Stephen Spencer worked in the Press Gallery at the provisional Parliament House from 1986 to 1988 and subsequently at the Australian Parliament House from 1988 to 2001. From 2001 to 2005 he was Speech Writer and Press Secretary to Simon Crean.
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- Stephen Spencer
Interview with Stephen Spencer part 1
E Helgeby: This is an interview with Stephen Spencer who worked in the Press Gallery at the provisional Parliament House from 1986 to 1988 and subsequently at the Australian Parliament House from 1988 to 2001. From 2001 to 2005 he was Speech Writer and Press Secretary to Simon Crean. He has continued to work in the Press Gallery since then. Stephen will be talking with me Edward Helgeby for the Oral History Program conducted by the Museum of Documentary 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 impose in completing the rights agreement?
S Spencer: Yes, I do.
E Helgeby: This being so may we have your permission to make a transcript or a summary of recording should we decide to make one?
S Spencer: Yes, certainly.
E Helgeby: This interview is taking place on 20th February 2014 at 11.30 am. Can we being with a bit of background on your parents, what did they do for a living, how did they influence your course of live and when and where were you born?
S Spencer: Okay I was born in Manchester in Britain in 1963. My father and my mother both left school at fifteen but both were very big believers in education. They hadn’t been given that opportunity because their families basically required them to leave school as soon as they could and work. So it was always a big pressure from my parents to finish high school, go to university, get an education, it was something they drove in me.
We immigrated to Australia in 1969 under the Assisted Passage Scheme, or ten pound Poms as it was known. The Australian government paid the fare of migrants to Australia and I came to Australia with my parents and one of my brothers and my mother’s parents. We came on the same ship which was the S.S. Arawa Shaw Savill Line which was a ship that was especially built, I think, to run this route. It was only around for a few years about then air travel was already starting to take over the liners to Australia. It was just about finishing. We were amongst the last people who came out, I think, on liners. We had a six week voyage to Australia and arrived in November 1969. I grew up in Sydney in the northern beaches of Sydney at a place called Newport. I went to Newport Primary, Pittwater High School at Mona Vale and then Macquarie University in Sydney where I got a Bachelor of Arts degree.
I got into journalism because from a very early age I was fascinated by news. I loved news. I loved watching the news, reading the newspapers, listening to it. I don’t know if that was necessarily encouraged by my parents. It was not something that they were into but they were people who were interested in events of the day and politics and so we always had newspapers around the house. We always had the television news on and that was just something I became fascinated with and always wanted to become a journalist.
E Helgeby: So you were always dreaming for that as a career path?
S Spencer: From about the age of ten, yes, I was lucky in that. I was never one of those people who never quite was sure what they wanted to do. I knew all along and had a goal in mind which was to get to university, get a certain mark that would get me into a certain university, to get me a course, to get me a journalist. I got the marks I needed. I got into the course at the Macquarie University which was a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication, not really journalism. There were very few journalism courses in those days. When I finished the degree in 1983 I applied for cadetships with all sorts of organisations. I missed out on a lot of cadetships strangely because in those days having a university degree was seen as a negative. Most newspapers regarded you as being too smart and would use too many big words and so I missed out on a cadetship. News Ltd rejected me, even I passed all their trials and got right through to the final selection phase. The reason I was not given the job was because I was told I had a degree and would use too many big words. Whereas now it’s the other way round, now of course you can’t get into journalism unless you do have degrees.
E Helgeby: You mentioned in the notes you’ve given us that you got a job with 2CH was it?
S Spencer: Yes, about six months after — I worked in a supermarket while I went for every job, one hundred and twenty rejection letters. I went for a job with 2CH which was then an independent music station in Sydney. It place, what would you call it, wallpaper music, background music, light and easy I think was their slogan. But they had a very good news room. They had seven or eight journalists. They were very serious. Their audience, which it listened to background music, liked news to be straight and very serious news. They liked it done in a proper fashion, an ABC style. I went for a job there. It came down to two people. The other person got the job but six weeks later that person quit because they didn’t like it and I was contacted and I started in May 1984.
I had eighteen months in Sydney working for them — in radio you do everything. There is very little specialization. It’s more what hours of the day you’re working so I did court stories, I did political stories, I did crime stories, just whatever was the story of the day. So I covered, for example, the trial of High Court Justice Lionel Murphy when he was charged with corruption. I was at his court. I also covered the bikie massacre when that happened. I was on duty that day and went out to Milperra to cover the shootings that happened there. I can remember covering a plane crash. I can remember covering some of the problems, Neville Wran when he was Premier of New South Wales so I went to a number of his. So you got to do a little bit of everything but the thing that I was passionate about was politics. I love politics.
In January 1986 2CH became part of a slightly wider network, the AWA network which had stations in Melbourne and Perth and they needed a proper Canberra bureau and I was twenty-two and they asked me whether I wanted to do it so I jumped at the chance. It was my dream to work as a political reporter and so I came here.
E Helgeby: Where did you live in Canberra and what was it like at that time?
S Spencer: I lived in Downer. It was probably just starting to become a significant city then but there wasn’t the big — there was the Monaro Mall in the city but you didn’t have the big Canberra Centre. I remember, if you wanted to do any significant shopping you still had to go, probably out to Belconnen, the Westfield at Belconnen, or even to Queanbeyan, whatever it was in Queanbeyan was still a bigger shopping centre than what was in the centre of Canberra. The only TV stations were the ABC, Capital and SBS the aggregation hadn’t happened so you still didn’t have a lot of choices of television. There wasn’t a big cinema in the city. You had, I think there was one or two. It was still quite a small town. It still felt like a small town even though there probably would have been two or three hundred thousand people then. You still had, a lot of the shops didn’t exist, there weren’t many cinemas, there wasn’t a lot of televisions. There was no FM radio, you still only had 2CA and 2CC then and the ABC. So you had very few choices in that sort of regard. The one good thing was there was still, even then, there were lots of restaurants and cafes. The fact that politicians and diplomats lived here meant that there were good places to eat.
E Helgeby: You mentioned that you came to Canberra to take up this job. My impression is that you worked for Rob Chalmers in Inside Canberra …
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: … was that part of that organisation you were just …
S Spencer: Yes, what happened was 2CH because it didn’t have a Canberra Bureau it payed Rob Chalmers to provide them with a pretty basic service that consisted of Rob Chalmers Senior, his name was doing some editorial commentary for 2CH which ran every afternoon. I think they called it the Rob Chalmers Report and his son Rob Chalmers junior provided a pretty basic coverage. He would cover the major political stories and send them some audio of the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader talking but he wasn’t a trained journalist. He just worked for his dad and sent them stuff. So when they decided to properly do it. The problem as you know in this building space was at a premium. Nobody had any room whatsoever, so 2CH could not come down here and set up an office because there was no room for them. So I was put in the corner of Rob’s office which ran — a whole bunch of people were in there so T Max Hawkins was in there, Jenny Hutchison who was, I think Rob’s wife at the time, was in there, Rob Chalmers, Ken Randall was in there. What there was, was a whole series of newsletters. The primary industry newsletter, T Max Hawkins’ defence industry newsletter, Rob Chalmers Inside Canberra, Ken Randall I think did a Pacific islands report. These were fantastic. They were little four page sheets. What happened was they would just pick up every bit of information from the building, press conferences, press releases, announcements, debates in parliament and put them in as little, as you’ve seen in Inside Canberra, just little briefs just little briefs about everything that was going on. People subscribed to these newsletters. It was the days before the internet and so people didn’t know what was happening in this building often. It affected their jobs or their industry and so Rob and his friend set up this organisation that basically provided specialist newsletters to defence, to farmers, to — which would just say, there is nothing particularly special about it but if you hung around the building you would know about these things and they had a massive readership.
E Helgeby: What was your job?
S Spencer: I didn’t work with them. I was in the office with them. I saw all of this happening so I worked for 2CH so I was parked in the corner of their office with a telephone and a typewriter. My job was to — I would do reports that you would hear on the radio. I would tell the unemployment figures would come out or the Prime Minister would make an announcement or there would be a debate in the parliament. I would do a report for the news. The news ran every hour and ever hour we ran three or four minutes of news and every bulletin might contain a brief thirty-forty second political story which would be either me reading a script, voicing it on air, a report, which I would file over the telephone. They would record and then put to air, or I would go to a press conference, record a bit of the Prime Minister or some other politician and again, I would literally hold the phone over the speaker of the tape recorder and play it down to them. The ABC would have lines installed but we were very basic then. I was literally a typewriter and a telephone. But about a year later then did install a landline so we were then able to broadcast in higher quality and they did get one of the first, I think we got our first computer, a very slow telephone-modem computer.
E Helgeby: Did I understand you correctly. You were interested in politics long before this?
S Spencer: I became fascinated with politics probably about the time Whitlam was elected in 1972. I would have been about nine years old then. I just remember the excitement of that. I think teachers were very excited to him as well and probably passed that on to me. My parents hated him. My parents hated Gough Whitlam and so politics diverged …
E Helgeby: Were you in a party?
S Spencer: No, I was a member of the party for two years when I worked for Simon Crean but that was because that was, in a sense, required. It was not essential but they told you that as — working for the Labor Party you should join. So I joined as a member at large which means I never attended a branch meeting or voted in anything. I just joined — you join the Canberra branch but you’re not eligible to vote in anything. I never attended a meeting so I didn’t, but that’s it. I was involved with student politics at university in a group that was called Student Unity, this was 1982-83. It was a group set up to fight what was at university then, a very hard left, almost communist influence in student politics, Left Action and groups like that, who were supporting the PLO, supporting the IRA, but mainly in my view spending a lot of students money on things that which had nothing to do with students, they were in a sense. There was an attempt, you’re probably aware in the ‘70s, a lot of the big campuses quit the Australian Union of Students in protest at that, and that was Tony Abbott, Peter Costello, people like that, that’s where they became involved. In 1982 there was an attempt to have those big campuses rejoin and so there were more ballots and I was part of the campaign that fought against that. As a result of that we formed a political party which took over the Macquarie University Students’ Council. It was not particularly aligned with any one party so there were people in that who later went on to join the Liberal Party. People who later went on to become prominent members of the Labor Party, for example, the leader of our group was Eric Roozendaal who later became the Labor Treasurer of New South Wales. Also in it was Gabrielle Harrison who became a minister in the Carr Government, but there was also a bloke called Alex Howen who became a Vice-President of the New South Wales Liberal Party. It was — the people on it would have been classified as being sort of central, maybe more, a bit centre-left but also people on the right. The main target in those days, it was not Labor-Liberal it was hard left versus everybody else. That was one thing I got involved in, but I was interested in politics. That was about the time Bob Hawke won the election too, so there was a lot of excitement again about politics. But just I was fascinated by it and it was my dream to be a journalist and one day, hopefully a political journalist and I got that very quickly.
