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Landmark Women: Catriona Jackson

Catriona Jackson, Science and Technology Australia, 19 July 2013

CARISSE FLANAGAN: Hi everyone. Thanks for coming again to our Landmark Women series. Firstly, I want to thank everybody for their patience with our new bookings and payments system. We have had a few teething problems but after the next few events it will be running really smoothly. I would encourage you all to give me some feedback on how it is working for you so that I can fix those problems and make it work for everyone.

Secondly, Sandy Forster, who usually drives us seamlessly through these days, is unfortunately very ill today. She has the flu. Her husband sent me a very long letter yesterday describing how sick she was, so I believe it. She sends her apologies to you and also to Catriona.

Today we are welcoming Catriona Jackson, who is the CEO for the nation’s peak science and technology body Science and Technology Australia. She has a 25-year background in politics at the senior level in the federal sphere in government and in opposition, in tertiary education, and in print and radio journalism. Most recently she led the communications and external liaison office at the Australian National University. Prior to that she was a senior staff member for former Science and Research Minister Senator Kim Carr.

CATRIONA JACKSON: Goodness me, that’s a week out of date.

CARISSE FLANAGAN: She is obviously an incredibly accomplished woman, as our ‘Landmark Women’ always are, and I would like to welcome her here today. Thank you. [applause]

CATRIONA JACKSON: I will stand behind this for the start while I am talking to you directly but then I am going to come down here and sit in the chair and get a bit closer. I feel terribly far away from you.

Thank you very much for the introduction. That is a straight read off my CV from my last job application. I sound a terrible stiff in that piece of paper, I must say. I always find writing CVs and effectively what is a pitch for yourself a profoundly uncomfortable task. I know it is something we have to do. I know it is something women particularly have to work hard at. But it is not something I find particularly comfortable so having it read back at you is quite an odd experience.

I want to say thank you very much to Sandy [Forster] for the invitation to come and speak with you today. I have known Sandy for a number of years. We were journalistic colleagues back at the Canberra Times close to 20 years ago. After she asked, and I accepted, I put the phone down and thought: goodness me, why on earth would she want me to do this? Why didn’t she invite my mother Morag Fraser who founded a magazine in Melbourne, is chair of virtually every literary festival in Australia and a magnificently articulate woman? Why didn’t she ask my aunt Liz Jackson, who has seven Walkley awards, who has made some of the best Four Corners programs in the country and who has genuinely changed people’s lives? I made the mistake of voicing this hesitation in front of my mother while she was here for a week. Then she gave me that look, that look you only get from your Mum when you are quite young - don’t you dare. She said one sentence: ‘No man would ever ask that question, Catriona, you are an extraordinarily distinguished woman, you have done a million interesting things. Don’t you dare doubt for a second.’ There is the admission of a moment of surprise when the invitation came, but I was enormously pleased to have it.

I looked down the list of people who have spoken to you before and it’s a magnificent and various list. This is obviously a terrific and flourishing Friends group. I understand you had a rear admiral very recently and then you had the woman who is possibly the best maker of macaroons in the country. What a magnificent contribution to society that is, and let’s say nice to have a woman doing it better than who is that Zumbo person who is all over the television? Some boy who has obviously copied her recipe.

I always wanted to be a journalist. I had an aunt who was a very good journalist. I had a ‘journalist-y’ sort of background. My background is effectively philosophers in academia, and journalists and writers on the other side. I entirely true to type did philosophy at university, and my ambition was to be a journalist. I am afraid I haven’t broken the mould at any point.

One of the things I found fascinating from the start, which is a bit different from some of the people you might have had before, is that I have always found food, food culture and food writing absolutely fascinating. I have done it in some form all throughout the various bits of my career. When I became the editor of the student newspaper at my university back then, at La Trobe University in Melbourne, one of the first things I did was introduce a food column. There had apparently never been a food column ever in a student newspaper, and I got absolutely pilloried by all the serious student politicians who thought this was seriously not fodder for a journal of record, like Rabelais, the La Trobe University student newspaper. We got more correspondence and more feedback from that food column than we did on anything else. The president of the Student Representative Council couldn’t believe it. His long-winded 500-word rant every time on the front page, because he insisted and he funded it - never got any letters. The food column was flooded with letters.

My first job in Melbourne was working for a mob of Jesuits who were relatively closely linked to Jack Waterford, who had just become the editor of the Canberra Times. I worked for them straight out of university to earn some money, to be completely honest, and worked in community radio because that was the way to get in to journalism in those days. I think if you listen to AM or PM or virtually any part of the ABC these days, virtually every single voice you hear is a voice that started either on community radio in Melbourne, in Sydney or in some cases here in Canberra at XXX. That was my first gambit out into the world of journalism. You don’t get paid, but it was extraordinarily exciting.

One of the people I got to be a regular contributor to the program was Jack Waterford, so Jack was our political correspondent. My show ran from half past five in the morning until nine o’clock. When you are new, you get the worst shift. We had the afternoon later as a reward for doing okay. Jack used to do the early shift for me, and finding Jack at that time in the morning was a considerable challenge. I got to know his wife very well. The afternoon shift was considerably later – half-past two was the time for Jack then. It was often Judy, his then secretary at the Canberra Times, would have to find him somewhere. Sometimes he was still in the restaurant having lunch. So the listeners at 3CR would have Jack Waterford, having had in some cases quite a good lunch, always making his brilliant and insightful comments.

After a little while Jack offered me a job here, so I came to Canberra - I am a Melbourne person originally - and worked for him and with him for seven years. One of the things I continued from my previous life was an interest in food. There are about three full-time jobs for food writers in Australia. We all know who has them: Terry Durack, Jill Duplex and sometimes John Lethlean and a couple of people from the Herald. I started doing restaurant reviewing on the side at the same time as being a serious journalist, and I was very excited to be a serious journalist.

