1947 - | NSW | Reporter & editor
Paul Kelly was a junior public servant in the Prime Minister’s office before he became a journalist in 1971, joining The Australian as political correspondent. After a short stint with Fairfax he returned to The Australian and emerged as Australia’s foremost analyst of foreign and domestic policy. Through his authoritative writing in The Australian, his regular appearances on Sky News and his eight books on governments from Whitlam to Rudd he brought a broad intellectual understanding of the relationships between politics and economics and a deep historical perspective to his journalism. He was editor-in-chief of The Australian from 1991 to 1996 when he became editor-at-large.
After almost half a century in the business, Paul Kelly remains the best briefed, most incisive and most prescient political analyst in the country. He is at the cutting edge of ideas in politics and social affairs.
Criticised as a Labor man by left-wing populists and as too conservative on economics and social policy by progressive commentators, Kelly is proudly centrist. He has managed to keep pace with a rapidly changing political world and place himself at the pragmatic centre of thinking throughout his time in journalism.
Kelly rejects the "race call" brand of political writing that blindly follows polling trends and treats politics as a game, rather than as the means by which the nation's future is shaped. He reads policy documents widely and calls ministers, their shadows and their bureaucrats constantly to make sure he understands the policy trends driving change in Canberra.
Kelly was born in Sydney and spent much of his early life on army bases where his father was an officer. Hence his intense interest in military history. Educated at St Pius, Chatswood, he obtained his BA with a history major at Sydney University in 1968. He began work in the public service in Canberra in 1969 and joined The Australian as a 23-year-old journalist in 1971, being assigned to the press gallery in March that year.
Australian politics was about to enter one of its most exciting phases: the end of a long period of Coalition government and the arrival of the age of Whitlam. In June 1974, aged 26, Kelly became the paper's political correspondent after a turbulent period that had seen the departures of Alan Ramsey and John Edwards.
The dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975 would be the biggest story of Kelly’s career – and trigger a dismissal of his own. "I can remember before I sat down at 6pm on the evening of the 11th of November to write the splash for the next day. I went out on the verandah for about a minute or two just to think about things and I thought, ‘This is going to be the biggest story I ever write’,” he recalls.
Soon after, Kelly was removed as political correspondent because the paper was no longer prepared to publish his strong criticism of the actions of Governor-General Sir John Kerr in toppling Whitlam. He took extended leave to write his first book, The Unmaking of Gough, at the ripe old age of 28. Returning to work in mid-1976, Kelly was told the only position for him on The Australian was a non-political job in the Sydney office. He resigned without having another job to go to.
Max Suich, then editor of The National Times, promptly hired Kelly as political correspondent. He found the pace on a weekly paper challengingly slow and in late 1978 moved to Sydney as the paper's deputy editor under new editor Evan Whitton.
Kelly returned to Canberra as political correspondent for the National Times in late 1979 and in early 1981 became political correspondent and bureau chief for The Sydney Morning Herald. "This was the Fairfax golden age. With James Fairfax as chairman, Suich as chief editorial officer, Vic Carroll as editor-in-chief and Chris Anderson as editor," Kelly says.
At the time, the SMH’s Canberra chief was "the most powerful political correspondent job in Australia”. Kelly took time off after the 1983 election to write The Hawke Ascendancy and then went to Sydney as National Editor of The Herald in 1984.
A year later, he made what he now regards as the most important career decision of his life. After a long negotiation with former News Limited CEO Ken Cowley, and with the direct support of proprietor Rupert Murdoch, Paul returned to News as National Affairs Editor of The Australian and political commentator with the Ten Network, at the time owned by News.
Kelly became a very high profile figure covering the Hawke Government with Paul Keating as Treasurer and he was at the forefront of reporting the upheavals in the Liberal Party as John Howard and Andrew Peacock battled for ascendancy.
His move to Sydney as editor-in-chief of The Australian in 1991 was dramatically timed. On Kelly’s first night in the chair, he wrote a once-in-a-lifetime page one headline - "Fall of Communism" - a caps full width banner on the most dramatic story since the end of World War Two.
In his 60s, a time when others slow down, Kelly produced two towering political books, The March of the Patriots, in 2009, and Triumph and Demise, in 2014. He also co-wrote with Troy Bramston the best-selling history, The Dismissal. At the same time, he maintained his by-weekly columns, wrote news and analysis for the paper, appeared on the ABC Insiders program and later Australian Agenda and other programs for SkyNews.
Kelly travels every year to the US and Europe, where he stays in touch with the latest international trends in the world of ideas. He was appointed to the Kennedy School at Harvard by the chair of Australian Studies, was made a fellow of Kings College London and was appointed a visiting fellow of the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
His greatest book, The End of Certainty, has sold more than 40,000 copies and remains a constant source work for journalists in the Canberra press gallery and for political students.
Kelly was named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 1990. He has a doctorate from Melbourne University plus honorary doctorates from Sydney, New South Wales and Griffith universities.
Chris Mitchell has been a journalist for 44 years and is the former editor-in-chief of The Australian and of Queensland Newspapers. He writes a weekly media column in retirement and is working on his second book.
Paul Kelly in 1977, courtesy of Fairfax.
Courtesy of News Corp.
March of the Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, Paul Kelly, Melbourne University Publishing, 2011
Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation, Paul Kelly, Melbourne University Publishing, 2014