February 26th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Power, strikes and privatisation


EDITORIAL: The end of General Wiranto?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Kernot's leadership ambitions: unfinished business?

RURAL: Major debt crisis in rural Queensland

OBITUARY: William G. Smith SJ

FAMILY: The family strikes back

AUSTRIA: Haider: a warning rather than a threat

KOSOVO: They have made a desert and called it peace

ECONOMICS: Managing countries, managing companies

ASIA: Taiwan's poll a rowdy, close run thing

HEALTH: Treatable diseases rampant through Africa

BOOKS: Rabbi's defence of the Judeo-Christian culture, Rabbi Daniel Lapin

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Bush tells Canberra it won't be cajoled

Privatised power

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Kernot's leadership ambitions: unfinished business?

by John Styles

News Weekly, February 26, 2000
When Cheryl Kernot delivered an address at the Melbourne Press Club's Quill awards on 26 February 1998, the former schoolteacher had a lesson for all the journalists there.

According to the issued text of her address, Cheryl Kernot said she wanted journalists to concentrate more on 'the substance and detail' of what politicians are saying.

She had a point.

Just over two months earlier, Cheryl Kernot had said something quite significant about the Labor leadership and herself, but no-one appeared to be paying attention.

On the morning of 12 December 1997, the day before her 1970s affair with a former student was revealed by Paul McGeough in The Sydney Morning Herald, a Cheryl Kernot interview went to air on Radio National.

It contained something just as sensational as the news of that old liaison.

Cheryl Kernot told the interviewer, Fran Kelly, that people found it very hard to believe Kim Beazley, and that she was prepared to be Labor's 'visible symbol'.

In assessing the two months since her defection and what it meant for the ALP, Cheryl Kernot said, 'I think I'm a visible symbol of a break with the past.'

You did not need a political code-book to decipher that.

The leader, of course, is the visible symbol of any political party; or, at least, should be. Was the 'star recruit' placing herself above the party leadership even before she had entered parliament? It seemed so.

And Ms Kernot left the radio audience in no doubt as to why she should be that 'visible symbol'.

Ms Kernot said, 'It is very hard for people like Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans who've been there for 16 years to actually be believed by people when they say, 'We've listened, we've learned from our mistakes and we're moving ahead'. And I think that, you know, I'm willing to be that visible symbol.'

Now, that was quite sensational.

Conveniently for Labor, Fran Kelly did not question Kernot about her readiness to be the 'visible symbol' or what that meant for Kim Beazley. The watchdog ignored a very juicy bone.

No-one else seemed to pick up on the story, which is not to say others were not aware of it.

Self-censorship is a known Canberra press gallery trait.

The story of Ms Kernot's 1970s romance, for example, was well known in the gallery long before Paul McGeough broke it, but no journalist reported it.

In 1995, Paul Daley, then of The Sunday Age, pointed to a double standard in the way the press gallery treated leadership stories.

When Daley reported leadership rumblings from Labor's backbench, he was surprised at the reaction of other gallery members. A number of journalists, he said, described his story as a beat-up. A veteran journalist told him that he had known about the discontent for months, but hadn't reported it.

Daley asked him if he would have done so had the same thing been happening on John Howard's backbench? 'Of course,' came the reply, 'in a flash'.

Imagine the media frenzy that would have ensued if a popular, high profile identity, feted and recruited by the Liberal Party and promised a seat in parliament, went on national radio and described his or her role in that way? If he or she had dumped on the leadership as Ms Kernot did in that interview? The issue of Kernot and the ALP leadership was raised as soon as she switched from the Democrats to Labor.

Gough Whitlam said that she was the one who had the best chance of becoming Australia's first woman Prime Minister.
On the day she defected, in that parliament house courtyard scene where Kim Beazley said he felt like Prince Charles, a journalist asked the Labor leader if he saw Cheryl Kernot as a future Prime Minister.

'Give her a go,' Mr Beazley said, 'I mean she's just been given a form for primary membership of the Labor Party and she's just had the leader of the Labor Party say he wanted her on the front bench, so I think she's doing pretty well on that front at the moment.' Ms Kernot added, 'How about I get elected first.' On that occasion, somebody was listening to the substance and detail of what she was saying.

That evening, the leadership issue was raised on ABC TV's 7.30 Report by Kerry O'Brien.

Cheryl Kernot appeared on the program with opposition leader Kim Beazley.