E Helgeby: And you worked for them, within that framework of Rod Chalmers Inside Canberra area, for about a year, until 1987 …
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: … and then you moved to 2GB Macquarie national news.
S Spencer: Yes, their office was directly opposite ours so about one metre away, just in that very narrow corridor. If you’ve seen those corridors, I walked across. The reason then was because 2GB Macquarie was owned by Fairfax then and it was the dominant radio news network in Australia. It was better than the ABC in those days. It employed possibly a hundred or more journalists. It had thirty or forty journalists just in the news room in Sydney. It ran current affairs shows, you had Mike Carlton, you had Stephen O’Doherty doing the 12.30 Report, Sundown Rundown, all this massive. It was an incredible commitment by commercial radio stations to news and current affairs, but it was also the highest rating station in Sydney. At that stage it worked. It had John Laws, Mike Carlton, trying to remember some of the others. As I say it was my dream to work for them because they were doing everything that I wanted to do. Working for a music station and I was filing a little report every hour for the news, working for 2GB meant you would do much more in-depth reporting.
E Helgeby: What was your role within that — I suppose you would have changed over time, but what exactly where you there to do?
S Spencer: Okay, 2GB had three journalists in an office which was the size of a broom cupboard. In fact we could only fit two of us in at any one time. So one person worked early, one person worked in the middle of the day, and one at night. If all three happen to be there at the same time one person had to sit in the corridor because the office was not big enough. What we did was, we did news stories for the Macquarie National News which in those days 2GB, 3AW, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Townsville, Cairns, Canberra, hundreds of little stations. So we covered federal politics which meant again doing those reports, those voice reports, we might say, well the Prime Minister today has announced this and so on, Stephen Spencer, Macquarie National News, Canberra, those sorts of report. But also if the Prime Minister spoke at a press conference, or any other politician we would file a report that the news reader reads the introduction, the Prime Minister today has said this and then he did this and then you play, called a grab, so the Prime Minister. So we would edit those, file those, write the leads and that was our main job.
But also because they had a commitment to current affairs we would do sometimes much longer, three minute type stories, similar to the ones you hear on AM, PM or the World Today where they go into more depth, talk to more people, have lots more grabs and plays those in the shows.
E Helgeby: So there were only three of you doing this job?
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: How did you divide, in a sense, the work? Did you all three turn up for the major events?
S Spencer: No, there was a Bureau Chief which initially was John Stanley, who is now a radio announcer in Sydney, then was Tony Allen, who is now, I think, Head of regional radio for Victoria. Then I replaced Tony Allen, so the Bureau Chief would pretty much work from nine to five, or nine to six, covering the main stories of the middle of the day. Then the other two people would be more junior people who would be rostered on. So they would take it in turns. One could come in at six or seven in the morning to do stuff for the morning, the breakfast news and go to the doorstops when the politicians arrive. The other person would come in about two or three in the afternoon and stay until late at night and cover the late news and late sittings at parliament if they were on. We generally didn’t work weekends unless we knew something significant was happening on a weekend. So it was just three of us covering three shifts, Monday to Friday.
E Helgeby: The areas of coverage that you did. You didn’t say in advance, you would only specialise in a particular area?
S Spencer: No.
E Helgeby: You had to do the whole lot.
S Spencer: No, you couldn’t do that in radio. In radio it is always driven by the times of the day, rather than the specialities. Although people might know a bit more about something, so if there was two or three of you there. You had to cover, as you do now, a lot of economics. You might have to cover defence stories and if there was a big local crime in Canberra, such as the Colin Winchester killing. We would have to cover that. Local crime in Canberra would be the job of the local radio stations but if it was a big national story they would expect us to cover it. We’d go on overseas trips with the Prime Minister. We would travel around the country during federal election campaigns. We would attend, if the US President, or if the Queen came here we would cover that. When the Raiders won the Rugby League grand final we went down to the airport to cover that for example. So we were just considered — more, nearly all politics, ninety, ninety-five percent politics, but if there were big local stories in Canberra, that was also our job.
E Helgeby: Let’s say, you’ve been attending an event you’ve written your notes in your paper so to speak, was your work vetted in any sense before you actually went on air?
S Spencer: No, rarely. I mean you might — when I was the junior person the Bureau Chief might have a quick look at the script and just make suggestions but usually there just wasn’t time and quite often you were the only person in the office. To come into the Canberra Bureau it was accepted that you couldn’t just send somebody down here who had never written a story before. You had to be considered to be a good writer, a self-starter, a person who could cover just about anything. It was a desirable post. A lot of people wanted to come here so there was a lot of competition. Any time a job becomes available, still in television there will be people from all over the country who will want to come here. If only for two or three years because they know the stories are important stories, they’re big stories, they will get a big run on the news. They will also probably do a bit of travel especially in the election campaign and so you’d have to be able to do it on your own.
E Helgeby: What about the organisation that you, in a sense worked for, they had their editorial policies did they? I presume they had some policies, how did that influence what you did?
S Spencer: Most of the time it never did. It was understood that news was news and should not be impacted by political views. When I first started 2CH was just a music station. So it just said everything straight. There was no editorial, no comments, you just reported the news, 2GB there were comments and so you then started to have to express opinions in stories about whether things had worked or not.
All the time I was there initially there was no problems but eventually there started to become the odd issue where 2GB got taken over by — after Fairfax sold it and it went broke and the whole network was in a terrible situation for many, many years. Where it had no money, no ratings and no stars. Gordon Moyes of the Wesley Mission picked up the ownership of the station and kept it going for many years at a great loss of money. He was very close to particularly John Hewson. I think John Hewson, when he was running for the Prime Ministership in ’93 had come up with a plan where he was going to outsource large parts of the government to various organisations. He was going to get the Wesley Mission, Salvation Army to run welfare and so on. So when Moyes became hypersensitive to this and would start complaining about bias in any stories that he heard going to air which he thought, which he disagreed with. Maybe you were biased, or maybe you just didn’t agree with his bias but that was the first time I started to have pressure put on me. It didn’t really effect anything I did. I sort of ignored it because it was understood — the news room understood it was independent and would keep playing it straight. I remember asking once to check the complaints and discovered strangely that most of the complaints had been Labor people upset about something I’d said. So he heard bias that he thought was against the Liberal Party but most of the listeners who rang up thought I’d been biased against the Labor Party. The reason was the government was in a lot of trouble then and so most stories were about the government being in trouble. If all you do is a story about the government in trouble, people think you’re being biased but it might just be that the government is in trouble. That was one occasion I had a fair bit of pressure at that point but it was not nice but I carried on but there was never any threat to sack me or anything but it was made clear to me that he thought I was biased and didn’t like my reporting but he didn’t seem to be in a position to …
E Helgeby: And we’re talking about the period while you were at Old Parliament House?
S Spencer: No, this was actually by new Parliament House. When I was at Old Parliament — so if we’re going back to Old Parliament House, no, I mean half my time there was with 2CH where it was never an issue just because, as I say, they were a music station.
E Helgeby: Time is a component here. I mean, we’re trying to …
S Spencer: Certainly up to ’88 I had no issues with bias. I know there were huge issues with bias with the Press Gallery around that time — 1987 it all came to a head. John Howard was leader of the Liberal Party he was up against Bob Hawke, extremely popular and I think the Press Gallery, I think they’d become very close to Hawke, I think they admired him and Keating immensely and at the same time on the Liberal Party side you had Peacock and Howard constantly undermining each other. Then you had Joh Bjelke-Petersen undermining and so the Coalition side was a complete mess. The reporting tended to fall into that trap of saying that everything Labor had done was good, everything the Coalition had done was bad. Even if the Coalition did something good it was always reported as a brief respite from — obviously still mention that things were bad. I remember hearing John Howard himself complaining bitterly about this once. He was particularly critical of the coverage of the ABC and Kerry O’Brien in that election campaign. He thought that nothing he did was ever reported good even when it was good.
E Helgeby: Certainly a question I wanted to ask you, generally would you regard the Press Gallery, at that time, unbiased or biased?
S Spencer: I thought it was biased, but I don’t that it was necessarily political that they were pro-Labor or pro-Liberal. I think what happened is you had a government that they thought had done very good work which I think most historians and politicians today, even the Liberal politicians today would say, that was a good government. At the same time their opponents were swapping leaders, undermining each other, bitterly divided and were not therefore regarded as a credible alternative. Hawke was a very personable, personable person who made a lot of friends in the Press Gallery. I think what happened was a narrative, as they say, developed and the narrative was, it was a good government that was united and working hard and the Opposition was divided and a mess, which they were. So the problem with the narrative is that you then make everything fit the narrative. So even when the government makes a mistake, it might not be reported as well as it should, and even when the Opposition does something well it might not be reported as well as it should. So, I think it was just more that the Opposition just did not look credible for a very long time and therefore there could well have been journalists who were pro-Liberal and pro-Labor, but it was just simply that the narrative was that one side looked like it was a lot better than the other in everything that was reported.
Gerard Henderson was very, I think, first identified the fact that in the Old Parliament House, being very small and everybody living on top of each other a lot of the senior correspondents would, every afternoon about four or five o’clock from all the rival organisations would get together and talk over the days events. He called it the Rat Pack. It wasn’t that they were saying, well I’m going to vote Labor today, what are you going to vote? It wasn’t quite like that but they would get together, all from rival papers, from The Australian, from the tabloids, from Fairfax, people who were supposed to be …
E Helgeby: What about yourself?
S Spencer: No, I was never part of that, you had to be a very senior person to be part of that. So this was not junior radio people, but they would talk over the days events, and what would happen as a result of them talking over the days events, and discussing things, and their opinions. Of course they would all eventually come to a similar view. So rather than going off and writing individual stories you would get a group think where the same general report of the day would appear in lots of rival papers. It would be a good well informed report, because they’d all discussed it with each other but what it did mean is that it tended to all coalesce around the same idea. Gerard Henderson first identified this and he first complained about it. I think he had an impact in that eventually people became more aware that they should be, if they discussed thing, discussing things just with their own paper and not with their rivals.
E Helgeby: Certainly one of the questions I was going to ask you about, the relationship between members of the Press Gallery and was there cooperation or did they go by themselves to get exclusive stories. From what you’re saying it sounds as if there was kind of cooperation to try to get some …
S Spencer: Look people would — if they had an exclusive they would certainly never share that with anybody. If they had an idea people would always keep that to themselves but it was more the comment pieces everyday where people were discussing their opinions. In the course, if you have a discussion about your opinion with somebody you will listen to them, you think, that’s a good idea or they might challenge something you’ve said and you will alter perhaps what you’ve been saying in the course of that. When you get a group of people, all very intelligent, very well informed, at the top of their game, all discussing these events. It would be a fascinating conversation but the end result is that they might all end up with a — saying pretty much the same thing. It might be right. It was something I noticed and when he wrote about it I could see that he had a good point there, I thought.
