Tales from the Political Trenches
Tales from the Political Trenches is an intimate account of one of the most tumultuous periods in Australian politics, as well as a tale of personal change.
After winning a spectacular victory against Prime Minister John Howard in 2007, McKew was one of the many casualties of the disastrous 2010 election campaign, when Labor was left clinging to the wreckage and forced into minority government. Still dealing with her own disappointments in a political career cut short by the machinations of her own party, McKew has spent the past year talking to her colleagues in an effort to understand what went wrong.
Maxine McKew counters the view that in 2010 Julia Gillard was a reluctant conscript who was forced to move against a chaotic and dysfunctional Kevin Rudd—and offers a different version of events. Says McKew "Rudd was removed by an impatient deputy backed by a group of individuals who see themselves as the 'owners' of the Labor party".
Why is Labor now operating through the uncertainty of minority government and from a position of diminished trust? And why is our political culture so debauched? Tales from the Political Trenches is a must-read for those who have followed the events of the past few years and are still asking, 'What the hell happened?'For more information:
Category Archives: Media
Maxine McKew is one of Australia’s most well know personalities and experienced media professionals. This page will be updated with information on Maxine’s media appearances and from time to time Maxine’s own views on issues important to her.
Maxine joined Jon Faine on ABC 774 to talk about life after politics and becoming a Melbourne resident. To listen to the interview click here.
The gift horse and the tax collector
The Age, March 26, 2012
Maxine McKew says people want to contribute to state schools but are blocked by red tape.
SINCE losing her seat at the last federal election, the former veteran journalist and Labor MP Maxine McKew has discovered some good news.
Australia’s business leaders are itching to help disadvantaged government schools.
Ms McKew has spent the past year canvassing their views in her work for Social Ventures Australia, a non-profit agency that promotes social change by helping private donors give to the needy.
“I meet a lot of corporate leaders who’ve taken the time to do a bit of research, have gone into public schools and they’re shocked at the state of some of the infrastructure they see,” she says. “The Building the Education Revolution did a lot of great work on primary schools but we’ve got public secondary schools in some states that haven’t changed since the 1960s.
“There are plenty of corporate chiefs who want to do something about that. They want to put money, additional to what the government spends, into early childhood, indigenous education and into schools in lower-socio-economic areas. There’s a huge appetite from private donors to address educational disadvantage.”
Ms McKew lives in Melbourne with her partner, Bob Hogg, a former national and Victorian secretary of the Labor Party. They moved to Melbourne after she lost the Sydney seat of Bennelong in the 2010 federal election.
Like many others involved in education and philanthropy, she is hoping the Gonski review into school funding will prompt the federal government to demolish roadblocks that deter donors from helping public schools. The review, released last month, found growing recognition at community level that schools can’t overcome their challenges alone and collective action, through school and community partnerships, can strengthen government efforts to tackle educational disadvantage.
It outlined numerous reasons why philanthropy was underdeveloped in public schools and in all schools serving poorer communities.
“These schools are less likely [than those in affluent areas] to have networks, the confidence to approach potential donors, or the time and resources to devote to grant applications,” the review says.
Government policy and tax laws about philanthropic giving to public schools are also complex, unclear and can differ between states and territories. “Non-government schools do not face the same barriers to receiving donations,” it found.
To make it easier to donate to public schools and remove the burden on schools trying to navigate complex tax laws, the review urged the federal government to establish a national philanthropic fund with tax-deductible gift recipient status.
“It could operate by attracting support [cash and in-kind] from businesses and other trusts and foundations, private individuals and communities,” the report says. “These donations would fund initiatives designed to improve student outcomes, particularly in low socio-economic areas.”
But two foundations, set up for similar purposes by the former state Labor governments in New South Wales and Victoria, show how hard this will be to achieve under current tax laws. The Public Education Foundation, led by former NSW education minister Verity Firth, has been trying since it was established in 2008 to get tax deductible gift recipient (DGR) status from the Australian Taxation Office, a status that would allow the foundation’s donors to get a tax deduction for their gift.
In Victoria, the Business Working with Education Foundation applied last May for DGR status and is still waiting for approval.
Ms Firth’s organisation has raised more than $1.5 million so far in donations, mainly to provide scholarships for disadvantaged students. Most donors are wealthy individuals who went to public schools. Several would have given twice as much if the foundation had been able to get DGR status.
Ms Firth says donors are frustrated that public education foundations don’t fit the categories endorsed by the tax office to receive income as tax-deductible gifts.
The category for school education is narrow — limited to building and scholarship funds. By contrast the tax office has broad categories for public hospitals and universities to attract tax-deductible donations. Legal specialists say the differences in the scope of the categories is mainly due to anomalies in taxation law.
