A Bonza Lynne Haultain

17 / 04 / 2014

Lynne Haultain has a broadcasting background (with many fondly remembering her time behind the mic at the ABC) and has also a healthy active interest in social justice. In 2012, she interviewed former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Trust’s ‘Credit Where Credit is Due‘ event. Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper speaks with her about some of her ‘bonza’ achievements.

Sarah Capper: Firstly, thank you for being our Bonza Sheila.

Lynne Haultain: I’m utterly delighted to be the Bonza Sheila.

Sarah Capper: Yes, it’s very esteemed and you’re in very good company!

Lynne Haultain: I can tell – I’ve looked around!

SC: Most people will know you as having worked in broadcasting in radio for 16 years, as well as your work in media and communications. But you also have a great passion for social justice and I was surprised to read that you’ve been a member on the board of management of the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture for 15 years.

LH: I’ve been on it for 18 years and this is my 15th year as chair.

SC: That’s impressive. And you’ve also been a Commissioner for the Victorian Law Reform Commission. I apprecite the work of the VLRC. I’m just wondering what’s driven this social justice interest?

LH:  I think some of us just get it when we’re born and you can certainly see it in the family history. My parents have both been deeply involved with various causes and my grandmother was probably the most important immediate influence in this regard. She was an incredible woman who graduated in medicine in 1926.

This was in Scotland, and she then went to Africa in the late 20’s as a missionary doctor and she literally set up missions and cut her way through jungles. So she’s the one I think who’s the power house in the family with that sort of approach to life and the world. She was a Fabian and a very thoughtful and outspoken woman in central Africa for about 50 years and she was very committed to her faith, but her faith meant for her, giving everything she possibly could. So she was a doctor for about 55 years in Africa with malarial clinics and all that kind of stuff. She was phenomenal.

SC: Where did you grow up?

LH: I grew up in Perth. My parents came out when I was about three, so I was born in Scotland and raised in WA.

I came to Victoria to live in the early 90’s, about 1991. 

SC: Was that a career move?

LH: Yeah it was. I was working with the ABC and I started my career with Triple J in Sydney when it was just a Sydney station. Then I moved back to Perth to work for the ABC there for a couple years, and then I applied for two jobs to get out of Perth – one in Darwin and one in Hobart, and the Hobart one came up first. So I went to Hobart, and then I got the job presenting overnights for Australia wide on local radio. That was out of Melbourne and that was just extraordinary and some of the best radio I’ve ever made because you talk to people and there’s a great sense of camaraderie at that time of night.

SC: Are we talking truck drivers?

LH: Well at that time it was particularly interesting because when I started there were the traditional shift workers at that hour of the morning – truck drivers, bakers, coastal workers, delivery truck people, medical staff, garbos – they were the sort of normal overnight community – but as we got into 1991-92, we entered the recession we had to have – and it became really clear that there were many people with small businesses and medium businesses that were up at 2 and 3am in the morning doing their correspondence, own books, that kind of stuff because they couldn’t afford to get other people to do it for them at the time. So a lot of small business people began calling in. It was fascinating to see the economic situation play out and you became aware that you had a different audience because the economics of the country had changed. It was very interesting.

SC: Have you found it possible to combine the two streams of work – social justice pursuits and your career in communications – has there been much overlap?

LH: That’s a very interesting question because as a journalist, especially with the ABC, it’s important to maintain objectivity as much as you can. Obviously everyone has their own views about the subject material that they address, but you can’t be overt about it. So I was probably less outspoken about issues that I’m able to be now, because I had a position of journalistic neutrality that I needed to try and maintain. So no, they haven’t really overlapped and certainly not professionally yet, but I have every expectation that one day they will. I hope to work in the sector.

SC: What attracted you to radio as a medium?