E Helgeby: What was the relationship like between the commercial organisations and the ABC at the time?
S Spencer: The ABC in those days was not very well respected. It had run down its funding for a very long time. It had run down its news facilities for a very long time. It was about the time, David Hill, I think had just become Chairman and he set out to rebuild, to get a lot more money for the ABC. They’d closed down a lot of their overseas bureaus. They were not doing a lot of news and current affairs. They had drifted off into the background and they were not that highly regarded then.
E Helgeby: That was a general feeling around the Press Gallery?
S Spencer: Yes, the Press Gallery. I mean they had some good people. They had some very good individual reports but their dominant position which they now have was starting to be rebuilt around that time. Largely it was because of the Macquarie News Network, I think, the fact that a commercial operator was beating them to news stories, was doing a better job of covering things, had more overseas correspondents, perhaps more journalists made them work harder to rebuild and become a more respected news organisation. But they, like everybody had a very tiny room. I think their whole office was about as big as this and in that would be radio news, radio current affairs. They had a lot of problems with rules and union restrictions. When I first arrived they were still shooting on film, I think, because they’d been some big dispute about — this was years after everybody else had got video cameras. So they were still shooting on film and developing film which meant it took them a long time to get things to air. If a radio reporter recorded a story here they had to play it down the line to Sydney, to have a special editor in Sydney to edit their story. So people weren’t allowed to editor their own stories because certain people were reporters, certain people were editors, certain people were producers. So they were very badly restricted in speed and flexibility by the fact they had a lot of rules about who could do what. Almost like a building site where one person’s allowed to the plumber and one person’s allowed to be the electrician.
Now that changed when we moved up to new Parliament House in a sense, I think they settled it and agreed that the change would happen at new Parliament House and suddenly they were all using video cameras and cutting their own stories like the rest of us. It took them forever to do anything in those days because they had to develop the film.
E Helgeby: Again, your focus is still, in this period of time …
S Spencer: This is all in Old Parliament House.
E Helgeby: … but your focus is on radio?
S Spencer: Oh yes, look I’ve worked nearly all my life in radio so I was just working, first of all for 2CH and then 2GB about half the time.
E Helgeby: Was there any difference between those, in terms of their approach and what happened between those who did television coverage and those who focused on radio like yourself?
S Spencer: Yes, very different. Those days — television is now twenty-four hours, we’ve got bulletins all day every day in the morning. In those days there was pretty much only one which was the five o’clock bulletin, or the six o’clock news. So the TV reporters could spend an entire day chasing the story, getting — like a newspaper reporter they could spend all day, ringing people, talking to people, building the story and then produce one story which would go to air. So they had a great life. Go on overseas trips with them and they would spend the whole trip sight-seeing, going to dinner, having a fabulous time and then they’d get back late at night and do their story. Now when television goes overseas, you don’t sleep or eat, you just spend the whole time, because there are bulletins all the time, particularly the ABC now, the twenty-four hour news. Whereas before they had one bulletin at seven o’clock at night and that was it.
E Helgeby: So there is really a fundamental difference in the way that the television journalist and those based on TV and your own group who focus on radio?
S Spencer: Radio in particular. Newspaper had obviously no internet and so they would work all day to produce a story late at night that would appear in the paper the next morning and that was it. Television would work all day to produce a story that would appear at five or six o’clock and that was it. Radio we were on air every hour and every half hour in the morning. So all we did, we didn’t often have the chance to really research or go into depth. If the Prime Minister said something, we reported that the Prime Minister had said something, if the Opposition Leader responded, we reported the Opposition Leader had responded. We just simply said, this has happened, this has happened, this has happened, this has happened and we updated it every half hour, every hour. We just kept the story moving with every development across the day but never much depth or research. We were just constantly keeping people updated all day about what had happened whereas TV, newspapers would spend all day trying to find the better story, the news story, the deeper story, the background.
E Helgeby: So your stories were not really appearing in the newspapers. In the Fairfax newspapers …
S Spencer: Very rarely unless we broke a big story. I mean the biggest I can remember we broke was a journalist who now works at the ABC called Kathy Boland was working the late shift and there had been some speculation — this might be at new Parliament House — it must have been, but there was some speculation that Peacock might be challenging Howard again in 1989. Both offices had played it down and she made some calls very late at night and discovered that in fact Peacock had in fact just challenged Howard that night. She reported that story at ten o’clock on the 2GB news and the whole place went ballistic because nobody knew it. Somehow Peacock’s people had kept the secret from every newspaper report, everybody in the building, it had kept secret. One person on the radio making one phone call stumbled across the story and of course then everybody had to follow our story.
So occasionally, or we’d have an interview, for example, again a few days later John Howard, after he’d been dumped went on Mike Carlton, no John Tingle’s radio show on 2GB and told John Tingle that he would not serve with Andrew Peacock’s government so again that broke. Everybody had to chase down the interview. So radio would often do that but if it did it would be more through the fact that the big stars like John Laws. For example, the banana republic comment of the Treasurer, the famous banana republic comment about balance of payments that was an interview that Paul Keating did with John Laws who was in 2GB at the time and Keating rang Laws, spoke to him from the kitchen of a place in Melbourne somewhere on 2GB radio and then instantly everybody was coming around asking for a copy of the interview. So we had to give them a copy of the interview so that people could listen to what Keating had said and write their stories based on what he had said to John Laws. So that was where it would happen.
It was occasionally — but mostly the cycle, the cycle up there then, which is still similar is that a newspaper would have the big exclusive in the paper, radio repeats that and gets reaction, television repeats that and gets reaction and then the cycle starts but occasionally TV breaks stories and radio but it’s usually newspaper, radio, TV is the pattern of the day. And especially in those days it was very, very — newspapers had huge staff, huge numbers of journalists, and so they had lots of people who might spend days or weeks just working on one story whereas today they’ve got to file all the time on the internet.
E Helgeby: Your focus has always been on radio?
S Spencer: Yes, I’ve been working for TV for the past six years. I was asked to be the Producer and Chief of Staff there but I always loved radio. I’ve been in radio in the parliament for ten, twelve, fourteen years probably all up.
E Helgeby: On some more practical and down to earth matters, a description of your daily life working as a journalist …
S Spencer: In Old Parliament House.
E Helgeby: In Old Parliament House, a typical day.
S Spencer: If it was a typical parliamentary day, or even not a parliamentary day, I’d get in say about six thirty, seven o’clock in the morning, look at the papers and maybe file a story over the phone about what was the big story in the newspapers or the radio. They would know because they’d been in since four so they might ring and say we want you to do this story. First up you would pretty much just say what the papers said, you hadn’t had a chance to ring anybody. Then you would start chasing reaction and reaction would usually involve going out to the front of Old Parliament House and waiting for the politicians to arrive and interviewing them as they arrived and then going back to the office and running those stories saying what the Prime Minister had said. The unusual thing at Old Parliament House, was every morning, when he was in Canberra the Prime Minister would arrive at the front of Old Parliament House, walk up the steps and talk to the journalists every morning. There was what we called the doorstop now at new Parliament House they drive in through the security entrance and we never see them unless they call a press conference but at Old Parliament House, certainly when parliament was on and most days, every morning we would get the Prime Minister the Opposition Leader and the Treasurer would stop talk to us and give us news. So we would just waited for them to turn up and talk to us.
E Helgeby: So the stories were …
[End of part 1]
Interview with Stephen Spencer part 2
E Helgeby: Did you work with — often start from that point?
S Spencer: Yes, so the Prime Minister might say something, then the Opposition might respond and you already had, very early in the day, the story.
E Helgeby: How would you describe the working conditions here?
S Spencer: I had quite a good office, Rob Chalmer’s office, because he’d been in the gallery for forty or fifty years even then. He had a great big office whereas when I moved to 2GB we had a tiny broom cupboard with room just for two people even though we had three in it. So it was very crowded. There was no room to install equipment. There was no room for anybody else to join the gallery. If you were a new news organisation there was just simply not the space for you to join. So it was very restrictive in that there was no competition. People who already had offices had a huge advantage over anybody else who wanted to come to Canberra and report politics. So as a result with 2CH for example they had to get into Rob’s office and presumably pay him rent. He had that advantage that he could do that.
The advantage, of course, was that everybody was living on top of each other so you always found out about things that were happening. You would literally bump into politicians as you walked through the building. People would stop and talk all the time so there was a very constant flow of information. The offices the politicians had were very tiny so people didn’t spend a lot of time in them. They were often walking in the corridors or going anywhere so you were amongst each other.
The Fairfax people had demountables placed on the room which have now been demolished and to get to them you had to walk through an exposed walkway across the roof. So in winter that was freezing. You could walk through — it had a roof on it but you would walk — to get from our office to the Chamber we had to walk through those walkways. In winter it was absolutely freezing. It might be raining and water would pour into the offices. The building leaked badly. All sorts of issues, particularly television had to build tiny little things in the corner with cameras.
So there was no room for anybody to do anything other than the basics. But radio is basic. It’s a telephone and a tape recorder so I didn’t need a lot of room. It was fine for me.
E Helgeby: What about working hours would you have? It sounded like, most of your stories would happen during the day …
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: … and at night time you, in a sense, the radio news stops other than …
S Spencer: I was supposed to have a regular eight hour shift but if things were happening you’d be here ten, twelve, fourteen hours. It was expected that if a big story broke you would stay on. When I first started here I worked from about six in the morning until about two or three in the afternoon. Radio is that — most people listen to radio in the morning, breakfast radio. About fifty to seventy-five percent of everybody who ever listens to radio listens at breakfast and so that’s when you want your best stories and all your staff on later in the day. But if a challenge happened or a big story broke I’d still be there at five or six o’clock but I didn’t mind that. I loved the job. I loved, I like politics and if there was a big political event happening I wanted to be there. I didn’t have to be told that was just something I enjoyed doing myself.
E Helgeby: So work would not have impacted too much on your social life, family life?
S Spencer: Not when I first came here because I was on my own. My family was all in Sydney I didn’t know many people. I’d go back to Sydney virtually every weekend to see people. If I went home I’d be going home to nothing. I wasn’t sharing with anybody so it didn’t bother me at all. I wasn’t — not seeing people because that was all I did down here and then go home on the weekend if I could.
E Helgeby: What parts of the building did you use?
S Spencer: So we were in the — our part of the Press Gallery was on the Senate side. So we had the offices of 2GB Macquarie, Inside Canberra, which is where I was based initially. 2WS was in Mungo MacCallum’s office. So the radio area was all a very tight little area. So Macquarie had a little booth, 2WS was in Mungo MacCallum’s office, 2CH was in Rob Chalmer’s office and 2UE were there too, next to 2GB. They had a slightly bigger office but also there was the afternoon papers. The Sydney Sun, I think, was next door to them. The National Times had an office there, Sally Sloan and a few people there were in the National Times office. Then just around the corner from us, I think, was SBS and possibly Channel 10. So we were all in that section on what was the top floor of the Senate wing. We could just turn around the corner and there was the Senate Press Gallery. It was right next to the entrance of the Senate Press Gallery.
