Let's Yarn: Allyship and the Voice to Parliament with Kerry O’Brien

05 October 2023

In this special Let's Yarn episode, Trent talks with Kerry O'Brien about his allyship origins, his new handbook with Thomas Mayo about The Voice, and the media's role in mitigating risk to First Nations societies.

The conversation also includes Kerry's personal experience in witnessing key moments of Australian history up close, from how the governments of the past have tried to provide an Indigenous Voice to Government, being in the room when Hawke announced the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, thoughts about past referendums, his reporting of land rights, Mabo, the ATSIC establishment and abolishment, to witnessing the Whitlam Dismissal. All of which have shaped and influenced Kerry's interest in Indigenous issues in Australia.


Trent Wallace:

We acknowledge First Nations peoples as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work in Australia. We pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging, and to the youth who are working towards a brighter tomorrow.

My name is Trent Wallace and I'm the First Nations lead at Ashurst. Kerry O'Brien is one of Australia's most distinguished and respected journalists with six Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism, including the Gold Walkley, and the Walkley for Outstanding Leadership. Other industry awards include a Logie for Public Affairs coverage. He's been a journalist for over 50 years covering print, television, and wire service as a reporter, feature writer, columnist, and foreign correspondent.

I'm delighted to welcome Kerry to the Let's Yarn Podcast as we discuss politics, the Voice to Parliament Handbook he co-authored with Thomas Mayo, his allyship, and David Bowie.

Kerry, your career has shown us that you are someone who has a strong moral compass. Growing up in Queensland in a Catholic family with a political father and grandfather, what was life like as a child and what exposure to social justice issues, especially in school as you rode past the cemetery and Boggo Road jail, did you see?

Kerry O'Brien:

I think you must've read part of my book. Trent, look, it was a bit of a topsy-turvy childhood, because I probably wasn't the easiest child and I certainly wasn't the easiest student at school. I went to a Christian Brothers college in Brisbane, St. Lawrence's. I was there for the vast bulk of my education from grades four right through to 12, and I was a bit of a punching bag for some of the brothers over those years. So corporal punishment was still alive and well, not just in Queensland, but probably right around Australia in my growing up period. I finished school in 1962. So the Catholic childhood was really important in helping frame however you'd describe the person I've become as an adult. I think even though I walked away from the Catholic Church 40 years ago, possibly longer, I still kept that sort of strong social justice streak, which I think has been a real feature of the church and one of its saving graces, dare I say.

It was also a particularly strong within my parents. I mean, they lived a good life and they were my moral compass, really, and they were, whatever grounding I had as a child certainly came from them. So in my late teen years when I was working into until about 20, I was still Catholic and I was a part of an organisation called the Young Christian Workers. They basically, I wouldn't say a radical arm of the church, but they were certainly connected to young working people. And so our brief was essentially to extend networks inside the workforce. We were alive to the rights of workers, young workers, apprentices and so on. I guess that became very much a part of my grounding.

You say that I had a political background. My grandfather was a founding member of the Labor Party in Rockhampton in central Queensland, on the coast of Central Queensland. My father was born there. He also joined Labor and he actually ran for the Labor Party, a very strong then country party seat based around Warwick in the '50s. But then when the split came, he left Labor and went DLP. His Catholic roots I think were stronger than his Labor roots. So look, it was there in the background for me as a child, and every now and then he'd prevail on me to go out and letterbox with him, throwing political pamphlets in particularly when he ran for that seat. So that's where it came from. I hope that wasn't too long-winded.

Trent Wallace:

No, that was incredible. And I've really observed similarities. I think we've had quite a similar background. I went to a Catholic school as well, and some would say I was a bit of a rebel. Rebel Rebel by David Bowie was certainly a theme, and it's something I wish we could yarn about on this podcast, but we are here for much different reasons than that. And your allyship has been evident in the Voice to Parliament work.

So I want to know what made you wish to pursue this level of support for First Nations peoples and team up with Thomas Mayo for "The Voice to Parliament Handbook"? And I particularly enjoy the latter part of the title, "All The Detail You Need", because that's something we've heard a lot about. Questions about details that's often been the flogged narrative around the lack of detail. And the book has eloquently expressed all of the detail we need, and it's something that we've handed around the firm. We had around 250 copies distributed across our offices in Australia.