Very early on in my career a very good woman journalist who taught me an enormous amount, Verona Burgess, who now works for the Financial Review and you will have read as the Public Service reporter here in Canberra for a number of years. She took me aside very discreetly and said, ‘Catriona, there is one thing I need to tell you, if you write food, you will never be taken seriously as a journalist so you need to think really hard about that.’ I said, ‘Look, I am afraid it’s a no bargain with me. I know some people see it as just the cooking column.’ But there comes a point when your responsibility as a woman is to change those sorts of perceptions rather than say, ‘It’s a cooking column, I mustn’t do it because I won’t be taken seriously.’ Things have changed so much now. We are now so sodden in sometimes good, sometimes appalling food culture surrounding us on every piece of television everywhere you go. There is more - not always better. Things have changed since then. [mobile phone rings] Excuse me, my phone should have been turned off. Sorry about that. That is extraordinarily rude. One of the things you never lose as a political staffer is you always have this [phone]. They are absolutely foul things.

One of the things I have tried to do is to continue with food writing and continue with it in an intelligent way. There hasn’t always been enough time. There hasn’t always been enough headspace to do it as well as I would like to do it. But it is one of the things that I will do until the day I die because it is this thing that I find probably most fascinating. It has always been on the side because you simply can’t earn a living and it is probably not quite enough to fill up my head anyway. But I found it fascinating all my life.

My sister was with me last week - she knits. I cook; she knits. She is a filmmaker in Melbourne. She was making a hat for my biggest daughter’s 21st birthday. She just said, ‘It’s the thing that keeps me calm. When I am with the kids or on the tram there is something I am constantly doing with my hands. It is not particularly intellectually challenging but it requires serious concentration, because if you lose a stitch you have had it.’ That really struck me, because cooking, thinking about food and reading about food is the same thing with me. It’s the thing that gives you a certain sort of balance among what can be in career terms and everything else terms sometimes, all consuming. It’s enormously important not particularly as a woman but just as person to have something that you find always interesting, always different and can somehow give you some kind of internal satisfaction, regardless of what else is going on.

I could talk about food forever and I would probably bore you absolutely to tears. You might like to know a little more about the career.

I worked at the Canberra Times for seven years and I learnt an enormous amount about many things that are incredibly important. I learnt how to spell. I was a terrible speller. When I began at the Canberra Times Jack consigned me – or what I saw as consigned - to the subeditor’s desk to a man called Bill Goodall, who has now retired down to the coast. Bill taught me how to spell; he taught me how to write not just well because I could write well but quickly and concisely and he also taught me how to write that magnificent thing, the headline, where you take someone else’s 2000 words make it into 1100 words and condense it – with the headline - into two or three words. That set of skills is a set of skills that I will take with me all my life.

If there is one thing that is terribly sad about the changes to newspapers at the moment is that people are not getting those skills. There are virtually no sub-editors left in Australia. They are all either offshore or the job just isn’t being done. Most people don’t even know what a sub-editor is. One of my best friends, Margaret Simons, describes sub-editors as ‘bitter old men who have failed in life’. This is slightly unfair, I think, but sometimes when you meet them you think, ‘Hang on a minute, maybe she’s right.’ But pedants about language and grammar and getting it right - these things are enormously important.

Newspapers are – or were until about a minute ago – the most important mode of democratic communication. They will still be there in some form. Doing that democratic communication well and making it engaging is a really important thing to do. Being trained a sub-editor makes you 100 times better at that. It also makes you a much better journalist in understanding the way a whole newspaper works - radio is sort of the same, TV kind of a bit the same – and how the full thing is produced is enormously important. That has stood me in good stead all my life. It means that when I have to write a restaurant review in an hour and a half, I can do it - probably not quite as well as you might when you have three hours - but it means you can communicate quickly and concisely. The lessons I learnt there - you learn them pretty brutally. Things were much calmer by the time I got to the Canberra Times. But back in the old days the chief sub-editor would stand and shout your surname. So if it was me, it would be ‘Jackson’. It was then Michael Travis, quite a ferocious man. Your sin, your misspelling or your grammatical mistake, would be broadcast across the entire newsroom. You would be utterly humiliated in front of all your colleagues. I don’t recommend this as a particularly good educational technique but, well, I can spell now.

After seven years with the Canberra Times and an enormous amount of learning, joy and pleasure in meeting people who I still know and value enormously as friends, I decided to move into politics. This was a move that all my journalistic colleagues were absolutely horrified by. Jack Waterford in the farewell speech to me was enormously polite for about a second and then he turned to me and said, ‘Catriona, this is the worst decision you will ever make.’ The reason I moved was the man I decided to work for, Kim Carr, I had written many stories about. He did lots of work in the Senate estimates process under the John Faulkner mantra of ‘bringing the government down via the Senate estimates process’.

If you don’t know Senate estimates, it is the time when the opposition can come and ask government and the bureaucracy any question they like. If you have ever spent any time listening to estimates or reading the stories about estimates back in those days, Robert Ray and John Faulkner were absolutely magnificent at it. They were almost as good as journalists. They would come in and interrogate hour after hour into issues like children overboard or things that clearly were not right and the public had clearly not been told the whole story on. Those sorts of things genuinely attracted me.

Kim was a politician who genuinely cared about a particular portfolio - that was the portfolio I reported on - research and science but higher education more broadly. He clearly had a genuine interest in how universities worked and how research institutions worked, and he pursued that through the Senate estimates process. Senate estimates research is a bit like journalism so it didn’t seem frankly to me that the jobs were all that different. It was however going to the ‘dark side’, according to absolutely everyone I knew, but people still speak to me now. Journalism is seen in some cases as a very pure form and politics is very impure in some cases.

The five years of opposition - I quite like opposition. I am an unusual person. Most political staff don’t like opposition because you can’t really do much. You spend an awful amount of time talking about what you might like to do in government but you can’t actually really proactively do anything. I am not quite sure why I didn’t mind it. There is an awful lot to find out, and I like finding stuff out. To be brutally honest, it is also significantly more human in terms of the hours you work and your ability to lead your life. Through that four and a half years in opposition I had both my children, and that was manageable through that period.

