Sunday 14 December 1997 (Sydney Morning Herald)

The other side of Saint Cheryl
She's become Labor's 'Great White Hope'. She also champions softer, kinder politics. But Cheryl Kernot is a more hard-nosed and driven politician than her image suggests. And then there's her past.

By Paul McGeough.

"DING dong, the witch is dead." The words were plastered awkwardly across the whiteboard. In big letters below them was "Piss Kernot". This bitter burst of graffiti was scrawled not by the enemies of the highly successful former leader of the Australian Democrats, but by staff who, in the hour of her defection to Labor, turned from loyal supporters to voluble critics.

For just a moment, Cheryl Kernot found herself in a barren political wasteland. She was coming under "friendly" fire on her remarkable journey from her post as the brilliant leader of the third force in Australian politics - the Democrats - to the outer reaches of Opposition in the ALP.

It was Kernot's staff who left their shock, dismay and revenge on her abandoned whiteboard. And later some of these people would confess to harboring less than loyal emotions towards their leader.

They had been jilted, of course. It was only to be expected that people who had been given no warning of her stunning political flight and who had so much to lose (including their jobs) would abandon their loyalty to her just as comprehensively as she had to them. With a vengeance.

And yet the Kernot who had emerged from this political metamorphosis is not a newly complicated person, nor a newly complex politician.

The Cheryl Kernot people see on the nightly news is a great political package. She oozes authority and calm. She is a master of conviction politics and certainly a master of communications.

This is the side of Kernot that everyone, including her staff, knew and liked.

Only now is evidence of the other side beginning to emerge - the side where ambition and determination lie, the steely side that allowed her to keep her defection a secret from colleagues and friends, that allowed her to live a political lie for many months and to earn wide applause when she admitted as much.

It is the side that allowed her to say within 24 hours of defecting: "One of the things I'm going to enjoy most is that I don't have to be on that bloody pedestal over there in the Senate any more, and be the judgmental leader of the Democrats who never gets anything wrong."

She's certainly off the Democrats' pedestal. Labor supporters in the Queensland electorate of Dickson that she is to contest for the party might be hugging her in the streets as a warm, inclusive politician. But her former colleagues now paint her in a far less flattering light.

And it's in the detail that they condemn her. When she walked out of her Democrats office at Parliament House for the last time, she left behind her make-up. An oversight, perhaps. But for the staff, the most telling lapse was that the family photos remained by the desk. However, she did find time to do some removal work - she took all the staff files with her.

These people were bound to Kernot by a deep sense of loyalty, almost a sense of family, yet in private some of them mocked her aloofness from them with the nickname Her Maj.

And they talk of Kernot the "bathroom fascist". They say that she "undemocratically" retained for herself exclusive use of the bathroom and toilet in her Parliament House office, dispatching her staff to a public convenience down the corridor.

They talk in awe and wonder as they recall working for her. One said: "She was great. But you know, when I walked into that empty office the other day I realised it was the first time I'd gone in there without fear."

Said another: "She was forever telling us we were a pack of dodos. Cheryl used to say how she'd just been around to Gareth Evans's office and how tremendous and how professional and how knowing his staff was."

So how did it come to this? How could an office full of people who thought they were family, who saw themselves as essential cogs in the Kernot machine, be caught so unawares by her departure? On reflection, they say there were signs that might have alerted a less trusting team.

Kernot travelled to Europe early in September where she met her biographer, David O'Reilly, and Evans, the Deputy Opposition Leader. But her planning for the trip had the staff in a spin - she had insisted on making the arrangements herself and she cloaked them in what one former colleague decribed as "ludicrous secrecy".

She was spending less time in the Senate chamber for the all-important daily Question Time, and in September party officers were unable to get a commitment from her on dates to promote a book on the party for early November. By then, of course, she had done a bunk.

LOOKING back, some of her colleagues also have a different view of what most assumed to be a slip of the tongue when she mis-stated the Democrats' position in a speech to the ACTU congress in Brisbane in September, thereby obliging her Senate colleagues to change their intended vote on a key industry issue.

A colleague said: "I don't know if she did it deliberately ... but I've never known her to act without careful thought or for her to get carried away by the sway of the crowd. Cheryl Kernot is too controlled and too controlling for that."

And just as there are two faces to Cheryl Kernot, it appears there are two sides to the politician.

In 1990, the year in which Kernot entered the Senate, the Democrats leader was the Victorian Janet Powell, whose grip on office was threatened by the very un-Democrat peddling of scanal - she had had an affair with a fellow Democrat senator, Sid Spindler, which, her colleagues argued, was interfering with the running of the party.

