Stephen Mills was born in Victoria in 1954. From 1977 to 1983 he worked in the Parliamentary Press Gallery as a reporter for The Age. In 1986 he joined Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s staff as a speech writer, a position he held until 1991 when he rejoined the Parliamentary Press Gallery working for the Australian Financial Review until 1993.
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 1
E Helgeby: This is in an interview with Stephen Mills, who worked at Provisional Parliament House from 1977 to 1983, and again from 1986 to ’91. And the Australian Parliament House from 1991 to ’93 in the Press Gallery and as a speech writer for Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Stephen will be speaking with me, Edward Helgeby for the Oral History Program conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
On behalf of the director of the museum, I would like to thank you for agreeing to participate in this program. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure will be subject to any disclosure restrictions you may impose in completing the Rights’ Agreement?
S Mills: Yes, I do.
E Helgeby: This being so, may we have your permission to make a transcript or a summary of this recording should we decide to make one?
S Mills: Yes indeed.
E Helgeby: This interview is taking place today, 15th of November 2012, at 11am. Can we begin with a bit of background on your parents, and when and where you were born, attended school, and so forth.
S Mills: Sure, okay. Well I was born 16 January 1954 in Beaufort in country Victoria, where my father at the time was the Church of England vicar of St John’s Church at Beaufort. And my childhood was basically spent as he moved as a country parson, and then through the city as well. So Beaufort, Inverleigh—down near Geelong—then Lara for many years, and then over to Mornington on the Mornington Peninsula, and then—well briefly in New Guinea, but then after that in Chelsea and suburban Melbourne. So I attended through that time—well the first school I attended was Inverleigh State School for a year, but most of my schooling was at—well all of my primary schooling was at Geelong Grammar, as with my elder brother and elder sister. And I can assure you—I mean that must have been as a result of some fee deal for sons of clergy, because we had—because we all went to the hermitage in Geelong Grammar. So I was at Geelong Grammar Primary School, and boarded for the first year of secondary school, and then most of my secondary school was on the other side of the peninsula at the Peninsula Boys’ School at Mt Eliza. So Dad was a vicar, my mother was his mainstay and support—I think she used to write down ‘home duties’ on the census as her job, but it was a lot more than that I think.
E Helgeby: When you finished school, I believe you went to university, which university was that?
S Mills: Yeah I went to the University of Melbourne, in 1971, and did a Bachelor of Arts, honours. Which I finished in—I graduated in 1975. It’s a four year degree but I’d taken one year out in 1974 as editor of Farrago, the student paper there, I was the last of the single-person editors. So that I suppose suggests with hindsight—no, I mean at the time I was very interested in politics and in reporting, and in journalism, and so on graduation from uni I was very fortunate to get accepted as a cadet with The Age newspaper.
E Helgeby: What was your major for your BA?
S Mills: It was a history degree, and the major was classical studies, so I fell in love with Greek history—I still love it—and I wrote my honours thesis about Greek theatre, about the Greek tragedy in Athens.
E Helgeby: When did you first come to Canberra?
S Mills: We must have come as kids, because I can remember a visit to the War Memorial and to the Cotter and I can’t actually—I think we would have done a caravan trip at some stage—we were big caravaners, my parents and the family. But I first kind of came to Canberra as an adult in—I think it was in 1975, so I was in my final year at uni, and I had been—having done Farrago the previous year, I was still a lot involved in student journalism, and there was the national student paper, called National U, and it wasn’t my idea I must say, but it was a very good idea, it was the idea of my then and still best friend Imre Salusinszky who’s also been a uni student with me at Melbourne—we thought that it would be a good idea to report federal politics from Canberra for National U. And so we hit on this idea of driving up to Canberra, which we did in Imre’s father’s Leyland P76—I kid you not—we would stay at the cheapest hotel we could find, which was the Ethos out at—what was then the outskirts, out at Hackett—down at probably—it’s gone now, the Ethos.
And we would get ourselves into Parliament House, which you could—into this building—which you could with relative ease in those days. And conduct interviews with politicians as we could find them, and then write them up for National U. I have to say the whole thing was inspired by a kind of desire—I mean actually, literally undergraduate kind of journalism desire to emulate Hunter S. Thompson who was an American journalist who pioneered, invented this gonzo style of journalism—Hunter S. Thompson portrayed himself as the national affairs desk of Rolling Stone magazine, and we thought this was very wonderful and hilarious and so we tried to do that ourselves.
E Helgeby: Where did this interest in journalism come from—did you have that as a—did you study that at university as well…
S Mills: Well no, I studied Greek history—I didn’t even study Australian history as part of my history degree. I think the most modern history I studied probably would have been the Tudors. So it’s very odd actually—how did I get interested—well I was—I suppose I should say my parents were conservative. I mean I’m sure they were Liberal voters, and yet from an early stage—like I mean I can remember when I was an early teenager, I was interested in election nights, I can remember listening to—it must have been the ’66 election—certainly the ’69 election, I clearly remember. I remember my mother showing me some ‘how to vote’ cards from when we were living at Lara, so that was before—we left there in ’65, and I was interested in these little ‘how to vote’ cards—well it was interesting because Bob Hawke had been a candidate for Corio in ’63, and I suspect my parents voted against him—I’m sure they did.
So I was always interested—you know, I got interested in politics through elections I think, and I had—I got interested in Labor as a result of Whitlam’s brilliant personality and reform drive, particularly as I approached conscription possibilities, so I’m talking late teenage here, 18—so I became rusted on Labor with Whitlam from ’69 onwards. So you asked about journalism, and I’ve answered about politics, but I think the journalism then followed. I really got interested in student journalism, working for Farrago—editing—I had worked for previous editors in previous years at Farrago and I enjoyed it a lot. I enjoyed the mechanics of putting out the newspaper with the then available technology, which was then pretty primitive—off-set printing—I just thought that it was a great way of seeing politics. I thought that journalists—I still think that journalists have an extraordinarily great vantage point onto politics. And I thought that if I could do that I would be really interested in seeing politics. So I guess I wasn’t interested in—can I say ‘mainstream’ journalism, I was interested in political journalism. And that’s—that was my ambition right from the start.
E Helgeby: And your interest in politics, and particularly on the Labor side, was this in some kind of reaction to your parents conservative approach, or did you have inspiration from other issues at university?
S Mills: Yeah probably—it was more pull factors than push factors I think. I just couldn’t believe—I mean I accepted that my parents were very conservative, but I couldn’t see anything other old age and habit driving it. I thought that as a young person looking at Australia in the late ’60, early ’70s, I thought that Labor was clearly the only way that you could regard the future of the country. I thought that Labor had this view of what governments could do, which was expansive. And that was so exhilarating, and of course I mean—the fortieth anniversary of the ‘It’s Time’ speech, and that speech just laid it all out, this huge, creative role for government.
E Helgeby: When did you say you first came to this building, to Old Parliament House, in 1975 then?
S Mills: Mmm.
E Helgeby: Tell me, what was your first impression of the building and the place?
S Mills: Well look it was—we probably made a couple of visits here, a couple of trips, Imre and I. The building was—for me it was a very, very exciting place to be in. It was a one of its own, it was the heart of government, it was the heart of a Labor government. You could walk in as we were, long-haired students, and roam the corridors and interview people. I mean we must have arranged the interviews in advance, but my recollection is of literally roaming these corridors and knocking on doors, and securing interviews with people. Now it’s probably—as I say we probably must have arranged things in advance—and it was very exciting as I say. We had this gonzo idea of reporting politics on the edge, and of injecting ourselves into the story—that was the style of it—so it was very thrilling, and exciting, and funny, as I say it looks a bit undergraduate in hindsight.
E Helgeby: From what you were saying it sounds like almost as if there was no security here…
S Mills: The security was pretty thin—they had little paper passes that you could get, but certainly once you were in, I don’t recall that there was any limit on where you could go. At least we—well we certainly didn’t go down the prime minister’s office area, but in the offices of back benchers—now I think we interviewed John Gorton, and we interviewed probably a couple of the Labor MPs from Melbourne—Pete Steedman and some others—and getting into those offices I just don’t think was particularly difficult.
E Helgeby: Where did these papers that you worked for in Farrago and National U—I think you worked for both at the same time…
S Mills: Well no, separately. So I was the full-time editor of Farrago in ’74, so that coincided with the ’74 election, but the only times we were making visits—having finished—having completed my one year appointment as editor, I returned to study for my honours year in ’75, and it was during the honours year that we indulged ourselves with these visits to Canberra.
E Helgeby: Where did they take place—student papers—where did they stand politically?
S Mills: Oh well Farrago depended on the editor largely. So there was no ongoing editorial policy, but I mean this was—they were left-wing papers. National U was much more left-wing than Farrago, National U—you know, you look back now on the whole conservative effort to destroy the AUS, which was very successful, and the reasons for that were apparent—the drivers of it I think were apparent in National U at the times that we’re talking about, in the mid-’70s. There was a lot of support in National U for overseas’ student movements in Palestine, and essentially for very left-wing student movements in south-east Asia. Obviously there was still a Vietnam War element as well, so they were pretty left-wing. Hence, I must say, the kind of novelty of reporting mainstream, Canberra politics in them. Hadn’t been typically done before.
E Helgeby: That’s an interesting one. Did the work you did for the student papers in any way influence you to become a mainstream reporter, or had you already set that path?
S Mills: No, it certainly influenced me. I may have kind of said it, but Farrago confirmed it. Being editor, I don’t think I was a particularly good editor I must say—as I say it was—I was the last person doing it solo, and it was very stressful, you’d just have to let a lot of stuff—you could only concentrate on a few things and a lot of stuff just happened. So looking back on it, I can see gaps and flaws and so forth, not that I spent a lot of time leafing through it, but it was a great experience to be the editor. You obviously wrote a lot, but you commissioned and you designed, you structured it, you chose issues, and that was very exciting, very satisfactory.
E Helgeby: Where did you actually do the work? I mean you were—where you staying at this hotel and doing—effectively doing your work there? Or did you have some space here, or lent some space here…
S Mills: No, we certainly had no space here. We had a couple of contacts in the Press Gallery—John Jost was the then chief political correspondent of The Age newspaper. Lovely guy, and he kind of—maybe he signed us in, now that I think about it—there was also—but no, sorry, to answer the question we had no working space here, we would just tape record interviews on cassette tapes, transcribe them. Usually handwrite our articles—you know, there’s no—National U publication schedule, it certainly wasn’t weekly, it was probably fortnightly or—so I mean there was no deadline pressure.
E Helgeby: And you yourselves made the approaches to the politicians you wanted to interview?
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: So there wasn’t an intermediary who sort of got you in?
S Mills: No, no, we—that’s how we did it. And God knows what they thought they were getting, but anyway they spoke to us.
E Helgeby: In 1976 I believe you joined The Age…
S Mills: I should say, there’s one memorable incident, before we get to ’76, from our student days, because there was of course the non-members’ bar in this building, which was a great and magnificent and exciting place to be. It was a pretty—if you saw it now you’d think ‘God, what a low-grade pub,’ but it was—then it was the refreshment centre for the parliament of Australia and the journalists would congregate there. I seem to recall that they didn’t poor beer in glasses, they just gave you a can, and so I recall that there was—and of course everybody was smoking, so the place was pretty grotty, filled with smoke, and filled with drunken journalists. And I do remember, you’d stand in there and you’d desperately try to pick up—as we were student journalists—pick up what had happened during the day, and pick up gossip, and participate in it—and again, this was all part of the gonzo indulgence.
But I do remember—I’m sure I remember an argument that developed between two journalists: Laurie Oakes who was then at the Melbourne Sun pic[torial] and Brian Toohey who I guess was then at the Fin Review, not sure—but there was an argument that developed, and it was so hilarious because it was a shouting argument. And these two blokes that I just named were big men, even then, with big bellies, and the argument consisted of these two gigantic men bellying each other as they were shouting—it was as about as physical fight as you could get without any blows being thrown, because of course that would have been impossible, but it was a marvellous, exciting scene in the old non-members’ bar.
E Helgeby: I want to come back later to Laurie Oakes and various other individuals—but the story, certainly that’s a very interesting one.
S Mills: Just pushing each other’s bellies, it was great.
E Helgeby: So back to 1976, you joined The Age.
S Mills: I joined The Age as a cadet journalist in 1976 down in Melbourne.
E Helgeby: So you went back to Melbourne after your stint here with the student papers?
S Mills: Well they were just—we never lived here, we just drove up and stayed at this hotel, but no we were living in Melbourne throughout. And because I was still studying there, so I finished uni ’75, was hired immediately now by The Age—I look back on that and think ‘well how fantastic was that?’ But I think the Farrago experience was critical there. Journalists—newspapers were still only just starting to hire university graduates. Typically newspapers had hired school-leavers, so I wasn’t the first, but I was one of the first graduates, and it was a bit of an effort for newspapers to acculturate young staff—cadet journalists—and especially graduate cadets into the news making process, and into the disciplines of work.
And I probably would have been particularly difficult to acculturate, I remember I didn’t cut my hair, I didn’t iron my shirts, and I had to be taken aside by a senior colleague—Jo Wiles—who said look you’ve just got to iron these shirts—and so you know I took a lot of getting into the thing. I was assigned to work on the finance desk, which was—like I had never, ever taken any interest in the markets or business, and I think that was a real ‘chuck him in the deep end and see how he goes’ but actually I enjoyed that a lot, I learnt a lot from the business editor, Graham McDougall, and other colleagues on that desk. I used to go down to the Old Melbourne Stock Exchange and they would—at the end of each day’s trading—and pick up the metre long printouts of how the stocks had gone, which is where I met Greg Hywood, who was then a young journalist at the Fin Review. So that was my first year in journalism, I really, really wanted to go to Canberra.
But you do a couple of rounds of—I did finance, I did some court reporting, I—you do the shipping news, you just do the chores. I wanted to get to Canberra, I was lucky enough to be sent to Canberra—pretty sure the first time I got sent to Canberra was in ’77, that was as a sessional, so again not as a fulltime member of the bureau, but they would send extra staff up—one extra staff up, a junior staff member for when parliament was in session. And I was accommodated at the Manuka Travel Lodge which was a big step up from the Ethos, but it was still pretty grotty. The then Travel Lodge which is now called something else down by the Jerrabomberra avenue roundabout there—princely accommodation I thought, it was really exciting. So I would come up and basically report the Senate for sessions, and I guess I became a fulltime member, so I was kind of permanently transferred up to Canberra—it was ’78 or ’79, I forget where the transition was.
E Helgeby: You made some notes—the notes you gave us before the interview—that you were very, if I quote you, ‘very ambitious to report national politics’. This follows on from you interest prior to student days, or during your student days and student newspaper—did you find any conflict at all between your views on politics and say the views of The Age?
S Mills: Good question…
E Helgeby: Were they on the same side of politics as you were?
S Mills: Well good question, it was often a critique—it still is a critique of the Press Gallery that journalists are of a left-wing persuasion, and well I was. This was during the Fraser years, and I think the dynamic was that journalists, whether or not they’re partisan, are in fact anti-incumbent. And so there was certainly an anti-Fraser government air in the Gallery when I was there, but you know it’s the government—you deal with the government, you deal with the ministers—the prime minister was a very powerful figure, obviously, so you know that’s just the nature of the challenge and there’s certainly no opportunity—even if there was a desire—there’s certainly no opportunity in mainstream journalism to inject your own little bits of personal politics. A lot of the journalism is reporting hard news, who said what, when, and especially at a junior level like I was, so I don’t think it was a particularly problematic question—I don’t think it was a very big problem reconciling these things.
E Helgeby: Raises then the question then—presumably you were interviewed by The Age before you were offered the cadetship…
S Mills: Yep.
E Helgeby: Did they query your political views at all, was that part of the sounding out of where you stood in a personal sense?
S Mills: No I don’t recall that. The only interview that I recall actually was with Ranald McDonald who was the—that was after I joined—no, I don’t recall the interview process, sorry about that. I recall, once I joined meeting Ranald McDonald who explained the superannuation, the age pension scheme to me. He was a managing director and I thought as a 21 year old and you’re thinking about superannuation, it was all a bit bizarre. But no look I was—I’m sure I was hired on the basis that I was a—the Farrago editor, that I had had that experience in actually demonstrably writing and getting interested in newspapers.
E Helgeby: So you became—so you were a regular member of the bureau here in Canberra from 1979-80 onwards?
S Mills: I forget the exact time, but yep.
E Helgeby: Could we talk a bit about the actual operations of the Press Gallery, because you moved in I presume as a relatively junior member of the Gallery?
S Mills: Yep.
E Helgeby: So how did the Press Gallery operate in general—how did it operate as an institutional organisation? Perhaps I should—how was it organised, structured, and how was the Press Gallery managed, if it was?
S Mills: Look, there was a Press Gallery committee, but I don’t—I had no involvement with it. It seems to have been—from my perception, the Gallery organised itself in an entirely organic and functional fashion around the news making process. And in particular around those press boxes, which were and still are at the head of the stairs there. So you know, there may have been some organisation—there certainly was some organisational structure which admitted journalists, which—to the Gallery—which allocated space and so forth. I didn’t see any of that. What you do see is this organic collection of journalists—radio journalists, TV journalists, newspaper journalists, occasional stringers, correspondents, newsletters and so forth—just all organised around their various news gathering cycles. And it didn’t—that didn’t require as I saw it, a lot of rule-making, organisational structure, it was very much driven by the demands of the different journalists.
E Helgeby: You mentioned that they were in fact admitted—there was some organisational or some body—how you were admitted to the Press Gallery…
S Mills: Yes.
E Helgeby: What—can you talk a bit about what that entailed?
S Mills: Look—the admission was of organisations, not individuals, so The Age was a member of the Gallery, not Stephen Mills, and so if Stephen Mills was hired by The Age to be in the Gallery, then I became a member of the Press Gallery. There certainly wasn’t an interview process or anything like that. The only time—so mainstream media, it was never a question—the only these Press Gallery rules that I recall became slightly controversial was whether or not some of the—I’m struggling for names and details—but whether or not some of the sole-traders, if I could call them that, newsletter writers or consultants, were eligible for Press Gallery membership, given that they, ‘weren’t practising journalism,’ they were doing something else, they were disseminating press releases to external third parties. So ‘is that journalism?’ So there wasn’t much—I didn’t see much of that. Organisationally, there was the Press Gallery committee, there was also the Press Club, which was and still is a separate organisation, and that was a much more prominent organisation in Press Gallery affairs than I think it is now, and there was also the Australian Journalists’ Association because all of the journalists were members of the union, of the ACT branch of the union.
E Helgeby: I believe you were a member of ACT committee, of the AJA at some point?
S Mills: I was, I was. My Age colleague and I, Simon Balderstone were part of a ‘reform ticket’, and we got elected to the ACT—we got elected to the ACT branch of the journalists’ union as Gallery representatives. It was a pretty much a shambles of an organisation, it was held together by one or two very well organised public servant journalists. Including the president, whose name—I’m sorry, it’s gone—but very capable fellow. The secretary, the fulltime secretary of the branch was Bruce Juddery who was a former Canberra Times journalist, pretty controversial fellow, I didn’t like him much I have to say. He smoked the world’s smelliest cigars, but I think he was a little bit off pace in terms of addressing some of the industrial issues that were then around. As was the union overall, I mean the union was at this stage starting to get to grips with computerisation, maybe we’ll talk about the communications technology in the Press Gallery, but this is all essentially pre-computer but you could see some of these issues arising on the horizon.
E Helgeby: Talk a bit more about The Age now—The Age obviously had more than you here, it was a group, how many reporters did they have here?
S Mills: Sure, well there was probably seven or eight in The Age bureau, similar numbers in The Sydney Morning Herald, similar numbers in The Australian Financial Review, and we were all located in the Fairfax corridor, as it was, because they’re all Fairfax newspapers, since demolished, on the roof of the Senate. So there was the structure of the bureau, it was pretty hierarchical, Michelle—there was the chief political correspondent, then and now Michelle Grattan, she’d just taken over from Jost I guess in ’76 or 7, so she was still in her early days, as we all were. There was a ‘number two’, in other words a person who was a senior but—and would take big stories and also served as a kind of bureau chief of staff, farming out work, Steven Nesbitt, a Scottish guy, and then I think Nigel Wilson, Tony Biff [?] Walker, Russel Barton—all were these kind of ‘number twos’, and then there was a bunch of other reporters, and we were basically—we had rounds, so we would cover particular departmental rounds. My rounds were—they changed a little bit over time, but essentially I did social security, I did immigration, I did aboriginal affairs, and I covered the Senate. So that was my essential round. So it wasn’t—things weren’t—the wheel wasn’t reinvented every day, if there was a social security story running it was my responsibility and…
E Helgeby: Yes, so I was going to ask you how you divided the areas of coverage, but that would have been handled by Michelle Grattan I presume, as the senior, as the one who managed the…
S Mills: Yeah I guess, I don’t recall. I mean what’s vacant, you know. What needs doing.
E Helgeby: So what was your actual working relationship with the other members of the bureau then?