LH: I was in every school play, in every sketch show and every musical at school that I possibly could be in – drama, drama, and drama. And I got to uni, went to the university ‘Theatrical Society’ auditions, with 150 girls and 4 boys auditioning for every play. So I didn’t have a hope in hell of getting into any of the shows.  I was pretty down about that and I remember it was probably November, just the end of exams, first year of uni, sitting on this lawn, had a streaming cold, just found out that I didn’t get into yet another show and a friend and a couple of her friends rocked up and sat down with us on the lawn, as you do at uni. One of the guys gave me a classic chat up line – he said to me “with a voice like that, you should be on radio.” And I said, “I have a cold at the moment, I don’t usually sound like this.” And he said, “yeah, yeah, come along anyway.” And I thought, “Oh well, what the hell.” It helped that he was pretty cute! I didn’t know there was a radio station on campus so I went along and he trained me how to use the studio and within about three weeks I was on air. 

SC: So this was in Perth?

LH: Yes, the University of Western Australia, a station called 6UVSFM, and it’s now called 6RTR. It’s still going very well and I had an absolute ball, and spent a lot more time in the station at university than the library by the end.

SC: What were you studying?

LH: I was doing English and Law, with bit of lawn grazing as well, and a lot of radio at all hours of the day and night. I was meeting a whole new world of people. It was an amazing radio station and still is. It had a huge number of volunteer presenters, a bit like Triple R here. We had reggae programs and women’s music programs and sort of light music programs, and guitar programs, and rock ‘n’ roll programs and everything you can imagine.  We also had a lot of classical music programs because it was attached to the music school at UWA. We had an absolute blast.

But in answer to your question, in terms of what attracted me to it, I didn’t really know this until I got into it. What I love about it is that it’s extraordinarily personal. You get to know your favourite presenters pretty well, and so it feels very personal, unlike television that is very much a mass experience, you know that whoever is on the telly, that they are talking to thousands of people at the same time. When you listen to the radio, especially if it’s at 2am in the morning, or 6am in the morning, you are very aware that people are in your ear, or that you are in their ear, and that it’s a very intimate medium.

SC: Radio, it’s also a very blokey medium, yes?


LH: I think that you’re right, in that the current illustration of radio if you look across the spectrum, certainly Melbourne radio stations, the vast majority of presenters now are men.

SC: There’s a recent promo picture for Triple M of the breakfast line up with Eddie, Luke Darcy, Mick Molloy – just bloke bloke bloke bloke.

LH: Well there’s a Triple M tram, with its entire line up across the whole vehicle, including some of their sports commentators. There is not a single woman. And there isn’t, there’s not a single woman on that station.

SC:  The ABC fairs a little bit better.

LH: It still isn’t great though. There’s only really Lindy [Burns] on at night, and then there’s Hilary Harper, and Libby Gore on the weekends. It’s not strong, and in fact it ebbs and flows, but I think it’s at particularly low ebb across Australia.

SC: Is it because it’s blokey in management, and it’s just kind of a flow-on effect? Or is it because they say the audience is largely blokes?

LH: Well I’m not sure if the audience is largely blokes. But they do say – and I have talked to Tracy Bartram about this from time to time – we’re always told from a very young age, that women like to hear men on the radio, and men like to hear men on the radio. So women’s voices for whatever reason, are regarded as difficult to listen to, or unattractive to listen to. I also think there is an interesting parallel – and I have absolutely no evidence for this – but I reckon if you sort of did the graph, that in periods of great conservatism in the nation there are a higher number of men on the wireless. And I don’t know that for a fact, but it is a strong hunch. In certain periods we’ve seen ebbs and flows, particularly in the Howard era and now the Abbott government. I think that it’s not necessarily directly correlated with who’s Prime Minister, but it’s about the mood of the nation, and that if there is a more conservative mood in the nation, and I’m not sure if it’s conscious either, but somehow there seems to be this reflection of an inner dominance of men leading. The interesting thing though is, if you look at say the Fin Review (Financial Review) to take a different medium all together, there are a number of great female writers. Men run business, but women write about it. A huge number of really strong finance journalists are women.

SC: And political journos – Lenore Taylor, Laura Tingle.

LH: Yes. But it pains me that radio is blokey at the moment and it doesn’t need to be. I remember vividly, Kaz Cooke and Judith Lucy years ago doing a drive program, and I think it was on Triple M.

