IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
He seems like the ultimate political insider. Influential and prolific; with a regular syndicated column in the nation's largest selling daily newspapers, television and radio segments, and a blog that receives two million hits a month. But in Andrew Bolt's mind he's an outsider, and he always has been.
The first thing to notice about Andrew Bolt is that he is intensely shy, almost apologetic, when talking about himself. His own assessment is that he has coasted through life, much to wife Sally's frustration.
And Bolt is probably right. In many ways he is an accidental columnist. If the influence and reach Bolt has today is the culmination of a well thought out career plan, then he's disguised it very well.
His path to being one of Australia's most influential commentators includes time working at the Flower Auction Hall in Aalsmeer, in the Netherlands, an ill-fated attempt as a freelance journalist in India, a stint as the minder for a belly-dancer, two short terms of service as a Labor staffer, a spell as the publicity director of State Opera of South Australia, and a period as Asian correspondent for the Herald Sun. By comparison, Bolt's tenure as a journalist at The Age, the notoriously left-wing Melbourne broadsheet, looks almost an orthodox route to being Australia's most prominent conservative writer.
His unconventional path notwithstanding, journalism was always likely to play some part in Andrew Bolt's life.
The teenage Andrew Bolt, shy and unsure of himself, may have been a small thinker, but his mother had big dreams for him. After Bolt finished school, his mother, convinced he had an aptitude for writing, encouraged him to apply for a cadetship at the Murray Bridge Standard, in regional South Australia. Bolt managed to get his foot in the door for a chat with the editor, but there was no job offer forthcoming.
Bolt's mother also put his name down for a job interview at a children's television show. ‘The interview was just dreadful', recalls Bolt. ‘I had no idea of popular culture and in Darwin for example, we didn't have television while we were there for the six years. There were two radio stations and my interests weren't really there. So I was hopeless. I was mortifyingly shy and extremely badly dressed. So there I was on the edge of the couch, so shy.'
What his mother would make of Bolt's media career today we will never know, she died of cancer at the age of 52. But there's no doubt she saw something in Andrew's early writing, even if she did have to look hard.
At the age of 13, Bolt wrote a poem entitled Fear, his first ever published work. Bolt keeps the publication today on his bookshelf near his desk at home and happily shares his early literary offering; ‘You've heard of "adolescent poetry", mine was "very bad adolescent poetry", so it's a genre all in itself', he notes. Deadpan humour is Bolt's preferred form of comic expression. ‘I never dared tell a joke in public and I still wouldn't do it today', he says. ‘I can do dry wit because then if you keep a straight face and people laugh then its dry wit. But if your joke doesn't work, you can just keep sailing through without an invitation to laugh that's not accepted.'
Bolt's assessment of Fear is probably right. It certainly isn't Les Murray, but it is a fascinating insight into the young Bolt's mindset. He says the poem isn't self-referential, but it is unmistakably written as an outlier railing against racism and the mob mentality.
Bolt's fear and loathing of the mob is driven in some part because he believes people lose their identities when they become part of the collective. But it's also because he sees himself as not really belonging. ‘I always felt a little bit the outsider through shyness, through my kind of upbringing, through not knowing the codes or the films or the sport,' he says. ‘When I was a boy we moved down from Darwin to Tarcoola to Warramboo in the Eyre Peninsula, which is cricket and football country. And I'd never played cricket in my life, never even seen it! And so in that sort of situation as a kid you're really on the back foot. And I'm not very social, so all that kind of stuff. So I've always been an outsider. And you don't expect much, you don't expect favours done.'
It's easy to see why Bolt saw himself as something of an interloper from an early age. His parents, Mike and Margaret, emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia in 1958.
The eldest of four children, Andrew was born on 26 September 1959 in Adelaide. His father was a teacher in the Netherlands, but unqualified to teach in Australia, so his first jobs in the new country were working in a brush factory and as a bus conductor.
After gaining his qualifications to teach in Australia, Mike accepted a job in Elizabeth, the migrant catchment north of Adelaide. From there it was to Darwin, which according to Bolt, was an oasis compared to the years that followed. The Bolts' lived on Rapid Creek Road in Rapid Creek, then the very edge of Darwin. Beyond their home were mangroves and creeks and, Bolt assumed, saltwater crocodiles. In the afternoons, when he wasn't playing with friends in the bush across the road and climbing backyard trees, Bolt would earn money delivering newspapers. His evenings were spent reading and listening to his father's small record collection. ‘He didn't have many, but Handel's Water Music suite arranged by Hamilton Harty, Dvorak's New World Symphony, Salvation Army Choral Standards, the Mastreechter Staar Choir, the Don Cossack Choir of Serge Jaroff and Mozart's Haffner Symphony. That was about it and so I played them quite a lot', remembers Bolt.
Bolt's love of music continues to this day. But as a young boy, the appeal of classical music was that it made him feel less on the outside. ‘It was a symbol of escaping, if you're not doing very well in fitting into your environment, then you're looking for something else. So it's a sense of being in tune with classical music, European music or Europe that gave me an excuse to be not very good at what was going on in my current environment. So there's a strong element of that escapism'.
After six years in Darwin, Mike applied to be a school principal. ‘Dad had a list of about 50 schools and he had to prioritise in order of preference and they gave him about number 47 or something which was Tarcoola in the Nullarbor Plain'.
The only other Grade 7 boy at Bolt's new school was Danny, who became his best friend. ‘Danny was also school captain and purely incidentally, Aboriginal. A lot of the boys we played football with from other schools, like Cook, were Aboriginal,' says Bolt.
