By Sheridan VoyseySunday 5 May 2013Open House InterviewsInspirational StoriesReading Time: 15 minutes
Former Prime Minister John Howard once said there was no finer human being in Australian politics than John Anderson. Esteemed by both sides of parliament as the ‘Mr Clean’ of political life, John Anderson’s twenty year parliamentary career saw him rise to become Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.
In 2005 John Anderson stood down as Deputy Prime Minister for health and family reasons, and when he joined us on Open House in August 2007 he was only months away from relinquishing his long-held seat of Gwydir. His insights into political life and his passionate views on faith and public values will not be soon forgotten.
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It’s been a couple of years since you relinquished the role of Deputy Prime Minister for health reasons, and also to spend more time with your family. Is life any slower for you?
Well, the answer is yes, it is. I suspect that very few people have any real insight into how busy a Federal political leader’s life actually is. The hours are extraordinary. The pressure is extraordinary. I’m still busy, but nothing like I was in those days.
Give us a picture of what your average day used to be like.
It depended very much on whether I was in Canberra or out somewhere in the electorate. As Deputy Prime Minister I suppose I saw the whole of Australia as my electorate.
In Canberra I would typically be in the office by about 7.30 in the morning, having already tried to catch up on some of the news of the day. I’d have any early staff meetings planned; sometimes these were breakfasts so you’d be in even earlier—this dreadful American habit of having no time in the rest of the day so you have breakfast meetings as well. Then the meetings would start around 8.00am with my chiefs of staff and senior advisors. Then we would have our leadership meeting at 8.30 where the leadership of the coalition—the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Treasurer and so forth—would meet.
During the morning you might have anything from legislation to introduce through to delegations to see. There were always delegations—always people with genuine reasons who needed to see you. And you were never able, ever, to meet the demand from people who had some particular cause that they wanted to see you about.
Nearly always there would be some function at lunch. If there wasn’t, you still wouldn’t stop for lunch—you would try and catch up with your paperwork. And you’d never beat the paperwork either. There was always media to do, and then of course at about one o’clock you’d have to prepare for question time, between 2.00 and 3.00 pm.
I usually took further delegations between 3.00 pm and dinner at 6.30. Probably one night out of two there would be some official function at night. Then after dinner we would turn our minds to departmental business, whatever the portfolio issues at the time were.
The problem at that level of politics is that you never know when the next landmine is going to go off—some urgent matter that’s totally unforeseeable appearing out of the blue. It might be something ‘minor’ like a failure in a power supply at a major airport which could have major ramifications, right through to the ultimate one which was the totally unexpected events of September 11.
You can see why you wanted more time with the family too. I’m sure they hardly saw you over those years.
We worked very hard at it. Sunday was always our day. The old saying that on your death bed you’re not going to wish you spent more time at the office is absolutely right. But the big issue for me was to make certain that when I was with the family I wasn’t giving them second-hand time, through exhaustion or having my mind elsewhere. I was very conscious that I didn’t have many years with my children and so I tried to give them what time I could. And of course it’s very important to keep a marriage fresh as well.
So it’s a very demanding role. And in the end for me, for several years, I had a bit of a health issue which was totally benign, totally non-threatening, but the medical advice was that my lifestyle, the stress levels and the travel was causing it. It manifested itself in interrupted sleep, and in the end it beat me. I was fortunate in a way that it was something that could be managed and now, whilst I wouldn’t say it has left me completely, it doesn’t really interrupt my life much.
Do you ever miss the rush of politics and the kind of day that you just described?
The answer is no.
There are times when I do wish I was still more central to some of the debates that do interest me—like water and these welfare reforms.
People have focused quite heavily on what the government is doing in the Northern Territory without perhaps realising that it comes with some further welfare reforms which are really needed in electorates like mine, whereby if families on welfare payments are not ensuring that their children are properly clothed, fed and so forth, real action can be taken. The welfare payments won’t be denied them; they won’t lose any money. But it will be possible if—in the view of the agencies dealing with families and particularly children—the parent’s priority expenditure is not to ensure that their kids are clothed, housed, fed and sent to school on time, that from July  that money will be paid into what amounts to a trust account for them. And they will be able to withdraw against it for things like vouchers for the things they should be spending their money on. Money for discretionary expenditure will only be made available to them when they’ve met their priorities.
That is a very important reform. But it’s not just Northern Territory children who are suffering because their parents are abusive or neglectful or have very bad priorities.
Was there any one thing that you didn’t get to do before you relinquished the Deputy PM role that you would like to have done?
