Cheryl Cartwright, journalist and manager, came to Canberra in 1978 to work as a secretary for Prime Minister Fraser. In 1980 she enrolled in university studies and in 1984 returned to the provisional Parliament House as a journalist. She worked in the Press Gallery before moving to Adelaide to work in 1988. She returned to Canberra in 1990 and worked as a reporter in the new Parliament House. In 1993-94 she worked for the Shadow Treasurer and Leader and in 1996 was active in John Howard’s election campaign.
Listen to the interview
- Cheryl Cartwright
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 1
B York: This is an interview with Cheryl Cartwright. Cheryl will be speaking with me Barry York for the Oral History Program conducted by Old Parliament House. Cheryl was on the staff of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser from January 1978 to June 1980 and she later worked in the Canberra Press Gallery as a Journalist. She worked for Alexander Downer when he was Shadow Treasurer and through his brief period of leadership. In 1996 she worked for John Howard in his election campaign and she was on the staff of two federal Ministers, John Moore, for whom she worked as Media Advisor and as Chief of Staff, for Warren Truss. On behalf of the Director of Old Parliament House I do want to thank you for being a part of the program. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure will be subject to any restrictions you impose in the form of consent.
C Cartwright: Thank you for inviting me and yes, I do understand.
B York: May we make a transcript of the recording should we be in a position to make one eventually. We’d send a draft to you for correction.
C Cartwright: There’s no problem with that.
B York: The interview is taking place today Wednesday 2nd September 2009 at Old Parliament House. I’d like to begin with some background please. Can you tell me about your family background, how you came to Canberra?
C Cartwright: It was more of a fluke that I came to Canberra rather than anything else. My family wasn’t particularly interested in politics any more than the next person in the street, so it wasn’t a topic of conversation in our house. The reason I came to Canberra was, when I was finally allowed to leave home — I wasn’t allowed to leave when I was younger. I wasn’t allowed to leave until I was twenty-one. I didn’t leave home, I left town and found a job in — I came from Melbourne. I found a job in Canberra and it looked interesting. I didn’t know very much about politics at all, other than I was coming to Canberra. I was coming to an interview — after the first interview in Melbourne I asked to come to Parliament House in Canberra to see the office. One of the reasons for doing that was that I’d never been on a plane in my life and I wanted to see what that was like. I wasn’t really sure that I’d get the job. Then ended up in Canberra working for the Prime Minister, never having been away from home before, with some pretty dynamic people. So, it was a case of learning very quickly at the time.
B York: Where were you from in Melbourne.
C Cartwright: I was from Footscray in Melbourne, or a little suburb called Brooklyn past Footscray.
B York: What did your parents do for a living?
C Cartwright: My father was a clerk in a factory. My mother was a housewife. They didn’t have aspirations for the children to go to university. They wanted us to get a trade of some kind. So that’s why I ended up being a Typist-Secretary and eventually put myself through university after I’d finished working in Fraser’s office.
B York: Was it a big family, you came from?
C Cartwright: No, it was a very small family, very close, my brother and I are still very close.
B York: So, it’s you and one brother.
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: What about education. Can you tell me about briefly about the schooling you had?
C Cartwright: Well, typical working class family. There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on education and again that’s something that I just — I suspect by leaving home — I haven’t actually thought about it a lot but I suspect by leaving home and leaving town I was exposed to the opportunities that were out there and took it upon myself to, as I said, go back to university afterwards. But in the meantime, working as a Secretary I had quite a few different jobs as a Secretary and had some interesting jobs. I found I could work in areas that I was interested in, like cars and worked for General Motors Holden for a while. I also knew that by the time I’d had enough of working as a Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office there was nothing else that I was going to be interested in doing so I’d better take myself back to school and I went to university then. But, it certainly – it gave me tremendous opportunities by having worked in the Prime Minister’s office and there were people who I met at that time who I am still friends with.
B York: Now you mentioned that your parents weren’t pushing you with education, but what was your attitude to your formal schooling?
C Cartwright: I loved Maths and English. I used to get a 100% for Maths at school but my parents were concerned that I wasn’t focused enough on —I was perhaps a little bit too assertive for their liking. I wasn’t demure and quiet like a girl should be so as far as the schooling went I enjoyed school but it wasn’t fashionable in the western suburbs to let on that you liked school. So I enjoyed learning but I did my best to hide that.
B York: Which schools did you go to?
C Cartwright: I went to North Altona High and a little Primary school called Brooklyn West.
B York: Was religion important at all in your family?
C Cartwright: No, I went to Sunday School when I was a child. I think, once sport took over on weekends and other things took over I didn’t go to Church after that. But I did start going to Church again, around about, when I was working for Malcolm Fraser I had a little epiphany of sorts when I was about twenty-two or twenty-three, I started going to Church again.
B York: I must ask, when were you born?
C Cartwright: I was born in 1956.
B York: ’56 – you mentioned sport, was that your main recreational type activity?
C Cartwright: Yes, I have to say, I was very grateful that one of the things my parents did – they took me to tennis lessons. I had absolutely no talent for sport but I have a lot of determination. So through sheer determination I became relatively good at tennis. As I said, not through any particular skill, I would have to every shot, be – okay turn side on, put the racket back, nothing came naturally. But I played fairly senior level competition, which did provide an entry into Canberra social life, so I did meet people through the tennis club as well. Being fairly good at tennis it meant that people wanted to play with me. So, there was some people, later on, when I worked in the Press Gallery and there were competitions there, people did like to play with a strong player and so that worked in my favour and opened a few doors as well.
B York: When you were in Melbourne, did you have ambitions? You know how young people want to be something when they grow up?
C Cartwright: I didn’t know I had that right to want to be something because, where I was raised, and people who were highly educated and grow up in an educated family don’t realize that not all children are raised with a view of what they might do in their future as far as a career goes. That doesn’t mean to say that you don’t grow up in a loving, wonderful family but your horizons are really quite low. All I knew was, I didn’t like being bored. I left my first job after two months, three months and my father was devastated to think that I would leave a job so soon but I was bored and I got another typing-secretarial type job in another company, somewhere, and went through quite a few secretarial type jobs in that way. At a time when — you have to think back, that is thirty odd years ago — at a time when it was natural for people to stay at their jobs for quite a while before leaving. Whereas, these days the younger generation tend to move on. So, my ambition in live was to not be bored.
B York: It sounds to me like you had quite an active mind.
C Cartwright: Oh very much so, yes, and whenever I went to a job I would always think, what would my next step be and I didn’t give up until I achieved that next step. It happened in most of the jobs. I ended up as a young Secretary getting to the senior ranks fairly quickly but also getting a little frustrated when I could see the answer to a problem that the person I was taking dictation from, couldn’t. It was many years later that I realized, it wasn’t that they were stupid, but it was just the fact that I’d never realized that I actually had a few brains, no one had ever told me.
B York: Where you bookish at all?
C Cartwright: No, I guess there was just not encouragement to be bookish in that sense. I certainly loved reading and still do but I never learnt to study, even when I went back to uni, I never learnt to study. I just got by.
B York: When did you leave school, did you do the HSC?
C Cartwright: No, I’m not quite sure but I decided to leave school as young as I possibly could. I got Secretarial training and went straight into the workforce. Which meant, by the time I’d gone back to university as a mature aged student, at twenty-four, by the time I came out and started Journalism at twenty-seven I was still fairly young.
B York: You mentioned applying for the job in Canberra and that you didn’t leave home, as such, but you moved on out of Melbourne. What prompted you to do that?
C Cartwright: Adventure, I didn’t want — it looked interesting, it looked exciting. I’ll take risks. I take risks. I’ve left — in my career I’ve left jobs with nothing to go to and things just happen if you want them to.
B York: And the job you applied for in Canberra, was that the job with Fraser?
C Cartwright: Yes, it was.
B York: It was the Prime Minister’s Department?
C Cartwright: I didn’t understand then, as most people outside politics don’t understand, the difference between the political office and the bureaucracy. So when I applied for it, I wouldn’t have known the difference between working for the bureaucracy and working up, physically, at Parliament House. Being young and a child from the west, it never occurred to me that I would actually meet the Prime Minister I just thought that if I worked really hard and did a great job that maybe one day I would. Not realizing that I walked into the office on the first day and it was all happening.
B York: He was there was he?
C Cartwright: I don’t — I have to admit, I don’t exactly remember the first day because as you can imagine being brand new, first time away from home and starting a new job, a lot of those early days are a blur, but I do remember the Principle Private Secretary then was Dale Budd who is still around Canberra and I still see Dale now from time to time. One of the speech writers was Petro Giorgiou who is a Federal Member, who is retiring at the next election. I remember them most and the girls that I was working with. There was a typing pool. There were four of us in the typing pool and we had responsibility to the different speech writers. I remember lots of different things from about that time but not necessarily sequentially.
B York: Where you very political, or aware of political events — I’m thinking, say 1975 the Dismissal, did you have an attitude to those things?
C Cartwright: I remember having an attitude towards left of centre politics there was a fairly ignorant view of left of centre politics. I didn’t like what Whitlam was doing but I wasn’t quite sure why. I have vague recollections the economy shouldn’t be in debt. I have vague recollections of that although it was never a conversation amongst my family or my friends. I do recall that type of thought. I also, somehow, naively equated the inability of General Motors Holden, being a very big organisation and therefore very bureaucratic, I had applied for a promotion as a Secretary. I wasn’t able to get that job because somebody older had applied who was already at a senior level. They didn’t have a facility that would allow somebody from a lower level to come up when someone at a senior level had applied. I equated that with bureaucracy and I equated that with bureaucracy in Canberra as well. I suspect I was left of centre politically before I worked for Fraser but those views were established while working for Fraser. Although I have to say, most of my friends were Labor leaning and I liked to tease them because they are educated Labor and I’m the only working-class person they know.
B York: Had you been to Canberra before?
C Cartwright: No, I think the farthest north I’d been was to Bright in Victoria and when I was seventeen we went to Adelaide by car towing a caravan.
B York: How did your parents feel about you leaving Melbourne?
C Cartwright: Devastated, they didn’t want me to leave, my mother certainly didn’t, I think my father was keen for me to have an adventure of sorts. My mother certainly didn’t want me to leave.
B York: So, you came to Canberra. You hadn’t, obviously hadn’t been to Parliament House before.
C Cartwright: No.
B York: What did you know about it?
C Cartwright: I knew it existed. I knew that was where politicians were and I was there to find out — it was just a whole new world. As I’ve said, I’ve embraced whole new career changes a couple of times now, quite a few times and I do enjoy the challenge.
B York: How did you come up from Melbourne?
C Cartwright: I drove my little car and I spent many years driving backwards and forwards between Melbourne and Canberra long before it was a dual freeway.
B York: Did they have accommodation arranged for you when you arrived here or did you have to find your…
C Cartwright: I have vague recollections of being put up in a motel for a while until I found somewhere to live. Once again being first time away from home, I’d never even looked — I had a brief period out just before I came up here, but I rented a one bedroom flat in somebody’s backyard. I think I lasted about four months there and then went to a group house. I remember asking my parent’s permission to live in a group house, even though I was living in another town.
B York: Can you tell me about your initial impressions of Canberra, very different to Footscray, I know that, being a Melbourne, Brunswick boy myself.
C Cartwright: Again, because it was all so new it’s very blurred. It’s very blurred and I eventually settled in to having a nice lifestyle. I met some friends. I came here and didn’t know anybody. I met some friends, there were these country girls, they were a tough bunch. They took a shine to me and looked after me. They took me out drinking and they’d all drink beer. I think it was the first time I drank wine and I’d drink whatever cast wine was going at the time. Working for Malcolm Fraser meant very long days and long nights. When they had a night out and they were going to a pub, they would ring me each time they changed pubs to make sure I knew which one I was going to when I finally got away from work. Some of those girls have stayed in touch over the years and they’ve been lovely. They’ve watched my career as I’ve gone back to university and become a journalist and now a manager type. They’ve been very generous and encouraging in the way things have gone.
B York: Tell me, do you still feel an affinity with Footscray and Melbourne?
C Cartwright: Footscray is very different now, it was starting to change about when I left. What has been useful as a political advisor is that connection with community and that understanding of the way that people think. What political parties seem to have to do now is spend a fortune on consultancy, do surveys of people. When I’ve worked for politicians and they’ve caught on, with regard to the background, they will often say “What do you think?” or “What do you think your mother would think?”. Most of the time it’s a lot less expensive than the report that comes from the surveys, from the consultancies which tell them exactly the same thing. I think it’s given me a good understanding of people. Also, I think, in my current role — because I started out as an office junior, touch wood, I should brag about this— but the juniors tend to like working for me because I give them a lot of respect. I give them an opportunity to demonstrate they have ability. If they don’t have ability I will work around it but if they’ve got ability I help them to nurture it.
B York: We should point out you’re the Chief Executive of the Australian Pipeline Industry…
C Cartwright: Pipeline Industry Association which is the Gas Transmission Industry Association, yes.
B York: Can we talk about the daily routine at work, working for Prime Minister Fraser, what would be a typical day? Is it possible to say there was a typical day?
C Cartwright: There was no typical day. As typical you could get if Parliament was sitting and Question Time was then, it was just absolutely frenetic the whole time. I have to remember there was no computers in those days. They relied on accurate typing, which you don’t have to rely on now. The notes were done on — the paper would be roughly A5 size paper for the notes for Mr Fraser but — I don’t think the metric size paper was in, in those days, but it’s roughly the size. We used to use golf ball typewriters and if I could brag for a moment, I was the only person who could type so fast that I would make the golf ball typewriter over type. So that’s been a really useful skill. My current job just being able to get through things quickly but in those days it was useful for — if Mr Fraser wanted his speeches typed in a hurry or if he wanted them changed I was often called on when they needed something done very quickly.
Another typical thing, we would often be called on to travel at short notice. Whenever the advisors travelled they would always take one or two of the girls with the Prime Minister. You were never quite sure who was going to go. I’m not quite sure what was behind that or whether I was the one who was disorganised but I always had a bag of clothes and toiletries at work ready to go, or if ever I had to travel at short notice. I can still see the bag sitting under my desk.
B York: You mentioned typing the notes for Fraser, what were the other common tasks that you would do?
C Cartwright: Working for, pretty much mainly Petro Giorgiou I would do letters that he had dictated and speeches that he would dictate for the Prime Minister. That’s really all I remember doing in the office, running errands and that sort of thing, just very much a typical secretarial type of job but everything — there was a lot more to do and a lot faster.
B York: How many other staff were there?
C Cartwright: In our little office there were four of us who were Secretary-Typists and one girl who was the Switchboard Operator-Receptionist. There wasn’t a reception desk as such but the phone was going constantly so Margo was very busy and we would have to answer the phones if she was busy. There was an Office Manager. A woman called Cathy Quealy was an amazingly brilliant girl who – Mr Fraser had a lot of time for her. She was one of the few Secretaries who got promoted to a semi-administrative type of position. When she left the person who came in and took over her was Malcolm Hazell who eventually came back and worked in a not dissimilar but a little bit more senior role for John Howard when he was Prime Minister in the new building. Just going up the corridor there would have been three or four advisors-speechwriters, a Principle Private Secretary. He had, as I mentioned before, he brought one of his electorate staff to Canberra. Because he spent so much time in Canberra it was very useful for him to have somebody in Canberra who was in touch with the electorate but knew how to manage electorate issues. She was not from the electorate, she was from Stan Collard’s office, I think, but she knew how to manage electorate issues. He had two diary secretaries, both called Cathy, and then around the corner from there was the Departmental Liaison Officer. He had one of those, that was Peter Hand, who I believe went away but is back in Canberra now. And my second job in the office was Secretary to that person to the Departmental Liaison Officer. He was great to work for because he knew that I needed to do more than just type and he often gave me admin things to do, to help him out. So I was a bit of a right hand person to him.
B York: What was his name?
C Cartwright: Peter Hand.
B York: Now we had a brief look at the office on the way in today, how had it changed?
C Cartwright: It certainly, it’s quite different from when Malcolm Fraser was there but not completely different. The layout of the general office — I guess it’s allowing for people to walk through but it doesn’t have the desks the way they were. There were also big filing cabinets in there as well. Down the corridor where there is one office on the right that’s relatively large there was a wall there and it was originally just a little alcove with just enough room for a couch. When Ruth Murray started as the Electorate Officer, that was converted to an office, so the office was exactly as a couch was, which was pretty much — not much bigger than an IBM golf ball typewriter. Malcolm’s Fraser desk was facing a different direction from the way the office is now but for obvious reasons the office has been left the way Prime Minister Hawke had it.
B York: Perhaps at a later date we could film you in there describing the changes and make an audio-visual record too.
C Cartwright: I can hardly say no, now that you’ve got it on tape.
B York: Yes, that’s my trick. Now, where there other parts of the building that were part of your daily routine or that you regularly had to utilize?
C Cartwright: Very occasionally, and it only came back to me walking down to this part of the building. Very occasionally I had to run errands or visit other offices in the building. Certainly along that corridor, the broad corridor where the Prime Minister’s office is there were a couple of other Ministerial offices. I remember Tony Streeton was in one of them. I can remember going to Treasurer John Howard’s office but I don’t have a clear recollection of where it was. I think it probably was the floor below the Prime Minister’s office, but I’m not sure about that. Where I did go to a lot, running errands was up to the Prime Minister’s Press Office. In those days the Prime Minister’s Press Office was actually located in the Press Gallery. I think it would be very good for them if they did that now. He had three media advisors and there were two or three secretary-typists in there at the time. I knew the way up to that Press Office, so I knew where the Press Gallery was, which was handy in later years when I went looking for a job in the Press Gallery. I knew where it was even though I didn’t know what I was looking for.
B York: Did you go into the Chambers at all?
C Cartwright: No, I didn’t it wasn’t my job at all. You’ve prompted memories now. I would have gone to take notes to any of the advisors who were sitting in the Chambers or by the Chambers, but that’s all.
B York: Did you have access to the facilities, like the — well you’ve already mentioned the Tennis Courts and the gardens.
