1943 - | Victoria | Political reporter
Oakes is considered by many to be the greatest political news breaker in Australian journalism. Appointed Canberra Bureau Chief of The Sun News Pictorial at 25, his scoops have made and broken political and bureaucratic careers and altered the course of Australian governments. His crisp, fearless writing and vast contact base enabled him to break news in radio, television and newspapers. He is the only journalist to have pre-empted an entire federal budget and his history-changing revelations range from the 'Gair Affair' in 1974 the Kirribilli agreement of 1988 and the 2010 election leaks.
Laurie Oakes had a crucial influence on two federal elections. Early in his career, his revelation that the Labor government planned to appoint DLP senator Vince Gair to a diplomatic post to boost its upper house numbers set in train events leading to Gough Whitlam calling the 1974 election.
Four decades on, Oakes’ reports of leaks from the Rudd camp against Julia Gillard undermined her campaign and, arguably, cost her majority government.
In between, a stream of dramatic exclusives had major political consequences. When his competitors struggled to get tidbits, Oakes obtained the entire 1980 budget, putting it to air on the Sunday before its Tuesday delivery. This unprecedented, sensational story not only turned the real event into something of an anticlimax, but sparked damaging speculation about who might be undermining who in the government. Years later Oakes revealed that his cameraman Phil Lorant had acted as intermediary between the leaker and Oakes, who was given the document for only 15 minutes to dictate into a tape recorder.
Reporting is often a race; in 1976 Oakes had some unusual competition. He’d uncovered the fact that Labor had tried to get money for its 1975 campaign from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Socialist Party. Unbeknown to Oakes, a person he had spoken to alerted Rupert Murdoch – who knew independently of the affair – that Oakes’ story was about to appear in the Melbourne Sun News Pictorial (not then a Murdoch paper). Murdoch had the presses stopped while the front pages of his Daily Telegraph and The Australian were remade. But Oakes won the race to print.
In the early days of the Howard government, Oakes’ revelations of rorting of parliamentary entitlements led to ministerial and staff resignations and a crisis for the fledging administration. Later in the Howard years he broke the story of Liberal president Shane Stone’s withering letter to the PM saying the government was seen as mean and tricky.
For Oakes personally, one of the most difficult stories was calling out Cheryl Kernot after her supposedly tell-all book, highly critical of Labor, failed to mention a central factor in her defection from Democrats to the ALP – her affair with senior Labor minister Gareth Evans. While the intersection between public and private spheres made his disclosure controversial, Oakes had a compelling argument that the circumstances meant the affair was highly relevant to the politics.
His news breaking reputation ensured Oakes became a go-to person for those with a big story to get out. When Andrew Wilkie decided to quit the Office of National Assessments in protest over the Iraq war, he left his card in Oakes’ letterbox with a note asking him to call.
Born in 1943, son of an accountant, Oakes studied Arts at Sydney University where he edited the student newspaper Honi Soit, first with Bob Ellis (later a well-known writer) and then, after beating Ellis at an election, solo. He was on a teacher scholarship but after reading a biography of renowned American publisher William Randolph Hearst, Oakes decided journalism “sounded like fun”. Hearst was the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and Oakes was sometimes called “Citizen Oakes’’ by friends.
His first newspaper job was at The Daily Mirror in Sydney. At 25, he was appointed head of the Melbourne Sun’s Canberra bureau in 1969. National politics was in flux: the long term conservative government was in decline; Whitlam was starting his ascendancy. Change was in the air in the Canberra Press Gallery too; Oakes was part of a new “hungry’’ generation of journalists who would document one of the most exciting decades of federal politics.
Melbourne’s Sun, a huge-circulation tabloid that took politics seriously, was a great platform and Oakes’ reporting ensured it was a must-read for the political class. But by the later 1970s Oakes was ready for a move. He started a newsletter, “The Oakes Report’’, and soon was persuaded into television, working first at Ten (1979-84), before moving to Nine, then in its heyday. There he had the ideal mix for many years: reporting on the nightly news, a feature interview for the prestigious Sunday program, and a column in The Bulletin.
Oakes’ strengths have always been his contacts, his attention to detail, and his ability to understand the wider context of individual events. Asked the story he’s proudest of, he names the 1974 Vince Gair appointment, to which he brought Sherlock Holmes-like deduction. He’d heard from a bureau colleague that a government appointment was in the air, but contacts were unwilling to say anything more than it was “big, big, big’’. Asking himself what could be that “big, big, big’’, Oakes concluded it had to be something affecting the government’s Senate numbers, and from that he guessed that Gair was the obvious target. He rang around putting the proposition to sources (the last being Gair’s wife) as something he knew, rather than surmised.
As a commentator Oakes is respected as tough but fair-minded; he can be scarifying but never uses a “scream’’ as an attention-seeking device. His very arrival can inspire fear in politicians. Seeing him (unusually) sitting at the media table when she addressed the National Press Club just before calling the 2010 election, Julia Gillard knew she was in for a bad moment and remarked on his presence. With a strong bulldust detector, Oakes has spiked more than a few politicians’ stunts over the years.
In television, Oakes brings the eye for detail that marks his writing, which in later years has been a weekly column for News Corp papers. He pushes the deadline because he is always after the last fact; he’s competitive and secretive (cameramen can be sent out for shots not knowing what the story is). But he never assumes he knows it all, carefully watching what competing stations are doing. He’ll continually refine and sharpen the edge of a story, always looking for the best angle, writing for impact while maintaining accuracy. Cameramen get exhausted looking for the shots, but they always want to work on Oakes’ stories because he gets the most out of their shots. In Nine’s Canberra office Oakes is high maintenance but revered.
Oakes has become one of the best known “brands’’ in Australian journalism. But he has never been part of the modern drift to self- centred “celebrity’’ journalism. His career has had a remarkable consistency in a changing industry, across platforms and through the years. His own story is one of notable power, used responsibly for the public good. His accolades include the 2010 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year, the 2010 Gold Walkley and a Melbourne Press Club Lifetime Achievement Award.
Michelle Grattan is a Media Hall of Famer, veteran Canberra political correspondent, Melbourne Press Club Lifetime Achievement Award winner and the 1988 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year.
Laurie Oakes with Gough Whitlam. Courtesy News Corp/Newspix.
Laurie Oakes with Bob Hawke. Courtesy News Corp/Newspix.
Laurie Oakes with Paul Keating. Courtesy News Corp/Newspix.
Courtesy News Corp/Newspix.
Remarkable Times: Australian Politics 2010-2013, Laurie Oakes, Hachette, 2014.
On the Record, Laurie Oakes, Hachette, 2010.
Power Plays, Laurie Oakes, Hachette, 2008.
'Laurie Oakes said one word and I tumbled out of the hammock', Garry Linnell, Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax, 4 August 2017.