Some Democrats still squirm over the assault on Powell: it was based more on personalities than on policy and, in particular, on woolly claims that she had failed to build a profile for herself as leader. But critical to it all was the sexual innuendo that rippled Powell's reputation.

Last week Powell said: "It was the Queensland branch that got up a petition calling for a leadership spill. Then the party room carried a vote of no confidence in me but I refused to go and insisted on recontesting the leadership. That was when they upped the ante by going public about the affair."

A senior party member this week confirmed that Powell's decision to fight made her opponents stoop publicly using the Spindler affair against her. And Kernot, with all of 18 months' experience as an MP behind her, was one of those busiest backgrounding reporters on the affair.

So Kernot knows the political damage that can be inflicted by a whispers campaing. It's what she calls "old politics".

UNDER the heading "Nothing to hide", she told 'The Courier Mail' in Brisbane last week: "Old politics is about the politics of personality, sexuality, color and gender. New politics does not judge on gender, sexuality and race . . ."

And in recent weeks she and the ALP have been busily pushing a two-year chapter of her life under a "new-politics" blanket.

Dozens of reporters have walked away from interviews with Kernot and written that her professional life began in Queensland and that her married life started with Gavin Kernot.

But there was a NSW teaching career and there was a first marriage. Both came to an abrupt halt at St Leo's Christian Brothers College in leafy Wahroonga, on Sydney's upper North Shore, in 1975.

Tony Walters is a former teacher who remembers St Leo's as one of three schools at which he taught alongside a dynamic and gifted young teacher then known to colleagues and students as Mrs Young. Today she is Cheryl Kernot.

When Walters shifted to Queensland in 1979, he got a job at Churchie, the Anglican Church Grammar School, which is still a bastion of Brisbane's Protestant establishment. Mrs Young was already on the staff, proving popular in the staff room, the classroom and on the cricket pitch - she was an accomplished coach and umpire.

When Walters got married, Kernot was his "best man" - she was his witness. "We were good friends and allies," he said.

Unaware, perhaps, that he was about to violate what appears to be a Kernot taboo, Walters rattled on about Kernot's early career. Asked how long he had known the former senator, he said: "We taught together in NSW in the 1970s."

Harmless stuff, you'd think. But asked what went wrong at St Leo's, he said: "I'd rather not talk about it . . . it would be misrepresented and I don't think it has much to do with who is Cheryl Kernot. I've heard that the Liberals have got hold of it and they want to use it to destroy her career."

Accounts of life at St Leo's in 1975 vary greatly.

But by early the following year, the 27-year-old Kernot was in Brisbane - and living with her was the teenager who only the previous year had been St Leo's school captain.

A senior cleric closely associated with St Leo's at the time said: "The school was scandalised." Another churchman is said to have been enlisted as a "mediator" in a row that involved Kernot and some students.

But when Brother Brian Berg, the college's then principal, was asked about what might be described as the Kernot chapter in St Leo's folklore, he said: "It's news to me." And when I approached the school captain's mother, she said: "There was absolutely no relationship while my son was still a pupil . . . they were just good friends . . . they got together in Queensland and the relationship lasted three years."

Kernot refused to be interviewed for this report. But Greg Turnbull, a media adviser to the Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, said: "Her view is that she has nothing to hide. It's basically gossip . . ."

So why Labor's smother job, which probably reveals more about contemporary machine politics than there is to be revealed of Kernot in the events of 1975?

When I left a telephone message for the former school captain, who today works for the Packer organisation, he did not return the call. Instead, he told people that he had called James Packer and briefed him on his predicament.

The next day a written request for an appointment with the former school captain was couriered to him. Again there was no reply, but within 24 hours Kim Beazley's media man, Greg Turnbull, was quoting the letter back to me.

At the same time, Kernot made a series of phone calls to several St Leo's old boys whom she knew in the 1970s: all are understood to have given her undertakings that they would not discuss the matter. Brother Berg intimated that he, too, had been contacted.

Later, Turnbull boasted to me: "Mate, we're getting around the country faster than you are . . ."

Kernot's defection stopped the nation in its tracks in mid-October. It has ignited a dramatic lift in support for the ALP, just as it has heightened the crisis of confidence that besets the Howard Government already more than halfway to the next Federal election.

So there is huge anticipation in the Labor Party - Kernot is a highly telegenic woman with considerable political skills. She can fill the void created by the demise of Carmen Lawrence; maybe she's the next Labor leader and, perhaps, Australia's first woman prime minister.