My most recent child was born just before Kevin Rudd won the election, and I don’t think any of us quite understood what that meant. At that period there were hardly any staff working for the Labor government who had worked for a Labor government in government before. Our induction session with Robert Ray made that very clear to us. He said, ‘Look, you guys, you haven’t done this before. There are a couple of absolutely critical things you must remember: Number one, make sure you read a book. No matter what happens and no matter how busy you get, make sure you read a book every now or then because if you don’t, you will just dry up. Number two, you must wash your own cups. This means from the minister and the departmental secretary down. If you do not wash your own cups, if you don’t maintain a civilised environment inside the office, things will completely fall apart.’ I have taken those two things but I don’t think I ever read the book. There was never time. Trying to do that at the same time as have your children and do your job properly, I didn’t read for two and a half years – and that’s not a way to live as far as I am concerned. But I did wash my cups, and the minister I worked for almost always washed his cups. When he didn’t wash his cups, he was reminded by all staff, the men and women on the staff, that he hadn’t washed his cups.

I am not going to talk for too much longer. I am really keen to have your questions so get them ready because I will come and sit out there. I will be unhappy if you don’t ask some things.

A couple of things that I think are worth mentioning: just after we won government – I am sorry, I must stop saying ‘we’ – just after the now current government won government, there was a women’s function hosted by Tanya Plibersek. She made mention of the fact that there were then three women chiefs of staff in political offices under the Rudd government, and that was the first time there had ever been three chiefs of staff. It doesn’t seem an enormously large number to me but it was more than there had ever been. However, there were a number of female senior staff. But when you count them there were exactly two, including me, senior staff who had kids at the same time as being senior staff.

There was me, and I had just had both my girls – they were one and three - and Jo, who was Jenny Macklin’s chief of staff. Doing that requires unbelievably significant management. If it was a perfect world and you choose to do things slightly differently and time your children differently then you would, but you just can’t. The way Jo dealt with it was that she went home for dinner between half past five and seven o’clock to see the kids and put them to bed. That was the only time she saw her children during the day. She was out of the house before six and she had that hour and a half. That was how she managed it. It is absolutely brutal. I was the only woman in a senior position who insisted on leaving at half past five so I could pick up my children. You can imagine that at half past five they are the last kids at childcare and you only just get there to collect them. I thought if I start terribly early, I can fit everything in. I can feed them and put them to bed and then I can work on. It never works that way. Most of the time I would collect them with the phone in one hand and the computer on your knee and try to cook dinner at the same time and wonder why there was just never enough time. They always wanted more time - and entirely understandably because they are very small.

In the end I left two and a half years into government, and that was the reason I left. People say, ‘Catriona, you had kids, it is entirely understandable.’ It wasn’t just that I had kids. It was that there was absolutely no time for anything other than work. Having thought about it really hard and spoken to a large number of both current and former colleagues, that doesn’t just affect you if you have children, that affects you no matter who you are. As everyone knows, there is an enormously large number of young quite senior - and in some cases too senior for their age – staff while I was there. There was a 29-year-old phenomenon. I would see those kids in the corridor – I shouldn’t call them kids but at 29, for heaven’s sake, they are kids - and think, ‘You’re so young, you’re okay. You have that ability to stay out all night and bounce back.’ After I left – there is something about leaving that means people are honest with you - almost all of those kids, who in some cases left after me or stayed, would see in the street or down at Tillies or in the supermarket and they would rush up and say, ‘Catriona, I am out. Are you okay? I think I’m all right.’ Many of them had nervous breakdowns and they were 29. They are now 30 or 31. The vast majority did not stay married if they were married or didn’t keep their partner if they had one. Excuse me if I am frank, but there is no time for sex. There is no time for all those things that are part of a relationship and are absolutely critical.

There was an early Monday morning when the other woman who was chief of staff for John Faulkner at the time was in the lift at the same time as me at six. That’s a little bit late to get in as a Labor staffer. On the Monday morning she was carrying all her shopping: that’s breakfast, lunch and dinner all week in the office. Her clothes she brought in on Tuesday. She went home to sleep and she would be having five or six hours if she was extremely lucky. One of the best advisers in government who worked in Kevin Rudd’s office and had worked for the Labor Party for probably 25 years, was a cross-country runner. Towards the end and just before he stopped working for Rudd, he said, ‘Catriona, I am doing my cross-country run at 3.30 in the morning. That is the only time I can do it because Rudd’s office starts at half past five.’ You are there at half past five and you leave at midnight. Try to add up how many hours of sleep that means or hours to do anything else. All your clothes are dry-cleaned. You can’t possibly wash anything because that takes time. If you have children, you have to have a partner who looks after them almost all the time. I am enormously lucky to have a husband who is enormously tolerant and who had children before so knew what he was doing. It puts an extraordinary quantity of pressure on your your relationship and just your ability to cope. I am a hard-working, optimistic person but, to be brutally honest, I don’t think it’s viable.

That CV was quite funny because it highlights how things change so unbelievably quickly. A week and a half ago I spoke to the old boss. Almost all the rest of his staff have gone back. There is something alluring about politics – I don’t quite understand it. It is something that some people simply cannot resist. Almost all of those people have gone back and suspended other careers, suspended other lives, to have what might be a last dip or might not be a last dip and might turn into something further. Having spoken to them very briefly in the last couple of days, because even as very close friends all you have time to do is talk very briefly to anyone you know or do anything outside the job, people who tell me things have changed are just kidding themselves. It’s back to exactly the same routine: no sleep, constant adherence to the 24/7 news cycle. This is not a judgment on the man who happens to be in charge right now; this is a broader comment about how complex modern politics is. This is turning into a bit of a rant, isn’t it? I will get you to ask some questions in a moment that might focus me slightly.

Thinking about how far women have come in the recent past, all that Labor Party stuff doesn’t bode particularly well. It always struck me as being relatively ironic that the party of the workers is not particularly good to its staff, both male and female. But I think that is probably politics. I don’t think it makes any difference which side you are on. Thinking about how far women have come in the recent past, I was one of the nice little ANU cafés near the Coombs Building the other day and behind me was Hilary Charlesworth. If you don’t know Hilary Charlesworth or don’t know of her, she is one of the serious pre-eminent experts in international law not only in Australia but also internationally. She is also an extraordinarily modest and lovely woman. She would no more boast about herself than run around naked.