After a year at Tarcoola, Margaret fell pregnant so the Bolt family decided to relocate to a town that was close to a hospital. They moved a couple of hundred kilometres south to Warramboo in the Eyre Peninsula where Mike was school principal for the next three years before being transferred to Tailem Bend, on the Murray River, 95 kilometres east of Adelaide.
Bolt doesn't remember his family home as being particularly political. ‘Mum had strong views but I don't recall there being too many in politics. The only clue I can think of as far as political allegiances of my parents when I was a child, was that our cat was called Dame Pattie Menzies. Read into that what you will,' offers Bolt.
Perhaps it was his sense that he was on the outside looking in, but by his mid-teens Bolt became desperate to travel to Europe. There was no great family wealth to rely on to fund such a journey so he had to find the money himself. In his final couple of years of high school, he came up with the idea of earning money by playing in a band. Of course there was nothing new about the idea of deriving some income by playing at local dances, but Bolt's idea was original insofar as he didn't actually know how to play a musical instrument.
Undeterred by a lack of ability, Bolt chose the drums as the instrument best able to disguise his musical shortcomings; ‘I discovered that if you're a musician one of the things you actually need to be able to do is to play an instrument. And that usually takes a lot of lessons. But with a drum and a stick you instantly make the right sound. Instantly!' Some 35 years later, Bolt still seems delighted with himself at the simplistic genius of his idea.
Playing at local dances in Tailem Bend, Murray Bridge, Jervois, and Wellington, Bolt and his band played music for dances like the Military Three Step, the Foxtrot, and the Waltz. Bolt recalls their most requested track was Swinging Safari. On occasions they'd play Running Bear for the children. When Andrew's brother, Richard, joined the band of apprentice musicians they at first made him play softly enough for no one to hear. ‘We'd play while the women put their plates in the side room and the men chatted by the hall entrance. Dads would dance with their daughters, and aunts taught steps to their nephews.'
After finishing Grade 12, Bolt received an offer from Adelaide University to study for an Arts degree but deferred study for a year so he could travel. Visiting Holland was his first priority. ‘Most of my parents' relatives are still there. And a couple of them had come to Australia when I was a child and they were extremely lovely and loving. I thought a lot about travelling to Europe in general, but Holland as well, as it would be a nice base for me and they really wanted me to come over. They wanted me to come to Holland and I very much wanted to leave home. And it was a meeting of interests,' says Bolt.
Bolt's desperation from an early age to travel overseas must have been somewhat unusual for a teenager in Australia in the late 1970s. But that's the thing with outsiders: they are always searching for a new environment where they might feel they fit in.
‘So I went off to Holland with the money I'd earned', says Bolt. ‘My parents didn't pay much attention to fashion, we weren't that rich. One of my aunts in Holland had a very fashionable jeans shop and the minute I arrived in Aalsmeer they took one look at me and clad me from top to toe with new clothes'.
Bolt has fond memories of his year in Holland. ‘I packed flowers there and worked in a paint factory. And then habit drove me back to Australia. I hold it against myself that I didn't have the courage to consider staying because I loved it.'
When Bolt returned he started his Arts degree at Adelaide University, taking subjects in philosophy, German, music, and politics. He grimaces as he recalls his time at university: ‘It was one of the worst years of my life. I lived in the pantry of a share accommodation with two girls. I earned money doing fruit picking and fruit cutting, things like that. I was in the Army Reserves for a while. I think the highlight of my period in the Army Reserves was being asked to not join the parade because I had dressed so very badly and asked to "just sit under that tree". I joined the Reserves for the money and for the drumming lessons that I fondly imagined I would finally get'.
Bolt wasn't politically or even socially active at university, preferring to keep to just a few close friends. He recalls having strong views at the time, but neither the confidence nor the self-perceived ability to articulate them. ‘I rose without trace. I'm quite a shy person and didn't get involved in much and didn't feel part of it. All of that was beyond me. I was a very good Dutch boy thinking the most important thing about university was to pass your exams.'
There's no doubt Bolt found his secondary and tertiary education inadequate and it troubles him to this day: ‘One of the things I feel strongly about in education is the idea of making teaching "more relevant". You hear of it less than you did over the last couple of decades. There must still be kids like I was, who feel they are at the bottom of a big pit and there's a very skinny ladder stretching up to the sky far, far above. In all my schooling I only had one Shakespearian play, and that's the shortest one and only the film version-the truncated Polanski version of Macbeth. I'm not even sure we saw it all the way through. So that was it. No foreign language, very little core reading like Charles Dickens or anything like that. And I just think there must be kids feeling trapped like that. They don't have that ladder.'
Bolt didn't persist with his tertiary studies. At the end of his first year he received a cadetship offer from The Age newspaper in Melbourne, almost 12 months after he had first applied. He spent an unremarkable cadetship at The Age, doing the sort of rudimentary things that all cadets do: such as collating times for shipping arrivals and departures.
It could have been that working at one of Australia's best known daily newspapers would help Bolt feel like he was now on the inside. Instead, it probably did more to accentuate his sense that he was a trespasser. ‘When I first came to The Age as a cadet and I had such a cheap suit, I could see the hairs on my leg through the fabric and I was surrounded by other cadets who'd gone to university and got a degree, or were the daughter of an ex-editor of the paper, people that lived in South Yarra, that sort of thing, and they were all familiar with all the code words that I didn't have.'