E Helgeby: Did you actually attend many sessions in the Chambers or did most of your work go by interviews …
S Spencer: No, Question Time, you nearly always went to Question Time.
E Helgeby: Right.
S Spencer: But you could listen to that in the office. There was no broadcast, no television broadcasting then. There were no TV was allowed. You were allowed to film in the Chambers. We were allowed to listen to Question Time on speakers in our office and record it but we were not allowed to play the tape on the radio. You were not allowed to run the audio, I think, at that stage. Maybe that had just been changed. You’d have to check on the rules of that, there had been some, maybe we were allowed to play the tape then but certainly there was no television pictures. So you could go and watch but usually if you work in radio it would be better to stay in the office and listen to it because something might happen at 2.30 and then you’ve got to get that on the 3 o’clock news. It always would. Question Time always something had happened so it would be better to stay in the office and listen. So you were often stuck to the desk listening and reporting and nothing has changed. I still rarely go into the parliament ever, I still watch it now on the television and still play it all because now we’re on air all the time.
E Helgeby: What kind of equipment did you use — required for your job?
S Spencer: Initially had a thing called a Superscope cassette recorder. It was quite big. It took four D size batteries. It was quite heavy but it was very — it took very good quality but it just used standard tape cassettes. Then we moved to another one which was called a Sony, which also used tape cassettes but was a lot smaller, a lot lighter and only used little B size or C size batteries. We just had a microphone very much like these which just plugged into the front of them. So you just carried it. You’d have a shoulder strap, just cassettes and then you would play back the cassette to the point you wanted, and use the pause button. When I had the telephone you would literally line up the big you wanted, hit pause and then you would hold the telephone over the speaker, lift the pause button until the bit finished and then press the pause button down and that was how they got the audio. Later on we had lines, so we could plug the line in but we could still use that.
When I moved to 2GB they had reel to reel tape recorders. We still recorded our interviews on cassette but we could then edit using reel to reel tape recorders so we could dub from one to the other to get the bit we needed. The ABC at that time used Nagras, the very expensive, portable, reel to reel recorders which had very high quality and very low background hiss which was what they liked about them. They would edit by literally using razor blades to cut the bits of tape that they wanted and then stick the bits of tape together with sticky tape and then play the final piece. So they would record voice pieces and label them and then you would stick it all together in a great long line of sticky tape bits with numbers. Then you would put the whole thing back on the reel to reel and then play it. That was how they did, whereas we just used the pause button to dub from one to another.
First when I arrived I had a typewriter in the corner and a telephone and a little tape recorder and I just typed my stories up on scrap paper, read them over the telephone and someone in Sydney would record them and write the leads up again. The news reader would read and record my stories onto cartridges which were played in a cartridge machine. Later when I got the — then I had to ring Sydney and then Melbourne and then Perth and do the whole thing each time. I had to do it three times because they had no — then later they got a line between them so I could ring Sydney and Sydney could patch it down the line to Melbourne and Perth. Then I got the line which meant eventually I could just press a button and talk to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and do it once in higher quality down a ten-k landline which sounds like we are talking now.
Then I got a computer with a fourteen k dial up modem which I thought was the best thing I’d ever seen. What it did — you could type the story on the computer and send it but it — for example when it opened the story, it opened the story by reading each word, one word at a time would appear on your screen. It was that slow that it took perhaps two minutes to actually open a simple story on the screen, but for me it was the most wonderful thing I’d seen because I could now type on the screen, edit and then transmit that. I wouldn’t have to ring them and read it to them, then now had it. So it sped things up. I used to have to file no later than about ten minutes to the hour because I had to read the story to Sydney and Melbourne and Perth, they all had to get it in time but once I got the computer and the line I could be ringing it one or two minutes to the hour and say this has just happened, quick, this is a big story. It made things a lot quicker and a lot better quality and that was just starting to happen about then. I think a lot of that sort of equipment was just starting to come into news rooms.
E Helgeby: Yes, in the 1980s, yes, late ‘80s.
S Spencer: The late ‘70s was the first newsroom computers, but they were still only just for newspapers to do very simple systems. There was, of course, no internet connection. It didn’t exist. If you wanted a story, all the newspapers employed large numbers of people whose sole job was to cut pieces out of newspapers and put them in vast files, labelled as Hawke, or Howard, or jobs, or defence, or whatever. There were huge — every newspaper office had massive files of clips as they were called. So if you researched, if you wanted to find an old story would be to wade through — they might take you days to find what you’re looking for before you do a story, whereas now I can find it on the internet in ten seconds.
E Helgeby: Did you have much interaction with staff at OPH?
S Spencer: A bit yes, mainly Press Secretaries, it was still similar to today there were lists of people who were the Press Secretaries for various ministers and shadow ministers. You would ring them and they would answer your questions and put their minister or shadow minister up for an interview, or give comment on their behalf.
There were other staff you saw but it was generally — the thing about where I worked, 2CH was regarded almost as the bottom of the rung. The big correspondents were still Laurie Oakes and the big TV reporters were still the stars and the big newspapers reporters like Michelle Grattan and Mike Steketee and people like that were the stars. Then other newspaper reporters might be taken seriously if they were the defence reporter or the health reporter, but by the time you got down to radio, people didn’t take us very seriously. If they did it might be 2GB, by the time we got to a little music station at 2CH. I remember ringing the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary once, Geoff Walsh, who I later worked with. He was starting to answer my question and then he said, ‘Who are you again?’ and I told him and then he said ‘Why am I even talking to you?’ and he hung up. So he thought as the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, he didn’t even need to talk to somebody, a little radio station. There was that frustration that you were aware that people were being told things and people would know stuff and they would not tell you because they didn’t think you were important. So you did the best you could which was, sometimes you heard things, sometimes you started to make contacts and friends and they might tell you things but it was always — it’s still the case today. If the government wants a big story they will give it to a favoured reporter in a newspaper and the rest of you can read it the next day.
E Helgeby: Did you have much contact with your colleagues after work, outside of work?
S Spencer: Yes, a little bit. The radio people all tended to be very close because we went to all the same things so you would always be radio there in the morning, there on the front steps. So we — I didn’t get very much involved in the social life just because that’s not me. I’m not the sort of person that goes to clubs and things like that, but there were people who would often go to the Press Club, who would go to it. Often it was more each other’s houses in those days. We would get together for dinner on a Friday or Saturday night at my house or their houses, or other people’s houses and bring a bottle and an order of take away food. It was often the radio journalists. I had very little to do with other journalists, but the 2UE, 2GB, 2WS, 2CH we spent a lot of time together a lunch or dinner or just because …
E Helgeby: Did you use the parliamentary non-members bar?
S Spencer: Well I went to the staff cafeteria. I’d go there for lunch most days because there was nothing else then around here. There was nowhere else to eat. There was no place. The nearest place would have been Kingston or Civic. If you didn’t bring your own lunch you needed to drive a fair distance to get to another place to eat. The High Court and the Library and all of those didn’t have anything in those days. I didn’t go there — I’d go there for dinner if I was on a late shift but I wouldn’t go there for dinner. If I was stuck in the building working, I would perhaps go and grab something, but I wouldn’t stay there because you don’t really get meal breaks. You’d have to grab a take away and take it back to the office and eat it in the office.
E Helgeby: So would it be fair to say that the radio people, like yourself, you kept in a sense separate from the television and the …
S Spencer: To the most part yes. We were all quite young too. Most of us were quite young, of a similar age. We’d all come down from Sydney or Melbourne for a couple of years so we were all a bit left behind our families and friends and we were always going home to Sydney or Melbourne every couple of weekends. So, a lot of them really became good friends but we were just doing a similar job. We all worked right next to each other, all our offices were right together on top of each other. We would often help each other out. If your tape recorder broke or you’d not been able to get to a press conference or perhaps you had to go on air and do a report, you might say to the other one, ‘Can you get that for me?’ and they would because you would then do that for them. So there was a lot of helping out. You wouldn’t give them your big story. If you had a big lead story you wouldn’t do that. If you had something on your own but you were always helping them out with — cassettes were always getting stuck and jammed and being destroyed in machines. You’d get back from a Press Conference and discover the cassette had wrapped itself around the machine and you had nothing so in which case the other person would lend you their cassette and you would use that. That happened all the time so there was that sort of encouragement and support. I think we just — because we all realized that we were not regarded as that serious by — newspapers and TV came first, so we sort of looked after each other to certain extent. But the social life, to the extent it was, was going around to people’s houses and having dinner, but all together ten, twelve of us.
E Helgeby: But you at least have one big occasion when you went partying, the 1988 final party …
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: … can you tell us about, from your perspective what happened, what was it like?
S Spencer: Well they had the ceremonial, final sitting, actually no it was a regular sitting of parliament that night. I think Leo McLeay, he was in the Chair, I think he might have been Acting Speaker or something, but he was in the Chair. Because it was the final, everybody in the Press Gallery, uniquely all went in to the Press Gallery. We all actually packed the Press Gallery to watch the final few minutes. Somebody started this thing where people were wearing very bright weird ties, I think it was Andrew Butcher who later went on to work for News Ltd and also became Rupert Murdoch’s Chief Public Relations person. He’s now back in Australia but he was a young cadet then. So everybody was wearing a very bizarre ties just as a bit of joke and one of the politicians made a joke about it, saying, ‘Mr Speaker I’d draw your attention to the state of the Press Gallery’, they used that phrase, I’ll draw your attention to the state of the Chamber which means I’m calling a quorum. As Leo McLeay was trying to — if it was him, or whoever was in the Chair was trying to wrap it up and people kept moving points of order in the hope they’d be the last person to record. Then he pointed out that no matter what happened, the very last person to speak would be the person in the Chair because he would have to declare proceedings over and so that stopped them. But people would, as a joke, jump up and constantly try to make funny points of order just so they could get themselves in Hansard. Finally it was all over and the second it was all over people spilled out of the galleries into the corridors and parties just started erupting. There was no set party that I could see, people were just having drinks in rooms, in corridors, singing, dancing. I was in one of the committee rooms, where I think the Labor Party had organised something and people were standing around talking.
It was quite nice and Bob Hawke came along and he was talking and then Bob Hawke heard that there had been — a proper party had broken out in one of the corridors and he was determined to go to that party. His Press Secretary at the time Barrie Cassidy was terrified because Hawke, of course didn’t drink because he was not off the booze. Barrie I think was worried that if Hawke went along to this that either he might drink or that it might become — might not look good. He tried to stop, physically stop Hawke from going and Hawke pushed him. I saw him push Barrie out of the way to say ‘I’m going’ even though Barrie tried to restrain him. He took off so we all followed, the whole room just went because we thought if the Prime Minister is going to this it must be good. When we got there it was Labor people outside the Reps Chamber in the corridor, had literally spilled straight out of the Chamber into the corridor and were drinking in the corridors, were singing, were telling jokes, just this huge party erupted. Then Hawke decided he would sing, and he sang, I’m trying to remember what he sang. I think they might have done Waltzing Matilda and he might have done Solidarity Forever. He wasn’t a very good singer but he had a big loud deep voice. It was the Prime Minister so people were happy and applauded.