Her parents grew up with my parents in Melbourne so I know her very faintly. She was behind me in the queue and I thought, ‘Goodness me, she won’t even remember who I am,’ but I turned around and said hello. She said, ‘Catriona, of course I remember.’ We had a bit of a chat about general family catch-up stuff, and then she said, ‘Now, Catriona, I will never forget a column you wrote, probably 15 years ago, about cream caramel.’ Goodness me. At that time I was the education reporter. I thought it might have been the exposé of the internal politics or constant reviewing at the ANU or it might have been latest scoop on Brendan Nelson’s education package or something, but no, the crème brûlée recipe. It wasn’t my recipe; it was the fact that I had described it as a recipe from my father Frank Jackson, who is a philosopher at the ANU. Hilary’s father was a philosopher in Melbourne, Max Charlesworth. She made the recipe and it worked, so she was doubly astonished. She said, ‘I am sorry, Catriona, it wasn’t the recipe, it was the fact that your father, a very good philosopher, can make dessert, can make a creme caramel.’ I found this a really lovely story. It said a fair bit about Hilary as much as anything else, and male philosophers, to be completely honest.

My father is a very intelligent man. Why shouldn’t he be able to make a creme caramel, a classic dessert? It’s not that difficult. But my grandfather, who was also a philosopher, could make coffee and could boil eggs. My father couldn’t cook at all when Mum and Dad got married. Mum taught him to cook, and he is now an extremely good cook and takes genuine pride in it. Back in the early days people were astonished that Dad could cook and there was an extraordinary amount of dinner party chatter about the fact that Dad could cook. It still attracts comment. He is a very intelligent man. Why shouldn’t he be able to get a bowl of spaghetti together for the kids? Quite often my husband’s football playing friends say, ‘Catriona, you know all that feminism stuff is sorted out, isn’t it? Everything is pretty equal now. There is not much more struggle to go on. You are just going on a bit, aren’t you?’ Excuse me, if it still attracts comment that my Dad can make a cream caramel, there is a lot further to go. I know the ability to make dessert is not a sign of gender equity. When it doesn’t attract comment that blokes can make dessert. Can you make a cream caramel?

MAN IN THE AUDIENCE: Of course.

CATRIONA JACKSON: Things are changing up the back here. I think that will be an extremely good sign when men can make cream caramel or carry out basic domestic chores in a competent manner. I think probably this is the point at which I should ask you for some questions. Canberra is one of these wonderful places where probably every single person in the audience has a story just as interesting as mine, possibly more interesting than mine, and will certainly have some interesting questions to ask. Who is going to be first?

QUESTION: I would like to hear how you got from food journalist and political journalist to be CEO of the science peak body.

CATRIONA JACKSON: Indeed. Sorry, I probably should have actually gone to that. To be completely honest, advocacy and lobbying is not the same as journalism but it is not that far apart. It requires the ability to run a good argument; it requires a knowledge of politics and government and how those systems work; it requires a series of networks across a number of groupings - and they are three things that I have. What we do at Science and Technology Australia – the title sounds unbelievably grand. We are quite a small organisation. I would like us to be a less small organisation, and one of my job is to make us a bit bigger and to get some better resourcing. Most lobby groups actually aren’t that big. The only ones that are really big are the ones that are attached to major corporations. The lobby group for the mining and minerals industry is quite well resourced, as you might imagine.

The reason it is important to have a peak group and have it do not just lobbying but advocacy as well is that you probably can’t pick two more different groups than politicians and scientists. They operate on completely different thought processes and timelines. They are unbelievably different creatures. If politicians don’t understand what it is that people do, they don’t know how to value that and you simply don’t get enough resourcing for it. It’s a constant battle to make sure that scientists are in the political and public mind. It’s important that the public understands as well because the public vote in the politicians. That is my job. My job is to keep science in the political mind and, because I come from both journalism and politics, I suppose that’s what makes me appropriate for that particular position.

QUESTION: Catriona, my question is about the recent leadership spill. You have obviously had wide experience as a journalist and as a political journalist. To what extent do you think the media was in part responsible for that? If you don’t think that, what do you think the reasons were for Julia losing the leadership?

CATRIONA JACKSON: I don’t know about the rest of you but I found that whole process unbelievably upsetting. I have worked in politics for a long time so you try to not be upset, you try to step back. For that couple of weeks period, frankly I was a bad-tempered cow. I found it extraordinarily upsetting. Blaming the media is always a bit silly, but it is quite clear there was significant internal agitation from the moment Kevin Rudd lost the leadership. Whatever you think about that, it is quite clear that was going on in a subterranean way. It becomes very difficult, especially for press gallery journalists who are so immersed in it, when there is something that is chipping away underneath absolutely continually and they have to report on it. But like everyone else I think ‘For god’s sake, get on to something else. I don’t want to hear the tiny minutiae about who might be manoeuvring where,’ but then it actually happens. I think there is an awful lot for all of us to think about in the reason she was deposed and the way she was deposed and why she was so extraordinarily disliked - not just disliked but hated. A very mild-mannered relation of mine he called her a bitch at dinner at my parents’ house over a year and a half ago. I don’t think he has ever called anyone a bitch in his life, but he heard what the people on the radio had said, he is not particularly well educated and I think he picked it up and reflected what was the view among many people in Australia - and not just men, many women as well.

I am sure you all watched that last speech and that part in which she talked about whether or not it was a woman thing. I think that was a pretty good point. I have an incredible quantity of admiration for her. I make no judgment on the policy content or how she ran the government. There is a broad range of other things to discuss there. As a person, I am not quite sure how it is you get up every day knowing that a large amount of the nation hates your guts - not just dislikes you and not just thinks they might vote for someone else, but viscerally hates you and thinks there is something evil about you. Under what other prime minister in the country would it be tolerated for there to be banners with ‘ditch the witch’ on them or something equally insulting to a male. But she puts up with that.

Finally she does get deposed. Then she has the farewell thing at the Lodge which got reported by Tony Wright as ‘a big knees up, fun, fun, fun party after you get trounced’. She stands up, and as we have probably all read in the press but also I understand genuinely was the case, in front of all of those people, her supporters, and says, ‘Yes, we are upset. This is distressing. But what you mustn’t do is you mustn’t undermine the party. You must continue to work for the victory of the Labor government, the cause and all those things - that all these people in that room as in the Lodge – that we all believe in. Don’t let your personal upset and entirely justifiable crossness at what has just happened now poison what you might do in terms of the movement.’ Obviously you have to make a decision about whether you want to be attached to a movement that does that. That’s not really an answer, is it?

