The phone call came out of the blue early one morning last summer following an appearance I’d made the night before on Sky’s The Nation. My advertising friend, to whom I hadn’t spoken for several months, excitedly informed me that my name ‘had come up at a meeting’, and that ‘her boss wondered if I’d like to go grab a beer’.
Normally I’d be flattered. Free beer! This time, however, I was slightly bemused; my friend’s boss being none other than then-prime minister Julia Gillard’s infamous ‘communications director’ John McTernan. A date was vaguely set, but alas, never followed up on by either party. Later I was to learn that rather than being singled out for this dubious honour through genuine respect for an ideological opponent, I was simply part of McTernan’s widespread strategy of trying to butter up those who criticised Labor by plying them with booze.
In a way I’m glad I didn’t merit pursuing. It might have been a slightly awkward encounter, given that I think McTernan deserves to be tarred and feathered and hounded out of Australia for the damage he willfully inflicted upon our national discourse and the indignity he helped heap upon our highest office. Either that, or clapped in irons for inciting racial and other hatreds.
It is intriguing to imagine what Julia Gillard would have been like as prime minister without the two men who did their utmost to sabotage and destroy her career: Kevin Rudd and John McTernan. Certainly her tenacity and self-belief, faced with a genuine external threat, could have been used to the national advantage. Had she applied her talents to one achievable reform at a time (much as John Howard did with gun laws and the GST), her legacy would be vastly improved.
Kevin Rudd is, of course, primarily to blame for all the disasters that befell our first female prime minister, both intentionally and unintentionally. But Julia Gillard knew precisely what she was getting herself into when she eagerly grasped the poisoned chalice, nominating the surplus, people-smugglers, climate change and the mining tax as the four things she needed to ‘fix’. That they all proved well beyond her abilities is testament not only to the fact she bit off far more than she could chew, but also to just how diabolical a mess Rudd had managed to create on so many fronts, during his brief first (and hopefully only) term in office. Trying to clear up after him was a mammoth task made even more impossible by the great saboteur’s constant politicking and undermining of her behind the scenes.
But it wasn’t solely her incompetence that did her in. Nor was it her misguided ideological underpinnings. It was the destruction of her personality, the manipulation of her image, the irresponsible actions, the smell of desperation and the dirty subterfuges that led to her increasing unpopularity. It was the spin.
In order to counter her appalling lack of political judgment — her ‘tin ear’ — what Julia Gillard desperately needed was her own Arthur Sinodinos or Peter Shergold, a master strategist and tactician upon whose advice she could rely. Instead she chose the complete opposite: John McTinear himself.
Virtually from the moment McTernan joined Gillard’s team late in 2011, an unpleasant undertone was detectable in our polity. In quick succession we got the whiffy Jenkins-Slipper ploy, the betrayal of Wilkie and the repugnant Australia Day restaurant set-up, where a member of McTernan’s team (who took the fall and was forced to resign) deliberately attempted to foment a race riot in order to discredit opposition leader Tony Abbott. Forget ‘whatever it takes’. This stunt plumbed entirely new lows, and was a foretaste of what to expect. Not only did a member of McTernan’s team lie to indigenous activists about what Tony Abbott had said, a dangerous physical confrontation was engineered. If that isn’t deliberately inciting hatred, I don’t know what is. Fortunately, nobody was injured.
McTernan’s strategy involved seeding mistrust or even hatred between different sub-groups of Australians. In Nick Bryant’s excellent analysis of his fellow countryman — ‘The Strategist’ in last December’s Monthly — he reveals how McTernan applied his ‘skills’ to discrediting Gillard’s internal foes as much as her external ones, going so far as to blame McTernan for the bizarre Stag Hotel story involving Kevin Rudd and Kate Ellis, in which a supposedly inebriated Rudd (he denies it) called Gillard ‘a childless, atheist ex-communist’. Many of the subsequent Rudd denunciations from his own colleagues (‘dysfunctional’, ‘chaotic’, ‘psychopathic’ and so on) bear an uncanny resemblance to the whispering campaign used by the Blair team during McTernan’s tenure to undermine the ‘psychologically flawed’ Gordon Brown.
McTernan had one strategy, and one only, for which he was highly remunerated: divide and rule. Wayne Swan’s juvenile class warfare rhetoric not only threatened the very idea of an Aussie ‘fair go for all’ that it pretended to reinforce, but it spectacularly failed. Quite simply, Aussies didn’t buy it. That ‘Swanny’, whom McTernan greatly admires, so eagerly embraced this UK-inspired dross only reminds one how unfit he was to be in charge of our nation’s coffers.
McTernan’s single biggest disaster, however, was the misogyny war. Devoid of context, yes, Gillard’s famous speech did galvanise women overseas or those at home who feel they’ve suffered at the hands of male colleagues and would love nothing more than to stand up in the boardroom and shout at the CEO the way Julia did. But that’s the point. The speech resonated among the ‘mummy bloggers’ and successful professional women tuned in to Twitter and YouTube. It had no relevance to the majority of hard-working women in part-time employment, far too busy bringing up kids and paying bills to have time to take offence when some overbearing boss looks at his watch midway through their latest PowerPoint presentation. That Julia Gillard never bothered condemning real misogyny where it actually exists — in outback indigenous communities or among certain Muslim groups and other nationalities — was disgraceful.
Yet McTernan claims ‘it went wider; every other group that had ever felt oppressed in Australia knew that she was lifting a cloud in their society.’ Er, really? That would explain the soaring polling figures she experienced from that day on, I guess.
Having failed spectacularly on all counts (stopping Rudd, nope; destroying Abbott, nope; damaging the Coalition, nope; demonising wealthier segments of society, nope; building support for the PM, nope), McTernan knows precisely who’s to blame.
‘Julia Gillard has been driven out as Australia’s prime minister by a brutal and unfair misogynist culture’ runs the sub-head on the lengthy job application, sorry, opinion piece he wrote in the UK Daily Telegraph the other day, in which he smears Australian men as serial sexist abusers and makes our country sound like a nightmarish backwater of misogyny no self-respecting woman would ever wish to visit. As justification, McTernan cites — choosing his words carefully to obscure the truth — the fatuous Mal Brough menu nobody ever saw.
The spin never stops. Glad I didn’t go out for that drink.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10