“It’s bizarre that there is a separate broad category for public hospitals but not for public education foundations,” says Ms Firth, the foundation’s chief executive. “We can’t get tax deductions for philanthropists wanting to raise funds for early intervention programs before a child starts school or programs that help kids with transition to uni.
“Yet these are the sort of social and economic elements of disadvantage that go to the heart of why we see the gap in educational outcomes for students.” She cites the example of a family who wanted to donate $20,000 to help Aboriginal students at a regional high school. It wanted to fund programs to help parents get involved with a child’s education, for peer group and cultural activities, and help with teacher training.
The foundation had to explain to the family there would be no tax deduction for its donation. It has won tax office approval to set up tax deductible scholarship funds for students. But its ability to do so for individual public schools is limited. Under tax law, school scholarship funds must be open to a region of at least 200,000 people.
Unlike private schools, most public schools have local enrolment boundaries and therefore do not meet the law’s criteria.
Despite these disincentives, the foundation’s revenue from grants and donations has grown 1285 per cent over the past financial year as word of its existence has spread. In Victoria, the Business Working with Education Foundation has raised $1 million since it began last year.
“Without broader tax reform there won’t be a critical mass of philanthropic support for public education,” Ms Firth says. “At the moment it’s a very uneven playing field. Even when we get philanthropic donors for schools it’s very hard to make their donation fit into a criteria that will give them a tax deduction. That’s a ridiculous situation.”
The Gonski review says taxation incentives for donations to government schools should be increased to encourage higher levels of giving.
It points to an analysis by the Productivity Commission last year showing tax deductions were likely to increase charitable donations in the sector by more than the fall in tax revenue.
Charles Armitage, a tax law specialist, says Treasury departments tend to advise governments against changes that could cut revenue and might be vulnerable to rorting.
“As soon as Treasury starts using the ‘R’ word government typically gets spooked,” says Mr Armitage, a partner at the legal firm Allens Arthur Robinson.
“But the government could amend the tax act to create a broader category for public education funds, like the one being proposed by the Gonski review. These funds could be operated under public scrutiny and proper controls, lessening the chances of the system being rorted by individuals or groups trying to avoid tax.”
Senator Jacinta Collins, parliamentary secretary for school education, says the Gillard government is keen to deal with the problems of educational philanthropy in its response to the Gonski review and in the government’s broader review of the not-for-profit sector.
“From discussions to date, there’s considerable scope for improvement and I look forward to working through those processes in detail.”
Life after the party
The Age, November 20, 2011
In the first interview since her fairytale political career was cut short, Labor’s former star recruit Maxine McKew cuts loose. Julie-Anne Davies reports.
MAXINE McKew is still bristling with anger and a palpable sense of hurt. It is 15 months almost to the day since the voters of Bennelong changed their minds and voted back in a conservative MP (gun tennis player John Alexander) to represent them in the Federal Parliament.
But it would be wrong to dismiss McKew — herself a gun at her own game, which was journalism until the Australian Labor Party came calling — as a washed-up political sook.
The whole nation was watching as Labor’s star recruit got turfed out of politics at last year’s election after just one term, just as they had watched goggle-eyed in 2007 when she stormed into Canberra, dragging John Howard’s political carcass behind her.
It was no ordinary rejection, despite being assured by all her mates inside and outside the party (including several inside the party who were glad to see the back of the factionally unaligned and unabashed Kevin Rudd supporter) that there was no shame in losing the marginal seat in North Sydney, held by the former Liberal prime minister for 33 years.
“It was profound, no matter what people say,” McKew says in her first major interview since that inglorious night for Labor last August. “I can assure you, it feels bloody personal, it feels like a personal rejection and it’s a public personal rejection.” She is still talking in the present tense.
McKew did not go quietly that night. She blamed Labor’s woeful result and her defeat on the party’s decision to dump Rudd as leader two months earlier and on a lacklustre campaign.
Then she disappeared from public view. She has spent the last year declining media requests and has knocked back several book offers — “I’m actively working hard not to write a book at the moment” — instead working for the not-for-profit outfit Social Ventures Australia, a job she has just left.
She also did the deeply unfashionable thing and hung around Sydney to campaign for a couple of young ALP candidates at the last NSW state election.
Now she and her partner, Bob Hogg (the former national ALP secretary and as canny a political operator as the party has ever had), have abandoned Sydney and moved to Melbourne.
For Hogg, it’s coming home; for McKew, it’s a fresh start in a city where she says she instinctively feels at home.
