Kerry O’Brien talks politics, sex and money

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USA NEWS

"You can be a good and successful leader with a
confidence that perhaps borders on arrogance,
provided the arrogance doesn’t dominate."

“You can be a good and successful leader with a
confidence that perhaps borders on arrogance,
provided the arrogance doesn’t dominate.”Credit:Louie Douvis

I promise I didn’t! You’ve interviewed many politicians over decades. What makes a great politician?

Somebody who is well motivated beyond simply fashioning a successful career, who actually wants to make a difference in the community he or she is serving, but also has the ability to do it. A sense of vision and farsightedness. Courage. Not too stubborn. Determined. A capacity to negotiate and compromise without being a weak person who will accept any compromise just to push something through. How long do you want me to go on for? [Laughs]

At what point does the required self-belief for a politician risk tipping into egomania?

You can be a good and successful leader with a confidence that perhaps borders on arrogance, provided the arrogance doesn’t dominate. There’s a chance you can move to greatness if your confidence can be tempered with humility.

Since leaving TV, have you ever wanted to jump into the screen and ask politicians a question you feel should be asked?

I’m sure that even when I was at my best – whenever that was – other people would have felt I was missing a question here and there. I’m sure I did; I know I did. But I do get frustrated when I see an obvious or important question either not being asked, or dodged, and the dodger getting away with it.

Do you ever miss working in TV?

No. Television comes with a lot of built-in obstacles. If any one link in the chain goes awry or comes loose, the whole thing can come crashing down. And it did become groundhog day for me, with politicians playing games. Some people would come to the party and actually try to engage in a genuine dialogue, but they were increasingly few and far between.

SEX

Did you have anything resembling sex education?

No, I went to a Christian Brothers college. The closest I came to sex education was in my mid-teen years, when a ripple of excitement went through the school because somebody had acquired two pages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This was closely followed by a ripple of disappointment when we actually got to the pages.

Was a lack of sex education and rampant hormones a dangerous combination?

Any attempt to foster ignorance – particularly in children – is not a good thing in my mind. But you just learn things. People exchanged freely their experiences, or their experiences were winkled out of them. I married young, but I did have some comprehension of birth control.

You married young. How young?

I was 23. And I was a very young 23.

Too young?

In some ways I still would have been a good father and husband, but I simply wasn’t ready. That marriage lasted nine years. I was smarter the second time around, and that’s no reflection whatsoever on my first wife; she was a fine person. We were too young, and we started with twins. We had three children in less than two years, by the time I was 24. [With his second wife, Sue Javes, O’Brien has had three more children.]

What changes have you seen in Australian attitudes towards sex and sexuality that you welcome?

There have been some great advances. Huge and important differences in the relationship between genders; the slow move to much greater equality for people other than heterosexuals. But when you win a right, like same-sex marriage, you’ve got to be prepared to fight to retain it. You can never assume that anything is sacred, or a given, written in stone.

MONEY

Your great-grandfather was an unskilled farm labourer. Then, in four generations, we’ve got you: a respected broadcast journalist. You have a brother who has a Harvard PhD. How did that happen?

Education. My father’s mother was born in a bark hut on the banks of a creek outside Dalby [200 kilometres north-west of Brisbane]. Of all of my adult relatives, she was the fiercest about us getting a good education.

How are you earning your keep nowadays?

I’ve spent the past 18 to 20 months writing this latest book. I do some conference work. I give speeches. I moderate discussions.

That doesn’t sound like retirement.

It’s retirement from a structured working life. Not long after we moved [to northern NSW’s Byron Bay], I struck up a conversation with a musician who’s now a high school teacher. He said it took him about five years to adapt to a structured life, after a completely unstructured life. He said, “You’ll find the opposite.” He was absolutely right. It takes you a while to adjust.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when spending money?

I’m not big on guilt.

Weren’t you raised Catholic?

[Laughs] Yes, but one of the fringe benefits of being Catholic was that you were able to leave your guilt in the confessional.

So what do you happily – guilt-free – indulge in, then?

Regular breakfasts out and a crossword, four or five mornings a week.

diceytopics@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Kerry O’Brien, A Memoir (Allen & Unwin, $45), is out on November 14.

Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.

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