SC: And Judith Lucy and Helen Razor did Triple J ‘The Ladies Lounge’ which I listened to religiously coming home from school.

LH: There definitely has been, but it is rare and I mean Judith will tell you great stories about how difficult it is in commercial radio and for whatever reason, two women broadcasting is regarded as totally foreign, where as you can have batches of blokes and it’s okay. It is something that I do not understand.

SC: It’s like when Kelli Underwood did the first calling of AFL and you had men and women calling up criticizing a woman’s voice calling the football.

LH: Further than that, Debbie Spillane in Sydney was doing the Rugby League a long time ago and she has copped it.

SC: She’s still going isn’t she?

LH: She’s still broadcasting in Sydney, works on News Radio and she’s calling still. She’s one of the finest exponents of the art of rugby league I think. It’s an incredibly difficult sphere. And yes, I think Kelli is phenomenal and a great observer of the AFL game.

SC: What was your career highlights in terms of interviews?

LH: I always thought that the hard interviews, if you want to call them that – the straight up political interviews with members of government, cabinet, or prime minister – those sort of government interviews are all very straight forward. The challenge in those is keeping people on the question. Getting them to answer the question is the challenge. I did a huge number of interviews for various reasons with [former Deputy PM] Tim Fischer and we used to call him ‘two-minute Tim’, because if you asked him a question then he would not draw breath for two minutes. I’m pretty confident that he used to use that as a tactic to put up time so that he didn’t actually have to answer a question!

SC:  There is the saying – if you ask a pollie what time it is – they say “it’s a sunny day.”

LH: (laughs) Yes, well there were a number of politicians who were very skilled at not answering questions, so that was the main challenge. If you watch Leigh Sales, or at the moment Sarah Ferguson on 7:30, or other really outstanding political interviewers, their great skill set is getting people to answer questions and making it clear when they’re not. In terms of what to ask, those interviews are really self-evident because the news is the news and that’s what you’re asking the PM. You’re very unlikely to ask them something more challenging than what was on the front of the newspaper this morning.

The more interesting, and I think more challenging interviews are with people who aren’t in the news. Those are the ones that I’ve always really loved. People telling their stories, and spending 10 minutes talking to a 12 year old about how he’s just about to become a ball boy at the Australia Open and he’s never been on radio before, and that’s challenging, because you’ve got to make sure that what he’s telling you, is of interest to your audience, you need to keep leading them on. So the ones I’ve really enjoyed are not the very famous people, but the more, I hate to use the word ordinary, because I don’t think anyone is ordinary, but the more not-so-prominent people.

Although I have had some extraordinary experiences with some very high-profile people. Andy Thomas was an absolute joy. He was Australia’s first NASA astronaut that went to the Space Station. He was completely and utterly delightful. I remember he told me a story that really stopped me in my tracks. He said he went to a school in Adelaide, a primary school, and he told the kids his story and got them to ask him some questions. And a small girl in the classroom said to him “Mr. Thomas, when I am lying in my bed at night, I am dreaming of the stars and the moon. When you were in space, did you dream about Earth?” And he said, “yes you do, you do”.  He was just a beautiful story teller, and there are definitely some remarkable people who are delightful to talk to. I think in general terms those aren’t necessarily high-profile individuals.

SC: What about your experience at the Credit event, talking with Julia Gillard?

LH: Talking to Gillard was an absolute and utter highlight.

SC: Were you nervous?

LH: I was very nervous for a couple of days beforehand, there’s a sense of that being in front of thousands of people and a live audience in an extremely precious occasion.  You want to play your part for the whole occasion. I was nervous beforehand, but when I got up I felt great.

I would like to apologise publicly for the fact that I did rant a bit too much because the opportunity was just too golden.

It was an incredible experience. Also, the Olympics were incredible.