C Cartwright: I didn’t make the most of them, that’s for sure. Certainly, after coming back as a Journalist I spent more time on the tennis courts and in the bar which doesn’t look anything like it used to.
B York: What about areas that were out of bounds? Were there any such spaces that you were prohibited?
C Cartwright: I didn’t even think of going anywhere that wasn’t involved with work. There wasn’t a lot of down time so you came to work, you parked your car and you came to the office and just worked like crazy the whole time. One of the things I did remember coming here though, parking here at the front of Parliament House there were some parks up the back, up the hill, but we would often just park our cars in the front car park because the fine was only four dollars.
B York: When you were here and the job was going well I take it, that you were good at your work as you were saying.
C Cartwright: That’s my version anyway.
B York: Did you think that Canberra was your future?
C Cartwright: No, when I first came here, I thought I’ll come to Canberra for a couple of years and then I’ll go somewhere else. Once you’ve worked in politics and been involved in it it’s really hard to get it out of the system. It’s a buzz. If you have a short attention span and if you enjoy stress its perfect.
B York: You suggested earlier that, actually working for Mr Fraser influenced your outlook, or your political views?
C Cartwright: Well, especially having Petro Giorgiou there, his background was similar to mine, but his father was a Greek immigrant who worked in a factory but sent Petro to university and Petro had this lovely talent — this lovely knack of — when he was — I can see what was happening now but I just admired it at the time. If he was starting lose an argument, he’d say something like “I’m just a poor little Greek boy, you’ll have to explain that again”. That was one of the techniques that I used later on, I’m just a secretary you’ll have to explain that again. Many years later as a Journalist I tried, I’m just a girl you’ll have to explain that again, and I got into trouble.
B York: What were the ethnic backgrounds of your parents, I didn’t ask that, were they Australian born?
C Cartwright: Very much, yes. My paternal grandfather came from London and he was a postie he rode a pushbike for the Post Office. The PMG it was called then, wasn’t it. He had five children on a very small salary and all of the other relations were all Australian, way, way back to English.
B York: Now, we’ve talked about the IBM gold ball typewriter—I realise you were only with Mr Fraser for two and a half years…
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: …but where there any changes in the office equipment, technologies in that time?
C Cartwright: The only change was, we got different golf balls for the typewriters and could use different font, that was rather exciting. But one of the things that was a real challenge. I think it might have contributed to a few people’s health problems — when we travelled, we actually travelled with full size IBM gold ball typewriters, not the little travelling ones, which were heavy enough. In order for these typewriters to travel safely and not be broken on the flight they were put in quite large, heavily padded steel cases, casings, which needed two people to carry them. We also carried all of the paper, with us, now this was the girls, did all this. We would land, wherever we were, we’d travel in the back 111, the old planes that the Prime Minister used to have and the guys would all jump in the motor cade with the Prime Minister and take off. The girls would unload the planes includes these incredibly heavy cases, with the incredibly heavy golf ball typewriters in them and move it all to wherever we were setting up an office and set up an office. We were, I think — some of the girls were really organised and really good at setting these things up. But we would get to an office, there would be two of us from the general office and one from the press office usually. Whatever hotel or motel we were in, within — I don’t know, minutes, half an hour, it’s a long time ago, we would have a functioning office set up. That’s when, actually the travelling fax machine was in. I remember using the very first fax machine. We used to get covered in ink.
B York: From the fax machine?
C Cartwright: Yes, especially the travelling one because the travelling one you’d have to — it was an old barrel and you’d have to — a long barrel and you would thread the paper onto the barrel and it would rotate and the needle would read the writing on the paper and send it through the telephones lines. We thought that was a marvellous invention.
B York: Still talking about the technology. When you started work in Melbourne, in secretarial jobs, what was the typewriting like then?
C Cartwright: They weren’t electric typewriters they were your old Remingtons, there was another sort that was popular, it didn’t start with electric typewriters no, but eventually moved towards the electric. But we didn’t like them at first.
B York: You didn’t like the electric at first?
C Cartwright: No, prone to breaking down, too sensitive to touch…
[End of part 1]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 2
C Cartwright: And like any new technology, they take a little while before they perfect it, let’s face it, they were usually designed by people who weren’t typists, let’s face it.
B York: Yes. When I asked about how your own outlook and political views were influenced by working for Mr Fraser, you spoke of Petro Giorgiou…
C Cartwright: Yes, I got waylaid, I think I found a soul mate in Petro in the sense of having similar background, but right of centre views, although, I think Petro and I would consider our views fairly centre of the road. The freedom of association. The freedom of the market, perhaps, would take us towards the right of centre and not Big Brother type control. That’s the very general sense of why I would be slightly right of centre in political views. Certainly that was reinforced by the political views that were espoused — that letters that I was typing and the speeches that I was typing.
I did one time, when Mr Hayden was Opposition Leader and they were looking for tactics and something to throw at Mr Hayden, I remember coming out with some suggestions and Petro, very generously saying “That’s a great idea” and writing it into the speech. So I think I might have an inkling then that political advice was the way I might end up, decades later.
B York: What was it a political office, were other workers there interested in politics and…
C Cartwright: You don’t work in a political office if you’re not interested in politics. Particularly if you’re an advisor. Although some people do it just to get it on the CV but generally you really do need an interest and a definite understanding of politics. At the junior level, if you don’t have an understanding you need to get one very fast.
B York: In the interview for the position, was there any interest in whether you were sympathetic to the person you’d be working for, or does that come into it?
C Cartwright: I think they felt — I suspect that the view was, well the secretaries didn’t need to have any knowledge or interest because we weren’t there to think. It was a long time ago.
B York: Yes. Regarding thinking, I mean, did an interest in politics develop to the extent where you would start to read political books or philosophical books?
C Cartwright: It gradually started, yes. In fact one of the selling points at the interview — when I was learning shorthand the dictation was taken from pages of Hansard and I can remember that the dictation passage would be a specific time, for obvious reasons, marked out, dictation time. So a lot of the shorthand, short forms related to political terms and I remember even as a sixteen year old learning shorthand being frustrated that the Hansard passage would finish while I was still interested in it. There probably would have been an interest in politics way back if that interest would have been sparked but there was nothing to spark the interest when I was younger.
B York: Not even things like the Vietnam War or the women’s liberation?
C Cartwright: I read the ‘Female Eunuch’ and that really opened my eyes but it still seemed detached, it seemed a long way from where I was. The Vietnam War, I was young enough to be going out with a fellow who might have been called up and we talked about that. But, again because it didn’t touch me or my family immediately it was just news on TV so I didn’t develop — I wasn’t involved with people who had strong views. So there weren’t those kinds of debates to generate a strong interest and that would probably — it would have been completely mixing with different people. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, that somebody who is interested in current affairs didn’t actually develop that interest until their twenties.
B York: Well, that’s what happened. But it’s interesting that you read the ‘Female Eunuch’.
C Cartwright: I’m not sure why, it was quite a revelation and it really did open my eyes to life.
B York: Did you think that the — Fraser as Prime Minister had an attitude to the women’s issues that tallied with your own?
C Cartwright: Didn’t even think about it. I was there to work. He was — from my perspective he was a good person to work for. I was terrified of him because he was a giant of a man, who was known to be very gruff and if you didn’t produce what he wanted when he wanted it he wasn’t very happy. Luckily my shorthand was good, so if ever I took dictation from him I was always fine with getting him back what he’d asked for. We all used to — he used to go to Nareen for weekends, his family farm, and he would take one of the secretaries with him each weekend. He didn’t take the policy or advice or the speech writers. The farm was set up in such a way that the Manager’s Cottage was changed to an office. The living area was an office and the kitchen was a functioning kitchen, although they soon realized not to suggest that I do any cooking. We were down there with the Security Guards, two Security Guards and they would sleep in the cottage and the secretary would sleep in the spare bedroom up at the homestead with the Fraser family.
B York: Did you do that?
C Cartwright: Yes, yes, they were very sweet, very lovely. So I saw his gruff side but I also saw the very friendly family side. But, of course, we were staff, we weren’t part of the family so we were never treated as such. I have a lovely memory. I used to go down for New Year’s Eve and do a changeover with one of the girls. I’m not sure why, she always worked on Christmas Day and over the Christmas period at Nareen and because my parents were in Melbourne I would get a Commonwealth car back to Melbourne Christmas Eve so I would be at home for Christmas Day. I was really nervous, I was all packed to go one day. It must have been fairly late. It must have been busy and — it was cool — I remember it was cool and I went to knock on their door to say Merry Christmas and leave. I only did that because I was incredibly shy, which most of my friends find it difficult to believe now, but I was very shy. But I knew it would be even worse if I left without saying, goodbye. So I knocked on the door to say, goodbye. They were in the living room, Mr and Mrs Fraser, Mrs Fraser senior, Mr Fraser’s mother and one of the children, I think. I’m pretty sure the kids were old enough then, sitting around a card table in front of the fire playing cards, very sweetly saying “Merry Christmas” when I took off. It was very nice.
B York: Are there any other anecdotes about actually staying there?
C Cartwright: I remember, you have to remember there were no mobile phones, no computers and people were generally out of touch when business closed. However, everyone in our office provided contact numbers for weekends and Ministers’ were supposed to do the same. There was a particular time, I don’t remember the issue, but the Prime Minister wanted to speak to Wal Fife his Minister who had gone to an island somewhere with no phone. I was more afraid to come back and say “No, I can’t find him” than I was to keep trying to find him. I found out, in fact, maybe it was holidays and not a weekend. But, I know, there was no business at the time. I remember finding out that there was a mail plane that would fly to that island on that day, or the following day, and that plane carrying mail had a radio phone on it. I found a way of making — getting the Minister Fife to the plane on the radio phone on the plane. Because I did not want to go back to the Prime Minister and say, I couldn’t find his Minister. So now people, the young people who work for me learn very quickly if I say, have you found so and so and if they say “I’ve left a message” they know that’s not the answer. “How hard have you tried to find that person”. I guess that kind of determination was useful in journalism as well, where you just keep going until you find the person.
So I can remember Mrs Fraser teaching the elder daughter to drive and having to run out of the way as they came down the dirt road between the house and the cottage, the Manager’s cottage where our office was. They were always very, very friendly.
B York: Can I ask a bit more about the office? How would you describe the working conditions?
C Cartwright: Very crowded, Old Parliament House was well past it used-by date by then and that was ’78 and they didn’t move for another ten years. As I said, one of the offices was a converted couch and — then it was very, very active and very — I think you’d say noise because the typewriters were noisy. There was something happening. There were politicians coming in all the time trying to break their way in to see the Prime Minister but usually they’d end up seeing an advisor or speech writer along the way. There was always, always something happening. The positive side of that, and now I can understand why people like open plan offices, you didn’t have to ask what was going on. You’d pick it up because you’d hear all the discussions and—certainly in a general office, not in the speech writers’ offices.
B York: How were the relationships among the staff?
C Cartwright: Like anywhere where there is a lot of pressure and stress. They could be a little snappy at times but it was actually quite a good, well, functioning office when I was there, in the sense that, if something wasn’t quite right people would say so and then they would get on with business. There is the usual gripes about this one and that one but there was nothing ever really terribly serious.
B York: What about the trade union, were you in a union?
C Cartwright: No, the only time I ever joined the union I was working at the Canberra Times and the union rep stood over my desk and folded his arms and told me I’d better do it or else.
B York: And again, talking about routines, where did you eat, or did you have morning tea, afternoon tea?
C Cartwright: There was no time for that. We had a little toaster machine in the office, so that when Cabinet finished we’d actually get stuck into the left over sandwiches from Cabinet and toast them, yes. There was a bit of snacking going on but I never really learnt to cook so I’ve just mainly snacked.
B York: Would you eat in the Dining Room?
C Cartwright: No, not that I recall. There was a Canteen. I recall using that when I was working back there as a journalist. I don’t recall — I guess we only recall things that are relevant or important to us. I know I drank a lot of coffee. Yes, I certainly drank a lot, a lot, a lot of coffee.
B York: Now Canberra would have been — well I know that it was a very different place back then. How did you travel to work and get home, especially if you were working late at night?
C Cartwright: I drove, I tended to live relatively close to Parliament House. I think the farthest I ever lived was in Hughes. So I lived in Red Hill and it just took a few minutes to drive to work. In fact before the new building was built and I knew that there was going to be a building on that site. It’s one of those things you always say, I will do this, but you never do. On my way to work I would see and driving along Adelaide Avenue I would see the hill in front of me and think, one day I’m going to bring my camera and take a picture of the hill before Parliament House is built but I never did.
B York: Did you have a social organisation, a Staff Club?
C Cartwright: No, we saw enough of each other during the week. Occasionally, very, very occasionally we’d go to each other’s place for a meal. Some of the girls became great mates. I’m quite friendly with a lot of them but not to the point where I’d see them all the time.
B York: Did you have a family at all in Canberra. Did you marry?
C Cartwright: No, I never got around to it. I got married briefly, didn’t like being married. I think I’m just too disorganised, life is just so much easier if you don’t bother.
B York: Were there any people you worked with who you came to admire greatly?
C Cartwright: I think, in my own way I admired Malcolm Fraser, perhaps because of his presence, because of his seniority. I saw a softer side to him, that a lot of people didn’t see. He was always very kind to me. There was one time, there was a crisis, it had something to do with China and one of the Ministers, or was it his Treasurer, we were up all night. We didn’t sleep all night. There were phone calls, I was getting people on the phone for him, all the way through the night and we were flying out the next day. Of course, I was in my twenties, you don’t need sleep in your twenties, I was fine, the adrenaline was pumping like crazy, but he was most concerned that I was okay the next day. Even though no one had slept during the night. I suppose you’d say well that is normal, people should be but he had a lot on his mind and I appreciated the fact that he was concerned that I was okay. So I did see that side of him.
B York: Were there any of the politicians that you came not to admire during that time?
C Cartwright: For various reasons, there’s a lot, yes I didn’t see a lot of what went on behind the scenes. I recall going to — I didn’t do a lot of socialising but it must have been an after Budget party. When John Howard was Treasurer, he had the world’s best parties and they would go all night, really good parties, with lots of fun. That was interesting. I remember one party, very nice looking young National Party politician was being cornered by a girl who was trying to persuade him to leave the party with her. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I think I must have had a fairly sheltered life because it was the first time I’d ever seen someone being compromised. I actually think he was single at the time, he would have only been in the late twenties or early thirties, he probably doesn’t even remember it.
B York: Are there political events in those two and a half years here that stand out in your mind?
C Cartwright: None actually came to mind when I was thinking about this because I was on the periphery so and I know if I saw those events, it would trigger my memory but they don’t come to mind, they didn’t resonate because I gradually got interested in current affairs rather than actually watching current affairs at the time. Even my very first overseas trip was with Malcolm Fraser and that was to India, that was, I think I’ve travelled every years since then because it was just so fascinating. I remember at the time when the secretaries were asked to decide who wanted to go on the Europe trip or the India trip and I know one of the other women wanted to do the Europe trip and I remember thinking, I’ll go to Europe when I’m older but I’d probably never go to India. Now I know that the more out of the way, unusual culture I’m more likely to want to go there, so I’m really grateful for that opportunity.
B York: I wanted to ask more about Malcolm Fraser a bit later, if that’s okay, because just a few more questions about the kind of routine nature of the work you were doing. Was there a security clearance?
C Cartwright: No, no, there wasn’t. That came in — any kind of a security issue came in a long time after I was there. Actually, my very first trip — talking about security, my very first trip interstate was to Sydney. I happened to be up working at — it must be midnight or one o’clock, or somewhere around then, at the Hilton Hotel when it was bombed. That was my very first work trip. Well, the first one I remember, anyway. I remember looking out — we were right up on a very high floor. I can remember looking down at the carnage.
B York: So you were actually…
C Cartwright: I was there, what was really scary I had actually gone out the night before and at that time I had been walking through those doors the night before. So, I only thought about that a week or so after the incident, I realised that I was incredibly lucky.
B York: Did you hear the explosion?
C Cartwright: Oh yes, we were, as I said, we were right up — whoever it was that was writing the speech and I were right up, and we thought because the sound came up through the lift well, our immediate thought was that a lift had collapsed or a lift had fallen because we heard it from inside — the noise from inside the building rather than outside. We knew that — heard the siren and lights and everything, we kept working.
B York: That was my next question, how did you react?
C Cartwright: You don’t realise, you see people and action all those floors below without actually seeing exactly what it was. You had a job to do. The Prime Minister was giving a speech the next day. It was CHOGM, he was giving a speech the next day, or was it CHOGROM it was the regional meeting, and we had a job to do.
B York: And then the next day you discovered what had happened.
C Cartwright: The news started to filter up during the evening, what had happened, and I rang my parents straight away and woke them up, you are going to hear something on the news but I’m okay. I suspect they wouldn’t have even thought that I was going to be there but I think it was a reassurance by the time — we’d found out what had happened, just looking for the security, the reassurance, and talking to somebody. I think that was why I called. It never occurred to me to seek that with colleagues.
B York: Did you, at any point see Mr Fraser’s reaction?
C Cartwright: No, I don’t remember anything about that.
B York: Now, I asked about security clearances but I’m wondering if you’ve ever been asked to keep secrets as part of the job, being warned about journalists wanting information?
C Cartwright: No, that’s what I’ve done in jobs since then, since I’ve been a journalist, getting to know what journalists get up to. I think I was a little afraid of journalists when I went up to the Press Gallery, or through the Press Gallery to the Press office. I would walk without looking sideways at the journalists or the journalist offices. They were like another species as far as I was concerned. But I don’t know that journalists even bothered speaking with us. Although, I do know one of the girls ended up marrying one of the journos. I didn’t even talk to them so.
B York: Can we talk more about Malcolm Fraser now?
C Cartwright: Yes, please.
B York: As I’ve said, we are very interested in Prime Minister’s here, having the Australian Prime Minister’s Centre as part of our role and responsibility. I’m wondering — you’ve mentioned that you saw a softer side to him than the media really portrayed but can you provide any other examples of that?