The media played a part. I think it’s almost impossible to discuss the media in this particular set of political machinations as separate things, because there are some journalists who are so seriously entwined in the process. I am not sure how closely everyone followed the events, but these days with the way social media works, you log on to the four or five journalists who tweet all the time - every second they are putting out what happened that second. So if you want to know what is happening that second, you log on to three or four people who you know are absolutely across what is happening that second literally. In the old days as a newspaper journalist you would have your four or five sources and you would be on the phone to them a lot. But you would distil that and the next day there would be a balanced account of what had happened.

These days, say Simon Benson, who is probably the best-connected political journalist who works for Murdoch in this country, every single time he gets a call he is tweeting the content of the call so you can follow it that closely. That level of micro out there in the public display of the internals of what’s going on and everyone trying to influence what’s going on, so all of Simon’s contacts are trying to influence what is going on. Shorten’s people are ringing and it is absolute chaos. But those things are now so intertwined that it’s really hard to answer that question whether it is the media’s fault or so and so’s fault because they are all in it together. That’s a terribly cheap way of putting it, but they are.

QUESTION: Two aspects to this question: first, do you think politics can be made less brutal; and, second, how much does the leader of the party in government or in opposition have to do with that? How much bearing do they give on the brutality of the whole process?

CATRIONA JACKSON: I hope it gets less brutal than it has been in the last couple of months because it’s pretty unattractive. I always made sure when I was in politics that I would frequently ring my sister who is not particularly political and doesn’t live here as a bit of a reality check for what is going on in the rest of the world and to try to pull yourself out of that tiny vortex you get sucked into.

I am not quite sure how you make it less brutal. Some internal reform in the Labor Party is critical to the machinery stuff. Sometimes people want it to be less brutal; sometimes people want it to be brutal but more entertainingly brutal. I think there is a fair bit of affection for Paul Keating in a nostalgic way - he was a very brutal man but more entertainingly brutal perhaps than people are now. Kevin Rudd is not as good a wordsmith. I hope there will be a point at which politics is slightly less brutal.

Fundamentally it is a battle between two forces, and there is still a fairly strong commitment to ideology in a slightly weird and warped and slightly less understandable sense than there used to be. So you are always going to have a vigorous fight. But I do miss the days in which politicians would go behind the speakers box and have a good chat. I miss people like John Button, but maybe that just shows my age, and the people who genuinely had civilised relationships with people on the other side. At the same time, apparently Christopher Pyne and Anthony Albanese have a quite civilised relationship. So there may be a lot of brutality in the front but in the back there is a congenial sense.

Your point about the influence of the leader is absolutely critical. The behaviour of the leader makes an enormous difference to the way the party behaves, probably the least important, but then how the body politik is and I think decent behaviour from the leader is absolutely critical. I think we have seen a lot of examples from both sides of politics in the recent past of I wouldn’t call it leadership, I would call it leading through fear mongering - I really mean Labor at the same time as the Liberals here too, and while I worked for them - and appealing to the least generous parts of people’s instincts and getting some short-term political gain out of that. That’s a pretty bad way of running things. It’s lazy and cowardly, and it leaves you in a very bad position in the long run. That is how New South Wales has been run for quite some time. Haven’t they turned out well? That’s not a very good answer.

QUESTION: Following on from that, if we can look at the other question you raised of the so-called work life balance. I experienced that myself. I worked in the Public Service for a while and I can see how it trickles down through the Public Service of people having to work long hours to meet critical deadlines and so on. Is there any way that that culture can be improved?

CATRIONA JACKSON: I think the leadership question is absolutely critical. In the very first month of the Rudd government, one of his staff members pointed out that he hadn’t spoken to his staff yet - not just his staff in his office but he hadn’t spoken to the broad spread of Labor staff. So we all gathered together in the courtyard of the staff cafeteria. It is quite a big courtyard but there are quite a few staff - maybe there were 120 or 130 of us. Rudd stood up on a chair and said, ‘Welcome all, I am sorry I haven’t spoken to you yet. If you think this is hard, get used to it. There will be more of the same.’ That was the day we all became aware that there was a 30 per cent cut in staff from the very start of government. That was a political decision to make it seem like he was being more lean. I think the example set by the Prime Minister is enormously important. Basically it is just a ‘work longer than anyone else and that is how you win’ example. I am not sure quite how Public Service is meant to cope.

One of the genuine challenges for a staff member in a ministerial office is how you deal with the political demands you are getting from both your boss and also if you work for a cabinet minister from a number of other offices, including the Prime Minister’s office, and treat the public servants decently. I know no matter how hard we tried in Carr’s office, sometimes we didn’t treat the public servants decently and there were a number of times when unreasonable demands were made. There was also a continual level of pressure, which they felt just like we felt. I think the less experienced staff are, the worse that transfer is.

I was a press secretary for Carr at the start, and quite often you would get phone calls from the Prime Minister’s office at five in the morning and it would be from a kid. You could hear the fear in their voice. They had been shouted at by either the Prime Minister, the chief of staff or someone else to get something done. They were just whipping it down the line to anyone else they could spread the pressure out to. I know that that spreads straight from the political sphere to the APS. Number one is that people get terribly overworked, don’t sleep enough and don’t see their families. That’s not a way to live. But it also means people get a terrible feeling of chasing your tail and doing a whole lot of work that is not always absolutely necessary. Everyone has heard and read all the stories about policy briefs being required at no notice and then being forgotten - that level of frenetic-ness has a terrible vortex effect. I think the only way to fix that is leadership from the top both inside the Public Service and also politically. I can’t quite see a mechanism for doing that at the moment. If anyone has any ideas, they would be gratefully received.