S Mills: Oh look it was a fabulous—it was a fabulous experience. Well I’ll say first of all Michelle—I mean she has a—she is justly famous for her ferocious work ethic. She was incredibly prolific, precise, and she was very detailed and as I say, justly famous, I mean she would—she was determined to get it right, what she wrote, to get it accurate, and that often meant repeat phone calls to whoever it was that she was quoting, and I mean anybody in Canberra would tell you a story about having been woken up by a call from Michelle at 11 o’clock at night or something like that—you know, cobber, you know, were just remaking the second edition…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 2
S Mills: ‘Can I just check this, or can I just verify that?’ So you know, in a sense, I think people found that draining, but it was for all of the best—when I say people, I mean I think her contacts must have found it stressful and draining. But on the other hand it was for a good reason. And Michelle’s reporting, you go back and look at some of those stories from those days and you know, they are factually detailed in a way that some of the big picture, analytic stuff that she also wrote, or that others wrote, but Michelle’s approach was much more to accumulate that granular detail, and she did that very well. So ferocious work ethic—now I learnt from her what it is to be a chief political correspondent—that word ‘political’, what did that mean? Well you know, she—if I was doing a social security story, but if the social security story got big, she would intervene, she would take it over because it moved out of the policy realm into the political realm. The rule of thumb, if the prime minister was interested in it, well then the chief political correspondent is interested in it. And it has to be said, Michelle was often the source of frustration and angst, and dissatisfaction on the part of some of those ‘number twos’ that I just mentioned before, in particular for ‘stealing’ stories—that was the word that was used—and I’ve tried to explain why I can see the frustrations that are caused, it was because of her perception of politics. And actually that was a lesson: what is operating at the level of politics rather than at the level of policy?
E Helgeby: Tell me, the work you did on your rounds, was it vetted by her or by anybody else before you actually submitted it to the paper?
S Mills: Well the process—there was a typical newsgathering process which would apply whether we were in the Melbourne office or whether we were in Canberra, I mean the morning chief of staff, Nigel Balfe would ring up in the morning and usually talk to the number two, and say ‘what’s on? What are you expecting? What have you got?’ And if Melbourne had any requests for us, but an early news list is prepared on that basis, and then down in Melbourne the news editors, and the editors are refining their ideas during the day, I guess there’s an afternoon news conference where final decisions are made about what’s going where, but the critical element for me as a reporter, for any reporter, in that news process was towards the end of the day, four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock, you would get a phone call from the news editor—the news editor would ring the bureau and talk to each of us in turn: ‘what have you got? What’s your story?’ And you would explain it. That was where you were subject to tough questioning, but also where you had to strut your stuff and sell the story, as it were, to the news editor.
E Helgeby: So within the bureau here in Canberra, did you get together for regular sort of sessions to talk about these kinds of issues?
S Mills: Oh well I’ve got to tell you—‘regular get together’, we are stuck in this tiny room together so there was no need for any formal meeting. I mean the room—seven of us, it was half the size of this room we’re in now. I reckon less than half—I don’t know how we squeezed in—so you would always be aware of what every person was doing. You’d hear their phone calls. You’d hear Walker talking to the news editor, and like you didn’t have to wait to be told, everything was—in a sense it was highly efficient—I think it was pretty stressful as well—but you know so there was no kind of process involved really beyond that. Occasionally Michelle would be made aware of something and say ‘Cobber you should look at this or that,’ yeah so she was certainly across the process, for sure.
E Helgeby: A more general question, The Age would have an editorial policy I would assume, and I wondered whether such a policy, in what way would this affect your reporting and the work you did? Where there any constraints, did they have any guidelines for what they were after, or what they didn’t want to know about? In a sense something that restricts your area of operation or comment…
S Mills: Not so much an editorial policy, I mean yes The Age did have a broad editorial policy, and it was articulated in the editorials. Creighton Burns was the editor for most of my time that we’re talking about. Graham Perkin died—who was the editor of The Age in the Christmas of ’75, just prior to my starting at The Age, so I didn’t serve under Perkin. But there was still that Perkin kind of crusading element about it. Creighton Burns was a pretty gutsy kind of guy, highly intelligent, articulate, so you knew the overall kind of position of The Age, but it didn’t really operate as a constraint that I was aware of as a day to day reporter, more important I think were the news priorities that would be articulated from time to time by the news editor, or by some of the senior editorial types. I can remember, for example, when I was posted to Canberra—not as a sessional but as a fulltime member—and I had a meeting with Peter Smark since sadly passed on, Smark was a wonderful writer and an enthusiast for news. He was very keen, and I know other journalists had been told this before going up to Canberra, but he was—his message to me was ‘look, the bureau is based in Parliament House, but we want you to get out of Parliament House. We want you to get out of Parliament House and report the departments.
We want you to go and find all of these stories which are outside—not just the ins and outs of the politics, but we want to get into the real news, where policy is being made in the departments.’ And that was the mandate, that was the mission, easier said than done—and as I say, I don’t think I was Robinson Crusoe in being told that, I think lots of news editors have told their aspiring young journalists to get out of Parliament House, but in those days The Age was a much more policy focused paper. I think this is probably the better answer to your question, Edward: it wasn’t so much about broad, political constraints, but we were tasked with policy reporting, and we would—as policy would develop in Immigration or Social Security, and there were budget issues, and there were policy issues, and there were questions of new programs, and projects being developed by these departments, and I had to get across them and we would write 12 or 15 paras a night about some social security policy as it was evolving from the department, if you could get a hold of it.
And those kinds of stories are not reported these days, I have to say. Two reasons, one is the journos—the newspapers aren’t interested, second the departments have basically shut down the outlets. I could go in a talk to a deputy secretary, that was the job as a journalist, you’d go an build up your contact, you’d build their trust, you could talk to them, go out to the old Benjamin offices out at Belconnen as I did. Also no longer with us [laughs]. And talk to them off the record, but get facts and the departments—I mean that just no longer happens.
E Helgeby: What’s the Benjamin —that obviously was a significant part of—an important part of your job. How did you develop those contacts and how did you get them after all the bureaucracy—they were rather large and in many cases rather anonymous?
S Mills: Yeah, well Michelle was really helpful in that regard. Michelle had fabulous, just fabulous contacts everywhere. In the departments, in the party organisations, in the ministerial offices—so she was helpful, but you know, you ring them up. At all else, you’d just cold call: ‘can I come and see you?’ And they would often say yes.
E Helgeby: So would you do a—say a round visiting the departments on a regular basis?
S Mills: Not a routine basis, but you certainly had to stay in touch, and it was important not only to be calling these guys when you needed them at four o’clock in the afternoon for an urgent confirmation—because that’s unfair on them, so we had to build a relationship with them, a relationship of trust, you had to demonstrate your own bona fides—they knew more about this policy than I was ever going to know, they had to trust me that I wasn’t going to screw them, that was I wasn’t going to make some blunder. It was probably in their interests to inform me a little bit so that I didn’t make a blunder which would then be up to them to clear up.
E Helgeby: The other organisations in Canberra—journalist organisations, Press Gallery organisations, would presumably have people doing the same kind of job as you did, and that meant—the same public servants might be approached by many, a large number of individuals who want to have the same information.
S Mills: Well maybe, but your skill as a journalist was to get it first, or to have a good source that nobody else had. And just going back to that point about reporting policy, we compete on policy, so if the Herald had a story in my area, I got a kick in the pants if I didn’t have it myself. So there was competition for this, there was a progressive development of stories, and it was—competition is great in journalism, competition is an enormously productive engine of knowledge.
E Helgeby: I was actually going to ask you about that just now—what’s the relationship like between various groups and individuals working in the Press Gallery? Was there cooperation at any point, or were you all, as you were just describing, in a sense looking for that exclusive…
S Mills: Well it was both. I mean there was cooperation and there was competition. So—I mean a really interesting question—so in a sense, the physical arrangement of the Press Gallery first of all, all of the Fairfax papers were together, all of the News Limited papers were together. Radio Alley was all together. So there was a sense in which the corporate or commercial structures of the news organisations was presumed to lead to greater collaboration, and at two levels—at the news level which is what we’re talking about, but perhaps more importantly in terms of corporate services, so there was shared filing, shared Telex communication arrangements and so forth.
So that made sense to collate the Fairfax papers in the Fairfax corridors, but no, we competed, but we—‘mate, look, I didn’t get the press conference,’ or ‘my tape broke,’ or ‘I didn’t get this, can you give us…’ Or you know, say three people have gone to the same press conference, are you all going to type up the one? No, ‘I’ll type it up and give you copies of the transcript,’ and stuff like that. So there were efficiencies, people would cooperate to just lighten the load, but if you had a story, I mean if you had a story, you had to keep it confidential. You sometimes wouldn’t even tell other people in the bureau, I mean I don’t want to emphasise that—you certainly wouldn’t tell people in other bureaus if you were working on a good story. You would keep it quiet and then they would get the surprise when they read the paper, that was the whole point of it.
E Helgeby: So I think what I’m hearing is, that even papers within the same group, so the Fairfax group, they were competing against one another…
S Mills: Oh too right, yes. Yes, we were—for news, yes. But in a—against the backdrop of collaboration on some of the efficiencies. Let me also say that again, I’m talking about the physical colocation, but also in this building as well, it’s not as if you could get away from people if you wanted to, we’re all thrown in together in the Press Gallery, we would then all go down to lunch down next to the—there was the canteen, we used to call it Lazlo’s because there was this, I think Hungarian chef, I think he was a chef, he may just have been—I don’t know, it was pretty dreadful, but Lazlo’s, we would all storm down there and take your tray along. And you know, you’d sit often with other journos, you’d just sit there and chew the fat and catch up on the day—literally chew the fat—but no, you would talk about what was going on, you know Michelle would sit there with Laurie Oakes, and with Paul Kelly and they’d chat and you know.
Important stage I think in opinion formation, and probably those arrangements actually were quite critical I think in the Press Gallery as a whole, coming to formulate views—now we’re not talking about who’s got a scoop, they would certainly not disclose that, but they would certainly share perspectives on the overall state of the government, the overall state of a minister, whether a minister ‘had to go’ if there was some scandal running—whether the opposition’s line of attack on something was credible or not working—these kinds of issues were chatted about over the tables at Lazlo’s, and as I say, I think that was quite an important stage of opinion formation. Whether that happens in the new building—I don’t think it can: new building’s larger, there’s no Lazlo’s—and they probably are busier as well. We thought we were busy then, one deadline per day, compared to what they’re doing now.
E Helgeby: The impression you get reading today’s newspapers compared to the time we’re talking about now, is that—all papers within the same group print the same material with very little difference. Is that—was that—that didn’t happen back in the days you were working…
S Mills: No, they were quite different products. They would occasionally share copy, but copy sharing arrangements were controversial, were frowned on, and were—I beg your pardon, that’s probably overstating it—they were special—copy would be share on special occasions across the Fairfax papers, but typically the Canberra bureaus were there to compete and provide their own coverage to their own papers, on the argument that we were a Melbourne paper, so we were going to be much more interested in the Melbourne ministers, Melbourne opposition people, and a Victorian perspective on policy than the Sydney people were.
E Helgeby: Talking a bit more—the mundane, if such a thing really exists in this world, what was a typical world like for you as a member of the Press Gallery back in this period? When did you start work and walk through—let’s call it an ordinary day.
S Mills: Yeah. Certainly I listened to radio news in the morning, whatever else had happened, I must admit in my later years we got into the habit of taping AM and listening to it at a more civilised hour, like half past eight in the morning. That was pretty civilised, but no, you’d get some kind of an idea of what had happened from radio, and you’d certainly consume all the newspapers at the beginning of the day, but you wouldn’t actually front at the office until 10:30-11, something like that, you wouldn’t be expected before then. You might have had—if you were working on something you might have been out and about, you might have gone somewhere to do an interview, but there wouldn’t have been much happening before as I say 10:30-11 would be when this first conference—first phone call happens with the Melbourne office about what’s going on.
There would be lunch, and sometimes that might be a formal Press Club lunch say, where there was an event, but often it was just lunch where you would go off to a restaurant perhaps, or down here to Lazlo’s and talk about stuff. You would actually begin the news gather I guess during the afternoon, but it often wasn’t until—our deadlines were so late compared to now—we would not really start writing until later afternoon—five o’clock, six o’clock, okay it’s busy. But you’re filing—and that’s when you’re filing your news for a deadline which was perhaps—well it depends on what page it was going in, but a page one deadline wouldn’t have been until nine pm, something like that. Again it seems fantastic compared to pages today which get locked up at four o’clock in the afternoon.
E Helgeby: Did The Age have more than one edition at that time?
S Mills: Yep, definitely. There was a first edition, and then it could be remade for the second. And the first edition was the country edition, so it’s the one we actually got here in Canberra, but it was only a small—relatively small circulation. The big one was the late one, the second edition—sometimes a third if there was some special cause, but typically there were two editions and the second edition was the one that would circulate in Melbourne and would be the big circulation one.
E Helgeby: And so your deadline—you obviously would have had deadlines for all these editions?
S Mills: Yeah, oh gosh Edward—you could get stuff into the paper at 10 o’clock at night. And did, but it was—you had to make Melbourne aware that something was coming, but they could hold a space for you if you were reliable, you could put it in. You could sometimes phone copy in direct to the office—sometimes direct to the stone, and you know it could be put—small corrections, extra paragraphs could be put in late at night. 11, you know, 12, but as I say, those late editions, special arrangements. Certainly the concept of the first and second edition was absolutely set in cement, and if you got it in the first edition, you could then rewrite it for the second.
E Helgeby: And this was a daily routine?
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: So when would your working day normally finish?
S Mills: Um, nine? But occasionally there’d be dinner, maybe, well I can remember when I was a cadet in the Melbourne, so back in 1976 when I started, I was on what was called a 2 to 11 shift. It started at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, work through to 11. So 2 to 11, for most journalists that day they would miss every edition if they were working 2 to 11, but as a junior staff, I was required to stay back until 11, and you would monitor the radio news, the ABC news, so if there was anything on the news, so there was a reason to stay there until 11. And commercial news as well, you were monitoring the news and you would keep the news desk informed if there was stuff happening quite late.
So I mean we would go to dinner up to the Golden Age Hotel, or some of the other ones around there—have a steak, have a couple of beers, and then go back to the office and keep working. I mean it sounds fant—I mean it was fantastic but you know, you would still be doing important, relevant work at eight o’clock, nine o’clock at night, and in Canberra, look, if there something on, you were there until stumps, you were there until it finished. You might be going down to the non-members’ bar, or you might be moving around the building, but there was—look there was nothing else to do, it was work, it was fantastic, it was exciting. So you stayed there.
E Helgeby: How would you describe the working conditions in this building and—what sort—what was it really like to be in the Press Gallery back in those days?
S Mills: Well I’m glad you asked that, so working conditions, I mean—well I’ll say, first of all I loved this building, I loved working in this building, I love the access, I loved King’s Hall where everything would happen, I’d love the Press Gallery, you’d just be constantly bumping into people, so it’s small size was a real benefit. But I have to say, if there was—I think back—so the flip back of that small size was that it was extremely crowded and so you know, if I could just describe the noise in this bureau, at say six o’clock at night, so you’ve got seven journos in there on typewriters. Okay, hammering away because we’re all busy at that stage, in this tiny little room. The radio is going because we’re constantly monitoring ABC, we’d have it on ABC news and PM—the public affairs radio program PM was a major event for us, they reported a lot of politics and so forth—so the radio is going, this air conditioning is going because it’s very fuggy in there, it’s hot, people talk on telephones, you could hear every conversation if you wanted to.
It was just this intense—oh and the squawk box of course, if Parliament is sitting you’ve got the little parliamentary speakers going, so just this noise and it was actually exhilarating. Sometimes I can remember thinking ‘this is fabulous,’ because just the sense of excitement and energy in the place. We’re typing on sheets of paper, and we are—I’ve just got to say a little bit about the technology here, so this is being Telexed down to the Melbourne office, and the Telex officers were in the Fairfax corridor, so just outside our door there was the corridor, and just on the other side of the door was this minute office where there were two big, industrial Telex setups and these were manned by the guys who actually worked over in the old—is it West or East block?—where the archives building is…
E Helgeby: East, East block.
S Mills: East block—that was a post office there, and their day jobs were as Telex officers there and they would come over to the Press Gallery at night—wonderful guys, Wal Merryman was this very unflusterable fellow, and there was another guy called Curly, who was a really kind of knockabout bloke, but they were—so obviously the Telex machine’s adding to the noise, they got the—they’re typing our stories and retyping them and sending them down to Melbourne—at the same time of course there’s and incoming—you’d have an AAP wire service, or Telex service coming in with the AAP service, which would occasionally produce metres and metres of stuff, which would get torn off, and if there was a relevant story or a press release or something, these pieces of paper would be passed around the office too. So the noise, the reeking of stuff, the paper based—there was press releases, there was bits of Telex copy all around the place—so you know, messy and chaotic, but as I say, pretty thrilling I must say.
E Helgeby: How did you—I mean did you say there were seven of you in this small space?
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: How did this—did you all get along, I mean didn’t you—were there not times when you got on each other’s nerves and perhaps were prevented from doing your job simply by the level of noise and other interruptions?
S Mills: Well not that I recall, no. I suppose it’s strange but you know, I mean it was—they were great guys to work with, and I say mostly guys. I mean there was—I was succeeded by Kate Legge but with the exception of Michelle, I think it was an all-male office, which is kind of interesting…
E Helgeby: So Michelle was in this office as well as the bureau chief…
S Mills: Oh yes.
E Helgeby: In this same—sharing with the other six…
S Mills: Yeah, yeah. She had relatively—she had a desk in the corner which was protected by a screen, so that as chief political correspondent if she was doing something super confidential people couldn’t necessarily see when they came into the office if she was there or what she was working on, and you know, she also had the luxury of one of those old vinyl armchairs so she could sit there—so if somebody wanted to come in, as they would occasionally and need to talk to Michelle, and they would have a close conversation kind of behind this screen. So that could happen, but no, Michelle was certainly in there. I mean—yeah, about seven of us. And of course our office assistant Alex Zubrzycki , marvellous woman, she would come in during the day—she was a very refined Polish woman. The wife of George Zubrzycki from ANU, and as university students, friends of the later pope, the Polish pope. So Alex was a very—she would put these little cotton gloves on, and snip the newspapers, keep our files—we had paper based files on subject matters and also personal files of our—what stories we’d written, which were just invaluable research items.
E Helgeby: So she was the eight person in the office…
S Mills: Yeah probably.
E Helgeby: …or did she come in at times when you weren’t there?
S Mills: Well she only worked during the day so she would…
E Helgeby: So when you weren’t really…
S Mills: Yeah she probably left at four or five, something like that, after having made Michelle another cup of tea. Michelle drank so much tea that sometimes she’d get sick of the taste and would only drink hot water, and I thought that was just the most extraordinary thing [laughs].
E Helgeby: You mentioned that your office was on the Senate side, effectively above—in the temporary buildings that were there on the Senate side…
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: How did—what was the passage like—did you walk out in the open across the roof…
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: …to get to the main entrance and come down into—on the Reps side?
S Mills: Yeah so you would walk from the press boxes, you would walk out—there’s the little door that goes into the Reps Gallery—Press Gallery—then you would take a left, and that’s where it’s currently blocked off, but where it’s blocked off was the beginning of—they called it a catwalk—which is essentially a kind of—it was a boardwalk of slatted wood which must have been on some iron railing or something like that, and there was—it was sheltered, there was a tin roof and a kind of—you know that kind of bottle glass? It was kind of opaque glass, but it was essentially exposed to the elements: if it was cold day it was cold, and if it was a hot day it was bloody hot under the tin roof, and you would go over there and first thing on the left was the prime minister’s press office, so David Barnett, Owen Mongo [?]Lloyd, Alistair Drysdale—they worked in there.
And you know, you could drop in on them. But the catwalk continued and arrived at—well I haven’t been on the Senate side, but arrived on the Senate side near a door that went into one of the public galleries in the Senate. And so for example, on that catwalk—and you could hear Michelle—if I’m sitting in the office, you could hear Michelle in her heels coming over this hollowly sound on the catwalk, as I say, ferocious work ethic, she was just always on the job—but also, members of the public, there’d be public tours and school tours coming over this catwalk sometimes to go into—to continue their tour of the chambers.
E Helgeby: How was access to the rooms themselves—there’s at least one rather strange story about one journalist who tried to enter through into his office on the roof and got stuck because he wanted to try and get in through the window.
S Mills: Don’t know—no, can’t confirm that one. No, egress and access was strictly conventional through the doorways, there was—because there were these public tours—the Fairfax corridor was distinguished by having its own Senate guard—member of the staff who had to sit there—world’s most boring day, he’d sit in the corridor on this little chair and smoke his—roll his—and against the eventuality that rarely happened that members of the public turning left into the corridor rather than right into the Senate chamber, at which point he’d leap up and tell them in no uncertain terms to go away. And I forget his name—he would croak at Michelle every time: ‘hi Michelle’ as she would walk past. But he was replaced by a sign saying ‘no entry,’ and left nothing but this kind of nicotine stain on the glass of the corridor. It was a funny corridor, it was just long enough for corridor football, so we did play footy a little bit up and down there, and the tops of the walls were marked with bad kicks.
You know, you got very close friends with your—with The Age people but made a lot of friends in the Herald bureau and the Fin bureau as well. I could remember the Herald people, they were all Sydneysiders, Russel Barton, Scott Milson, Tom Mockridge who went on to a bit career with Paul Keating, now with News Limited, Paul Kelly, Amanda Buckley—so they were all great people. I can remember once walking once into that Herald bureau and they had the TV going, it must have been State of Origin, and it was the first time I’d see rugby league played, I couldn’t believe that they were actually watching it, because from an AFL background I just thought this was utterly bizarre behaviour but you know, that’s the acculturation of being in the national capital, rather than being in the state, which in those days were much more state like.
E Helgeby: Did there—almost—I think I know the answer but did—in which way did this work you were doing as a journalist in the Press Gallery impact on any social life you had?
S Mills: Oh, well it was one and the same. Our—lots of young, single people in Canberra, none of whom live in Canberra, or none of whom are from Canberra, all of whom are stuck in the national capital—thrown together in these intimate working environments and so our social life was the same as well. Weekends, well we’d often work on Sunday, but weekends—Saturdays—we would go for these country drives, we would go for barbecues, and I can remember with Patrick Walters from The Australian, and Simon Balderstone who was…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 3
S Mills: …who was a very good mate of mine, still is, from The Age. Russell Barton—others—we would just get in our cars and drive out to Angle Crossing, Major’s Creek, we’d have barbecues, we’d kick the footy, we’d go for a walk through the bush, and come back and that was the weekend. I mean huge amounts of drinking, parties, there’d be parties at somebody’s house, and you’d have—it would be a house warming, or a farewell, something like that. There was—so a lot of social life, a lot of relationships would start up…
E Helgeby: So you were single at this time?