“Melbourne has been in our heads for years, a bit like ‘Next year, Jerusalem’. Bob’s family is here, the vast Hogg tribe, so if you like, I’ve brought my bloke back to his roots.”
At 58, McKew looks and sounds 10 years younger. Maybe she was not in politics long enough to suffer the premature ageing that afflicts so many politicians. But after spending time with her, there is no doubt that McKew is a smart woman with time on her intellectual hands. And still passionately interested in public policy and public life.
She’s buzzing. Sure, she has just accepted a position on the board of the Victorian-based progressive think tank Per Capita, is off to Calcutta next month with Melbourne University’s Australia India Institute, and she has joined the local branch of the ALP, where she hopes to be useful.
“I love Melbourne, and agree with writer Sophie Cunningham that it’s a city you get to know from the inside out. You have to walk it to love it, and that’s what I do. I peer down laneways and enjoy the surprises. It’s a city of the slow reveal, unlike Sydney’s in-your-face splendour and brashness.”
She admits she misses being in Parliament — “I loved it.” But she also rejects suggestions that she is looking for a seat in the Victorian Parliament or, for that matter, preselection for another federal seat. When pressed, she rules out local government, while confessing a certain fondness for it. She insists she has not received the “call” from Victorian Labor HQ. When pressed again she finally admits that she would “never say never” if that call did come. But she will go no further.
A ring-around of some ALP heavy hitters reveals differing opinions.
“She’s a superstar, we’d be mad not to grab her,” says one, who goes on to list from A to Z what Maxine McKew would bring to the fairly thin Victorian parliamentary Labor Party.
Another feigned surprise that she and Hogg were back in town. “Really, had no idea. She’s too old, surely?”
Kaboom! The gender/age card in one.
Since losing Bennelong, the Gillard government has not offered her any role in public life, nor she hastens to add, has she sought one.
But as one senior federal Labor figure said: “It does seem extraordinary that someone of her calibre hasn’t been offered a real role in Australian public life.”
Not many were willing to go on the record about McKew’s potential, but a former Bracks and Brumby minister, Richard Wynne, who now serves on the opposition front bench, has seen McKew in action at a few of his own local party events, and is unequivocal.
“Since she moved to Melbourne she chaired a local government forum for me, and it was a packed house with a waiting list. She was fully over her brief, and provided really useful insights of her experience of local government ” he said. “She is a rare talent.”
Another said that she could certainly give the current lord mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle (a former state Liberal opposition leader), a run for his money if she decided to contest the mayoralty.
While she might not be at the top of the Prime Minister’s jobs for boys and girls list, McKew is still a true Canberra insider. She is seeing “Paul” (Keating) later in the week, a politician for whom she clearly has deep respect, and mentions several times during lunch: “He is unafraid to imagine the future and pinpoint our critical problems — timidity and even, I would argue, cowardice.”
She also talks often to the Labor Party elder statesman and co-architect of its reform blueprint, Senator John Faulkner, who she describes as a “mate”. And she and Rudd text often. “This is an important time, if you care about the future of the party, and there are plenty of people who do. If you care about the reform agenda, and I do, of course I’m speaking to people like that”.
McKew symbolised the “It’s Time” vibe of the Kevin 07 juggernaut that fell so spectacularly to earth in 2010. Aside from Rudd, she is arguably its most high-profile casualty. He at least still has a job in politics.
The Walkley Award-winning former journalist had a 30-year career at the ABC as host of Lateline and the 7.30 Report and a posting in Washington. From 1999 to 2004 she used her killer combination of wit, wine and big brains to regularly break national stories as she interviewed prominent Australians for her “lunch with Maxine” column in The Bulletin. All this made McKew the ultimate star candidate when Rudd lured her onto his staff in January 2007.
The ALP began “flirting” with McKew in 2003 and, she says, she was flattered. She agonised for three or four years about playing a role in public life as an MP, not a journalist. “I was deeply immersed in politics and was interviewing senior politicians, and getting a lot of story breaks. At that time the party was agonising about its future, it was looking for the new Messiah.”
She admits she felt the conflicts. How did she juggle this? Did she overcompensate in her journalism? “No, no I don’t think I did. It wasn’t what I was writing between the lines, it was what was actually on the tape. It was honestly gleaned information.” Team Rudd wanted McKew in Parliament, and were happy to find her a safe seat, but Bob Hogg, who is a political game changer, convinced her it had to be a marginal seat if she wanted to make a real difference to Labor’s electoral chances later that year.
“Bennelong was Bob’s idea, and he was right,” she says now, even though neither of them could have envisioned what a colossal mess Labor were to make of it.