I think the people at the top seriously have to set an example. A tiny example with me is when I left politics and went to work at the ANU. Ian Chubb was then the vice-chancellor at the ANU. There was a significant, vigorous work ethic in the chancellory at the ANU as well, which is fine. I am up for lots of hard work, but there was a bit of spin work for its own sake - the person here longest gets the most brownie points thing. One thing I did within the area that I ran was I made people go home. I lobbied very hard for additional staff in areas where you really needed additional staff capacity. When people were sick, I sent them home. I just said, ‘This is ridiculous. You are genuinely ill. To be brutally honest, you are about to make everyone else in the office genuinely ill as well. Go home.’ Or if you have serious family responsibilities, that doesn’t just mean children, they take time and they were taken into account in our small working unit. All those who have gone through the experience I hope go out and try to run a slightly more humane workplace when they have the responsibility for the leadership, even if it’s at a small level. There are some very good people in the Public Service who are very good on this, and under a slightly different kind of political leadership maybe they would be let fly a bit. I don’t know that it’s a gender question. I don’t think that a woman running things would make any difference to that, to be completely honest, because politics is so set and so hard to shift.

QUESTION: Is it just Mr Rudd who is particularly bad with this [inaudible] - just see what he has done in the last two weeks and where he has been [inaudible]. Were other leaders - say was Julia a bit better or was Mr Howard a bit better - just as demanding?

CATRIONA JACKSON: One of the things that is really hard to judge - I was talking to Jamie Button a while ago before he wrote his very nice book about what has happened in the Labor Party in the last couple of years – is when you are a staffer, particularly in government, it is very hard to work out whether you are just weak and hopeless or whether everyone else had the same hard time or whether your government is worse. I have a lot of friends who have worked for at least the Howard government previously. It is quite hard to get a straight answer out of them, especially when you are actually in government, because again it is always a combative thing. It seems to me that things are a little intensified under Rudd. I don’t know it is that different, to be completely honest.

I think the 30 per cent staff cut at the very start did make a genuine difference. In politics once you have made a staff cut you can’t put it back - you can by stealth, by sneaking extra people in without saying anything. It is like if you take a pay cut, you can’t put it back politically. What I understand of the way Gillard worked things is there was a little more humanity in the hours. She sleeps a little bit more than Rudd does. I think some people just need less sleep.

I don’t know if anyone else watched that very interesting English doctor guy who did the program on sleep the other day. Sleep is a very mysterious thing. Some people genuinely need eight hours; others can get by on three or four hours. I do think it’s a bit of a myth that you don’t need too much. I mean, Rudd is bad tempered, frankly. Part of the reason he is bad tempered is that he doesn’t get enough sleep. It is quite simple. I think there’s a macho kind of ‘I can do it’ thing. But I am afraid I don’t have a concrete answer about whether things really were genuinely different under that particular administration because it’s always really intense. But I think the media cycle speedup has made things more intense.

I talked before about the constant pressure - I will tell you one story. We were on the way back from one of the very few weekends we got down to the coast during the period when I was working for the government. I was toilet training my smallest Stella, so we were in the toilet at the Batemans Bay bakery that everyone stops at. I am holding her over the toilet - she is one and a bit. I am actually holding her up over the toilet. My phone rings and my husband answers the phone. It is the Prime Minister’s press secretary. Andrew my husband was in the press gallery at that point so he knew the person on the phone and said, ‘Mate, she is holding Stella over the toilet. Can she ring you back in two minutes? The child is literally suspended over the toilet. Can you just hang on?’ The staffer yelled down the phone, ‘I cannot. Get her on the phone this very second.’ So I put Stella down, took the phone call and Andrew came in and picked up the baby. That is not because the person on the other end of the telephone is an absolute beast. That is because they had even less sleep than I had. There is a constant level of expectation that you will be near a phone, able not just to take a phone call and make an intelligent response to the phone call, but then write a brief inside three-quarters of an hour at all hours of the day or night every single day of the week. That level of pressure was felt by every single staff member. The staff members who didn’t feel quite that much pressure, I don’t know how they did it. In most cases they did; they were just better at lying than me. That is a circular answer. But that particular circumstance stays with me. That person was not a beast but you could hear in the voice: ‘I have to deliver somehow so I will be unbelievably unreasonable in relation to someone I know,’ who is a journalist and who might even report on this actually with the headline ‘Press secretary screaming at bureau chief in press gallery’. Luckily my husband didn’t report some things because he knew I would get sacked or would get shouted at even more by the Prime Minister’s office. Sorry, half an answer maybe.

QUESTION: Your science and technology, how can we actually improve that? What strategies are being used and what might be used because we are not all football followers? We don’t all have - I won’t say the rest.

CATRIONA JACKSON: You mean in terms of recognition among politicians?

QUESTION: [inaudible]

CATRIONA JACKSON: The ANU did a poll maybe two years ago about the awareness of science in the public mind. One of the really interesting results of that survey was people are more interested in hearing about science stories than they are about sport, which surprised me, I have to say.

QUESTION: Why don’t we hear it in the media?

CATRIONA JACKSON: Why isn’t there a science cast for five minutes at the end of every news bulletin? If you have a good look at media and survey the amount of science there is actually quite a bit. It is not always quite as prominent and it is not always mainstream. So if you go to the ABC science page, it is chocker block full of unbelievably interesting stories. I think people have a genuine interest in science but usually a particular kind of science and a whizzbang discovery, et cetera.

It is fair to say that in the last couple of years the intrusion of politics into science has been a serious problem. The climate science stuff has left science in a highly politicised space. For heaven’s sake the last place you want to be is in the middle of a political debate because frankly you can’t win. It’s entirely fair to say that we lost the climate science debate because we are up against an extraordinarily well-armed forces but also because it became political, and scientists just aren’t equipped no matter what you do. This was happening right in the middle of the period that I was running the communications effort at the ANU. We spent an enormous amount of time with people like Will Steffen, Andrew McIntosh and in some cases Ross Garnaut and Frank Jotzo who have intelligent things to say about climate science. We media trained within an inch of their lives. We armed them with everything.