Many, and that’s life. You have to accept that somebody else can take them on. I regret that although I was the architect of what is known as the National Water Initiative, the blueprint for managing Australia’s water, the subsequent mechanisms that we have seen so much fighting over—control of the Murray Darling Basin, money and so forth—that I wasn’t able to take that further. I think over time I have genuinely taken the view that I’ve brought it this far, now there are others who can complete it and probably do it better than me.
The welfare reforms which I just outlined: I felt for so long that they were so needed but couldn’t find a way to get them up. Now they’ve been done, so I think that’s fantastic. So those are just two areas.
But you know I was there for a long time; I was able to do a lot of things and was able to participate in a lot of important debates. I was on the committee, for example, that did the first four budgets when we got into government in 1996. It was very grinding work. There were only a small number of us—the Treasurer, the then Finance Minister, and a few others. That put the nation’s budgets back into order, saving nearly $9 billion a year now in interest. Taxpayer’s money was going just to service the debt. That’s money now that can go into other things, whether it’s tax cuts or more overseas aid . . . That’s an area where I think, frankly, we should be more engaged in this country. I wish I’d done more in that area.
While you have walked Canberra’s corridors of power, you’re also a man acquainted with grief. You lost you mother at an early age. You lost your sister to a freak backyard accident. You even lost your son at the age of six months. How have those experiences made you the man you are today?
I don’t know that I can entirely answer that.
I’m actually a fairly private person, and I think that had I known that those things were to become known in the public arena and that to some extent people would always come back to them . . . A journalist I respect in Canberra once said, ‘John Anderson always seems to return to these subjects.’ That is not right. The media always returns to them. Once it became known, after I’d been in public life for probably a decade, that my sister had died in a tragic family accident, the media never left it alone. Indeed, when people sort of look at my life and write about it or whatever, they tend to define me or to some extent paint those things as major influences in my life. Look, I suppose they have been. I don’t know that I’m the best judge of how influential they’ve been. I don’t know that that is something I’m terribly good at, or whether it’s not better to simply leave it to others.
There is no doubt that my sister’s death when we were teenagers, which was a truly tragic thing, certainly left me grown up beyond my years, lacking in confidence, and looking for some answers to life. That much I can say.
You write about it in your biography, Faith and Duty, where you talk about the fact that it was during a cricket game and a simple return of a cricket ball that hit your sister in just the wrong place.
And that actually spurred you on to search for faith, is that right?
I think, looking back on it . . . Just to correct something you said there, I didn’t write about it, it was written up by my biographer.
I take it, though, that you were OK with it being included?
Well, he asked questions and I answered them as honestly as I could.
I think it was certainly a catalyst for me. I think the result of that was a fairly chronic loss of confidence in me as a teenager. I felt that anything I hit out firmly against might result in a disaster, you see. It certainly caused me to question very deeply.
How did you regain your confidence?
I don’t know that I ever have!
Is that right?
Well, I think it’s a hard question and a very personal one in a way. I think what happened after I became a believer, I learnt to put self aside a little bit and tried, to some extent—and I don’t want to over-paint this—to learn to say, well, I will simply give things my best shot and not get too worried about whether they work out or not. I will trust God for those things, for the outcomes. That’s what I have tried to do.
What was the final turning point for you when it came to Christian belief?
University. At school I had sort of become convinced, I guess at the level of the emotions, that God was real. But it was at university when I was studying European history, which is really the story of our own culture over the last couple of hundred years. The more I looked at it the more I recognised the truth of the biblical assertion that we actually don’t want to know God, we’d rather do it our own way, and that the story of the last couple of hundred years is us as a culture finding every excuse, every reason, every rationale we can for rejecting the traditional Christian view of man and this world.
The more I looked at it the more I thought that every attempt to do this has been an unmitigated disaster. And the ultimate disaster was Fascism, which was really about the rejection of any higher authority. It was saying, there is no God, we’re not accountable to anybody else, and the only morality is a struggle for power. I thought that if this is where you logically end up when you’ve rejected the traditional Christian view and you’ve tried all the other ‘isms’—humanism, socialism, communism, whateverism—I thought, I can’t go there. For me it just affirmed, at a very deep level, that the truth must lie back where so many of our forefathers believed that it was.
We’ve got this spate of atheistic books at the moment. In some ways I quite welcome it. It’s good to have a debate about these things and I note that these books are selling well. Some of your listeners might have read them.
We’ve talked about them a lot on Open House.
Well, let me just throw out a couple of questions. This idea from Christopher Hitchens’ book that God is Not Great. Really? Let’s have a look. We gave secularism and atheism a great run in the twentieth century, didn’t we? And we had Pol Pot and we had the killing fields and we had the Gulags. Atheistic communism ruined Russia; absolutely ruined it. You had atheism in the form of Fascism. So, the alternative is great? No God is great? Really?
