Penning the political female

Tony Smith, The University of Sydney

Cheryl Kernot Speaking for Myself Again: Four Years with Labor and Beyond, HarperCollins, 2002 (276 pp). ISBN 0-7322-7538-5 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Such controversy surrounded the publication of Cheryl Kernot’s Speaking for Myself Again that the book entered the realm of political mythology. Retiring Senator Sue West quipped that she was leaving the parliament but not the Labor Party ‘ ... and I am not writing a book’ (Hansard Senate 2002, 27 June, p. 2895). There are two main features to the political context surrounding this memoir: the disillusionment with Labor Kernot expresses in the book, and the media debate sparked by a journalist’s claim that the author had an affair with a colleague.

Kernot joined the Australian Democrats in 1979, became a candidate and executive officer and won a Queensland Senate spot in 1990. She became the party’s Senate leader in 1993, but in October 1997, she resigned to join the Labor Party. Subsequently, her political and personal fortunes deteriorated. Kernot aims to ‘give history and those who interpret it a chance to hear the other side’. She denies that it is ‘a political tome or payback’ but says that there are lessons in her experience: ‘This is who I am and what I believe in. These are my words’.

Lack of public understanding of Kernot’s new role had many causes. She admits that she undervalued her potential and made few demands on joining Labor, and identifies this as a perennial problem for women approaching hostile cultures. Kernot describes herself as ‘doubly pathetic’ for becoming yet another female victim. A champion of women’s rights with leadership experience should have avoided this fate. However, many commentators foresaw problems in 1997. Some were nasty and negative, and one sent Kernot a condom for when Labor ‘fucks you over’. Kernot was unprepared for the aggression in her new party. Having no need to lobby for herself in the Democrats, she lacked an essential skill for survival in Labor. Perhaps alarm bells should have rung when the first Labor overtures arrived following a two per cent increase in the Democrats’ opinion poll standing. Instead, Kernot behaved as most of us do when receiving compliments, and believed her good press.

Kernot was proud of the Democrats’ negotiations with Labor governments, but following the 1996 election, she was alarmed by the philosophy of the Coalition government under Prime Minister John Howard. She was also concerned that two Senators with dubious claims to represent significant minorities (Brian Harradine and Mal Colston) exploited their ‘balance-of-power’ and cross-traded policies. Becoming increasingly incapable of even-handed criticism of the Government, and feeling that the Democrats were in good shape electorally, Kernot decided that it was time to join the Labor opposition.

Democrat Senators and Kernot’s staff were stunned because she kept her decision secret until the morning of her resignation. At least she vacated her Senate position so that it could be taken by another Democrat. Labor MPs were delighted with their new recruit and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said that Kernot had just made him Prime Minister. The glee, however, was short-lived. The move suggested that Labor was desperate for capable personnel and that the leadership lacked confidence in the organisation’s ability to develop responsible policies.

Kernot was unprepared for the agression in her new party.

While Democrats were understandably bitter, some journalists seemed extremely resentful. Kernot assumed that her standing as the country’s most respected political leader was a personal trait that would transfer with her. This directly challenged the press gallery’s image-making monopoly. Some journalists at the October 1997 press conference were hostile, with Laurie Oakes calling her a ‘Demo-rat’. Before Christmas The Sydney Morning Herald exacted some vengeance by revealing details of a relationship Kernot had two decades earlier. Margaret Simons (1998) questioned the ethics of making such disclosures and pondered whether journalists would welcome scrutiny of their private lives. In a later work, Simons (1999) described the hostility that greeted her questions. She was told firmly that the situations were not comparable.

Perhaps journalists are not public figures like MPs but they are influential politically. In a media-saturated age, media can make or break governments, raise or lower leaders’ reputations, and promote or stifle debates about public policy. Media pursuit of Kernot was relentless punishment politics. At Labor’s 1998 National Conference for example, media quizzed her about a furniture van accident at her home during her absence.

