1937 - 2022 | NSW | Business journalist & editor
Max Walsh had a towering influence on the economic policy debate in Australia during a half-century of reporting, commentary and editing. A former knockabout tabloid police roundsman in Sydney, Walsh studied for an economics degree, went to Canberra and made economics readable and entertaining in The Australian Financial Review. Then he brought economics and business to television audiences with programs on three networks. Paul Keating said Walsh taught him economics; Walsh said it was more like mentoring. One of his finest achievements was editing The Australian Financial Review when the nation’s first daily became profitable, thus assuring its future for decades.
Early in his Prime Ministership, Gough Whitlam put on a garden party at The Lodge in Canberra. Tall and imperious, Whitlam held court at one end of the garden, with ministers, public servants, diplomats, and journalists revolving around him. At the other end of the garden, meanwhile, Maximilian Walsh was also holding court. An equally large group of politicians, public servants, diplomats, and – yes – journalists, were radiating around him.
That was Walsh – a journalist who commanded and enjoyed influence. Over a 15-year period equally divided between his role as The Australian Financial Review’s chief political correspondent in Canberra and later the paper’s editor in Sydney, Max Walsh never formally operated under the umbrella of power but nevertheless paved the way for Australia’s mid-1980s makeover.
In 1983, the newly-elected Labor Government in Canberra, including a Treasurer in Paul Keating –who learnt more about economics from Walsh than anyone - began dismantling the protectionist wall around the Australian economy. It followed The Australian Financial Review’s editorial playbook in floating the Australian dollar, reducing tariffs, cutting regulation and privatising companies such as the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, or CSL.
The Labor Government had its powerful bevy of advisers, but the Fin had street cred. “You have to carry the media along with you,” is the way Walsh once put it. Vic Carroll, Maxwell Newton – (Carroll’s predecessor as AFR editor) and Walsh understood the central role economics plays in politics; they knew it was important to follow the money.
Like Carroll and Newton, Walsh possessed the intellectual gifts, knowledge, experience and position to promote those views. Enhancing that influence, he wrote with a magnetic style turbo-charged by energy, ambition and Sydney afternoon tearaway tabloid smarts.
Born on 8 May 1937, Walsh was brought up in a struggling, Labor-voting family in Sydney’s south-eastern suburbs. He left school at 16, worked in a chemical factory then became a copy boy in the cavernous reading room at John Fairfax and Sons. After a year, Walsh secured a cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald.
It was the height of the Menzies era, and the so-called Protestant ascendancy, epitomised by the Anglo-conservatism of the Fairfax flagship. Walsh later remarked he was one of the few Catholics to get a cadetship at the SMH, although his long-time colleague and sometime rival, Max Suich, who was also a Catholic, became a cadet with the Fairfax-controlled Sydney Sun afternoon newspaper around the same time.
Walsh was restless. After just nine months, he transferred to the Sydney Daily Mirror, which had just fallen under the control of the young and aggressive Rupert Murdoch, as a third year cadet.
John Douglas Pringle, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and onetime deputy editor of the London Observer, famously described the Sydney Mirror and Sun as “the worst newspapers in the world.” But the Mirror was a formative influence on Walsh. He was blooded in the rough and tumble world of crime reporting with such legendary figures as Steve Dunleavy and Mirror editor Zell Rabin, who Walsh deeply admired. .
Decades later, Walsh attended a farewell dinner for Canberra political correspondent, Alan Ramsey, who told his audience that Max and associates at The Mirror had “hooned around” in his car. Max bridled at being described as a hoon. When asked what car he drove at the time, he replied, “a 1937 V8 Ford” – a classic hoon mobile.
Hoon or not, Walsh was a brilliant young journalist. Rapidly promoted, he also went to Canberra during parliamentary sessions. There he met Maxwell Newton, at that time still a flamboyant sybarite. During one late-night drinking session at Canberra’s Hotel Ainslie, Newton told Walsh that understanding politics required a grasp of economics. So Walsh enrolled at Sydney University, and was an outstanding student.
