a civilian, staring down the barrel of one camera is hard enough, let alone a bank of them arranged like a firing squad. Some people have trouble speaking to an audience of ten, but right then, in that moment, Buntine was about to address a nation of twenty-four million people with a message that would be heard as far away as China. For the next twenty-four hours, he led the news in every paper, on
every channel and across social media.

Buntine ultimately lost, outgunned by Gina Rinehart’s access to what seemed like a limitless pool of Chinese money. In media terms, it was a win for the little guys, a made-for-TV moment that gave the political leaders of two separate minor parties a chance to outflank the majors and steal their oxygen by going all-in for a group who, in their own way, were challenging business as usual.
It was also unusual in a sense. Once upon a time, Buntine would have gone to the majors for such a thing, but this time he didn’t ask the Nationals, or even the Liberals, for help. Gina Rinehart had close friends in those circles, such as Barnaby Joyce, to whose campaign she had donated $50 000. Instead, Buntine had gone to the minor parties and leveraged their relationship with the media to get the word out.

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It was a model for how independents and minor parties worked the media, and the media worked them. But then, the machine operated without fear or favour. When news broke of a feud between Rodney Culleton, the bumbling One Nation senator who found himself in the media for all the wrong reasons, and his party leader, the media swarmed. ‘I feel sorry for them,’ one NXT advisor from another office said after coming back from a visit to Culleton’s suite. It was the day Culleton had been referred to the High Court with a majority that included his own party leader, and they had gone over to discuss an upcoming vote. ‘They’re in crisis. Everyone’s running around. No one has any idea. It’s chaos.’ And it was just the start. One Nation bucked the trend among minor parties and independents who desperately try to cultivate a good relationship with local and national media. In Pauline’s world, transparency was a stick with which to beat government institutions and bureaucrats, but an unnecessary virtue when it came to One Nation.

Hanson has always treated the media with a degree of cynicism. They are traitorous, and never report the truth – or, rather, her truth. Hanson might have once invited Margo Kingston to stay in her home overnight and even let the Sydney Morning Herald reporter wear her clothes, but by the end of her 1998 campaign for re-election, her advisor David Oldfield was inciting mobs to attack journalists covering her campaign and cancelling events at the last minute, forcing them to chase her through the streets of rural towns at speed.

Nothing had really changed when Hanson returned to federal parliament in 2016, despite the Liberal Party’s Arthur Sinodinos telling a press conference that she was more ‘sophisticated’ this time around, an appraisal with which Nick Xenophon agreed. Politically, he was no friend of Hanson, but his assessment was that she had mellowed with age and wasn’t as quick to come across the table with a knife between her teeth, making her better able to use her influence to achieve good outcomes. As proof he pointed to Hanson’s intervention in the dispute between Wilmar, a Singaporean-owned agribusiness company that runs eight sugar mills and produces over half the sugar in Australia, and the Queensland sugar-cane farmers in rebellion because they felt squashed by one of the most powerful commodity traders in the world.

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Whether or not that was true, her relationship with the media, and her attitude to transparency, were still hostile.

The first blow was struck when Malcolm Roberts called a press conference to talk about climate change, but James Ashby shut the whole thing down when reporters refused to follow One Nation’s script. A similar situation occurred when Rodney Culleton wanted to appear on Paul Murray Live and Ashby, wisely, tried to stop him from doing it out of fear for what the party’s loose cannon would say. Culleton, defiant to a fault, did the interview anyway, and it made for painful viewing.

To get to Hanson, reporters had to go through James Ashby. Hanson was his product, and she was in demand, so he tightly controlled access. Anyone he wanted to impress could meet Hanson. Anyone who couldn’t benefit him in some way was shut out.

‘Thanks but no thanks,’ was all he said to one reporter who emailed looking for an interview. They were lucky: to others he didn’t respond at all, forcing them to seek out other One Nation staffers as a form of back-channel diplomacy.

There was a sense that James Ashby still burned with anger at the way he had been treated throughout the Peter Slipper scandal. He had no friends in the media, he once told a One Nation staffer, though this was something all veteran political operators felt on some level. Still, Ashby’s general approach seemed to be that either a reporter earned his trust, or they would be shut out. Reporters were dogs to be brought to heel and fed, or put down. That was it.