S Mills: Well my now wife—my then partner, Helen, was working in Melbourne, we’d met in ’76, so we do go back. She is a journalist as well, was a journalist, with The Age, and then with the ABC and ended up coming up to Canberra—Helen O’Neil—came up to Canberra as a radio reporter with Radio Public Affairs, so she was reporting for AM and PM in I guess ’81, like that, ’82—she was certainly—she certainly covered the ’83 election campaign, the Fraser-Hawke election campaign in ’83. She was the number two in the bureau, working for a fellow called John Mills who sadly died shortly afterwards, but he was a nice guy. And so when she moved up, we actually moved in together. We got a house in Red Hill, so previous to that I’d been living in The Age flat in Forrest, The Age owned property around the place, and there was a flat in National Circuit, which was a pretty spare kind of place—actually, it was comfortable. But when Helen got here, so we had a bit more of a civilised lifestyle in beautiful Red Hill.
E Helgeby: So the work in that sense was, as you said, work and social life was one and the same during the years that you worked in the Press Gallery…
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: Tell me about this building, what parts of the building apart from your office and the Press Gallery did you use every day, for one purpose or another?
S Mills: Press Gallery, non-members’ bar, canteen, obviously when the parliament was sitting the chambers, King’s Hall. But you would be constantly roaming these corridors. You could go anywhere, except for the corridor leading from King’s Hall to the prime minister’s office. And that was out of bounds. And anywhere else—you had to—I’ve kind of mentioned this thing of getting out of parliament, but it never quite worked, most of your time was spent in parliament. Especially when parliament was sitting, because the ministers were here. And yes, it’s all very good to talk to a departmental secretary, a deputy secretary or something like that, but you needed to talk to the minister’s office. And build a relationship with the minister, so some of my ministers were Michael Mackellar, Ian McPhee, Margaret Guilfoyle—and I can really remember—Margaret Guilfoyle’s office was probably—it was on the Senate side obviously, and it was in the far back corner, what I suppose is the south-west corner of the building, and it was so difficult to get to, it was a long walk and there little ramps, stuff like that—roaming around this building, but I would often go down there. Her principal private secretary was a chap called Rod Kemp, who later became a minister, and I had some excellent conversations with him, I look back on those with—you know, he was a bit of a warrior, as you’d expect, but he gave me a lot of time and I really—I think we had quite a good relationship.
E Helgeby: So did you—you obviously attended sessions in the chambers?
S Mills: Yep.
E Helgeby: As a reporter—you sat up in the Press Gallery?
S Mills: Yes.
E Helgeby: How often—was this a regular part of your job or was it normally when the ministers—when subject matter that you were dealing with was up for discussion?
S Mills: Well you’d do every Question Time. And I—for my sins tended to do the Senate, so I wasn’t in the Reps—you know, the Reps was where all of the action was, I did a lot of the Senate—figures like John Carrick, Ken Wriedt, some of the lesser lights it has to be said, of the Fraser government, Ian Wilson, John Barton, Gareth Evans, so they were good Question Times, but it was much more sedate then, and now—especially then—but you would always do Question Time. You would have to actually—talking about the kind of routine of news gathering there, you would take your own handwritten notes in Question Time. Sometimes, if you were really clever you could before you leave your bureau you could put your tape recorder on next to the squawk box, and record Question Time that way, but then you had to go through the whole tape so it was a bit inefficient.
There was no substitute for being there, you’d take your own handwritten notes. If there was a question that was news relevant and you were going to quote, you had to get the pinks, I think they were called, and greens, from the respective chambers, which were Hansard’s essentially first draft, which they sent to ministers for approval, and if you got those you could also get—sometimes there was a dispute as to whether the minister had tidied—the minister or the parliamentarian had tidied up the quote, and if you were able to get the raw Hansard, as opposed to what—so that was quite interesting. But it was again amazingly paper based, these were carbon copies with handwritten amendments, from Hansard or from the minister’s office, and you basically had to get a physical hold of these things.
E Helgeby: How did you find the experience in the chambers? Were they ordinary, or were they inspiring—what was your impression of effectively the chambers worked?
S Mills: Well in my very first times in coming up to Canberra as a student journo, it was—possibly the most thrilling thing I could have done to sit in the chamber, I thought that was—I think I can remember Cairns giving his ‘heart on the sleeve’ speech the day after he resigned, standing at the back bench. And you know again, so that was ’75, Whitlam government era—but even—not even, but there were some great Hayden-Fraser battles, and in the Senate it was always a kind of second eleven—you had a feeling that it wasn’t quite where the real action was. But you know occasionally there would be something quite sharp. John Carrick was the government leader in the Senate and the minister for education I guess. I didn’t realise what a distinguished career he had had in the New South Wales Liberal Party, it’s only something that I’ve since learnt.
As I saw him, he was a rather old and—he also had a distinguished war time service—as I saw him, he was a rather old, shadow of himself, he had a bit of shake as he spoke, and I felt it was—he was not the most energetic defender and advocate for the Fraser government there, and as I see there were a couple of second order ministers, whilst on the Labor side there—Ken Wriedt was very gentlemanly, but as I say, Barton, Evans, I do recall some of the others—and so there was a sense of opposition surge, I think. Look, it was like watching a really, really slow game of chess. You had to be there for every move, but not much happened quickly.
E Helgeby: So the seven of you would sort of one day descend on the Senate and—or try to cover—how did that work out?
S Mills: No, no, nobody ever set foot in the Senate except me—oh Michelle would occasionally drop in—no, no—look there were seating limits, so there were two seats for The Age in the Reps Press Gallery, Michelle and whoever was the number two…
E Helgeby: So you covered all the areas—all the matters that would be coming…
S Mills: For Question Time, yeah, that was the only time that it was really for. I referred before to sessional reporters, so sessional reporters were sent up explicitly to cover parliament, but over time that concept pretty rapidly fell away. The only person who was actually in the Gallery—the only media outlet that was actually in the Gallery at all times was AAP, and they were providing a full service coverage, so there was no need for us to spend a lot of time in the Gallery outside Question Time.
E Helgeby: Although you did—apparently you—you said you spent Question Time in the Senate…
S Mills: With the exception of Question Times, the journalists tended not to be inside the Gallery—yes, inside the chamber’s gallery.
E Helgeby: Well some technical questions—what sort of equipment, if any, did you use during your days in the Press Gallery? Talking about then, up to 1983.
S Mills: Yeah, well typewriter, cassette tape recorder, little microcassettes I think were just coming in then, but it was mostly these larger style cassettes.
E Helgeby: What sort of typewriters are we talking about—electronic ones?
S Mills: Oh no.
E Helgeby: The old fashioned…
S Mills: The old fashioned hammer away, that’s right, and then they’d be sitting on your desk and if you needed desk space you’d tip them up on their ends and use the desk space for writing or whatever, reading a newspaper.
E Helgeby: Did that change over the years that you were there, up until 1983? I thought technology had sort of started to become a factor, certainly from the early ’80s onwards.
S Mills: Not here, I’m pretty sure we, in ’83 when I left, the bureau we were still using typewriters. At the ABC, Helen used these Nagra equipment, and I see in the Press Gallery there’s one of those on display, you know they weighed about half a ton, and they were manually edited. I can remember going around to see her in the office, and she’s done an interview with somebody, and she’s editing it, which involved literally splicing the tape if there was an um or an ah in the minister’s answer, which would sound bad on radio, they would physically cut it out and splice them together—amazing, painstaking work, digitisation just changes these work practices.
E Helgeby: When you went out talking to for example departmental staff or others who you talked about—how did you make notes, did you do it shorthand or did you have recorders?
S Mills: A combination, I had a bit of shorthand, and you would take hand written notes but you’d back it up—if it was on the record—you’d back it up with a tape recorder.
E Helgeby: And that was the case right from the beginning when you
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: What sort of—can you remember what sort of tape recorders you were using?
S Mills: I can’t remember what they were called—I can jolly well see them in my mind—they were Nationals I think, and they had a series of taps at the front where you could play, record, stop, start—probably the size of a big Kleenex box. I mean they were the ants’ pants. I mean as I say, microcassettes were starting to come in. We used them a lot—we used to record, as I say, we used to record news bulletins if we weren’t there. Or we’d record PM, PM might have an interview with somebody that we’re going to—relevant to a story that we’re writing and so we’d record it and then transcribe that little bit of interview, put it in the story.
E Helgeby: What kind of shorthand did you use—Pitman’s?
S Mills: Pitman’s yeah. When I started as a cadet, they—I was given shorthand classes—all of the cadets were given shorthand classes, we were cruelly irresponsible in term so our disrespect for the Pitman’s teacher who was brought in, Mrs Travis, and probably should have learnt a lot more than we did. But I still use a bit of shorthand—it’s a great skill to have, a lot of it’s gone but you know, I was capable of—well I think most journos would have a few outlines, very few had perfect shorthand. Court reporters, there was a reporter called Prue Inness had perfect shorthand. And she would come back from the court with pages and pages of columns of excellent shorthand. For the kind of work I was doing, you rarely needed—you rarely had—were going to be in a position where you had a one-off access to the quote like you do in a court. You would always be able to back it up, but you certainly needed to have a record of generally where the conversation had gone, what the key points were, and sometimes journalists would compare their notes—literally compare their notes as to what had been said, and it was quite important to establish that as a record.
E Helgeby: Tell me, what sort of interaction, if any, did you have with staff at Old PH? I’m not just talking about the other journalists, but other staff, other people who were working here?
S Mills: So ministerial staff?
E Helgeby: Staff of any kind.
S Mills: Yeah well certainly ministerial and opposition staff. So I mentioned Rod Kemp and he just sticks in my mind, but you really had to get into the ministers’ offices. Obviously the press officers—the press secretaries were the principal ones that you would deal with. And—well there was occasionally social opportunities, so we used to—having described my AFL background you’ll understand my reluctance to participate in the touch footy that used to take place out in the front lawns here, where there’s currently much more important Tent Embassy, but we used to play touch footy out there, and that would involve journos and opposition staffers. So I can remember for example Wayne Swann was an occasional touch football player, Hayden staffers as well were there. So that was a nice bit of—people also went running a lot from this building, and do the two lakes at lunchtime and that wasn’t just journos, that was other staff people.
E Helgeby: What about people like the Hansard staff—did you have any dealings with them?
S Mills: Nup, never. Don’t think I ever knew them.
E Helgeby: Which way would your work…
S Mills: Oh with the exception of course for the Senate records party, which was the annual end of session bacanal. You know, that would take place—I don’t know why Senate records had the best party in the House, but they did. There was a lot of drinking in the building, I mean I don’t want to overstate it, but I don’t want to ignore it either, so you know, if we’re all in there together at six, seven, eight o’clock at night, there’s ample opportunity to get beer. So most of the offices would have a fridge, a beer fridge that was run on a collective basis, everybody would put in five bucks or something like that, and pay 50 cents for a can of beer and you’d get through a couple of cans per night. I think it was Mungo McCallum who probably coined the phrase about how he was writing a column and that it was a ‘six can column.’ There was lots and lots of drinking, and then I haven’t even mentioned the parties, that’s just drinking at work.
E Helgeby: Did you have a fridge in your Gallery office as well?
S Mills: Well we didn’t have—I think the Fin Review tried to do a fridge, but no there was News Limited fridge—finally I guess economies of scale—soaked up the small competitors and there was a News Limited fridge over in the offices by the press box, and that was the best one.
E Helgeby: And these were regular…
S Mills: And that was its name: ‘News Limited fridge.’
E Helgeby: Were the parties a regular function, or was that only at certain types of year—end of sessions…
S Mills: End of sessions mostly, but also there were lots of—not lots, but there was occasional—like an industry association would have a function, and there would be—so essentially they’re lobbyist, now there was one in particular, it was the Wine and Brandy Producers’ Association who had an annual dinner. I mean I don’t even have to say the rest do I? There was one dinner that I went to that took place at the old Lobby restaurant, and it was just this most gigantic piss-up. I don’t remember any brandy I must say, but certainly there was a lot of wine.
E Helgeby: And the Press Gallery members were invited to all these kind of functions?
S Mills: Invited to, they existed in order to impress the journalists. They were lobbying the media.
E Helgeby: So they’re not lobbying the politicians, but lobbying the media instead.
S Mills: I mean they did that as well, but the annual Wine and Brandy Producers’ dinner—I mean they probably had a politician come along and speak, I can’t remember the formal details, but it was essentially—it was an availability of alcohol for journalists. It was not a complicated formula I’ve got to say. Whether it worked for them is another matter, I mean strictly speaking in terms of whether they got any better coverage, I don’t think they did to be perfectly honest, but they certainly made some lifelong friends.
E Helgeby: You obviously—during the time that you were in the Press Gallery, this is up until 1983, they must—there would have been times when parliament was not sitting, and or ministers—prime ministers were away. How did that impact on your work? Would you still stay here when there were session—had finished?
S Mills: Oh definitely, yeah. Because the ministers still had their offices here, and that’s one of the great things about Old and New Parliament House, that it is always the centre of executive government. As well as being the centre of legislative activity.
E Helgeby: What about if ministers—people travelled away from Canberra, did you ever accompany them?
S Mills: Yes sometimes. I had a great trip with Ian Sinclair up to the Northern Territory when he was defence minister. I had a trip with Clyde Holding when he was aboriginal affairs minister—so it must have been early ’83 I guess, just after the election of the government. So yes, occasionally, they’d organise a press tour and you’d be away for three or four days and you’d get really great exposure to the minister, to a couple of really detailed policy issues. I had another trip in the Northern Territory which was put on I guess by some mining association, went to places like Tennant Creek, and went down holes in Tennant Creek which was—I mean it was—for Canberra journalists, the industry trips actually I don’t think were that worthwhile, because I never had that much expertise. The ministerial trips were fantastic, they were critically important, you couldn’t do it enough, to be honest, in terms of getting—because you had to get exposure to the ministers, to the issues, to the details, to the staff, and stuff like that. So those trips were good, but they were rare—certainly at my junior level.
E Helgeby: Oh okay I thought you said there were specific ministerial areas or responsibilities that you covered…
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: So was defence one of them, how…
S Mills: Yeah how did I do that—I don’t know—I certainly never covered defence.
E Helgeby: But you still got the trip?
S Mills: Yeah, yeah, good question. Don’t know, lost in the mist that one. But certainly we stayed here—I mean when parliament—to answer your earlier question—when parliament was up, the tempo fell dramatically, there’s no doubt about that. There was still stories—it would be a time you’d think ‘I’ll write a feature,’ in those days you’d not just be producing news, but you’d have an opportunity to write a couple of thousand words occasionally as a feature article. What’s now an op-ed article. So more detailed analysis of issues. You rarely had opportunity to do that during parliament, so there was that kind of opportunity when parliament is up. But also, to return to the earlier theme, Fridays in non-sitting weeks were pretty lazy days. Earlier deadlines for the Saturday papers, and basically an opportunity for lunch. So in those days we did used to actually go out to Friday long lunch, as journos. I can think of dozens of restaurants around the place where we’d sit—we’d leave the bureau, be away for a couple of hours, eat well, drink a bit, but it was mostly social—always talking about work actually, but it was in a social environment.
E Helgeby: So the pace of the work slowed down, and as you said, you would spend your time more—doing longer, considerate pieces of—rather than reporting on the news of the day.
S Mills: Exactly.
E Helgeby: I suppose thinking of today’s media, it wasn’t—it would seem to be necessary to keep—have some means of keeping in touch if something happens. So if something breaks, you are immediately in the know about it. How was that done in those days? Did you have—I know mobile phones didn’t exist, so how did you keep informed if something was breaking news, and you really should have been back at the office rather than at lunch, for example?
S Mills: Well sometimes you didn’t find out about it until you got back, and then there’s no worse feeling than nursing a low-grade hangover and realising that there’s some serious stuff you’ve got to get on top of. Occasionally trusted people in head office would be given the address—the phone number for the restaurant—so occasionally a call would be put in, ‘if there really is something, call us at the Tandoor.’
E Helgeby: Did you have a responsibility for example, to keep someone in your office here at all times?
S Mills: Oh well Michelle tended to be in the office at all times anyway. She was not a luncher. So maybe that was it, but no, there was no sense of designated driver, designated reporter. Mind you, not everybody would—like I mean you can’t all go out to the same lunch, so there were different groups, and not everybody would go to lunch—so sometimes people would be staying around, it wasn’t a fixed appointment. But did we arrange a cover for those times? Well probably not, no. You’d just make sure before you went out that you had everything nailed down.
E Helgeby: Tell me, you left the Press Gallery in 1983, why did you do that? What led you to do that?
S Mills: I had applied for and was awarded a Harkness Fellowship by the Commonwealth Fund of New York to study and travel in the United States. Which was a miraculous life changer for me, and so I left Canberra in about, I guess mid-’83, it was just after the election of the Hawke government, I can remember the dams case—oh, I used to cover a bit of High Court stuff at that stage, that was one of my rounds, and covered the dams case, which was every exciting. But shortly thereafter left the Gallery for the States.
E Helgeby: Was there a particular reason, other than an opportunity—did you see as a means to furthering your career further down?
S Mills: Oh absolutely. The fellowship no longer exists in this format, but the requirement was to undertake a course of study, and I had nominated the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard, where there’s a mid-career course, a twelve month mid-career Master of Public Administration. And having won the fellowship, I then applied for that course and was accepted there. As was, off her own bat, without the fellowship, my wife. So we were both enrolled in the MPA, which was a great experience. My wife, as she then was, we got married in ’81. So it was also coming up to the presidential—the ’84 presidential election, and part of my application to Harkness was to travel. They have a requirement that you must travel, it’s great, and I said ‘well the travel program would be to travel as much as I can on the presidential primaries’ out of Boston. And so I spent a lot of time—it was a—because it was the Reagan years, the primaries were on the Democratic side, and a lot of those taking place in New Hampshire, Maine, Georgia—went down to Georgia with Jesse Jackson, which was a great experience, Gary Hart was there, exploded.
The candidate finally selected was Mondale. I attended two or three presidential debates between Reagan and Mondale, and we live in Washington for a while. Helen came back earlier because there was a big ABC program starting up that she was involved with, but I was there for the last six months, and began research on what turned into this book, The New Machine Men, which I published in 1986, because I did a lot of the interviews for that in the States, in Washington. So I didn’t have all of those plans in mind in ’83, but it was a—look, I wanted to—I wasn’t dissatisfied with journalism, I really loved that Gallery life, and talking about it now, I’m just feeling so nostalgic for it, so there was—I didn’t at all feel pushed away—I guess like anybody I was frustrated that you couldn’t do the bigger stories—that’s part and parcel of the thing. I certainly wasn’t disillusioned with journalism at all, but look, it was Helen that pointed out the Harkness thing to me. She’d seen a note on the board over at ANU for some reason, and I applied for it in hope rather than in any confident anticipation, and when it came through it just seemed to be a great opportunity: I wanted to go to the States, I thought the presidential opportunity was—so I certainly saw it, to answer your question, yes, definitely as a career development in journalism.
E Helgeby: In journalism, so you were still focused on journalism?
S Mills: Yes, yes.
E Helgeby: Okay, well look I think we might stop here today, because what I’d like to start on next is when you joined the prime minister’s staff in 1986. This seems like a pretty good place to stop for now.
S Mills: Sure.
E Helgeby: Okay?
S Mills: Okay.
E Helgeby: Right.
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 4
E Helgeby: It’s now the 10th of December, and I’m continuing an interview with Stephen Mills.
Now Stephen last time we left if you were talking about going overseas at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and doing the course of Master of Public Administration. Was that part of an overall plan of yours to further your education or career?
S Mills: Well it was certainly a continuation of it, and it seemed to be a really good opportunity given where I was at the time. I’d won a fellowship—Harkness Fellowship through the Commonwealth Fund of New York—wonderful fellowship where you had to put together a program for study and travel, not just study. So it wasn’t an academic fellowship as such, so I put together a proposal for attending the—doing the 12 months mid-career MPA at the Kennedy School. Because it was 1984, tying that in with a program of travel, they wanted you to travel and see the United States, and I thought what better way of doing that than travelling in the presidential election primaries, which were on at that time. So that proposal was accepted, and I went off. My wife also, Helen, applied separately applied on her own steam to get into the Kennedy School and she was also accepted. So we were both there as students. The course I guess goes from—it was a 12 month thing—from mid-’83 so we had been here for the Hawke government—the election of the Hawke government and the summit, and for the dams decision in the High Court—the Franklin Dam decision, and then we left probably June, had a fantastic farewell party that Heather Ewart and Simon Nash hosted for us where the cocktails were literally served in—made up in large, plastic rubbish bins.
Clean, new plastic rubbish bins I emphasise—it was a memorable event for many reasons, and many people might remember it. We went off, lived in Boston for 12 months, the course was absolutely outstanding, the travel was very successful, I travelled—well it was a Democratic primary year because Reagan was president and there was a pretty interesting field of Democratic—Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson—I went up to New Hampshire a lot, because it’s adjacent to Boston. On one occasion went down to Georgia with Jesse Jackson, which was just a magnificent experience, I attended the two conventions in San Francisco and in Dallas. I attended all of the Reagan-Mondale debates, and the vice-presidential debate. And it was just a fantastic exposure to American politics. I kind of stretched my course out a little bit over 18 months—actually over two years, but 18 months of study and managed also to—we lived in Washington for six months, the second half of ’84.
