Canberra journalist, Costello spin doctor, Howard whinger

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

Niki Savva So Greek: Confessions of a Conservative Leftie, Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2010 (304 pp). ISBN 9-781921-640-278 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

First, we had the ‘Howard battlers’, the working and middle class Australians who were repelled by the exotic pursuits of Keating and attracted to the sound economic management of Howard. Then we had the ‘Howard haters’, the term his supporters attached to those who criticised his government’s actions, especially on asylum seekers or the Iraq war, where there were accusations of lying, dog whistle politics and so forth, a useful label to discredit critics without having to refute their criticisms.

Now we have the ‘Howard whingers’, the defenders of the defeated government who seek to minimise the significance of, or explain away, the 2007 election rout. Even before the election, as the government faced what Peter Hartcher called opinion ‘polls of chilling steadiness and deadly intent’ (2007), an anticipatory version of Howard whinging was offered by Tony Abbott, who thought that ‘the risk is that we might sleepwalk into changing the government in a fit of absent-mindedness’ (Grattan 2007). The prime exemplar of Howard whinging is the memoirs of Peter Costello. Costello begins by asking how such a good government, which had so skilfully delivered such good economic management, could be defeated. He then whinges about many things, not least Howard himself.

A memoir by political journalist-cum-Costello and Howard Government staffer, Niki Savva, shows many of the tiresome traits and special pleading that mark the Howard whingers whenever it talks about the 2007 election.

Savva was obviously a fan of the government she worked for almost a decade and has a visceral dislike of Kevin Rudd. She describes Rudd several times as the body snatcher or the Howard clone: ‘He looked as safe as Howard. He looked like he could be Howard’s son, sounded like Howard, and did everything he could to encourage comparisons with Howard. It was creepy. It was the invasion of the body snatcher’ (p. 206). The electorate was ‘looking for a younger version of Howard’ (p. 222). The televised debate was between ‘the original Howard and the cloned Howard’ (p. 256).

On several occasions she criticises the media: ‘the media decided they had had more than enough of Howard, and started courting a new playmate’ (p. 55); ‘The media was sick of us and wanted us gone’ (p. 210). It is revealing that someone who worked as a journalist for over 20 years offers such a simple, unidimensional analysis.

Savva has a visceral dislike of Kevin Rudd.

It was not only the media. The Reserve Bank, when it raised interest rates during the campaign, as the Governor had foreshadowed was likely and as was in line with its existing pattern, engaged in ‘an overtly political act’ (p. 257) and ‘events since’ showed it was ‘completely unnecessary’.

Even though ‘just weeks out from the election … [we] had no agreement on any policy of substance to put to the voters’ (p. 252), nevertheless the government’s policies were superior to Labor’s in almost every area, but ‘unfortunately’ policy didn’t matter ‘one little bit’ in determining the result (p. 271). She does offer a few insights into the government’s policy making, which will do little to support that view. For example ‘Howard always regarded climate change as a second-order issue, failing to acknowledge that when all else is going well, second order issues filter their way to the top’ (p. 217). Second order issue, no first order issues, hmm? Before the debate with Rudd, he spent an hour ‘trying to get across the jargon and properties of broadband’ (p. 256). Well better late than never. In addition, ‘a number of senior ministers … felt that the government had done enough on childcare’ (p. 251).

She laments that, during the campaign, everything that could go wrong did go wrong (p. 266), and regrets that ‘it would have been as painful for [Howard] to go through it as it was for those who had revered him for his political acumen to watch it happening’ (p. 263). In the end the government ‘was punished severely by a sated electorate’ (p. 275).

So there we have it, lots of bad luck, picked on by the media and the Reserve Bank, and despite the Liberals having better policies, the electorate just went for a younger (Mandarin speaker with a long interest in Asia; saying that climate change is the most urgent moral question of our time; giving a priority to childcare; promising to roll out broadband; talking about an education revolution; promising to withdraw troops from Iraq; republican) clone of John Howard. Those sated electorates will do it to you every time.

Fortunately when we move beyond its special pleading for the Howard Government, the book carries much more merit and interest.

There are three main foci of these memoirs. The first is an account of how a Greek family from Cyprus migrated to Australia, and of the adventures of a girl growing up in working class, outer suburban Melbourne, her experiences of discrimination, her bonds with her family but also her wish to make her way in the new society, Australian outside, Greek at home. The picture that emerges is of a smart, gutsy, ambitious, lively young woman, devoted to her family but also determined to seize whatever opportunities came her way.