But in leaping for the threshold of executive power, she has chosen a blokier, more tribal organisation, which has many policies that conflict with the stand she took on behalf of the Democrats. This has left her former colleagues, staff and party members grasping for a better understanding of the leader they thought they knew.

In her speech announcing her resignation from the Democrats, Kernot cited two reasons: "One, my personal and growing sense of outrage at the damage being done to Australia by the Howard Government. And two, my concern that from my position in the Senate I had a limited capacity to minimise that damage.

"I have reached the conclusion that, for me, the imperative at the next Federal election lies not in battling to extract a share of the third-party vote to keep the balance of power in the Senate - it is to play a more direct role in the removal of the Coalition Government . . ."

But up until she made that speech her condemnation of the Coalition was no different to the criticism she had heaped on the Keating Labor Government and the Beazley Labor Opposition.

However, if her pre-resignation rhetoric had declared a pox on both Labor and the Coalition, it seems that even before the Federal election in March last year Kernot was inclining to Labor. As the campaign kicked off, Kernot confided to a close friend about the frustration of sharing the balance of power in the Senate and of what her confidant called "her personal leanings".

He told me: "This drift to the ALP hasn't been a surge it's something she's been thinking about for quite some time. She's been generally frustrated by her role in the Senate and its limitations. She had negotiated some heavy stuff but she felt frustrated by the WA Greens. Former Democrats leaders - Janet Powell and John Coulter - had tried to end the dispute with the Greens and so, too, had Kernot. But Cheryl found it a pain in the arse."

Her former teaching colleague Tony Walters, now living in Tasmania, was not surprised by the steely control Kernot demonstrated when she defected. They both joined the Democrats in the late 1970s and in the next 10 years rose quickly through the ranks - first she was a policy co-ordinator, then State secretary and State president before becoming national deputy president; in time Walters also became State president.

When Kernot was elected to the Senate in 1990, Walters was her campaign manager and he later joined her Senate staff.

He recalls that Kernot had to stare down what he called the "male mafia" to win Senate preselection. But he and those around him were convinced they had tripped upon a political gem - Kernot was worth the fight because they knew she could go to the top.

Walters: "She was a very straight talker, very articulate. She's an interesting mix. There's the side we see in public - she makes people feel engaged. Look at how the people of Dickson were hugging her in the street. But she is also fairly reserved. This is important politically - this is the core that she does not reveal. But it is from where she draws her strength. She engages people but she is sufficiently distant for cool decision-making."

LIKE those who have worked beside Kernot in the Senate, Walters was struck by the young communications teacher's remarkable ability to sniff the political breeze. He said: "She always seemed to be a jump ahead of us in identifying the minefields."

However, what had yet to emerge back then were two aspects of Kernot which, according to those who have observed her closely, are the defining forces in her political career. These are a ruthless determination to get to the top and an abiding wariness of perceived challengers along the way. Both are classic traits of the consummate politician but less commonly found in the ranks of the Democrats.

When the Democrats ditched Janet Powell as their leader in 1991, Kernot had just shed her L-plates as an MP. However, she was already bent on high office - but would she run for the position of leader or deputy leader?

She had an understanding with one of the leadership contenders - the former senator Paul McLean - that he would back her for the deputy's post. Instead he quit politics altogether, concluding after the campaign against Powell that he did not have enough of the jugular instinct.

Another former senator, Robert Bell, was present when McLean broke the news to Kernot. Bell recalled: "Kernot was devastated . . . McLean's face was torn and she cried; they hugged each other and I just stood there. Cheryl thought the rug had been pulled from under her."

Uncertain, Kernot then turned her mind to the top job. But it was too late - nominations had closed and under party rules she was refused permission to make a late entry to the race. So she ran for the deputy's job and got lost in the stampede.

The decision to challenge Powell had an important side-effect for those who wanted Kernot to have a clear run at the leadership "next time". It killed off Powell's formal negotiations on a merger between the Democrats and the Greens - and with that died the oft-discussed prospect of the powerful Tasmanian conservationist Bob Brown emerging as a rival for the leadership of a united Democrats-Greens party.

John Coulter, more boffin than politician, was the party's new leader and the Kernot team set about picking up the pieces. Walters continues the story: "A number of people at the national level suggested Kernot should go for the Treasury portfolio - initially she didn't think it was a very sexy job because till then the Democrats hadn't made a big impression in the economic debate."

The 1992 superannuation debate was the platform from which Kernot burst to national prominence as the Keating Government put its controversial superannuation levy through Parliament, Kernot almost single-handedly rewrote the Government's policy.