And while I was in Washington, I started really getting interested in election campaign—always been interested—started getting interested in the way in which ideas are presented in election campaigns. I had this idea of a book on what I was thinking—issues and images, which is very clunky title, but that’s what it was about. And I started interviewing—I managed to get to do some interviews just as a student, not as a journalist, with some of the American political consultants there. I had a great interview with Richard Wirthlin who was Reagan’s pollster, with a lot of—a couple of the Democratic consultants: Bob Squire in Washington, and Joe Napolitan up in Massachusetts and a couple of other people: Cathleen Frankovic who was at one of the big TV stations running their polling organisation.
And I really started getting interested in not only election campaigns, but I suppose moving away from the issues or the policy component of it, and getting into the technology of campaigning. In particular the relationship between market research, which the Americans did spectacularly well, and television advertising, which they also did very well. And it gave me an idea for a book, and when I came back from the States in mid-’84 I actually begged my editor, Creighton Burns for another six months’ extension leave of absence so that I could write—so that I could do some Australian interviews similar to what I’d done in the States. And ended up writing this book, The New Machine Men, which came out in 1986 and it was about basically the intersection of market research and television advertising. So that was—to answer your question, it was certainly a career expansion. I felt as though I needed a change from the Gallery, and this was—and needed to retool intellectually, which the Kennedy School provides a great exposure to contemporary public administration policy, and also, as I say, kind of unexpectedly led to this research interest which led to the book.
E Helgeby: With your background in the Press Gallery, and having worked for student newspapers as well, and your own interest in Labor politics, did you ever look at this point in time, look at the possibility of going into a career in politics yourself?
S Mills: Well yes, but I always decided I wouldn’t. I just didn’t think I’d be any good at it. I decided years earlier when I was in uni, which would have been the obvious time to join the Labor party, if I was going to, that I didn’t—in the full flush of my 20 year old strong headed arrogance that I didn’t feel comfortable joining and being confined within the policy constraints of a political party, I felt that was too confining. But also I don’t think I had—I believe I did not, do not have the skills requisite to be an elected politician. And on the other hand I loved being a journalist, I just though being a journalist was a fabulous way of getting into politics, and the same applies for later on when I became a political staffer.
You get this incredibly close up, intimate perspective on national politics of the most profound import, and you’re there as a—not just as a spectator, but as a participant, as a journalist, with a job of explaining, understanding it—and explaining it to people, voters, to people out there in the community who wouldn’t know it otherwise. And I thought this was a—I thought being a journalist, being a political reporter was an extremely valuable and can I say honourable way of contributing to national political life. I had in mind the reader of The Age, and I tried to write for them. And explain things to them from what I recognised was this amazingly privileged position of sitting up in the Press Gallery, having exposure to all of these events and issues just taking place around you. So again, I guess a long answer to the question, but I really felt as though journalism was a marvellous way of getting exposure to politics and without the risk, complexity—and I just inappropriateness of me trying to make a political career.
E Helgeby: So with this new background on you, but the training and exposure you had in the United States—how did you end up working for the prime minister as a speechwriter?
S Mills: Well it certainly was not, on the face of it, you would say this is impossible, because I’d had no speechwriting experience. Well this is Australia, it’s a small country, I knew a bloke who knew a bloke—no, what happened was that I had—when I published The New Machine Men, that came out in ’86, and at that point I’d returned to The Age after my extended leave of absence, I was reporting out of Melbourne, and kind of—look, it was a bit like ‘how do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?’ You know, I’d been at Harvard, I’d been watching a presidential campaign and then I felt coming back to Melbourne was just very tedious and I recognised the generosity of The Age organisation in having granted me this huge leeway, and then when I came back I just didn’t feel like I could give it my all. Plus my wife Helen was appointed with the ABC to a position in Sydney, and then so I asked Creighton would he send me to the Sydney [office?] of The Age, and he agreed.
And I must say, from my point of view journalistically Sydney was even drier than Melbourne, I didn’t have—I mean it was quite interesting working in the Herald building and so forth, but there’s just not a lot of news up there for The Age. So I was ripe for when the phone rang, and the phone rang from Geoff Walsh. Geoff, whom I’d known as a journo at The Age, Geoff started out as a journalist with the Albury Border Mail, worked for the—I think he’d worked for the Fin Review, certainly worked for The Age at that stage and I’d got to know him then, but had since gone on to join the ALP as a national communications director, and then he was on Bob Hawke’s staff as Hawke’s first press secretary. I got a call from Geoff saying would I be interested in coming to write speeches for Hawke, my first thought was ‘oh my God how ridiculous,’ but I was just immediately attracted to the idea, and found it irresistible. And said yes.
E Helgeby: And this in spite—you always felt that your background was right for the job, notwithstanding the fact that you—as you said, accepted this challenge.
S Mills: Well to be Hawke’s speechwriter—I wouldn’t say this is a general point, but to be Hawke’s speechwriter—speech writing experience was not necessary, and I’d better explain that paradox before—so I had no speech writing experience, but I could obviously write, I had a lot of experience writing journalism, I’d just written a book, I was obviously up to speed with contemporary politics and public administration. I had no background in—I’d never really come across Hawke, I’ll explain this, but I had no background in areas that had been of interest to him, namely economics and industrial relations. I’ll say possibly my most embarrassing moment of my life was—and I checked the dating of this in preparation for this interview—1986, it was in February I believe, when I was still at The Age, working out of the Melbourne office, and I’d been sent down to Tasmania to cover one of the logging disputes at Farmhouse Creek, and while I was there, Hawke was coming through Launceston, and I forget why, but they said ‘can you go up to Launceston, he’s making an announcement or doing a press conference or something like that.’
So I went to the press conference, and I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d seen Hawke in a journalistic capacity—obviously I’d seen him as a public figure, but being in the same room as him as a journalist, and there was some dispute going on in the Labor Party between Hawke and Bill Hartley in the Victorian Labor Party, and I asked a question about that, and in the process of asking the question I—you know, in this—you’ve got to get your words in pretty quick when you’re asking at a press conference, you’re competing with other journalists and so forth, and I confuse the names, I referred to ‘Hawkley,’ a combination of Hawke and Hartley to massive hilarity by everybody else, including Hawke, and immense humiliation for me. I just couldn’t believe that I’d said it, but there it was, so stumbling question, anyway. So you know, I think looking at me, ‘God, there’s Bob Hawke’s future speechwriter.’
E Helgeby: Did he interview you or what…
S Mills: Yes.
E Helgeby: Oh so he personally interviewed you?
S Mills: So Geoff got me to come up to Canberra, I can remember the interview very clearly in the prime minister’s office in the Old Parliament House. There was—I was very nervous—there was these arm chairs that I see they still have their—little seats with arms that fit into—wooden arms that fit into sockets of the legs, and I—during this interview, I was gripping the arms so tightly that I actually pulled the arm of the armchair out of its socket slightly, so that’s how nervous I was. But Hawke was—it was just such a hilarious interview. I shouldn’t say hilarious, it was a very friendly interview, Hawke looked at my CV, he noted that I’d studied Greek history, and said ‘ah you should have worked for Gough, not me.’ It was very good. He offered me the job, I mean it wasn’t even—he was obviously checking me out that he found me satisfactory and so on, so I started. I think they wanted somebody who was a straight up and down political communicator. I’ve always said of Hawke’s speeches—should I go on with this now, because I think it was relevant right from the start.
A lot of the American tradition of speechwriting is almost poetic, Peggy Noonan wrote for Reagan speeches that were—like when the Challenger space shuttle exploded that were almost poetic, and there’s a long tradition of American high rhetoric. They expect their political leaders to produce—now Australia thank God has never gone down that path, we are much more prosaic—literally that word—and Hawke in particular—Hawke was not into poetry, he was into prose. He was into argument, and his whole background as an advocate in the arbitration commission had been arguing cases. So he didn’t want some high flowing, florid, poetical speech. He wanted somebody that could make an argument, and I was the right one for that, for sure. I could write clear English, I could marshal and argument, I could present the evidence and the stats which he always wanted, the factual basis for the evidence, and I could put that in an appropriate advocacy mode. He was always trying to persuade his audiences, not necessarily inspire or mobilise, but persuade them. And I could, obviously with a lot of input and assistance and so forth, I could formulate those persuasive arguments.
E Helgeby: Yeah—formal things—what were your duties when you were appointed, what did you assume were your duties?
S Mills: It was only speech writing, preparing at different levels of formality, depending on the event that he was speaking at, but preparing speaking notes or speeches for all of his public appearances, it was not attached to the press office, it was an advisor role in the office, so my title was ‘advisor.’
E Helgeby: How did that operation work, I mean there was a second speechwriter most of the time was there not?
S Mills: Well there had already—I was the, if you like, the second, Graham Freudenberg was already in place. Graham had—Graham obviously had a long and good relationship with Hawke, he tells the story of being—at some point, it’s in his book so I won’t try and tell it for him but I mean at some point between the fall of the Whitlam government and when Hawke became opposition leader, there’d been some famous dinner of staff and MPs and so forth, and Hawkey apparently said to Graham, ‘when I become prime minister will you become my speech writer?’ And so when Hawke did become prime minister, he picked up the phone and asked Graham and referred back to that event and so forth. And I mean Graham—Graham was a person of—is a person of just profound political experience in government.
Obviously going back to Whitlam, but had previously worked under Calwell. But significantly—I say ‘in government’ because his big experience was with Whitlam, and then with Neville Wran—now I’m probably a bit foggy on the details, but I believe that in 1983 he was still working kind of part time with Neville and part time with Hawkey. And the brief as I understand it was that Graham would do the ‘big speeches,’ but there were two problems with that: one is I think Hawke—Hawke was just an engine for speech making. Hawke was a prolific public speaker, and you know, the output was just too great for one person to write speeches for. And also I mean, I believe one of the reasons I was approached and invited to join the office was because there was probably something of a mismatch between Graham’s more elevated style and Hawkey’s more deliberate and argumentative style. And I think if you look back, there was a federal ALP conference in 1986 where there’d been some issues about Hawke’s speech, and I’d been approached after that. So in a sense, Graham was certainly already there, and had, and continued to have a very important role in writing speeches.
E Helgeby: So who determined who would write which speech, was that Hawke himself that gave you the jobs? How did they—how did the big speeches, how were they selected and given to Graham and the rest to you so to speak?
S Mills: Well—there was no written document or anything like that that spelt these out, and it certainly wasn’t Bob whose job was to govern the country, and not resolve these issues. Look we just developed an understanding, but it was never clear, and in fact—it’s well known that at the start of our relationship, there was a fair bit of tempest and turmoil as we sorted out these issues. Graham, with his great good sense has referred to it as the old bull and the young bull in the same paddock together, and there certainly was a bit of a clashing of horns. I mean I felt I was there to do a job, and I felt I was there I guess to ensure that speech writing was on track, and was efficient. So I recall with some qualms, but I mean I would endeavour to edit Graham, which he didn’t like. Which he took exception to, and we did have a—I think there was only one, but it certainly sticks in my memory—we had a shouting match which led to some—to a door being slammed, and I think much amusement and astonishment on behalf of the rest of the staff who could not work out what this was about. But it was quite important for us as we sorted out our working relationship.
E Helgeby: So there wasn’t that—I’m just curious, there might have been occasions in the early day where you both might be writing the same speech? Or find that you both had started working on…
S Mills: Look that continued—and I’ll tell you more later—that continued to be an issue throughout. But I mean let me—I don’t want to over dramatise this. For the bulk it was pretty obvious: if Hawke is going to address, I don’t know, some industry association—the AMWU—what was it called, the manufacturing, I’ve forgotten the title, it went on to become Industries Australia—anyway—they’d have their annual meeting in Canberra, manufacturing industry, or there’d be some Brotherhood of St Lawrence, or ACOSS, or whatever it was—it was pretty obvious what the prime minister would be saying in that event. It would be pretty obvious what the government’s and the prime minister’s key messages are to such groups. And indeed the message where consistent, obviously, regardless of the audience: stable economic management, about the transition from the failures of the Fraser government to the successes of the Hawke government, about the requirement for restraint, about the benefits of the accord, about the strength of the education and policies—I mean it was pretty obvious, you didn’t have to be Bertrand Russell to sort out what the basic message was going to be.
And for the vast majority of those, that was my territory, they were the common or garden speech. Similarly, Hawke goes on an electoral visit to some electorate in Adelaide or Perth, and so forth, and in one day he’ll make five speeches. There’ll be a Labor Party barbecue, meeting with the town council, there’ll be a—you know, the opening of some school wing, or old folks home, something like that, and again, they’re pretty stock standard, they’re not particularly exciting things. We didn’t do those as full speeches, I did those as speaking notes, and again, pretty obvious who’s going to do those. That was me. So when I say ‘big speeches,’ the policy speech, and we always had issues about that, the big international numbers—but you know, in a sense that’s not surprising because the bigger the speech the greater its import and the more, if you like, stakeholders are interested in it and want to have a view in it, and perhaps also the greater the focus on it, so more hands to the pump. It wasn’t—it was certainly not—I mean we actually got a very good working relationship out of it, and I’m happy with that, and I know Graham’s happy with that. We ended up having—whilst some of the issues—the issues will never resolve, they’re not in political offices—but we had, at the end, a brilliant working relationship actually, and a very constructive one, a very good one, very collegial.
E Helgeby: I’m interested in, I suppose they call them the ‘mechanics,’—someone would tell you that the prime minister is going to visit X, Y, Z, place that needs speeches—so there must be someone who briefed you and or Graham that this is what’s coming up, and ‘you guys do something now.’
S Mills: Sure, okay. So there was always an advance program, and that document belonged to Jill Saunders, who was the appointments secretary. And it’s always true in political office, the person who holds the diary, very important office. Jill, immensely capable woman, and still working for Hawke now, to this day, as his kind of chief organiser. So she would have a forward program, and that forward program was obviously heavily contested, there would be ‘how do you fit in an international visit?’—you know, the political advisor would want something, there’s an ALP federal conference, there’s a WA state Labor Party conference, there’s visiting heads of governments—so I mean it’s a traffic jam. Jill did a brilliant job in managing that whole process.
But through a combination of internal office processes, we would know that ‘okay, December the 5th, it’s the AGM—federal conference of this, Hawke is going to be the keynote speaker, we need to do it.’ Or March the 27th he’s making an electorate visit to WA, so you would know that, and then the details gradually coalesce, electorate visits he’s got to do this, the local member was suggesting something—and so it was a bit of a rolling feast and I was involved. So we’d have diary sessions, I would always attend those with Jill, and usually the political advisor and the press office and so forth, so we’d have those discussions, and obviously as the event got closer, there were—details would crystallise. So the actual speech writing process?
E Helgeby: Well would you be the one to say look for material or would that be fed to you by say, a political advisor of the prime minister and others?
S Mills: No, at this stage that I’m talking about, really the PMs not involved, I mean there’s a lot of staff work that goes to it—I’m not saying he’s not aware of the overall shape, of course he is, but in terms of the specifics, but typically what would happen would be that the speechwriting process would get underway without him having to be involved. The speechwriting process would typically begin with me, or Jill, or the office advising the department, advising the prime minister and cabinet department of this forthcoming event, and commissioning a draft. So there was possibly the worse job in the world, somebody over in the department had to think of the absolutely basic, raw materials for the speech, and that would come over to me as a draft, we called it, and used it as a chopping block. But it was something.
Now obviously that didn’t cover party political speeches, with those they were entirely generated internal, but for most of them there was always a degree of in effect, policy input, which I would then start with, and I would develop a draft on that basis. And as I say, typically—there were many exceptions—but typically I wouldn’t present that draft to the prime minister until maybe a week out from the event or something like that. He would look at a draft, he’d make some suggestions, and then the final thing would be done with that. I have to say, the whole point of being a speech writer for a prime minister, is that the prime minister has just got so much on his bloody plate, he simply can’t write his own speeches. Now Hawke was an extremely capable speechwriter, he could have done everything if he’d wanted to, but you just can’t. So the job of being a speechwriter is, as I always used to say, is I have to draft the kind of speech that Hawke himself would draft if he had time.
But he doesn’t have time, so I have to be good enough to think my way into his mind, and his style, and the political character of the government at the time to do a draft that was hopefully as close as possible—and sometimes quite close, and sometimes not so close, and he’d have to come in and write bits over the top.
E Helgeby: When you were writing a draft would you show—other people in the office, would they be…
S Mills: Yes, certainly.
E Helgeby: …given copies of that draft for comment?
S Mills: Yep, yep.
E Helgeby: And then back to you for further work?
S Mills: Yeah exactly, that’s right. So if it’s an economic speech it would certainly go to the economic advisors, foreign policy speech is to the foreign advisor. You know, the press office would have a look at it—so absolutely, yes, a very collaborative process. It was, I have to say—I mean it was the best job I ever had, this job, the team spirit in it—the collegial, team spirit was fantastic. You’re dealing with people who are experts, deeply informed public servants and political advisors who are just focused on Hawke’s effectiveness. And it was a great experience, so yes, great collaboration, great collaboration.
E Helgeby: Did you and Graham collaborate on speeches occasionally
S Mills: Yes, oh yes. He—sometimes—gosh I’m trying to think of specific examples—he was very good at the party, political language, and as I say, the somewhat more elevated language. And sometimes our speeches would combine, he wouldn’t want to be across the nitty gritty, but he could certainly provide some appropriate framing—political framing for a speech.
E Helgeby: Going back to what to looking at your collaboration with Graham, you shared an office here in Old Parliament House at the time—what office was that? Is it the one that’s currently marked as the speechwriter’s office in the Old Parliament House? Or is it the one next door?
S Mills: Actually, it’s the one next door. And I’ve…
E Helgeby: How did that come about—is that—do you know why they selected the other one to be the example…
S Mills: I’ve got no idea, I’ve got no idea—the one they’ve selected was Craig Emerson’s office. Look, I just think they made a mistake. I’ve pointed it out to them, and I hope it will be changed. No, Graham and I shared the office which was a lot smaller than the one they indicated [laughs]. It was the little corridor, if you like, it has two doors, and two desks. Its space was further reduced by there being this gigantic filing cabinet safe, with a numbered lock on the thing—God knows what that was doing there, we never used it, but it was cramped conditions. I mean the space we’re in here Edward at the end of this room is about the full size of it—not counting the jolly filing cabinet. So it was pretty tiny. Graham is not a desk man, so we were not there side by side very often. I mean Graham was commuting down from Sydney frequently, so there were periods of time when I had the full expanse of that office to myself. But that was the speechwriters’ office.
E Helgeby: This—the story goes around that in fact you—certainly at one time you had to divide your time in the office, so one worked during the night and the other worked during the day.
S Mills: Yeah that was Graham—well Graham was much more…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 5
S Mills: …a night owl, that’s for sure. Graham was a—look, our working styles were quite different. I was—having been a journalist—although he was a journalist as well I suppose—I mean I typed, and I handwrote—Graham dictated. So Graham typical working style was to get one of the tireless, energetic, executive staff from the secretarial room down at the end there, and he would pace and smoke, and produce this liquid prose, this beautiful…
E Helgeby: Obviously not inside the little office shared by the two of you.
S Mills: No, no, he would head off—or he would—well it’s different in the New Parliament House—in the Old Parliament House he would dictate in—well he would in the kind of far corner of the PMO, there was a room that was allocated to the secretary of the department, and apparently Yeend had used that, I arrived after Yeend. When Codd was the secretary, Codd rarely used that, so there was, amazingly enough, there was space and that had a little anteroom, and I can remember Graham dictating there. This is early days of screen based technology, so you know, he would look over the shoulder of the typist as she’s writing up and point to emendations on the screen and so forth. So he was much more an oral person, very—he would dictate slowly, it must be said, and certainly if it was late at night I believe there were times the secretary fell asleep, poised over her shorthand pen waiting for the next word to emerge, but when it emerged, it was always good. And yeah I was more daytime, as I say, typing, and handwritten—much more paper based I guess. I had a young family at that stage as well, so I tried to make my working life—I tried to get some balance in my working life, probably not very successfully.
E Helgeby: Working for the prime minister, how did you see that relationship in practice?
S Mills: Well, he was—Bob Hawke was simply an excellent guy to work for. I look back on it with a lot of—I mean it was difficult, but he was—there was never a moment’s doubt that this was all worthwhile, that it was constructive, that it was a good thing to be doing, and so there were times—so I’d take my speech draft in to him, and you’re sitting in the prime minister’s office with the prime minister at his desk, reading your work, puffing on his cigar, and occasionally scribbling something on it, and you’re aware that there’s just this whole world outside of other stuff that he could be doing, that he’s got to get to do, but he’s—however long it took, five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour—where he’s focused on your work.
And you had his absolute attention. So I used to make the metaphor of a lighthouse, it was like the lighthouse sweeping around, sweeping around, sweeping around, but when it’s focused on you, it’s focused on you. And so whilst I never said I was close to Hawke, I wasn’t one of his best buddies, I wasn’t part of the inner sanctum—I wasn’t part of the closest political advisors in the office, but I think I had—I loved working for him, I had an excellent relationship with him, and I feel that, as I say, when we worked together on a speech, it was just an excellent relationship. I mean the mechanics, I suppose I should say the mechanics, he would occasionally rewrite—he wanted to have argument that was sophisticated, nuanced, he would—I wrote about this in—I later wrote a book about working for Hawke, or Hawke’s prime ministership, and I referred to his sense of ‘the paradox,’ which I won’t go into now, but the paradox was a typical Hawke sentence. Quite complex in structure, and universal in its meaning. Consisting of a number of different components which—each of which he could elaborate if called upon to do, but which together he summarised. And there were many occasions, and the paradox is just one of these structures if you like, where that was what we were climbing towards—so yes there was a component of argument, but he really—the way he elevated it was to elevate to these articulate, detailed, nuanced, can I say statesman like assessments of whatever the subject matter.