Then suddenly John Howard appeared in the middle of this who was then the Opposition Leader. He barged his way into it and he was clearly very drunk. He was extremely drunk and he staggered into the middle of this. There was a bit of quiet because Labor people, I think, were a bit worried, not offended but didn’t quite know what to make of this but Howard then started singing a song which is to the tune of Solidarity Forever, but it’s a send up song about Santamaria destroying the Labor Party. It was … Santamaria, Labor must have solidarity. It brought the house down, even though it was an anti-Labor song, the fact that John Howard was drunk and was singing it made everybody cheer him.
Then Hawke stepped in, put his arm through John Howard’s arm and the two of them then sang together and that might have been Waltzing Matilda or maybe even the real version of Solidarity Forever. So Howard, who was then the Opposition Leader and Hawke, who was the Prime Minister linked arms and in amongst a whole bunch of labor MPs and half the Press Gallery started singing together in the corridors.
Journalists who were there knew that the rules were, we were never allowed to record anything in the corridors but people realized this was such a massive event that something had to be done. People had raced off to get tape recorders and there were at least two radio journalists, Tony Allen, 2GB and Annie McKay who then worked for 2WS recorded it. Tony, I think, hid his off to one side, Annie I think just stuck her tape recorder in her jack and hid their microphones like this. The Sergeant of Arms was looking around, frantically, obviously worried this would be recorded by the journalists and was trying to watch anything. A TV cameraman from the ABC Adrian whose last name I can’t remember, put a TV camera on the stairs and filmed it through the railings, sort of like a hidden camera shot almost. The Sergeant spotted that and I think at the end of the night she went up to him and she told him that she was confiscating the tape and she took it but I believe it has been given to the National Library with a twenty or thirty year embargo on it. I’m pretty sure the tape exists. The vision has never been seen. I’m not aware the vision has ever been shown anywhere ever because I think the one and only recording was confiscated that night but the audio of Hawke and Howard singing was played on the radio the next morning but 2GB and by, I’m pretty sure, 2UE, 2WS so it was run that morning and the cassettes again handed over to — but there was a very extensive and I’m fairly sure I can find that, but it was an extraordinary thing to see. An amazing night. Everybody really did totally let their hair down, bipartisan, it was just people were celebrating the fact that it was the end of the Old Parliament House. The parties went until three, four, five. I don’t know. I think I left about three or four and it was still going. There were things happen. I think somebody kidnapped John Kerr’s portrait from — I’m fair certain that was a guy called Peter Logue. It was later returned but some of them drunkenly broke in, sort of lefty types stole John Kerr’s painting and hid that somewhere for a while. I’m not sure any damage was done but it was more mischief that was going on in the corridors like that, people going back to various offices. But then you didn’t have camera phones, people didn’t carry cameras around all the time so the only people who had cameras were just the professionals and they had to be very careful because they were aware that they weren’t supposed to be shooting it but people were also doing what they could to take those photos.
E Helgeby: So a good time was had by all.
S Spencer: Absolutely, I mean it’s not the sort — I’ve never been part of the parliamentary late night drinking scene, but that was just an extraordinary thing to see, the Prime Minister standing in the corridors singing the songs and then linking arms with a very drunk John Howard belting out I think it was Waltzing Matilda. The two of them singing together and it was a fantastic thing to witness.
As it turns out it wasn’t the very end session. They came back some weeks later for a one-off special, final sitting of Old Parliament House I think it might have been in August, or something. So they actually did have a special ceremonial farewell sitting during the daytime which was very proper, all formal with just people making formal speeches but the actual final, real sitting with the one where — literally it was about ten thirty, eleven o’clock at night at the rising of the parliament. Just literally fell into the corridors out of the doors of the Chambers and then just, people didn’t move, that was where the party was.
E Helgeby: Well that’s — I’m wondering about a couple of more …
S Spencer: Yes, sure.
E Helgeby: … aspects about the time at Old Parliament House. Did you have much contact with parliamentarians generally?
S Spencer: I did.
E Helgeby: And who would be the ones that you …
S Spencer: I mean, as I said, we saw the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader and the Treasurer and pretty much anyone we wanted every morning on the front steps. They would just turn up and spoke to us. It was extraordinary access probably never — certainly hasn’t happened since, and probably never happened at any other parliament in the world, that the Prime Minister would step out of the car, walk onto the steps and speak to you every morning about whatever you wanted. That was the thing that changed when they moved to new Parliament House. The Press Secretary shut that down because they wanted to take the control away from the journalists.
E Helgeby: But you could say the journalists, as you as journalist had almost control over that …
S Spencer: Yes, you decided what to ask.
E Helgeby: … during the years at Old Parliament House.
S Spencer: They would step onto the front steps and you could say, Prime Minister there’s been a bad opinion poll, Prime Minister one of your minister’s in trouble, or Prime Minister the Opposition is in trouble. Some days it would be good for him, some days it would be bad, but they couldn’t decide, as they do now, it’s a bad day we won’t appear, it’s a good day we will appear or it’s a bad day let’s announce something. They would walk into the cameras and be asked every morning. In John Howard’s case every single morning about a bad opinion poll
E Helgeby: And in your case it would be listening to the voice recording.
S Spencer: Sometimes ask questions, there would be half a dozen or more of us all throwing the questions, usually the same question. But I mean I can remember there Keating arriving one morning and we asked him some questions and then he stopped and he said ‘Is that it?’ and we said ‘Yes’ and he said ‘Right, I’ve got something to say’ and that was when he ripped into John Howard over Wilson Tuckey raising questions. He just said ‘I will crucify that man. He will wear his leadership like a crown of thorns’. That wasn’t a question. We had thought we shouldn’t ask him about that because he had been asked about it previously and he had gone berserk at the journalist and so everybody didn’t ask and then he waited and he just looked. I remember he just said ‘Is that it? Right, well I’ve got something to say’ and then he just went. We just, of course, immediately ran back to the offices to play this out. Keating’s gone berserk type stuff.
Another morning there, there was people, protesters would occasionally come there because they could see that politicians were there. All sorts of things would happen. So you’d have that. I mean I remember — I was very young, Alexander Downer who was just then an MP, not considered very serious at that stage, would often come to my office to record. He was keen to talk to us and record things would get a run on the radio because he was building his profile.
But lots of other — I remember one day, we had a minister on, I think it was Ralph Willis was on in the booth and John Kerin came looking for him and just sat in our office waiting to talk, because he was bored and he wanted to talk to Ralph Willis and things like that. So people would walk into and through the Press Gallery all the time because in a sense, it was almost impossible to avoid, the building was so small there was nowhere else to go.
So you did have that contact. The famous stories, of when the leadership challenge happened between Howard and Peacock in 1989, shortly after we moved to the new building and no journalist got it. As I said that story before where a person just rang up and found out it had happened. The view was that would never have happened in the Old Parliament House because everybody would have seen people coming in and going from various doors and offices, whereas in the new Parliament House because we’re separated these things could happen without us knowing. Famously Michelle Grattan had written that day in the paper that there was no leadership challenge, it was all fallacy and it was never going to happen. So she was quite badly harmed by that and there was a Pryor cartoon which showed Michelle crying and somebody saying, there, there Michelle blame it on the new building. There was that sense that the new building had been designed for the politicians whereas the old one we’d been living on top of them and they couldn’t really do much about that, whereas they did in the new one. They separated us to a certain extent.
E Helgeby: Could one, in one sense maybe describe the environment at Old Parliament House as transparent and open?
S Spencer: It was to a large extent, yes, almost incestuous some people said because journalists were so close to politicians perhaps they were too close in some respects that they became very friendly with them. A lot of journalists, I was quite surprised when I came here to discovered how many journalists, on both sides, were very close friends with a lot of very senior politicians. Again that was in a sense, Canberra I think being a small town and not much else to do that people went out to dinner and developed all sorts of friendships and relationships which, in some cases, still endure to this day. There were people who were John Howard’s friends in the ‘70s and ’80 who were journalists who are still good friends with him and others who were very close friend with Bob Hawke, who were still very close friends. But not even journalists, one of my cameramen is a very close of Bob Hawkes and a very close friend of his family, especially one of his daughters and that’s just because, not just journalist but everybody was on top — particularly on the overseas trips.
In those days we all travelled on the Prime Minister’s actual plane, the old 707s. He would be up the front, the staff behind and the journalists at the back of the plane. Now when the Prime Minister goes overseas we fly separately. We don’t fly on the Prime Minister’s plane so we try to catch up with wherever the Prime Minister is going but in the course, if you’re on an overseas flight to Europe or America the Prime Minister would come down the back and talk to you, and the staff, you’d all be mingling. Nobody is recording so it’s not — you get a good relationship.
E Helgeby: When you talk about journalists here, are you including those who operate on radio?
S Spencer: Yes, to a certain extent, particularly the cameramen. Smart politicians would become very good friends with cameramen I think because they realize the cameramen were the people who could do you the most damage. They could run a nasty shot of you looking the wrong way, or they could run a nice picture of you, so good politicians appreciated that while they might find cameramen intrusive, that if you were friendly with the cameramen, that would help you a lot. Keating never was friendly with the cameramen, the cameramen always hated him so they would often — he hated them he thought they were intrusive in filming stuff he didn’t want. So they would — they still to this day don’t like him whereas they all love Bob Hawke, all the cameramen think Bob Hawke was wonderful because he was very friendly to them and respected them and supported them.
E Helgeby: Did you endure — did you have camera operators as well?
S Spencer: No, not then I was just working in radio so we were totally self-contained. Every radio journalist carried their own kit.
E Helgeby: Would you travel overseas?
S Spencer: Yes, I did a number — I’ve done many overseas trips with Prime Ministers and I did a few with Hawke in those days.
E Helgeby: With the area of responsibility of radio rather than …
S Spencer: Totally radio, so it was exactly the same job except I’d be phoning from overseas and again putting the phone on the tape recorder and playing back the reports and crossing in the middle of the night, whatever the hour differences there were.
E Helgeby: Are there any politicians that you dealt with in this way that you particularly admired or respected?
S Spencer: Yes, I think Keating was the one we all admired or respected because he clearly was somebody who had a very strong drive to achieve something. When he spoke he always spoke in a very entertaining, informative fashion. As a journalist he would always say things that were interesting and news worthy. So many politicians use language which is designed to hide what they’re saying or find it very difficult to say in simple terms what it is they’re talking about. Every Budget Press Conference would be entertaining, would be a sparring match, would be fascinating. I just found him — Hawke was a fun bloke up close. I mean somebody once said, and I think this is right, at large people liked Hawke but when you got really close to him you found him perhaps not that attractive.