SC: That’s right, you anchored for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

LH: Yes, the opening and closing ceremonies, and every day of competition. That was a blast. Talking about blokey radio, it was interesting, I co-presented the opening and closing with two male presenters, one of which was Tim Lane, and the other was a breakfast presenter in Sydney at the time. I was sitting flanked between these two blokes and needless to say it was my job to describe the national costumes as they came out.

SC: Because you’re a woman?

LH: Yes, because apparently I ‘knew’ about fashion, and style, and design. So in preparation for this, I was like, well, whatever, I’m just happy to be here, I sat down and wrote down all the various words I could use instead of green, and blue etcetera, so I didn’t sound like I was saying the same words over and over again.

SC: (Laughs) Chartreuse!

LH: Literally, I have this notebook still today with all the various shades of green and blue. I had sapphire, ocean, forest green and emerald green and pea green. So yes, it was interesting.

SC: What were the highlights of the Games for you?

LH: There were three moments that completely blew me away. When Korea walked in for the first time as a united team, when North and South were together. You can’t imagine that happening now, but 14 years ago they did. And they walked on together even though they were two separate teams. When Timor-Leste walked in together for the first time, and the place just about disintegrated. The roar and cheering was just incredible, it gives me goose bumps every time I think about it. The other thing, was the lighting of the cauldron. There was a lot of speculation about who would be the honoured athlete to do it. There was also this outstanding relay of women athletes through the last 48 years. So there was Dawn Fraser, Cathy Freeman and many more.

You might remember Cathy was standing next to a pool of water and she lit the ring around her, standing with the torch high in the air, and waiting, waiting waiting for the ring to light up. And everyone’s thinking why isn’t’ this lighting up? In radio terms, that is absolute eternity. So the organ music is playing in the background, everybody is cheering and nothing is happening. And the three of us, the three presenters, we are silent. And eventually, I said, I think we have a problem. And the two guys I was presenting with shot a look at me as if to say “you have completely and utterly messed up this broadcast.” And I was thinking, this is not just a dramatic pause, it is an issue. And the next day I thought, ah, vindicated.

SC: After four years of hosting breakfast radio, which is considered an esteemed position in terms of programming slots, you took maternity leave, following which you returned to the ABC and found out that you’d be relegated to an afternoon spot. With your maternity leave replacement, Red Symons, taking on your breakfast position permanently. I know maternity leave provisions state that your employer must honour your return position with a position of equal value. Yes, you were given another broadcasting position, but I think it could be argued that afternoons don’t have that same gravitas as breakfast radio and it was also completely up-heaving a routine you’d become accustomed to. I remember at the time there was a bit of community debate about it. If it was me, I would have been a bit pissed! How was the experience for you?

LH: It was a very trying time on a number of fronts. I was also, unbeknownst to me, in the grips of pretty severe post-natal depression. This was my first child. Post-natal depression kicked in a bit later than this, and was probably contributed to by this episode. It was a very strange time being in the news rather than reporting it. There was a lot of commentary, and people said some completely outrageous, and to me, quite unforgivable things. Women wrote about me saying things like “of course she wants breakfast radio, you do a couple of hours work and you’re home by 8:30.”

There are ebbs and flows of broadcasting which I completely accept and understand it is a volatile business. I completely accept a management’s right to choose who they want hosting each show, but I would say, I have issues around the way it was done.

SC: Did you know this was going to happen?

LH: I found out on the 23rd December. And I was going back in January.

SC: A couple of days before Christmas.

LH: Christmas I recall that year was on a Sunday. I was called in on the Friday.

SC: Happy Christmas.

LH: Yes, happy Christmas. It was a profoundly challenging time. I had a baby who wasn’t sleeping and who was doing a lot of screaming, the darling that she is. So I was not doing entirely well. And this didn’t help.

In retrospect, Red’s had a very long and happy career, and still continues to have one. He’s done breakfast brilliantly. And I had a great time on afternoons.

SC: How long did you stay on?

