1953 - | New South Wales | Journalist & Broadcaster
Maxine McKew was one of Australia’s most respected television and print journalists for 30 years, one of a small but formidable group who blazed the trail for women at the ABC. Beginning as a cadet on This Day Tonight, she was a newsreader on the Carleton-Walsh Report before becoming Washington correspondent and, in 1995, anchor of the ABC’s Lateline. Beautifully spoken and driven by an intense intellectual curiosity, she won a Walkley Award and a Logie for interviewing. She hosted The 7.30 Report and wrote ‘Lunch with Maxine McKew’ in The Bulletin before she leaving the media to contest Bennelong for Labor in 2007, unseating Prime Minister John Howard.
On 25 February 2007, journalist Maxine McKew dropped a bombshell, announcing that she was running against Prime Minister John Howard in the seat of Bennelong on Sydney’s lower north shore.
Almost no one thought she would succeed. After the announcement, McKew told a journalist: “The seat is winnable. I’m not in this as a distraction or to win a by-election down the track. John Howard isn’t going to stand down and just retire from politics. I’m doing this because I want to win.”
In November that year, McKew defeated Howard, who became only the second serving Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat. Incoming PM Kevin Rudd sent her a text: “You are a giant-slayer”. The Sisters of St Joseph, who needed divine help for the sainthood of Mary McKillop, were also thrilled. “This could be the second miracle,” they said.
In Rudd’s government, McKew became the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, joining Bob Carr, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull as one of the many journalists who had successfully made a transition into politics. In that new role, she worked in an area that has been a lifelong passion, early childhood education. She helped create legislation that improved standards and training.
In a ministerial reshuffle in 2009, McKew became Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. In the 2010 election, she lost the seat to former tennis champion John Alexander.
In her maiden speech to Parliament, McKew quoted Dr Martin Luther King Junior: “ ‘We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.’ What I have learnt from a lifetime of reporting is that we are at our best when we work together and when we appreciate difference. Diversity enriches us. It lifts the spirit.”
McKew was born in 1953 and grew up in Brisbane where her father, Bryan McKew, was a boilermaker. When her mother Elaine died of breast cancer, the five-year-old Maxine was sent to live with her grandparents for three years. After her father remarried, McKew and her sister Margo were reunited with them in Marooka and attended the Catholic girls’ school, All Hallows. An entry in the school magazine says: "Maxine is a girl seen frequently going to the reference library from which she always manages to extract some piece of knowledge no one has ever come across or is ever likely to."
After graduating from high school, McKew briefly attended university before dropping out and living in London for two years, where she supported herself with a variety of temporary jobs, including relief typing at the BBC.
A letter requesting a job— cannily written on BBC letterhead —was rewarded with a cadetship at the ABC in 1974. In 1976, McKew became the host of the current affairs program This Day Tonight. In a 32-year career at the ABC, she also worked on The 7.30 Report, Lateline, The Carlton-Walsh Report, AM, PM and The Bottom Line.
For a time McKew was based in Washington as the ABC correspondent, leading to a life-long love of American politics. Her outstanding broadcasting skills – in radio and television – were acknowledged with a Logie award and a Walkley Award in 1998.
In October 2006, she announced that she was leaving the ABC. “I've done everything in journalism that I ever wanted to do,” she said.
While working as a broadcaster, McKew also wrote a column for The Bulletin magazine. From 1999 to 2004, Lunch with Maxine McKew was a must-read, breaking significant stories.
In 2003, she interviewed former ALP leader Kim Beazley, who implied that he was willing to make another run against Opposition Leader Simon Crean. The story dominated the headlines for days and Beazley was forced to make a bid, which was unsuccessful.
The most notorious column was a 2000 lunch with NSW Labor machine man John Della Bosca, who blurted out to McKew that Beazley, then Federal party leader, was wrong to oppose the GST. Unfortunately for “Della”, attacking the GST was a key plank of Labor's election strategy and he was forced to abandon his bid for presidency of the party.
These columns and many others led to The Australian Financial Review naming McKew as "one of the top ten exercisers of covert power in Australia". One judge, pollster Rod Cameron, said: "What better definition of a puppeteer than somebody who is going to sit in the back of a restaurant and say: 'You can talk to me ...', and some of them are stupid enough to do so."
McKew also received the Magazine Publishers’ Award for Columnist of the Year 2003 and the Centenary Medal for Excellence in Journalism 2001.
After leaving politics, McKew threw herself into her third career, writing and consulting. She penned a successful memoir, Tales From the Political Trenches, an account of her brief but tumultuous time in the Federal Parliament. In it, she considered the high price that the Australian Labor Party has paid for the deadly Rudd/Gillard conflict, accurately predicting that competing views about Rudd and Gillard would divide Labor loyalists for years.
At the same time, McKew joined Michael Traill’s philanthropy group, Social Ventures Australia, working as a consultant with the education team. In 2014, she wrote her second book, Class Act, a study of the key challenges in Australian schooling.
Maxine now lives in Melbourne with her partner, Bob Hogg, and is a director of Per Capita, the John Cain Foundation, Playgroup Australia and the Lorne Sculpture Biennale. In 2015 she was appointed to serve on the board of the State Library of Victoria and re-appointed for a further term in 2018. She also serves as a non-executive director of New Energy Solar, is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne and a Distinguished Fellow of the Australia India Institute.
In 2013, McKew returned to Bennelong for the opening of the substantially renovated campus of Karonga, a school for children with physical and intellectual disabilities. In her final days as a politician, she had fought hard to secure a $2.5 million grant for the school. Was it her finest hour as a politician? ''Absolutely,'' she says. ''Not something that makes headlines, but something that will make a real difference in the lives of these people.''
Margot Saville is a journalist who has worked at The Australian, ABC TV, Nine Network and The Sydney Morning Herald. She wrote The Battle for Bennelong in 2007 and is currently a contributor to Crikey.
Courtesy of Fairfax
As Washington D.C. correspondent for the ABC. Courtesy of Maxine McKew
Sharing a drink with George Negus. Courtesy of Maxine McKew
Maxine McKew and John Howard. Courtesy of Maxine McKew
On election night, 2007. Courtesy of Maxine McKew
At Government House. Courtesy of Maxine McKew
Tales from the Political Treches, Maxine McKew, Melbourne University Publishing, 2012
Class Act: Ending the Education Wars, Maxine McKew, MUP, 2014
The Battle for Bennelong, Margot Saville, Melbourne University Press, 2017
'Interview with Laura Jayes', The Daily Telegraph, 19 November 2017