Then look at the other side of the equation and look at the influence of people who took their faith seriously. We have the film Amazing Grace around at the moment. Two hundred years ago it was still legal for people in our culture to own other human beings as slaves, and to trade in them. It didn’t matter if they died and it didn’t matter if you abused them to the point where they collapsed in agony and gave up their spirits. I mean, the treatment was brutal; they were seen as sub-human. Who turned all that around? The great Christian reformers did.
So let’s get real about history. I have a love of history. Let’s get real about it. What it shows at every point, properly understood, is that the biblical account of man and his condition and the world we live in is the only credible one. That’s the point when I realised that I couldn’t accept the alternatives.
C.S. Lewis wrote that in 1928 he was the most reluctant convert in all Christendom. Well, that was only until 1978 when I think I was even more dejected! Because I thought, this is going to be no good; I’ll lose all my chances of success and friends. But I believe that it’s the truth and I can’t walk away from it. And I am more convinced than ever. I am absolutely certain of the truth.
John, has your faith in any way been detrimental to you? Have you lost anything as a result of being a believer in the political realm?
I don’t believe so. I don’t say that everybody likes it or approves of it. I’ve certainly been scorned by a couple of the radio shock jocks over time. But, generally speaking, no. I think part of the reason for that is . . . can I say this: my guess is that, despite the too clever by half and very arrogant writings that we were just referring to, this is not going to be an age of irreligion. I think even in Western culture people are beginning to say, well, I don’t know whether I can re-embrace it but I’m not too sure where we’re going at the moment. That’s just in Western culture. The truth is global, of course. This will not be a century of irreligion. This will be a century of great debate and ferment about what we believe, about what stacks up and what doesn’t, and there will of course—there already is—be real tensions between opposing views.
The other thing we lose sight of in Australia is this happy materialism that we all blunder along in. We don’t need God any more; that it’s irrelevant and what have you. But globally this is not a secular age; you’ve got an explosion of beliefs, and that includes Christianity. Look at China, look at Korea, look at the African continent, look at other parts of Asia, look at South America.
Absolutely. You see faith and searches for faith all around us. There’s a whole marketplace of spiritual ideas that people are exploring and the Christian faith is growing right in there. Has your faith changed at all from those early years of belief?
Probably. Not in terms of my core beliefs but in terms of the maturing that, I hope, has taken place. I think it’s broadened to an awareness that there are people of real faith in all denominations, and people of no faith who appear to be outwardly faithful in all denominations.
I suppose if I were to wear a label, and I hate labels, but if I were to wear one I suppose I would be seen as a Sydney evangelical [Anglican]. And yet some of the most marvellous Christian friends that I have are from the Catholic tradition, and some of the people who are most difficult and pompous and I think farthest removed from the true humility that is a mark of Christ are some of my fellow travellers in my own denomination.
One of the privileges of this position is that you get to meet people from all around the world. Meeting Christians from the Middle East, for example—there would’ve been a time when some of the outward manifestations of their faith would have made me choke on my Weet-Bix. But I have matured to the point where I can see now the real depth of conviction in some of them, and I’m very thankful for that. So I think what I have learnt is not to stand on my own pride so much.
What does the future hold for John Anderson? What are the dreams and plans? You’re still the member for Gwydir . . .
But only till the next election.
That’s for sure?
Absolutely. In political terms, as Newton said towards the end of his lifetime, ‘I’m packaged, sealed and waiting for the post.’ It’s time for me to move on.
My wife and I want to spend more time together. We have a very wonderful marriage. We have four children who are growing up and we want to spend more time with them. We have our own farming business which we both love. And I will probably take on, in the jargon, a couple of interesting for-profits and a couple of interesting not-for-profits. I’m a bit humbled by it, but I’ve been asked to do an amazing range of things and I’m in the process of finalising very carefully the things I will do where (a) I can make a difference, and (b) which I will find interesting. I’m thankful for those opportunities.
If I were to summarise it from a Christian point of view, there is no such thing as a theology of retirement; not one that I’ve ever been able to see. I think we need to be active in the pursuit of God’s work to the best of our ability for as long as we can. So hopefully I can find other areas to make a contribution.
This is a wonderful country and I rejoice in our prosperity; I think it’s a marvellous thing, notwithstanding that there are some people who are still missing out. But can I say that prosperity is not the heart and soul of the nation. Our values, which stem from our beliefs, are what really matter. And we need to pay some serious attention to our beliefs.