Kerry O'Brien:

Wow. And in fact, that's one of the things that's happened with the book. I mean, there have been many bulk purchases, not just within workplaces, but people who have wanted to spread it around. And the distribution of the book around the country has been fantastic. There are now nearly 100,000 copies in print, which was wildly more than the publishers ever thought. But to come back to your original question, Thomas approached me to do the book. We knew each other a little bit, because I'd done a couple of conversations with him for previous books that he'd done and was really quite impressed with him.

But the background to that and how we came to meet, really relates back to my whole 55 years as a journalist. Like every other child of my generation, not just in Queensland, but right around Australia and all the generations before us, and even at least one generation after mine, I'd say too, I grew up completely ignorant of Indigenous history, any knowledge of Indigenous civilisation, the longevity of it, the culture. All those kind of impressive elements that we have slowly, we non-Indigenous people, have slowly come to know and some of us embrace as we can.

It was only when I became a journalist and as a young journalist, I went to Alice Springs on a completely different story, but was utterly shocked by what I saw. I spent most of my time not concerned with the story I was there for, but just walking around the streets of Alice and talking to some individuals who gave me some real insights to the town. And really, it's not like you'd want to single Alice out, because practically every part of Australia to one degree or another, through that time, still had a pretty unhealthy streak of racism running through it. And racism can be a subtle thing. People talk about casual racism, and I think that there are people who have racism in them who aren't even aware of it. And I don't say that in a kind of accusing sense at all. I don't think there's much point in that unless you're really confronting the worst of it. But it was really through those early years of journalism.

I went back to Alice in 1974, or '75 still as a young journalist on Four Corners. It was the second story I did. I rang some of those people that I'd met back in 1970 and asked them what was going on in the town. And within two weeks I was there doing this story about the brutal bashing and murder of a young Indigenous woman named Paula Sweet. Six young Indigenous men, and they were really boys still, had been railroaded into prison, committed for trial on Paula Sweet's murder. And basically they were there off the back of concocted confessions. And there was this wonderful Uniting Church minister named Jim Downing, who I had met in that earlier visit. He had gone there from Redfern in Sydney, and he'd taken the trouble to learn the Pitjantjatjara language. And he and a young Melbourne lawyer who was there working there in the fledgling Aboriginal Central, the Central Australian legal Service. And between the two of them, they took the case on. They hired a silk, Ian Barker, and they pulled the police case to pieces all around the confession. Now, as a result of that case and that story, the Whitlam government announced a Royal Commission into relations between police and Aboriginals in the territory. Five weeks later, Gough was sacked, Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister, and the Royal Commission disappeared, never happened.

And we had to wait another 12 years for the Black deaths in Custody Royal Commission to be announced by Bob Hawke. I was actually there for that. I was there the day he announced that sitting around the committee room table in Old Parliament House. The overwhelming impression in my head that still sits there is that Hawke had to be pushed into it too, that there was a sense of reluctance about him being there. That Royal Commission is now history. It sat for about three years, 338 recommendations that could have made an immense difference and saved an awful lot of tragedy and deaths. But many of those recommendations were ignored. It was reliant on the states to pick them up and carry them, and we're still seeing black deaths in custody today.

But those were the kinds of things that influenced me and that interested me in Indigenous issues. And through the years I reported on land rights, I reported on Mabo, I reported on ATSIC being established and then being abolished by John Howard, established by Hawke, abolished by Howard. I reported on the intervention, reported on Mabo and WIC and Native Title, all of those things.
Then in 2017, even though by then I was sort of on the side-lines, because I'd walked away from my formal work, I'd left the ABC by then, but still had an intense interest when the Uluru Statement from the Heart was written and passed overwhelmingly at Uluru. So look, it's a slightly long way of answering your question, but nonetheless, that's at the heart of why I'm involved today. I mean, all those years I was a journalist, it wasn't that I was sitting on a fence. But what I was doing was I accepted that my brief was not to be an activist, but to endeavour, to faithfully report the news as accurately as I could. Analyse it as responsibly and as fairly as I could, which I did through all those years on programs like Four Corners, 7.30, Lateline and so on.