O'Brien asked Ms Kernot, 'Do you say, right now, that you don't have an ambition, at some point in the future, however far ahead you might like to paint it, of becoming the leader of the Labor Party and, hopefully, Prime Minister of Australia?' Ms Kernot replied, 'I can say that to you.'

O'Brien continued, 'You do not have the ambition to lead your new party or the country?' The 'substance and detail' of what Cheryl Kernot said next was significant.

It amounted to a qualification of her denial. It was the 'small print' you need to study before you accept any guarantee.

Ms Kernot said, 'Let me tell you why. Number one: I haven't been preselected, I haven't been elected. I haven't made the transition from the Senate to the House of Representatives. My ambition is to have the Labor Party elected at the next election and have Kim Beazley as Prime Minister, but there's an awful lot of hurdles for me in that until I get to that position. I don't know if I'm going to fail. I might fail. There might be no viable role for me in the Labor Party.'

In other words, she had no leadership aspirations because she had not been preselected, had not been elected and had not made the transition from the Senate to the House of Representatives.

That, of course, went without saying.

It would have been interesting to hear Cheryl Kernot's response if O'Brien had followed up with, 'Assume you are elected to the House of Representatives and make the transition successfully? Assume Labor loses the election and Mr Beazley does not become Prime Minister? What then?' Just two months after her defection, which had attracted an enormous amount of positive and enthusiastic media coverage, Ms Kernot apparently felt sufficiently confident to air her ambition to become Labor's 'visible symbol'.

Perhaps Cheryl Kernot was hoping for that wave of positive media support to carry her, after her election, all the way into the top Labor job.

Did she expect that wave of popularity be so powerful that it would roll right over that entrenched Labor culture? At the time, there seemed to be no limit to the amount of mainstream media goodwill for Labor's 'star recruit'.

For example, following her defection, when Labor's opinion poll stocks rose by about 10 per cent, political journalists gave Ms Kernot all the credit.

But at that time, Cheryl Kernot was only one of the Howard Government's problems. The travel rorts affair was biting, the nursing homes issue was alive and tax reform was back on the agenda with speculation rife about a GST.

Those issues would have contributed to the rise in Labor's poll support.

In her speech at the ALP conference in January 1998, Ms Kernot was happy to take the credit for Labor's resurgence in the polls.

But, as Dennis Shanahan reported in The Australian at the time, other parts of her speech were changed by Labor Party officials 'to place her position in greater perspective relative to Mr Beazley and the party.'

After the blow-up at Hobart airport, and her threat to quit politics, the 'Kernot as leader' idea continued to surface.
In April 1998, Brian Toohey in the Sydney Sun-Herald wrote that the post-Beazley leadership of the Labor Party had developed into a 'four-horse race between Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Lindsay Tanner and Cheryl Kernot'.

Even the election night emotion she displayed, when victory in Dickson seemed to have eluded her, did not quash the leadership speculation.

In a 13 December 1998 interview for the Melbourne Sunday Age, Doug Aiton asked Ms Kernot, 'Would you be available for the leadership some time?' She replied, 'I haven't decided that yet - The Labor Party is led by people with a long Labor tradition - I'm feeling my way in the party. I happen to think it would be very unusual for someone to come from another party and become leader.'

Is leadership an impossible dream for Cheryl Kernot now? It would seem so. Yet even now there are signs of belief and support.

At the end of 'red wig week' (an absolute masterstroke if you believe there is no such thing as bad publicity), the Ten Network's Paul Bongiorno said on ABC radio, 'I still feel that perhaps in the electorate the dimensions of Cheryl Kernot, the fact that she has somewhat a history, actually makes her more appealing and more attractive.'

Michelle Grattan of The Sydney Morning Herald was more circumspect: 'I think that what she has to do now is really get the emphasis off the personal, whether it's her hair or wig or the whole range of personal issues, how she feels about life in general, and get back to seeming to be a Labor spokesman, senior Labor spokesman, in a very difficult area.'

If the Labor Party heavies remain as steadfast in their support of Cheryl Kernot as they say they are, maybe they will find her a safe seat for the next election. If they do not, the people of Dickson ultimately may determine Cheryl Kernot's political future.
In an October 1998 interview with Kerry O'Brien, after her victory in Dickson had been confirmed, Cheryl Kernot said that Kim Beazley referred to her as 'an unfinished agenda'.

Despite everything that has happened since, that may still be true today.

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the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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