C Cartwright: It’s hard to find specific examples. I’ve got a notoriously bad memory to start with so I come away with impressions. One of the things that I do remember now that really struck me and showed me politics in action and again I can’t remember the issue but I do remember that Fraser was under siege. I think — was it when Mr Lynch was in hospital, I think I was working for him then. It was an incredibly difficult time. He’d not been in Canberra so he must have been either travelling or in the electorate. I was waiting with trepidation because I was thinking he’s going to be miserable when he comes in, or is going to be stressed when he comes in. It was one of those times, of incredible political pressure and he bounded into the office and was very positive, geed up, firing, ready to go. I’ve learnt since then that one of his sayings, I didn’t hear it at the time, but I’ve learnt that he used to say, the best form of defence is attack and so he was under siege, rather than crawling into a hole, his persona through the office and with his colleagues was — he was fighting on. And that was one of those — we have little wake up points along the way, when we learn about different things and that was one of my revelations with regard to politics and how it works.
B York: I should have asked earlier, how well did you get to know him?
C Cartwright: Not as well as a lot of the others in the office. I was incredibly shy. He wouldn’t even know I was there, I was so quiet. He was in office for quite some time, and had a lot of people go through the office. He would vaguely remember my being down at Nareen from time to time, vaguely remember my taking shorthand. If his favourite Secretary wasn’t available at the time, that was Cathy Quealy, but I didn’t really spend any — you wouldn’t call it quality time. I did personally occasionally feel under siege in the office because I was just out of home and never been away from home and Petro used to call me into his office, from time to time, and shut the door, and there’s smoke everywhere. It was smoking offices then. He would give me a smoke and say “Have a smoke love. How is it in the snake pit?”. So, he was very sympathetic. He knew I was a bit of a softy but I have to say, I don’t have any — I have that recollection but I don’t have any recollection of bad times in the office as well. I’ve only remembered the good times but that was one of the nice things about Petro. Malcolm Fraser wouldn’t have noticed that. He was too busy getting on with the job.
B York: But would you see him pretty much every day, when you were working?
C Cartwright: When Parliament was sitting, sure, every day but not necessarily doing something with him every day. He’d come out to the office and say “Where’s Cathy” or where’s so and so or looking for one of the advisors who wasn’t in his office, where’s so and so. So we would always know where they were going and be able to find them. If you were travelling with him, pretty much the same thing, because you’re filtered by the advisors and the speech writers, they had a closer relationship with him then we did. Although when we’d set up our office, as I said, when we travelled, we’d set up the office in a motel or hotel room and he would come through looking for things, or checking things. I don’t remember anything other than a working environment. I remember we took him out for his birthday to the restaurant at the Cotter Dam which is very sad because it was destroyed in the fires in ’03, I remember that. Somebody had a car accident in the car park with a police car, I think, anyway.
B York: And how did he respond to that? How was that organised?
C Cartwright: I didn’t do it. I think his diary secretaries organised that, I just remember being there. I remember going to those types of social functions — I used to physically pinch myself. I couldn’t believe I was there.
B York: And how would you address him?
C Cartwright: Mr Fraser, the advisors called him ‘PM’.
B York: And how would he address you?
C Cartwright: Hey, what do you want, what are you doing, can you do this for me now. He always said it politely.
B York: What do you think of his effectiveness as a politician? I suppose this is something I’m asking you, not just as somebody who worked for him, but when you look back on him in that period of Prime Ministership?
C Cartwright: I have to let other people judge that because I hear a lot of criticism of him not using his majority in the Senate when he had it. I hear the frustrations of him not adhering to his Treasurer’s advice, who was Howard at the time, and I understand that they didn’t get along well. I never saw that. So I liked my impression of him as a dedicated politician who was there for all the right reasons. Now that’s probably a little rose coloured but that’s the way my life was then. So, as for an academic analysis, a critical analysis, I couldn’t — I couldn’t honestly provide it. I can talk the way any journalist, or former journalist can and pontificate but I don’t like to do that.
B York: Fair enough. How many times did you travel with him?
C Cartwright: I’ve lost count. It would have been every two or three weeks.
B York: And mostly within Australia, I take it?
C Cartwright: Mostly within Australia, yes. I think I only had the one overseas trip, but maybe I got New Zealand. Yes, I think I got New Zealand as well because that became a joke in my life, all my trips ended up being New Zealand for a while.
B York: And on those trips, again, was it a situation where the advisors and speech writers were like a buffer?
C Cartwright: Yes, when you’re travelling overseas, you do the same as here. You set up an office as best you can, make things work as best you can. It was a challenge to do that in India. I suspect India’s a little like that now, that things usually don’t work. You’ve got to try a few times to get phone lines that work, that sort of thing. Making phone calls in India you had to ring up a switchboard operator and say the number. You couldn’t actually dial through from wherever we were, I can’t remember.
B York: And when you left in June 1980 was it?
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: What were the circumstances of you leaving?
C Cartwright: I’d had a fight with Alan Jones.
B York: Oh, please elaborate?
C Cartwright: I wasn’t going to go into that but he wasn’t a terribly pleasant person to work with in the office. He came to the office during the time I was there. When we travelled I used to always go down on a — if we were going to be in Melbourne on a Monday I would go down on a weekend and spend the time with my parents. After two and a half years and working from eight thirty in the morning until midnight or until two am, five days a week, and often on weekends, I was really tired. I was getting to the point of being a little bit bored and thinking, well I’ll stay until the end of the year and save some money. There was this particular time where Mr Fraser was going to be in the Melbourne office on a Monday and I was the duty person for that Monday. The others who — whoever else was travelling hadn’t lived in Melbourne and so was going down on the Monday — whatever I can’t remember. Alan Jones called me on the Saturday to ask me to come to the office and I said “Well, sorry I’m in Canberra. I’m not in Melbourne” and he screamed and yelled at me and told me I was lazy and hopeless and useless. Which, if you’re not tired and exhausted, you could just not worry about — and these days I’d just laugh. But I was particularly hurt by being told I was lazy knowing that I wasn’t. I rang up – there was an Acting Principle Private Secretary at the time Ian McKay, I haven’t thought about him for years. I rang up and left a message for him on his home phone. I said “This is Cheryl and I quit” and hung up. So I stayed for two more weeks and then went — took six months off, went back to school and in that six months I worked as a jillaroo.
B York: Gee, fascinating life you’ve had. And now that Alan Jones what was his position?
C Cartwright: He was a Speech Writer and Advisor.
B York: He is the famous Alan Jones?
C Cartwright: Yes, he’s that Alan Jones. Alan Jones who I bumped into many years later. I was working as a radio journalist. He was at the same function. I think he was the footy coach at the time, or something. I said “Hi Alan, do you remember me?”. He said, he did, and I said, “It’s amazing where we end up, isn’t it?” and he quietly looked me up and down, and he said “It’s amazing where some of us end up”. I haven’t seen him since.
B York: Can we finish today’s session. I’ve just got a few more questions, is that okay?
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: Getting back to the building here. What are your fondest memories of your time here?
C Cartwright: Well, fondest memories…
[End of part 2]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 3
C Cartwright: …in terms of working in the Fraser office?
B York: Yes, that period.
C Cartwright: I think one of the fondest memories is discovering that here I was working for the Prime Minister, this kid from Footscray. Every day being grateful to be here. I remember, I mentioned before, just walking along the corridor, up to the Prime Minister’s office and I remember Tony Street who was very short, running along the corridor with a broom, chasing a mouse. I remember discovering beautiful clothes that women would wear. Very fond memories of working for Petro who was very sympathetic and empathetic and also for Peter Hand. He was just one of the best bosses a Secretary could ever have. It was just great to be there. It was an honour and it was a privilege and I never lost that sense so I really appreciated being there. I guess, if I wasn’t as shy I would have actually made conversation with the Prime Minister which is the sort of thing I’d do now, but I was still thinking, I’m just a kid from Footscray, he can’t possibly want to talk to me, so I was very quiet.
B York: Having asked about fond memories, I’ll ask about the opposite, other memories that we could call the worst memories you’ve got of the place?
C Cartwright: As I’ve said, my memory plays tricks on me because I very rarely remember the really bad things and I don’t have bad memories of working in Malcolm Fraser’s office. Other than, okay there might have been one or two unpleasant personalities but that only pops to the surface when you really try to think about it. So, as a general rule there weren’t — it wasn’t a bad place to work. I think I got bored working in the general typing area and that’s why I took the job as the secretary for the Department Liaison person because I was bored working in the secretarial area.
B York: Was that also a promotion?
C Cartwright: It wasn’t seen as such. I remember the other girls thinking — why did I want to do that because they had more direct involvement with the Prime Minister and writing his speeches whereas working for the departmental person it was more administrative. But, it’s like a lot of those jobs that look a little bit quieter than they might be, there was a lot of interesting things to do. Also, as I said, I think — I’m pretty sure Peter Hand would support it, I became a bit of a right hand person to him, helping him with his job, with administrative things. I remember getting him on a plane when the flight was all booked. I remember, I had this favourite person at Ansett Airlines who I always called and we used to chat a lot. So, of course it — I don’t know what sort of system they had at Ansett then, maybe they had primitive computers, who knows. But there used to be a way — if the booking person from Ansett was on the phone at the time someone cancelled a booking they could whip in and grab that seat straight away. I used to keep this guy on the phone until somebody pulled out, getting people on a flight. That again, was a bit of determination, but you could do that while you were working of course.
B York: Well, look Cheryl thank you very much for today’s session.
C Cartwright: Thanks for being interested.
B York: I’ll look forward to continuing another day.
C Cartwright: Thank you, I’m honoured.
[End of part 3]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 4
B York: Today is the 9th March 2010 I’m continuing interview with Cheryl Cartwright. Our previous and first session was on the 2nd September, 2009. The interview is continuing with me Barry York. Cheryl were you able to listen to the previous session at all and do you have any comments, or areas that you’d like to elaborate.
C Cartwright: Yes, I did Barry, it’s kind of strange listening to yourself talk about old times but I think most of what I recall was there. You did ask a little about systems and while I was very much a junior in the office, I did have a chance to think a little about some of the systems that I was involved in. There was — in those days we used to rely a lot of shorthand, those of us who were able to do shorthand, but also — and again not computers and so all of the letters had to be typed on typewriters, using lots of whiteout and things like that.
One of the systems I do recall with correspondence. While most correspondence, major issues were handled by the department and then filtered up through the Prime Minister’s office as is the case now with Prime Ministers and Ministers. Quite often the initial response was — some of the smaller responses could be done with the personal touch from the Prime Minister and those were drafted by, I think she would have been called an Office Manager before Cathy Quealy there was Malcolm Hazell who eventually did come back working for John Howard in a similar role. Cathy would draft up brief responses and we had to fill in the gaps and — as the typing pool provide those personal touch letters from the Prime Minister. I can’t recall the details of what they were about, but it was clear that there was a sense that either the person was important or the issues was important to the Prime Minister personally. So he wanted people to know that he had signed a personal letter in response. Sometimes there was going to be follow-up by the department or by another person or by the Prime Minister, depending on the issue. So there was that.
The other thing that I did recall was, on occasion the speeches were drafted from the start, originated in the Prime Minister’s office whereas usually you’d work from a draft that had been put together by the bureaucracy. I do recall once or twice, Petro Giorgiou who could come up with a speech off the top of his head. He would have two of us, taking it in turns, going in taking shorthand as he spoke, going out and typing up while the other one was doing the shorthand and alternating for a while speech.
Other times, I might have already mentioned speeches were often worked on late into the night. We often went up to the Lodge. There is a little alcove there up some stairs where the typist would go and the speech writer would bark out commands, depending on which speech writer. Sometimes they were polite, and dictate changes or make changes, or the Prime Minister himself would come in and talk to you over your shoulder while you were typing.
B York: Did that actually happen to you?
C Cartwright: Oh yes, several times.
B York: Thanks for that Cheryl. In the previous session we ended up where you had moved to work as Secretary to the Department of Liaison person, I think?
C Cartwright: Oh yes, I changed roles, it was still in the Prime Minister’s office but the Liaison Officer was the second job that I had in the Prime Minister’s office, working to the DLO and in those days there was one DLO. I think there are two or three or more now, that was Peter Hand. He was an excellent boss to work for because he knew that I would be bored with just typing so he gave me lots of little minor management roles to undertake so that was good.
B York: I don’t want to leap ahead too much but is it a good time now to ask, how you ended up in the Press Gallery.
C Cartwright: Yes, there is a kind of a link, in a way. I left mid-year in 1980 I think and took six months off, went jillarooing and all sorts of things, but I also knew that no secretarial job was ever going to be interesting again and I needed to do something else so I went back to school. I went to uni which I’d not done before. I went back as a mature aged student at twenty-five years of age. After a couple of false starts I ended up doing Journalism because I always loved writing. In my final year of university, instead of looking around for secretarial jobs to get some extra cash, I thought I’d go door knocking in the Canberra Press Gallery. I knew where it was, security wasn’t around at the time. The security guards still remembered me, the few who were there. So during the mid-year break I thought even if I get to type on the telex machine, which is those old machines they use, there were no computers in the old building at the time. They were moving up to the new building within a few years so not many of the organisations actually introduced computers, even though they were used elsewhere.
So I thought if I was there typing on a telex machine I thought I’d be where the action was, so I went door knocking in the Press Gallery, which is pretty scary when you’re just a kid. The second door that I knocked on David Kidd, I think he died about ten years ago, I think, from the Weekly Times, said, “Well, I’m on leave next week, you can do my job”. So my first job in the Press Gallery was the national political correspondent for the Weekly Times. It was pretty scary at the time. I managed to get the whole front page. That’s the old orange comic so the front cover was usually just a picture of some kind. The whole front page was lots of stories about things that were happening in Canberra. I didn’t get a byline but after that the orange comic came out the next week and it had my stories on the front page.
I took those around to The Australian. It’s amazing when you’re young you just have so much front – took them around to The Australian and Russell Schneider was the boss at The Australian at the time. I said “I can do shorthand and these are the stories that I’ve done in my first week in journalism. Could I get a part-time job, or fill-in, or is there anything I can do here”. He said “Come back next week and wear a dress”. They were trying to be conservative in those days so I had to go and buy one because I’d thrown them all away. So I ended up then working at The Australian two or three days a week before I’d finished my Journalism degree.
B York: And you were doing the degree at ANU?
C Cartwright: No, ANU didn’t have one. I did it at the Canberra College of Advanced Education, which is Canberra Uni now. Also, at twenty-five I think I couldn’t get in as a mature-aged student at ANU but I could at CAE. So that was the other reason I chose it.
B York: Do you think your work in Fraser’s office helped prepare you for political journalism?
C Cartwright: I think it did in the sense that I had an understanding, having had no education in politics and no discussions in the home, it actually gave me an understanding about two Houses of parliament. The negotiations to get legislation through parliament. The other thing that was unbelievably helpful was my shorthand. I could do shorthand verbatim, while most journalists were relying on tape recorders. I developed a system of two columns on my note pad and when I had an exact quote I put a little tick or a cross next to it. When it was a really important line there was another little code. So if I had the exact quote I could use the exact quote, if it wasn’t the exact quote I had enough information to know what they were saying and still write the story from that. So that saved me a lot of time in interviews. They only problem there was, at a doorstop where you’re standing up trying to take down notes was a little difficult. The first doorstop I tried to do with the note pad and no tape recorder was a John Howard doorstop and he never, ever, ever stuck to the script. For ever after that I borrowed someone’s tape recorder because it was just too hard to keep up with somebody like John Howard.
B York: Do you remember the type of tape recorders that were used back then?
C Cartwright: Oh, I don’t know what they were called, but the old cassette recorders. The mini cassettes, I think, were starting to come in but they were mainly the old cassettes.
B York: And how long were you with The Australian?
C Cartwright: I did that for six months, while I finished the degree, and at the end of the year I was negotiating with The Australian to get a Cadetship and then I was approached by AAP, Australian Associated Press, who offered me a D-Grade in Journalism. None of it was very good money in those days but as a new journalist you’d work for nothing just to get a job. I waited – the prestige of working for the Australian compared with working for AAP doing a lot of — a lot more work. A lot more work behind the scenes, which other journalists used to base their stories on, or fill in their stories. I figured that the ripe old age of twenty-seven I really did need to learn about politics and reporting quickly. I’ve just realized, I must have left at twenty-three or twenty-four and started uni. But at the ripe old age of twenty-seven I decided that I needed to learn quickly to catch up with all these older people who were there before me. And even a lot of younger people, who were there before me, because they’d been in journalism from about seventeen. So I chose to work for the AAP on the basis that I would have to do a lot, lot more work and I would learn a lot, a lot more quickly, which was the right decision in the end.
B York: And you were actually based in the Press Gallery.
C Cartwright: Oh yes, in a little office — I don’t if they’ve finished the renovations yet, so you can see it. The office was so tiny that when we had the extra troops in from Melbourne and Sydney when parliament was sitting there were so many people in the office it was standing room only. There weren’t enough seats to go around. There were only three phone lines in and we had to brush past each other to walk around the office, it was so crowded. OH&S wouldn’t have applied there and I suspect that the rules weren’t as strict. It was a real fire hazard in those days but it made for some interesting debates, general camaraderie in the end but a lot of high tension when people were working on stories and trying to get them out. At AAP it wasn’t online of course, it was the on-line equivalent of the day, so we would write a story competing with radio. So we would have to get back and put out a quick few lines for radio and then do our stories for newspapers.