In 1962, Newton, by this stage editor of The Financial Review, recruited Walsh to be the paper’s oil and gas writer as Australia experienced its first oil exploration boom. “Nobody knew how oil was priced so the Tariff Board had an inquiry. It was like doing a university degree in oil and gas,” Walsh told me.
His major break came in 1966 when Vic Carroll, who replaced Newton as editor of the AFR in 1964, sent Walsh to Canberra as chief political correspondent. It was, as Walsh said, “an inflection point.” In the same week, Sir Robert Menzies retired after a record 16 continuous years as prime minister and seven election victories in a row.
Walsh quickly became a penetrating correspondent, equally confident on matters of politics or economics. He saw a series threat with industry stagnating behind protectionist tariff walls. The country’s economic arteries were prematurely hardening and it was “fairly obvious we were falling down the international league table. There was a growing problem which was threatening to get worse.”
The issue framed Walsh’s Canberra coverage. He had the intellect and journalistic skills to make it a compelling story and was almost alone in identifying a key failure at the heart of the Australian body politic. Protectionism was then an article of faith in Canberra, with outstanding exceptions such as South Australian Liberal MP Bert Kelly.
Walsh’s daily reports, weekly ‘Canberra Observed’ column in the AFR and another weekly column in the Sunday Sun-Herald, became mandatory reading for Mandarins, politicians, lobbyists and the rest of the parliamentary press gallery. He informed, inspired, infuriated, and irritated. Most of all, he set the agenda. Walsh had imitators and followers, but no one supplanted him.
In 1974, Walsh was appointed editor of The Australian Financial Review. He inherited an already great paper with an independent editorial tradition developed by Vic Carroll and consolidated by Peter Robinson. Walsh also made his mark. The front page became more emphatic and thematic, editorials became a Walsh-driven mix of news breaks and analysis. The paper retained its hallowed independence while becoming more commercially savvy.
Walsh broadened the AFR by giving Valerie Lawson free reign covering the advertising and marketing industries, encouraging strong coverage of the nascent Australian Broadcasting Tribunal through the muscular reporting of Jefferson Penberthy, foraging in the world of legal and political gossip with Richard Ackland’s “On the Rialto” column and pioneering intelligent coverage of the fast-growing IT sector. At the same time, he attracted significant increases in advertising revenue.
The restless element in the Max Walsh professional persona increased, however, as long-time rival Max Suich became editorial chief executive at Fairfax. Walsh moved to Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, where he wrote columns for The Bulletin and Australian Business, and was a political and economic commentator on Channel Nine’s new Sunday program. He took similar roles on the Carleton-Walsh Report (referred to as ‘Car-Wash’) on the ABC, and later at Channel Ten
Walsh returned to Fairfax in the mid 80s, writing a regular column on The Sydney Morning Herald. His final years in the trade were spent as editor-in-chief and editor-at-large of The Bulletin, not long before its demise. He later became a consultant to Dixon Advisory, which specialises in advising on investments by self-managed superannuation funds.
The Carroll-Robinson-Walsh influence still remains at The Australian Financial Review, despite its loss of staff through forced economies at Fairfax Media. Out in the street, meanwhile, the quicker pace, faster energy and diversity are part of the Walsh heritage of opening up Australia.
Andrew Clark first met Max Walsh in Canberra in 1972. Walsh wrote political and economic columns for Australian Consolidated Press’ Australian Business Magazine, which Clark edited, in the early 1980s. Clark is now a senior writer at The Australian Financial Review.
Max Walsh in 1980. Courtesy of Fairfax
Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, Melbourne University Press, 1981
The Man who Couldn’t Wait, Victor J. Carroll, William Heinemann, 1991
Killing Fairfax, Pamela Williams, Harper Collins, 2013
Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, Colleen Ryan, Melbourne University Publishing, 2013
Corporate Cannibals: The Taking of Fairfax, Colleen Ryan and Glenn Burge, William Heinemann, 1992