But at the same time, Kernot used her Treasury brief to roam the party room, taking a position in virtually every debate.

Sid Spindler recalls: "She worked the party assiduously and in public she used every opportunity. She did not miss a beat. When she saw that the party had a leader who was not as good as she thought she would be, she made sure that people knew she was available."

For some in the party, Kernot was Machiavelli reincarnate. Others say it was just a run of good fortune - the Coulter leadership was the failure anticipated by the Queenslanders and issues ran her way in public debate.

Robert Bell: "She's a considerable plotter and schemer, but she is not as callous as some would try to portray her. It's more amateurish good luck that has worked for her - remember, it was the government of the day that set up the superannuation committee on which she starred."

IF KERNOT was on the rise, the same could not be said of the party. Support for the Democrats at the 1993 election slumped to its lowest since the party's formation in 1977. This meant that Kernot was able to walk over Coulter for the party leadership after the poll.

She argued that he was too old; he was a scientist not a politician; that the party's economic policies needed to be "more realistic".

She won a handsome 80 per cent of the membership ballot. As Bell said of her candidacy: "By then she had a carefully crafted and chiselled public face, but remember this: she had some pretty good rock to start with."

The fourth leader of the Democrats in three years, Kernot set about remaking the party in her own image. Senators were required to vote a single party line and a tight new discipline was introduced in an organisation previously noted for its unwieldy democratic ways.

Brian Austin, a former Democrats national administrator, said: "She could sense the direction we needed to take and the questions we needed to ask. She challenged and encouraged us to be more hard-headed economically. She wanted to rid the party of 'the fairies at the bottom of the garden' tag and she did."

Kernot did it all with public humor and natural ease.

And within months she got rave reviews.

BUT now that she is gone, her senior colleagues speak resentfully of how they were whipped into line. Kernot herself alluded to friction in the party room when she spoke to Michelle Grattan of 'The Australian Financial Review' only weeks before her defection. She told her: "One of my weaknesses . . . is that I'm too direct . . . some of my colleagues aren't kind of as into interpersonal confrontation." And she said of the party's decision-making: "Well, I don't think I've ever taken a major decision alone. I make sure I take them - the rest of the senators - with me."

But her former Senate colleague Karin Sowada recalled: "She was quite autocratic - in any confrontation she just stared people down. She presented her opinion and then dared people to defy her. She crushed dissent but she helped to pull the team together in a way that was reflected at the polls."

Robert Bell described Kernot as "illogically worried" about challenges to her leadership and authority, particularly by former leader Coulter.

Colleagues said she was even more unsettled by the rising popularity of the South Australian senator Natasha Stott Despoja, and in an interview earlier this year Kernot acknowledged tension in her relationship with the talented youngster.

A person close to Kernot said: "I guess she perceived Natasha as a threat. She picked on her a lot. The last thing that Kernot would have wanted would have been to have been bumped from office by a younger woman."

They say that Kernot's attitude to Stott Despoja, who has become the party's deputy leader behind Meg Lees, resulted in the younger woman asking fewer questions in the Senate and being moved to another seat so that when TV news showed Kernot in the Senate, Stott Despoja was no longer in the background.

Her former colleagues are aggrieved, and their recollections are not particularly flattering, but they clearly stamp Kernot with the hallmarks of political leadership - determined, persuasive and skilled at getting her position across.

And it would not be surprising if there were times when Kernot did not think that the 1993 election outcome was her worst nightmare - her doddery predecessors had enjoyed the balance of power in their "fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden" way. Now she was able to whip the Democrats into line but was obliged to share the balance of power with the unruly Greens WA, variously known as the "chaos theorists" and "bomb chuckers" of the parliaments.

Here she was, prepared for a respectable and responsible role in national affairs, but her neighbors on the crossbenches were getting her a bad name - the Democrats and the Greens were being dismissed by the staff of the then prime minister, Paul Keating, as "the Cheryls and the ferals".

Despite that, she kept the Democrats at the centre of political debate - often simply by pretending that the Greens did not exist.

The first big showdown in the Senate was the battle for the 1993 Budget - a horror document. Kernot quickly extracted significant concessions from the Keating Administration and wanted the Greens to agree in quick time. She tut-tutted about political responsibility, but the novice Greens WA held out for a gruelling 64 days before finally proving that there was more juice to be squeezed from the orange - Keating coughed up more concessions.