B York: And how would you get the copy to the…
C Cartwright: Oh they had computers, very, very old fashioned computers that generated a lot of RSI which we don’t hear of now. A lot of people came down with RSI because of those computers and it killed my eyesight. The black screen with the green letters on it was really, really bad for my eyesight. It deteriorated twenty-fold while I was working there but I didn’t care I had a job. I was at Parliament House. I was breaking stories. The nice thing about AAP, I had a real taste, although I did have a little bit of the taste at the Australian of breaking stories and that was what I loved about journalism, getting the story that they didn’t want out. Because it was AAP you could put it on the wires very early and so it would be running on radio, and radio would be following it. When we would break a story that was not a radio story, it was so big that you wanted to hold it for the newspaper. We would try to hold it until as late as possible in the evening, because it was AAP and it went on the wires, quite often our breaking stories the journalists would see it and then ring up a few sources and then they would have the stories for themselves with their bylines. But if we held off long enough and got our timing right we could get our own stories in the newspapers with our bylines.
B York: Were there any journalists who had a particular impact on you, like mentoring in any way or sense?
C Cartwright: I had a couple of mentors but — and AAP was good for that but I didn’t — mentoring wasn’t really a strong focus in those days. It certainly much more part of the workplace now. Having said that, one mentor, I guess who became a very good friend — when at AAP we would have to cover all of parliament so while all the journalists were in there for Question Time we would have to have one person in each Chamber for the whole session. So we divided that up, I think in Reps they might have three or four people doing it. I ended up covering the Senate. I found it fascinating learning about the legislative process and learnt a lot about the Senate, that was really useful. But a lot of it was really tedious debate as well, but we would rotate the three of us. We would have thirty minutes in the Senate and then an hour out of the Senate to write our stories while the other two were in there doing their thirty minutes.
Claire Arthurs was a young journo, a few years younger than me, who had a lot more experience because she had been working for AAP for a couple of years by now. So she gave me the basics about — never doing a story that you don’t follow-up — at least you write something the following day. There was a follow-up, at least if someone out there happened to be interested they’d know that something came of it. Also there was a Sub-Editor in Canberra, who was brought to Canberra when parliament was sitting and Sub-Editor in Sydney so that all our stories were, kind of, turned into Journalese by the time they came out, and they were turned around very quickly. The computers — you were able to have the split screen so I would check every story of mine that went out to see what changes were made so that I would learn to write in Journalese I didn’t learn a lot of that at university, which is a shame. So I learnt a lot from following things up with people. I always, have had a tendency to ask a lot of questions so there was a certainly amount of guidance just because I would ask questions of people who had been there for a while. But that was — reporting the Senate was another occasion where the shorthand was unbelievably helpful. The other journalists would be running a tape. The proceedings would be broadcast into the office and so people’s tapes would be sitting on the speakers’ in the office while they were in the Chamber taking notes. So they would have to come back and scroll back through the tape to get their stories and because I had shorthand when I came back I could write and I could type at a hundred words a minutes. So I could write my story and get it out in ten minutes. That gave me fifty minutes before I was due back in the Chamber to follow-up any leads I had and that was how I ended up breaking some stories along the way while I was working at AAP.
B York: Is there a particular story you’d like to relate?
C Cartwright: It’s hard to remember, there were quite a few. When they’re lost in the mists of time you realize that they weren’t terribly relevant but they were relevant for those five minutes of fame. One was the establishment of the centre-left faction of the ALP. I managed to get that story and run it when that was being debated. A few people had said, when I came back to the office, a few people had heard about it but hadn’t had it confirmed. So I got it confirmed and broke that story. Of course the centre-left — I think it reached its demise in the last few years so it was a strong part of the Labor Party and it was a reflection of the Independents getting together as well, and forming a block in the Labor Party.
I used to get — and these are little stories, these days we hear a lot about people tweeting and sending text messages from the Party meetings, particularly from Caucus and the Backbench meetings from the other side. I had one of the Caucus members who used to phone me from the Caucus Room and give me a tip-off from what was happening in the Caucus Room. One particular time, there was an announcement that Neal Blewett was Health Minister, he’d made in Caucus and I got this phone call. I don’t know how this politician managed to find his way to the phone but, without being seen, he’d given me this story and because I could type quickly by the time Minister Blewett had finished explaining this to the Caucus and as he was saying, this should not be leaked to the media. The AAP screen of highlights was rolling behind him with his announcement. Apparently, that was quite — I was quite chuffed when I found that out. As a journalist you really do love breaking stories.
B York: Did you find you had freedom as a journalist to get your basic information published?
C Cartwright: Yes, in the Old Parliament House, well getting it published. With AAP it, kind of, went out into the ether and we had some terrific people who’d scan all of the papers and the regional papers took a lot of our work because they couldn’t afford to have a journalist in Canberra. So a lot of our work with appear with a byline in regional papers. One of my favourites was the Geelong Advertiser because they always gave us a byline, they were very good. One of the nice things at AAP – you have your fair amount of egos in journalism, but at AAP in those days, when the clippings were sent up from Sydney we always were congratulated when we got our bylines in the newspapers. Whereas for a journalist writing for a paper on a daily basis would get their byline in the paper all the time. At AAP you earned it and it was either a breaking story or sometimes we did comment pieces which would be picked up by the regional papers. It was a nice thing to do.
As for getting the stories. The Old Parliament House, you could feel a story, if there was something brewing. You could feel it happening because it was so crowded the little offices were shared by — I used to hang around the Senate offices a fair bit. There was no foyer, there was only one room, a tiny little room with one and often two Senators in it with a staffer. I don’t even recall them having more than one Staffer there at a time there was just not the room. So you’d knock on the door, you’d go in and you’d see who they were talking to. Sometimes you’d even have a story just from that. A few times I actually knocked on the door and found another journalist in there, chasing a story as well. Yes, it was a lot, lot easier to get stories in those days.
B York: Shall we move on to your broadcast journalism, is that appropriate at this stage?
C Cartwright: Sure, yes, after, I think it was two and a half years, or two years at AAP I felt the need to experience something different. I decided to try for radio and I ended up spending three months at the local ABC, out on Northbourne Avenue. That was okay, I managed to — it was my first taste of proper journalism outside of Parliament House but I was pretty keen to get back to Parliament House. I did enjoy it for the experience but once you’ve had a taste of politics you want to get back there. But I managed to work out that when parliament was sitting the journalists and politicians would be listening to local ABC news at 7.45 before the AM program. So if I had a breaking story, because I was always trying to do that, I would save it up for the 8.45 am news when parliament was sitting.
I had a couple of stories, because I had some local contacts, about the bar at Old Parliament House which was a fabulous place for getting stories because everybody congregated around the Bar at Old Parliament House and you couldn’t get to the phone because there was an SP Bookie using it.
B York: Is that right?
C Cartwright: Yes, I didn’t even know. I was a kid. I hardly even knew what an SP Bookie was but I knew it was something that shouldn’t be there. But I got in trouble when I tried to phone through a story from the Bar one time because I was using up the one phone line. I had a couple of stories about the Bar where — one of them was, they’d closed it for fumigation on a Friday but had left some of the beer glasses out. So that would have been a bit of a health scare, a total beat up, but I saved it for when the politicians came back to Canberra and the journalists were actually listening to it. Three months after I went to — I had a couple of stores like that — three months after I went to local ABC I had a phone call from 2GB saying did I want to come up to the Parliament House Bureau. I was to be their number two reporter in a three person Bureau. The senior report was John Stanley who now has his own program in Sydney. The other guy was Michael Cavanagh and then it was Steve Spencer and they’ve both gone on and done other things, but I was the middle one. So, the Senior Reporter did the big stories, the comment pieces, the Q&A, the talkback with the different programs around the place. The junior person did the little stories from the Press Releases. My job was, go and find stories and break stories. So it was a combination — I touched on the small stories, I touched on the bigger stories. I was allowed to go around and talk to people, find out stuff, and break stories. So I had lots of stories about — I had stories coming out of the Shadow Cabinet meetings when the Libs were in Opposition then. I had a few of those but that also set me up for when I was Managing a political office because one time, I think it was, some Liberals were crossing the floor on a particular policy issue, I can’t even remember the issue, because as a journalist I was more interested in breaking the story than in what the actual story was. I knocked on one of the Senator’s doors, said, hey I’ve got this story from Shadow Cabinet, is it true? The Senator wasn’t there but his offsider was, but his offsider said, “Oh my gosh, that’s the first time a story’s been leaked out of Shadow Cabinet” so that was my confirmation. So when I eventually was running an office the — whoever was answering the phones was told, if a journalist asks you any question at all, you act completely stupid and say nothing, because they might be finding out something from you. That worked most time, one time we did get caught out, it was quite funny.
I also managed, it wasn’t my doing, I have to say. The very first balanced Budget that Paul Keating had we broke that on air at three or four o’clock in the afternoon. It was under embargo, journalists were in lock-up until later that evening when the Treasurer went into parliament but we managed to get that. The two guys were in the lock-up. I was just outside trying to find stories and still based in our office at Parliament House. I had a phone call from one of the other lock-ups where there wasn’t security and they didn’t want to sheet it back home to that other lock-up, so I had to confirm it. The building was so small that you couldn’t run from one side to the other. The 2GB office was on the Senate side of the building. I ran over to the Reps side of the building to try to check with the Treasurer’s staff and found one of the Treasurer’s staff in the stairwell. Yelled out down the stairwell, “I’ve got the story Tom” and I could tell. Sometimes you don’t need a confirmation, yes or no, you just need the look on the face. I saw that and I thought, I’ve got it. That was one of the exciting times in a small — one of the benefits of having such a tiny office where the desk was one step from the Booth. I had phoned through and said I had the story and we had less than five minutes going to air to the news. We had a couple of minutes to the news, I can’t remember how long. The guy who was putting the news together said “We will do an intro for you. You just make sure you’ve got your story ready. So, we had these little portable typewriter things and I was typing my story and he said “Listen to the news, when you hear Cheryl Cartwright reports, jump in, put the headphones on, start speaking, you’re going live into the news”, as a news report, not as a talk back kind of thing, so I had to sound sensible. I was very proud of myself for that one. I think I had one little um in it which they edited out and they were able to use that report. I was typing and I heard, and in Canberra blah blah blah Cheryl Cartwright reports, in one step I’d jump from the chair into the Booth, headphones on, push the switch, started speaking. You cannot get that kind of adrenaline outside politics. Mind you, I’m sure you can but it’s just one of those really amazingly exciting moments that stays with you. Obviously, because of what the story was, the story stays with me but there were quite a few moments like that. Especially with radio if you are breaking a story you want to get it to air as soon as possible to beat the other stations. Because, we had what was called ‘Radio Alley’ and there was 2WS and 2UE and also they broadcast out to other stations around the country as well, so it wasn’t just the Sydney stations. So we were competing against those, you were competing against your colleagues.
B York: Any anecdotes, further anecdotes about ‘Radio Alley’?
C Cartwright: There was great camaraderie in ‘Radio Alley’. It might be because there were actually quite a few women there but also while we were competing against each other there wasn’t a lot of bitchiness or aggression. It was quite friendly, it was friendly competition, which is interesting because in television, when competing in television, it was much bitchier if you beat someone to a story and they would try to discredit it. With this group, and I think that’s just a personality thing, the people who happened to be there at the time. The people who were there at the time were complimentary, you’ve got a story, great one, we’ll beat you with the next one but help us with the story. Where breaking the balanced Budget they couldn’t get it confirmed and the other stations actually went to air with the story, having me confirm it, which was a bit naughty on their part, but they were under pressure to go air with something. I said “It’s genuine, it’s true, it’s a balanced Budget” and what it ended up being was like a ten million deficit, or ten million surplus, or something like that so it was qualified as a balanced Budget.
As an aside, one of the interesting things, I’ve got some friends who are a bit younger than me in the Press Gallery now. When I told them the story one time they said “Oh did we used to have deficit Budgets?”. You realize how old you are when that happens.
B York: What was your relationship like with the politicians when you were in this building?
C Cartwright: It was good generally, it was very good. There were some politicians who were a little uncomfortable talking to. There was one in particular who, when you went to his little office, a very small office, you had to sit on a couch and he was known for his attraction to — this politician was known for his attraction – that particular politician, I suspect that I shouldn’t name names because he is still alive. He had a really bad reputation for his attraction to young female journalists. Even though I was in my twenties I was pretty naive and very nervous and I would feel incredibly compromised sitting on this couch in his office trying to interview him. He never, ever made a pass at me, possibly because I looked so terrified. So there were those kind of occasions but generally politicians and the media at Parliament House get along reasonably well. It just needs to be managed properly. As long as the journalist does the right thing by the politician and visa-versa they have a good working relationship where I had been told and I still, now get told things that I shouldn’t share and you don’t share them. Even as a journalist I wouldn’t break a faith if somebody had told me something in confidence. However, you can use that information to inform your judgement on a story and that’s a subtlety that is sometimes not understood and that exists now. But when that breaks down and when that’s not understood that’s where the relationships between politicians and journalists break down.
B York: I can imagine though that you would inevitably end up writing a report that a politician wasn’t happy with, like it wasn’t what they were hoping to convey.
C Cartwright: That didn’t happen to me in Canberra. The politicians in Canberra were a little more switched on than State. I did State politics for a little while after this job. I didn’t need to break a confidence, no. I didn’t break a confidence, but yes I did upset John Howard one time and he never forgave me. But what I’d said was actually fair but because of my style, I tend to be very direct. So mine was the first report about the poor handling of Question Time one time. Now that wasn’t a report, that was a Q&A, the senior journalist in 2GB at the time he must have been away doing something else. I was doing the Q&A and I was talking about how the Opposition hadn’t made the most of Question Time and at that time John Howard was leader and I was probably a little more harsh than I needed to be. John Howard rang the station immediately after that an accused me of being biased and unfair and a lackey of the Labor Party. He did eventually have a very strong understanding of the media. I think he was still learning in those days, as I was still learning to develop my contacts in those days. I didn’t have strong contacts…
[End of part 4]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 5
C Cartwright: …with him that was judgement as an observer of Question Time and it was a news story, it was a comment piece that he wasn’t happy with and considering that I ended up working for him in the ’96 election campaign, that appointment was made before he realized it. He always remembered that report and I don’t think he ever forgave me for it.
So, the other kind of anecdotes with, the way, the structure of the building at the time. To get from the Senate side to the Reps side at that top level, the building was so small, everyone was crowded, there was some House of Reps politicians on the top floor, on the Reps side. But the Press Gallery was spread over two sides of parliament. To get from one side to the other, there was basically a walkway across the roof of Parliament House. I suspect it would still be there and I hope they’ve preserved it because it was how we got from — when I was working AAP covering the Senate, late at night, in the middle of Canberra’s winter, walking across that walkway in the freezing cold to get to the Chamber to report the Senate. And the same as on working in ‘Radio Alley’ on Senate side getting across the Reps we would often use that. But, of course, there were two lifts, one on each building and you could use the lifts but they were a bit slow and I was terribly fit in those days. I always used the stairs.
Another, it’s one thing about having a competitive nature, with radio a lot of the Press Conferences were held down in the bowels of the Reps side, the bottom floor under where the Treasurer’s office was, I think. Somewhere around there, from vague recollections, so radio journalists at those Press Conferences would be always watching their clocks because they’d be racing each other back to be the first to get their story into the news bulletin, while making sure that the others didn’t get their story into the news bulletin. I was quite fit so I would run back across to the Senate site and run up the stairs. The stairs ran around the lift and if you do a tour of Parliament House you can see how the stairs run around the lift. I would push the buttons on the lift to stop the lift on the way up, that the other journalists were in. So on my way up the stairs I would hear the lift stop and the doors open, and the ‘FU Cartwright!!’ coming up the stairwell because I’d stopped the lift on the way up and I’d run to the top of the stairs to get my story in first. I don’t think I ever beat anyone to air that way but I certainly made their job a little bit harder.
B York: Was that top area used in other ways, as well, like in better weather, in summer?
C Cartwright: No, there is only offices there, there is nothing else there. The offices overlooked the roof.
B York: But I mean the walkway that you were…
C Cartwright: The walkway was about as wide as one person. Everything was very rudimentary.
B York: You’ve mentioned to me before the interview last time an anecdote you have about Barry Jones in ‘Radio Alley’?
C Cartwright: Oh, in ‘Radio Alley’, yes sorry, the office being so small the 2GB office being so small. Now that’s being renovated and I do hope they keep it exactly the same as it was, just to show how difficult it was to actually work there. It was so small that two sides of the office had a desk that wasn’t terribly wide, maybe eighteen inches wide, across two walls that we used, all three of us used. If the three of us were sitting at that desk at the same time we couldn’t move the chairs, that’s how small the office was. Then on the other wall, were two recording booths. You needed two booths because we were doing news and current affairs so it was quite a task working for Macquarie Radio at that time. Those were the booths where we also brought the politicians in for interviews. The more rotund politicians such as Barry Jones. I can recall almost levering him into that booth, it was so, so tight, and very uncomfortable. I don’t recall the ABC booths at the time, the other booths but I’m pretty sure they were all quite small.
B York: Is there any other memories of the Press Gallery period that are worth sharing?
C Cartwright: Probably, try a few names to get me moving.
B York: Well what about Bob Hawke, for instance, did you have any contact with him as Prime Minister?
C Cartwright: Yes, yes a lot.
B York: I ask because we’ve got the Australian Prime Minister’s Centre here and we’re always interested in learning more about the Prime Ministers.
C Cartwright: Yes, I was there when he went to cry on demand when the microphones were there. We did a lot of Press Conferences in the Anteroom near the Prime Minister’s Office. And the way the Prime Minister’s Office is set up now, is the way that Bob Hawke had it, not the way that Malcolm Fraser had it. We would come in to that Press Conference and all set up – it was very small and so for radio journos your arms would get very tired holding up the microphones. We would have to be in close and we’d all be set up when the Prime Minister came in through the walkway there.
The other thing we used to be able to do at Old Parliament House, is they couldn’t escape. There were four doors that they came out of that we could catch them. There was the front door and the steps, of course. There was the Senate and Reps doors and there was the backdoor to the Prime Minister’s office. A really big story the journalists would actually share the information, and they still do this now, when required and when possible. The TVs would be split and spread around the different entrances as with the radio so we would share the tapes after that. Just to try to catch the people coming and going. So you couldn’t escape the media whereas now the media can’t get in to the car parks underneath and so all they get is the pictures of them driving out.