In early 1984, restless and unsettled, Bolt left The Age on leave without pay and returned to Holland for four months. ‘I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't feel I was getting anywhere - I was just looking for something else, just an escape you know.'
Bolt came back to Australia as irresolute as he left it. It wouldn't be the last time he would attempt to leave journalism; the outsider was still not sure where he belonged. It's not clear why Bolt thought the answer might be in Darwin, but nevertheless, that was his next destination when he followed his then girlfriend, who was a belly dancer.
Confessions of a former Labor staffer
One of the great paradoxes of Bolt's career is his two periods of service as a Labor staffer. It's a detail which inevitably confounds critics and supporters alike. But like most things in Bolt's life, it wasn't part of any grand design, instead it was just another accidental circumstance. ‘I went to Darwin as a minder for a belly dancer who was my then girlfriend', says Bolt. ‘I soon got bored, went to the local Commonwealth Employment Service office and on the pin board they had a job as a political staffer. I don't even know if the party was nominated. Anyway, I applied for it and it was the Federal Member for the Northern Territory, John Reeves, who's a lovely bloke. It was supposed to be a temporary thing because one of his staff got sick, but it worked out so well that I stayed for the election.'
It was during this period that Bolt befriended Gary Gray, who at the time was working for Bob Collins, then the Leader of the Opposition in the Northern Territory. When Bolt reflects on this period he recalls himself as an interested observer rather than a participant. ‘The other people did the politics. I was really just in their shadow and enjoying it. It was just really intoxicating and it was the first time I got that real buzz you get from politics which is really dangerous. You know that space where you're so convinced that your side is right and in those conditions the other side is immoral and therefore you're excused all sorts of things. You start thinking: "they're immoral so why should you be nice to them? Why should you follow all the rules?'''
John Reeves lost his seat (and later went on to be a Federal Court Judge) and Andrew Bolt, now unemployed, returned to Melbourne at The Age only to soon be offered a job by then editor of The Herald, Neil Mitchell.
Andrew and Sally
Like his career, many of the defining moments of his life have been a case of good luck rather than good management. That includes the circumstances in which Bolt met his wife, Sally Morrell.
Not long into his new job as a journalist at The Herald, Bolt filed a story for the afternoon newspaper for the sub-editor to complete. For reasons that are still unclear, the sub-editor omitted Bolt's name on the by-line, instead mistakenly attributing the article to another Herald journalist, Sally Morrell. Bolt made the discovery later that day when he opened the newspaper. He had previously been too shy to talk to his colleague, Morrell, and saw this fortuitous circumstance as an opportunity to strike up a conversation. ‘Well it gave me a reason to talk to her I guess. It gave me an excuse. And after some weeks I plucked up the courage to invite her out', says Bolt.
Unlike Andrew, Sally's career was making headway and not long into their relationship she accepted a transfer with The Herald to the Canberra Press Gallery in Parliament House, working under bureau chief, Kate Legge.
By his own admission, Bolt was still drifting, trying to find his niche. ‘I tried to break away from journalism again. So I went to India to do some freelance work.' To this day Bolt still can't explain why he thought freelancing in India was a good idea: ‘Why would you do that? I mean, stupid-freelance journalism in India! If you tried to figure out how long it takes to get anything done there and you're freelancing without an office and no real plan. It was just a joke'.
Bolt's attempt at freelance media in India was short-lived. But his stalled career aside, Bolt enjoyed his time in the subcontinent, his most vivid memory being the Oxford Mission in then Calcutta. ‘The mission taught kids music and not just any music, but they taught the violin, the viola, the cello and they played Bach and Vivaldi and things like that because this was going to elevate these street kids. When I went to visit them they had one of their former students who was actually making this tremendous career in Britain playing the cello, and he played a Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in this classroom. For me it was surreal, but that idea of by almost chance a street kid in Calcutta playing Bach is astonishing and how the world opens up to them. Like, here's a bloke that was going to concert halls in Britain as a result. Most of the graduates of the school went to play for the Indian film industry. A great career, not what they were trained to do-they didn't play Bollywood classics from the school-but they were beautifully trained to play music. Accidental good was done and I was introduced to the concept of unintended consequences.'
His Indian sojourn over, Bolt returned to Australia and called his old friend Gary Gray, seeking employment in Canberra so he could be with Sally. It was 1987 and the Hawke Labor Government was chasing its third election win in a row, something federal Labor hadn't achieved since the Curtin/Chifley Labor Government of the 1940s.
Gray found Bolt a job with aNiMaLS, the feared Labor attack machine of the Hawke and Keating years. aNiMaLS was the moniker given to the more prosaic, official title of National Media Liaison Service. But aNiMaLS was a highly political unit led by Labor apparatchiks which specialised in opposition research, rapid tactical response and marginal seat campaigning. Other alumni of aNiMaLS include the respected and ubiquitous David Epstein (a former chief of staff to Kevin Rudd); Labor veteran Colin Campbell; Rosemary Church, now a presenter with CNN; Col Parkes; and the highly-regarded Jack Lake, a long time Labor operative and also most recently a former senior advisor to Kevin Rudd.
Unsurprisingly, Bolt recalls his role at aNiMaLS as mostly perfunctory, performing largely rudimentary tasks. ‘We were ostensibly a government department and so technically we couldn't do party business. But we did. When Parliament wasn't sitting I'd fly around the country doing party audits of the press functions of various local Labor members of parliament if they wanted it. I'd go into a marginal seat and I would say: "well, this is what you could do with the material we're giving you to get a bit better publicity." And when parliament was sitting we'd print up these little four page things where we'd package up the message of the day. It was designed so the local member could just drop in their name as well as the figure of spending for their electorate and "bang" they had their press release!'