One day Will did a magnificent interview with Alan Jones. He went up to Sydney so he was in the studio. He spent three-quarters of an hour live on the program and took half an hour of talkback. Will did a magnificent job. Will is an unbelievably calm character. He also takes advice about how to deal with people like Jones, and we had prepped him within an inch of his life – hours and hours of prep. We had listened to Jones for weeks beforehand working out exactly what angle he was going to take and told Will so that he would know. We had rehearsed stuff with him. He is an extraordinary performer. You can take them individually like that and on that day I thought ‘that’s a win’. There were people who have gone away from that program having heard Will and Jones and, by the end of it, because Will did not take the bait, did not rise, did not lose his temper, did not become irrational at any point and did not get cross at any point, despite Alan Jones’s continual attempts to make him cross. Will walked into the studio and sat down and Alan Jones said, ‘You haven’t bothered to shave, Professor.’ We all said he has a beard. It is quite clearly a beard. What do you say? Jones just tries. He is an extraordinary character, he is unbelievably able to make people cross from the second they walk in. You can attack things those ways. At the end of that Will sounded sensible and Jones sounded manic. I think there will be some listeners to that program who might have thought, ‘Hang on a minute, he sounds quite a reasonable guy. I wouldn’t mind having him around to my place for tea or having a muffin with him. Jones sounded a bit off the beam.’

But in a broad sense I think we genuinely lost that [climate science] debate because we tried to fight it on the terms that academics will always try to fight things - with the evidence – and the forces well lined up against us were not doing the evidence. You go to see anything that Lord Monkton does and the man, apart from being a complete charlatan, is a showman and that is unbelievably difficult to deal with. That has now seriously penetrated politics. If you go and talk to coalition politicians, including Sophie Mirabella, who is the shadow minister for science and, as it is likely the coalition will win, who likely be the Minister for Science, she thinks that scientists have become political. I am using her words exactly. This is something we have to cope with, because she thinks it is science’s fault that that has happened. I am not giving you any answers; all I am doing is making the problem sound bigger. It is important to understand the nature of those problems before we can try to tackle them.

What we do at Science and Technology to try to get around those things is we do a whole bunch of stuff that is really about getting politics and science a bit closer together. We do ‘science meets parliament’ where we take 200 scientists up to parliament for a couple of days; we give them a bit of training about how to talk to politicians; then we match them up with politicians with similar interests and they all go and have one-on-one meetings. That then leads to in about half the cases a developing relationship, sometimes with the minister but sometimes with a backbencher or your local member, where the scientists then keep in contact, tell them about their research, invite them out to their facility in some cases and you get quite fruitful little relationships growing up. It’s a question of understanding what the interests of each one is, scientists understanding that politicians are interested in things that affect their electorate, things that the voters are concerned with and that they don’t all have a bucket of money at their left-hand side to grab. We as scientists have to demonstrate every single time - I know it’s tedious but we have to do it - the worth of what you doing because, if you don’t, politicians just won’t get it. They won’t go into cabinet and argue for it. They should but they just won’t. So you have to present why it is that it is valuable again and again. That is my job: dull, but you have to do it.

QUESTION: Does research get a lesser budget allocation because of that need to prove to the politician that whatever the scientist is bringing up is relevant to their electorate and the research doesn’t necessarily immediately state that or show that?

CATRIONA JACKSON: Certainly there is a common mantra that there are no votes in research. I think it’s our job to work as hard as we possibly can to change that. If you just use the word ‘research’ and treat it as a great big theoretical thing, it’s pretty easy to discount because politicians can’t see an immediate benefit. But if you discuss the fruits of research, you talk about Carl Wood being responsible for IVF or John O’Sullivan inventing wireless technology - the reason I can talk through this [microphone], the reason my phone works and the reason the iPad works. Politicians understand that. You just have to put it in concrete terms.

The problem at the moment is that the political cycle seems to be getting a bit shorter. I don’t want to sound like a person who thinks everything was better before and is now, because it is terribly easy to slip into that, but I think it is getting shorter. The challenge for us is to communicate the long-term benefits and to convince politicians that those long-term benefits are about leadership and vision. They are about things they believe can genuinely grab onto, they can use electorally and they can use as a marker of leadership – it is enormously important. It doesn’t have to be just a ‘this is in your pocket’ this second. All the surveys tell us people do respond to things that are about the amount of money they have in their pocket but they also genuinely response to things they think are in the interests of both their kids and the future of the nation, you just have to explain it.

Research never gets enough money. It will be hard. We won’t turn into a country like Germany any time soon, and I don’t quite know why but it’s a different culture, which is a shame. We don’t have nearly enough respect for say people in the university just up the road. For people who should be heroes, people don’t even know who they are. It’s a funny country - Australia. Yes is the answer to your question. Hoping we can do something about it is the second bit of the answer.

QUESTION: Do you think four-year fixed terms might work?

CATRIONA JACKSON: I think fixed terms would be a lot better.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

CATRIONA JACKSON: There are lots of arguments backwards and forward but I think it would do two things: it would move the politics out of the timing of the election, and just that sucks up so much organisational and emotional energy. Four years is a bit longer than three. It is still not a very long time, but I don’t think you want to go five because I want to have the option to say what I think about who should be running the country every four years - maybe every five is a bit too long.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

CATRIONA JACKSON: And frankly four is really not enough time to do anything either, but it is better than three.

QUESTION: Changing the topic completely, I watch the program, as I am sure a lot of us do, called Kitchen Cabinet and I am quite fascinated with the insights we get. I particularly remember finding out about Bronwyn Bishop and her hair. My opinion is that, if you can read, you can cook, and this week’s episode demonstrated that beautifully. The person concerned could read so he could work the recipe. He didn’t actually do very well. What is your opinion on the use of the media to get – they are obviously doing the right thing and showing all the right things, but occasionally they let slip.

CATRIONA JACKSON: I think that program was fantastic. I think Annabelle Crabb has done unbelievably well to get politicians to agree to do it in the first place. I understand it takes six hours to film every time. That is a significant commitment of time. You do get a bit of an idea about what sort of person they are. What did we have? Malcolm Turnbull pulling yabbies out of his own little dam. What a great attempt to be seen as a man of the people while being totally not a man of the people at all; it is his dam, for heaven’s sake. He probably had them put there but he clearly could cook a bit. The spectacle of Nick Xenophon being slightly defensive and bit neurotic about -

QUESTION: You can’t come to my house.

CATRIONA JACKSON: Can’t come to his house, stupidly over providing and then breaking the plates thing. Is it or it is not a good idea? The Bronwyn Bishop episode - was there a speck of dust anywhere in her perfect apartment? I think we probably learn more about politicians through that program than we do through almost anything else. Maybe Q&A if you can bear watching it but I think we probably learn more through that.