LH: Two years.  And then I decided that having had that experience that I needed to know I could do something else. Radio is one of those things that you wonder what broadcasters do after their career. I had to go and find out that I could make a living doing something else. But yes it was a very trying time, and very disorientating to have that sort of conversation when you know that lots of what was being said was complete and utter nonsense and is not who you are at all. I had some brief understanding, on a very small scale, with people who just make stuff up, and to be completely misrepresented for the person that you are. I was unable at that point to really fight back because I could not say anything publicly as I was still working there, and I didn’t want to buy into it for lots of different reasons.

SC: And was this the baby, the one that asked Julia Gillard ‘The Question’?

LH: Yes, this is the one who asked the question (laughs).

SC: It was during the Q&A at the Anne Summers event, and this was the question, I’ll paraphrase, but maybe you can help me out, about how being Prime Minister seemed like a pretty awful time, so did you have any fun?

LH: That’s right, that’s the question. She was ten years old, and she was sitting up on the balcony with my husband and my stepson. Evie was sitting at the end of the row and when they asked for questions she just got up. I had no idea she was going to do that. I saw her get up and walk over to the microphone.

SC: So there had been no previous discussion about her asking this question?

LH: Well a few days before, we were discussing if you had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister a question, what would you ask? It was a dinner table conversation, but Evie said she didn’t want to ask her a question, and we were like “OK, that’s fine, whatever.”  So when she got up and walked over to the microphone, I was very taken aback. She stood in the queue for a while, and I thought oh, she’s not going to get a chance to ask her question and then she finally got up. Evie had written to Julia when Alan Jones had made his horrific comments about her father “dying of shame,” and she was completely mortified and said she was really appalled and that she believed that her father would be very proud of her. It was very sweet.

SC: Did she get a response?

LH: She did get a response! The first thing Evie said when she  got up on the microphone was “Julia, thank you very much for replying to my letter.” Which was gorgeous. And then she said “I know that your Prime Ministership was really difficult and that there was a lot of misogyny, but I would like to know whether you had any good fun while you were PM?”

SC: She used the word misogyny. Brilliant.

LH: That’s right. She did. And Julia replied and said “I think one of the greatest legacies of my Prime Ministership is that a 10 year old can use the word misogyny and know what she’s talking about.” It was a great question, and it gave Julia an opportunity to talk about the good stuff, as until then it was mainly focusing on the difficult stuff. When you think about the opportunity to be Prime Minister  for three and a half years, and the people that she’d met, the places she’d been and the policies she’d had an opportunity to advance, there was a lot of positive to talk about and it gave her a great opening.

SC: Has Evie got journalism ambitions?

LH: I think if she could ask questions and not be prominent she would be delighted. She is a very inquisitive and opinionated young woman which is a blast.

SC: I’ll get back to you now. So you stayed at the ABC for two years after returning to work, but eventually left to work in communications. I’m wondering about the switch. We mentioned before that the ABC has very clear editorial guidelines. You’re not allowed to plug anything, strict guidelines on no product placement or promotion, so when you moved into new communication roles, most recently with the City of Melbourne, your position is actually to plug and promote.

LH: The transition was actually really interesting. I had done nothing else with my life and by the time I left the ABC, I’d been on the air for over 20 years, in public broadcasting and then the ABC. I’d worked very briefly as a legal clerk, and I’d done a hell of a lot of filing and waitressing and other stuff, but I’d done no other professional work other than broadcasting. So, what do people do afterwards? I couldn’t see any ads in the paper that said ‘wanted: ex-broadcaster,’ and all I could figure out that I’d done for the time was talk for a living. So I didn’t know what to do.

I was rescued by a couple of extraordinary individuals who are still great mentors. They took me on and made me aware of the fact that I could adapt to what I thought was a very straightforward analysis of media and that people valued that. I could not imagine that I had a set of skills that could be useful anywhere else. But I just didn’t know how to parlay broadcasting into any other role. They taught me how to do that and it was incredibly invaluable. The challenge is always in telling the story. It’s entirely consistent through broadcasting and all the other stuff that I’ve done.