Despite Bolt's pessimism at the time that Labor would lose the 1987 election, Hawke capitalised on the disarray in Coalition ranks caused in some part by the ‘Joh for PM' sideshow and increased his government's majority from 16 to 24 seats.
Andrew and Sally left Canberra after the 1987 federal election and moved to Adelaide, living in a small place on East Terrace, bordering the central business district. Bolt had accepted a job as the publicity director of State Opera of South Australia and Sally worked at The Advertiser, then under the stewardship of John Scales.
Bolt's time as publicity director at the State Opera of South Australia was, by any measure, a disaster. ‘They would put on a production of one of their favourite operas, Orpheus and Eurydice but the director would say "stuff you, I'm doing it my way". So Orpheus was set in a junkyard with Orpheus in a dinner suit tugging along a doll made up to look like him, two feet high! And then they wondered why Thomas Edmonds, a tenor, had pulled out of the production! It was just ghastly. And I had to be selling tickets for a theatre that was a third full. So the boss left and I was acting general manager which was another joke. So I begged for a job back at The Herald which was then edited by Eric Beecher.' Bolt pauses, an impish grin flashing across his face before he continues: ‘I'm sure Eric would be mortified to think he gave me another chance back in the business.'
So Andrew and Sally moved back to Melbourne where they married shortly after in 1989 and began their family of three children.
The accidental columnist
Bolt's big break as a columnist came at someone else's misfortune. The regular opinion page editor at The Herald fell ill and Bolt was asked to stand in during their absence. ‘I started running my own pieces because no one else probably would've run them. And more importantly, I started to learn what it was that made a good opinion piece.'
In Bolt's assessment, a good opinion piece requires two critical elements. ‘First, a strong unequivocal opinion, and second a reason for that opinion. Which a lot of beginners don't give, they write "I don't like this and this....well why?" But really there's so many ways an opinion piece can be a great read. First, because the writer is famous. Nelson Mandela could write on cooking and people would read it even though he could be an absolutely hopeless cook and writer. The name could make it. Or you'd read the piece because it is by someone who'd been there and been part of the news; "I survived the pack rape in the Congo" and you'd read it. It wouldn't matter who it was by, it wouldn't even matter if it was good, you'd read it. Or you'd read something because it's just fun, brilliantly written. With a lot of luck you get all three of them.'
‘But there's really no one way to column writing. Sometimes you can have information that's valuable, sometimes you can just have an outrageous opinion. So it's very different things. It's getting as many of those things in the one piece, of outrageously funny, well-written, stacked with information, about some outrageous event, by a very famous person. Well that hits all the buttons, but how many times do you get that?'
By now, The Herald and The Sun News Pictorial had merged into the Herald Sun. Bolt was no longer editing opinion pieces and had accepted a position as the industrial relations correspondent. He recalls this period as his toughest as a journalist. ‘Piers Akerman was the editor and the Cain/Kirner Government was at war with the Herald Sun. Piers had run a front page saying Kirner should be sacked so it was pretty hairy being at the Trades Hall offices under John Halfpenny and as an IR reporter for the Herald Sun and with my views being well known as well, it was all a bit intimidating. To make it more difficult, one of my colleagues, in inverted commas, was telling senior union figures not to deal with me. At the time I had only met Martin Ferguson once or twice, he knew where I stood politically one would assume, and he rang me and told me this was happening, he said it wasn't fair dealing and that he had no problem dealing with me. I rate him very highly as a person for that. And every dealing I've had with him since, even when I don't agree with his position, has been very good. I've learnt as you go on in life that character counts.'
In 1997, Andrew was appointed Asian Correspondent for the Herald Sun and he and Sally moved their family to Hong Kong, for the handover to China, and then to Bangkok. ‘It was a brilliant time, going all around Asia, Pakistan to Indonesia, Philippines to Cambodia and Laos.'
Hong Kong remains one of Bolt's favourite cities. ‘I loved that sense of human will. Whenever I fly into Hong Kong it always makes me think of Beethoven's Third Symphony where the orchestra goes "bang bang bang". If you went to Hong Kong 200 years ago and someone said to you "we're going to build a city for five million people right here", you'd say: "Well how? Water, food, what?" And then "bang, bang, bang" these great towers and structures plonked onto bare rock. It's absolutely enormous, it's such an effort of will.'
Travel is an important part of Andrew and Sally's life. Bolt's favourite country for travel at the moment is Italy. ‘I love Italy, the cooking, the scenery but most of all the art. You think of Florence and its surrounding villages like Vinci where Leonardo da Vinci originated. That area had a population the size of Adelaide's, a million people and yet they have produced giants like Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Vasari, Brunelleschi, Niccolo Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Donatello and so on. That's just astonishing in an area with a population the size of Adelaide. What's Adelaide produced? I don't mention that just to disparage Adelaide because what's Florence done in the last 100 years? I don't know. I'm just saying here in one little area is a place where the Renaissance was born and there's this enormous burst of creativity. How is it that one can have in one geographic area an explosion of creative brilliance of something that's of appeal throughout the world and it's got something to say to everyone and yet for dead centuries, huge areas of the rest of the world produce nothing. What does that say?'
When Bolt and family returned to Melbourne in 1999, then editor of the Herald Sun, Peter Blunden, offered him the choice of going into management or writing a weekly opinion piece. Bolt chose writing.