B York: That remark you made about Bob Hawke crying on demand. Naturally, I’m going to ask whether — was that your genuine feeling as a journalist?
C Cartwright: There was a fair amount of cynicism about it. Yes, he has genuinely concerned and he was genuinely upset the first couple of times — there was one issue when his daughter was involved and — the first of the new age guys who were comfortable, or public new age guys who were comfortable crying on camera. It seems to be accepted now. It just seemed to happen a little too often after that on critical issues. But it got the point across and good luck to him.
B York: I guess you worked, I’m trying to work it out, were you still in journalism when Keating was Prime Minister too?
C Cartwright: That was when I came back and was working at the new Parliament House.
B York: So you had experience of two Prime Ministers as a journalist.
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: Did you gain any insights into character or personality, do you think, with Hawke and Keating?
C Cartwright: Both of them were very good at convincing the journalists they liked them and making the journalists feel that they were special. Perhaps it’s my working class background, I was totally cynical of it all. It’s also possible because I wasn’t part of the inner sanctum of the special journos who had special treatment, but I also know, and I had also seen each of them when journalists weren’t around, say pretty terrible things about journalists, how they didn’t like them. But they were able to build a strong and usual trusting working relationship with journalists.
One thing Paul Keating did when he was first a Backbencher. He went up, and I heard this after I’d got to know some of the older journos when I first started. As a Backbencher he was planning his move to the top job. He introduced himself to the Press Gallery as a new politician and he would visit the Press Gallery and built up strong working relationships, particularly with one young, at the time, Paul Kelly. Who was one of them. The general ones as well, but I think Paul Kelly was his closest confidant. That would have been a case of where that appropriate working relationship is where there is total trust both ways and we stretched that trust from time to time, but you never break it. That was why the senior journalists, like Oakes and Paul Kelly could write really incisive thoughtful pieces without giving away their sources and without saying anything the sources didn’t want them to say. But also using the information, knowing that they were being manipulated and using it to inform their judgement and that’s the way it should work.
B York: Was there a political bias among journalists generally speaking?
C Cartwright: Not intentionally, but what I don’t understand, and it still seems to be there now, even though in those days we were told that the reason that most journalists were supportive of the Labor Party was because of the Whitlam years and the anti-Vietnam movement. Some of the more conservative and more right-wing Labor politicians might have joined the less conservative side of the Liberal Party when they were at university but they were influenced by the Vietnam War and issues of the time and ended up becoming Labor. That would have influenced journalists thinking as well. But I still see a general, it is a bias towards Labor thinking and Labor beliefs but it’s sort of more centre-left, it’s not loopy left. You’ve got your some loopy-left and some loopy-right, obviously, but with good journalists and, I think, most journalists you can’t tell when they report it. Getting a good story from the conservative side of politics accepted by the journalists takes a little more effort than from the left-side of politics. But my argument then has been, especially when I was working in politics, is well, it’s just like being female, you’ve got to be a bit better to get your story up. Even if a journalists doesn’t agree with you, if they like you as a person, even in spite of being conservative, if they like the politician. If the politician is honest about their own beliefs and fair in their dealing with journalists they would get a fair go in the media.
B York: To what extent did you find their editorial influence exerted, did that happen at all, with your political reporting?
C Cartwright: No, no I don’t, certainly not with radio. It was intimated a couple of times when I was like a brand new journalist working at the Australian. The once or twice I actually did a proper, real political story there was some influence on that, but I think that was more because I was a brand new journalist. My job wasn’t reporting politics in those six months that I was at the Australian, it was reporting local real estate stories and doing feature stories which was a great thing to do. So, I didn’t see any political influence, or direction in my stories at all. There would be feedback if I had — if I might have been checking the facts. People check that I had my facts right. I like to think that I always did, although I was always pretty keen to get a breaking story out so I might have cut corners but I don’t recall doing it. It’s one of those things you don’t like to think about but I certainly didn’t have any editorial comment or influence in the stories I was doing, no.
B York: When this building ceased to be the national parliament in 1988 what was your position then?
C Cartwright: I was in Adelaide. One of the things I hate doing is packing boxes and unpacking boxes and moving house, so I left six months before they moved out of the building and came back after they were in the building in 1990. I did cover, in May ’88 the opening of the new Parliament House but we were still reporting from here. Once again that shows the competitive nature. I was working for radio and I ran all the way from new Parliament House to Old Parliament House to get my story up first. Tried not to be puffed out but it was downhill and I was very fit in those days. So yes, I was here for the official opening but not the actual working Press Gallery.
B York: And who were you reporting for?
C Cartwright: 2GB, I was still working, Macquarie Radio Network it was then, national network.
B York: Why did you go to Adelaide, what did you do there?
C Cartwright: One day I was in the corridor and Peter Harvey, from Channel 9 came up to me and said “Oh Cheryl, do you want to go to Adelaide to work for us and cover State politics”, oh yeah. So I packed up to go to Adelaide to learn how to do TV. I don’t think I was ever a great TV reporter because I didn’t have a mentor in TV. I didn’t have anybody coaching me and because I was from Canberra I was pretty forthright. I think they were all too scared to tell me what I was doing wrong. I still broke stories. I broke lots of stories when I was in Adelaide but I don’t think my — the reporting style was okay, but I was in my early thirties by then and I think I had, probably the reporting style of someone in their twenties rather than someone who was actually more mature. On the other hand it was Adelaide and fitted into the Adelaide scene anyway.
B York: Now that was Channel 9?
C Cartwright: That was Channel 9 in Adelaide, yes.
B York: And you stayed with politics?
C Cartwright: I did stay with politics. I covered the election campaign — 1989 election campaign, Andrew Peacock was the leader and so when they came to Adelaide, quite often they didn’t — Channel 9 didn’t send a federal reporter, or if they did I managed to get a gig anyway. Maybe I was just doing it for our local scene, but I was certainly trying to aim for national. So I did, maybe I was doing the second story, instead of the main story for the federal campaign but I certainly covered the federal campaign when it came to Adelaide. I do recall one time Andrew Peacock announcing a literacy, or education policy in a library and he minders hadn’t noticed that he was standing under the Fiction sign so we managed to get that on Channel 9. You’ve just got to be so, so careful.
B York: Can we continue chronologically with how you returned to Canberra and what you did on return?
C Cartwright: Yes, I came back to Canberra. I spent two and a half years in Adelaide and I came back to Canberra for Channel 7. I think I approached them. I think I was missing federal politics. I approached them and said, if anything came up, I’d be interested. The number three position, in a three person bureau at Channel 7 for politics came up, so I moved back to Canberra. That was what we called the ‘doorstop dollie’ job, so you’re on the doors new Parliament House, first thing in the morning, with all the early start. I think it might have been some afternoon newspapers then, but radio and TV, you start on the doors about seven o’clock waiting to catch politicians on their way into the building. Putting eye liner on at six o’clock in the morning, five thirty in the morning, was no fun at all. I’m not a morning person and — we had a pretty rapport on the doors where — some of the cameramen shot the head shots and the grabs and the other cameramen would get the cutaway and they were shared among the TV Bureaus. If we had a particular story we were running we’d ask the question, or the story of the day usually from the Financial Review or one of the other major papers, we would try to get grabs for the story of the day, as it started out. Because I had to do a story for the eleven am news at the time. My hope at the time was that I would have the same role as I had when I was the two person in a three person bureau with radio. That I would get to go out and get stories, unfortunately I tried to do that but I was told that seeing I was only number three person I had to stay behind and answer phones and do the less interesting things. Follow-up things for the other journalists so it wasn’t as much fun as it might have been. It certainly wasn’t intellectually demanding but hey, TVs fun and it was a really, really good experience.
B York: Where were you based? Where was your office?
C Cartwright: In the Bureau at Parliament House, Channel 7 Bureau at Parliament House.
B York: How did the new conditions compare to the old?
C Cartwright: It was hard to break stories, it was harder to get stories. In fact when I was working in Adelaide and — that was when the Andrew Peacock coup against John Howard occurred in the new building. When the building was brand new. I said at the time, even though I was in Adelaide, that could never have happened in the Old Parliament House because the building was so small you’d see who was meeting whom. I think that’s changed a little now because people are more comfortable in the building and it has a few more skeletons. It has a bit more of a character but then it was a brand new building. It felt new. It was difficult to find your way, you couldn’t just go for a wander around the building and snoop out stories. You had to actually have something in mind to knock on doors. Then, when you knock on the door of the Backbencher, they’ve got a reception area, so if they don’t want to see you, they don’t see you. So it’s a lot harder to break stories. I think it’s actually even harder now because there’s more outlets because of new media, with the internet and fewer journalists. So it’s a lot, lot harder to break stories that aren’t just given. There’s always been the calculated leak to break a story and get it into the paper, a particular paper or papers gauge attitude to it, but it’s a lot harder to do now to get stories that people don’t want out.
B York: Now, how long were you with Channel 7?
C Cartwright: Only about eighteen months.
B York: So now were ’93 was it?
C Cartwright: ’91 I left there, yes. They decided I wasn’t good enough so I often joke that I was replaced by a twenty-two year old blonde, but that twenty-two year old blonde, who wasn’t a political reporter at the time was a very, very talented young girl. She is now the editor of the Women’s Weekly, a brilliant, brilliant girl. It was the right choice on their part. I think I’d run my race.
B York: How did they explain that to you?
C Cartwright: Very rudely, that’s the way it operates, we don’t want you, go away.
B York: That is when you ended up working in the political system?
C Cartwright: No, no then I started looking around. I negotiated an extra three months to look around and I also negotiated a payout. They tried to stop that but I managed to get friendly with the accounting department and they made sure that I was okay. I think everybody needs to go through losing their job at some stage. It really — it’s a great — you need all your skills of developing self-belief if you don’t have them, and determination. I was offered a job to work for the ABC in Darwin or the Canberra Times, subbing. I thought I need to learn about subbing. I went to the Canberra Times and had a fabulous time because I was just so determined to learn how the system worked and within — it was an old system. They’ve got a seriously computerized system now but because I could write fast and type fast and everything I did a lot of stories fairly quickly. I knew where apostrophes went, which they were a bit surprised coming from the electronic media, I actually knew, I actually had good grammar. I was so interested in the layout and where the stories went that they actually gave me little jobs of laying out pages within three months instead of the year. So I was really, really keen but then nightshift gets to you after a while and, we were coming up to the 1993 election, where the Hewson Government was going to come in, in ’93 and I went through the list. David Barnett had written a story in the Bulletin about the up and coming, the most likely to succeed Liberal Frontbenchers. I went through the list, looking at Portfolios and the personalities as described and I ended up picking out Alexander Downer and John Howard. John Howard had IR and Alexander Downer had Defence and I love big boys toys and tanks and trucks and things like that so I made an appointment with Downer and who was incredibly shocked that an actual journalist, that wanted to work for the conservatives, so after the election I was to be the Media Advisor for the Defence Minister in a Hewson Government. So here I was on election night 1993 at the Canberra Times watching the result come in, with responsibility — I think it must have been a few of us with responsibility for the election pages. So I had gone up enough in the ranks to have some, not influence, in the stories that went in but part of the production process of the election pages. There were a few journalists getting a bit excited and happy about the result who were quite shocked that I was feeling a bit miserable as I was watching my next career go down the drain.
B York: Were you in the Liberal Party at any time?
C Cartwright: No, no, I think I joined, at one stage when I was moving in Canberra, yes, when I was working for the government in Canberra I joined but I didn’t join when we were in Opposition. Then in government I went to work for the National Party so I decided to let the Liberal Party membership lapse. Not a die-hard party person because as on the conservative side, you say, well you’ve worked for both sides of politics the Liberals and the Nationals. No, anyway after ’93 I ended up back nightshift, Canberra Times but a few months after that Downer was given Shadow Treasury and he asked if I wanted to be the Media Advisor, at about half the salary, it would have been if he was in government.
B York: I’ll pause here — alright well Cheryl thank you so much again for today and I’ll really look forward to an opportunity looking at working for Downer and for Howard next time, and hopefully we can go into the same amount of detail and reflection. But it’s been great today, thank you very much.
C Cartwright: Thank you very much for the opportunity
[End of part 5]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 6
B York: This is a continuation of the interview with Cheryl Cartwright taking place today the 21st February 2011 at Old Parliament House in the Museum of Australian Democracy. Cheryl thanks for continuing with the interview. Last time we reached the point where you had started working for Alexander Downer in Opposition but we didn’t really discuss the nature and routines of that work or any insights into Alexander Downer himself, which we are interested in of course. So can we take it from there.
C Cartwright: Sure, I think, when I first went to work for him I’d not done anything like that before. I’d never had an In tray and an Out tray as a journalist. So it was picking it up as I went but also responding as you do when you work for a politician, you respond to what their career goals are and their failures are. Pretty soon after I started he let me know that as he’d taken the job as Shadow Treasurer because he was wanting to be leader, which would have been a shock to a lot of people because he wasn’t held in terribly high esteem in those days. As I got to watch him operate I discovered that while he needed to be managed because he had a tendency to go off on a tangent and do something, unpredictable things. If you could manage him and get his brain working in the right way, very, very intelligent man, very enthusiastic and not afraid of hard work. So, while I was learning how to be a media and political advisor he was also learning how to campaign to be leader. He’d done a lot of the work. He said after the ‘unlosable election’ in ’93 the day after that he had started courting the wets of the party and he’s softened his right-wing views. It just proceeded from there, so I didn’t start until, I think, the April or May, after the election. But, we started fairly quickly to make some serious changes, which he resisted every single change I tried to impose but he eventually did what I’d suggested. I was operating purely from a gut feel having worked in the Press Gallery knowing that while other leaders, like Hewson and then after him Howard, down the track would use the media outside the Press Gallery to get the point across. The media outside the Press Gallery actually take their cue from the Press Gallery itself. So you’re biggest aim there is to get the opinion leaders in the Canberra Press Gallery to write a feature or say positive things in passing or a major feature. Then, it starts to filter through to the other media. That was the aim.
It was — rather than seeking a headline day to day it was a long term strategy so that nothing he said would be outside the long term plan of credibility and to be statesman like. When you’re a practical joker and you like having a lot of fun it’s really hard to get the twinkle out of the eye and the grin off the face when you’re talking about serious matters. Because I had a good working relationship with the Press Gallery it worked pretty well. I spent — I’d be up in the Gallery nearly every day just wandering through. Sometimes it would take five minutes and sometimes it would take a couple of hours depending on what stories were around and the feedback I was getting. Now, media advisors in the current government, when they ask me what to do I tell them “Just go to the Press Gallery and talk to people”. Just building up a rapport with the journalists. If they are eye balling you every day and they feel a sense, not necessarily friendship, but camaraderie, if they are doing a tough story they’ll let you know but they’ll also soften it a little bit. They don’t realize they are but they are softening it, if they know you. It’s amazing that in any government there are only one or two media advisors who spend time in the gallery and they’re seen as the best media advisors. Again, it was just a gut feel that was the way to do it.
Then there were lots of little tricks that you do. When you’re working from opposition you don’t have a lot to announce so you have to get in on the back of other stories. So, whatever somebody says, and Shadow Treasury is a good portfolio to have, whatever the government announces, or whatever stats come up from the ABS the Shadow Treasurer can say something. If you say it at the right time with the right grab you’ll keep getting a run. When he first told me he wanted to be leader, I said “Give it a couple of years, and we’ll have a two year plan”. He was leader a year later. Obviously, I can’t take full credit for it because the guy actually put the work in. He did all the lobbying with the backbenches and with his party he learnt. He was very good at media, just needed a little bit of a rounding out. He’s got the brains to do it. It’s a real shame that it didn’t work when he did become leader, but he was a very, very good Shadow Treasurer.
B York: Was there an occasion where you had a significant meeting where you sit down and you devise a strategy of the type you’ve described, or does it just happen?
C Cartwright: It, sort of, evolves but you do — the offices are so small. It was him and me. We had an economic advisor and that was the only staff he officially had but he moved one of his electorate positions to Canberra just to do general office work and filing. The strategy — he said this is what he wanted, then we would just go through, sometimes on a daily basis, well this is what you need to do to get there. Today you are saying X or — he would know what he wanted to say, then I would tailor it to be palatable to the media for the longer term plan so he would retain credibility. Remember this is a time during an economic upturn, so he had to welcome economic figures.
He was a bit of a joker from time to time, we did have some negative figures one day and he was dancing around the office saying “Yay, I can say something negative at long last”. But what he was able to do was welcome the figures but he would always be able to find something that was a possible problem. Watch for this because Labor doesn’t manage this sort of thing very well. So he’d have a credible comment and it would just be on the back of things but what we ended up doing, which was a little bit naughty but we had lunch with all the radio journalists at one stage. Again this was good for getting the journalists to know that this was a fun guy, good brains, cracked jokes all during lunch, and it just so happened that they were all females, except for one. We made a girl’s lunch with all my female journo friends so there were a couple of TV journos but mainly radio. Out of that came a lament that it was really difficult to get a grab from the Opposition, the ABS stats when they came out at 11.30 and they needed something for the midday news. I said “Well that means if we do that, he’s not going to have time to absorb all the details. So it’s just going to be a fairly bland grab. If I roll him out for you for that, then you’re not to ask a difficult questions, all you’re doing is getting wallpaper for the news. A gap filler”, not a problem. So for the radio only, we used to sneak up the back way at new Parliament House, we’d sneak up the back way, into one of the radio offices. I would have sent a note around somehow — I rang them because we didn’t have email or mobile phones when I was there. We certainly didn’t have mobile phones and sending texts in those days. I guess I would have just rang one or two of the main 2GB or 2UE then the radio journos would come to that office with their microphones ready at ten minutes — the figures came out at half past eleven, ten to twelve they’d have their microphones out, wheeled him up there, gave a fairly bland grab, about whatever the stats were and then he’d be running on radio all afternoon. Then he would then do, what they didn’t stick to — when we have a proper press conference at four o’clock you’ve got to turn up, well they didn’t but the TVs and print turned up to that. They hadn’t found out what we were doing. That worked well.
