What a year. I have published no fewer than 46 interviews in this space, and loved – nearly! – all of them. On a quick look back, these are the exchanges that most resonated with the readers, most moved me, or turned out to be particularly prescient.
When, for example, I asked the actress/nightclub impresario Nell Campbell the single moment she would likely remember on her deathbed, from her decade of running her eponymous nightclub in New York, she was fascinating.
Sting, Bob Dylan, Nell Campbell and Andy Warhol at Nell’s nightclub in New York.
“I doubt very much I will be thinking of Nell’s on my deathbed,” she replied, “but at one of my infamous Nell’s dinner parties, Andy Warhol on my left, Sting on my right, I left the table for a moment, returned and Bob Dylan was in my chair, so I sat in his lap and the meal continued on its merry way.”
The mind boggles!
By March and for the next few months as the federal election loomed, politics dominated my interviews, starting with then treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who I asked of his level of concern at the rise of the teals and that even the Herald-Sun had a headline saying “Kooyong ISN’T SAFE ANY MORE”.
“Last election,” Frydenberg replied calmly, “I also faced a well-funded independent, who fancied themselves. The people of Kooyong said otherwise. This time, I face another so-called ‘independent’, who is a former longstanding member of the Labor Party.”
Happier times: Peter Dutton and Josh Frydenberg. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Before the election, I asked Peter Dutton if he should find himself, as opposition leader, up against prime minister Albanese, would he support the Indigenous Voice to parliament? He replied: “I would support further recognition and I have had long discussions with Noel Pearson about the Voice and about other ways in which we can do practical recognition.”
The most horrifying quote of the year for me came just before the election when interviewing Priya Murugappan, the mother of the #HomeToBilo family of Tamil refugees, who had been in detention since 2018.
Fitz: “What do you remember of when Border Force raided your home at dawn to put you all in detention?”
PM: “It was horrific and terrible. You know I was still in my nightdress and my children were still in bed. And 50 people, with police officers, arrived at dawn. And we were put in a vehicle, and they didn’t even allow us to pack or change. I was put in a police car, in my nightdress. It was horrific. They treated us very badly and without humanity. We couldn’t even get a bottle for the baby.”
The most prescient political commentary came, not surprisingly, from Barry Cassidy, when I asked his view of the chances of the Morrison government holding on.
BC: “Scott Morrison is . . . now a reduced figure. And therefore, I think less electable. Clearly, the government suffered from mismanaging crises. And the comment ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’ spawned this whole bigger issue of the PM failing to accept responsibility. The women’s issue was clumsily handled when it was raised and nothing was really done about the culture in Parliament House, and what he did do was too late. And he only half-heartedly embraced climate change.”
Morrison was gone within weeks, as was Frydenberg, while Peter Dutton became opposition leader, and the Murugappa family went #HomeToBilo.
For her part, just after being the only major Labor figure to get a bad result in that election, Kristina Keneally offered poignant perspective, when I asked whether she had wept on seeing the results.
KK: “No. I had a whiskey with some very close friends ... In terms of overall pain, this loss doesn’t get close to what I have known. The greatest loss in my life was when my daughter Caroline was stillborn in 1999, the single most defining moment in my life. That’s when I felt searing pain, not this.”
The electoral fallout saw Sussan Ley take over as deputy leader of the Libs, and I was amazed to find out that in her university days, she was a wild thing. “For me,” she said, “being punk was something that was important because I was a bit of an outsider at school, having come from England with this dreadful British accent ... and I didn’t feel I fitted in for a long, long time ... I had purple hair, black lipstick, razor blades, the safety pins through the nose and ear, a dog collar with silver studs, the whole thing.”
Linda Burney had just become the minister for Indigenous affairs when I asked her to tell us more of her background. “Well, I had a pretty robust start in life. I was born Aboriginal in 1957 in the small country town of Leeton with a white mother who had me out of wedlock, and raised in nearby Whitton ... When I was five years old a door-to-door photographer came to the house and took family portraits which included all my cousins – my mother’s sister’s children. When the photo came in the post, for the first time I saw that they were all blond with blue eyes and there was a little black kid on the end – and that was me! I guess from then I started to learn more about who I was, where I was from, and I felt an enormous responsibility and a great deal of resilience, a feeling that whatever I did I was representing a whole lot of people, my people.”
Away from politics, I interviewed Lieutenant-General Peter Francis Leahy, who had been chief of army from 2002-2008, and asked him to put on the record a story he’d told me privately about the Unknown Soldier. “As you know,” he responded, “it was back in the early ’90s, and we were tasked with retrieving the remains of a Digger from a military cemetery in France and bringing him back to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Canberra. On the way, there were a lot of 75th anniversary commemorations for battles on the Western Front, accompanying 14 veterans of those battles. And so once the Unknown Soldier was on board, the ceremonial party would go from spot to spot across Northern France and Belgium with due dignity and respect.
“The Diggers felt a real connection to him, but I loved the way they referred to him. The film Weekend at Bernie’s was out at the time, and they called him Bernie. It was less of a mouthful than the Unknown Soldier and was, of course, the way Diggers would speak to another Digger, instead of formally. ‘Come on Bernie,’ they’d say, ‘Back in the Land Rover. We’re going to another bloody place.’”
Fitz: “And you formed a connection with him yourself?”
PL: “Well, yes. When I was chief of army and was sometimes faced with difficult decisions, I would often pop across, visit the tomb and say, ‘Well Bernie, what do you think I should do? Am I on the right track?’ Of course, I was not expecting a reply, but the peace and the gravity gave me space and focus to think clearly.”
And what about you, comedian Julia Morris, and your plans for the future. “I want to totally Betty White the shit out of it. I’m just gonna be Betty White and be around forever. I’m in a position now where I don’t have to take as much work as I’ve had to in the past and maybe I can explore more of the work/life balance they talk about but all I really want to do is keep going because I love it all.”
Of particularly Sydney identities I talked to, the radio broadcaster Bob Rogers, now 96, was first and foremost.
BR: [After] 73 years’ marriage, the love of my life is still with me ... One of the first songs I used to love … was called The Folks Who Live on the Hill. It goes: “Someday we’ll build a home on a hilltop high, You and I, Shiny and new, a cottage that two can fill, And we’ll be pleased to be called ‘The folks who live on the hill’.” And now we live on the best hill in town, one of the best in the world, looking down on Balmoral Beach. It’s been a great life.
Later in the year, Treasurer Jim Chalmers cited an interesting change in his own life.
Fitz: You and I had a chat a few years ago about the virtues of totally giving up grog. How’s it going?
JC: It’s going well, and it’s been two years since I had a drop of alcohol. I’ve read that chapter in your book – on you giving up alcohol – six or eight times now, and that was pretty decisive advice for me.
Fitz: Do you miss it?
JC: Not like I thought I would. I mean, I started drinking in my mid-teens and for the next 25-plus years, I gave it a really good nudge. I feel like I fit a lifetime of normal consumption into a shorter period. And so for me, it made a lot of sense to give it away.
The Reverend Fred Nile? I was very pleased to talk to him about his days of calling for God to wash away the Mardi Gras parades.
Fitz: “In the spirit of reconciliation, in the spirit of getting mellow as you get older ... Can you tell me that might have been a bit on the mean side?”
RFN: “Yes, probably was, and upsetting their lives.”
Fitz: “Well, could you say sorry?”
RFN: “I’m sorry.”
Fare thee well, the Reverend Fred. And to all, a good break.
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