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Under his watch, the party would stop issuing press releases and only distribute information over social media. Donald Trump didn’t need the media, so why did Pauline Hanson? They had Twitter and Facebook to speak directly to their supporters through videos uploaded from whichever country back road

Hanson happened to be travelling. Trump might have had 21.8 million Twitter followers compared to Hanson’s 26 000, but that was mere detail. Just like Trump, Hanson is notorious, and that’s all she needs to get a run on the evening news.

In part, this is motivated by a growing frustration with leaks to the press. Leaks generally happen in one of two ways.

The first is to punish a rival. In mid-February 2017, Nick Xenophon along with Skye Kakoschke-Moore and Rebekha Sharkie met with Scott Morrison for negotiations over the government’s proposed childcare package. During the meeting, the NXT senators told him they would block the government’s legislation. In front of the others, Morrison asked for a private chat with Xenophon, man to man. Nick declined. Anything the minister had to say could be said in front of his colleagues, Nick said. The next day a story appeared in the Daily Telegraph claiming that Nick Xenophon had ‘lost control of his own party’, and an unnamed minister told the paper that negotiating with the South Australian senator was ‘like wrestling with smoke’.

When I asked Nick about it, all he would say was that other politicians had quietly told him how awful the story was.

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‘They were horrified because it would increase my vote in South Australia,’ he said.

Those leaks that don’t come direct to the media tend to happen in a three-step process. A staffer has had a long day and goes for a drink with a friend. Over a beer they tell that friend about what happened in that crazy meeting they were in. People love gossip and because having the inside scoop makes them feel special, that friend tells the next three people they meet, one of whom happens to be a reporter. A couple of days later, the staffer opens up their morning paper or clicks onto an article about their office.

Huh, they think. I wonder where they got that from.

If you’re One Nation, leaks happen because you burn people. James Ashby called them ‘squeaky wheels’ in the press, but they were often ex-staffers who had been purged in another internal power struggle, or even currently serving staff who were increasingly alarmed. They were Hanson’s disposable people, used up and replaced when they became inconvenient. If they didn’t talk to a reporter directly, they would confide in a friend about the problems they had been having and that information would find its way to a journalist. The more this happened, the more Ashby cracked down on the flow of information, and the more valuable each leak became, making each story bigger than the last.

Eventually the ‘relationship’ boiled over into outright hostility when on the night voters went to the polls in the Western Australian state election, the ABC was banned from the One Nation election night party, despite other reporters turning up without prior approval. James Ashby told ABC staff it was a ‘private function’, just as David Oldfield had told the reporters he evicted from One Nation events during his tour of duty in the ’90s.

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Then, on 10 April 2017, two decades after One Nation first launched, Hanson announced through a video on her Facebook account that the ABC had been blacklisted. The ABC had run a story on its Four Corners program detailing political donations from Victorian property developer Bill McNee to One Nation that had been used to buy a light plane, and One Nation had been scrambling to find a way to cover it. Hanson’s redirect was to focus her fury on the ABC’s Andrew Probyn, who had been leaked information – presumably by other pols who did not want to travel with her – that Hanson was heading to Afghanistan with the Australian Defence Force to meet currently serving soldiers, which he then repeated on Insiders.

A reporter had received information, and Pauline Hanson expected him not to publish. It was the last straw, she said. She would no longer provide comment on stories, and the ABC would be banned from all One Nation events.

Hanson and Ashby didn’t care that the ABC had the biggest reach into regional Queensland, where much of her base lived. Instead they preferred the soft embrace of Channel Seven’s Sunrise, Sky News’s Paul Murray and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt. In retribution, they would demand $600 million in funding cuts to bring the ABC to heel.

Just like Donald J. Trump, who once in office railed against fake news and substituted in his own ‘alternative facts’, Pauline Hanson didn’t need the media. She was the one everyone was talking about. She was the product. She was notorious on the left and a firebrand who stoked passions on the right. As far as she was concerned, the media needed her, and as long as that was the case, her facts were the real facts. Everything else was fiction and anyone who said otherwise was an enemy.

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This is an extract from Rogue Nation by Royce Kurmelovs published by Hachette Australia, RRP $32.99. Available in all good bookstores and online. Click here for details