The other thing we did to get on the back of other stories was, we used the half hour time difference, Adelaide and Canberra, so Sunday mornings I would watch ‘Business Sunday’, thankfully in those days there was only one TV broadcast to watch on a Sunday. I’d watch ‘Business Sunday’ get a gist, yeah, I think we’ve got a story here and call him, half an hour, because he was half an hour behind, I’d say, “Watch this I think you can get something out of it”. He would come up with the line, then we’d polish it. We’d organise a doorstop, now he lived in the Adelaide Hills, the TVs are based in Adelaide, so we found a spot, it’s no longer there. The Eagle on the Hill, it’s a pub, okay car park Eagle on the Hill pub twelve midday or eleven thirty. One of his kids would go down with a tape recorder and tape it and then as he was going — we’d talk all the way there, so that he’d have the lines right. But as I said, he knew what he wanted to say, I was just polishing it. Had the lines right, had the grabs and so that when — so on his way back he would play the tape and because I’d been a secretary I would type up the transcript, leave a couple of bad words out, a couple of phrases out I didn’t like in it. Type up the transcript and then go up to the Press Gallery and hand it around in time for the newspapers to run it the next day. So the transcript carries a heck of a lot more weight than a Press Release because you’ve actually go the words. Because sometimes we actually got a really good story up it would actually boost the story from ‘Business Sunday’ to a normal national story and sometimes it would get a run on all of the four TV stations on the Sunday night because they are always looking for a story and most of the papers on the Monday. That was just a slog. We did that every weekend. If there was nothing you didn’t make it up because you’d have to retain credibility. So there were lots of little things we did like that that we did constantly. He was always — I know his family used to get cranky but I would drag him away from a family lunch and so “Okay we’ve got to do something because we can get you some coverage on this” and he would always, always do it. He was keen he was always happy to work hard.
B York: It sounds like a successful campaign.
C Cartwright: Yes, it was successful, he ends up being leader, much to everybody’s shock. At the start – he actually relates a story. I’d forgotten I’d said it. I tend to be fairly frank and he’d ask me when I first started, what did the Press Gallery think of him and I said “They think you’re an idiot”. He was a little taken aback by that, but it was true. Laurie Oakes gave me a hard time one time because he had written in his Bulletin column, when Downer became Shadow Treasurer, This guy is an idiot, what a stupid choice. At the end of his Shadow Treasury reign, he had to write and say he was wrong. Then Downer became leader he wrote a piece saying, don’t underestimate this guy, he could be a fabulous leader. Then it all fell over so he teased me about making him wrong twice.
B York: How did you find Downer as a person, can you talk about his qualities and character at all?
C Cartwright: As I said, he could be a lot of fun and challenging and very, very happy to work hard, really keen to work hard and that was good. But, a lot of the time he was an absolute nightmare to work for and not having worked for a politician before I didn’t realize that there were some who were good to work for. So, there was a lot of negative feedback and a lot of anger and frustration because I was trying to change things. On the other hand, I could have just not been as stubborn as I am, because I could see the goal and I was aiming for the goal. He didn’t like the changes when I was trying to make the changes and tell me so in no uncertain terms with lots of language. So, if I was perhaps a little, not as stubborn I might have succumbed I might have done things his way. He would possibly have still been leader but not as fast.
B York: When and why did you leave the job with Downer?
C Cartwright: Well, it was a different job. When he became leader I certainly didn’t have the skills to be a Chief of Staff in those days, so I stayed on as media advisor. He made some bad choices. He needed — what people hadn’t seen was the need to manage him strongly and firmly. Highly skilled but erratic and he made some bad choices with the people who were more likely when he lost his temper to back off and agree with him rather than stay there and keep arguing until he finally succumbed. So while it worked with me being strong, when he was Shadow Treasurer, it developed my strength and stubbornness to the point where I’ve had to learn to tone that back in future jobs. But it was, certainly with him — other people who he did get in weren’t strong enough until — I’ve always said this, about three or four months before he finally succumbed, because, I think he only had a good time for about six months, three to six months before things started going pear shaped.
They finally moved the person who was running the office and brought in a young fellow called Brian Loughnane who is now running the Liberal Party. Brian was there for the last three or four months and I felt that if Brian would have been there right from the start, he was much better in managing him. He might have lasted longer, he might have crashed and burned eventually but he would have lasted a lot longer. Then maybe he would have lasted until the election and done a ‘Latham’, who knows. So, you just don’t know those things. But Brian was brilliant and I always said, because it was only a short time when I ended up working for him as Chief of Staff. If ever I had another chance to work for him I would and later on I recruited him to be my boss, that’s another story down the track.
So, he was really hard because when he was leader because Opposition Leader isn’t a job for the faint hearted. You’ve got to be strong and stable and compassionate, they’ve got to be everything and also have good people behind them. Having been a staffer, perhaps I rate the staff a bit more highly than I should, but if you see a leader, or a politician making mistakes their staff are letting them down, as well as themselves. As an example, as an aside, Cheryl Kernot failed badly when she joined Labor. The reason she didn’t fail when she was leader of the Democrats she had amazing staff then, and you couldn’t tell that is was the staff who were keeping her on track, so the same thing happened with Downer.
B York: What did you decide to do after you made the decision to move on?
C Cartwright: I wanted to leave about a month after he was leader, it was just a horrible, horrible time, really tough. No one wanted to work for him when he was Shadow Treasurer because they thought that he was a dill. Once he demonstrated that he was competent and capable then lots of big egos flocked to the scene in politics and I got some terrific advice, many, many years ago, which was there is only room for one ego in a politicians office and that’s the politicians. Everybody else needs to remember that that’s what they’re here for. In an Opposition Leader’s office — in Opposition there aren’t many top jobs and so people want to work in the Opposition Leader’s Office as a badge of honour first, then working for the leader second, and they need to reverse that. In choosing people to work in the leader’s office that is what the person doing the choosing needs to look for. So, the office was split, half the office was fighting with the other half of the office and if that’s happening how can the leader be getting good service, so it was very difficult to keep it on track.
I had a really good relationship with journos so I would usually find out when things were going wrong because a journo would call and tell me. We didn’t have to wait until we saw it in the paper. So we were able to get out and soften, and ease that burden but because I had that connection with the journos, they seemed to think that that was wrong as well, that was a negative for us because they didn’t understand media, the people who were in charge. I also had someone from the Media Office briefing the journos and one of the juniors in the Media Office briefing the journos against him. So that doesn’t help either. Mind you there was no story printed that wasn’t reasonably accurate, but it could have been better managed. So it was a really tough time.
I kept wanting to leave but some of the stories that were being printed were that I was in trouble. So if I’d left it would have looked like I was being kicked out, so I kept on hanging on and hanging on and it just got so bad, towards the Christmas in ’94 a girlfriend had reached the end of her tether at the job that she was doing at the time so we both decided — we bought around the world tickets and we planned to leave in February the following year. I can remember, one time, we were at an airport, conversations at airports and Alexander said “So, if I do fall over, what do you think you’ll do”. I said “I think I might just go overseas”. I didn’t tell him I already had my ticket. So, I kind of knew it was — and the timing ended up perfectly because he ended up standing down on Australia Day ’95, that gave me a few weeks.
When you leave, John Howard didn’t like me and I was the first one in the office to be kicked out. You have two or three weeks in the job before you actually have to, you’re officially sacked so I stayed in Downer’s office organising my overseas trip in ’95.
B York: You said John Howard didn’t like you.
C Cartwright: Oh I’d done a report many, many years ago, when I was working at Old Parliament House for the radio. John Howard was leader. They’d come back from a break. They’d had a fairly ordinary Question Time and I’d done a Q&A. I went straight to air afterwards, saying that it was a perfect opportunity — the Government was in trouble and the Opposition hadn’t made the most of it. I’d gone in fairly hard but I was first up. The other journos thought the same but they were writing for papers or they doing a story for PM. I was up straight after Question Time doing Q&A. He was very angry and called the station and told them I was biased and, the station loved it, a bit of biffo on air. So he never liked that. He’d actually warned Downer not to employ me because he thought I was Labor. That’s a mistake the Liberals often make, that is a journalist does a tough story they assume that they are biased. While the general leaning of the Press Gallery is slightly left of centre, or way left, you might have some way left and some way right, but the general tone of the Press Gallery is slightly left. If you’re good at your job you’ll get a fair go. I’d say it was like being female, you’ve just got to work harder and be better.
B York: It’s interesting that he would have remembered that.
C Cartwright: John Howard has a very long memory. Mrs Howard even remember one time — I’d done a story when I worked at AAP, when Howard became leader over Peacock and he’d been holidaying at the snow with the family. I was a junior reporter then and so I got to interview Mrs Howard at AAP, so just in questions — one of the questions to her was, how did you explain it to the children. She explained it to the children by saying that daddy’s got Mr Peacock’s job, well that was the lead to my story, and given that it was AAP it ran everywhere. I don’t think they liked that as well because I mentioned that when — many years later I mentioned to Mrs Howard, you might recall, many years ago I interviewed you, and she just said “Oh yes” and looked away. She wasn’t impressed.
B York: Hmm, so they remember. Now, were you away for a year on that overseas trip?
C Cartwright: Just about a year. I came back in time for Christmas and also in time for the ’96 election campaign. I figured that, I was still hooked on politics and if I didn’t get a job that related to the campaign and afterwards I would just pack up my bags and go overseas again.
B York: Did you work overseas at all?
C Cartwright: Oh briefly as a nanny, in New York.
B York: Not as a journalist.
C Cartwright: No, I worked for a journalist as a nanny, that’s a whole other story.
B York: So, after about a year, you’ve still got politics in your blood, you were interested in what’s happening. I guess you were following Australia events, were you?
C Cartwright: Not so much when I was overseas and there’s a whole gap when I came back were people would talk about something that had happened and — did that happen in 1995, remember we didn’t have the internet and in those days when you travelled you really, really were out of touch. I think that is something we’ve lost and some of us have experience now, but we’re the last generation to experience travelling overseas, being completely out of touch. There is a real freedom in that, a real sense of freedom, and fear sometimes, depending where you end up. I knew when the election was going to be. When I came back I went down to Torquay and stayed at my mother’s place because I’d rented my apartment out. The two friends that I might have shared with, or just moved into their house, some friends you can just move in. One of them had gone to Sydney and the other one had gone to India. I didn’t really want to just plonk myself down in Canberra. So I stayed in Torquay and did a few things there, spoke at the local Probus Club and things like that. I came up to Canberra for a week or so to see if there was anything around. Andrew Robb was running the Liberal Party, he wasn’t interested.
So I went back to Torquay then got mum’s car and went to Adelaide. I’ve got some very dear friends in Adelaide. I was just in Adelaide, talking to the local Libs to see if there was anything going. I was walking up King William Street, I can still see it. I was walking up King William Street the day the election was called and for some reason John Howard had been in Adelaide when the election was called. Of course, being Opposition Leader he wasn’t in control of the date. Grahame Morris who was a loyal and faithful servant of John Howard for many, many years was walking down the street, the other way, and I said “Hi Grahame” he was deep in thought. He took one look and he pointed at me and he said “You, you, when can you get to Canberra, we need you there”.
Sheer luck, because if John Howard knew he might not have agreed to it for starters but working in the Canberra office meant that I wasn’t in touch with him very much at all. Because in Opposition, in those days, they had two media advisors, and the two media advisors would be needed for travelling during the campaign. I was in the perfect position, even though I’d been away for a year, I could come back and waltz up to the Press Gallery and the journalists who weren’t travelling on the campaign. There were still many journalists — I reported one campaign from Canberra. In fact these days most of it is done from Canberra. In those days senior journos would be travelling, stop in Canberra for a bit of a break and then go back travelling again. But the mid-level journalists were all here.
So I had three volunteers in the media office and I came up here and had the use of Downer’s car. His car in Canberra and the apartment of — the room of a friend of mine who was travelling with his boss on the election campaign, so we did it all on the cheap. That was a really interesting campaign. I was part of the 6.30 media call in the mornings, which I did from home because I’m not a morning person. I’d have a shower, came into the office and worked. We managed to work a six day week during the campaign, which was really good. Usually it’s a seven day week in the campaign but we organised it so that the senior volunteer — I came in sometimes, but he was pretty good. I think he did Saturdays and I did Sundays because not a lot happened on Saturdays. I think that was the way it was. One of the younger volunteers and then we’d swap and do the other weekend day with just two of us on the staff. It was a fascinating campaign to be involved in.
B York: Did you, you must have met Howard again at some point? How was that?
C Cartwright: Oh, it’s so busy he barely noticed I was there. I spoke to him a couple of times to talk through media strategy from when we were in Canberra but also remember his media advisors had been dealing with the Press Gallery anyway. So, if the leader was in town, so were his other media advisors and so were all the journos. So I was very much, in the background I guess. Doing a lot of running around and building up the story with the journos and making sure things were running smoothly in the stories, feedback, coordinating different stories.
B York: Did you have a title, a designated position?
C Cartwright: I probably did but I wouldn’t have a clue what it was, I was more interested in doing the job?
B York: Were you employed on contract?
C Cartwright: Contract with the Liberal Party, yes. I had to send in a bill, an invoice at the end of it. Which I only sent in an invoice for a couple of hundred bucks to cover the costs because, in an election campaign they get a lot of volunteers. So I basically covered the costs in minimal, very, very minimal salary, as you do, I wanted a job.
B York: Did you have strong views in favour — I know you’ve indicated you are a Liberal supporter but with Keating did you feel that he was completely off the track?
C Cartwright: No.
B York: Was there a strong commitment?
C Cartwright: It went — support for the Liberals went right back to when I was much younger. I think I would have mentioned that I felt very strongly that Labor was out of touch with the working-class and more in touch with academic and intellectual Labor. Most of my friends are Labor and it reinforces that view, I’m the only working-class person they know. Both sides of politics have a tendency to do it and the media certainly does. They are not in touch with your average Australian and I am less and less so but I do go home to family from time to time. I do have friends who — in fact I caught up with them on the weekend. They live in the bush, they haven’t been to uni, they’re happy, get on with life, and their view of politics is not built on an understanding of politics. It’s built on an impression and do these politicians know us or care about us. Their views on all sorts of stuff that might make you angry, on immigration and working standards, and unions, they have very strong views. You might consider them right wing. They’re not as bad as the One Nation view but, they’re there and they should be respected and that’s why — I have a strong that is why One Nation appeared. We’ve lost touch with the people who really care and who count and who vote. We’re not talking to them, we’re talking to intellectual Labor, or we’re talking to educated Australia and that’s not the whole country.
B York: Did you bring that idea, as much as you could to Howard’s campaign?
C Cartwright: A bit to Howard’s campaign but it was more in the Downer campaign to be leader. In fact when he got the leadership job and the pollster came around with all these — their polls and the reviews and the focus group stuff. He was just going through all these graphs and comments, Downer just kept looking at me and he said “That’s what you said, that’s what you said”. I like to think and I’ve still got a couple of political friends who will call me for those views now, which is nice because I like to think I still can do that, even though I don’t spent a lot of time, outside the world of educated Australia, I guess.
B York: Parties probably become more removed in that sense. Having just read Barry Cohen’s piece in today’s Australian, have you read that?
C Cartwright: No, I was coming here, I didn’t read The Australian.
B York: Very interesting statistical analysis of the Labor Party Caucus, when he became a member in the ‘60s comparing it today, by occupation. Nearly all of the former people who left uni and worked for the party, the union, so there is that continuum.
C Cartwright: There is a disconnect, we are seeing it — we’re on a different topic now, we’re seeing it in the public views of the leaders we have not, is that they’re false and that’s because they don’t really — the advice they’re getting is the intellectual, educated advice, coupled with the focus group surveys that are telling them what others are thinking and they’re trying to marry the two. I don’t know what the answer is, there’s gotta be a better way of doing it.
B York: I suppose the focus groups that matter to them are the ones in marginal seats and so it is further skewed by that, ending up with policies geared to those people.
C Cartwright: Those people are in all seats, it’s just that it’s only worth spending the money in the marginal seats. They’re not gonna do focus groups in other seats. No, these people exist all around Australia and they have a right to be informed. We’re not informing them…
[End of part 6]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 7
C Cartwright: …in a way that they’re comfortable with.
B York: Now, with the Howard campaign again…
C Cartwright: Howard campaign, like all campaigns it’s a blur. The last one was the first one that I never worked on, either as a journalist or in the Howard office, or working for a politician or at Campaign Headquarters. An election campaign is the buzz of your life. If you ever get a chance to work on one. It’s just constant. It’s a huge adrenaline rush. You try to get substance in policy but only for continuity because you have to react day by day, now it’s hour by hour. It’s very different now. So, we had a couple of — most of the time the leader was out of town, because there is no point campaigning in Canberra, it’s a Labor seat anyhow. He would come to Canberra for national announcements and things like that. It just so happened, the day towards the end of the campaign there was the leak of the letter, with Costello letterhead? Ralph Willis leaked a letter that ended up being a fake. It purported to show how — what the Liberals were doing now was counter to what they truly believed. The letter was a fake. It’s amazing and even his Labor colleagues were amazed that Ralph Willis did something that was so out of character, because he was naturally such a careful person. I’ve got a couple of friends who worked for him. I don’t know him personally but I know he’s a really, really lovely guy. It just shocked everybody but we were able to — wasn’t a Kennett letter. We were able to prove it was a fake the same day that it was released, partly because the office — it was happening in Canberra and the office here chased it up but also Costello and Howard were in Canberra on the same day. I could be chased up. So the story turned around to a very positive Howard-Costello day for them during the campaign.
The campaign is a blur. You see a story, you act on it, you jump on it straight away. The six thirty meeting in the morning determines what’s happening during the day and that’s decided by campaign headquarters, everyone follows that. Now, I understand they all have the six thirty meeting every day. So every day is political. Every day is a campaign day, every day they are further out of touch with people.
B York: It’s interesting as you said before that this was, kind of, before the internet became a mass phenomenon like it is today.