The freedom to write a regular column where he could hold the unaccountable to account was too appealing to Bolt. Before long, he was writing two columns a week. ‘I think that sense of being outside looking in has helped me in the way I write. If you are part of a social group, you're not likely to trample on its norms or mock its idols or code words. I'm not part of any group so I don't have any sense of wanting to exchange social codes or anything. So it's like if people don't like me, if they want to shun me for what I write, fine, I haven't wasted time. That's where I think I should be, it's my natural position.'
Bolt can't identify any defining moment that cultivated his current conservative views. His suspicion is that he has always broadly had the same strong views, but until the last decade neither the confidence nor the access to the facts to give them voice. In some instances, Bolt says his inclinations have developed organically, through pursuits such as reading or travel. ‘When you visit a place like Cambodia and are confronted by the sight of a three metre tower of skulls one on top of the other which was done by people who believed they were doing good, then it does change your appreciation of needing to judge ideals by their consequences.'
He has changed his views on some issues. The searing experience of watching his mother die of cancer converted Bolt into a vocal advocate for euthanasia at the time. ‘When her cancer had spread everywhere, mum persuaded us that her life wasn't worth living. I rang around to ask for some help and was given some tablets for mum to take. She took them but they didn't work and she woke up the next morning. Two weeks later she died naturally. So I was red hot about euthanasia at the time. But over the years I have come to realise that there are inherent dangers with euthanasia: parents who wrongly feel they are a burden, adult children who won't take responsibility for caring for their parents. And there have been some incredible advances in palliative care. So I have changed my views on euthanasia.'
Bolt was very close to his mother. She had an unshakable faith in his ability and for a kid lacking in self-confidence that can build an unbreakable bond. Bolt describes his relationship with his mother as fraught and intense. But Bolt also appears haunted by doubts she died content. ‘I sometimes wonder if she was unhappy, perhaps frustrated. She was very intelligent and a good writer: perhaps she wanted to do more; I don't know.'
Bolt remembers one of his first controversial columns to be about the National Art Gallery's exhibition of works painted by convicted criminals. ‘These paintings were supposed to let you see the humanity of these people. And it was all very nice; there was even a book where you could write your reactions. Almost all of the reactions were, "it's a shame you're locked up, this isn't human, look at how wonderful you are". But what was missing in that whole display of pity was a description of their crimes. And some of the crimes committed by these people were really, really vicious. And we are talking about criminals who had murdered their wives in the most brutal ways imaginable. Which if you had known when you were looking at their art you might have had a different sort of reaction. So I wrote about that.'
Bolt's breakthrough as a columnist was his February 2001 interview with Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue where she corrected her earlier claims that she was a part of the stolen generation referred to in the Bringing Them Home report in 1997. In Bolt's interview with O'Donoghue, the co-patron of the National Sorry Day Committee said: ‘(My father) didn't want to be straddled with five kids. I haven't forgiven him. I don't like the word "stolen" and it's perhaps true that I've used the words loosely at times. I would see myself as a removed child, and not necessarily stolen.' Asked during the interview whether it would be better to state clearly that she wasn't a member of the stolen generation, O'Donoghue replied: ‘I am prepared to make that concession.'
‘What frustrated me about this issue was that it was as if everyone had to think a certain way by moral force. And if you didn't you were automatically open to accusations of racism. There was also no thought for the hundreds of very good people who spent decades helping Aboriginal children,' says Bolt.
Bolt's report was splashed across the front page of several of the News Limited daily mastheads and ignited the debate in the mainstream media. On the day of its publication, then Prime Minister John Howard, seized on the admission declaring: ‘It's time we stopped this business about who was to blame for what may or may not have happened in the past. It's time we stopped using outrageous words like genocide. And it's time we focused on making things better in the future.'
It was a seminal moment for Bolt because, in his words, it taught him not to accept something as fact just because conventional wisdom says so. It also gave Bolt the confidence to challenge other accepted orthodoxies that had to date escaped scrutiny.
Climate change has become one of those causes célèbres for Bolt. The turning point for him on the climate change debate was the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992. What Bolt objected to most was what he saw as the massive group think together with its hidden, anti-human agendas. ‘When I started writing about it, it was clear another argument should be put forward but no-one else was saying it. I thought it was something we needed to talk about instead of just blindly accepting the mob's decree.'
Before long, Bolt was writing two columns a week, each occupying a two page spread. It's an impressive amount of real estate, given the Herald Sun's massive readership. His print columns are now syndicated and also appear in The Daily Telegraph, The Northern Territory News, and The Advertiser.
In May 2005, Bolt established a web-only forum to interact with Herald Sun readers and a year later it took on the guise of its current blog format. The traffic on the website is mind-boggling. In busy periods, Bolt's blog registers two million page impressions a month from more than 300,000 unique browsers.
Annabel Crabb, another writer and commentator who enjoys a huge personal following, thinks that a part of Bolt's success is his unique offering in the Australian market. ‘Andrew occupies a role in Australian political debate unlike just about anyone else. He is much more like an American media identity than an Australian one, in that he is a sort of journo-polemicist; he develops an editorial line on an issue, and then pursues and builds on it over time, usually with the help of a significant online community of followers and supporters.'
Political editor for Channel 9, Laurie Oakes, has on occasion been on the receiving end of some of Bolt's criticisms. It's not personal, of course. But Andrew Bolt, the outsider, is always looking to challenge insiders, and they don't come any more on the inside than Laurie Oakes. Oakes thinks that Bolt expresses the conservative agenda better than most. ‘Andrew Bolt isn't predictable-he comes at things from different and fresh angles, which makes him interesting reading,' says Oakes.