In October 1998, Kernot contested the Queensland seat of Dickson. In that election Prime Minister Howard owed his victory to female Liberal MPs like Jackie Kelly and Danna Vale, who withstood a general anti-Government swing. Although Labor women dismissed these women MPs as ‘one-termers’ swept into natural Labor seats unexpectedly in a Coalition landslide in 1996, they proved themselves hard-working local representatives who defended their seats well. Dickson was an interesting seat. In 1993 it was contested later than the general election because a candidate died, and from 1996–1998, Dickson was held by the ‘controversial’ Tony Smith, who parted company with the Liberal Party mid-term amidst revelations about domestic violence orders and brothels (The Age 1998, 27 March). For Kernot, Dickson was a last resort and she won only narrowly.

On a tense election night, Kernot criticised the party she had joined with such high hopes. Soon afterwards at a forum with New South Wales MP Kerry Chikarovski, soon to be Liberal Party and opposition leader, Kernot made stinging criticisms of media attitudes to women in politics (‘Kernot and Chikarovski Lay Into Media’ The Sydney Morning Herald 1998, 1 November; ‘Has the Media Hidden a Gender’ The Australian 1998, 18 November; ‘Prying and Prejudice’ The Australian 1998, 21 November). But while all women MPs had cause for complaint, not all challenged the media’s intrusive behaviour. When Kernot fought back, media pressure increased to a point where she became ill in 2000 and there were rumours of a nervous breakdown and an identity crisis. By the November 2001 election, when the ABC TV Chaser program conducted a transfer auction for Kernot, Labor leaders looked decidedly embarrassed. In a stable election, only eight seats changed hands. Labor lost four, including Dickson.

For Kernot, Dickson was a last resort and she won only narrowly.

While Kernot says this is not a ‘political tome’, the writing process is included in the chronology. It was seen as a political act by journalists, who did not accept that their version of events was the distorted view claimed by Kernot. Within days of publication, Laurie Oakes decided that Speaking for Myself was so incomplete that he had a duty to disclose a secret affair between Kernot and Gareth Evans.

The ensuing discussion revealed as much about media cultures as it did about parliamentarians’ ethics. Beyond the sensationalism and moralising, this controversy was important for two reasons. First, if people who enter public life become fair game for intrusions into personal affairs, this could deter some from running for parliament. Women might be especially vulnerable here. Historically most MPs have been men and male MPs have tended to hold the power in sexual affairs with staff and even with journalists. So the press gallery rule that placed private lives off limits advantaged men rather than women. The arrival of more women in parliaments recently has challenged commentators to develop new versions of these conventions. The immutably sexual nature of women has provided a convenient paradigm, but at the expense of women. The revelation carried a double subtext: first, women are unsuitable MPs and secondly, that they if they enter public life they must expect their private lives to be scrutinised.

Secondly, some of the arguments used in this case have ramifications for the writing and publishing of autobiography and biography. Three justifications were offered for the decision to expose the Kernot-Evans affair: just deserts, the whole story, and the defection explained.

The claim that Kernot got her just deserts was the most personal and trivial of arguments. One journalist described Kernot as a ‘flawed character’ who brought this on herself. Another saw Kernot as a symbol of the political class generally, and suggested that ‘politicians’ have been shielded for too long and that their rorting should be exposed. dug into Kernot’s past and placed a sinister interpretation on her role in the sacking of a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

If the just deserts argument is petty, the ‘whole story’ defence is absurd. No news story or comment on current affairs can give every conceivable detail. The diarist has a right to decide which details are most relevant. Any reader of Kernot’s memoir will identify gaps. She does not mention for example, the Democrats’ very sound performance in a South Australian election shortly before she resigned, but this might have convinced Kernot that the time was right for her to leave the party in good shape.

Kernot's critics are entitled to produce their own histories.

The publisher of scuttlebutt claims to have a fuller understanding than the writer. This patronises readers. Obviously, there are different versions of events, but history emerges through a process that balances the many diverse accounts of a period. Kernot’s critics are entitled to produce their own histories. That would be a positive contribution. Attempting to demolish Kernot’s book, however, is strictly negative. This is not argument and counter-argument leading to a balanced view, but a blatant attempt to silence. Perhaps the author anticipated this reaction when she included ‘My words … without the cynical filters of those paid to interpret and add a spin to them’. Kernot provides some extracts: transcripts of her speeches at the press conference, the 1998 Labor conference and an Aboriginal Reconciliation conference, a positive article she wrote about the Democrats leadership team of Natasha Stott-Despoja and Aden Ridgeway, and her submission to the party review following the 2001 election defeat (Hawke & Wran 2002).