And you know, it could be the total global situation, or the more typically, the structure and nature and position of his government. But he was never one for a cheap shot, or a quick line, he didn’t—I mean contemporary politics is all about the line of the day, I don’t think Hawkey was into the line of the day at all, he was more consistent—much more consistent—he had his own worldview before he came to parliament. Which he, in many ways, well stuck to, obviously he implemented, modified, as he went through. So writing those—and so endeavouring to capture those on paper for him to articulate in public was, I found, a richly rewarding job. Enormously difficult, as I say, sometimes you got it absolutely right and he was happy with it, sometimes you had to rewrite, but it—but anyway, he was excellent to work for, never lost his temper.
E Helgeby: I’ve heard the term, and I’ve seen the term also in one of the books you wrote of ‘Hawkespeak.’ What exactly was that?
S Mills: Well actually I used one before, inadvertently, when I said ‘in place.’ I think I said ‘Graham was in place,’ and I just—I mean that’s a Hawkeism. He didn’t implement policies, or certainly the contemporary word is ‘delivery,’ well he had policies that were ‘in place.’ Oh Hawkespeak, reconstruction—sorry, reconciliation, recover, reconstruction. The three Rs, or the four Ps, and God knows what the four Ps were. His reliance on, as I say, he wanted evidence, and he would rely on, for example, the schools’ retention rate, which when we ‘came to office,’ was 30 percent I think, of school students continuing through to year 12. And under the Hawke government education policies it had increased to 60 percent, or two-thirds, something like that. Now ‘retention rate’ is not how school parents would refer to the fact of their children finishing school. They’d talk about ‘the kid finished school,’ or ‘the kid left early,’ or ‘they only did their leaving certificate,’ it’s certainly not how students referred to it. And it’s not actually how most people refer to it, but for Hawke it was the retention rate.
So this is his—so by Hawkespeak there was a degree of policy—it was somewhat impersonal language, somewhat technical or technocrat language, he was a bit of a policy wonk in that regard. But he didn’t shy away from that, everybody would say ‘can’t you use some other phrase than retention rate?’ But he would insist—not insist, but use ‘retention rate’ as an important building block in this overall argument that he’s putting together about the success and effectiveness, and importance of his government’s policies. And you know, you’d just have to go with it. The retention rate was part of it. He would cite international authorities that perhaps many people hadn’t heard of—I remember the head of the IMF or something like that, became common place in Australian political dialogue because Hawke had introduced this person, this French person who’d made some comments on the success of the Australian economy. So he would grapple, he would grab and assemble facts from all sorts, he would put them through his policy mind and they would come out in ways that—certainly, as I say, they’re not the language of the individual voters or citizens, but you didn’t mind that.
E Helgeby: Did Hawke, in his speeches, aim to set targets for example, or was he more interested in aspirations and goals?
S Mills: Set targets?
E Helgeby: I’m thinking of one particular speech he gave in 1987 which you may have been involved with, that ‘no Australian child will be living in—1990 I think, if I remember correctly. S Mills: Well Edward you need to quote that statement in full, you see [laughs].
E Helgeby: Well those are the words that everyone remembers now.
S Mills: Yes, sadly, sadly. Okay, 1987 policy speech, I’d been in the office for a year, I mean I’d written—I was certainly involved in that speech, but it had many hands on it, I don’t know how it came to be worded in the speaking text in that way, I simply don’t know. I can’t remember. And as I say, these speeches, I mean there are just so many drafts that get produced. But the situation was that the supporting policy documents, so the policy speech as delivered is backed up by extensive set of policy documents, and that included the important qualifier: ‘no child would need to live in poverty,’ why won’t they need to live in poverty? It was because their parents will be receiving this new family allowance supplement that was being introduced as—made as an election promise. I presume that in the drafting process, as the policy speech has to get drafted and refined for presentation purposes, that phrase ‘no child will need to live in poverty,’ got boiled down to ‘no child will live in poverty,’ or ‘will be living in poverty,’—I forget which.
But even there, the speech said ‘and so we set ourselves this goal: no child will live in poverty,’ so I mean if you have the whole sentence, it is certainly stated as a goal, as a target, and you know, it was said with the support of these documents which were showing the new levels of family assistance payment would in fact lift families out of, what we called then—above the Henderson poverty line. So it was a perfectly legitimate thing to say, the tragedy of the whole thing was that the policy itself was brilliant, and actually did what we said it would: ‘no child needed to live in poverty,’ because their parents were receiving this funding. So look, that’s—it was very unfortunate. By the time 1990 came around, the Brotherhood of St Lawrence ran this—I thought cheap campaign—that Peter Hollingworth was behind where they sent postcards to people saying ‘here’s a child that’s still living in poverty,’ as though the government had in some way failed to—like I mean if the program hadn’t been proceeded with, sure, attack the government.
But the program had been proceeded with, and it was fully implemented. The family assistance supplement was out there, and yet here was the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, one of the great welfare organisations of our country, one of which I had personally, because of my father’s background, had a lot of time for—and it was just, you know, cheap, I thought, to attack Hawke for this policy when—for what was presented as a promise, when it was expressed as a policy goal.
E Helgeby: Can you—coming back a bit to thinking more about Hawke—how would you describe his personality and character as boss—importantly his ability to communicate?
S Mills: Oh well I mean he was—well externally, when he was out, the people used to just amaze me—he used to sparkle, and I know this has been said before—the ‘love affair with the Australian people,’ and so forth, but he genuinely would—it was like they were a big battery and he could plug into them and charge himself up. He loved being out there, he’d sparkle, he radiated—did people like being with him?—as I say, one of the great privileges of a staff job is that you don’t just see that external face, you see the internal face, so I—I’ll say it again, but to sit on the other side of the desk with him, to see him working, this is not the Bob Hawke that you know, ‘love affair of the Australian people,’ this is the Bob Hawke the Rhodes scholar I guess, the policy guy, the person who is very burdened by office, putting in enormous hours, etcetera.
So you see that side of it as well. Look, as a man, I was not into golf, and I was not into horse racing, so you know, and I’ve already said, I wasn’t part of his kind of closest circle, didn’t have to be—even so, he was an enormously entertaining person—I remember one time having to take some speech around to him at The Lodge and he was literally sunbaking in the Speedos by the pool, covered with suntan cream and stuff like that. It must have been a Saturday morning, because he was making his race call—he’d call around to sort out his tips and so forth—so he was sitting out there with the paper in the sun, but you know, as soon as there’s work there [snaps fingers] it’s kind of like instant change. And he’s fully focused. I forget what the speech was, but just immediately getting into the nitty gritty of what this about, and jiggling with the work before him and then it’d be over, and then he’d relax again. So amazing engine for work, just astonishing, never failing.
E Helgeby: Do you notice any sort of change in him in these sort of respects, over the years that you worked with him? I’m thinking in terms of his own love affair with the people was regarded that that was as strong as ever on his side, but it didn’t work—it wasn’t—the people didn’t really feel the same way about him as the years went by, and he became less popular really, with the ordinary voters, according to the surveys…
S Mills: Well he still one four elections, you know, and the later ones were harder to win. Both ’87 and ’90—well any election is hard to win—and I wasn’t there for ’84, or ’83 obviously, but certainly the ones that I saw him campaigning for, there was no evidence of tailing off of popularity. Look, maybe citizens get tired of their leaders, no doubt they do, so there must have been some change. I didn’t really—I didn’t really see that, I think he—he certainly never lost his capacity to go out there, and his faith though, that if he went out there that he’d be able to charge up.
E Helgeby: Talk a bit more about some of the major speeches that I believe you were involved in, that had to do as Hawke’s role as an international negotiator and mediator in that thing, and its relationship—can you talk a bit about this relationship—if I can use the terms ‘Washington, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Beijing?’ Which were places that I understand he visited and you were involved in certain some of those trips yourself.
S Mills: Sure, I never got to Beijing, but certainly the others. Well that was the chapter heading for my book, and they were, I think, the four big centres of international focus for him. Obviously not London, he just wasn’t particularly interested in the British Labour Party, or, from my observation, Britain. Certainly compared to Australia’s future, it was Washington, and he invested a great deal of time and effort in all of—this has been extensively reported I know, about his good relationship with Reagan, his excellent relationship with George Schultz, both on and off the golf course. The centrality of the US alliance to Australia’s security in a changing world, so Washington certainly—well Jerusalem, Hawke’s long commitment to the Jewish people and the existence of an Israeli state, well known, and he made—and I went on that trip, a visit to the Middle East, including to Israel, which I think for him was a very powerful and important event—and I’ll also say, while we’re on it, to Moscow as well, perhaps the emotional highpoint of the Moscow visit was not the lengthy and kind of astonishing discussion that he apparently had with Gorbachev about the whole perestroika movement that was then underway in Russia, but after that was Hawke’s successful negotiation for the release of the refuseniks, as they were called, the Russian Jews who were just desperately seeking to be let out and go to Israel, and Hawke was able to successfully—well, who knows what basis the decision was made on, but Russians are such cynical bastards, but anyway, they let some more out while Hawke was there as a result of his personal representations so that was—so you know, this was a person—Hawke was a person for whom international politics often boiled down to personal relationships, a la Schultz, but in the case of Israel it was a very deeply emotional one—I’ve never understood why, to be perfectly honest, I know—well we all share a commitment to the creation of the state of Israel, and the historical necessity for that to have been achieved and for that to survive. But for Hawke it was a very emotional attachment.
So Washington, Jerusalem—well Beijing was the future of the Australian economy, and again, he would just assiduously build these personal relations, he loved the international statesman role, and I don’t say that in any meretricious way—he was good at it, he actually believed, and there was lots of evidence to suggest it was true, that the close relationships that he had with these guys—guys usually—actually did achieve stuff. He could get very good dialogue going, so yes we—all of these international trips were accompanied by big speeches. Here it wasn’t so much our department involved in drafting, but obviously foreign affairs was involved with a lot of input into them. You know, there’d be a—typically there’d be a state banquet where you’d have to summarise the whole relationship between Australia and Russia, or Ireland, or Canada, Thailand, whatever.
But there’d also be an economic speech to a business group, and they were—I mean the international travel was exhilarating, exhausting—I mean you tend to work around the clock, probably the biggest that I look back on was in South Korea, where he made the speech to—no, not the—but anyway, certainly in South Korea after meeting the South Korean president, they actually—this is an example of where the personal relationship, personal chemistry really paid off because they hit it off very well, and pretty well decided between them as I understand it, that it was time to take the concept of Asia-Pacific economic cooperation to a new level, and Hawke—so we worked all night to put this in words for a speech that he was making the following day, where he basically announced an initiative to build such an organisation. This is the roots of APEC, there was a lot of departmental resistance: ‘oh prime minister we think blah, blah, blah,’ he just wouldn’t take any of that crap, he wanted to do this, he saw the opportunity, and did it. And the—but we had to make the speech, I don’t know, it was three o’clock in the morning, something like that, it was just one of those great nights and worked well.
E Helgeby: So for speeches you did on those sort of trips, did other government departments other than yourself and Graham have major input into the speechwriting and to then into the speech content?
S Mills: Well I guess I misspoke before, they all—I mean we didn’t have any access to other departments, we had access to prime minister’s, but they had access other departments. So the foreign policy speeches certainly had a lot of input from DFAT, and the international trips typically Hawke was accompanied not just by Michael Codd, the secretary of PM&C but—well it was Stuart Harris for a while who was the secretary of DFAT, and so you know, they were very significant players in—and John Bowen I should say, Hawke’s foreign policy advisor, the remarkable and magnificent John Bowen was just so across all of this. So nothing that came from the department was not better after it had been over John Bowen’s desk, as a result of going across his desk, because he could always highlight, emphasise, clarify, express these masses of complex policy stuff into important and relevant—so John Bowen was critical in the whole process.
E Helgeby: But you were all still—effectively the coordinator, the one that puts it all together…
S Mills: Yeah, yeah.
E Helgeby: And that’s why you travelled with the prime minister and why you would work through the night to have the things…
S Mills: Sure, because somebody’s got to do it. Somebody’s got to pull it all together, and I’m certainly not writing these things from scratch. I’m assembling inputs from departments, from Hawke’s staff advisers, from the press office, from Hawke himself—and I’m assembling all of those and putting a structure to it, and good language around it. By assembling, that’s not a kind of Lego operation, that’s more like a magimix operation—I don’t know—it requires—I mean you can tell a bad speech because you can see all of the joins, and I never let that happen, you have to—so you’re re-expressing. By assembling, you’re re-expressing, and putting into language, and putting into language that you think is appropriate for Hawke, but also getting the Hawke perspective. I say this with understanding, but nobody who drafted stuff for Hawke—I mean Graham gets this perfectly—Graham Freudenberg—but he’s the prime minister for God’s sake, he doesn’t express things like that, he expresses things like this. He’s at the centre of things, and so when I say—so you’re dealing with all of this input, but you have to re-express it, and as I say, get this perspective, this prime ministerial—that Bob Hawke perspective onto it.
E Helgeby: Did Graham Freudenberg travel with you on these trips or were you the only…
S Mills: Oh we would wax, so sometimes he would go, sometimes I would go. In 1989—in June of 1989 there was a visit proposed to—I forget where—England and Europe somewhere—and on the 16th of June 1989 my son was born. And departure day was probably the 17th of June, so needless to say I called in to Sandy Hollway and said ‘guess what? Safe arrival at Woden Valley hospital. Sandy I guess I can get myself organised’—but he said ‘don’t.’ So Graham was—I’m not saying the news came as any surprise, he was packed and ready, so he went off on that trip, and loved it, it was a great trip apparently—I mean Europe, why not?—and refers to very favourably to my son Chris in his book for having permitted that trip. So yeah—no you wouldn’t have two speechwriters on the trip, you’d have one, and so we would wax. Graham went to Gallipoli for the 90th anniversary, I didn’t do that one, and that was a great event, I did the Middle East, so it was—I did the US bicentenary, which was a great one, now that speech to Congress, I mean that’s a classic example, there were so many hands on that—it was a great group effort, I could hardly claim authorship of that one, that was a very much collective effort.
E Helgeby: Given the importance that Hawke placed on relationships with—I suppose large, looming friends like Washington and Jerusalem, and Beijing—and India as well—would you—I’ve sort of been left with an impression, did he place more emphasis on these more important speeches and more important events for him than say domestic politics in Australia?
S Mills: Oh no I don’t think you’d say that, no. No, but certainly when you’re travelling they are extremely important. Yeah you’re right about India, we made a visit to New Delhi when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, one of the few people I’ve met who radiated an aura, remarkable fellow Rajiv Gandhi, and Hawke had a very good relationship with him—we delivered a Indira Gandhi memorial lecture, which was delivered to this vast audience of the great and the good in Delhi who had come along to hear. And I mean you can’t not do that without 110 percent effort, by Hawke—to express the Australia-India relationship, to say something decent about Indira Gandhi whose speech—to contemporise, but also to make it Australian as well. So you would absolutely fully engage at that moment, but no, certainly you wouldn’t say that was more important than a domestic policy speech, it’s just that when you go overseas you’ve got to go overseas. The domestic policy ones—look, I mean the most important speeches were the policy speeches, without any doubt, certainly measured by the number of people involved and the coverage they received, and the complexity of the content.
E Helgeby: Can you talk in a little bit more detail, how—what it was like to accompany the prime minister on overseas trips during this period of time. I think I’ve seen some reference to Moscow, as though it had some interesting aspect to it. You went to the Kremlin I believe?
S Mills: Yep.
E Helgeby: There’s a picture of you somewhere in the background, sitting in and listening to a discussion between the Russians and the Australian delegation.
S Mills: Right. Well I think the picture—look, these overseas trips, they were highly—they were very exciting, they were somewhat artificial, they were planned within an inch of themselves, you’d get these little white books with everybody’s name, and itineraries, and car numbers, you’d travel in this car in the convoy and so forth. And you’d be whisked around these foreign capitals. I remember going through Agra in India, and at a crossroads there could have been two million people at the crossroad waiting for the Australian party to get through. So you’re travelling in the VIP, you know, there’s the journalist down the back, up the front we basically worked as an office. There were—not laptops—there were word processors set up and the ongoing work continues. The trip to Russia was good, I hated Russia because I hated the Russians and I thought they were just such an oppressive society.
E Helgeby: So perestroika didn’t…
S Mills: Oh no, it was happening thank God, but I saw people—there was a Pasternak book of poetry that was being released as an example of glasnost, no doubt, and there were queues of Muscovites literally around the block waiting to get into this book shop. We were walking past on the street, and…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 6
S Mills: …you could see that there was some evil bloody official in the bookshop letting people in one at a time. It was just disgraceful. You’d go to that big market that they had there and people would ask for something, and then the shop assistant would go away to see if it existed—anyway, I digress—but it was—oh, look, great experiences, don’t anybody let you believe that the international travel was not one of the most exciting parts of staff work. You know, very high pressured because of the long hours, and jetlag and all the rest of it, but exhilarating, and yes, you say in—I think it was either in Moscow, or as then we referred to it, Leningrad, where there is a photograph of me listening intently at the banquet table to Hawke delivering the speech about whatever it was. The trip to Ireland was a lot of fun, because the Irish are a lot of fun. And the Irish ambassador, Mr Sharkey was a lot of fun. So you know, you did manage to get some great exposure to the foreign government that you’re visiting.
E Helgeby: And I take it that all the main speeches—those that were anticipated—would be drafted before you left Australia?
S Mills: Drafted, but certainly not completed. Rarely completed, the Middle East ones were not completed because they relied so much on the context of what he had said. Like the APEC one, there was always a plan that something might be said, but that emerged out of the meeting with President Roh and then certainly the ones in Israel were hard work because of the complexity of the foreign policy, because of the overlay of Hawke’s own, unique perspective, and his real belief that he could contribute something to a resolution. So there was a lot of drafting and redrafting, and staff discussions, you know, at many levels to finalise those speeches. I think it was a speech to the Hebrew University, which was the one which was really trying to issue a warning to Israel about the requirement to recognise its changing plight, vis a vis the Palestinian people, but within the context of total support and commitment to the project of the State of Israel. And so yes, certainly drafts, multiple drafts would have existed, I’d take those in the briefcase, but you’d just be working on them all the time and refining them.
E Helgeby: Taking you back to a domestic speech, which I think might have been the first one you might have been involved with, the 1986, late ’86 Bathurst speech.
S Mills: Oh, yes.
E Helgeby: Which I think was right after you joined in November 1986. Can you talk a little bit about that?
S Mills: It was very early on in my time there, and I had an extraordinary—I guess because—two things, A because I was the new guy in the office, but also because this was going to be quite a big speech, so I had a lot of discussion—there was a lot of staff work that went into it, that I was involved with, and we got a lot of exposure to Hawke’s thinking about it, and it—I mean again, I kind of refer to it in the book, because it’s an important statement about his party, his attitude to the party, and it’s been said by others, but Hawke’s commitment to Labor was very much a commitment to the labour movement, rather than, or at least ahead of a commitment to the Labor Party. And in fact he—there was a lot about the Labor Party that he wanted to see changed, and he’d always talk about the White Australia policy as an example of just because the party believed in it, doesn’t mean it was good, and in fact had to be changed. And was an essential part of his and Paul Keating’s view of the contemporary economic reform challenge that a lot of what the Labor Party ‘stood for’ or articulated, had to be cut down and changed, and dramatically modified. So this was a speech for—I forget what anniversary—but it was the Chifley Light on the Hill speech, going back to Bathurst, delivering a speech in memory in Chifley. Okay so the political context was all about how the core Labor voters, we’re talking late ’86, early ’87, they’re starting to recognise that this Labor government was a bit different from Gough, for example, and a few of the old sacred cows were being led out to slaughter, and the political strategy behind it I think, was ‘let’s get Hawke to go back to embrace the Labor Party, and articulate the Light on the Hill.’
Hawke, being Hawke, would have none of that. Going back to the past, warm cuddly blanket stuff—he was actually on about change and the future, and reform. Not going back to echoes, the platitudes of the past. And we had one particular meeting, I have to say, I rarely took notes in the office, but I took notes in this meeting because I was ready to draft the speech, and he just said this great line, which obviously you can’t use in a speech, but which I did use in the book, where he just said ‘we can’t go back to the past. Fuck the past, or the past will fuck you.’ And he’s right. And that was what the speech ended up being about. It wasn’t reassuring the Labor faithful that everything was going to be alright and everything could be what a later prime minister referred to as ‘relaxed and comfortable.’ It was about more change. I mean he was—I mean I hope I’m describing, not just the facts as they were, but also a sense of why working for this man was one of the most rewarding, and exciting, and exhilarating experiences in Australian politics.
E Helgeby: Was this a very hard, big, difficult job to do, this particular speech, since you were so new to the environment?
S Mills: Yeah look I suppose so, and I mean I can’t remember—I can remember that particular meeting, and I can remember the delivery of the speech, which was what was—at the, must have changed its name now, but at the CAE—Mitchell CAE out at Bathurst, and it was disrupted because there was student protest on a totally separate issue where the students—clever—they had coins, and they were tapping them on the glass, the glass walls of this vast auditorium and basically drowned out the speech. And as often happens, the preparation of the speech and the large amounts of deliberation and structure and so forth tended to be not much, in terms of the media coverage, or in terms of the impact and it was drowned out for the audience by this coin tapping. And that was reflected in the media coverage as well. So speeches however are still important, you’ve got to go through that process, even if they’re not deeply reported.
E Helgeby: There’s one other major speech I believe you were involved in, in the relation to APEC.
S Mills: Yeah well we talked about that one—that was the one in Korea.
E Helgeby: Oh that was the one in South Korea.
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: Alright, well then I’m jumping on to slightly different material, there were two election campaigns during the time you worked in Hawke’s speechwriting in 1987 and 1990. How did—did you accompany the prime minister when he travelled around the countryside for election campaigns, or did you stay back at the office, so to speak?