Today, Bolt's influence has spread beyond print and the internet. He appears twice weekly on Channel 9's Today Show and has a 40 minute segment every weekday morning with Steve Price on Melbourne radio station, MTR. Bolt is also a regular guest on the ABC's Sunday morning political program, named, ironically, Insiders. His weekdays begin at 5.10 am with his first posts on his blog appearing before 6 am and his day concludes at around 10.30 pm.
The most important conservative figure in Australia
His popular characterisation as a ‘conservative' doesn't necessarily sit well with Andrew Bolt. He doesn't see himself as a flagship for anyone or any particular movement, but uses the tag of conservative as a pre-emptive label because it's easier to accept the epithet-or worse yet, be called right-wing-and move on, rather than get bogged down in a debate about semantics.
Bolt describes his own philosophical brand as a combination of humanism and rationalism. ‘We are at our best when we are free and rational', says Bolt. ‘When you're in the crowd you can lose the capacity to think for yourself, so the ability to take a very rational view of facts and draw your own conclusions underpins my philosophical beliefs.'
But regardless of how Andrew Bolt sees himself, there is no doubt that conservatives see Bolt as a champion and defender of their values.
The reason Bolt matters to conservatives is because in a national media which is populated by left-leaning commentators and reporters, Bolt gives a voice to conservatives who feel, rightly or wrongly, that there is an innate bias in the mainstream media.
Senior conservative figures readily acknowledge Bolt's importance as an advocate of their values. Senator Nick Minchin, one of the most respected figures within the Liberal Party, is an unabashed admirer of Bolt. ‘Andrew is an inspiration to the millions of Australians of a conservative disposition. He has established himself as one of the leading voices on the conservative side of Australian opinion.'
It's a sentiment also shared by his opponents from the Left. Paul Howes, the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, has no doubt about the impact Bolt has on the national debate. ‘As an advocate of conservative causes he is devastating. What makes him so effective is that he is not blinded by party loyalties. He is only loyal to his own brand of conservative beliefs,' says Howes.
If it sounds like Paul Howes, one of the warriors of the Left, likes Andrew Bolt, it's because he does. Bolt and Howes have crossed swords on issues on many occasions, but Howes credits Bolt for always being prepared to take his phone call and listening to the opposing view and offering the reasoning behind his own arguments. ‘I like him as a person, he's very decent and he is uniquely generous in the way he likes to engage in debate and explain his views,' says Howes.
It's also true that Bolt often articulates the conservative agenda better than most Coalition politicians. In the post-Howard and Costello era this has become more important to conservatives who have been frustrated by the Coalition's difficulties in communicating its message. ‘He's been at the forefront of exposing the left-wing bias of much of Australia's media. In particular he has been a courageous fighter for reason and commonsense on climate change,' says Minchin.
Broadcaster Alan Jones is also an enthusiastic reader of Bolt's columns. It's probably also true that Jones sees Bolt as a kindred spirit - someone who is both revered and reviled, but never unnoticed. ‘Andrew Bolt is one of the most authoritative conservative commentators in this country at a time when writers tend to fall over themselves to accommodate the prevailing will of government. Some are worried, more often than not, about the need to curry favour to advance their own interest. He has a wonderful clarity in his expression and a capacity to strip away much of the varnish and get right to the substance of the issue. He is widely read and immensely popular because of his forthright, relevant and clearly articulated views,' says Jones.
Just as Bolt is lionised by his followers, he is demonised by his detractors.
Indeed, the mere mention of Bolt's name can elicit strong emotional responses from his critics.
His clashes with David Marr and Robert Manne, are stuff of legend. Manne has accused Bolt of ‘historical denialism' whilst Marr has effectively charged Bolt with having a glass jaw.
There is no question his detractors take offence to the content of Bolt's writings. But there is also little doubt that Bolt's popularity, in particular the enormous traffic on his blog, is something that leaves his critics confounded.
What frustrates his opponents is that in person Andrew Bolt is unfailingly polite and quietly spoken. Annabel Crabb, who often appears with Bolt on the ABC's Insiders program, is another who says that the hard edge to Bolt's writing is not reflected in his personal dialogue: ‘In person, he is much less confrontational than he is in print; I always get along with him perfectly well, and find him terrific company'.
But there is no doubt that Andrew Bolt is a polarising figure. Nobody is lukewarm on Andrew Bolt; you are either with him or against him. ‘Barrie Cassidy always says that he never gets more complaints than when Andrew's on - and he never has better ratings, either. There's always a strong "get rid of Bolt" lobby among some sections of the Insiders audience, but I think the show would be poorer without him,' says Crabb.
Bolt's critics often make the mistake of labelling him as a partisan political player. The fact is, Bolt is too much of an outsider to be a part of a political organisation with its codes and doctrinaire structures. It's something that Paul Howes recognises. ‘People like Andrew don't belong to tribes. He's always the outsider because he is willing to talk with everyone on both sides of the aisle. It's hard to be a member of a tribe if you're seen hanging out with the other gang. Anyone who goes from Labor staffer in the Northern Territory to an industrial relations reporter in Melbourne to a conservative columnist has most probably upset a few people along the way, and it's probably because he is such an outsider that he is prepared to be like that.'
Likewise, Alan Jones recognises the outsider in Bolt. ‘Andrew Bolt is Andrew Bolt, he says it as he sees it and to use a cliché, it is without fear and favour.'