It's been a very odd feeling for me, I have to confess, to step out of that kind of role and into the role where even as I wrote the book with Thomas, I didn't feel like I was Don Quixote jumping on his horse and tilting at windmills. I saw the purpose in the book for my part, and Thomas understood exactly where I was coming from. And between us, we produced a book, I think, that we're both proud of as one that is fair, that tells the story as it is as we see it, but embedded in fact, founded in fact. I take great pride in the fact that we knew that as soon as that book hit the shelves, the No campaigners would be going through it with a fine tooth comb. And we waited to see if they could find some skerrick of flaw in it that they could somehow make something of, and we've heard nothing.

Trent Wallace:

It's a tremendous book that's received a lot of love and feedback across the firm and across friends and family, across Australia. And now of course, in between Hawke and Howard, there was Keating and you have had numerous encounters with Keating, and I remember watching an interview with him and you would pull him back into kind of Indigenous affairs and get him to yarn about those points. I just recall watching that and listening to that and thinking about the legacy that these people have created in the First Nations space. But in particular, your allyship shone through in all of those interviews when you were drawing them back to the point of First Nations work and advancement.

In your 2019 Walkley speech, you discussed the intention around an Acknowledgement of Country, The Honourable Michael Kirby and I yarned about the elements of moral exhibitionism and how to move from the performative to the practical. Can you give some advice on effective and practical allyship?

Kerry O'Brien:

I'm not sure that I've actually seen things within that framework, Trent. When I was chair of the Walkley Foundation, when I made that speech on the Walkley Awards night, and I'd listened to the Acknowledgement of Country and as I often have reflected, it just struck me again how far we had come from when the Acknowledgement of Country was first introduced as a practice around Australia.

And when it was first introduced, I was inclined to worry that it was more tokenistic than real. And you had that sense in the early days, there were some people who were really quite uncomfortable with it, non-Indigenous people, quite uncomfortable. But I've seen the change over the years, the very significant change. And there's a warmth about the way conferences and other events start now. And just in those few minutes of acknowledgement when an Indigenous elder from wherever we are, or a traditional owner from wherever we happen to be, when they start talking about their own background, they only talk for a few minutes. But you add up all those small moments, and there are a lot of Australians who've built quite a substantial knowledge around Australia just from that.

Trent Wallace:

Absolutely. It's an educative model I feel. I think I've yarned at different conferences and seminars and the like about the Acknowledgement of Country is not just a ticker box exercise. It's essential, but we need to keep it on the agenda.

From your perspective, why do you think there is such fearmongering around an advisory body?

Kerry O'Brien:

I think there's a lot of politics in it. I think that from some quarters, at least from the professional politicians who are opposing this, I think they see it as a, or they hope to see it as an opportunity to maybe damage the Albanese government. And this is the Liberals and the Nats to get them some way back in the game after they were so badly savaged at the last election. Ironically, not so much savaged by Labor, but savaged by some of their own people in those Teal seats. But nonetheless, I think that that's part of the motivation behind opposing the Voice.

I've been at pains to respect the opinions of Indigenous Australians on this who are opposed to the Voice and to try to understand where they're coming from in that sort of area. I mean, people talk about a progressive No vote, there's almost a sort of contradiction in terms there, but this business about how somehow or other the Voice to Parliament and Government is going to take away sovereignty or it's going to slow up the treaty process and therefore it should be opposed. I mean, I just don't think the logic is there to support that.

I do understand where any Indigenous person comes from when they say, "How can you expect me to have any faith in government promises?" Except that this initiative is coming from Indigenous people.

I hear some people say, "Well, I wasn't consulted. I live in the Northern Rivers and there are people around my area who have expressed that view. We weren't asked, we weren't consulted." But the bottom line is, there were 13 regional dialogues around Australia with 100 delegates from the particular areas at each of those dialogues. And then out of those 13, that's 1,300 people. Out of those 13 dialogues, then 250 delegates were chosen to go to Uluru and to come together for three days to produce a proposition to government as to what Indigenous Australians wanted in the way of constitutional recognition.