C Cartwright: Yes, in those days you would still do walks through shopping centres in the afternoon to maintain a bit more interest, but these days, it’s one stunt per day and try to manage the media.
B York: Was the feeling at the time that it was a foregone conclusion that Howard would win, that Keating had done his time. The ’93 election was such an unexpected outcome so it was a bit flukish.
C Cartwright: Which ever campaign you’re working on. Whether you’re in Opposition or you’re in Government, you actually believe you are going to win. You have to remember, you’re brained washed. Its six weeks of six in the morning until ten at night of the same churn but it’s not a churn because it’s exciting, it’s different every day. You actually believe that you’re going to win. The only people who know when they’re not would be the senior politicians and the senior people at Party headquarters. Who, when they know they’re going to lose, they are maintaining the commitment of the troops by saying that they’re going to win but what they’re doing is minimizing the damage and minimizing the number of seats lost. So I would be quite sure that in the New South Wales election that is coming up in the campaign head office — I haven’t done State. In the campaign head office you’d find a lot of people thinking that Labor might win. They’ll have a belief that they might fluke it.
B York: Yes, it’s very unlikely.
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: Do you recall the election night 1996?
C Cartwright: Yes, I missed it. I was — Gareth Evans had released some figures, or started some negative story about Howard on the Saturday which I was trying to turn around. The party was up in Sydney so I was going up for that and so I raced up — I stayed behind to fix this story, which in retrospect, I didn’t need to because I should have known we were going to win anyway, but I wanted to make sure that the last T was crossed and the last I dotted so I was still running around the Press Gallery fixing things. Then I jumped in the car and drove quite fast up to Sydney to get to the party but, of course, it was all over at seven o’clock at night or something. I missed the declaration, but I was there for a bit of the party. I was staying with a very dear friend who worked for Labor and went around to her place for the remainder of the night and they were all miserable. But I was with friends. I could have stayed at the Liberal party and I did stay for a little while but I was staying at my girlfriends place in Balmain so I ended up going around there for the remainder of the night. It was her birthday which was even funnier.
B York: Did you get to meet Howard again after the election?
C Cartwright: Several times after that because I ended up working back in the Government. So he does know me, but he doesn’t know me well. Each time I would turn up with a different boss I’d see the look on his face and he’d say “She’s back again”. Of course I didn’t see him on election night, he was completely surrounded by all the people who wanted to kiss his boots. I certainly did come across him over the years. I’m not sure if he’d even — he’s got a great memory, he probably would remember me, I don’t know.
B York: And when he said, she’s here again…
C Cartwright: Oh he didn’t say that, that was just a look on his face that he did recognise me and thinking, how does she keep turning up.
B York: That was not done in a hostile way, I take it, it was bemused.
C Cartwright: He didn’t come over and say, welcome back, it was more a bemused kind of thing. This was in Government, you’re there to do work, you don’t have time to sit down and have a chat. You don’t walk into a meeting — you might say, hi how are you and shake your hand and then you just get down to business. You don’t have time for conversation.
B York: Towards the end of the campaign, when you were confident that Howard would be elected.
C Cartwright: Oh no, you feel like you’re going to win but you don’t want to be too sure.
B York: But either way you would have needed further work, further payment, employment.
C Cartwright: I was going to need work. I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted to work in government. Brian Loughnane again, who was working in the private sector by that stage, back in Melbourne, organised an interview with a mate of his in a government relations company I think it was. He said to me, if I have an opportunity to work in government, don’t pass it up, because the experience will be worthwhile. So different from Opposition and I’ll be marketable afterwards, so I took that advice and spent a couple of months trying to get a job with the Howard Government. It took quite a while.
B York: And you ended up with John Moore?
C Cartwright: Ended up with John Moore as his media advisor. That was a really good introduction to working for government. The new Parliament House was set up with an office, they’ve all got an office at the entrance of the Ministerial office next to reception. When it was first designed that was to be the media advisor’s office, so that journalists could come in and see the media advisor. The offices got crowded quite quickly and also journalists don’t visit very often, so most — in all of the offices, some offices used it as an actual working office, others use it as a conference room. But the offices in new Parliament House were designed to fit the Westminster System as it operates in the U.K. where the Minister, when parliament is not sitting would work from the department. So departments were all set up with these big Ministerial suites for the Minister to work from when parliament wasn’t sitting and also room for the advisors. They offices at Parliament House were set up for the minimum staff that were required for parliament as it is in the U.K. but in Australia there was no way that was going to happen and so the Ministers work from their Ministerial offices and they got very crowded very quickly, as did the Press Gallery. The Backbench offices have stayed quite pleasant but Ministerial offices are quite crowded.
B York: How did the appointment with John Moore come about?
C Cartwright: Well, funnily I was on a list of possible appointments for media advisor but didn’t manage to get in that way. One of the guys in the department, who had worked for Labor, but had now gone into the bureaucracy and was working in the department. He’d come up and filled in as people from the department do before Ministers find their staff. He saw the list. He saw that I was looking for work and he strongly advised that the Minister take me on, which was great. I’d known him from working the Press Gallery in Old Parliament House and I knew him from when he worked for one of the Labor Ministers. It was good of him to put my name up. I just had one interview and he said, could I start the next week. So that was great. I think my organisational skills were coming to the fore fairly quickly there, were yes I was doing media but he also didn’t have a Chief of Staff and the person who was organising his office, while a very good advisor, was not really a Chief of Staff type person. The other staff didn’t like her very much either. For some reason they all kept coming to me saying could I fix this problem please. So I just thought of again, Brian Loughnane who I had worked for, for three months in Opposition and it had been eighteen months since then. I thought that’s who John Moore needs. It took me quite a while, it took me months to persuade him to come up for an interview. John Moore remembered him and was, I think, the interview was just a formality that he really wanted him to work there. He ended up working for John Moore for many, many years as his Chief of Staff. When he came in, he spoke with all the staff and he said to me “You’re going to get bored being a Media Advisor” and I said, no I won’t I’ll be fine. Then six months later I went in to him and said “I’m bored I want to be Chief of Staff”. I was Media Advisor for another six or eight months or more but he spent a lot of time training me, giving me projects to do that would help me gain the skills, so he was great.
B York: Your aversion to boredom is a consistent theme.
C Cartwright: Yes, well it wasn’t exactly boring with John Moore unlike Alexander Downer. Alexander was very good at — he is very articulate and he just to hone his phrases so that he would end up with a ten second grab, a twenty second grab, or a thirty second grab and he could do that as he was speaking. He would know when his ten second grab was coming and when his thirty second grab, I was in awe of it, it was just brilliant that he could do that. It was easy for me, I just offered the instruction, and when I tried to do it for myself, for my current job, it was a lot harder for me than it was for him. John Moore wasn’t able to do that and he would quite often miss quote or get something out of context. So I would spend a lot of time in the Press Gallery ensuring that they got the right message, even though he hadn’t said it, so it was a different type of media.
It was planning. I was learning during that process to work with the department. One of the things in Opposition, is you, especially if you’ve never worked in government, working with the department is a whole new skill because you don’t have to do everything yourself. There is a whole lot more work and you come in, especially the conservatives, you come in with a distrust of the public service, especially when Labor’s been in for a long time. The public service has a lot of loyalty to the previous government. I have learnt that there might be loyalty to the previous government but most of the senior public servants are committed public servants and that’s what they are. They will be committed to the next Minister who comes in. They will be professional and offer professional advice. There is only one or two that I came across who were unwilling to accept that.
There was one fellow in the media department, the media section in the Industry Department when I went in to have a chat and said, well here we all are, a new paradigm. The guy who was running that section, as I said, was a former Labor staffer, but really politically aware. So he was fabulous, if he was out — because there was only one media advisor in those days, these days there are two. If he was out scouting an announcement, he would actually call if there was — he’d say, such and such a question is going around, this could be a political problem for you. So he was doing his job, not being political, but he was being super professional letting us know there was an issue coming up. So he was great but one of the blokes working for him, when I said, well, we make the decisions and it’s your job to implement them and this guy piped up and said “Well, if that’s the case I can’t possibly work for this government”. I said, “Well, you know what you’ve gotta do, you’re not getting rid of us” he eventually left. But I had nothing but really good, excellent dealings with the bureaucracy, very supportive and — sure you come across people who sit there and twiddle their thumbs. The public servant that people like to talk about but I’ve met some real professionals who work really hard and I learnt a lot from them.
B York: So, during this time with John Moore you’ve got the opportunity to learn the skills of being the Chief of Staff.
C Cartwright: The political staff, the political side of things, because I’ve not been a Policy Advisor as such. I can work on policy. I’ve come in various roles I’ve come up with policy solutions but I’ve not come up with the grass roots policy, building it from the ground up, but I can find policy solutions. So using the political skills, judging a situation. There was a project that we needed to develop, like the policy had been done but we needed a project where we were developing the announcements, getting people on side. Brian calls it, getting the ducks lined up, making sure that everything was in place before an announcement and keeping the Policy Advisors in the loop with what I was doing. It was good working with the Policy Advisors and the Chief of Staff so that the media work was there, there was no question about that, but there was still this extra work keeping me interested. I actually shared with Andrew McKellar was one of the Policy Advisors and he’s now running the Federated Chamber of Automated Industry. They were good.
We had my system, which I developed way back, we had my system of dealing with the media, where I would do all the dealings with the media. No one else was supposed to deal with the media because some of the journalists would be getting the stories that the advisors didn’t know they were giving them stories. Then if the story ramped up and the journalist needed stronger information, or more detail, then they’d talk to the Policy Advisor. But the Policy Advisors were very good. Andrew was particularly good, some of them thought they knew everything, but Andrew was particularly good and so was Brian if it elevated to Chief of Staff level. I always sat in on the discussion so that I knew what was being said and could analyse it afterwards, would know the way the tone had gone. They needed more information then they’d get the Policy Advisor, if they wanted a real quote and were really chasing the story, or even a background briefing, it would be elevated to the Chief of Staff level, but I would be part of that as well. Now I — it was good working with Brian and the team because I always knew the background. But it had more credence if the Chief of Staff offered that background briefing. And that’s where media advisors are much better value if they know the background but don’t share it because you can answer the questions from the media knowing what tone, you’re supposed to take and knowing the line, and you can stay honest if you know the background. Then if they need the background, rather than the media advisor giving it, you give it to the Chief of Staff or the Minister gives it and that gives it the credence of a solid background briefing.
B York: So can we continue from where you were thinking that you want to change, did the job with Warren Truss develop from the John Moore position?
C Cartwright: Yes, I was lucky because no one else wanted to work for Warren, but I tried with a couple of junior Ministers before Warren came in. We lost a few Ministers in a short space of time so there were quite a few changes at that time, late ’96, I think, yes. I tried with a couple of them but already had their people that they wanted. Brian, to his credit, went in to bat for me. I applied to work for Warren. He was a complete unknown and one of the most clever, talented, intelligent people I have ever met, but he does his best to hide it, so nobody knew this. I didn’t know this. All I wanted was a Chief of Staff job and I was going to make the most of what I got and I ended up getting one of the cleverest people in parliament. The challenge in working for Warren was in getting people to see, even now most people don’t know how smart he is. Just getting people to see how smart he is. So I moved in there when he was a junior Minister with only one or two advisors and a couple of departmental people. He just kept getting promoted and so I just hung on for the ride.
One year as Customs Minister and then the ’98 election campaign, the ‘One Nation Campaign’, and I worked for him in One Nation territory in the ’98 campaign which was horrific. Then came back and he was junior Minister to Jocelyn Newman in Social Security and had responsibility for Centrelink. He turned Centrelink around in nine months, that’s how good he was. And Centrelink loved him. He was supportive but firm and, yes we worked really well with them. Great bunch of people, fabulous people there.
B York: What happened with the position there, how long were you with him?
C Cartwright: Seven or eight years, which is a long time to be Chief of Staff. It’s an exhausting job. It’s, yes seven years, it’s an exhausting job. It’s a constant adrenaline rush. It’s fabulous. You actually feel like you’re — you’re trying to implement the government’s policy that is good for the country at the same time as you’re batting back anyone who is good at Opposition is giving you hell. So you’re batting back all the trouble at the same time as you’re trying to get good policy through. The biggest challenge obviously, the first challenge was Centrelink and the week after the election, he had to announce staff cutbacks of something like two thousand, which Centrelink had wanted to announce before the election but held off. So he landed with that. We talked to Centrelink about it and the way they put it together was really bad, because it wasn’t two thousand, it was something like five hundred and fifteen hundred had already gone, but they just hadn’t announced it. But he was stuck with it because that was just the announcement.
He had to go on Seven Thirty Report and defend it. He did an absolutely amazing job. Kerry O’Brien was — I had my techniques for dealing with Kerry O’Brien and Warren was really good at managing those. He took it all on board and Kerry O’Brien could get nothing out of him, couldn’t hammer him, he just had a common sense sensible response through the whole interview. It was brilliant to watch. That was the very start of Centrelink, of that portfolio work and Centrelink people who’d seen him defend them, wholeheartedly, just were totally supportive, fabulous to work with. It was onward and upward from there.
So when he wanted to make changes with the way they wanted to do things, he was very good at saying, why and they made the changes. It was mainly in the past when things had gone wrong, Centrelink would hide from it and we actually turned it around so when something went wrong they actually announced it. So by announcing it, saying, such and such has gone wrong, but this is what we’re doing to fix it. As Warren often explained to people, he had some fabulous stats, he used to carry around with him. The banks which manage — a bank which manages fewer transactions, Centrelink would make more mistakes, but because one simple mistake at Centrelink might mean a payment’s going out to a whole series of people who might have died, or children. A very small mistake is elevated because of the people that are affected. So hiding from it wasn’t going to work. They changed their way of managing it and they’re still doing it to this day. The guy who is running it now, Hank Jongen was doing it then. I think he would have liked to manage it that way, but he certainly embraced that style and is now the star of Centrelink, justifiably, he is very good.
B York: What was the routine, was there a standard routine for running the office?
C Cartwright: You look for routine, don’t you, there is no routine in politics.
B York: Well, that’s important for us to know, we want that insight as to how things actually work, at that level.
C Cartwright: Yes.
B York: Is it a five day a week job?
C Cartwright: Seven days for a Chief of Staff, seven days for a politician, but you’re not in the office for seven days. Mobile phones are just fabulous, internet fabulous, you can work when you feel like and you can get things out of the way on weekends.
B York: And they were coming in now, at this stage, is that right with Warren Truss?
C Cartwright: Yes, lots and lots. One of the — my only routine is coffee in the morning. When we hard Agriculture portfolio that’s when the challenge really took off. There were days when I had breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk. That is also a danger when you can get stuck at your desk and you get chained to the In tray, the physical In tray and the electronic In tray, because so much is happening you can lose touch with the bigger picture. It’s really important to have an office, where if the Chief of Staff is getting caught, then the advisors are coming in with the picture and letting you know the different areas. We used to, we’d have an office, like the government would have a reshuffle, we would have an office reshuffle every now and then.
When portfolio responsibilities were being handed out because it’s agriculture, you’ve got lots of different portfolio areas. I would say to the advisors, okay everybody tell me which portfolio you want to do. Because if they get one they want they’re going to work a lot harder but also understand that, while I can’t give everybody everything they want, I will do my best to make sure you get as close as possible to what you want. One of the advisors who was particularly talented didn’t get anything he wanted ever, he always got the really crap ones, the really difficult ones. He’s still one of my best friends, which is great but he was great tidying up a mess or dealing with difficult people. Because we were going through drought and I gave him exceptional circumstances area which was an absolute nightmare to manage. He thanked me, tongue in cheek for that. He did know that he got it because he was so damned good.
It was then I started to realise — I didn’t realize I could until I got the job now, but I have this knack of getting people to do something they didn’t know they wanted to do. One of the things I managed to do. When you’re running an organisation, you really need to bring in people who are better than you at things and that’s hard to do because you don’t like being shown up. You feel insecure that they want to take your job over but it gets the best outcome if it’s a good working relationship. There was a guy who was working for one of our junior Ministers, he was working for Wilson Tuckey and managing him very well. Wilson needed a lot of managing. But David Woodrow was working for Wilson amazingly talented guy, a couple of years older than me I think. I said to him one time, did he want to come and work for us as the Senior Advisor, my number two. I thought afterwards, the gall, fancy me asking someone as talented as that to be a number two. He went away and thought about it. He liked the way our office was running and so we had a chat. He said “Look it’s cool. I don’t want your job. I’ve got skills you don’t have. You’ve got skills I don’t have and we’ll make a good team”. He was really supportive because he was better known than I was. He was out and about. He was in the smokers group. So that’s where you get a lot of info, I should have started smoking. If people said to him, oh you’re really running the office aren’t you, he’d say, no, no Cheryl’s Chief of Staff, I’m number two but it’s a team. All due credit to him.
So the office was set so that the next guy down was this guy who I gave all the difficult stuff to. He could do the things I did like managing the staff. The emotional intelligence things, whereas David is very much like Warren focused on policy and the — Warren’s focus on the politics, just won’t deal with it. He always wants to do the right thing rather than the political thing. They’re very, very similar in age as well. So when I left they were able to — Warren said, well who is going to look after this stuff and I just said, well, Paul because you just change around those number one and two positions. Because — we’ve got that same job I’ve got now, the number one and two very, very strong. Routine was not a routine because you didn’t know where the next ambush was coming from, where the next fire was coming from. You were fighting not only the Opposition but the farmers because they never think that their politician or the Minister understands them or is doing the right thing, all different fronts.
I can still remember one of my favourite days, when I thought gosh I love stress. You can imagine with agriculture, there are different issues happening all the time. We had three big issues happening at the same time. I remember I was sending an email to the department on one of the issues, I was talking on the phone at the same time on another issues, and one of the advisors came in and started saying, blah blah blah on the third one and I kept all three going. Then gradually peeled off one and then the other and I remember thinking, gosh this is good fun, I love it.
B York: I can see that you did love it, from what you’ve said, I guess, when people are stressed they’re fully alive.
