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As advertising on the Opera House shows the political influence of Alan Jones, his rivals and confidants marvel at his singular power. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The power of Alan Jones

Drew Hutton was young, gifted and ambitious. A teenage boarder at Brisbane Grammar in 1963, Hutton was the school’s captain, and happily proficient in sport and study. His first sport was tennis but, he tells me, in ’64 he got hooked on the idea of dominating athletics, too. Hurdles and short-distance running. Soon, he would break a state record.

His coach was Alan Jones, who had been employed by Brisbane Grammar as a teacher the year before. A gifted tennis player himself, Jones assumed coaching roles outside the classroom. “He knew what he was talking about, especially tennis,” Hutton tells me. “He could tell you what to do – but also show you. In athletics, he wasn’t a bad distance runner. Never did hurdles, but he could tell me how close to the hurdles I was, whether I was balanced. I don’t know where he got his information from, but he knew, and he did the same with football. He was very assiduous.”

Jones wasn’t much older than his students, but traits that would influence public life decades later – and passionately inspire both admiration and disgust – were evident then. A fierce commitment to his favourites was one.

With tennis and study, Hutton realised he could only train at athletics before dawn. That meant rising at 4.30am and hitting the track at 5. Jones joined him. “He would get up with me,” Hutton says. “And there were plenty of others he coached. Then he would teach all day. He’s got an enormous energy.”

Jones did so because he saw something in Hutton. When you speak with people who know Jones, a few adjectives recur. Loyalty is one, although the word is qualified. “Jones knew the technical things, but he could also motivate you,” Hutton says. “Well, he could if he liked you. This is where I have the most problems with Alan. If he liked you, he’d do anything for you. Get up at 5am to supervise you, say. But if he didn’t like you, he’d make your life hell.”

In off-the-record conversations, people remarked on Jones’s sense of loyalty and how forcefully it was projected: passionate, sacrificial and unqualified. Loyalty exists for Jones as a primal virtue, something to be honoured with energetic commitment. But there was another side, suggested by Hutton and repeated by others: Jones invests his loyalty mercurially, and his substantial passions might just as easily be used to belittle and intimidate.

Drew Hutton never became a professional athlete – but he helped found a political party. In the 1970s, while Jones was variously a schoolmaster at The King’s School in Parramatta, a four-time failed political candidate and, in the last year of the decade, a speechwriter for Malcolm Fraser, Hutton was lecturing in history and political science and organising political rallies. “I was involved in the New Left and anti-Vietnam War movement, became an anarchist, and then, later, realised you had to engage the system,” Hutton says.

By the time Hutton founded the Queensland Greens in 1991, and helped Bob Brown found the national Greens party in the same decade, he had long lost contact with Jones. Their politics were opposed, mostly, but the two retained a mutual respect. Many years after the 5am hurdle runs, when the “system” with which Hutton had resolved to engage would include his old track and tennis coach, the two would meet again.

 

Jones has been talking for a long time now – and we’ve been talking about him for just as long. Since his first broadcast in 1985, Jones has seen eight prime ministers, 11 New South Wales premiers and outrun exhausted radio titans such as John Laws. His endurance is phenomenal.

And that’s just radio. Jones has had a remarkably varied career, and I wonder if a comparable one could exist now: a country boy of modest grades but fierce ambition, excels in tennis, goes to Oxford, manages a regional airline, becomes a schoolmaster, coaches the Wallabies, writes for a prime minister, and then... becomes the long-reigning, mythically powerful king of talkback radio. Jones’s most ardent admirers describe him as a Renaissance man; his critics, as an indefatigable grifter.

One consistency has been Jones’s ego. It seems supernaturally fortified. Last month, a judge found Jones had serially and gravely defamed a Queensland family – the Wagners – who he had accused of being responsible, through a collapsed quarry wall, of 12 deaths in the 2011 Lockyer Valley floods. The judge spoke of Jones’s “intrinsically vicious and spiteful wording … [his] wilful blindness to the truth or falsity of the defamatory accusations”. Jones was ordered to pay $3.7 million in damages, an Australian record since actress Rebel Wilson’s defamation payout from Bauer Media was slashed from $4.5 million to just $600,000 by Victoria’s Court of Appeal.

One might expect an ordinary person to be chastened – or sacked. But Jones isn’t ordinary. Ordinary people don’t sustain a career like his – even, or especially, when they assume ambassadorship of ordinariness. For years at 2GB, calculations about the contesting values of infamy and defamation settlements on one side, and the influence and popularity of Jones on the other, have always been resolved in favour of the talent.

The other consistency of Jones’s career, inseparable from the first, is controversy – though that’s probably too asinine a word to describe his transgressions. Impulsive, condescending and abusive, Jones will, on average, speak about 150,000 words a week. This verbosity is profitable and commends his rare energy, but it means the odds are always good that there will be some indecency of truth or manners. The Wagner order was only the largest and latest in a string of defamations, and you can add to Jones’s sins plagiarism and racial vilification. But as the former NSW premier Bob Carr told me: “Just because Alan Jones says it’s true, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” This was a line he often delivered to his cabinet.

