Poor Kerry O’Brien, lately, and doubtless in future, an ABC employee. He appears happy as he gets about promoting his Keating book, but he’s writhing and crying on the inside.
Why so? Not because he’s finally quit of the not-quite-arduous role of Four Corners “host”, which according to the Sydney Tele’s Tim Blair, involved him in less than four hours of TV face-time in five years. And he’s not agonizing because he was too hard-up at the national broadcaster to save for groceries in his retirement. Who knows what we taxpayers paid to watch him for those four hours? In his previous role as 7.30 Report editor and host, he was paid $365,000 in 2009-10. I wonder if his total pay for the Four Corners stint added up to the high six-figures, or might it even have broken the seven-figure barrier? There is no way to know because the ABC, citing “commerce in confidence” won’t say how much it pays its favourite sons.
Not that anyone should begrudge Kerry’s a fair return for his exacting role. I mean, here’s what his job entailed on the November 16 production of Four Corners: two minutes’ work reading 225 words off the AutoCue:
KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Tonight on Four Corners, we take you into the lives of Australia’s kids and their journey through adolescence and ask: why are they feeling so stressed?
You might think Australian kids have never had it so good. On average, they’re probably healthier, wealthier and better educated than better before.
They’re also more exposed to the world. In this global village there are very few secrets; very few filters. How, for instance, are children supposed to process an event like the weekend’s Paris attacks?
That’s just one factor contributing to the anxiety and depression now at very high levels amongst our kids. One in four say they worry about the future all the time.
In this quite special Four Corners program we ask a wide range of young Australians from 12 to 19 why they feel so much pressure. Their responses are frank, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, always illuminating.
The reporter is Quentin McDermott.
[Program follows, with no further reference to Kerry]
[Program ends, Kerry returns to the screen]
KERRY O’BRIEN: There’s another message in this for all those kids caught in the intensity and loneliness of a problem they feel they can’t share: you’re not alone. And these issues can be managed.
Next week on Four Corners: our final program for the year. We look at the making of Australia’s youngest ever terrorist and the men who are influencing the next generation of home-grown jihadists.
Until then, good night.
And Kerry’s not traumatised by retirement doldrums. As he told ABC colleagues, “I also have other ideas, which may offer the opportunity to work again with the ABC …”
It’s a plot-spoiler, but I know why Kerry’s so sad, so internally gut-wrenched. I was at his Melbourne Press Club book launch on November 27, when he delivered a polished and enjoyable spiel about Paul Keating’s triumphs and peccadillos. I failed to take proper notes but the video is now up at the Melbourne Press Club site.
In concluding, he veered off at a tangent (38 minutes in). He gave several examples of Keating’s “good and effective leadership” and then contrasted those with the alleged “great failure of modern leadership” in regard to boat people flowing south through Indonesia. Actually, after 50,000 chaotic arrivals and detentions, and some 1200 drownings, ex-PM Tony Abbott stopped the boats. But O’Brien views that as a “great failure”. Not just that but also
- “deeply troubling, and already has been burnt into this nation’s history and tarnished its spirit”
- “excruciating and shameful”
- repugnant to “any ethical or moral conscience at all”
- a poor example of what Australia and Australians stands for
- antipathetic to “fundamental decency”
- “…bogged down in emotive and at times despicable politics”
- retrograde to our “self respect”
- cheap exploitation of fear and emotion
- involving “inflammatory and now discredited claims of the so-called ‘kids overboard affair’”
- not “morally and ethically acceptable”
- causing us “to look in the mirror and (to be) ashamed of what we see”
- the image we are putting out to the world and living with ourselves “is an appalling one and there has got to be a better way.”
O’Brien’s virtue-signalling and personal angst drew sympathetic applause from the Press Club audience. His main hope, he told them, rested with Abbott’s nemesis, Malcolm Turnbull, who has been “working his way through some very interesting decisions, displaying a standard of calm, considered leadership we all probably feel we have been starved of for a long time.” O’Brien’s use of the royal “We all” suggests he needs to get out more, although he was pretty safe in the Press Club context. O’Brien has also failed to understand that the “children overboard” issue involved real cases.[i]
O’Brien seemed to be channeling Human Rights stalwart Gillian Triggs (salary $408,000), who waxed indignant about kids in detention, but only after Abbott solved the problem. Triggs deferred her indignation during the Labor era when scores of kids went into detention.