Crabb takes a slightly different tack, arguing that Bolt is both an outsider and an insider. ‘There is certainly an outsider's distance about him; one senses that he is very much driven by a contempt for casual orthodoxies, and that in my opinion is the source of his strongest material, which at its best can be fearless and powerful. But he is an insider in another way, too: he writes for an audience, as is obvious from the blog, and in my view he sometimes weakens his own work by lapsing into sarcasm and unnecessary ad hominem attacks which, while no doubt popular with the blog followers, often serve to obscure the value of the argument.'
Where to from here?
Bolt believes that the modern Labor Party is being cannibalised by its younger inner-city support base. According to Bolt, decades of Labor governments tampering with education curricula by building in a left-wing bias have created a generation of young voters pulling the Labor Party further to the left than it electorally wants to be. ‘Labor is being eaten alive by the children they've re-educated,' says Bolt.
‘Labor, for sheer self-preservation will attack the Greens and redefine themselves,' predicts Bolt.
Not that Bolt believes the Greens will depart the political stage anytime soon. ‘I think the Greens' future will be a long, uneven, slow decline with the caveat being how much longer Bob Brown continues as leader. A new far-left party will eventually follow the Greens, it will be a new faith but with the same elements.'
Bolt is optimistic about the Liberal Party's electoral fortunes under Tony Abbott. He believes that whilst Malcolm Turnbull has his limitations as a political figure, Tony Abbott is developing the self-belief that is necessary for a leadership role. ‘I think with Tony Abbott, his success has been addressing his character. I think he's a lovely bloke, I really like him but he had certain things he needed to confess-his sense of unworthiness that he couldn't measure up to John Howard and others. He always saw them as "up there" and himself as "down here". But he's deliberately, painfully and bravely tackled that and he was pretty impressive in the last election campaign.'
For Bolt, the three big issues facing Australia are: the debate about nuclear energy, how to assimilate new arrivals into Australia, and how Australia manages in a region and a world that increasingly doesn't share our Western values and is in fact increasingly hostile to them.
Bolt believes it is unsustainable for the left to continue to advocate a carbon reduction agenda and not support nuclear energy. ‘At some point we will have to go nuclear if we truly want to slash our emissions,' says Bolt. ‘Labor is going to have to face up to it. At some point people who believe their green agenda will have to embrace nuclear power. Conservatives can accept nuclear power so it's incumbent on Labor to start to reconcile their policy with their objective,' argues Bolt.
The challenge of assimilation is less straightforward in Bolt's assessment. ‘You see lots of kids spinning off. I think our challenge is to create a sense of community, to make our culture so attractive that they want to subscribe to it and so that they don't set themselves against it, but want to be part of it.'
The private Bolt and his influences
His critics might label him as populist, but there is nothing particularly mainstream about Andrew Bolt's personal life.
The hallway of Bolt's family home is littered with their son's school bags, decorated with Richmond Football Club supporter gear. An empty music stand belonging to their daughter rests by a sofa. The walls are crowded with framed prints of their family on holidays, the only exception being a photo of Bolt, Michael Kroger, and the Canadian columnist Mark Steyn taken at a lecture at the Institute of Public Affairs in 2006.
Kroger and Bolt have developed a strong bond over the years. Over lunch at Tutto Bene, an Italian bistro on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, Kroger tried to persuade Bolt to run for federal parliament. Bolt sidesteps questions about the lunch, only admitting that he and Sally have spoken about the idea but never seriously considered it. ‘I don't know that I am good at being a team member,' he reflects. ‘It was very flattering to be asked but my strength has been just to say what I think. It's a virtue in journalism but not in politics. You've got to know what you are good at, and I don't think politics is what I would be good at.'
Kroger, one of the more influential figures in the Liberal Party, confirms he approached Bolt without success. It's widely accepted that Kroger has an eye for political talent. As state president of the Victorian Liberal Party, Kroger helped engineer the Liberal preselections of Peter Costello, and brothers David and Rod Kemp. ‘Bolt is a one-man political army,' explains Kroger. ‘I thought he should run for parliament because he has a fine intellect, deep convictions and relentless energy. Also, unusually for a conservative, he is an extremely effective media performer and he knows how to influence the political debate.'
The counterview is that Bolt can influence the national debate more effectively as a commentator then he would as a parliamentarian where he would undoubtedly be constrained by the shackles of the party political system. ‘I've got an opportunity,' says Bolt. ‘Some people yell at the television screen, I get to write what I think and I get well paid for it.'
The Bolt family's bookcase displays diverse taste. Bolt hesitates at nominating a favourite book, arguing that it if you've read more than just a few, it's not possible to elect only one. He is currently enjoying the Flashman novels, but also lists Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Joseph Roth as among his favourite authors. He is an inveterate reader and was recently floored by Primo Levi's If this is a man and Stefan Zweig's novel Beware of Pity. He reads Dickens for his characters, whether Micawber, Mrs Haversham, Pecksniff or Sairey Gamp. ‘His plots were always just the strings on which to hang his puppets', explains Bolt. He loves to read Trollope, ‘to hear his sane voice, nod at his judgements, enjoy his goodwill'. Orhan Pamuk's The New Life and Bohumil Hrabal's works are also Bolt favourites.
From a philosophical perspective, Robert Edgerton's Sick Societies, Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies and Edmund Burke's writings have also had a profound influence on Bolt.