S Mills: Bit of both, I was typically based on Canberra. I typically would not travel, whether it was an election or not. If he was travelling he’d be taking, usually, an adviser and a press person. It was just inefficient with too many people. So I would usually be based in Canberra, but I would frequently travel. If there was a big speech I’d go and listen to the speech, so during the election campaign—during the election campaign, but not much, usually Canberra based.
E Helgeby: So did you still prepare the speeches, though the prime minister might travel with a dozen different speeches in his bag?
S Mills: Yeah. Well when I wasn’t travelling, I’d give it to, typically, Lou Cullen in the press office who would physically carry this stuff about and give it to him, or if I was travelling I’d do that. Well better talk about the 1990 election campaign, which is kind of still a bit of a difficult thing to do for me. 1990, well 1987 I hadn’t been involved much in the policy speech, I was still reasonably new, 1990 I felt as though I very much wanted to and could contribute to the policy speech process, and I can remember getting approval from—I guess it was Sandy Hollway, and from Hawke himself, anyway, to draft a speech. Now it was always going to be difficult, because this was one area where Graham Freudey would regard as his kind of core-patch—and anyway, as I’ve said, policy speeches are inherently—there’s no one author or owner—but I certainly wanted to have a substantive input into a draft.
Looking back on it, it was dysfunctional, we ended up with two drafts, mine and Graham’s. And I mean this is bad staff work, the whole point of having staff is that they fix stuff, and don’t elevate tensions to the surface, and on this occasion we’d—I don’t know, through my own hard headedness no doubt, we’d got ourselves into a situation where there were two drafts, and the policy speech was up in Brisbane. I have to say, there’s also been a lot of other policy speeches—a lot of other speeches during the campaign and they’ve all gone off smoothly, but for ‘the’ policy speech, the policy launch was going to be up in Brisbane. And it was as late as probably—maybe 24 hours before the speech, but certainly we were all in the hotel up in Brisbane, and Sandy Hollway had this dilemma of there are two drafts. I think he got involved, and two drafts become one, I was very disgruntled, and just felt as though it was not going to be—my drafts tended to be substantive, and I felt as though this needed substance, and the final draft didn’t have as much—anyway, I’m going into it too long, but it was certainly a difficult process, certainly Sandy had to adjudicate days before, or even on the eve of, so it was far from an ideal purpose.
And I was dismayed and unhappy, the speech itself, when it was delivered went off absolutely fine, it was a big triumph, I remember going that afternoon with Hawke, he didn’t have any further engagements—he went off in a car to an art gallery where there was an aboriginal artist that he liked, and for some reason Simon Crean was in the car, so I remember—so we visited this—and later on I guess I must have flown back to Canberra, and it must have been the next morning that I got a phone call that my father had died. Turn it off for a second, can you…
E Helgeby: No that’s…
S Mills: I’ll come back, let’s just take a break for a second…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 7
E Helgeby: …continue talking when I…
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: Here we are again, a short break.
S Mills: Sandy had assembled these two drafts into a single draft, it wasn’t something that Hawke would have done. The whole point, as I say, of having staff is that you present him a finished product. But he was certainly aware of these tensions, I know that, and looking back on it, I do feel bad that we hadn’t been able to sort something out at a practical level. But, as I say, there were—there’s just a lot going on, and I suppose a lot invested in this kind of process. It’s an important activity. As I say, I was in a bit of a funk at the end of the process because I could see what was going to happen. Anyway, as I say, I got back to Canberra, I got this news that my father had died, I still feel a lot of guilt about that as a son, having—he’d been sick for some time, but I had no idea that he was that sick. I’ll say the great thing is that the last time I saw him was—he’d called us up and said—I said earlier on in the interview that he was an Anglican priest, he said ‘you know, I’ve got four or five grandchildren, but nobody’s ever asked me to baptise one of my own grandchildren, can I please baptise Chris?’ And of course.
Our daughter had been baptised up here in the Wesleyan Church, I hadn’t even thought—but anyway, so we had this fantastic family ceremony where my father baptised Chris and his other grandfather, my wife’s father also assisted, and it was a great event. And that probably would have been January of 1990, but with the encroaching election campaign, which I guess was March, I hadn’t been back home. Might have made a phone call, but you know, you get caught up in stuff and I didn’t, and he had had this extremely tortuous death of emphysema in Frankston hospital, and my mother was distraught. And anyway, that was end of the 1990 election campaign for me, I went home and received a great deal of, I must say, love and support from colleagues, got a lovely letter from Hawkey, got a letter from Jean Sinclair. So you know, it was one of those just dreadful things that puts—as I say, puts it all into perspective, but that—so it’s difficult to talk about the 1990 election for those personal reasons as well as for the fact that it was a shambles of a bloody speechwriting process.
E Helgeby: Just a couple more questions about your time working for Bob Hawke, unrelated to what we’ve been talking about so far I think, did you attend—while you were a speechwriter did you ever attend sessions in the chambers? Listening to the prime minister or…
S Mills: Good point, no I didn’t. I sat in the advisers’ box once in the New Parliament House, just for the sake of it, but no, normally that was a—there’d be—who’d be there normally? Well Craig Emerson, now Trade Minister—Craig was Hawke’s economic adviser, not the senior economic adviser, there was always someone like Ross Garnaut, before my time, but while I was there, Steve Sedgwick, Rod Sims—who were across the broad, macro and Treasury, but Craig was, as well as being—he was a very capable economist, but he was, if you like, more partisan, he was a political adviser, and his job—so during an election campaign, would be—what did we call it? The Quotes Book or something like that, or the Facts Book—so he would maintain this book of just the key facts, the key quotes, the key policy highlights that Hawke would have with him, so that if he had to talk off the cuff, or do a radio interview, which he was doing a lot of, it would be there. Similar to—to answer your question—the Question Time briefing book, in fact during parliament it was a Question Time briefing book, when he was out of parliament it became this document for external use. So Craig probably would have been sitting in the adviser’s box.
E Helgeby: So you didn’t do that much—you may have done it, but not very often?
S Mills: Ah look, I only sat in there for experiential reasons, rather than [laughs]…
E Helgeby: I was going to ask you whether you thought there had been any change in the way the parliament operated between that time—the early ’90s—and the time you spent there in the Press Gallery, ten years earlier, because then you would have spent a lot of time in the chamber. Anything change—different prime minister, different approach, different mood?
S Mills: Um well I think parliament was more—I mean I could make the easy answer and say it had changed for the better, because people had swapped sides, but you know Hawke was not a great parliamentarian—I’m not talking out of school there—he didn’t have that huge parliamentary experience, he’d only come in in 1980, and you know, it wasn’t his natural home, unlike obviously Paul Keating, who was a brilliant parliamentarian and Mick Young who was a brilliant parliamentarian, who’d had that long experience, and who was just quick with the repartee and the devastating putdowns, stuff like that. So it was always exciting listening to parliament in the hope that Paul would get some Dorothy Dixer and just demolish the other side, which he just did, again, and again, and again.
E Helgeby: So apart from the personalities, much the same?
S Mills: I think so, yeah. I think the big changes have come subsequently, where—I mean—I was going to say, the big changes have come subsequently where Question Time has become much more scripted and formulaic. And I suppose I qualify that by saying we certainly had Question Time tactics, and there were lists of who would say Dorothy Dixers and so forth, but you still got the sense which it was more unpredictable, much more so than now. More ministers would be targeted by opposition questions. Which seems to happen less now. You know, so for whatever junior minister still had to have his or her Question Time brief up and ready to be attacked if need be, so there was a real sense of unpredictable battle, which I think had changed now.
E Helgeby: During the time that you worked for Bob Hawke as speech writer, did you have any kind of relationship with members of the Press Gallery? Former colleagues or otherwise?
S Mills: Ah well not really, no. There was a bit of a sense that I’d let the side down by jumping over the fence into political work, and anyway, I had no cause to deal with journalists. Obviously I had friends and so forth, but I didn’t deal with the press, nobody dealt with the press other than the press office, and I could certainly remember in the Old Parliament House in my early days when I joined Hawke—because I hadn’t been back in the Press Gallery since late ’83 and now here I was in ’86 and walking around with a different coloured tag around my neck, and you know, you just can’t pick up the old intimacies with the journos in the way that you could, you’re not on the same side anymore.
E Helgeby: Not quite sure whether I asked you this question before, if I did I’ll ask it again because it relates to the time you were working for Bob Hawke—did you ever feel uncomfortable about what you were doing for Hawke in a philosophical or a moral sense?
S Mills: Absolutely not, no, the reverse. I loved it, I respected it, I look back on it with pride. The only regrets I have, and we’ve probably spent too long in this interview talking about them, but the interpersonal issues and my own—like I was pretty green when I went in there, and I had this great experience of learning on the job, so that’s—there’s a lot of jostling and uncertainty, but no the overall project was just so wonderful. The Hawke government was a successful government, we knew that at the time, here we are 30 years later, and it still looks pretty damn good. So no, I never had any philosophical commitments. I certainly look back on the Hawke-Keating dispute, and I suppose we’re talking later now, and you know, I regret so much that Keating did what he did, and that the government fractured in the—that the government fractured, and that obviously took part in the ministry, in the caucus, but it filtered its way down to staff and there was a sense of us versus them which was not very good. I had had good mates in Keating’s office, but you know, it just all comes apart…
E Helgeby: I was going to come to that later on, but just one last question on this topic, is why did you leave the prime—the job as prime minister’s speechwriter in August of 1991? What led you to that…
S Mills: Look I think was pretty well finished, I was burnt out, I think is probably correct. I mean I’d just done a lot of speeches. I had been thinking about what to do, I didn’t particularly want to go back to journalism, I knew that, I’d actually investigated a corporate role which I ended up not pursuing. I took that—I guess I’m talking in 1990, but I really got really close to that, and looking back on that I’m thinking ‘Christ, that’s not good.’ But I decided not to pursue that, but look I’d just given it a fair shake. Then the Hawke-Keating thing came along, and you can’t leave during that. It would look as though you’re sending some kind of a message.
E Helgeby: So you left after that even anyway.
S Mills: Well I left after the first challenge.
E Helgeby: The first round, yes. And in spite of the fact you said you wanted to do something different, you went back in fact to the Press Gallery. You joined the Australian Financial Review I believe.
S Mills: Yep, yep. I went back to the Press Gallery in the New Parliament House, yes I did. And it was a bit…
E Helgeby: Had it changed much the press…
S Mills: Oh it had changed a lot. And Fairfax had changed a lot. I hadn’t worked for a Sydney based paper before. Look it was a very good—do you want to talk about the Press Gallery now? Look I had quite a good time, it was probably for only a couple of years, ’91-’93 I was there. Certainly some memorable journos there. It was a bit difficult for me at first, reabsorbing myself into journalism, it’s interesting—now there’s a change I think, because it was probably more of a statement in the ’80s when I left, than it was to come back, so I mean I was a bit surprised when I was back in journalism and writing for the Fin Review, they didn’t say ‘oh you must go and write world news or the economy or something like that, we can’t have you writing politics because you’re a bloody former Labor staffer,’ you know, there was none of that, ‘certainly come back and write politics,’ which I did. I actually went to Hawkey’s press conference, his final press conference, as a journalist, I asked him a question which was—and I’d written about the, I guess the 1990—I covered the 1993 election campaign, you know so maybe the barriers between the world of journalism and the world of political staffers had started to erode, become a little bit more porous. It certainly, going back into journalism wasn’t the kind of obstacle course that I’d expected.
But I quite enjoyed going back to journalism, good people at the Fin Review, it was Jerry Noonan who was the editor that hired me, and I was very grateful for that. Geoff Kitney was the head of the bureau, who I still see occasionally, he was a really, really sound reporter. I remember in the New Parliament House how the ministry and the opposition send kind of staff through to chat to the journos, and pick up what’s going on. I remember having a very pleasant chat with the then economic adviser to the opposition leader John Hewert—John Hewson—this young fellow called Tony Abbott, had a nice—actually had a very nice chat with him. He was argumentative, which was not a bad thing—there was Steve Lewis in the bureau, Tim Dodd, Judith Hoare, it was a strong bureau in those days at the Fin Review. And then by ’93 I was, I guess there’d been a change in the editorial, so Greg Heywood had become the editor of the Fin, and he invited me down to the Sydney bureau—the Sydney head office to be foreign editor, which—we actually moved down during the ’93 election, and that was the—and I started as foreign editor, which was also a great job, in ’93. And that was the last time I worked in Parliament House.
E Helgeby: And one thing…
S Mills: Oh, it wasn’t, I’ll tell you something else. It was the second last time I worked in Parliament House.
E Helgeby: Certainly physically—the physical environment that you worked in would have changed dramatically between when you were first in the Press Gallery and the second one—rather more space?
S Mills: More space, less atmosphere.
E Helgeby: And less easy access to the members of parliament?
S Mills: Definitely, yeah.
E Helgeby: And ministers…
S Mills: Yeah you’re just stuck up there on that Senate side, and it was—I didn’t like it, I still don’t like it. So yes, very nice facilities, and increasing use of information technology as well, so the technology of work was becoming, if you like, easier. Still a good camaraderie I guess, in the Press Gallery, but it was larger and more alienating, and just it wasn’t as much fun. If I could just say that [laughs].
E Helgeby: That might be a good point on which to stop on about that aspect, but there was one you mentioned—one story you wanted…
S Mills: Well in fact—well I did mention—so I did subsequently work very briefly for Gareth Evans in 1996. I was living in Sydney, and I was taken on as a consultant when he was the foreign affairs minister, I worked with him for about six months, and occasionally would come down to Canberra to Gareth’s office and work with Margo—surname—and Mike Pezzullo and his other staff members there. So that was actually my last experience in Parliament House in ’96.
E Helgeby: In what capacity where you…
S Mills: I was a consultant, so I was helping him with speeches and with publications. I mean Gareth is a prolific author and policy maker, and there was a book which was on peacekeeping, which was the early start of his Responsibility to Protect philosophy, which has now become a global instrument of—global international affairs. And so I—I won’t say it was central, it was a bit of a stop-gap, it was in the lead up to the election, and then of course that was the election defeat, so at the end of that I parted. And that was my last time in Parliament House.
E Helgeby: Well I think we might call it—stop for today, there is left to talk about, and I thought presumably it covers a lot of ground, talk about stories and events, and talk about the people who meant something—who were special in your work life here, and you’ve given me a list of names, and also events of things that happened during that time.
S Mills: Sure, sure.
E Helgeby: Alright.
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 8
E Helgeby: It’s now the 11th of December, and I’m continuing an interview with Stephen Mills. Stephen we spoke last time quite a bit about Bob Hawke, and who he was, what drove him, his fundamental beliefs and principles, and you talked also about his achievements. You’ve written a very interesting book about Bob Hawke, what actually motivated you to take that task on?
S Mills: We did say yesterday I felt the staff role was an incredibly privileged role, gave you a great vantage point into federal politics. I think it was—I think I got insights into politics, both as a journalist, but especially as a staff member—staff member you’re even closer, which are if not unique, certainly they’re rare, I would say, and at the end of my time with Hawke, I felt as though I knew stuff about Hawke which deserved telling. I think I knew his story, I had not—I probably need to cover myself in the sense that saying when I started with Hawke, I had absolutely no intention of writing a book, and whilst I was working for Hawke, I had no intention of writing a book: I kept no notes, I kept not diary—with one exception, during the first Keating-Hawke challenge, it was such an extraordinary night, that I did when I got home in the early hours of the morning, I just kind of wrote it all down because it was just all so thrilling, but that was about the only time that I’d set out to deliberately create a record of something.
So you know, I did not want to, and I don’t believe staff members should abuse the privilege of being inside that—inside that office like that, and then just spilling your guts about everything that you saw that—and pretend to be some kind of expert. So it was not an insiders kind of revelatory document, I felt—I didn’t try to do that, but I do feel as though I had an insight into Hawke’s political character, and in particular his consensus style of politics, which I think drove his policy and drove his personal career. Right from very early on, right from—really right from the days he wrote a thesis about the arbitration commission when he was over in Oxford. And all through his ACTU days, all through the Whitlam years, the development of the Accord, then obviously the economic summit, and this whole concept of bringing Australia together, which I think was the campaign slogan in 1983. That was really Hawke’s policy, his character—anyway, so I felt as though I could trace all of that together. The book covers pre-Hawke—sorry pre-prime minister period, and then in terms of what he did as prime minister, a lot of it was the playing out of that consensus style, right through to his last day in office, when he was—after I’d left the staff, when he was still talking about the indigenous disadvantage, and the need still, in that context, to bring Australia together. So it’s just this long, strong theme in Hawke’s character, and I felt that deserved spelling out.
And I felt as though I could do that. And there’s other things in there as well, I must—I don’t think it’s the most perfectly shaped book, I mean I think it’s disproportionately emphasising the Hawke-Keating stuff, because that was most recent, it was quite exciting. There’s a bit of foreign policy in there as well, that we touched on yesterday. But the backbone of it is this Hawke structure. Look, Hawke didn’t help me with the book, I didn’t ask him, I didn’t interview him, I showed him the text afterwards, and he made no comment—oh, he corrected one or two very minor things—Blanche d’Alpuget read it, made some very useful comments. I hadn’t met her before, but had, and still have an excellent relationship with her, she’s a terrific author and obviously knows Hawke extremely well. But look it’s not an official book, it’s not a revelatory book—and Hawke, it’s very characteristic of him, Hawke has never discussed it with me. Not before, only once during when I said ‘Bob here it is, it’s finished, here as a courtesy.’ And not since.
So that’s very characteristic of him—look, it was the biggest experience in my professional career, in my professional life, working for Hawke. When I—on my last day in the office, when I’d finally decided to go back to journalism, I can remember I went into his office to make my farewells and I thanked him, and I had—I thought that I would say this, and I did say it—I said that I felt as though when I arrived in his office I’d arrived as a boy and I was leaving as a man, and you know, Hawke doesn’t respond to any of these kinds of things, he assumes that the people around him are growing and performing at their best, but anyway, it was a great experience for me, and I felt as though I’d contributed something to what was a—in many respects, a great prime ministership, and just by writing that book and making a record of it.
E Helgeby: The book is called The Hawke Years, what year was it published?
S Mills: Thereby hangs—sorry can we just turn it off for a second? I’ve just spilled water everywhere, sorry.
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 9
E Helgeby: Yes, you were talking…
S Mills: Yes, sorry, after having covered myself in water and embarrassment, I—the book was published in ’93, I left Hawke’s office in ’91, I wrote it through ’92—I was—I suppose the faint commercial bone in my body was suggesting that if I got it out before the ’93 election it would boost sales—it would be more noted. And I just couldn’t finish it in time, it was a huge project as it turned out, they always are. So it came out after the ’93 election, and of course Keating had won the ’93 election against all of the kind of the predictions of the Gallery, and indeed as against my own expectations and against the argument of the book, because the book ends with Hawke fighting off Keating’s challenge, saying ‘he’s the only one that can win in ’93.’ And then blow me down, if Keating didn’t win that absolutely magnificent fighting election in ’93, and extend Labor’s term in office. So the book came out after ’93 when Hawke’s prime ministership was already entering the pages of history.
Which actually makes it all the more important, I mean Keating I have obviously a huge respect for, I wish he had never knocked off an incumbent prime minister, I must say, and I think that there’s been a lot of—after his prime ministership, a certain disproportionate focus on his role in the Hawke-Keating government as treasurer. Probably at the expense of Hawke’s role as prime minister through that whole period of time, so again I feel as though the book justifies that. But anyway, it came out in, it must have been late ’93 after the election—it came out mid to late ’93.
E Helgeby: Now I think we’ve probably covered enough with Hawke, I wonder can you talk a bit about—the time you were working for the prime minister, there were three chiefs of staff at that time: Chris Conybeare, Sandy Hollway, and Dennis Richardson I think was the last one.
S Mills: That’s right, yeah.
E Helgeby: Can you talk a little bit about them, and how they influenced you and how you worked with them?
S Mills: Sure, and look they were just so critically important to the whole success of that office. So the prime minister’s office was structured in a different way to how the offices have been structured, I guess since Howard onwards, but we had—we called it the principal private secretary, and he was a career public servant, the first one had been Graham Evans and he’d left before I arrived, but then as you say Conybeare, Hollway, Richardson, were all PM&C senior departmental dep secs. I think in each case. But they were in the office on secondment, they were not political appointees—many of us were, but they were not, they were career public servants, and at the end of their time they went back into the public service. But they were not chief of staff, we didn’t have this phrase ‘chief of staff,’ that’s what I want to emphasise. In a sense, the office had two heads, it had the principal private secretary, and it had the political advisor—hopefully we’ll talk about the political advisor shortly, but the principal private secretary, you know, was across all the paper work, didn’t touch the politics, the political advisor was obviously across all of the politics and they both had equal standing, certainly from my point of view as a staff member, they had equal seniority at the top of the tree, and it worked brilliantly.
It obviously required close coordination between the two of them, and a lot of give and take and flexibility, and it was part of the genius of the whole office that the people who worked in it, I think I said yesterday, but it was just such a magnificent team collegial effort, where everyone was focused not on individual jostling, but on the bigger effort of Hawke—makes it sound like a fairy tale, but it did actually work like that. So anyway, Conybeare, he was the one who after Geoff Walsh had kind of approached me, he was the one who put in place my appointment, and I was—I’d just published this earlier book as a journalist, The New Machine Men, but it hadn’t yet appeared, and I was emphasising to Chris that ‘you realise I’ve got this book coming out, it’s about polls,’ and he was completely relaxed about that, and so it proved there was no problem with it.