The power of food - I know I harp about food – is that it is an enormously powerful medium. When I say I cook and my sister knits, but you have to cook. Everyone has to do at some point or somehow engage with it. It has an incredible quantity of cultural power. Xenophon is obviously showing us his heritage by showing us the fantastic Greek stuff with seven times more garlic in the dip than there is meant to be. If you didn’t see it, he had two full sized octopus which he took over to the souvlaki shop over the road and splayed on the grill. These were huge beasts. They were just fantastic. It was a magnificent display of not quite macho – I will think of a better word later for that – but it was absolutely brilliant stuff. You do get a magnificent insight. Food is one of those things that brings everyone down, up or wherever to a particular level. I think it’s a brilliant show. There are sometimes more insights than others.

I thought the Peter Garrett one was really nice, because you get a sense of the fact that he is from quite a conservative background and quite a staid man himself, which seems extraordinary given he was the lead singer for a serious Australian rock band. His Dad was a Presbyterian minister. His mother was killed in a house fire when he was quite young. He ran in to try to save her but failed to save her. That is one of the things that has really marked his life. You don’t get these insights through any other media.

Being someone who has spent a lot of time with press gallery journalists you hear lots of nice little personal stories, but Annabelle managed to get them out through that program. You are right: they do occasionally let slip. But you don’t get the Maxine McKew kind of interview – goodness me, a great big revelation – you get a sense of what sort of people they are as human beings. That kind of understanding is enormously important, because they are not all beasts. Frankly some of them are, let’s be brutal, but they are interesting beasts usually. I think that kind of understanding is enormously important because if we don’t make any effort to understand them, the more understanding the better. That is the only program that I will change arrangements to try to see.

QUESTION: Media and the presentation of views, I find some of the presentations put out by editors or whoever puts the programs together is completely wrong. The one I always rail against is [inaudible] when the powerhouse is put up they always show the cooling towers. [inaudible]. They say, ‘All those huge cones putting out all that pollution,’ but it is condensation. I have just noticed lately on the ABC that they are starting to show the boilers. There are so many people out there who think these cooling towers are creating this huge amount of pollution, but it’s not. We the public are getting the wrong story. I feel the media has a bit to explain where this is happening in various fields. What do you think about the media in that situation?

CATRIONA JACKSON: Goodness me, you are telling me that everything the media shows is not entirely true? You radical. Take that man out the back. I think there has always been a bit of nip and tuck when it comes to various things but I think things are getting a bit worse. It is important to understand the nature of the revolution in print, I think, more than television and radio but there is an enormous amount of flow through in what is going on at the moment. The business model of print media is completely broken.

I was in the press gallery the other day and there are half as many journalists as there were the last time I was there – that is over the last three months. My husband was a journalist from the age of 17 until four years ago when he transferred to being a lawyer. Virtually all of our friends are journalists. Every single time they see Andrew the first thing they say is, ‘How long did the degree take? How do I get out? What do I do?’ These are people who all they want to be is be a journalist, and in most cases they are very good at it. But there is just not a job.

It sounds like I am making mistakes. The people who used to pay attention to that sort of stuff - that is the television version of a sub-editor. When I first started in print journalism under Jack and under Bill Goodall, making a mistake like that would have been a hanging mistake. My very first terrible mistake might have been in one of the public sector magazines in the Canberra Times where I put a picture of Mr Menzies and a picture of a snowman next to each other and I managed to transfer the captions. I was in seriously big trouble and was seriously hauled over the coals for that mistake. That is a relatively simple mistake. All of my job was laying out that magazine for that day and getting the pictures right along with checking the headlines and stuff. There were probably 30 sub-editors in the Canberra Times in those days. I don’t think there are ten left these days. They won’t quite tell me where the sub-editing is being done. I suspect some of it is being done offshore; I suspect some of it is not being done at all. There are people who edit sections of the Canberra Times - my knowledge is best of the Canberra Times at this stage – and who are doing all the subbing themselves. That means there is no-one else casting an eye over the copy.

The golden rule used to be, as I am sure many of you would know, that the person writes it and puts it into the basket; it then gets ‘copy tasted’ by the next person down the line to check that is okay to go into the process; it then gets properly sub-edited by a person to make it right to length, to fix the grammar and to check all the facts; it then gets put on the page by someone separate, with pictures, headline and stuff all arranged and advised by that person; and it will then be proofread on hard copy in detail after that. The process is not like that any more.

QUESTION: We can’t afford it any more.

CATRIONA JACKSON: They have just cut a whole bunch of steps out of the process. That process is the only thing that means things don’t stuff up. I love sub-editors because as a reporter you would write your stuff and you felt secure that someone who had more time, and in many cases frankly more knowledge than you, was reading every single word very carefully. I don’t have that level of security any more at all.

QUESTION: I have a bit of trouble accepting your line. If it was once when I saw a tower with condensation coming out of it, a sub-editor’s error, but it’s not once. It’s every time I turn on ABC news and they are discussing it. It’s not a subeditor’s error, it’s something else to do with culture, trying to con us or something. [inaudible]

QUESTION: It’s a dumbing down. The news is so quick that what happens today no-one cares about tomorrow. It has all changed so it doesn’t matter. There is something very flimsy about news now.

CATRIONA JACKSON: So you reckon it is more a conspiracy theory than an inadvertence?

QUESTION: I don’t like conspiracy theories. I think it’s a cultural thing, yes. I don’t find scientists who do have an opportunity [inaudible] they are just keeping quiet and letting it go.

CATRIONA JACKSON: A couple of letters to the editor or to the ABC about that would probably be very well placed.

QUESTION: I am sure the ABC has had heaps and it has taken no notice.

CATRIONA JACKSON: I am not quite sure what the answer is there.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

CARISSE FLANAGAN: We are so running over time, and I reckon everyone is dying to get a snack downstairs in the Friends Lounge. Can you please thank Catriona Jackson.

CATRIONA JACKSON: Thank you very much.

CARISSE FLANAGAN: This has been a fantastic talk and the most questions that we have ever had from one of our speakers. [applause]

Date published: 23 September 2013