This week, Jones was again making news after haranguing Opera House chief executive Louise Herron on-air for objecting to having the promotion of a horse race projected on the building’s iconic sails. “People reading The Daily Telegraph this morning would be thinking, ‘Who the hell do you think you are, you don’t own the Opera House, we own it … you manage it,’ ” Jones said. “You don’t have a right to fence it off. If you can’t give the go-ahead for this to happen, to an event that’s providing $100 million to the economy, delivering a tourism boom to Sydney, to send Sydney around the world … If I were Gladys Berejiklian, I’d pick up the phone and sack you today.”

Herron barely got a word in, and Jones was once again Sydney’s favourite villain. The interview revived the spectre of misogyny – feminist critics won’t forget his line, said during the Gillard years, that “women are wrecking the joint” – but the next day Jones doubled-down on his belligerence, only to issue a qualified apology 24 hours later.

“I think he’ll be enjoying the attention,” a friend of his told me. “He loves a fight.”

When the NSW premier said she would override Herron’s objection, and permit Racing NSW to go ahead with its projection, the question of Jones’s power – complemented by the city’s daily tabloid – was raised again.

For years now, the word “perceived” has been frequently added to the word “power” when pondering Jones’s influence. Periodically – whenever Jones has outraged or transgressed – opinion pieces emerge like mushrooms, pointing to Jones’s shrinking, ageing listenership. Rebecca Huntley, an author and social trends researcher, said this week: “Fifteen years of research and I haven’t found Alan Jones to be that much more influential with voters than ABC Radio or The SMH. He is only powerful because politicians think he is.”

This idea that Jones’s power is not so much illusory but self-fulfilling seems common. But surely the perception of power is power. The writer and broadcaster Mike Carlton was a colleague of Jones’s at 2UE in the 1980s, and a major radio figure himself. Before Jones began his broadcasting career, Carlton had interviewed him as the executive director of the Employers’ Federation of NSW. Even then, Carlton was “astounded by the machinegun delivery – there’s no sense of proportion. Everything’s an outrage or tragedy. No sense of scale. It’s all extremes. That’s his schtick. He has to deliver a new outrage every day.”

As colleagues, Jones and Carlton quickly fell out and theirs has been a long and public acrimony. “In a sense, he is powerful,” Carlton tells me. “He’s remorseless. He has no sense of proportion, and will go for the jugular. As he did with the Wagner family. He went and went and went for them. With no facts to back them up. But he was set on destroying them. Politicians take the line of least resistance, and toss him a bone. Under the Howard government there was allegedly some operative in his office solely working on Alan Jones issues. He has power insofar as politicians are willing to grant it to him. He’s powerful because people believe he is.”

In 1995, Bob Carr was elected NSW premier and Jones would later boast about having anointed him. For the decade of his premiership, Carr featured regularly on Jones’s show – alternately flattering and combative. Carr told me that he approached it as an adversarial contest. Yet, in the 1999 and 2003 state elections, Jones’s opposition to Carr didn’t seem to matter: Carr won both decisively.

“His influence is not easily resolved,” Carr tells me. “If you’re an opposition leader, you’d rather a relationship than not, and any politician seeking power in NSW will want a dialogue with him.

“His personality and performance speaks for itself. He’s at his most effective when he assumes the role of ombudsman, and campaigns unblinkingly for those who recruit his assistance. The reverse side is that he can end up subscribing uncritically to the cause of any whistleblower. Just as Alan Jones is not always wrong, his sources aren’t always right.

“I just wish I could recruit his unclouded intelligence on climate change – it’s sad that while he can take up a position highly critical of coal, he’s been recruited by climate change deniers. The same logic that had him adopt an anti-coal position, could have him look at the hard and growing evidence of climate change.”

 

In 2010, Drew Hutton received a call from Alan Jones’s producer. Hutton was by now an admired elder statesman of environmental activism, and determined to broaden the Greens’ appeal beyond the inner city. Like Jones, Hutton grew up on a Queensland farm, and while coal seam gas expanded into farming districts, Hutton went from farm to farm enlisting support. Soon, Hutton would go on to help found the Lock the Gate protest group and become its first president. But before he did, his old coach’s people were calling asking whether he could privately brief Jones on coal seam gas mining.

“I had to think about it only briefly,” Hutton tells me. “I knew he’d taken up the Acland issue, outside Toowoomba. I knew he was critical of it. I thought he’d be a valuable ally. His radio audience would give us access to people we wouldn’t normally have access to. I wanted to take it out of the ‘Greens space’. I didn’t want Lock the Gate to be a traditional Greens campaign.

“So I briefed him on it. Alan’s very intelligent. He got on top of the issues very quickly and just two to three weeks later, he spoke at the National Press Club about it, and I don’t think there was one mistake in it. He has an enormous capacity to take in a lot of information and synthesise.