As Crikey points out, Keith Scott’s Gareth Evans (1999) makes no mention of the affair. Nor does David O’Reilly’s Cheryl Kernot (1998). However, it does not follow that those books are irrelevant, flawed, or incomplete. Biography and memoir can be attacked on numerous grounds, including errors, demonstrable bias, and stylistic poverty. But when the writer has privileged access, it is difficult to attack his or her assessment of which details are significant and which are ephemeral. It is the responsibility of the critic to explain why any omission is important. As Gerard Henderson sensibly pointed out (ABC TV Insiders 2002, 7 July), it is impossible to tell where all this ends if you simply cast about the mantra ‘whole story, whole story’. It would be as absurd to condemn Kernot for omitting details of her personal relationships as it would be to condemn the journalist for not revealing what he had for breakfast while agonising over his latest column. As if anticipating the storm ahead, Kernot notes the distinction between ‘the public interest’ and what the public might be interested in.

The third argument for disclosure is that Kernot has been dishonest about why she changed parties. This is mere speculation, but it has some legitimacy as an investigation of political motivations. Interestingly in 1999, two Liberal parliamentarians won damages from Random House who published Bob Ellis’ Goodbye Jerusalem. The ruling (as this non-lawyer understands it) was that the book implied that Peter Costello and Tony Abbott were so loosely committed to their political philosophies that they could be persuaded to change parties through offers of sexual favours. This implied that they were of ‘weak and unreliable character’ and ‘lacked personal integrity’. The publisher appealed but the ruling was upheld in the Federal Court (Federal Court of Australia 1999).

The media spin in 1997 implied that Kernot had been seduced across parties and found herself in bed with Labor. Cartoonists for example, used the sexual metaphor. The Kernot-Evans revelation seems to infer that Kernot was in fact lured to Labor through a relationship. Any doubt cast on her reputation for political faithfulness damages any future prospects she might have. Kernot describes a genuine friendship with Labor Senate Leader John Faulkner. It would be interesting to know whether media would be so quick to reveal that relationship if Kernot wrote about her affair with Evans but neglected to mention Faulkner’s support and consideration.

Publicising Kernot's private affairs is a political act designed to damage her.

The compelling conclusion then, is that the publicising of Kernot’s private affairs is an overtly political act designed to damage her. Crikey raised the possibility that the leaked email that forced Laurie Oakes’ hand came from a source in Queensland Labor engaging in payback for criticisms Kernot made of her treatment by the party. Kernot acknowledges that some see criticism, especially by a woman, as ‘whingeing’, but she is determined to continue to make a contribution as her submission to the Hawke-Wran Review demonstrates. She notes also that many journalists have accepted the unfounded allegations of her Liberal opponents as the basis for questions. When she bit back during the 2001 election campaign in Dickson, journalists sprang the trap and made her behaviour the issue. As Greg Turnbull explained, the media implored Kernot to speak openly about herself. When she did, she was labeled self-indulgent. When she complained about the treatment, she was attacked for whingeing.

A strong theme of the book is Kernot’s attempt to analyse media behaviour and to expose its prejudices. She argues that because media are incestuous, even if the first report of a story is inaccurate, it is adopted as true. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to correct the record. Small wonder then that Kernot reports rather depressingly that she is working on an ‘alternative obituary’. In Kernot’s experience, journalists act to make stories go in directions that they prefer or to realise their predictions. When media stalked her even in hospital Kernot became privacy-obsessed. When she changed her hair colour and wore a wig, Brisbane’s paparazzi became frenzied and photographers broke the convention against identifying politicians’ homes.

Such celebrity status could have made this cricket-loving girl-next-door into a people’s princess like Diana, who died just a few weeks before Kernot’s defection. Indeed, accompanying Kernot on a grip-and-grin walk in a market, Beazley reported feeling like Prince Charles. Kernot is conscious of the ways that images work. She chose her outfit for the press conference carefully and says that the famous Womens Weekly cover (April 1998) shot of her in red dress and boa was a set-up. Kernot chose a more subdued purple dress and was assured that the magazine would use this. At least she got into purple for the photograph and jacket design for this book.