When I was consulting, it was telling the stories of the clients, and I worked for example with Connex, who were running the train system at the time, and that was very challenging because the system was very under stress, but great people to work with.  To be honest, I know so much more about how the world works now than when I was just broadcasting and I would be a much better broadcaster now having the experience of corporates, government departments and different systems and how they function. It gives you a much keener understanding and makes you much more acute about which questions to ask. It’s been a great career since as well.

I left the ABC wondering how I would ever find another role in which I could learn so much. That was my great joy of radio, the fact that the diversity was so great, and constantly listening and hearing the stories of others. You’d interview 10 different people and have 10 insights into different worlds and their lives. How was I ever going to get that in a 9-5 job? Consulting did it beautifully; ACCC also has an incredible breadth of activity, regulational products and back mergers and economic regulation and it was a huge learning curve. And the City of Melbourne also, I mean talk about a million stories.

SC: The early start you had with breakfast radio, and then working in communications and media management, it is very demanding work. It can include drop everything moments that are all encompassing. Your partner, Francis Leach is the presenter of ABC Grandstand each week – an equally demanding role with crazy hours.  I’m just wondering – work/life/family balance – have you got any secret tips?

LH: (Laughs) No. Haven’t we all spent the last 20 years talking about how to do this? My stepson is 25 so I cannot claim to have had a big role in raising him, so really only one child. It was difficult. The hours are one thing, and the traveling is another. When I was at the ACCC, I spent 2-3 days interstate, and Francis was travelling every weekend to call football. At that point, at the end of about 3-4 seasons, because our life is measured in footy seasons, something had to give. And that’s when I took the City of Melbourne role. I was staying home; I didn’t fly and worked more regular hours. It’s really about making the most of holidays for us. I think every family has to figure out its own way of doing this. For us we’ve always worked shifts, for much of Evie’s life and our relationship. It’s just a household that knows when to be quiet because dad’s on the radio or mum’s got a conference, but we ALWAYS make sure we do good holidays and travel together as much as we can afford to, to enjoy these experiences.

I think that workplaces are better now on the whole. I don’t hesitate to say I need to leave early to get to parent-teacher interviews or a school concert. Some environments are still very challenging, surprisingly so, where the expectation is that the mother will be there and where the father is actually more present, it’s discounted. That’s our experience in any case. Francis spent a lot of time at school, and that was regarded as valid. But as I was interstate many times, it was noticed that my presence was missing and was frowned upon. I find that there’s a really interesting duality in the way that people handle maternal involvement. Because you damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. If you’re not there at the school gate, you can be criticised heavily.

On the whole I think it’s gotten better, for example when my daughter was born, at the ABC, you could not get your maternity leave half time over six months, you had to take it all in three. There are much greater provisions now.

SC: I’ve just got one more question for you, if you could give your 18 year old self advice, what would it be?

LH: I’ve got this one from Wendy McCarthy who I had the pleasure of working with on a panel a few years ago. There were four women and I was facilitating this discussion around women and making the next step, getting senior executive roles, moving up on boards or doing whatever the next step was. Wendy’s advice was “choose your bosses very carefully,” and to me that was really powerful because it put me at that time in a position of power – okay who do I want to work with, why do I want to work with them, which person suits me best. I think it’s a bit of a generational thing – I’m glad that Gen Y is losing it – but we tended to think “oh thank god someone wants me to work for them, I’m so grateful to them, I don’t really mind how much of a bastard they are.”

SC: Tony Abbott’s saying – “a bad boss is better than no boss.”

LH: Yes, it’s that sort of thinking – if you can instead hold in your mind that you’re choosing your boss instead of them choosing you, it helps a lot and makes you think more carefully about your own choices.

In the private, or more holistic sense, I wish I’d been braver, and I feel like a lot of us would say that. You get to my milestone and think “I’ve got the courage now that I wish I’d had 20 years ago.”

SC: At what point does this kick in?!

LH: It’s that confidence that you know that you can make it doing something else – that you’re not beholden to this person, this job, this relationship, and that you can find something else. It’s this life experience that only comes with time, and know that it’s going to be okay.

SC: Lynne Haultain, thank you so much for being truly Bonza.