“I was utterly fearless in 2007. I don’t know where that came from. I am not a natural risk taker. But when I lock in, I’m fine. I don’t jump off the cliff that often. This was my jumping off the cliff.”
And what does Hogg say now it’s all over? “He has been fantastic. He upended his life and we had a lovely comfortable life. I’ve since said to him, ‘Are you a bit angry with me that I turned our lives upside down’, and he said, ‘No, I’ve never thought that’.”
Leaving Sydney has also meant putting some distance between herself and the NSW Right’s party machine. McKew makes no effort to disguise her contempt for the way the Labor Party machine men wield their power. A former national secretary of the ALP, Karl Bitar, who was behind the political assassination of former NSW premier Morris Iemma, and who now works as a corporate consultant including, controversially, for James Packer’s Crown casino, recently called for less timidity and cynicism in Australian politics.
“Here’s Karl, a former national secretary, now chiding ministers for their timidity when Karl helped shop Morris Iemma out of office as premier of NSW because he wanted to do the courageous thing and sell NSW electricity assets,” McKew says with no effort to hide her disgust. “There’s a fair bit of hypocrisy around.”
She is also scathing in her assessment about how current political discourse and decision-making occurs, labelling it dumbed down, “a kind of collective madness that takes hold”.
McKew saves her most savage criticism of the Gillard government for its handling of the boat people issue. She is appalled.
“What the government came up with — the so-called Malaysia solution — I think it’s a disgrace,” she says. “I didn’t doorknock nearly a quarter of the electorate in Bennelong for us to have arrived at this position.
“What we’ve got is the legacy of Howard and Ruddock still with us and we’ve now apparently embraced it. I find that profoundly depressing.”
On Abbott, she is unsurprisingly critical, but given her background, she knows an effective communicator when she hears one: “Well, you’ve got shrillness in the public debate, and with Tony Abbott we’ve got one of the great political ferals who on a daily basis seems to be proving that an Oxbridge education is no guarantee of any sensible embrace of public policy.
“But there is no doubt, when I put my communication hat on, Abbott has cut through with a clarity that people are finding compelling and comprehensive.
“I am hoping the exceptional support Abbott is clearly attracting is based more on acute disappointment people have with our side [and] that the more people consider the thinness of his position then they may reconsider. But I have to say, that’s a heroic hope at the minute. Now I would hope, faced with this reality, we can actually start to lower the social temperature. At the moment we have tit-for-tat exchange between Tony Abbott and the PM about who’s to blame for the latest boat arrival.”
She refuses to buy into the Gillard leadership question, instead offering this: “Julia’s job is difficult enough, but she does have time. She has to make that time count.”
Since this first conversation her optimism has risen. She is heartened to see the government has gained some traction — “getting the carbon tax through being a significant show of political bottle”, she says.
She accepts she made her own mistakes and says as a believer in collective responsibility, the decision to ditch the emissions trading scheme was disastrous.
“I walked away from climate change. That was important in Bennelong for two reasons. We had a small seat like Melbourne, where you’ve got that huge Green component. Nonetheless, climate change was important to a small yet dedicated group of people, and we had a very effective Greens candidate that I got along very well with, actually.
“There was no benefit when we walked away from climate change. People said that this was an absolute priority, you campaigned on this. If you’re prepared to throw this out, what else do you have flexible beliefs about?”
Many journalists thrive on conflict, but McKew was never of that ilk, so was uncomfortable in the Parliament.
“I don’t look back at the time I spent in the chamber as my finest hours in politics. There are no great speeches I would pull out.”
For now, McKew is quietly going about putting together what she calls a “portfolio” of jobs, both paid and voluntary.
While there might be a book down the track, there will be no return to journalism.
“An editor said to me recently, ‘Ah, well, you can just go back to journalism’. And I said, ‘Well, I never go back’, and he said, ‘Well, there’s only two things in life, journalism and politics’.
“I said, ‘Actually, there is no comparison’. I worked hard and conscientiously as a journalist. But that cannot compare with the work that you do as a representative.’ He was just blinking at me. Journalism is a doddle compared to the life of an MP.”
She goes on to describe what it felt like to be driving home through Sydney traffic on a Friday night after a week, perhaps, of shuffling between Canberra and Sydney.
“And running through your head you’re sorting out the five activities that you’ve got on in your electorate that weekend. And then the mobile rings.
“And you get that chilling call that says a child has just been found locked up in a childcare centre in Parramatta. I mean, that’s going to be the front-page story in tomorrow’s paper.
“The responsibility is significant. There is little I can think of in my journalistic career that is on a par with that. What you do in public life matters, it has consequence. And I really miss it.”