Some Democrats are debating whether Kernot's jealous defence of her own power and her antipathy to the Greens - particularly since the arrival in the Senate last year of Bob Brown - meant that the party did not manage the sharing of the balance of power in the Senate to its best advantage.

One of her senior colleagues said: "Her animosity towards Brown was because of the fact that she could not manoeuvre, manipulate or control him . . . and that was before he came to the Senate."

Another of them said bluntly: "She dealt with the Greens simply by trying to wipe them out - the problem was that Cheryl Kernot does not share that sort of power with anyone. It was easy not to co-operate with the Greens - because of the way they went about things - and so it was easy to get all the Democrats to agree that this was good Democrat strategy."

The Greens WA senator Dee Margetts said: "She saw us as the enemy. When I first got to Canberra in 1993, I suggested we should have the Democrats around for morning coffee to discuss this thing called the balance of power. We wrote to them but the letter was ignored."

The Democrat-Greens friction is more a turf war than a battle over policy - they compete for the same pool of voters at elections.

But if the Greens irked Kernot, worse was in store.

IN her resignation speech, Kernot singled out an August day last year as one of the defining points in her attitude to the Howard Government. The speech made clear that she was referring to the contents of Peter Costello's first Budget, but it was delivered the same day that Mal Colston, the maverick Queensland senator, resigned from the ALP.

His defection meant that the Government no longer needed to rely on the Democrats or the Greens to get legislation through the Senate. Suddenly, it had Colston and Cheryl Kernot was irrelevant in the power plays of the land.

She had been spoiling for a fight - warning the Government that it could face a re-run of the 1993 Budget mayhem. But as one Liberal senator put it: "We didn't need the Duchess Kernot any more. We had Fatty Colston and Skinny Brian Harradine, the Independent Tasmanian senator."

A share of the balance of power was about more than votes on the floor of the Senate - Kernot had become a media star whose views were sought on the issues of the day and who was able to jerk chains on both sides of politics.

Clearly, Colston shattered a dream run of power and influence.

The biggest challenge confronting Kernot now is keeping her political credibility intact. How does she explain to a cynical electorate that the woman who was dubbed Saint Cheryl because of the particular style with which she set about "keeping the bastards honest" has lined up with the bastards?

Where does she stand now on the fundamental on which her political career was built - a Senate controlled by neither of the big parties which, as she once said, was "virtually the only effective and independent curb on the excesses of government".

Andrew Murray, her former West Australian Senate colleague, shakes his head as he ticks off what he thought were the things that mattered to Kernot.

"Accountability? The ALP behaves as an executive in waiting and it's not very good on this one. Environment? They have a very poor record. Economics? They are widely seen to be at one with the Liberals and the Nationals on the fundamentals of economic rationalism. Social justice and human rights? The ALP has a slightly kinder face here than does the Coalition but there are areas in which they differ profoundly with us.

"Tax reform? At her instigation, we are reviewing the whole process of tax reform and she had taken the view that we could look at a GST if there were adequate safeguards but the ALP has just ruled out a GST.

"How do you go from the Democrats to a woodchipping, uranium-mining, land-clearing party? How do you do it? That's what I find difficult."

But for all their criticism and their hurt, Kernot's former colleagues laud her courage even though it's done with backhanders. They are impressed that she has resigned from the Senate instead of skipping over to the Labor side until the next election. But some of them argue that she has forfeited the prospect of real power in the near future as leader of the Democrats for something less certain and further away with Labor.

One said: "The chances of the law or health catching up with Colston - after which the numbers in the Senate will be restored in favour of the Democrats - are much better than Labor winning the next election. That would mean her best hope was to be an Opposition frontbencher for at least another two elections."

The Democrats are different: for all Kernot's influence they are still reluctant starters in the cut and thrust of politics. Yet, some among them readily acknowledge the core strength that Labor might want from Kernot - as much as her public image.

One said: "The way she left us proves that she has the ruthless streak needed to get to the top. It's naive to say that politics doesn't have to be like that that - it does."

In 1994, when the Senate farewelled Graham Richardson, Labor's most accomplished powerbroker, Kernot told Parliament: "I really do not understand the tribal culture of the ALP." Three years have passed and now she has embraced that culture. The surprise is not that she has outgrown the Democrats, rather that she hung in with them for as long as she did.

The real Cheryl Kernot is the warm, engaging person in whom some people wish to confide, and others want to embrace. They want her to represent them, maybe to lead them. They trust her.

But the real Kernot also is embodied in the absolute politician, determined to go as far as she can, whatever it takes. She will go as far as the Labor machine will let her. And the people.

- Copyright, The Sydney Morning Herald

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