Speaking for Myself Again is an introspective account that conveys emotions and provides a stark contrast to Bob Carr’s Thoughtlines (2002). Carr is Labor’s most successful political leader of the last decade, while Kernot’s career with Labor raised great, but unrealised, expectations. To succeed in a party Kernot describes as being ‘too crammed with technocrats with vacant eyes’, you need Carr’s stoicism rather than Kernot’s passion.

Kernot is conscious of the ways that images work.

The best sections of this book contain critical insights into Labor politics. Initially known as Minister for Baby Boomers because of a report she did on people aged over 45, Kernot had responsibility for the Transport, Regional Development, Infrastructure and Regional Services, then Employment and Training portfolios. These were heavy burdens for a Member with a marginal seat to defend, particularly when she belonged to neither the Left nor Right but to a group of sixteen factionally non-aligned ‘Independents’. Kernot gained respect and affection for some colleagues, but was always tense with others. She felt that apart from National Secretary Gary Gray, party leaders had no plan for using her effectively and seemed unconcerned for her personal plight. Kernot identified the greatest problems as lack of a media management strategy and breakdown in communication with Kim Beazley.

Kernot says that Beazley endured meetings with impatience. The agenda was rushed and business unresolved. During parliamentary sittings, shadow ministers were handed questions by the whip as they entered the chamber and had little involvement in policy formulation and party strategy. Backbenchers were excluded entirely and Caucus was powerless. When newcomer Kernot asked questions and pressed for answers, colleagues thought that she was creating problems for herself. A Labor figure called her Princess Precious and the image of the whingeing woman stuck. Eventually, she refused to submit announcements for checking by Beazley’s office. When a colleague referred disparagingly to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio, Kernot decided it was time to speak out freely and let the leadership react how it might. Although Kernot liked and respected Beazley, she found him uncomfortable with powerful females, obsessed with GST ‘Rollback’ and inclined to avoid confrontation. He certainly failed to make Kernot feel that she was a legitimate member of the team.

Kernot is scathing about the party’s failure to assist her in Dickson. When polling suggested that she had increased her lead, Dickson was removed from the list of marginals targeted for saturation campaigning. Despite assurances, pamphlets were not delivered while her Liberal challenger made 40 contacts with voters. To aggravate her situation, Kernot had to endure negative leaks from the Queensland office. Eventually she concedes that she ‘couldn’t change the culture enough for me to survive in it’.

There are a few obvious errors in the book. The chronology says that Hawke’s double dissolution election of 1987 was in 1984, and in one paragraph, Kernot says she was an MP for both four years and three. However, there is ample information for the reader to get the whole story from Kernot’s point of view. There is food for thought on the role of media, the problems faced by female MPs, and Labor’s organisational woes. Kernot’s description of the public policy problems created by party convergence in which ‘the faces change but the script remains the same’ epitomises the frustrations expressed in this readable memoir.


Carr, B. 2002, Thoughtlines: Reflections of a Public Man, Viking, Camberwell.

Ellis, B. 1997, Goodbye Jerusalem: Night Thoughts of a Labor Outsider, Vintage, Milsons Point.

Federal Court of Australia 1999, Random House Australia Pty Ltd v. Abbott, 10 November [Online], Available [2002, 14 August].

Hawke, B. & Wran, N. 2002, National Committee of Review Report, August [Online], Available: [2002, 14 August].

O’Reilly, D. 1998, Cheryl Kernot: the Woman Most Likely, Random House, Milsons Point.

Scott, K. 1999, Gareth Evans, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.

Simons, M. 1998, ‘Fit to Print’, Eureka Street, vol. 8, no. 5, June 16–23.

Simons, M. 1999, Fit to Print: Inside the Canberra Press Gallery, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Tony Smith teaches Australian Politics in the School of Economics and Political Science at The University of Sydney.

Read Tony Smith’s review of Bob Carr’s Thoughtlines.

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