They say that when the spindoctor becomes the story it is time for the spindoctor to move on. Pity the man then, whether it be Salmond or Cameron, when John McTernan comes storming back from Canberra.
Labour’s former Downing Street adviser, one of the sharpest stiletto hands in Scotland, has been doing for Australia’s Julia Gillard what Machiavelli did for the princes - in spades.
Her one-woman destruction of the oppositon leader’s mysoginy the other week is said to be inspired by him, though her delivery was all hers, and all awesome.
This is from the Weekend Australa, which profiles the, er, “punchy” Scotsman. Haste ye back John, it was more fun when you were around.
Weekend Australian, Page: 15B Tom Dusevic Saturday, 20 October 2012
IN the stomach-churning world of political advice, public mention of a backroom player’s name is customarily a little death for them.
Communications experts try to ensure their boss shines, their ideas capture voters’ minds and opponents implode before the public; as unelected agents working below deck, advisers hope they are heard but never seen, while yearning for those in the know to affirm their utter brilliance.
The fact John McTernan is now regularly mentioned in dispatches within the political class is a sign of several things, not least of which is that he has hurt his opponents and they would like to take him down.
The “punchy” Scotsman, who advised Tony Blair during his premiership, joined Julia Gillard’s staff last November on the urging of key Labor figures.
Take it or leave it, Labor’s short-term messaging is clearer, while its method is becoming a story in itself; the strategy’s brazenness, brutality, riskiness and effectiveness is, to a certain degree, embodied in the signature notes of a little-known foreigner in the Prime Minister’s office.
As Gillard’s director of communications, the 53-year-old McTernan operates in a rarefied realm; his job is to set a medium term messaging strategy, to instil marketing discipline across the government (for officials, media advisers and ministers) and to maintain quality control for the image of the whole messy show that is federal Labor as it sets itself for an election sometime in the coming 12 months.
In a saturated world of brands and seemingly nanosecond attention spans, McTernan is trying to craft enduring messages with edge. Sometimes those ideas are as subtle as a kick in the balls when the lights are out. That’s entertainment. His back catalogue of columns, blogs, speeches and musings is being trawled by the Coalition.
“If you get to senior positions, you have to be able to kill your opponents,” McTernan once wrote. “It is not pretty, it’s not pleasant, but if those at the top can’t kill, then those at the bottom certainly cannot. High politics demands very low political skills, too.”
Labor’s recovery, its relentless attack on Tony Abbott and the Prime Minister’s dictionary busting speech on misogyny last week are viewed as emblems of McTernan’s handiwork. The recent turnaround in Labor’s fortunes, as measured by the polls, is not attributed to one woman or man, because that’s not the Gillard ethos; Rudd Labor is a different beast.
Still, if you are casting for X factors, McTernan stands out as a key, new element. In an office that often has been occupied by capable people who are “like .22 calibre bullets in a .44 calibre gun”, as one government adviser puts it, McTernan is seen as a missile in the Prime Minister’s office.
“There is no one quite like him in either show with the firepower,” says the aide. “McTernan brings a unique mix of high intellect, self-confidence, a deep interest in policy and a breadth of experience that is unrivalled among advisers.” McTernan is a contemporary of the Gillard government’s mainstays. He’s older than 17 of Labor’s 30-strong frontbench; some advisers see him as an approachable wise owl, others are intimidated by his uber confidence and standing within the government as one who carries sway with the Prime Minister and a Scot who seems to relish a fight.
Inquirer spoke this week to many close observers of McTernan’s methods, including senior ministers, advisers, MPs, progressive activists and Labor identities. The man himself declined to speak on the record, arguing he is not a public figure, and therefore he is not quoted anywhere in this story. It’s a pity because he is an engaging man, given to mirth, the spouter of idioms rarely heard here.
Health Minister Tanya Plibersek says McTernan has brought maturity, calm and experience to the high-pressure environment of executive government. “John’5 approach is strategic, despite the hourly and daily battles in the media. He is able to draw together all the efforts of the government into a cohesive picture, never losing sight of Labor values.” One senior Labor figure says: “It may be harsh on people who gave their all for Labor, but we were all over the place in our communications,” adding that Abbott’s blunt, but highly effective, campaign against the carbon tax meant a perception grew that people had stopped listening to Gillard. “McTernan said, Stop nuancing. Simple, clear messages get through.’” McTernan is lauded and loathed within Labor, in part because of the Gillard-Rudd leadership issue.