So they were really quite substantial consultations, and there were traditional owners made up a significant proportion of each of those 100 member consultations. There were young people there. They were intent on not just hearing the loudest voices in the room. There were people from land councils and the land councils are elected. The land councils represent a very significant number of Indigenous people in each of the land council areas. So there was actually a lot of consultation. And when you saw the consensus that was finally arrived at, you don't often see a consensus like that in any of our parliaments, do you? And these were people representing regions, cities, and remote areas right around this continent and the islands. And for them to be able to come together around those words is profound in itself and an enormous achievement.

Just as an aside, when somebody says to me, "Look, these consultations didn't reach all 780,000 Indigenous Australians." Well, no, but per capita, these were wider consultations than even the founding fathers had when they wrote the whole Constitution. And this was a meeting around one amendment to the Constitution, and then subsequently, Marcia Langton and Tom Calma on behalf of the Morrison government, with a whole team of other Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, went around another 110 or 113 different Indigenous areas, and they had further consultations about what this consultative body might look like.

So you had, again, a strong reflection through that process, the Calma-Langton process of Indigenous people saying, "We want a voice." It was what came through at Uluru, and it was what came through around many, many other Indigenous communities through that Calma-Langton process. So the consultations have been there, but of course you're never going to reach 800,000 people and involve each individual. That's exactly how the parliament works too. I mean, we elect people to be our representatives in the parliament, but I cannot remember a time that my MP has ever come knocking on my door and said, "I want your advice on anything." I mean, so things have to be in context. On the question of treaty, there is nothing about this Voice that's going to get in the way of treaty.

If there is going to be a treaty process at the federal level, as is already happening around a number of the states, Victoria is well advanced in this, Queensland's on the way. It's legislated with bipartisan support, the treaty process and truth-telling. Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory, these treaty processes are underway, but they take a long time, they take decades. So what is the sense in delaying the constitutional recognition and the existence of an Indigenous Voice to Government and Parliament that has the potential to close the gaps in all these areas of inequality like education, housing, infrastructure and so on, around communities that are the most marginalised in Australia? Why would you put that on hold while you wait decades for a treaty process when you can have both? It doesn't make sense to me.

Trent Wallace:

Absolutely. I think one thing that I'm really grappling with is this idea of the Voice causing division. Now, obviously there are a myriad of views in the First Nations and non-First Nations communities, but it's very evident that there is a gap and the Close the Gap reports and the gaps that I live in, the gaps my sister lives in, my father, grandfather, and hopefully not my niece and nephew, but very much that is the realistic view that they will live within certain gaps. That demonstrates the divide already for me. I think this Voice is a way to attempt to bridge those gaps.

Kerry O'Brien:

One of the benefits for me in having been a journalist for as long as I have, is that I've lived the history, I've watched the history close up. I've had to think about it. I've had to analyse it, because that's been my job. I've seen all those previous attempts at providing an Indigenous Voice to Government and Parliament come and go. I saw the first attempt by Gough, by Whitlam in '73, '74, where he established the first Indigenous Voice to Parliament after the '67 referendum. And it was 41 people elected from within communities, Indigenous communities, to come to Canberra, and they were to give advice. And so that was kind of getting into stride, if you like.

When Gough was sacked, Malcolm Fraser came in, he got rid of that Voice. It was a kind of similar profile, but of course he had to call it something else. He reduced the numbers to 35. He changed the rules around the voting.

He went, Bob Hawke came in, he got rid of that Voice. He waited a few years, and then he came up with ATSIC. So ATSIC had 10 years to establish itself, and ATSIC had 35 regional councils elected. And then those councils chose 16 delegates to represent the 35 councils, but they became the ATSIC commissioners. And so they were the interface between the regions and Canberra. ATSIC also had a delivery role. Now, there were some fantastic programs that were begun through those ATSIC years, but they had their ups and downs. They did have some governance issues, but they were addressing those issues.