Bolt doesn't always have time to read like-minded columnists, but those he does enjoy reading include Tim Blair, Peter Costello, and Janet Albrechtsen. ‘I read Glenn Reynold's blog, Instapundit, and I used to read Peggy Noonan but I haven't done that for a while but I really admire her style', says Bolt.
Bolt is a devotee of Rod Liddle's columns in The Spectator. Liddle himself is an interesting character. Liddle is a member of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom but his published views as the associate editor of The Spectator often belie his left-wing heritage. Not unlike Bolt, Liddle isn't tribal and enjoys a certain freedom to articulate his own brand of philosophy. ‘He's a lefty but he's really good. I love it when he's really, really cross,' laughs Bolt.
Call it an occupational hazard or a mild case of masochism, but Bolt prefers reading columnists whom he is likely to disagree with. ‘I'm always looking for material so I am looking for the ones that I need to read because they represent a challenge to what I think needs defending. So if Geoffrey Robertson wrote a column, I'd absolutely read it. Devour it! Germaine Greer, I'd read it. Catherine Deveny, I'd read it. Although Catherine is too off the planet, it's too easy,' says Bolt.
Bolt's favourite movie is The Leopard; ‘the book Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is just as fabulous-a fabulous movie of a fabulous book. The author was a Sicilian Prince and he only wrote one book in his entire life because his cousin had won a poetry prize and he thought "if that blockhead can do it, I can do it". So I think he was 58 or something and he wrote Il Gattopardo which is about how the aristocracy survived the events of the Risorgimento. ‘There's a great line in the book which articulates a core conservative principle: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change",' says Bolt.
Another Bolt favourite is the 1981 film, Mephisto, which is about a German stage actor, Hendrik Höfgen, who's dream is to play Mephisto. But in order to keep his job in acting and hopefully achieve his dream he sells his soul to Hitler, and then realises when it's too late that in reality he is Faustus. Other favourites include the Godfather movies, Philadelphia Story, and Colonel Redl.
Family is important to Bolt. He and Sally are exceedingly proud of their three children. They both have the same instinctive vision of what they want for their children. An upbringing where the children never doubt for a day they are loved, where their triumphs are celebrated and their disappointments consoled. A nearby Chinese restaurant was the scene of many family dinners celebrating school reports and other achievements.
James, at the age of 16, shares his father's enthusiasm for writing and debate and his team recently won the Grade 11 state debating championship. ‘He is a bit like me, but kinder, wiser and more sure of being loved,' says Bolt. The middle child, Elizabeth, is eleven years old. ‘I want her to run the Hotel Crillon in Paris or be prime minister. She's okay about the Hotel Crillon business, not so sure about prime minister. She's a darling. She's a doer, a really kind doer. You know she'll cook dinner for us as a surprise and things like that. She cooked last night; she made an invention with her younger brother-Melbournian Pasta! She's also very good at the clarinet.'
The youngest, Dominic, is 10 years old. ‘He values order. He's very much his own person and with him things have got to be done in an order. He won't be pushed, won't be made to do anything that's not him. And it must be the right thing to do and if it's not the right thing, well, you can't do it.'
His late father-in-law, Claude, had a big influence over Bolt. ‘One of my great teachers in a sense was my father-in-law, Claude. He died a few years ago and he was a lovely, lovely loving bloke and he taught me a bit about an Australia I didn't really know much about. He was a former travel agent and bookie's clerk and then a taxi driver. His father was a top bookie. He introduced me to lots of people who were his friends at bowling clubs, the races, people from his work, and I saw the sort of Australia I never knew about.'
Bolt wrote a column about Claude after his passing. ‘Being from a migrant family, and very shy, I didn't fully learn the best of Australia until I met Claude. Claude was prepared to welcome anyone who didn't dog his shout, turn nasty, go home early or pretend to be something bigger than he was. We liked each other instantly. More than liked, in time.'
Bolt still thinks about Claude often. ‘I always felt more comfortable talking with a Claude than with some of these grand schemers you see too often. There's a great quote "that so much of humanity is disguised love of power".'
If we're all outsiders, who is on the inside?
If Robert Frost was right when he wrote: ‘you can be a rank insider as well as a rank outsider', then it goes a long way to understanding Andrew Bolt.
The apparent randomness of Andrew Bolt's path to success can deceive the casual onlooker into imagining that he is merely the beneficiary of good fortune. There's no doubt that Bolt is a talented writer with strong opinions and a deep understanding of politics, but that hardly makes him unique. How did he become Australia's pre-eminent conservative columnist?
What sets Bolt apart from his contemporaries is that unlike most political commentators he has resisted the seduction of the clique. While most political journalists unconsciously lapse into writing for each other, reinforcing the group-think amongst Australia's predominantly left-wing commentariat, Bolt remains stubbornly committed to his broad audience of ordinary Australians. This is apparent not only in his opinions, but also in his simple, direct style of writing.
Journalists are as vain and ambitious as any other profession. Like most of us, they crave the respect of their peers. For those working in the Byzantine world of politics, this requires a capitulation to the orthodoxies of the day, a surreptitious tipping of the hat to the prevailing wisdom of the political class, a knowing nod and a wink to readers on the inside.
Whether he likes it or not, Bolt is a political insider. How else to describe one of the nation's most influential political columnists? But what makes Bolt unique is his indifference to the opinion of his fellow insiders. He is comfortable with being an outlier. He does not pitch to the political elite, but to the common man. This is the space where he wants to be. He writes like an outsider because he feels like an outsider.
And the outsiders read him in their hundreds of thousands. He is, after all, their man on the inside.