What I really admired about Conybeare, I’d just never seen anybody who could organise the maelstrom that was a prime minister’s office so—so I mean if you think they’re sitting there in that press of events—parliament is sitting, cabinet might be sitting, ministers are walking in and out saying ‘can I have five minutes with the prime minister,’ there might be a foreign dignitary coming the next day, or a dinner to attend, or he might be travelling, and so there are lots of competitions for time, but also there’s obviously the evolving political and policy issues which are emerging. You know, a cabinet submission might be being developed on some proposal—and the principal private secretary has to be aware of all of this going on, and has to pretty well work out how to sequence those things, so as the prime minister, sitting at his desk, driving the whole ship, if you like, so the prime minister gets things in the right order, and sees things clearly.
You don’t want a situation where ‘oh prime minister, here’s a decision you need to make, but it’s contingent on five other things that you haven’t seen yet, and that we haven’t quite developed,’ so if you make the decision, it’s not going to be a good decision, so you have to get all of those ducks in a row. Conybeare was brilliant, so was Hollway and Dennis Richardson in their turn, but I’d never seen this before, and I was just impressed with Conybeare with his just calm ability to get all of those ducks in a row, and make sure that the prime minister’s decision making was, as I say, properly sequenced, properly structured. And I say Hawke had this nickname for him, which was affectionate and respectful, which was ‘field marshal.’ ‘Okay field marshal what have you got for me now?’ And it’s a great name, because he wasn’t just a general, he was a field marshal across the entire army as it were.
E Helgeby: That sounds quite astounding that he managed to get the cooperation between the two, his principal private secretary and the political adviser, and still—yet I sense that it was the principal private secretary who had the ultimate coordinating role to make sure that what the prime minister got was…
S Mills: Well yes—okay let’s talk about—so Conybeare was, as it were, teamed with, or coincided with Bob Sorby who was the political adviser. Bob Sorby, I believe, is the most significantly underestimated player in the Hawke government at this time, in late ’80s. Perhaps for his own reasons of reticence, he has never big noted himself, but it was my observation that he was—well he was a critical player, he’s the political adviser of course—but he was very, very good at the job. Had a great relationship with Conybeare, so as I say, part of the complexity of Conybeare’s job was that if Sorby had an issue running, if Sorby needed to see the prime minister he would walk in the door and see him. I mean I’m sure they’d find out who’s there first, but there was no—they were equal seniority and in terms of access to the prime minister I think they had equal right of access. So this just made their job more complex, but it certainly meant that—it is not true that the ‘bureaucrats were running the office.’
The bureaucrats were running much of the policy agenda as they probably should, but the politics was equally apparent, represented by Sorby—Sorby had very cool judgement, he had a lot of experience—he’d worked for Rex Connor in the Whitlam government, I think he’d worked in the New South Wales government, he was a lawyer—he had been a barrister—he’s now a judge in New South Wales—lived in Sydney. In my very first couple of months in the office, I was still living in Sydney, we hadn’t yet moved down to Canberra. And so I would commute up on the Monday and fly back on the Friday, as did Sorby for that period of time. And so we’d fly together and take the cars together. I can remember—and so we chatted a bit—I can remember commenting the fact that he was going back for the weekend, and he didn’t have five briefcases crammed with paper, in fact he had just a little kind of grip type of briefcase, little leather bag, which didn’t have much in it.
And he said ‘I just don’t take work home, I do it at work. If they want to contact me they can contact me, and my job is to give advice, and if they don’t like the advice that’s fine.’ So he had an I think remarkable dispassion about the work—which is not to say he wasn’t the most deeply committed partisan and Hawke promoter, notwithstanding his New South Wales—i.e. potentially Keating-esque background—so look I just—and I think he was a critical player in all of this period where Hawke, as we were talking about yesterday, was challenging the Labor Party to reform, and the tariff debate was continuing, the privatisation debate was underway. And you know, this was a big problem for the party, big problem for the Graham Richardsons of this world—and Sorby was across all of that, cool, phlegmatic, he was fantastic—I’ll say this thing: when we were in Jerusalem on this international trip, and actually I think we mentioned yesterday the King David oration—no, no, the Hebrew University oration, we were staying in the King David Hotel, the Hebrew University speech was the big speech.
And I was carrying the text with me as we headed off in the morning in the motorcade, had to go somewhere first for some official ceremony or something like that, and then we were going on to the university, and it was just when we were in the car that I was checking all—that I had everything, and needless to say, realised that I had eleven pages of the speech, but it was a twelve page speech, and the final page was nowhere on my body [laughs] and in fact, you know we’d printed it out just before we’d left, and obviously the last page was on the wretched photo copier, on the wretched printer. So they were all—the party was off—it may have been a wreath laying, something like that, but I had to move quickly, I had to—so I told the driver ‘I’ve got to go back to the hotel,’ go back, pick it up—I couldn’t tell anybody, so I disappeared—they didn’t know where I was. They went on to the Hebrew University knowing this big speech was coming up: ‘where’s the goddamn speechwriter, where’s the speech?’
I was nosing my way, without the benefit of motorcade and police and stuff like that, back to the—through the traffic, back to the hotel, and then off to—found the last bloody sheet of the speech, got back in the car, got to the university, got there in front of them—oh that was good—so I was waiting for them as they approached and they said ‘where the hell have you been, and where’s the speech, don’t you know’—stuff like that—and I explained what had happened, and Sorby, phlegmatic, calm, said ‘mate, just next time tell a white man.’ [laughs] which was—anyway, that’s what he said—so you know, as with all these things, you can fix the underlying problem but you create another problem, I’d created the problem of them not knowing where I was. So I should have told somebody. Anyway, phlegmatic, calm, dispassionate—as I say, greatly underestimated in terms of his contribution to the success of that office and that prime minister.
E Helgeby: Was the chemistry between the other two principal private secretaries and the other political advisers during that time—was that as good as…
S Mills: Yeah similar. So Sandy Hollway, probably overlapped—I mean they were not perfect overlaps, Sandy must have overlapped with Sorby as well a bit, but principally Geoff Walsh. And then Dennis Richardson and Cole Parks, well I mean look, the thing to say about the three private secretaries, just before we go—Conybeare was at the end of his stint, returned to PM&C, went to the immigration department, headed up the immigration department, and in 1996 on the election of the Howard government was one of the victims of Howard’s night of the long knives, and it was the most cruel, senseless, wickedly political decision to essentially terminate that man’s career. And I think it’s unforgivable, I don’t think Howard has ever apologised.
The reality is that apparently he was the victim of circumstances, he wasn’t supposed to be targeted, the reality is he was targeted—his career basically came to an end. It was a disgrace. Conybeare was a great public servant. Hollway went on to head SOCOG, Richardson went on to have one of the most celebrated political—public service careers, which continues to this day, he’d been head of immigration, then Washington ambassador, head of DFAT, now head of the defence. Chris Conybeare has been working as a consultant outside the public service, I just think it’s a disgrace.
E Helgeby: Were they more or less the same age group?
S Mills: Oh, yes, yeah. Anyway, so relations with the political advisers, yes it was always good, that double headed structure survived throughout the whole tenure of the Hawke—I mean obviously Hawke like having it structured that way, and they all got on in that kind of cooperative fashion, yep.
E Helgeby: And so the three of the political advisers, you’ve already spoken a lot about Bob Sorby, anything in particular you’d like to mention about Geoff Walsh and Cole Parks?
S Mills: Well Walsh was the one that got me into the job, and he had a hugely distinguished career in the Labor Party, and in the prime minister’s office, as well as in foreign affairs—he kind of get on coming in and out of politics. He’d been Hawke’s press secretary, then Hawke’s political adviser, then Keating’s political adviser, and then was ALP national secretary, having also been ALP communications director in the early ’80s. So really still a career—so Walshey is a very good mate of mine, says nothing—says absolutely nothing, he’s silent, wicked sense of humour, got a great capacity to use humour to defuse situations, had an excellent insight into Hawke—I’ll say, I mean look—I mean one, if we’re talking stories one story comes to mind. Hawke was a great cryptic crossword man, as was Walshey, and so I can remember on the times when I did travel with them, sometimes the VIP would take off, and it was usually The Bulletin magazine, now since demised, but it had an excellent cryptic in there, and they would just hop into it. And both of them very fast solvers of cryptic.
I also like cryptics, but I was never in their league I must say, but I learnt a lot while I was there. And so you know, quite frequently you’d get the first 15 minutes of the flight they’d be working on their respective copies of The Bulletin and solving these cryptics. On one day, this is in the New Parliament House, I was—I think it was The Australian cryptic—and it must have been a quiet morning because anyway I was doing the crossword, I got up from my desk, I had to go somewhere, maybe I went to the bathroom, I don’t know, and I’d got most of this crossword but there were three or four which I just couldn’t nut out.
When I came back to my desk, there on the desk, the crossword was solved by the prime minister himself, he’d apparently come in with Geoff looking for me for some discussion about something, found I wasn’t there, found this incomplete crossword, immediately attacked it, solved it, found that I’d made a mistake in there, and not only solved it but left a message for me which was explaining what he’d done, and he included in the sentence all of the words which were in the new clues that he’d found. So it was just kind of like that, and I’ve kept that somewhere, I haven’t seen it for age, but it was just hilarious, so we had—you know, this is Hawke’s competitive nature by the way, as well as his good team fun.
E Helgeby: Cole Parks?
S Mills: Cole Parks? Having lunch with him today as a matter of fact. Cole also had—well he had been a journalist, so I’d known Cole back in the Fairfax Press Gallery days, or up in our Senate corridor, because he used to be the correspondent for the old Sydney Sun, the afternoon paper before it shut down. So I’ve probably known him since whenever that was—late ’70s, early ’80s, whenever I was in the Gallery. Famously well connected, tough, solid—he’d also come up through the Hawke press office, like he’d been Hawke’s press secretary I guess after Geoff Walsh—I’m guessing here—there was also Grant Nile who worked in the press office, and I can’t quite recall who was press secretary first—Nile or Cole Parks.
E Helgeby: What about John Bowen?
S Mills: John Bowen.
E Helgeby: He was the foreign policy adviser I believe.
S Mills: Yes, yeah. Well has been described—what was described by the prime minister himself as ‘that gem of a man,’ I think that’s the word he uses in—that Hawke uses in his own biography. And it’s a good word, because he’s sparkling, multifaceted, multitalented bloke. So he was the foreign policy adviser, and in the Old Parliament House his desk was a chaos of paperwork. Hawke’s desk was brilliantly clean, all of our desks looked like we’d—shit and papers and stuff like that—and John in particular—in these days cables were actually Telex documents, they were long pieces of—well not long, they had been Telexed in from the various posts, and then would come in A4 printouts. But there were what, thousands of sheets of paper on his desk photocopied together, and he could always find it, he was one of those people, for him it was a creative mess, but a beautifully structured one.
But also in his office was all of the sporting memorabilia, because as well as being this foreign policy expert, he was and is a sports nut. He was the one who kind of—when Hawke was selecting the team for the prime minister’s 11 cricket match, which was revived under this prime minister, John was the one who knew that there was some up and coming batsman from WA who was 19 years old but should get a guernsey in the prime minister’s 11. It was always a—the team was a combination of seniority and youthful inexperience, and Bowen helped pick that team.
But Bowen had boxed at school, but otherwise—and played cricket obviously—but otherwise was not a big sporting person, didn’t play golf, but knew and still does, follows all codes of football, and cricket in particular incredibly closely, all forms of Olympic activity. John was one of the former Hawke staffers, along with Sandy Hollway and Simon Balderstone who we should mention as well, who went on to SOCOG, the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. Hollway of course was the CEO of that organisation and Bowen and Baulderstone were crucial players in the success of the Sydney Olympics. So Bowen was also—I should say—Bowen was a tennis player, we played a lot of tennis in the office…
E Helgeby: Inside your little office?
S Mills: No, not inside the office but if you look out this window Edward, as we sit here, we can see the Reps lawn tennis court, and I played many happy games of tennis there with Chris Conybeare, his wife Lynn who was a very handy tennis player, Bowen, who else? John Nicolson—you know, we’d organise this on a weekend, book the court, come in, play for a couple of hours. Ozzie Meneghello of course, who we should mention, kind of Hawke’s butler, he was a good tennis player as well. Used to play whilst smoking, which was always a good sight. And this predated me this story, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but playing at weekends obviously parliament was not open, and so apparently on one day they turned up for a day of tennis out here at the Reps court. Found that they didn’t have somebody’s racquet, it was actually up in Bowen’s office along with all of the cables, the tennis racquets, other sporting junk, the cricket balls and so forth—and it was discovered, I’m not sure if it was actually done, it may have been, I don’t know, but rather than the long way around, going all the way around to the basement and the front door to get in, and then go down and unlock the prime minister’s office to get this tennis racquet—probably it would be possible to go in by the back entrance here, there’s a back steps that go from outside the Reps door here up to the PM’s office, up a little flight of steps—if you could get in that door, run up the steps, run down to Bowen’s office, grab the tennis racquet, run back down the steps and out the door before the alarm went off, you could save yourself a lot of time. So the John Bowen memorial dash, as I say I’m not certain if it ever happened.
E Helgeby: It’s a good story, whether it did or not.
S Mills: Yeah, Bowen also—let me just go on—Bowen also was a fantastic lover of classical music, he had a very good bass voice, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of music. He would—he was the one when the prime minister was making some overseas tour, would schedule whatever the cultural event was. I remember once in—what’s that place in Croatia, on the coast?
E Helgeby: Split?
S Mills: No, we didn’t go to Split. It was the big walled—Dubrovnik—in this ancient building in Dubrovnik scheduled this gorgeous piano and cello little concert. It was just attended by Hawke, his official party, some of the local Yugoslavians as they then were, government officials. It was gorgeous. Bob I must say listened to the entire concert in deep meditation mode with his eyes firmly shut. It had been a busy day. Anyway, Bowen is—Bowen subsequently organised or chaired the Sydney University graduate choir, and he’s still a chorister. Okay, enough about John, wonderful man.
E Helgeby: Economic adviser Craig Emerson is one who’s…
S Mills: Oh yeah, well Craig, who is of course now the trade minister—you know these—it’s also worth pointing out, the economic advisers from Hawke’s office, I mentioned Dennis Richardson’s stellar public service career. If you think of Ross Garnaut, who was Hawke’s first adviser, then Steve Sedgewick, who was there with me, who is now the public service commissioner, succeeded by Rob Sims, who is the ACCC commissioner, and then there’s also—they were the senior economic advisers, then there was Dr Craig Emerson who went on to be trade minister, there was also Peter Harris, who was one of the DLOs in the office who’s just been appointed productivity commissioner so I mean these are not trivial—these are very serious policy specialists, for whom policy is important, and they’ve got credentials, but who also understand the political environment in which policy is made.
So I mean I just don’t think it’s any coincidence—I think they are all incredibly deserved appointments, and they recognise that great skill set that they demonstrated in Hawke’s office—maybe I’m bragging a little bit about it on their behalf, but I just don’t think it’s coincidental that all of these guys have gone on to much bigger and greater things. Anyway, so Craig was really critical in the structure of the office—I suppose they all were—but Craig played this unique role, so he was—Hawke regarded him very fondly, recognised his economic credentials—he had a PhD from ANU, Garnaut had been his supervisor, but he also had a big political brain as well, Craig, and so Craig often travelled with Hawke. Craig was part of the travelling party, and I can remember on one occasion in the I guess ’90 election, where there was—during the campaign, there was a real scramble to pull together a substantial policy document about what the next term of government was going to be.
And I can remember—I got the call from Craig reasonably late one night, ‘just had this meeting with the boss, we need to pull together all of this,’ he had half a dozen points, I added a couple more as to—I think this was very good staff work, is why I’m giving the story—especially by Craig, but I contributed to it as well—there’s all of this stuff out there, it’s not secret, it’s not unknown, but you’ve got to assemble it, package it, structure it, and so we worked on that overnight and I guess the next day, and it turned into a good speech, I think in Ballarat, where some structure was put around the next term agenda. So Craig did stuff like that—I think I also mentioned yesterday he did the kind of briefing book and the quotes book and stuff like that, so he was very good. We used to joke on the international trips, because we were low down the pecking order in terms of the strict hierarchy of these things, and we always used to get in car 13, it used to be pretty much towards—about as close to the back end of the motorcade as you could be without falling off the back of it, so car 13 is where we belonged to be [laughs].
E Helgeby: Did you have much to do with Hawke’s press secretaries, you mentioned two names, Barrie Cassidy and Grant…
S Mills: Grant Nile, yeah. Look, it’s odd, because they were physically separated from us in terms of their office was up in the Press Gallery, so we didn’t see them on a second by second basis as we saw everybody else in the office downstairs. But—so you know, they were always present—didn’t impinge hugely on me, I mean—they often had input into speeches, Barry, Grant—into suggesting phrases and so forth. Lou Cullen was the kind of—and Jenny Hunter before that, and Liz Dale were three women who did a lot of the—just the brutal grunt work of that kind of office, you know producing transcripts late at night, being responsible for organising logistics of press conferences and so forth, I mean God it’s hard work. Still, they always had smiles on their faces. Can I just flick back to say something about Sandy as well?
Sandy, as principal private secretary in our office—great kind of social—and great team builder—so Sandy inaugurated the Friday afternoon cocktails in the New Parliament House, which certainly didn’t happen every Friday, but on some Fridays he’d appear in the general office bearing this gigantic tray of various exotic cocktails which we’d consume at the appropriate time on a Friday afternoon. But he also initiated the staff kind of social club, which we called ‘the glee club.’ Why we called it ‘the glee club,’—anyway, it was called ‘the glee club,’ and you know, you’d put a couple of bucks in and occasionally buy drinks, but we also had an annual Christmas dinner. And you know, I think it’s probably mentioning this because we were good friends in this office, and capable of having a really good time together—in the normal press of times the office would never be together, everybody’s travelling, or doing different stuff, or busy, or you know, stuff like that. But we did get together for this annual Christmas party. I can remember one was down here at the Lobby Restaurant, and you know, everybody’s contributed money and we’d have a dinner and drinks, and we have drinks, and we probably have more drinks, and we have—Sandy would present funny awards to people for various things—on one occasion John Bowen and…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 10
S Mills: …Pandora Livanes. Pandora was one of the secretaries—lovely girl—couldn’t be there, and so but John pretended that they had both eloped, and that they were living up in Queensland, so he sent a message that they were—and anyway, there were lots of laughs, lots of drinks, lots of cigars. Sandy was a cigar man, I wasn’t a big cigar man but I didn’t mind the occasional cigar and I’d better not say the source of the cigars, but occasionally there’d be some official gifts that were just extremely high quality tobacco which would come through. So that was very nice.
E Helgeby: What was your relationship like with the prime minister’s private secretary, Jean Sinclair?
S Mills: Oh, Jean…
E Helgeby: I believe she played a very important part or role in the office.
S Mills: Yeah, very sad because of course she died pretty well, at that time. She would have died I guess in early ’91, something like that, of cancer.
E Helgeby: There’s actually a picture of you with Graham Freudenberg and Dorothy Scurry and Jean Sinclair taken in April of 1991, and I was going to ask you what was the occasion for that, for this picture just outside the office, or what used to be the old office…
S Mills: Yeah. Actually April 1991—5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 01—eight years, so that was the eighth anniversary of Hawke’s election as prime minister, which I think put him ahead of Fraser in terms of duration as prime minister, and so he became the second longest serving prime minister after Menzies obviously, and we had a drinks party, and I think that’s what that event is. Why I remember that, I don’t know, but April ’91 is the giveaway. Okay, so Jean must have got sick afterwards—after that. But she had cancer, I mean she was a big smoker. But Jean, again a hugely underestimated figure, Jean had been with Bob back in the ACTU days, and continued to be—so she was his—I think the title was personal secretary—she was and continued to be his connection with the labour movement, with all of the unions, with all of the ACTU, with the Melbourne Jewish community, with—and essentially with Bob’s pre-prime ministerial political life, which was extensive, with all of the arbitration commission people. Jean knew them all, kept in touch with them all, and managed that part of his life, continued to do it completely—again, completely unflapped—a gorgeous, generous woman, Jean.
When we moved into the New Parliament House, she ended up sharing an office with Freudey, not me, and I think it was because they both smoked, and [laughs] there was the proverbial smoke filled room sometimes. But yeah, what can I say? So sadly missed. She was so generous and calm, and you know, loved Bob but knew his faults as well, and was just such—one of the pillars that kept that man as the prime minister that he was. It’s hard talking about these people, I must say, I’ll try to summarise—we’re making a record here for the future, and I’m just aware of the inadequacies of what I’m saying actually, I’m certainly speaking from the heart, but I feel as though I’m missing—I must be missing bits—but anyway, she was a wonderful woman. We played tennis, by the way, not just here the Old Parliament House, we played tennis on the international trips as well. Famously in our visit to India we stayed in New Delhi at the, I believe it’s called the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which was basically the foreign guest house for visiting leaders, which is this magnificent building, right in the heart of teeming New Delhi, but surrounded by acres, and acres of beautiful laws, tropic gardens, and lawn tennis courts.
And so the Australian party made it clear that they wouldn’t mind a go in the lawn tennis courts, and we just thought we would just kind of turn out—we had our racquets and our shoes, but I don’t think we had much by way of official gear, and we certainly didn’t expect that when we turned up to this tennis court, there was a staff waiting for us, dressed to the nines with the turbans and all, with the cool drinks—it was, and remains the only time I’ve ever played with the services of a ball boy—in fact a whole set of ball boys, and as I served double fault after double fault and this kid would roll the tennis balls over to me and say ‘never mind sir,’ [laughs] and there was a couple of tennis pros—I mean a couple of young Indian tennis players who were so damned good, anyway, it was just one of those bizarre exotic experiences on an international trip.