And John Howard comes into power, and Howard had absolutely opposed the establishment of ATSIC in the parliament when the legislation was going through. He said it would create two nations. He said it would create a Black nation inside of Australia. And he and colleagues, it was a short step from that to describing it as a Black parliament, ATSIC. And so the sky was going to fall in. Well, surprise, surprise, the sky didn't fall in. And even though ATSIC's days were numbered from the time Howard came to power in '96, it took him until 2003 or '04 to get rid of it. Even when he did get rid of it, he did it in the face of the recommendations of a review into ATSIC that he himself had instated and put a former Liberal Attorney-General from New South Wales in charge. That review recommended that ATSIC should survive, that it was still doing good things, that its connection back to the regions had weakened and needed to be strengthened again. He sacked them. He sacked them.

And since then, since 2004, it's been a checkerboard of voices similarly where they come and they go and they get nobbled. And so we've now got a history and we've got a chapter in the book about some of the evidence of what happens when Indigenous advice is actually listened to, as opposed to when it's not. So the history of Indigenous policy is littered with examples of failure, because Indigenous people were not listened to when that policy was being written. Then you've got the success stories. There's fewer than the failures, but there are success stories and there have been some good ones and it's been where Indigenous voices have been listened to. That's the whole point. So now you come to this and why we have to have it enshrined in the Constitution, because with permanence, the Voice can grow, it can mature, it can evolve, it can learn from its mistakes, it can correct them.

The parliament will actually shape the Voice. The parliament will retain the power and the control of how the Voice would be structured, but it can't throw it out. If there are failures, they can be addressed by the parliament and through the parliament, but it cannot be thrown out. It cannot be treated shabbily and cheaply in the way it has been in the past. And that is why, that if you've got this Voice enshrined in the Constitution, that has to be taken seriously. That does have a moral and a political authority that comes from the fact that we Australians have voted yes around the country for it, then we will see the gaps close. Common sense.

Trent Wallace:

It does feel that way. And as someone who's been a bystander, I remember the Howard government discussing the split of parliament. As a child, hearing that on the news, watching that on the news and not understanding what that actually meant growing up in an Aboriginal family with all of my cousins and all of my extended relatives. Not actually understanding what the big fuss was about and the pain points for them, quite painful. And you've seen those figures in person. You've sat across from them, you've shared a drink with them, you've been able to yarn with them.

However, unfortunately, journalism has played a really key role in this. This has been your profession for 55 years you said. Incidents of racism have increased dramatically. What role can and should the media play in mitigating risk to First Nations societies?

Kerry O'Brien:

I think one of the reasons that some Australians have a distorted view of Indigenous people is because so often, we, the non-Indigenous public, have seen Indigenous people forever and a day portrayed as victims. I've done that too. So it's been a conundrum for me. It's been a real kind of paradox that you see something that's wrong, you want to highlight it honestly and factually. You want to highlight it so other Australians can understand what's going on. So the pressure goes on to politicians to confront it and deal with it.

I think the more younger Indigenous leaders came through over these last sort of 30, 40 years, but 30 years particularly, I think good journalists, responsible journalists have looked increasingly to them to give perspective to the problems. I think it is entirely possible to report something that is wrong in an Indigenous community or is endemic to Indigenous communities without robbing the people you're writing about or interviewing of their dignity.

I learned very early on that, it just seemed plain to me, for me to interview an Indigenous person in central Australia whose English was not very good. So you had them on speaking in broken English, or you had them with an interpreter and you robbed them of their voice, because you heard the interpreter's voice. And so it occurred to me like back in the '70s, and it wasn't ABC policy at the time as I remember, it occurred to me that the least unfair way of hearing Indigenous people speak about their stories was where you needed an interpreter, that you used subtitles and you could at least hear the Indigenous person speaking with their passion and their emphasis and their fluidity and so on. I think still today, in a sense, there are too many journalists who don't understand that we are still somewhat mired in the language of colonialism.

So these are big issues, and they are parts of the reasons that Indigenous people have been so hamstrung and handicapped in the way their stories have been told by mainstream media over decades. I think it is beholden on all young journalists now to think about those things. It should be part of their training, it should be part of their training, and it should be part of the ethos and the culture of the organisations they work in. I mean, we are seeing more and more Indigenous people emerging in the front ranks of mainstream journalism, and that's a good thing. But these have been slow processes.