He was very — had a very high opinion of himself. He had very close friends who admired him but others might find him, up close, not that nice a person whereas Keating was the opposite. The public didn’t like him but if you actually got talking to him in a private setting he was a fascinating character who would speak about anything. He would tell amazing stories about checking the Lodge silverware with Princess Diana or clocks he’d looked at or overseas trips he’d been on or conversations he’d had with foreign leaders. At press conferences he was always entertaining, loud, funny. He just made news every time you spoke. So as a reporter that was — you knew if Keating was saying something you would have a story whereas quite often these days, any politicians, no matter how senior just seem to turn it off and not to be reported. Hawke was dominant at that point.
I mean another one that was fascinating of those — this is new Parliament, this was Hewson. Howard was interesting at that time, only in retrospect in the sense that he was leader but the whole time Peacock supporters were undermining. They would ring you to tell you openly about how something that Howard had done. His own people were trying to bring him down, just as he had done that to Peacock, and so you were constantly aware that the Coalition was a mess. They didn’t really know what they stood for. They had Joh coming in trying to split the Coalition. You had Peacock undermining and so Howard was desperately trying to reinvent the Liberal Party but without — his whole party was falling apart under him.
He was — at the time, I don’t think people — the famous Bulletin headline, why does this man bother, with the opinion polls. I found him a lot more interesting at that time but I never thought that he would succeed. I just thought, in a sense, his time had gone. At the stage you really couldn’t see what was coming in the Liberal Party’s place that would ever make them a success because they just seemed so bitterly divided. I suppose in a way the Labor Party has done for years now.
E Helgeby: They would approach — these members of parliament would they approach you or your colleagues and sort of talk about these things or is these things came about because you were hearing?
S Spencer: Both, you’d hear about. You ring people, people who you knew didn’t like John Howard would tell you stuff that would damage him because they were trying to bring him down to get Peacock to be leader. Sometimes people would just openly tell you stuff. One I remember was Peter Slipper who was then a National Party MP from Queensland, coming straight out of a Coalition meeting and standing in the Press Gallery and openly telling any journalist who was there, how badly he thought John Howard had done. This was when the National Party, with Queensland from Joh was trying to split the Coalition. He would openly stand there in full public view telling everybody stuff that was damaging about Howard. I remember walking into this and being quite shocked. I knew it went on but nobody had done it, but things had got so bad by that stage with the Joh for Canberra Campaign that the Queensland Nationals were almost an open party just standing there openly denouncing Howard and the Liberal Party and the Coalition. This was the backdrop that Howard was trying to fight the ’87 election on. He didn’t have to fight the Labor Party he pretty much had to fight his own party.
I remember walking into a room and hearing him bitterly complaining about the coverage of the ABC. The ’87 was in theory was supposed to be fought about the Australia Card. It was a double dissolution election but nobody even mentioned it. Howard was being urged by people to fight against the Australia Card and he was attacking people and saying ‘I’m sick of people telling me what to do. The Australia Card is popular’ and as it turns out it eventually wasn’t popular. Then he was complaining about the ABC and Kerry O’Brien in particular so even way back then he had that problem. With some justification I think then in the fact, as I said, not because I don’t think the gallery is Labor biased or Liberal, but it does tend to run as a pack of a certain view of the world. If it thinks one side is doing well and one side is not it runs that way. It has been running towards the Liberals for years now because the Labor Party is divided. At some point if the Liberal Party looks a mess it will probably run. So it does tend to be a herd mentality and that herd mentality doesn’t often see shades of grey. It sees everybody, everything is good and everything is bad. So Howard got very badly damaged by that. Nothing he did would be reported in a positive light just because everybody assumed that everything he did was a disaster and he wasn’t going to be elected.
E Helgeby: Is there anything else you would like to add about your time at Old Parliament House? There are other areas, particularly one area …
S Spencer: Yes sure.
E Helgeby: … if we have time I would like to cover.
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: Anything else you would like to add?
S Spencer: The one thing I suppose I’d draw, the big thing is security. At the Old Parliament House, if you had a pass you just walked straight in the front door, you never got checked for security, and the public didn’t get checked for security. There was no scanners I don’t think, you just walked straight in at any time of the day or night. So it was a very open place. A lot freer you could walk through any corridor, walk up to any MPs room, knock on the door, walk up to the Prime Minister’s Press Office and knock on the door, that sort of thing. So there was that plus, as I said, that sense that people — there was one famous story where something big happened one night and Michelle Grattan was trying to get a quote out of the Treasurer and he refused. So she just sat outside his door and refused to move because it was the only door he could leave from …
[End of part 2]
Interview with Stephen Spencer part 3
S Spencer: … and sat there for hours waiting for him to leave. In the new place you can’t do that. You’re not allowed to sit in the corridors and even if you did they’d just take you out another door. So you could do that, you could literally sit on top of people and barge into their offices and demand that they talk to you, with tape recorders. You weren’t supposed to tape in the corridors and so you had to be careful about that sort of effect. It was a lot easier and even if they came into the side door into the Reps it was still only fifty metres from the front door. So you run around between the two doors whereas of course now it’s what three kilometres all the way round. When parliament is on, if we think something is happening, I’ve got to send a camera crew to the Senate door, a camera crew to the Reps door, a camera crew to the ministerial door and perhaps another one out the front, plus others covering underground car parks. They can — if we want to get Craig Thomson sneaking into the building we might have to cover five or six entrances whereas at the Old Parliament being a lot smaller.
I think the new Parliament is vastly superior, much better working environment, it’s got better facilities, but the fact that the old one was so tiny and you were all living on top of each other did mean that things did tend to fall into your lap a bit easier.
E Helgeby: Some of the things, statements that were reputed to have been made by one of the very senior journalists was that, working in Old Parliament House was a bit like heaven on a stick.
S Spencer: Yes, well I think that was right, certainly for some of the senior correspondents, once you got a bit of reputation, people would see you and you’d see them. You would see who went into an office. You could just walk and see, ah so and so has just walked into his office, I wonder what that’s about, I’ll ring up. So you would see things happening. It would be obvious that something was on. Even if you didn’t see it other people would see it. The Opposition MPs might ring and say, ‘I’ve just seen all these government members congregating’ and say ‘alright there’s a meeting on’ and so we’d all race down there, that sort of thing whereas now they can all book a meeting and nobody even knows it’s on. So there was that element to it.
E Helgeby: An area we are also very interested in hearing your views in, the period you worked for Simon Crean, we’re moving quite a few years forward.
S Spencer: Yes.
E Helgeby: 2001 you became Press Secretary and Speech Writer for Simon Crean how did that come about?
S Spencer: I’d left radio a few years before because I’d been working for the radio — 2GB had closed the newsroom and strangely, the biggest commercial radio news organisation in the country had ceased to exist and they were buying their news off a music station called 2WS who I worked for because they still needed a Canberra service. I’d become pretty disillusioned and I got an offer from AAP to go and work for them, writing foreign affairs stories. I did that for a while and quite enjoyed that, the fact that I was now actually being a proper journalist as such. Writing newspaper stories and interviewing people and doing wider issues. Then — but I’d always wanted to do the economics round and when the economics correspondent left I replaced him and became the economics correspondent. I wrote a number of stories and I was good friends with a bloke called John Flannery who worked for Kim Beazley and then Simon Crean and when John left I think he just recommended me and they rang me and asked. It’s usually not a lot of people trying to work for the Opposition, people are always trying to work for governments because the pay is better and the job is better. So he recommended me and at that stage he was Shadow Treasurer and I always thought that I’d been keen to go to the other side and see what it was like, how it worked, how you developed policy, how you made an announcement, what went into a press statement. I’d seen what came out but I would love to have seen the process on the inside, plus it looked pretty good at that point that Labor might win the next election and he would be Treasurer. I thought that would be a fascinating job working for the Treasurer, preparing Budgets and running the economy. They approached me and after a little bit of thought I agreed to it and I worked for him for a year while he was the Shadow Treasurer. Most of that year we were doing extremely well and then suddenly Tampa and 9/11 happened and the polls turned dramatically against and Labor lost the election and he ended up Opposition Leader. He asked me to stay on and I did but I could see that the tide had turned and Labor was going to be in big trouble for many years. Simon was not particularly popular and it was very unlikely he’d ever win the next election and was probably more likely that he might get dumped before the election which was what happened. But still it was a very satisfying, very enjoying time. I worked with a fabulous bunch of people, very committed people, not necessarily Labor people but people committed to policies and good outcomes and developing good policies. I got to see how strategies were developed, Question Time tactics, meetings, how we responded to issues, how we put out statements and so became part of that whole process, a very key part of that.
E Helgeby: From what I can see from notes here you had two separate, one was Press Secretary and you were also his Speechwriter, talk about that.
S Spencer: Well when he was Shadow Treasurer, Opposition staff are very minor. The Opposition gets very few staff so when he was Shadow Treasurer and Deputy Leader he only had about four or five staff in total in his whole office. So he had somebody that ran the office. He had a Chief of Staff who was Phil Tardif he had an economic advisor and then I did all the media so that meant writing speeches, as it meant answering the calls from the journalists, writing the press, everything, everything to do with media.
He didn’t do a lot. If he did a big set piece speech on the economy that was usually written by him and the Chief of Staff, so mine was more, for example, when Don Bradman died Simon had to make a tribute and I wrote a speech, he gave in tribute to Don Bradman. I just started working for him then and so that was a big test but a lot of the government MPs came across the Chamber to him and congratulated him and told him it was the best speech. That night the PM, they played Simon’s speech instead of a lot of the others because they thought it was the best, so he came in very pleased and he said ‘Well done’ so that was good because I’d only been there about two weeks and I wrote a speech that he was very happy with. If it was the big economic speeches for the Press Club or the Budget reply that was written by the Chief of Staff because that was seen more of a policy thing than — but if it was to do with something more political or just — a lot of the stuff in the parliament is formal, somebody has died and you had to say something about them I would do those.
E Helgeby: The process of writing speeches, who would give you the task?
S Spencer: The Chief of Staff did. So he told me Don Bradman’s died Simon’s got to speak in a tribute, off you go.
E Helgeby: Would he also vet the drafts?
S Spencer: Well, for the big speeches, I know he and Phil worked together, Simon would say, this is what I want to say, this is what I want to announce, these are policies and then Phil would try and turn that into words. Eventually it might come to me and I might, as a journalist, polish it up a bit, make it a little bit more readable. But for the Don Bradman one I was just told that’s your job, so I had to think what is a good starting point here. I went searching, found a few ideas and I started off with a bit of a theme. A few quotes, wrote it as journalists are trained to do, to make it interesting, start with a good anecdote and when I handed it to the Chief of Staff he thought it was great. He handed it to Simon, he thought it was great. I don’t think they changed a word. Simon just read that because he thought it was — he was very pleased with the speech.
