Inside Story

Accidental politician

Although he’s largely unknown outside the ACT, Jon Stanhope is one of Australia’s most intriguing political figures, writes Norman Abjorensen

Norman Abjorensen 16 June 2010 2157 words

The most electorally successful of the present generation of party leaders in Australia, Jon Stanhope. Mark Gallagher

NINE YEARS AGO the political landscape in Australia was very different. John Howard was heading into an uncertain election campaign after losing ground in 1998, Mark Latham’s star had yet to ascend and Kevin Rudd was a first-term backbencher still learning the political ropes. It was also, in some ways, a more innocent Australia: pre-9/11 and pre-Tampa.

Waiting in the wings was another political unknown, the Labor leader in the Australian Capital Territory, Jon Stanhope. Before the year was out he would become the territory’s fifth chief minister since self-government in 1989. Unlike all other heads of government at that time, he is still in office, and he also holds a record unique in Australian politics: twelve years in parliament and all of them as a party leader. Of the current crop, only South Australia’s Mike Rann has led his party for longer.

Earnest rather than charismatic, devoid of flamboyance almost to the point of dullness, Stanhope is largely unknown beyond the territory, but is one of the most intriguing political figures in Australia as well as the most resilient. He is certainly the most electorally successful of the present generation of leaders, having won three elections on the trot as well as leading Labor to the first-ever majority government in the ACT, in 2004, a quite remarkable feat under the territory’s Hare-Clark proportional representation system. Yet he is also something of a throwback – an old-style Labor man concerned about the battlers and passionate about social justice. Curiously, he has one thing in common with John Howard – an old-fashioned courtesy. To his colleagues he can occasionally be tough and sometimes remote; his political opponents regard him as having a glass jaw. But all agree he is a fighter who doesn’t concede ground readily.

In an age of professional, career politicians, Stanhope’s career puts a living, breathing question mark over the notion of a “natural politician.” A deeply reflective man not at all immune to self-doubt, a man for whom principle is all, and a deeply committed civil libertarian, he never aspired to be anything more than a backroom political operator.

But at that he excelled. A lawyer by training, Stanhope worked on the committee staff at Parliament House. During the Keating government he was instrumental in setting up a parliamentary inquiry into equal opportunity and equal status for women. It was Stanhope, the secretary of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, who suggested the inquiry to a Labor MP, Michael Lavarch, and it was Lavarch who became the committee’s chair.

After the Coalition – encumbered by John Hewson’s Fightback! package – managed to lose the “unlosable” 1993 federal election, Lavarch was appointed attorney-general and asked Stanhope to be his chief of staff. Keating, jubilant at being returned as prime minister, handpicked Lavarch for the attorney’s post to see through native title, a major reform as close to Keating’s heart as it was to Lavarch’s and Stanhope’s.

Stanhope became a driving force, along with Kate Harrison, now chief of staff to Defence Minister John Faulkner, in turning the High Court’s historic Mabo decision into viable legislation. It was well before he entered politics – or even contemplated a political career – but to this day he ranks it as one of his proudest achievements.

He might have stayed in the backroom were it not for the parlous situation in which Labor found itself in the ACT after its shock election loss in 1995. In a rusted-on Labor town – “looks like Killara, votes like Cessnock,” in John Howard’s memorable phrase – to be beaten by the Liberals on its home turf was a devastating body-blow to the party. It was a time of turmoil and political disaster for Labor: scandals, inept decision-making and three leaders in as many years, all of which eroded valuable political capital in what should have been its heartland.

Desperate for a revival, the party machine tapped Stanhope on the shoulder, promising him the leadership of what was then a deeply demoralised outfit. He accepted only reluctantly and ran at the 1998 election; Labor lost, but at least Stanhope gained his own seat in the Legislative Assembly. “I would have liked to serve an apprenticeship, but I had no such luxury,” he says now. “The learning curve was steep, but not so steep as it was after 2001 when we came into government. I had to learn on the job and, yes, I made mistakes. I had to be pragmatic at times, but overall I didn’t compromise my political or personal integrity – or I hope I didn’t. If I let people down, then I regret it, but one thing I have learned in government is the impossibility of pleasing all the people all of the time. That is the reality.”

Thrown into a confrontational environment not at all in keeping with his personality, Stanhope cut an awkward figure: a new boy in all respects, he wrestled with the forms of parliament, bristled at the close-encounter and often personal brutality of a small chamber of seventeen members, and became quietly exasperated. Suddenly, this self-effacing man – an avid reader, a lover of concerts, a weekend sportsman – no longer had the privacy he valued most after his family.

Unlike most people in politics, those aspects of life in the fast lane that send the adrenalin racing held a dread for him. He admitted some years ago that the things he disliked most were parliamentary question time and election campaigns – the very things that usually set the political pulse, not to mention the ego, racing. The core of politics he could handle; the theatre he could easily do without.