Indeed, O’Brien’s Keating book, which he researched partly during the Rudd/Gillard years, mentions the boat people only as an afterthought — something “not discussed but would be remiss to leave out”, as he wrote. It turns out that Keating’s immigration minister, Gerry Hand, in 1992 proposed “mandatory detention in remote Australia” to keep better track of arrivals, and Keating and his cabinet waved it through undiscussed. Why? Because Hand was the leader of the Victorian Left faction, as Keating explains,
And the Left had the most libertarian views in the party about immigration and settlement… If Hand was advising the cabinet to set up detention centres for the orderly processing of asylum seekers, always within the framework of the philosophical Left, then he would have the human rights issues covered. The remedy coming from the leader of the Left, we accepted it.
Keating said Labor’s detention centres were fine, but the evil John Howard turned them into “quasi penal settlements”. With the benefit of hindsight and his assertion unquestioned by O’Brien, Keating would have solved the Rudd-era boat-people flood by letting in (via the cooperative Indonesia and Malaysia) only “genuine” refugees. As for the fake asylum-shoppers, “that was a different question”, he said, without any attempt to provide an answer, except to say that he would have solved the crisis diplomatically. Instead, bad Howard “set off a virus in the bloodstream of the Australian polity that has never abated.”
To paraphrase these few paras in a book of 450 pages, about an issue of supreme importance to the ABC’s ex-presenter, if Hand and his Victoria’s Socialist Left team wanted something, cabinet said yes. If Hand had additionally requested that detention guards be fitted out with jackboots and truncheons, he’d probably have got that an OK for that too. While Rudd/Gillard/Rudd created the 50,000 boat people invasion by putting the sugar on the table, Keating would have generated a compassionate, effective solution by…well O’Brien didn’t ask for the details.
I decided O’Brien was having too much of an easy ride at the press club, and I finally got the microphone (at 55.45 on the video). I asked O’Brien, in my 30-year, ex-Fairfax-reporter capacity, “How many unauthorized asylum seekers would you like Australia to take per annum. Could you please put a number on it?”
I expected him to say 5000, or 50,000, or 500,000 or 5 million, since he had “thought a lot about it”. But O’Brien suddenly swung from asylum-seeker moral crusader to impartial (ex)ABC presenter mode.
“No!” he said emphatically. “I am not a policy maker! I am not a policy maker and I have thought about this a lot and I think the solution has to be one that involves Indonesia and Malaysia but in a genuine tripartite effort . The reason I have looked at the way Keating dealt with his Asian neighbours as effectively as he did and saw the outcomes he achieved. I wondered, ‘Iif you had a Keating with the brain and resolve and the touch and the determination to get an outcome that is both humane and at the same time also effective in maintaining some kind of control…”
He canvassed the issues, saying how tough they were, and concluded,
My job as a journalist is primarily putting light on the problems and looking at the people who are charged with the responsibility of coming up with answers. If a brilliant answer occurred to me I would tell you, but what I am interested in is the fact that I think the image we are putting out to the world on this issue and the image we are being asked to live with ourselves, is an appalling one and there has got to be a better way.
More applause from the audience, who had been warmed up anyway by O’Brien’s dissing of the Howard government and the star guest’s gushing and fawning over Malcolm Turnbull.
O’Brien’s performance could be summed up as
- Moral frothing about a now-non-existent boat-people problem created by Labor which the conservatives have fixed
- Genuflection to the great one-term statesman (1991-96) Paul Keating as a hypothetical solver of the non-existent problem, and
- Total unwillingness/inability to posit any alternative policy course to the Coalition’s policy which he excoriates.
Apart from that, O’Brien told some good stories. And if/when he reverts to a six-figure taxpayer-funded job at the ABC, we can rest assured that he will be every bit as politically impartial as the ABC Charter demands.
Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope
[i] The facts, however inconvenient, are that one child was thrown overboard (Vessel Siev 7, 24 October, 2001), and another asylum-seeker made such determined efforts to throw a child overboard that he had to be handcuffed (Siev 9, 31 October, 2001). In the case of the notorious Siev 4, asylum-seekers wrecked the steering and engine on 7 October, 2001 and next day, unsurprisingly, the ship sank. Navy people rescued 76 children from the sea. If the ship had sunk during darkness, children may well have drowned. Distinctions between thrown overboard and dumped in the water are hardly material.