Other speeches certainly, I remember one when he was Opposition Leader we had a really tricky job which was when George Bush came here and Simon had to make a big speech in the parliament, which made clear that Labor opposed the war in Iraq but also made clear that Labor was still very supportive of the US alliance. That speech was actually written by what’s his name, Whitlam’s speechwriter. I’ll think of his name in a minute. He’s living on Bribie Island and he just faxed it to us. It just turned up on the fax machine without us doing anything. We’d been struggling for ages and we looked at this and thought it was magnificent. A beautiful piece of poetry really beautifully written. Graham Freudenberg so he sent it. So in the end we just said ‘Read that’ why would you change any of that, it’s gorgeous. But when I looked at it I thought well there is nothing in there about Iraq and there was a big argument in the office because a lot of people in the office were saying, no, we can’t embarrass him as President. He’s the guest here. We have to say nice things about him and I said ‘If you stand up there and you don’t mention Iraq, people will say you’re a coward because you’ve said, if I was Prime Minister, I would have said no. Well here he is right in front of you and you’re not going to say a word about it’. I said ‘You have to mention it’. I had fought this for about two days and in the end Simon was a bit upset with me and he said, ‘So, okay, you write it then’ not the speech but that bit. So I wrote two or three paragraphs and I spoke with his foreign affairs advisor about the wording. I wrote, which said, while we’re really close friends, sometimes close friends disagree and if you’re a really good friend then you can tell somebody when you think they’re doing the wrong thing and this is one of those occasion. So I wrote those three paragraphs and in the end people agreed he should say it and he did say it, he got huge amount of praise for doing so. People on all sides, even those who disagreed with him thought that he’d done it well, in that he had praised Bush. He’d said the right things about the alliance but had also stood up for his principles. So it was one of those battles. So that was the situation where I had to fight to get something in and change what I thought was quite crucial.
But there were other occasions when he just ignored, or just didn’t agree with me and so he didn’t do it. So a lot of the economic speeches were written more by the economic team, they would write the policy words and then I would try and make the words. But Simon would be heavily involved in those. I mean — the one thing we did was we started the — at the gallery ball every year, the Press Gallery Ball, John Howard would make a speech, a very dull speech. Kim Beazley would make a very dull speech. When Simon became leader a number of us in the office had seen recordings of the President, the correspondence ball in the US where the US President gets up and tells a lot of jokes about the press and himself. We wanted to copy that and so we wrote what we thought was a quite funny speech for Simon and he saw it and he said ‘I’m not going to read this’ and we said ‘Why’ and he said ‘I have to read — people say nasty things about me all the time, why would I say jokes about myself’ and we said ‘Because people will think you’re a funny guy’. In the end, even though he didn’t think the speech was funny he decided he would tell it and it brought the house down. Everybody thought that it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen and it changed a lot of the opinions because he was viewed as dull and bureaucrat. Before the entire Press Gallery he told a speech with lots of jokes about himself, about his party, about Barry Jones and his diagrams, about the journalists and it brought everybody. The next year Howard started telling jokes as well so we changed. Now every year the leaders get up and tell stories, and so we changed the whole tone of that. It didn’t help in the long run but in the short term it was very important for establishing Simon. And so that was again, he disagreed but eventually the weight of evidence from the whole office persuaded him to do it, but normally it was a process. He’d say ‘I want to say this, I want to say this, I want to say this’ go, give me, jot down some points and then you’d try to put those points into a speech. But he would —Budget replies he rework, rework, rework, right up — journalists ringing me complaining because at seven o’clock and he still hasn’t given them an advance copy of the speech, that’s because he was still writing it.
E Helgeby: I was going to ask you, what was your relationship like with Simon Crean himself? What was he like to work with?
S Spencer: The first couple of years it was great. As it got right towards the end it was not nice but that was because his leadership was falling, his party was undermining him and he blamed a lot of people for that, me and everybody else for not, in a sense, having him do better. So it ended pretty badly just because — it must have been a devastating thing for that to happen to him, but for the first couple of years he was, most of the time, a very friendly, very nice guy. I enjoyed his company. He was in to good food and wine and so we often ate out together. He dressed in very nice clothes. He loved travel. I enjoyed being with him. I enjoyed talking with him. We had a fabulous office. He had a magnificent bunch of people, incredibly talented people who later in Rudd’s government went on to — he had a bloke called Chris Fry who was a tax expert and Pradeep Philip I think became Rudd’s economic advisor. All sorts of very, really — Dennis Glover who writes a lot of books and writes for The Australian was his formal speech — so when Simon was Opposition Leader he had a proper speechwriter and that was Dennis Glover because as Opposition Leader you’re giving speeches all the time, writing a dozen. You’re always writing messages, people always want messages for their national day or whatever. So that was Dennis I rarely wrote speeches when Simon became Opposition Leader. He had a specialist. When you’re Opposition Leader you get a lot more staff, you’ve got twenty or thirty people working for you whereas Shadow Treasurer he only had four and so everybody had to do lots of jobs. But we had lots — it was a fabulous bunch of people, really good atmosphere, all committed to better country, better government, better policies, things that we wanted done. At that time the Labor Party was bitterly divided and Simon just didn’t have the charisma factor that was ever going to turn things around.
E Helgeby: What do you think about his — I mean Simon Crean’s ability to communicate?
S Spencer: It seemed to me to be very good when he was Shadow Treasurer, and not very good as Opposition Leader. So as Shadow Treasurer he was more in negative mode. He was attacking the Treasurer, attacking the government’s economic policies, it was his job to tear them down, to be that fighter and he was very good at that. You could see where he’d been as the union advocate. It made him not very popular but it was extremely effective in doing an awful lot of damage to the Howard government all the way through the implementation of the GST. So I thought he was a magnificent communicator when I went to work for him but when he became Opposition Leader I don’t think he was able to make the transition to being somebody who looked like an alternative Prime Minister. He wasn’t — he found it hard to convey a vision. He was very bureaucratic in his speech. He found it very hard to get a simple message across and perhaps that was my fault and the fault of the people around him that we weren’t able to persuade him to make things better.
The frustration I had, he was extremely close to his Chief of Staff, Phil Tardif who’d worked for him for a very, very long time. As the Press Secretary I found myself often shut out in that Phil and Simon would do everything together and I would often not find out about things until they were already done. Then I’d be asked to take queries. So rather than developing the policies, developing the ideas at the lines, I’d be the person taking the calls from the journalists saying what does this mean. Often I had no involvement in it but they’d still blame me and say ‘Why did you say that?’ [laughs]. The most famous one was when he did the parliament reform where he — the Labor Party reform, the 50/50 stuff where he changed the union loading, had that big fight with the unions to make it 50/50 instead of 60/40 voting at ALP conferences. First I knew about that is when he said it on a Sunday morning TV show. I had no idea he was going to say that, no idea he was going to announce that policy and neither did anybody else in the office. He and Phil decided this would make Simon look like he wasn’t beholden to the union, that he was like Tony Blair taking on the unions.
E Helgeby: Yet it was your responsibility as the Press Officer.
S Spencer: Then he said it and the next thing you know people were ringing me and saying ‘What does this mean?’. I didn’t know because it was the first I’d heard of it too. So I was ringing him. So I was often shut out of things like that. We got leaked, all the photos from kids overboard, which showed that the kids had not been thrown overboard. We’d been given a whole camera disk of photos. The whole sequence which showed how the government had deliberately clipped the photos, or taken them out of context. These were handed over on air pretty much to Laurie Oakes on a Sunday morning show and everybody else was very upset that they thought we’d given it to Laurie as a special. Again I had no involvement in that. If I’d been involved I would have given them to the papers the night before and then we’d pick up on that and so on. That sort of thing was going on. There was often decisions taken. I found it very frustrating. I never felt that I was able to influence his words or his policies because he was very, very close to Phil and the pair of them ran that and by the time I did get involved, after Phil left it was too late, in a sense. His popularity had fallen and people had made up their minds about him.
But the other problem he had, is of course the Labor Party was bitterly divided. He was being undermined all the time by Beazley’s people, Rudd’s people and it’s very hard to project an image of being strong alternative Prime Minister when even your own party is pulling against you and you’ve got bad polls. So it’s a real. I mean occasionally I’d read in the papers once or twice an article where I would be named in a nasty way. Somebody would have a bit of a go at me. I read that about three or four times over about three years and that was to me personally very distressing. I would think that he reads this ten times a day, every single day. Every paper every day has got stories and quotes of people attacking him and saying how awful he is and so I’d often wonder how he or any other politician for that matter could deal with that when I’d been so hurt by people personally criticising me, background, somebody said something to a journalist who reported in a really nasty way and that was hurtful to me. I often wondered how he survived reading that stuff about him all the time.
E Helgeby: Was that why you left, decided to leave the job?
S Spencer: No, I didn’t I was sacked. So I — when Simon — I stayed with Simon until the end and then in late 2003 he was at a party for John Murphy, was celebrating his wedding anniversary. I had recorded the TV news and I went back to watch the TV news. I saw nothing on 7,nothing on 10, and then Jim Middleton on the ABC broke the story that a bunch of very senior Labor people had been to Simon tell him that they no longer wanted him as leader, they didn’t believe he could win. So I raced upstairs, grabbed Simon and told him. It actually hadn’t happened, they hadn’t been to see him but they were going to see him and the story had got out early. So Simon rang them and told them to see him and they were going to come.
Anyway they all arranged to meet somewhere. There was Martin Ferguson who was a very close friend of his, other others, John Faulkner, others, Jenny Macklin I think, the whole senior members saying, we don’t think you can win. The story broke through the next day. Simon rang, got all his supporters together, they tried to do the numbers. Their view was that had he stood for the leadership against Beazley he’d have beaten Beazley by one or two votes, but given that he’d won the previous one by twenty or thirty that was considered untenable. Most of his leadership team had abandoned him and to hang on by one or two votes, so he resigned as leader and then supported Latham. Latham then rang against Beazley and Latham beat Beazley by one vote to become the Labor leader, and as the new Labor leader he inherits all of the Labor leader’s staff should he want them. Nearly all of them stayed with Latham and he got rid of two people and I was one of the two. The other was Chris Fry the taxation advisor. The reasons for that was that some weeks before we’d had a huge row with him where he’d taken a tax policy of the Shadow Cabinet, a tax policy — the Shadow Cabinet had rejected it. He thought they were wrong and so he just announced it anyway so it was my job to tell him to shut up, to stop talking to the media and to close him down, to stop him doing further damage. He resented me for that, even though I was only doing what my job was. The only two people he sacked were the tax advisor and myself because we’d opposed him. He didn’t like anybody opposing him and everybody else stayed on.
