Forget the wild times, it's an austerity campaign for press

Late at night, somewhere high above the Great Australian Bight, the aft cabin of the Zoo Plane lost its collective bearings. It was a Friday night, newspaper deadlines were closed and anyway, no one could have filed a story from the old Boeing 707.

Late at night, somewhere high above the Great Australian Bight, the aft cabin of the Zoo Plane lost its collective bearings. It was a Friday night, newspaper deadlines were closed and anyway, no one could have filed a story from the old Boeing 707.

A competition was organised to while away the time: the Great Trans-Australian Election Campaign Drinking Competition. It was 1990. Journalists were not quite as conscientious about their health as a lot of them profess to be today. At least half of them smoked and, though it's hard to imagine it now, you could puff away contentedly on airliners.

And so, with cigarette fumes and cries of "more drinks" wafting through the air, the media cabin degenerated. A guitar or two was produced, songs were sung, and the Zoo Plane bearing the party following Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock rocked through the night, heading from Perth to Melbourne.

The plane's liquid stocks were so depleted by the time we descended to Melbourne a young cameraman grabbed a bottle of mint sauce, drained it and was declared the winner.

We stumbled from the big old craft, awaiting our bags on the Tullamarine tarmac, when a small government jet rolled to a stop right alongside. The assembled journalists felt it would be a fine thing to welcome whoever might alight.

A startled and alarmed foreign minister, Gareth Evans, thus found himself serenaded at midnight during an election campaign to the strains of "Hooray for Gareth, Hooray at Last, Hooray for Gareth, he's a horse's arse" by a tired and emotional press corps.

As Kevin Rudd mulls over a date for his 2013 election, journalists readying for the campaign trail can barely contemplate such carefree and irresponsible behaviour. The need to prepare endless reports for websites, blogs and internet TV, which stream 24 hours a day and recognise no deadlines, quite precludes the fancy of acting up. Today's travelling media crews, given an hour or two in the air, are more likely to grasp the mercy of sleep than a bottle of liquor.

They may as well, for campaigns have become so tightly controlled that the media often don't know where they are going to end up when they take to the air. Such uncertainty began when former opposition leader Mark Latham refused to disclose a destination during the 2004 campaign.

Despite cries that the hacks did not know whether to wear outfits suitable for the tropics or the Antarctic, the Latham followers had to peer from the portholes to judge where they might be until they landed in Hobart, where Latham unveiled his secret forestry plan that earned him the undying wrath of unions.

The old Zoo Planes, the two RAAF Boeing 707s that bore the prime minister and the opposition leader, their advisers, attendants and media crews from city to city, are long gone, broken up for spare parts or used as air-to-air refuellers for the sky war in Afghanistan.

The mining boom of recent times cornered so many charter planes for fly-in, fly-out workers that the government was left with no choice but to import planes, pilots and flight crews for election campaigns.

In the dying years of the Howard government, one jet was brought in from Croatia, another from France. The mere expression of horror and loathing on the faces of the French and Croatian flight attendants as the battalions of haggard Australian hacks trooped aboard was almost enough to ensure compliant behaviour.

The 2010 Gillard-Abbott campaign produced chartered planes that usually had no grog aboard at all. Less said about that dour period the better.

The coming election is likely to grind the media to such a state of frustrated exhaustion that all the silly merriment of the past will be squeezed right out of the campaign. Rudd is a walking, talking machine and Abbott takes to the dark streets on his pushbike around 5am.

Abbott's frightening energy barely competes, however, with that of another Coalition leader on the make, John Hewson. He was given to running long distances at dawn with a doorstop press conference on offer at the end of it before setting out on a gruelling schedule of campaign stunts that sometimes continued until midnight.

We took to calling him the Human Amphetamine during the 1993 election campaign when, in a single day that began and ended in Adelaide, he undertook 11 bus journeys, four plane flights and enough factory inspections, discussions with good burghers, pumpings of outstretched hands and assorted meetings to send the most hardened salesman to a rest home.

It turned him fractious. A press conference in the shade of a large tree in a park at Whyalla turned ugly when he plain refused to give a "yes" or "no" answer to a simple question: would a Hewson government make it a condition of the sale of what was then called Telecom that timed local calls would not be allowed?

Hewson didn't have a big 707 for the return to Adelaide. He had a much smaller RAAF plane, and his seat was separated from the media by nothing but a curtain. His escalating and scalding assessment of journalists kept us amused for the journey. "If their brains were made of dynamite, they wouldn't have enough of it to blow off their f---ing hats!" he roared at his long-suffering press secretary.

Kevin Rudd, you can be assured, will ensure he's closeted away in a soundproofed and private cabin before he offers similar views, as is inevitable. Pity, really. These days we could record the tirade and tweet it.

Julia Gillard, real or imagined, won't be part of the coming election, but gender wars were part of campaigns long before she came along. The blokey prime minister Bob Hawke was once unwise enough to muster an all-male group of travelling reporters for a private dinner in Perth. When the women of the gallery got wind of the event, they raised such hell that a crestfallen Hawke had to organise another dinner for them the following night.

Couldn't happen again. Could it? Pity, really. We could do with a bit of in-house nonsense to deal with five weeks of the greater delirium of a Prime Minister like Kevin Rudd and an Opposition Leader like Tony Abbott doing combat across the skies.

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