Savva offers a franker confession than normal of the horse trading in political reporting.

As will also be the case in the later parts of the book, while the writing is often lively and vivid, and the experiences described interesting, there are limits to her reflectiveness, either because of her personality or because she does not want to reveal too much in a public account. This is demonstrated in one briefly told episode, when, while visiting Cyprus as a young woman, she initially accepts an offer of marriage to a wealthy young bureaucrat that a marriage broker puts to her (p. 45). It fell through because her parents failed to deliver a dowry. This willingness to marry someone she has never met, and to settle down back in Cyprus as an obedient wife, seems to be at odds with the person portrayed everywhere else in the book. But the author gives us no exploration of her feelings.

The most moving part of the book concerns her relationship with her sister, Christina, who, after intermittent illnesses through her life, died of cancer at age 43. The last year of Christina’s life so took a toll on Niki and her journalistic career, that she left journalism and joined Peter Costello’s staff as his media adviser.

The second focus of the book is her account of her long period as a journalist in the Canberra press gallery, spanning around two decades from the middle of the Whitlam Government to the early years of the Howard Government, with a stint in Washington in the early 1990s. She conveys the high spirits of the gallery during the Whitlam era, and also that government’s lack of cohesion and discipline, which have made it a negative exemplar for all governments that followed. Journalists’ accounts of this era often are akin to post American civil war (white) nostalgia for the ante-bellum South, nostalgia for a carefree way of life that has passed irretrievably. The most important single change for the journalists was the way the more antiseptic new Parliament House removed a lot of the frequent casual contact that led to the camaraderie and intimacy, ‘the magic’ (p. 69), of the old building.

For a contemporary reader, there are few great revelations in this part of the book, although Savva gives many examples of her scoops and enterprise which show what a successful reporter she had been. She offers a franker confession than normal of the horse trading in political reporting, and the building of relationships with political sources. She quotes with approval that great Washington journalistic operator, Robert Novak, that ‘in this town you’re either a source – or a target’:

It’s like that here. Charmers and bullies. Bribers and blackmailers. Blabbers and users. … If I rang a Labor backbencher seeking information and they told me they never gave briefings about caucus discussions or decisions, I never rang them again. And I never mentioned their name in a story either. Unless they had done something wrong, of course (p. 55).

She praises her mentor Laurie Oakes’s ability to prise information out of a range of sources, and quotes him saying ‘I would talk to the devil himself to get a story’ (p. 64). Likewise Savva claims that ‘I never left a table with a politician without getting a story’ (p. 64). Just as Paul Keating prided himself on his ability to throw the switch to vaudeville (a scoop from a Savva interview), Savva relates her skill in turning on the charm, and also her ability to ventilate her anger.

She recites some of the conflicts she had with various politicians and cites a Labor Government staffer who had left Canberra asking whether she was still crawling over bodies to get to the top (p. 67). It is good and honest that she includes such cases. While on each occasion she insists on her innocence, it does at least make the reader ponder how the conflict might have looked from the other side. As always, the author does not indulge in prolonged introspection—‘I thought then, and still do, that it’s best not to overanalyse and to just get the job done’ (p. 67).

This is a classic tale of poacher-turned-gamekeeper.

The third part of the book concerns Savva’s time in the Howard Government, first as Costello’s media adviser and then in the Cabinet Policy Unit. Inevitably this is the part of the book where there are many revelations. Although as we have seen her sympathies sometimes cloud her account, the reporter in her often triumphs, and she relates many new episodes.

This is a classic tale of poacher-turned-gamekeeper. ‘I was to become the kind of press secretary I had always hated – the type who put up barriers’ (p. 109). As in her conflicts with politicians in the previous section, the degree to which she sought to exercise control must have created frictions or outright conflicts with journalists, but we are given only a couple of trivial examples. Similarly, the manipulative skills she was proud of as a journalist are not discussed here, except for the passing odd observation—‘Another technique was to feed a story to a selected newspaper – one that could be counted on to treat it in the right way …’ (p. 55).

Inevitably as the role changes so does the perspective. By a less than amazing coincidence, in her first two decades in Canberra, she finds the media largely right and the politicians largely wrong, but after her move into the Treasurer’s office she now finds that the government was in the right and the media irresponsible and shallow:

It pains me to say, as a result, that my opinion of reporters generally has fallen much lower than my opinion of politicians. … When it comes to scheming and lying, plain old hypocrisy, and dishonesty, journalists – apart from a few honourable exceptions – win hands down. If you can call it winning (p. 97).