C Cartwright: Yes, you get hooked on the adrenaline, you really do. It’s an absolute challenge.
B York: A harmonious way of life would be a very dull and boring, stagnant life.
C Cartwright: You can’t imagine doing something that is routine, no you just can’t imagine it. It’s really hard as you get older to find jobs that don’t have an element of routine in them.
B York: Now you were with Warren Truss for eight years?
C Cartwright: Yes, seven to eight years, agriculture five and a half years which was the really, really tough one.
B York: So did the — was the thrill gone after a while, or what happened there?
C Cartwright: You can keep your adrenaline up for only so long. In fact he joked after when I left, I left after the 04’ election but I had told him before the ’01 election that I’d have enough and that was going to go, I was going to go after that election. When I came back I had a look around and thought, no, people kept telling me because I was in my mid-40s by then, I would, I’d be pigeon holed I’d been working in politics too long. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else if I didn’t get out. I needed to get experience out there in the big wide world. Then I looked at the big wide world and nothing appealed. I thought, well, this might mean, and this is what I’ve always done. This might mean I don’t find the perfect job afterwards but I’m going to have a damn good time while I’m here. So I just stayed on. I just did get more and more tired and I actually — I got so tired and so stressed, I actually went dyslexic. I got in and tried to read — I guess routine, read the paper in the morning, even though you get a whole heap of clips, it’s nice to read a paper. The paper, all the letters jumbled up and I got really worried about that and went to a doctor, that’s right, went to the doctor about it and he started asking me about work and everything. He said, “So how old are you” I said “Forty-seven” as I was at the time. He said, “You’re not thirty-seven, you’re not twenty-seven, try having a nap at lunch time and he pointed…
[End of part 7]
Interview with Cheryl Cartwright 8
C Cartwright: …to the stress. That was a joke, as if in a political office you’re going to have quiet time. Just knowing it was stress. I’m pretty good at self-control, whenever that has happened since then I’ve thought, I’m stressed. I just spend a couple of minutes slowing myself down. I just feel the levels go back into place, it works. It’s only happened once or twice. When you know what the symptoms are — when you know what the cause is you can fix the symptoms yourself. So I stayed on.
B York: Where you able to look after yourself during your working life?
C Cartwright: I’m a healthy person anyway.
B York: You seem healthy and fit but I’m wondering did you have any — would you go to a gym or would you go swimming or anything like that?
C Cartwright: Never been to a gym in my life, that’s where the young skinny people go. No, I walk and those days I used to walk every night when I got home, no matter what the time. I’ve got my routine. I’ve got a walk, it’s thirty-five minutes, or one that is forty-five, or for about an hour. Then I’ve got one that is around the lake, it’s two hours. Depending on the time I’ve got and time of day. The thirty-five minute one is the short one on lighted streets. So if I’m walking at midnight at least there are lights. Since the ’01 election I got a treadmill. I bought a treadmill for home. So I don’t walk outside as much but walking outside is as good for clearing your brain as everything else.
B York: So when you left Warren Truss what happened then?
C Cartwright: Well, I still see it, the January of 2004 I was down the coast at a wedding of a Labor person. I was the only Tory there and they sat me with the only Democrat that was there, everyone else was Labor people, former Labor staffers a girl who was Chief of Staff to Graham Richardson, I think, a great girl. I was friends with the media advisor who had been and I stayed at the house. The morning after the wedding breakfast I went for a walk on the beach without my mobile phone and without my watch. I had absolutely no idea of how long I was gone, just completely chilled out. I decided then that it’s time now. One of the things that I would do I started going to church funnily enough, a few years before that, that I’d get Confirmed at church and that I would leave my job after the ’04 election, whenever it was. So that was kind of a relief knowing that was going to happen. I had no plans other than sleep, because if you’re putting your all into it you really don’t have a lot of time. I was sleeping until midday every Saturday because I was too exhausted to get and I started to recognise what that was. So just decided to leave without any plans but it’s nice.
The people along the way who I’ve had the biggest arguments with, like the wonderful Senator Heffernan I had some big run-ins with him over policy issues. If the Policy Advisor is running a certain policy line you want to do the right thing on policy, you’ve got to get the politics right as well. Even then there will be one or two people who aren’t happy. In one case Senator Heffernan, he was wrong in this case, but he couldn’t accept that. He was running a campaign against the Minister and it started to go public. The — I think I can talk about this now. Kerry Packer’s company was involved and we were doing the right thing by Kerry Packer’s company but not because it was Kerry Packer’s company, because it was the right thing policy wise, it was the right thing for the country, in the process of this policy development for agriculture. Bill never knew why, what happened, but he was — I actually spoke with people who Bill had been speaking to, putting the other case, which undermined Bill. He rang me and said, you want to play hardball lady, I’m gonna play hardball with you and he got really tough. That was one of the minor ones. He started playing hardball. Then the — a couple of days later the receptionist called, because this was a public debate in the end, and Bill Heffernan was the only one really running — because Labor stayed quiet when the Libs and Nats were fighting. He was the only one running against it, and Kerry Packer was on the phone asking to speak to the Minister. Now the Minister couldn’t speak to Kerry Packer, he couldn’t then get up in parliament and say, I’ve never spoken to Kerry Packer. As I said, he was not doing it because of any allegiance or any favours, he was doing it because, this is Warren Truss, it was the absolute right thing to do.
The receptionist called me and she said, “It’s Kerry Packer’s office” and I said “Okay, I’ll talk to them”. I said, “Look can you please tell Mr Packer the Minister can’t speak to him for political reasons. I’m sure he’ll understand that. Can you please get his assistant to give me a call, or can I please call his assistant and we’ll deal with this”. At that stage one of the younger Policy Advisors who had been dealing with it, because it was getting elevated to Bill Heffernan and everything I was working with the young advisor. Who is now a star up in Townsville, running some huge thing up in Townsville, brilliant young man. So he was involved whenever I was dealing with this stuff as well. So when the call came through it was Kerry Packer. I just about passed out on the spot and young Paul, a different Paul, came in and I said, “It’s Kerry Packer what will I do”. I’ve gotta stay calm here. I thought, okay, he doesn’t want his assistant dealing with this, he’s dealing with it himself, so I spoke with the great man. He was amazing, cut through, no rubbish. I said “Look, the Minister won’t speak with you because politically it’s just out of the question. We are not doing this as a favour for you. We are doing this because it’s the right thing to do”. He said “I appreciate that, what can I do to help”. I said “You need to get your friends, or yourself to call Senator Heffernan, here is his number”. And “You need to get your Labor friends” I knew then that Graham Richardson who was retired and was working for him, to call the Labor people and they’ll have their numbers. I said “Just tell them, it’s not on, and just get him off our back and everything will go fine”. Never heard another peep from Senator Heffernan. He still doesn’t know and he won’t know unless he listens to this, that’s how we beat him.
So, there are lots — there were lots of stuff like that, that’s why it wasn’t routine. You’re dealing with different issues in different ways when they come up. That’s where the Chief of Staff has to be flexible, keep the long term goal in mind. The Minister — you’ve got to do it for the Minister, you’ve got to do it for the right policy and for the government, so you’re keeping his colleagues informed and up to date but also hosing them down when they’re not happy. Although I have to say Warren was very good at doing that. I didn’t have to do that very often. Deal with issues as they come up.
B York: You said that you had that walk along the beach, you didn’t have any plans as to what you wanted to do next.
C Cartwright: So I just quit.
B York: So you quit. Is that when you ended up in the current job that you’re in?
C Cartwright: It was. I had a real think about it, as you can do when you’ve got time out. Time to think about what you’re capable of and what you like to do. I always have a plan B because I don’t set my heart on plan A just in case it doesn’t work. There had been a couple of possibilities like — somebody gave me — I was setting up at home as a Consultant, a Government Relations Consultant, just in case I didn’t find work. I had time to go and look at different computers, look at different systems, look at desks, set up with a desk, get your chair, there was time to do that. And being new to it, I had time to research what sort of computer I wanted, whether I wanted a laptop or a PC and somebody decided to give me a client. I didn’t want a client, but these particular people — this is where I learnt that I was going to be too honest to be a consultant though. These guys rang up and said someone had said that they needed to talk to me. They told me what their situation was. They had wanted money from the government. They were in a marginal seat, a National Party seat that might have fallen in the ’04 election. They decided that they didn’t want to be political so they didn’t make a noise during the election campaign, or before the election. So now they wanted to go to government and get some money. When I looked at their situation, they were actually going to proceed with what they wanted to do, with or without the money, but they still wanted the government grant because a competitor had got the grant. I said “You’re not going to get it. You can make as much noise as you want. The election is over. The time to do it was before the election, who told you not to do it then”. They were crazy. “Oh well, we still want to try”, “Okay” so I organised meetings with the Minister the junior Minister, the Opposition, I did them a little plan of action and everything. We went to talk with them, so I told them “The code is, if the Minister says, Have you looked at another portfolio, that’s basically means, get lost you’re not getting it from me” but he’ll say it really politely and you’ll think he cares. So, all that sort of stuff. That is exactly what happened.
So they went away, and then they said, “No, we want to have another go” so I gave it another go through another means and I said “The only other way is through government programs, and that’s an administrative thing”. I don’t do the administrative thing. I’ll do the political stuff but I’ve got another friend who had left her job at the same time and that’s the sort of thing she was doing. So I gave it to her. I said, look we’ll do it together for a while but she’ll probably take over. So I left it with her and she came up with the same view and then I found out twelve months later that they had then been — somebody I know had recommended them to go to another lobbyist who was just taking money. They were going along to meeting after meeting and they were getting nowhere, but the lobbyist was taking money.
So that’s what puts me off lobbying but I knew that if I didn’t get a job in an industry association, which I thought would be a good thing to do, that’s what I would have to do. I’d made the decision. I didn’t want to go to a large company because I wasn’t confident enough, which might seem strange now. I think I could do it now. I was confident enough to deal with the internal politics in a large company. Politics in politics is in your face and it’s nasty, politics in a large company is a different type of politics and I’ve seen friends, not cope with that and I didn’t want to give that one a go.
B York: What’s the name of the current group that you work for?
C Cartwright: The current job is Australia Pipeline Industry Association. It’s the gas transmission industry and I couldn’t have been luckier in the sense that, the membership is the owners and operators of infrastructure. So there’s the four main big companies. They’re the ones who need to lobby government on economic policy. Then there is another four hundred and sixty members who are involved in construction, design, operations, and service providers, even the guys who provide the tents in the outback and the four wheel drive hire, they’re all members. The lobbying part of what I do is, ten to twenty per cent of my workload. The other part is providing the services that the membership needs and being responsive to the membership. So I’m very grateful for that. They’re good, they do as the private sector does get sucked in a fair bit — overawed by Parliament House and government and wanting to see the Minister. The Board and our owners group seem to accept the fact that our policy issues are best dealt with in the bureaucracy. We work very well through the realms, the bowels of the bureaucracy, in making sure that the policy is actually right for us. So that when it goes to the Minister there isn’t a problem for us.
The downside of that is a year or so ago we had — you still need to have your meetings with the Minister to remind them you exist and all that sort of stuff, it’s just a courtesy call from my perspective. The Board complained that I didn’t have anything to complain about to the Minister. Then I realized, I think I need to sell this a little bit better to the Board. We’re so, so lucky Martin Ferguson is our Minister. I tell you what, if there was a Martin Ferguson fan club, I would be the Chair. He is just that good. He gets it. He is honest and fair. If you do something wrong he will tell you. He is just brilliant. He knows that I used to work for Warren, work for the other side. We crack a few jokes about that but he knows that I am here for the industry and he’s here to get good policy done. We don’t need to get political because we want to get good policy done. He is good for that, he is just great. He understands the industry really well.
So, the next time that we had a Board meeting with the Minister I actually gave the Board some speaking notes to talk to the Minister. But, it’s just amazing, the guys who run major companies, they’re just quiet when they see the Minister, they’re quite scared. Gave them the list and said, okay this is what we can tell the Minister we’re doing to make his job easier. These are all the things we’re working on that are under control because we’re working on them. We’ve got a Policy Advisor now, which we didn’t have when I started, which helps a lot. So, the Minister will know that we’re doing lots, and lots of work but he doesn’t have to step in and make a noise for us. The nice thing about that was, Martin Ferguson is smart enough to know that is why I needed to do that. He’s smart enough to know that the Board needs to be reinforced that things are under control and working well. He was just perfect, so the Board was happy, he was happy, we’re getting on with the job. So that’s really good.
The other part of the job is in maintenance, so there is committees that organise, and we do twenty-five functions a year. So I’m out of town introducing speakers at lunches and dinners nearly every week.
B York: There’s a couple more questions from that list that I sent you prior to the interview. Certainly if you have other comments that you want to make at the end of the interview that’s fine too. But, I’d like to proceed now to ask about the relationship between the media and the parliament. You’ve been in Old Parliament House and new Parliament House. How do you perceive the change. I’m assuming it has changed.
C Cartwright: It’s so different, it’s very, very different. I think I mentioned, there is only one other person who has worked in both the Gallery and the government in the Old Parliament and the new Parliament, that’s Barrie Cassidy at the ABC. At the Old Parliament House, one of my jobs when I was at radio was break stories. The senior guy did the analysis and major reporting, the junior guy did general Press Release, general interviews, and my job was to run around Parliament House and break stories, find out what was going on. Old Parliament House you could smell a story. You just knew when something was happening. The building was so small, the offices were so small, had a few favourite Senators that I would pop in on. You could just knock on the door, open it up and you’d see who they were talking to. Now, it mightn’t be a story in that but you’d file it away so you’d know if you heard something down the track what was going on. You’d see who was talking to who in the corridors. The Bar at Old Parliament House was a mine field of stories, just watching people, you’d pick things up and know the right people to ask. So, yes, it was a great place for getting stories and breaking stories.
In fact I’d moved to Adelaide, doing State politics for Channel 9 when the Howard-Peacock change happened in ’88. I said then — because they didn’t know that the coup was happening, I said then, it’s because it’s new Parliament House. The distance of the media from the politicians is huge. I think it’s improved now, partly because of social media and partly because people are more accustomed to the building. But then, they couldn’t have had that coup in the Old Parliament House. Somebody would have found out. So I suppose they had a coup last year didn’t they, Julia and Rudd so it’s still. You couldn’t do it in the old building. So there is that difference.
The camaraderie in the old building was different as well because of the working conditions being so bad. But media has changed also because of the social media. We see new young journalists coming through who are starting to blur the difference between commentary and reporting. Now, that was starting way back when I was a journalist but it’s absolutely rife now. Only a couple of weeks ago I read in the Australian, it was a full page of a particular issue and it had the byline stories of the facts of the day on the comment piece, or it was called analysis. There was no analysis by the journalist it was just another interview. You get all riled up on the day and you want to write to the paper and tell them you’ve got it all wrong and you think, what can I do the world is changing. So, that was the first time I’d seen it obviously in print. Usually you see it the other way around where in the news story you see some comment thrown in and, like learning it through AAP, the news story is pure fact, you do not put any comment in there at all. Seen that creeping in over the years but it’s just rife now. Whereas one of the young journalists has developed a following in the twittersphere and before she was famous she was twitting, when she first got to the Press Gallery, she was twitting on the way to a door stop, going to be an interview with blah. Fine, on the way from this, oh, not sure what colour shoes to wear to the dinner tonight, oh I think Turnbull is an idiot. And just confusing the commentary with — the social commentary with someone in a position like that, is actually quite inappropriate, but with the new media there is nothing you can do about it. So somehow the parties, and I think both parties are still learning to deal with it.
B York: How do you think it will go. How will this develop?
C Cartwright: Who knows. I’ve been wondering lately, maybe it will overcome this awful situation we have ourselves in now where the — as we were discussing before, the politicians are too trained in — and the message is too orchestrated and starts sound false because they’re responding to focus groups and wanting to say the right thing. I wonder if the social media is going to open out to bring the general public back in to the discussion. But we also have to remember, I have met people who still think that the social media is bourgeois. That, no we don’t want anything to do with that stuff mate. So they might have a mobile phone and they might text but they won’t have a Facebook page and they won’t get involved in anything with the social media. So it’s got another step to go before it gets to that level. I think it’s getting there. I’ve got a Facebook page but I don’t do anything at all related to work on it. While I’ve got some Labor friends and some Liberal friends and the politicians really waste it. They just use it to announce I’m speaking at such and such a place. They don’t use it to generate debate. One day they’ll learn to use it to generate debate. Currently when they do it the only people responding are the party hacks and they’re not getting a debate going. I think that will be something they’ll have to look at. But when I see some of the commentary on Facebook from my friends who aren’t the slightest bit interested in politics. Some of the things they say about politicians I really have to restrain myself from actually getting involved in that debate, because I want to stay out of that debate on Facebook, and just have it social. It is helping me to keep in touch with people who aren’t interested in politics and don’t want to be interested in politics, but they vote and so somehow the parties have to get to them.
B York: Cheryl, in the questions that I sent you I did point out that we could finish with the question what does democracy mean to you. This is a question that I ask of, not all, but most of the interviewees. Are we ready to talk — to ask that question, what does democracy mean to you?
C Cartwright: Well, personally I know nothing else. Maybe a benign dictatorship is better, who knows, I don’t know that. One of the frustrations that I feel about our democracy, and again it goes back to the previous discussion, is Australians’ take it for granted and don’t really understand. That’s educated Australians’ responsibility to inform uneducated Australia, what we’ve got is damn good. What we’ve got is a system where we can say publicly anything we want and generate a debate and not be locked up for it. I find it frustrating that message doesn’t get out and the appreciation of what we’ve got isn’t out there. I would love to be able to make sure that happens one day, but so far it’s just educated elite talking to themselves.
B York: In finishing off the interview, is there any closing remarks, or reflections you’d like to make?
C Cartwright: No, only that I’m delighted and I thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk my head off. It’s been lots of fun.
B York: Good, great, thank you Cheryl.
[End of part 8]
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
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