While he was finding his way in the desolation of opposition, the one-time rising star of the Liberal Party, Chief Minister Kate Carnell, was finding her own way to crash and burn, most notably in a corner-cutting exercise to upgrade the territory’s prime sports stadium at Bruce and in her ill-judged decision to turn the demolition of the old Canberra Hospital into a public spectacle in which a young girl was accidentally killed by flying debris.

Come the election of 2001, Labor returned to government in the territory, where it has been ever since. How does this most reluctant of politicians reflect on the events that have made him the public face of Canberra?

“I am the last person to claim that it has been easy. I was someone who went into politics with some deeply held philosophical positions,” he told me in an interview recently. “I was always adamant, and I still am, that there is no difference between what I am as a person and what I am as a politician. What you see is what you get. But having said that, yes, I have had to make compromises. I have had to adapt to making politics the art of the possible, but having done that I have tried very hard – and I think I have succeeded – in not sacrificing principle to expediency. I have always sought to take a principled view of issues.”

Asked how his period in office has challenged his beliefs, Stanhope cites the issues of public surveillance cameras and police powers.

“I was president of the Civil Liberties Council before I entered politics, and philosophically and ideologically I was opposed to any form of public surveillance and the extension of police powers. “However, now having been in government for several years, with the exposure that brings to a wide range of community viewpoints, I now concede that I have had to be pragmatic and temper some of my previous views accordingly, but I make no apology for that. I recognise that there is a community interest that supports these things which are at times necessary, and I happily defer to that. Yes, my views on public safety have changed.”

JON STANHOPE might have remained an obscure local figure in Canberra but for the fact that his civil libertarian hackles were raised in 2004 when the federal attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, introduced into parliament a series of anti-terrorism bills. Stanhope was so concerned by the secrecy of the legislation leading up to its introduction to parliament that he posted a confidential draft of the legislation on his website, stating: “Law of this significance made in this haste can’t be good law.”

Although Howard was furious, he never spoke to Stanhope directly about the issue. His office did, however, make known its extreme displeasure; several senior officers from the Commonwealth’s Attorney-General’s Department, who were in charge of drafting the legislation, also called Stanhope’s office to complain. “Now, that was quite wrong in my view,” says Stanhope. “They were public servants who had been put up to act in a political capacity, not to mention the conflict of interest there.”

Howard waited until the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to criticise Stanhope’s action, and what saddened Stanhope most was not so much the chastisement as the deafening silence: none of his colleagues at the meeting, each of whom was a Labor premier, spoke in his defence. It was, he concedes, a similar story over his opposition to the Commonwealth’s Northern Territory intervention in 2007, when he and Greens leader Senator Bob Brown were the only voices of opposition. He described as “odious” the proposal to submit every child to a compulsory medical examination – a proposal since abandoned.

“I was pilloried for my views – just pilloried. But really when you’re dealing with human rights, there is no room for compromise, and some things are just non-negotiable. The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act was fundamentally wrong. You simply don’t fight discrimination by discriminating.”

In terms of his own tenure, Stanhope believes he has made the territory a fairer place by virtue of his Charter of Rights – the first in any Australian jurisdiction – and his government’s attention to the rights of minorities, especially gay and lesbian people. “I think this is a better place now than when we came into government – judged any way you want on a social justice scale or a liveability scale or even an economic performance scale. Canberra is now a real place. A recent global survey had us at twenty-six in terms of liveability – I doubt we would have been in the top hundred a decade ago.”

When he is probed, Stanhope concedes that his is not an easy job. “In Hobart and Darwin, comparable in size to Canberra, you have a premier or chief minister, you have a governor or an administrator, and you have a lord mayor in each city. They split their functions, share their duties. Here, I am all of those things combined. It means, inevitably, that I disappoint some people.”

On top of that, the size of the ACT Assembly means that workloads are punishing. Stanhope, for example, is not just the chief minister but also holds the portfolios of transport, territory and municipal services, business and economic development, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, and the arts and heritage.

Within the political hothouse that is Labor in the ACT, Stanhope is that rare bird – factionally unaligned. Is it a plus or a minus for him? “It’s both,” he says candidly. “To be unaligned means I can stand apart from a lot of the disputes, but it also means I am alone, politically speaking. Leadership, at the best of times, is lonely. But in this position, it is doubly so. I have political friends of course, but I don’t have factional friends to turn to, and that can be very isolating, and I feel that acutely. But then, most ALP members are not members of factions, so that makes me not all that unusual.”

According to the political grapevine, Stanhope will step down during his current term, but he isn’t saying anything right now. His loss, though, will be a loss for Australian politics generally, as real leadership is in retreat. Kevin Rudd’s sidestep away from the emissions trading scheme, which so many hoped for, and Tony Abbott’s raw opportunism have produced a move away from both major parties in the opinion polls, and that, in essence, reflects an abrogation of leadership, and consequent public disenchantment. Like Neville Wran and Wayne Goss before him, Jon Stanhope is a leader who might easily – and successfully – have graced a larger stage. •