She lied as a journalist, but never as a press secretary (p. 94), and of course ‘the overwhelming majority of gallery journalists were (and are) Labor supporters (p. 52).

In the middle of the book she observes that:

We all seem to be caught up in a whirlpool down a sinkhole which ensures that everybody will lose – politicians, the media, good government, and people. The more licence that journalists take in their reporting … the more politicians feel the need to control information (p. 94).

Notice here the politicians’ felt need to control follows irresponsible media reporting, but equally it is inconvenient responsible reporting that politicians resent just as much. Moreover, despite having decried this cycle of negativity, she recounts with pride her role in sinking the Labor Opposition’s Knowledge Nation policy launch by making fun of the accompanying convoluted diagram as spaghetti and meatballs (p. 136–137). Apparatchik Niki thought this was a great victory. It is not clear if sober, retrospective analyst Niki would ponder how easy it is to destroy any chance of intelligent debate.

The most sustained narrative is an account of the Howard-Costello relationship and the leadership tensions. Here she uses her journalistic skills and her unparalleled relationship with the key players to go beyond the previously published accounts, especially giving insights into the crises and deteriorating relationship (‘poisonous’) as the 2007 election defeat loomed, and everyone wanting to understand the history of this unique leadership situation will use her work.

The account of the Howard-Costello relationship goes beyond the previously published versions.

In particular, she gives a rounded portrait of Peter Costello, very aware of both his strengths and his weaknesses. She says what attracted her to the man was his integrity and his lack of any hint of racism. In the book’s title she describes herself as a conservative leftie, although she does not ever explore the precise meaning of this apparently contradictory label. It seems to describe her trajectory across the political spectrum, but in addition that she has strong egalitarian dispositions, most especially against any racial or ethnic discrimination.

This is clearly important to her, and so it must have been difficult for her that this government, to which she was so committed, stooped to exploit racism, especially in the 2001 election, more than any other Australian government in living memory. She has a nice anecdote where Liberal Federal Secretary Lynton Crosby talks about the advertisement featuring Howard proclaiming ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. ‘Lynton seemed a bit embarrassed by it. He was debating whether or not to use it, describing it as “a bit too Nuremburg”’ (p. 156).

Despite her convincing enunciation of Costello’s strengths, to me the weaknesses shine through even more strongly. There is firstly his huge capacity for self-pity. There is, further, what is only hinted at here, that he was a bully, who sought to crush dissenting views. Savva does say that ‘Costello found it hard to resist the temptation to bite back, occasionally with brutal force’ (p. 184), and that he wanted her, à la Richard Nixon, to keep an enemies file (p. 183). But perhaps the most telling insight is this. When Costello was seeking to differentiate himself from Howard, ‘he wanted issues to get involved in: but every time one was suggested, he either showed brief interest or none at all. … Climate change and water were not the issues then that they are today, so the environment didn’t grab him, and Beazley had already tried to put his name on education’ (p. 169–170). Hardly a man of vision.

There are many brief but interesting vignettes from this part of the book. I will finish with two. The first is of contemporary interest, now that Tony Abbott is the alternative economic manager-in-chief. There was a profile of Abbott by Paul Kelly, which Costello brought in with the following quotation marked: ‘I have never been as excited about economics as some of my colleagues; you know, I find economics is not for nothing known as the dismal science’. According to Savva, ‘in Costello’s books, that alone disqualified Abbott as a running mate’ (p. 159).

The other one concerned her account of a dinner that she and Costello had with Kerry and James Packer and some senior journalists including Laurie Oakes and Paul Lyneham in 1998 (p. 116–118). At one stage Kerry Packer asked Oakes why he hadn’t done a story based on the dossier about Keating’s piggery he had been given. Oakes was taken aback, not knowing Packer had the documents, and said that he had not been able to substantiate key aspects. Paul Lyneham then suggested perhaps he could do something with the documents (which he had not yet seen), and subsequently did a 60 Minutes story on the matter. All the interesting threads are left hanging, but there is enough to suggest that the story behind the story is the more interesting one.


Costello, P. with Coleman, P. 2008, The Costello Memoirs, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Grattan, M. 2007, ‘It matters who hears the alarm’, The Age, 25 May.

Hartcher, P. 2007, ‘Howard’s instinct let him down’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November.

Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney.

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