E Helgeby: Just briefly, you said—you’ve spoken quite a lot about Graham Freudenberg and your relationship with him, is there anything you want to add to…
S Mills: I should, yes thank you. Excellent, I was going to raise that. Graham was a bit of family friend of my wife, I should say this—so my wife Helen O’Neil’s father was a publisher, Lloyd O’Neil, and Lloyd had run Jacaranda Press was his principle one, but there were other imprints, and Lloyd had published Arthur Calwell’s two books: Be Just and Fear Not, and whatever the other one was called—and Freudey obviously had worked on those, in fact I think if there was a trade practices’ act in those days it shouldn’t have Arthur Calwell’s name on it, but anyway, so Freudey knew Lloyd from back in the ’60s, and Helen can remember Graham—Helen can remember all of these authors coming around to their home to talk with her father about publishing. So Graham was such a gentlemen, our daughter was born—I joined the office in ’86, our daughter was born in May of ’87, Janette, in Canberra, we were already living in Deakin at that stage, and the election was called I guess in July. So you know, I was basically off with the political event, and anyway at one point Graham came around to pay a visit to see our daughter, and didn’t realise until afterwards—so you know, come around have a cup of tea, here’s the baby and so forth—and it was only when he was leaving that he was standing on the front steps to leave that he lit up a cigarette, we’d realised that he’d spent this entire time—this chain smoker generously not smoking whilst in the presence of this baby, which was so nice of him. I can remember as the proud father of showing photos of the newborn Janette in the prime minister’s office, including to Kim Beazley who came through, and I mean I think people are pretty soft and indulgent with new fathers, and Kim looked at this photograph and said ‘yeah, it’s amazing, they all look like boiled chickens when they’re born isn’t it?’ And handed the photo back [laughs].
Rod Sims and I attended the 1989 grand final together, he’s a Hawthorn fan, I’m a Geelong fan—it was possibly the greatest game of football ever played, and that was courtesy of Hawke—we certainly were able to travel to and from on the VIP, although I think we may have bought our own tickets, and we lost that grand final but it certainly softens the blow of it to fly back to Canberra in that style. I sometimes used to think with this whole sporting thing that there was—we were a parallel PMO, and I can remember in the New Parliament House there were some tradies that came in doing some electrical wiring work, and they had the ladders up and the tools out, and meanwhile there was some, I don’t know, golf thing on the television and people were gathered around watching it, and they were curious—‘is this actually the prime minister’s office?’ But particularly with Bowen, but everybody was a bit sports mad, and we had time to multitask. But you know, was there some other place where the actual prime minister’s office existed and we were just the kind of actors doing it? Well know, that’s just how we did it, we had a great time.
E Helgeby: Going back to the Press Gallery and you times there, I think you spoke quite extensively about Michelle Grattan in the earlier interviews, were there any other journalists that stand out in your memory as people who—from your experience working with them or others, and particularly for example, did you have any impressions of Alan Reid who was around at that time when you joined…
S Mills: No…
E Helgeby: Or Laurie Oakes?
S Mills: Yes. Alan Reid I rarely—I certainly wouldn’t have—I think I saw him but I mean I don’t—would never have crossed his path or entered his consciousness I’m sure. Oakes was certainly around, at the head of the Herald Sun bureau then, and in fact he was the one who hired Geoff Walsh into Canberra journalism at the Herald Sun. Now did we talk about the non-members bar last time, I think we did didn’t we?
E Helgeby: I was going to remind you about that, yes, you did mention the confrontation between Oakes and Brian…
S Mills: Brian Toohey, yeah. The confrontation of the belly, bellywood. Look, there were so many other journalists, and I still stay in touch with them so it’s a bit hard to single out individuals. I mean there was Tom Mockridge at the Sydney Morning Herald, whose gone on to a very distinguished career at News Limited overseas in Italy and UK. Well Simon Balderstone, so Simon was a colleague of mine from The Age in Melbourne, and then we worked together in the Canberra bureau here, and then he went back to Melbourne—I joined Hawke’s staff, he later joined Hawke’s staff as well, so kind of parallel careers for quite a while, and good mates. He stayed on—I think he was probably the only staffer who stayed on between Hawke and Keating, because he was across all of the environmental and indigenous issues. And then went to SOCOG, and he’s still involved with the IOC—Olympic movement. Who else? Oh I should say we did one person of note, Carol Thatcher, who was the daughter of the British prime minister. She came out in I guess the—might have been 1980, something like that, to work in the Canberra parliamentary Press Gallery. Obviously to get out of Britain and have a separate life apart from her mother being prime minister. So I think that was actually a good move.
She was a funny person, she wasn’t—I think she probably wasn’t made for Canberra journalism, but she battled on very well, and she just had a great temperament, liked to laugh, good fun. We went with her—I think I said when we were talking about it—we would often go out at weekends, all of these young, single people, and we’d go out to barbecues, Angle Crossing and Major’s Creek, stuff like that. And on one occasion we went up to the Bong Bong races with Carol on board. Drove up there—Bong Bong—it’s the only time I’ve ever been there, and I hope those events are still going with as much fun and sense of exotic excitement. Those picnic races, they’re magnificent events, and Carol certainly enjoyed that. It was a very far cry I think from home in London.
E Helgeby: We’re running out of people to talk about?
S Mills: Well there’s—I mean I can—I’ve run out of significant things to say about them I guess.
E Helgeby: Well in that case, perhaps we could slip to something rather more substantial in some respects, you still around and still on staff during the time Paul Keating first challenged Bob Hawke in May, June 1991. Could you talk a bit about that? And particularly from your perspective? And I suppose I guess with that, did you have any knowledge of the so called Kirribilli agreement?
S Mills: Oh God no. Christ no. No I can remember the thunder clap when it came out. No, certainly not. And that was a trigger for this whole night of the long—a night which I mentioned I did write about in the book in terms of who spoke to whom, that I saw. It was a very stressful period from a staff point of view, obviously, because this is where the distinction between staff and actual members of caucus is nowhere starker—that’s very proper—we were not part of any decision making process that was going on, but obviously a lot hung on it—our jobs, and also our loyalties.
It was very sad, I mean I just wish that Keating hadn’t dragged down a prime minister. Because together they were—together Hawke and Keating were an absolutely devastatingly effective team, and they were better together than either of them were separately, in terms of policy and politics and overall devastating impact on any opposition leader who got within cooee. So that all came to an end, and with it, a lot of things were fractured. I mean I had good friends in Keating’s office, I’m thinking—well Tom Mockridge was in Keating’s office, and John Edwards, Seamus Dawes, you know, they were all decent people, but once this challenge was on, you were separated from them. It was the proverbial brother against brother situation, and you know, just very, very sad. And obviously bad government, you cannot govern when you’re tearing yourself apart.
E Helgeby: How did this atmosphere and the events themselves directly impact on yourself and the work you were doing? Did it change the way things were done—like for example was there a different emphasis in the speeches after that time? Or before and after that time because of a change of that—Bob Hawke may have changed his attitude to anything or…
S Mills: Look, I think honestly, the answer is no I didn’t see any—I mean clearly there was a lot going on in the government, were they manifested in terms of my actual day to day job? Well I certainly didn’t feel—we certainly didn’t have these very good relations across the whole ministerial office. I mean as I say, you wouldn’t go to Keating’s office or Dawkin’s office for a chat, or for input. You know, it was us versus them. And you know, I guess—but that said, we did do—right at the end, I think early ’91 I think we did a big economic statement that might have been called ‘building competitive Australia,’ if my memory serves me right, and that was actually one of the highlights, that was a real—I thought it was a great document, so professional in terms of what we produced I thought was very good, but it was notwithstanding we’ve got this unbelievable fight going on, or not at that stage—notwithstanding the tensions and uncertainties between the prime minister and the treasurer, this was still a good, substantial piece of politics and economic policy making, and it was a good process.
E Helgeby: Do you remember the reaction to learning about that there was to be this challenge, what it was and how—did it come out of the blue as far as you were concerned?
S Mills: Yep, yeah. Well there’d been—there were obvious tensions, but the Kirribilli House thing, and then the night of the long meetings, leading to the challenge, oh look it was just like a—it was a bolt from the blue, I couldn’t—I actually couldn’t believe that such a thing had been done, that Kirribilli House agreement. I certainly felt that to the extent that it was an agreement between the two of them, and I could see how they’d structured it—so as with Kelty and Abeles there as their kind of seconds, their witnesses. I could certainly see how, to the extent that there was an agreement, it no longer applied, it had been breached. And Hawke was under no obligation to step aside—I mean bugger it, he was the prime minister, why should he step aside? Why should he have been forced into making an agreement with a treasurer who simply wanted his job? Who hadn’t demonstrated any prime ministerial attributes—in fact, in some respects…
E Helgeby: Did your loyalty to the prime minister change at all when this challenge came up?
S Mills: No, no, it hardened up. That’s what I’m saying, I mean everybody—like I mean, could you have worked for Hawke and been a Keating supporter? No. Impossible. You know, I mean we mourned the fact that this was all happening, but in terms of what outcome did you want, in terms of who you saw as being in the right and wrong it was black and white.
E Helgeby: So you would have been quite satisfied with the outcome of that first challenge and that it was rejected?
S Mills: Yes, yes, and Hawke having been successfully confirmed by caucus in that odd kind of two stage process that they had were it was off and then it was on—but anyway, Hawke having emerged victorious from that, and there was a little uptick in the polls, Keating said he’d just had the one shot in the locker, and he went off to the backbench. And that’s—I thought then that’s why I thought it was a good time for me to leave the office, I thought that was an appropriate way to step out, without sending any kind of signal that I was either unhappy from a challenge point of view, or more generally that I was abandoning Hawke in his hour of need or anything like that. So I thought that was a good time to leave, so it proved of course that Keating wasn’t able to—he had ants in his pants and needed to keep on keeping on. And I watched the next six months in which he dragged down the prime minister from the luxurious immunity of the Press Gallery.
E Helgeby: During the—this is going a bit more general again—during your time at Old Parliament House and later at the Australian Parliament House, did you have much contact with ordinary members of parliament—non-ministerial members of parliament? And were there any that stood out to you in any shape or form? Good or bad.
S Mills: Occasionally. I mean the PM would make a visit to marginal electorates, and so we would always have a short, sharp—or short, intense relationship with that MP’s office to organise the trip. But look, by and large no, I can remember—had this enormous respect for these guys that held marginal seats, there was George Gear from WA who held his seat—George Gear, and there was another WA marginal who—they were both very marginal, and they just held the seat, and then they held it again in ’87, and then they held it again in ’90, they were just—George Gear was a really terrific local member. You could just see his kind of dynamic—I mean he loved the job, he kind of liked living on the knife edge maybe, but he was very inventive in leveraging the power of the government, including the power of the prime minister, to draw attention to himself, and to his programs, and his membership of, I think it was Stirling, was the seat.
So Warren Snowdon I got to know a little bit, who’s obviously still around as a minister in the current government. Lloyd O’Neil, not the name of my father in law, but another Lloyd O’Neil amazingly enough, the member for, I think it was Grey in South Australia, we made an electorate visit there, and I accompanied the prime minister on that visit. And again, you just see this active dynamic, kind of hardworking bloke who’s covering this gigantic electorate and trying to promote things. Hawke shocked everybody by—we were staying in this tiny little motel, country motel, and Hawke emerged from the shower with a towel on—thank God—when Lloyd O’Neil and his wife were there, in this tiny little room, and just proceeded to ‘hello, how are you?’ and stuff like that. But he was completely un-self-conscious, and it sounds—I mean it was just funny.
E Helgeby: Tell me, were there any parliamentarians that you came not to admire, or not respect, as members of parliament or individual characteristics?
S Mills: Well I mean the whole challenge thing, I mean I think Dawkins had been a brilliant minister, but I thought he lost—I lost a lot of respected for him when he started shilling for Keating. But you see—look, the answer is really no. And I mean these were—what you did see where the ministers who were just so totally across their stuff: Button, Beazley, Evans, Dawkins—not to mention Keating—and I never had—Mick Young—and I never had much of a contact with any of them except just sporadically, but occasionally you’d travel with them or there’d be a meeting, or some joint speech, or working with their staff on something. And you know, the whole thing was just full steam ahead. Everybody was motivated, the cabinet ministers, the ministers, their staff—we had very few—I can’t think of really significant times when you think ‘well shit, what a dud,’ it just wasn’t like that, they were all absolutely guns in their different respects.
E Helgeby: And you don’t—and do you believe there were any changes from that perspective after the first challenge for example, did that lead to a change in the atmosphere?
S Mills: Well yes, you know, I mean poor old John Kerin was made treasurer, and that didn’t work out very well at all. And John Kerin had been an extraordinarily strong minister for primary industries, and in fact when—‘gosh how are we going to replace Keating as treasurer,’ suggestion was made about Kerin and ‘oh what a great idea,’ because he’s got that natural style, and he knew his business. But—so that didn’t work, and then as I say, there was a chilling effect in terms of the relationships within—at the staff level, which was all very sad.
E Helgeby: Thinking about the Press Gallery in general terms, did you think the Press Gallery was generally fair and unbiased?
S Mills: Too—in relation to its reporting of the Hawke government?
E Helgeby: Yes.
S Mills: Ah no, not really. But you know, I’m probably in the worst possible position to make a judgement which itself would be unbiased. Put it this way, I don’t think we got any free kicks out of them, I don’t they were—you know I mean this was a reform government, so the core reform task, which I believe was so capably and in many respects brilliantly articulated by Hawke, and by Keating—I give Keating 100 percent full respect for his communications skills in changing this Labor Party, and changing the whole mindset about a protectionist, inward looking economy. Where superannuation, if you were a doctor, you could have superannuation—or a barrister—but the idea of actually people, working people, having superannuation was being introduced by this government. And the whole concept of the accord, which I talked about in the book, and the balance between wage restraint being imposed through—yes a centralised wage fixation system—and on the other hand, the social wage, the Medicare, the superannuation—the way in which government was able to achieve outcomes in terms of wage restraint whilst actually improving the lot of ordinary working people through social wage increases, family allowance supplement being another one—which we talked about yesterday—was I thought just brilliant policy making, and brilliant politics.
And as I say, it seemed to be enormously difficult to explain that, and yet you know, the prime minister and the treasurer, and the other ministers, just constantly were at that task. Now I don’t think—I think the journos got it, I mean they saw what we were trying to do, they also saw the opposition had absolutely nothing to offer. I mean bereft—so I don’t think it was anything like the toxic government, the toxic Labor situation that you’ve got now. But they—I mean there were just so many missed opportunities, so many times where the—I felt this big reform task was being hamstrung by a kind of nostalgic feeling that ‘oh gosh, change is a bit uneasy, let’s report the victims of change, let’s report how difficult this is, let’s report how screwed up it is.’ So complex. Nothing near as bad—I mean I think Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty, which was obviously not daily reporting, but I think there were some great journalists at the time—Kelly, Grattan—and I think their account is fair, detailed, balanced, somewhat pro-Keating account, but you know I don’t think the government has been badly done by, in terms of the historical record by the Press Gallery, but at the time it seemed like there was just so much—it was an uphill battle every day. We had John Pilger come in one day and do this interview, and it was the just utter bilge—it was so promotion by him, riding on the back of alleged concern for real Labor values. And what he would know about it, I have no idea. Anyway, Hawke worked out on that interview, so it was not a success in that regard either.
E Helgeby: In 1993 you finally left the Gallery—the Press Gallery…
S Mills: Yeah.
E Helgeby: If you look back at your time at both Old Parliament House and at the Australian Parliament House, what would you think is your fondest memory of your time here?
S Mills: Oh there are just so many. I did love working in this building, and I didn’t like the new building very much. When we went into the new building by the way, we had a tour—I’ll answer the question—but we had a tour of the new building when it was still being fitted out, being constructed, still being fitted out, and we had to—we were going to make the move over a weekend. Obviously business of government, we just had to keep on keeping on, I know some people continued to work in the Old Parliament House for a period of time, but we were—we must have been up there on day one—but anyway, we had a tour of the building, I remember we were standing in the corridor, outside the prime minister’s suite with the cabinet room behind us, and there were the…
Interview with Stephen Mills, part 11
S Mills: …main doors there—were the doors fitted yet? I don’t know, but there was big plastic sheeting over the place I guess to protect from dust. Because inside it was all fitted out, and somebody cut the plastic with a—kind of cut a hole in the plastic so that we could get in, and it was like going through a—like walking under a fence into a new paddock, we all clambered through this plastic sheeting and had a look at the new prime minister’s office, and it just looked magnificent in terms of the furniture, the desk, the lovely upholstery, the inlay, and stuff like that. But you know, as a functional working political office, it was not a patch on the old one, because it was basically too big, and we were—you had this huge dog leg arrangement and the PM’s office is up here at one end with principal private secretary, political adviser, Jean Sinclair’s kind of offices, but then to get to the rest of the place it was not only not within eyesight, it was what seemed to us this immense distance to have to walk down to the far kind of other end of the office where there was myself, Bowen, Sims, Emerson, and the kind of all the typists and receptionists and so forth. So it didn’t just—it seemed to be a lot harder to gather in that new building. So I’ve got the fondest memories of the Old Parliament House, you know, just that sense of thrilling energy up in the Press Gallery where everybody’s hammering away on their typewriters at five o’clock with everything blaring just to get this news out, and then in the prime minister’s office it was just—it was a lot of fun, lot of fun, lot of very good people, lot of hard work—late nights—and all for a great cause.
E Helgeby: What would you consider, applying the same sort of approach, what would have been your worse memory, or memories in your time in either of the two buildings?
S Mills: Well we talked about the 1990 election yesterday, and I won’t go there again, but I certainly haven’t recovered in many respects I think, but look, it was always—I’ll say this in terms of—working in the PM’s office—probably true of any political office, you’re never quite certain of stuff. There’s always something happening. And this is not a function of the building, but I can remember many occasions where you’re operating in conditions of uncertainty. Even if it’s preparing a speech, and I’m sure this would be true if you’re a cabinet minister or what have you. It’s not a place to work if you like everything spelt out to you, handed to you on a plate, you’ve got to get on with a lot of stuff, so the personal relationships are very important—that’s how you network, you find stuff out—but you’ve also got to have some antennae as to how far you can go in terms of finding out stuff.
The stuff that you’re not supposed to know. I mean when I joined the office, I since read that they were discussing the timing for the 1987 election, I had no idea that that was going on. But there was a big issue going on with some saying I think April, some saying July and so forth. I mean it was just not something which I saw, there were lots of times where I was aware that there were—of course there are meetings going on all the time, would I feel entitled to open the door and go in? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And you’ve got to understand, and there’s—as I say—so dealing with that uncertainty, especially in the tiny confines of that Old Parliament House was a—and then occasionally you’d have the Pope walk through, or some visitor—no literally.
E Helgeby: Before we skip to my last question, there was one little story you mentioned to me after we’d finished the other day which deserves to be included, and that’s the episode about your car.
S Mills: Of my car.
E Helgeby: In front of Old Parliament House.
S Mills: Thanks, yes that’s right. Well when I was living here in—when I was in the Press Gallery working for The Age bureau, I drove this Peugeot 404 station wagon, lovely car, I still miss it, had a number of Peugeots, this was a big green station wagon with Victorian plates on it because in those days you didn’t really have to register them locally. And I would drive that in, in the old days you could park wherever here, and if you got a park out the front, good on you, sometimes—on a bad day you would have to park at these—I’m pointing to the kind of carparks behind the tennis courts here on whatever this back road is towards East block and West block. On a bad day you’d have to park there, but normally you’d snag a park somewhere immediately around the building, I mean this is Canberra. Anyway, so I parked, beautiful spot out the front looking out to Mt Ainslie, and something must have happened during the day or more likely during the night to make me realise that I shouldn’t drive home, and so—perhaps I got a lift home, perhaps I took a taxi home—and then I must have slept in the next morning, but by the time I arrived at work in probably the late morning, to my surprise, the entire front of Parliament House has been decked out in its ceremonial mode for a visit by the—I believe the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Michael Somare, and there were PNG and Australian flags up along the front, and it was cordoned off, and there was going to be the—the ceremony would take place right in front of Parliament House, again something which the New Parliament House doesn’t—these ceremonies were beautiful, right there.
And obviously from the early hours of the morning, parking had been prevented so that the whole place was all nice and clean, except of course for my green Peugeot station wagon with the Victorian plates, which was sitting there, alone, isolated, like a shag on a rock, and I thought ‘oh my God,’ but look, I explained myself very kindly, and they said ‘oh that’s yours is it? Go and get it,’ so I drove it out, and so when the prime minister of Papua of New Guinea came he saw Parliament House in its full splendour, not with this blot of the car. But anyway, they were simpler days [laughs].
E Helgeby: And that’s I suppose—for the last question I’d like to put to you, looking back, what thoughts and feelings do you have about your years working at either Old Parliament House or Australian Parliament House—overall?
S Mills: Well look, very fond. And I must say the experience of talking about it for six hours has been quite—has been quite an unnerving one in many respects. I loved working particularly in this building, and I loved working the two jobs—the journalism job and the staffing job that I had while I was here. I think it’s just a—this is a—don’t want to sound mawkish but I mean this building is Australian democracy at its best, and I think the King’s Hall experience where the prime minister would walk in in the morning, past the Japanese tourists and past the folk who have come in from Forbes and Grenfell and the school kids, and the journos, in that King’s Hall there, I mean what a fabulous statement that is. And to be part of that was a great privilege.
E Helgeby: Are there any last points you’d like to make before we finish?
S Mills: Look, I think I’m done.
E Helgeby: Well in that case, on behalf of the director of the museum, I’d like to thank you again for agreeing to participate in this interview.
S Mills: It’s a pleasure.
E Helgeby: And you will of course receive the record CDs as soon as possible. If at any time after you’ve listened to that, if there are things you’d like to add to, just get in touch with us and we can arrange and extra session.
S Mills: Sure, thank you.
E Helgeby: Thank you.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
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