Back in the day: Jack Waterford

On January 30 the Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the federal election will be held on September 14. Jack Waterford, the editor-at-large of The Canberra Times, recalls what has transpired during more than 40 years of reporting on federal politics. Mr Waterford AM was the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 1985 for pioneering work with the Freedom of Information Act and Canberra’s Citizen of the Year in 2007.

I first went regularly into the Old Parliament House in Canberra in 1972 as a copy boy delivering material to and from The Canberra Times in the Civic Centre and our bureau, and, in those copy-sharing days, three other bureaux.

Jack Waterford Parliament House

Jack Waterford outside Old Parliament House in 1976

The McMahon government was in its dying days and a generation of older journalists, many of whom had covered the full gamut of the 1949-72 Liberal era, was likewise also on its way out.

The doyen of the older was Alan Reid, still with the Daily Telegraph. Replacing that generation were a group of bright university trained journalists, some of whom had been on the game for more than a decade.

Perhaps the best and the brightest was Laurie Oakes, then with the Melbourne Sun, and even then a brilliant observer, reporter and story breaker.

This younger group was far less deferential to senior politicians – far more inclined to believe or to pass on uncritically what they were told – and far more likely than their predecessors to think that readers needed some context, analysis and informed opinion with which the swallow the wisdom imparted in the parliamentary chambers or the ministerial offices.

They were not always as wily or experienced as their predecessors, but they had, in many cases, formal qualifications in fields such as law, economics, political science, history and international relations and no particular modesty in putting up their own expertise and experience against those on whom the politicians and the lobbies relied.

Besides they were on the cusp of a newspaper revolution in which newspapers were becoming less impersonal, more chatty, more forum-oriented and more aware of the competition with other media (such as radio and television) for people’s attention.

It was this competition – and not the somewhat simultaneous increase in bylines, comment and analysis – meant that it was at just this period when newspaper circulations, compared with population, began their slide.

I was in awe of most of the parliamentary reporters. There were some, who were very kind to me. Alan Reid told me once that I should always remember that one could work in the zoo without liking the animals. (It was, strangely coming from a compulsive and chronic player, a warning against getting too close to sources) David Solomon, my first boss in the press gallery, was as formidable an academic as a reporter, and taught me a good deal about reading the source material (such as the constitution) and not making assumptions.

‘I’ve had 15 elections since and can say that I’ve watched at close hand every change of government in my lifetime. Oddly, there have been 21 years of Labor governments and 21 of Coalition governments’

There were politicians who could speak familiarly of the 1930s, the Second World War, and the ways these experiences had shaped their thinking.

Ian Mathews, editor of The Canberra Times reminded me, when he sent me there, that even Canberra-based journalists tended to go native when they worked inside Parliament House, becoming afraid of reporting anything about the characters or idiosyncrasies of the place less they look like gormless new chums, finding news that “everyone” – which was to say everyone in parliament house, but no one else, knew.

He was right … and I have repeated his lecture to dozens of others over the years. The problem is the more acute because in Canberra one can readily get seven newspapers thrown over your front lawn each day and another four by morning tea time.

Most gallery people got a good many and most compared what others had written compared with themselves. Though few of our own readers had the capacity to make comparisons, we did, and soon one found oneself writing more to impress one’s competitors (or potential employers) rather than for our readers.

Canberra is a tough taskmaster. A substantial proportion of the population works in government and has a keen professional interest not only in gladiatorial politics, but also the more mundane work of policy analysis and development, rationing the public dollar and the state of affairs around the nation.

Alongside them are academics, a defence and diplomatic establishment, hundreds of people working in the lobbying industry (what in Washington would be called the ‘Beltway’) and several universities keenly interested in politics and public affairs.

Put another way, on almost anything one wrote about, a third or more of the audience knew more about the subject than you did, and it was easy to make a fool of oneself – all the more so in those days before Google when checking was so much more difficult.

My first election, from the house was in 1974, a year after my first budget. I’ve since been to more than 50 budget-style events, counting mid-year reviews, etc., and they become more boring as less newsworthy as we devote more space to them year by year.

I’ve had 15 elections since and can say that I’ve watched at close hand every change of government in my lifetime. Oddly, there have been 21 years of Labor governments and 21 of Coalition governments.

Jack Waterford

Jack Waterford with an early computer in 1985

The press gallery was in the early days much smaller – I think then there were fewer than 100 people, including radio journalists and sessionals. It was already noticeable that by then, only two years since the election of Whitlam, than there were only about 20 people left who had worked in the Gorton or McMahon years.

I was to notice this again and again, even as the gallery expanded until at its peak about five years ago, it numbered nearly 400. By 1980, there were only about 20 working gallery journalists (pretty much the same people as in 1974 actually) who had been at the gallery in the Whitlam years.

By 1990, most gallery journalists had not worked in the Fraser years, and, by 2000 there were journalists who had never reported on a Labor Government. Right now, I guess, 70 percent of the present gallery have not reported, from Canberra at least, the operations of a Liberal Federal Government.

The survivors, or those who have never strayed too far, are legends like Oakes, Michelle Grattan and Paul Kelly – all people who preceded me. The younger lot are probably brighter than we were, but we have some memory, experience and sense of history to pit against them. And sometimes some contacts outside the completely constricting and suffocating confines of the mini-city of the new parliament house.

But I am continually reminded that one must adjust one’s set from time to time.

As an editor, I became used to asking some current affairs questions – more or less the same ones for comparison purposes – to would be cadets. One was to identify events that had occurred on a November 11.

I expected them to recognise Armistice Day, however described, and the sacking of the Whitlam Government, and gave bonus points for remembering the execution of Ned Kelly. One day a girl said to me that she thought it was when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. No, nothing else came to mind.

I gave her some clues pointing to 1975. Whitlam? No. Kerr? No. The Dismissal? No. Eventually, I let her off, but gave her the answer. She said: “Mr Waterford, I wasn’t even born in 1975’’.

I felt old, old, old. A seminal event of my life was now ancient history. I have never asked the question again.

These days I wouldn’t dare ask about the Tampa. Or the ASIO raids. The Terrigal conference. The tear in Fraser’s eye, or the broken glass in Hawke’s. Or the bullet-proof vest sticking out of Howard’s coat, or the free character reference from Keating. Hell some of them happened before the mobile telephone.

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