“I can write your story in four words,” says a Labor MP. “McTernan is a c. t.” Even in the Slipper Age, in the blood house of Canberra now, it’s a bracing comment The Scot is viewed by the forsaken as having a role in Gillard’s ministerial reshuffles; his hand is seen in the almost deadly ferocity deployed by the Gillard loyalists against the former prime minister in last February’s leadership spill (the record of which will be used against Labor when it mailers).
As well, there is resentment towards McTernan over the Australia Day fracas, with some figures not of the Rudd camp saying privately that the media adviser who lost his job over the incident, Tony Hodges, was the fall guy and the communications director must take responsibility for his junior charge’s behaviour that day.
There are mutters that McTernan extends his reach into areas that are beyond the ken or responsibility of a media adviser.
Clearly, his brief goes beyond the quotidian and his influence is both overt and covert According to those best placed to know, McTernan essentially sticks to communications and Gillard’s style is to draw on the expertise of all her staff and ministers.
One of the characterisations that preceded McTernan is the fictional character Malcolm Tucker from the BBC series The Thick of It, which satirises Westminster. Tucker is a ludicrously profane Scot, chief Labour spin doctor and enforcer. The “Kill Tony” onslaught against the Coalition of the past few months has been therapeutic and galvanising for Labor, although some MPs believe the scale of the campaign, orchestrated by McTernan, has been overdone.
According to former attorney general Robert McClelland, a Rudd supporter who was dumped from the ministry after the leadership spill, “McTernan’s influence has been unhelpful to the government’s cause.” McClelland says: “He has brought a particular, combative media style from the UK that Australians are not comfortable with.” Others in the heart of the Gillard operation are worried that the negative campaign against Abbott, and the so-called “gender war”, is hurting the ability of Labor to talk about the economy, its range of successes and reforms and signature policy advantages in health, education, aged care and mental health. “It steals the airwaves,” says one senior adviser. “The negativity turns people off What if we knock off Abbott? What do we do then?” Those who know McTernan well describe him as a man of warmth, with a passion for music, books and argument. He’s apolitical killer and a great hater, too, and a man not shy of extolling his mastery of what should be but never quite is the simple art of political communication.
Frankly, Australia has not seen his type: old-school dedication, tribal stickability, American-style professional vanity, pooled in the understated visage of a regional university don. David Hetherington, executive director of think tank Per Capita, has known McTernan for years and describes him as a substantial figure in progressive politics, a thinker several steps ahead of the pack on policy issues.
“His political brain is deeply rooted in British-Scottish Labour’s working class, so he is very good at the modern, contemporary interpretation of what Labor’s base thinks about an issue,” says Hetherington.
He is a Blairite, according to those with a deeper appreciation of these things, rather than a class warrior in the mould of hardline trade unionists who dominated the news decades ago.
By several accounts he does not cultivate the Canberra press gallery (some scribes see him as out of touch and aloof) but McTernan does seek out opinion makers outside the capital, especially those considered hostile to Labor. For a time in Britain he wrote for the high Tory Daily Telegraph.
McTernan has been coming to Australia regularly since 2001 and has established a network of Labor friends and contacts. His outsiderness is seen as a plus and minus; the Scot cannot possibly have the corporate memory Labor prizes and romanticises.
Yet, when it comes to plying his trade, the clear tendency in the engine room is to yield to the messaging expert.
In terms of the next election, Labor insiders believe the communications strategy is still being finessed, even though the long-term direction was set by those who worked with Gillard and her chief of staff, Ben Hubbard, before McTernan’s arrival.
“We haven’t nailed it yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” a senior minister says of the coming election’s communications manifesto. “McTernan has played a big, big part in our revival.” There’s also no doubt that McTernan has given the frontline soldiers a stronger focus, greater confidence and a sense that they will be tested soon. And that he, a “grown-up”, with a cool head and a taste for blood, will be in their corner. Just out of the spotlight.