And 1976, as I said in the book, I remember the story, the headlines about Pat O'Shane becoming the first Indigenous Australian male or female to graduate in law anywhere in Australia, 1976. I made the point that today you don't read those stories, because they're much more commonplace. So there's a great development. There are now many hundreds and thousands of Indigenous graduates through tertiary institutions into various professions and trades. I guess I'm looking at one. But it's still been a very slow process and the stories of those individuals who've basically broken the chains to get to where they are, it does not have to be like that for future generations.

If nothing is done, if this referendum fails and those gaps prevail, then how many tens of thousands of Indigenous children are missing out on even the possibility of being able to have an education? To have their health, to live the same length of life as non-Indigenous people, to actually make their way to be heard? Why would they have to wait? And it's one of the very clear choices people are making in this referendum. If people vote no, they are voting for the status quo and the status quo has failed.

Trent Wallace:

It really has failed. I came to this firm as a global first, first for an Aboriginal person to lead this work. We established the ALS, the Aboriginal Legal Service in the 1970s, in conjunction with community leaders and community voices and Hal Wootten of UNSW. Coming to this role people have often wanted to portray me as a victim or as, "Your life has been so sad, how did you get here?" And I find it quite humorous, because I don't subscribe to those things. Yes, I've undergone difficulties and lived through many difficulties. However, I've prevailed and I keep pushing and agitating for change, and I think it's really important.

Kerry O'Brien:

It hasn't been easy, right?

Trent Wallace:

It hasn't been easy. And people have wanted to kind of sit in that trauma porn or sit in that idea of me being victimhood and "How did you get here and pull yourself up?" But they don't know that I'm a fan of Tina Turner, so I don't subscribe to victimhood, Kerry.

Kerry O'Brien:

Well, look Megan Davis, I don't think Megan would've had it easy coming from a single parent family in one of the toughest suburbs of Australia. I don't believe it would've been... I know it wasn't easy for Marcia Langton to find her way out of abject poverty in Queensland, which she has described. I don't believe it was easy for Noel Pearson or for Pat Dodson or for any of those leaders over these last 30, 40 years. And to hear those people being... The attempt to write them off as quote-unquote "elites" who are out of touch in some way, is a deep insult. It's not just dishonest. It's a deep insult. And Marcia Langton has never stopped fighting for Indigenous Australians, never, or educating the rest of us. And she's always stayed in touch with the whole range of Indigenous communities around Australia. It's probably the one thing that really actually made me angry when I saw that attempt and it's dishonest. It's dishonest, and I think it's contemptible.

Trent Wallace:

Absolutely. It's a demonstration of clear sophistry, this idea of elite, particularly when the gaps are so wide and so large, it's quite devastating. But I did have the pleasure of meeting Marcia the other week, and she looked at me dead in the face and said, "Well, aren't you fabulous?" And I felt an immense relief and my shoulders could roll back, seeing such an icon of Australia.

Speaking of icons of Australia, Kerry, I want to ask you, in the midst of the chaotic calendar dates that you've, kind of, had put in your diary for months in advance, what is bringing you joy lately?

Kerry O'Brien:

Well, there's a question. Look, I think just continuing to meet everyday people at all of these many events that I've done with Thomas mostly, but some without. And to just see the sincerity and the honesty and the generosity of people who really want to put their shoulder to this and who are seriously invested in getting something up that they believe in, that they know is worthwhile, and their willingness to actually soldier arms and get out there and put themselves on the front line, door knocking for the first time in their lives, not knowing what's going to be behind the door when it opens up, not quite sure of what they're going to say or the reception they're going to get. The people who are doing the kitchen table conversations around Australia, they're inviting 10 people and having civil conversations with people who are undecided about this or who don't quite understand it.

Those are the things that give me hope, and particularly when I see young people engaging in this, because although it's now become a cliche, they are our future. You are our future. I mean, because they are becoming more educated, because they are growing up in a more multicultural society, because they are more exposed to Indigenous culture and the great displays of Indigenous art and creativity that tours around the world. The things that at one level make us proud, but at another level, we are sort of indifferent to. I mean, those are the things I take joy in. And I take joy always in family and children and grandchildren. I've got grandchildren who've turned up at all those marches. We had family in Wagga at the Wagga Walk. We had family at the Sydney Walk. We had family at the Tweed Walk, and we had family at the Brisbane walk. So that gives me a good feeling.