“He’s been a terrific ally. He has access to a wide audience, but also to the NSW government. He knew first-hand most members of cabinet. He could exert a lot of pressure.”

Through Hutton, Jones was introduced to Peter Martin, a NSW truffle farmer and founding director of the Southern Highlands Coal Action Group, a region where Jones owns property. Martin was invited to Jones’s apartment on the sixth floor of a deluxe residential building overlooking Circular Quay and the Opera House.

Martin had long refused to listen to Jones’s show, or any talkback radio, “as a matter of course”. But he was pleasantly surprised by Jones. “We had coffee on the sofa,” Martin says. “And a chat about what was happening in our neck of the woods. It was a pleasant conversation. I was struck by how considered he was, and questioning. His personality was completely different to what you might perceive from the radio.”

Martin invited Jones to speak with the Southern Highlands community, who were then fighting mining companies’ exploratory licences. It was a place where Jones was already something of a part-time resident. “The locals, almost to a man, didn’t like Alan Jones,” Martin remembers. “They found him aggressive, distasteful. We got emails saying: ‘You guys have more class than that.’ But he converted them. They thought he was a hero, despite his other views.

“He’s a Jekyll and Hyde. In person, he’s very considered. He’ll listen well. But in a crowd, he can be aggro, and when someone’s speaking and he doesn’t agree, he’ll be muttering angrily to me. He was like an atomic bomb about to explode.

“On a stage, he can mesmerise you. There’s a great recollection of facts; he’ll connect the dots. I’ve seen him speak for an hour without notes in front of sophisticated people, and he’ll stun them with his ability. It’s like a politician who just has this ability to relay facts – like Bill Clinton did. But he has qualities that are self-damaging, too.

“I can’t reconcile it all. He doesn’t feel any boundaries. Most people feel embarrassed if we say something silly. This guy’s spent his whole life sticking his neck out. He’s a complex character. But this is his life. If you took away the microphone, and his ability to opine on things, it would kill him. He lives for this.”

 

Mike Carlton is unsurprisingly sceptical of Jones’s motivation in protesting coal and coal seam gas mining. He tells me it’s purely self-concerned. “Jones’s interest is that it’s in his backyard,” he says. “Logic has never been his strong point. Logic doesn’t trouble him. He’s just terrified that there might be a coal seam gas operation under or near his Southern Highlands estate. He also has a residual, childish fondness for the Darling Downs where he grew up and he would not want that despoiled.”

Hutton dismissed this, telling me it “underestimated” Jones. Both Hutton and Martin are pragmatists, and spoke about their antipathy to many of Jones’s views – the Opera House farrago was “disgraceful” and both men are embarrassed by Jones’s climate change scepticism. But they also spoke honestly of their calculation to favour his influence over their disagreements. “If you’ve got Exocet missiles, you need to use them,” Hutton says. “They’re not always perfect. But a community’s weapons are limited. You don’t have the money, or the government behind you. You need to engage the media, and, funnily enough, I think a lot of the progressive media probably didn’t cover this issue properly – and I wonder if that’s because Alan Jones was involved.”

One environmental ally of Jones’s would not speak on record for fear of upsetting the relationship – such is his perceived value to the cause. But the relationship Hutton and Martin have with Jones isn’t bloodlessly transactional, either – both see personal qualities they admire.

“With coal seam gas, government and business were in lock step against common sense and science, and Jones helped man the barricades,” Martin says. “I’ve used him at rallies and whenever I’ve asked for help, he’s stepped up. He’s always done his homework and he’s very loyal.

“I’ve never asked him about his motivations. Maybe he has a thing for the underdog. Odd, given he’s a rich fat cat himself. But he does have a belief that people who get trodden on by government, that someone has to stand up for them. I don’t think that’s a cynical view he has that will gain him support. He’s got a real heart.

“I saw him once in a community meeting. It’s a weekend and he stayed all day, then came to the pub for a few drinks. Left in his chopper that night. He was back on the radio the next morning, talking about the meeting. Summarising it with crystal clear recall at six in the morning. The volume of material that day was huge, and he summarised it – he’s got a photographic memory.”

 

Alan Jones turned 77 this year, but age, prostate cancer and brain and spinal surgery have not diminished his energy – and infamy has only fuelled it. “Perhaps he’s nearing the end of his rope,” Mike Carlton says. “But his fire still glows brightly.”

For decades now, that energy has been expressed quixotically, abusively and impulsively. His career is unique and his legacy complicated, but for his environmental allies it will principally be blackened on the issue of climate change. “I’m a trenchant opponent of his view on climate change,” Martin says. “He’s 100 per cent wrong. And it will do serious damage to the climate movement. It’s terrible. His legacy won’t be kindly regarded. I wish he’d drop that line.”

Martin hasn’t confronted Jones about his climate scepticism. “Facts become irrelevant to their position,” he says. “They don’t want to know what the reality is. Unfortunately that’s the huge negative. Not the racing thing. That’s a storm in a teacup. But the climate change stuff – that’s very serious.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "The power of Alan Jones". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.