The Power of One

By Ryan, Scott | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Power of One


Ryan, Scott, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


THE POWER OF ONE Scott Ryan reviews: On The Record: Politics, Politicians and Power By Laurie Oakes (Hatchette Australia, 2010, 400 pages)

The Canberra press gallery has over 150 journalists. All of them are very competitive, seeking to break that story that will propel them to national fame, or add the suffix ?-gate' to some scandal they have uncovered. Australians would struggle to name a handful of these journalists, just as they would probably struggle to name more than a handful of politicians.

But there is one political journalist most Australians could most likely name-Laurie Oakes. He has been reporting politics from Canberra for over four decades. He has broken the stories that have dominated national headlines-from the 1980 Federal Budget that he obtained before its release, revealing the secret Kirribilli agreement between Hawke and Keating and the impending challenge; and, most recently, the cabinet leaks before and during the 2010 federal election campaign.

When national politics is the centre of attention, it is Laurie to whom people turn their television dials. Even more interestingly Laurie has over 19,000 followers on Twitter-illustrating that in the age of competing and new media, reputation and credibility remain important attributes when people want news.

It is also Laurie to whom journalists and politicians turn, as his coverage inevitably sets the tone of the next media cycle. It is Laurie to whom leaders turn when they want to ?get out a message' or lance a political boil through his regular Sunday morning interview, for they know it can set the media agenda for the day and coming week. It doesn't always work out that way, though-as more than one political leader has seen an interview with Laurie represent the end of their aspirations.

Laurie's longevity in the press gallery is extraordinary, as far as I can tell second only to the legendary Alan Reid (who served in the gallery for just under 50 years) in the mainstream media. The first prime minister Laurie covered was John Gorton. Gough Whitlam had recently been elected leader of the opposition.

I emphasise this point as it is important to understand this length of time when considering this book. The longest serving current MP is Philip Ruddock, first elected in 1973, by which time Laurie had already seen several election campaigns. There is virtually nothing that Laurie hasn't seen. Whether it be political coups (he has seen 11 leaders toppled), struggling governments, scandals, debates over Australia going to war or relations with the United States and China (both of them!) Laurie has seen these debates evolve over more than anyone currently in Canberra.

But this book is also different to the others so often released about politics. It is not a retrospective analysis of an era or series of events. It is a collation of pieces written and published at the time, along with an analytical introduction, covering major events over more than forty years.

To students of politics this is of real value. While books such as Kelly's The End of Certainty are valuable studies of a period, they are not primary sources-whereas this book is just that. To read the article on the Iraqi Loans Affair is to read what was published in the now-defunct Sun News-Pictorial at the time, and to gain a better understanding of the political frame and mindset of that period.

What this book does is illustrate how some challenges in politics are constant-a handy lesson for new politicians, journalists and commentators who might think they have discovered something new or profound. For example, the following passage could have been written at many times over the past four decades.

It seems especially middle-class Australians who make up the bulk of the population, are feeling remarkably insecure and vulnerable. …

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