Trent Wallace:

Kerry, it has been an honour and a pleasure to interview, firstly, scary, interview a man with this experience. My goodness. That it has been such a joy to yarn with you, and I thank you so much for your views, your allyship across the years. I now have one last question to ask, what was it like standing on the steps with Gough Whitlam when he said, "May God save the Queen?"

Kerry O'Brien:

"Because nothing will save the Governor-General." Well, look, I mean, at the time, you're not necessarily aware that what you're looking at is history being made. On that occasion, I was. I was with Four Corners at the time, and I was in Sydney working on another story when the news came through on radio that... Not social media, in 1975 on radio, humble little radio. We were in Canberra within about two and a half hours, and we were standing on the steps. I think it was late afternoon by then. He made two appearances in all. And you were just pungently aware of this extraordinary and dangerous moment in our history and deeply confronting moment, because there was a sense at the time that the rules had been broken. We've come to know that more and more since. I mean, as all the facts have emerged, I think you really can describe it now as a coup. Some people thought that that was a farfetched term at the time, the idea of any kind of political coup in Australia, but that's what it was. That's what it was. There are people on the conservative side, certainly in journalism who would say the same, that was an extraordinary moment.

And I then, for Four Corners, we followed the Whitlam campaign and the Fraser campaign, and I followed Whitlam. So that was on whatever day it was, was a Tuesday. By the Saturday, Gough was appearing at Wollongong Town Hall, and we decided, Four Corners was on a Saturday night in those days, so we went live with me sitting in the town hall with Whitlam and Caroline Jones was the anchor. Caroline crossed to me, and there were 5,000 very angry people outside pressing in on this huge plate glass window. And Whitlam security were deeply worried, not to mention the local council members, but the crowd was so loud, even through the plate glass window, that I could barely hear Caroline in my earpiece.

I could not even hear Whitlam's answers to my questions clearly. So I was half guessing as I was waiting for him to finish. I had no idea when he was going to finish, because I couldn't really hear his words. And when he would finish, I'd ask the next question, not knowing whether it made any sense compared to what he'd been saying. I've never had a circumstance like that before or since. And then following around the country. And the mood, if you were silly enough or naive enough to make your decision on how the election was going to go based on the strength of feeling and the crowds turning out for Gough's appearances around the country. Some people actually thought he could win on that basis, but it was never going to happen. People were angry, people were upset, people were worried, but in the end, they decided that life was too tempestuous. It was too unstable, and so they changed government. But yes, I was aware on that occasion that history was being made.

When I wrote my memoir and then again, doing this book, I just keep being reminded of how many events... You'd read, just that thing I talked about earlier about being in the committee room in Old Parliament House when Bob Hawke walked in to announce the Royal Commission of Black Deaths. And you see those and you think, "Oh God, I was there." And that's pure luck and privilege and all the rest of it. But it does enrich your capacity to be able to make, I think, sounder, clearer judgements about how to interpret our times now and how we got here. And when people say to you, "Look, that's the past. I'm about the future." Well, if you're about the future, you're a fool if you're not constantly reminding yourself about the past.

I think the sad thing about this referendum if it fails, is that we have not learned from the history of the last referendum when we saw exactly the same template applied by those who didn't want a republic. They came up with every possible conceivable way to confuse the picture and to try to use fear and division to defeat that referendum and it's exactly what's happening here. Even the slogan from then has been borrowed now, which is, "If you don't know, vote no," which is like an invitation not to participate in democracy. Like if you don't know, stick your head under the pillow, really? Is that how we would run a country? Is that how we individuals would participate in a country? If you don't know, stick your head under the pillow? Utterly juvenile. But I think for some it's worked.

Trent Wallace:

Thank you so much for your time, Kerry. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Kerry O'Brien:

Good on you, Trent. I've enjoyed it.

Trent Wallace:

Thank you very much for listening to this episode of the Let's Yarn podcast. For more episodes in the series, please visit ashurst.com/podcasts. Or alternatively, you can listen to these episodes on your favourite podcast platform. While you're there, please feel free to leave a rating and/or a review. Thanks again for listening. Take care.

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