Initially they had a great time but after the election when he lost they all came up to me and said, you were so lucky. They just said, working for him was just awful, he was just an appalling boss and abusing and the whole time was terrible. They all claimed that it had been fortunate for me that I had been let go and so I was out of work for a few months. Went for a number of jobs and was offered the job writing speeches for Graham Samuel who I admired enormously and thought that would be a good way and I thought that was the end of it. I thought I probably had left the Press Gallery and never go back again. I wrote speeches for two years and then my old employer 2GB which now had Alan Jones and was top of the ratings and suddenly was buoyant rang me totally out of the blue to say they hadn’t been able to find a Canberra correspondent and did I want to come back. I thought, I do, and so I got back into the Press Gallery and did that for two years and then Paul Bongiorno who I was friendly with at 10 offered me the job there.
E Helgeby: Broadly speaking, I asked once before but you limited response to the OPH period, did you think the Press Gallery was generally fair and unbiased in these things in later years or had things changed from your time?
S Spencer: No I think it is still got that problem that it has the pack mentality so I think it was very unfair to Gillard in that everything she did was seen as a disaster or wrong. She made the point herself that she announced the election date in January to say right, this is when it’s going to be, and everybody saying, oh that’s a disaster, what a joke. Everybody could see looking at the calendar it was going to be one of two or three days in September, we always knew the election was going to be in September and she just thought, well this is a stupid game and so she just set the date. So everything she did was spun in a certain — the reason it was done that way was because she was unpopular, she had Rudd working against her, some problem as Howard had. The party was seen as divided and a joke. There were any number of people in her own party who would privately tell you something that they knew would damage her. Therefore it became very easy to write very negative stories. So everything she did was seen as a disaster or an attempt to overcome a disaster and everything the Coalition did was seen as brilliant.
So it’s that narrative, it’s what I call the narrative, where it just the herd mentality gets going and everybody thinks the story runs a certain way. I don’t think their pro-Labor or pro-Liberal but I just think everybody wants to be right. I think everybody doesn’t want to be the one that sticks their neck out. Everybody wants to think that they’re — everybody will agree with what they say. So it’s very hard for people to say, hang on, no that’s actually not what’s happening and that’s the problem that everybody has. The gallery does tend to develop this herd, pack mentality, and you can see when it shifts. When it shifts it’s quite — sometimes they get it wrong. They all shifted massively to Latham in 2004 they thought he’s going to win the election and everybody shifted to him but gradually over the course of that year they pulled away. Then when Abbott first got the job everybody said, that was a disaster and they all — but then Labor fell apart, bizarrely so it is that sense of — all the Liberals will tell you how biased the gallery was towards Rudd and all the Labor people will tell you how biased the gallery was towards Abbott and they’ll all tell you how biased it was towards Hawke and Keating will tell you how biased they were towards Howard. It is just that …
E Helgeby: Nothing changes over those years.
S Spencer: No, not at all, there is still that sense, everybody reads everybody else’s stuff. They all talk to each other and they all write. I’ve actually heard journalists, junior journalists saying, ‘I thought that was good for … so and so, but I read this thing and so I must be wrong’, people think that was my opinion. So it’s very hard for people, particularly junior reporters to stick their head up and well hang on, I think what the government’s done here is actually good. I think they’ve got this right. You can see that when Gillard did the misogyny speech and the whole gallery said, oh what a disaster, an appalling speech, what a joke and then the government’s approval rating and hers shot up for a brief period because it actually struck a chord with, particularly women, but the whole public liked it. At least for a couple of months there until the party divided again. Actually, I think, I saw Denis Shanahan write a piece saying, I got that wrong. People — the narrative was everything Gillard did was a disaster, she’d done it and it was a disaster, and in fact the public heard it and loved it. They are slow to pick the turning points like that, but it is, as I say I don’t see — there are obviously some journalists who are pro-Labor and others who are pro-Liberal but as a pack it just tends to go with herd and it doesn’t brook much contradiction to that while it’s in that mentality.
E Helgeby: Any particular, just to finish off now, are there any events that particularly stand out in your memories of your times?
S Spencer: The whole time I’ve been working as a journalist the one that still, is that whole period around, from the Hawke and Keating through to the ’93 election, that was — firstly having the most popular Prime Minister in Australia’s history being undermined and brought down by the Treasurer who he’d worked so closely with and the first one that blew up when Keating just went to Laurie Oakes and said ‘I’ve had enough’ and called on a challenge and then he lost and went to the backbench. Then the government falling apart and its ratings collapsing and then Keating winning the second challenge just by a couple of votes and then being twenty-thirty points behind in the polls, no possible way he would win. Then just fighting every day to destroy Hewson and fight back and the GST and the moment, the turn was that April ’92 when the Queen was here. That week he’d been denounced for saying Republic stuff and Hewson had a go at him and said ‘When are you going to call an election’ and Keating just said, ‘I’m going to make you squirm’ because mate, that sort of — when you wave fightback around, I’m going to see you squirm, I’m going to do you and do you slowly. The mood in the whole place just was extraordinary. The moment Hewson asked a question all the Liberals were cheering. Yes, call an election, they were all going nuts and the Labor people were all shrinking in their seats and Keating stood up and just did the — I’m going to do you slowly response, and wait for fightback and the whole Labor benches erupted in cheers. All the Liberals suddenly thought, oh my God we could lose. Suddenly on that one moment the whole political landscape turned in one answer in Question Time. It’s still the most phenomenal thing I’ve seen where …
E Helgeby: You were there.
S Spencer: … I was there watching that and I just thought, it’s extraordinary, he’s just suddenly nailed Hewson and pointed out to Hewson and the Liberals that they’re going to have to defend that at an election because Labor has now got a leader and he’s going to tear them to pieces on this. They suddenly realized, mortality suddenly struck them in the face. The Labor people suddenly thought, wow, we might win. It was just extraordinary shift in one week that happened. Him, pushing the Republic while the Queen was here, which no Australian Prime Minister had ever done before. Attacking fightback and then denouncing Britain over Singapore and Changi and stuff, there was this very almost nationalist Australian Prime Minister suddenly leapt out. It was an extraordinary week where the whole — everything you thought you understood about what was happening in Australian politics just suddenly flipped on the spot in the space of, well particularly one answer in Question Time but certainly across that week.
So that still, I thought — the other one would be the Tampa week, the Tampa night. I was working for Simon that night and it was just a series of steps by the government to make it more and more and more extreme where they announced they were sending the SAS out to turn the boat back and Kim Beazley said ‘I support that’ and so Howard said ‘We’re going to force this ship to go away’ and Beazley said ‘I support that’ because he was determined not to let Howard get an edge over him. Then Howard put up some legislation, and the legislation was deliberately designed to have Labor say no. It said, it gave permission for Australian soldiers to shoot people in the water and so on. It was quite extraordinary. In the end it was the government itself dropped it because it was clearly never planned to be a Bill. It was planned to get Labor to say no and eventually Beazley said no, at which point Labor lost the election. That was — you could see, I was stuck in the office, you could see all night people going backwards and forwards. Kim was going to Howard’s office and back to his own, and back to Howard’s office and back to his own to brief. It was all night backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, as Howard desperately tried to turn this into an election winner by forcing Beazley to say no, and kept making it worse and worse and worse until he finally managed to get him to say no.
There was still a huge row in the Labor office. People were devastated because they thought they’d just suddenly spent three years and they were going to lose the election in one night, and they were probably right. So that was quite an extraordinary night of tension but there was a lot of people in the Labor Party making clear that if Beazley did support it they would quit the party or cross the floor and so he faced the risk of either saying no to something, and possibly losing the election, or saying yes and having his own party destroyed underneath him. There was just that phenomenal pressure and tension all that night. Seeing it from the other side.
I actually went around the gallery and people were going ‘I suppose you’re going to say yes to this again’ and I said ‘Don’t you know we’ve just said no’ and they said ‘What’. People didn’t realize in the gallery, people just didn’t realize what was going on within the Labor Party. They had no understanding that, how devastating this was for the Labor Party. They just thought it was a cheap political stunt by Howard and Beazley was doing a cheap political stunt to go along with him. They didn’t realize — I was quite shocked to realize that the gallery didn’t seem to understand, at least at that point in the evening what was happening. It was the next morning really before people got onto it, so that was fascinating.
Another time was the first challenge happened from Beazley was Simon had had enough of Kim’s undermining him and so called Kim down in his office and they sat in his office and talked for ages and then off you went and I got called in and told ‘Simon has just met Kim to confront him’ and I said, ‘What happened?’, and they told me and it was like, okay. They said, ‘There’s a problem’, I said ‘What?’ they said ‘They met for half an hour’ and I said ‘Yes’ and they said ‘The curtain was open the whole time’. So Simon’s office was open to the world, with anybody walking past. Said, ‘We’re trying to keep it secret, but if anybody asks, you’ve got to tell them the truth’. I said, ‘Okay’, anyway nobody called, nobody knew. So he’d had the big showdown with Kim and it was all coming to a head and for three days, nobody reported it because nobody knew. I was astonished, absolutely astonished that nobody had leaked this, nobody had seen it, nobody knew anything. So I was in possession of what, as a journalist, would have been a massive story, probably would have won me a Walkley Award, but as a Press Secretary, I was crossing my fingers that nobody would notice.
So you became aware, and I’ve talked to other Press Secretaries who are journalists about this and they said, they were always astonished that there are massive, massive stories going on all the time that the press never find out about. They’re always astonished at how much damage could be done if only the journalists knew more. So as much as we think journalists do a great job of getting leaks and getting stories there are many times when they get away with it. I became aware of that working for Simon that quite often we did things and to my complete amazement journalists didn’t know everything. I always thought they did. I now know they often don’t know anything.
E Helgeby: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish the interview?
S Spencer: No, I mean if you want to have a look at all that and ring me up again or send me a note at some point because you want to fill in some of those bits or something there has intrigued somebody and they want to ask me more, please do, get in touch and we’ll book an appointment but I’ve told a lot of my stories I think. Look I loved being in the Press Gallery. I think it was an extraordinary privilege to be that close to people, to have gone on the trips, the things I’ve seen the places I’ve done. I’ve been to Gallipoli I’ve been to the Oval Offices of the White House with the Prime Minister, all these sorts of things are extraordinary things that even if you were — had unlimited amounts of money you might never had been able to see and do these things. So somebody who loves politics and world events it’s been — despite never being even one of the top journalists, it’s still been an extraordinary privilege. I still love it and still enjoy talking about it and so — but as I say, if there is anything there that people, you or anybody else want to pursue at a further date, please do.
E Helgeby: Thank you very much.
S Spencer: Thank you.
E Helgeby: On behalf of the Director of the Museum I’d like to thank you again for being willing to participate in this recording.
S Spencer: I’m happy that I was finally able to find a date to do it. I kept saying yes and I kept putting it off but I’m here which is great.
E Helgeby: Thank you.
S Spencer: Thank you very much.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3
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