'i'm As Boring As John Howard. I Like Sport And Politics'

Sun Herald

Sunday July 29, 2007

Erin O'Dwyer

His background might be blue-ribbon Liberal but this commentator and prime ministerial biographer's revelations on the most talked about rift in politics have thrust him into the spotlight from both sides of politics, Erin O'Dwyer writes.

PETER van Onselen was seven years old when he had his first encounter with politics. It was the summer of 1983 and then prime minister Malcolm Fraser was on the election trail with his wife, Tamie. She was having trouble with an ice-cream.

"It was melting all over her hands, which was creating the wrong image for the cameras," recalls van Onselen, who had turned out with his parents to see the Frasers campaign. "She pointed to my lollipop as if to say she should have had one of those, but I thought she was trying to steal it so I pulled it away. It was all very funny."

Van Onselen may not have realised it at the time, but it was this nanosecond in Australian politics that gave him an abiding interest.

"I saw politics almost as an extension of sport in a competitive sense," says the 31-year-old. "It was only when I went to university that I saw it as more than a big game."

Associate professor in political science at Edith Cowan University in Perth, van Onselen has quietly built a name for himself as a serious commentator. But this month, he became the headline when his book, John Winston Howard: The Biography, was published (see review page 53).

Written with his long-time friend and Australian National University lecturer Wayne Errington, the book has generated two weeks of front-page news. First, it was evidence of a rift between Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello. Then it was the claim that Howard stirred up the 2001 Tampa crisis to shift the focus off One Nation.

Almost unwittingly, the authors found themselves fuelling the insatiable media fire.

"If we had been trained interviewers we probably would have jumped in more ... but that would probably have got his guard up," the pair have said of the Costello interviews. "It was dumb luck ... that we managed to get from him what we got."

When we meet in a busy Sydney cafe, van Onselen admits they may have inadvertently disarmed Costello, but he also believes the Treasurer knew what he was doing.

"Peter Costello walked into that interview wanting to talk," he says. "There were things that he wanted on the public record."

Van Onselen might have hoped for a similarly candid conversation with the Prime Minister. He knew John and Janette Howard through a university friendship with their son, Richard, and had on rare occasions glimpsed the private John Howard. But on the record the Prime Minister was typically guarded.

"I'm sure [the friendship] didn't hurt but it would be wrong to say that was the 'in' that provided the access," van Onselen says. "He knew who I was but he's very good at putting the two things into separate boxes."

It was those early years spent Howard-watching that steered van Onselen away from a political career.

"I always thought I wanted to be a politician, but it wasn't until I did some political staffing that I realised it wasn't for me," he says, listing former bosses including Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, Peter Debnam and Malcolm Turnbull.

"If I had to pinpoint one thing it would be when Richard [Howard] and I were going overseas to compete in a debating championship and we were seen off at the airport by John and Janette.

"We went into a private lounge and within five minutes of him [John Howard] walking away from the public eye, he was so much more relaxed. It was almost like a change of aura. I realised that I couldn't spend my whole life not being me. He was able to do that."

Van Onselen's connections may have proved useful, but they have also been controversial. The ALP describe him as a Liberal Party hack and the Liberal Party label him as disaffected.

"It's ironic to me because one of the reasons I'm able to comment is because of what I've seen on the inside," he says. "I spend a lot of time being critical of the Liberal Party, probably because I know more about it. I accept that I can't win if someone wants to attack me but I don't think I pull my punches for either side."

It's true. Van Onselen's writing ranges from support for gay marriage to criticism of a presidential-style democracy in Iraq. He once lauded authoritarian former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mohamad Mahathir as the greatest leader of any developing country.

With boyish good looks and a Scots College education, van Onselen could be the classic Liberal candidate. "I'm as boring as John Howard. I like sport and politics," he says. But van Onselen's life path has not been typical. He grew up on harbour-front acreage in Vaucluse, but only because his mother was matron at Strickland House convalescence home.

"It was really good from a 'perspective' perspective," van Onselen says. "I always knew I didn't own the house but it was 14 acres of prime real estate so I got to have all of that without ever becoming like some of the kids at my school."

He was 23 when he moved in with his lawyer girlfriend, Ainslie, causing fury among her Jehovah's Witness family. The pair eloped a year later. The tension has since eased, and they have a six-month-old daughter, Sascha.

"We met on my first day in Perth and we married one year later," says van Onselen, who moved to the west to complete his PhD.

"I went to a party [the] first night I was in Perth and the theme was red, but my friend dressed me up in a pastel blue safari suit, telling me the theme was safari. At least [Ainslie] noticed me. She might not have noticed me otherwise."

© 2007 Sun Herald

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