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A most wanted man

 A most wanted man

Andrew Wilkie has given the Prime Minister until May next year to put gambling limits on pokies, or he says he will withdraw his support. Picture: Matthew Newton Source: the Australian

ANDREW Wilkie is striding through the muddy car park of a Hobart sawmill, mobile phone glued to his ear. He listens intently then ends the call, breaking into a broad grin. "that was [federal health minister] Nicola Roxon with an update about the funding for the hospital," he says. "it was good news."

Suddenly buoyed, the independent member for the federal seat of Denison in Tasmania bounces into the front seat of his van. He asks his staffer, Philippa Duncan, what phone calls she took during the previous hour while he was being briefed by the managers of the McKay timber yard. She goes through them as Wilkie drives to his next appointment.

First, a media outlet has asked him to write an opinion piece on shield laws for journalists. Second, an organiser for a WikiLeaks rally has asked him to make some statements ahead of his attendance at the rally in Sydney. third, the decision on whether the Tamar Valley pulp mill is approved will be made within hours, so he may need to issue a statement. Fourth, a journalist wants to know what he thinks about gender equality legislation.

"that one is easy," Wilkie replies, as he navigates the van into an undercover car park. Duncan scribbles down his words as he tries to reverse-park: "I would support any legislation — wait, make that any sensible legislation — which enhances gender equality in… WHOOOOAA!" He slams on the brakes and the van shudders to a halt next to a concrete pole he hadn’t seen. "that was close," he laughs, as Duncan tries to right herself in the back seat.

Making policy on the run doesn’t come naturally, or safely, to the new member for Denison. But there is barely a day in the life of Andrew Damien Wilkie MP where he is not asked to take an instant public position on a raft of topics, from the minor to the monumental. From war medals and Tasmanian ferry prices to carbon taxes and flood levies, the thoughts of this one-time soldier, intelligence analyst, whistleblower and rug salesman are now hotly sought. "Everyone wants a piece of Andrew these days," says Duncan wearily, as she flicks through the steady list of new texts and requests.

"this is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life," says Wilkie, walking through the Northgate shopping centre in Glenorchy, "and I’ve done some hard things. But," he says — suddenly fixing me in the eyes — "it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done. Absolutely."

It is now almost eight months since Wilkie, 49, received the political equivalent of a lottery win when, with just 21.26 per cent of the primary vote, he not only snared a seat in federal Parliament but then, along with three fellow independents, took the fate of Julia Gillard’s minority Labor Government in his hands. as such, his opinions are no longer of purely academic interest; they have the power to change legislation and potentially to bring down the Government. since then, he has been on a near-vertical learning curve, barely having time to reflect on the strange personal journey which led him here — a journey he now concedes came perilously close to destroying him.

His time in the sunFOR a man described by his friends as methodical and cautious, Wilkie seems to attract more than his quota of life-changing moments. the most recent unfolded on the evening of August 21 last year, as the votes were being counted in the cliff-hanger federal election. Senior Labor Party strategists sitting alongside Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Melbourne sensed the moment quicker than Wilkie himself did. as they watched Wilkie’s vote tally grow in early counting, they knew that after preferences were distributed the independent candidate stood a red-hot chance of stealing the Labor seat. With the election on a knife-edge and a hung parliament looming, the penny suddenly dropped. Wilkie had to be cultivated by Labor. Immediately. it had been such an unlikely scenario that no one in the Labor camp had Wilkie’s mobile number. They searched frantically until someone recalled that his wife, Kate Burton, had worked as media adviser for the recently retired Labor member for Denison, Duncan Kerr.

"we were at a friend’s restaurant when my phone rang and a voice said, ‘Hello, it’s Julia Gillard here’,?" recalls Burton. Wilkie says, "I saw Kate walking towards me holding her phone out with a somewhat stunned look on her face, saying, ‘It’s the Prime Minister.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure’, and she said, ‘No, it really is the Prime Minister.’?" Wilkie says Gillard congratulated him on his likely win but did not lobby for his support. "it was a short conversation and it set the tone to this day — it was pleasant and it wasn’t overbearing. She seemed careful not to take that next step [to lobby for support].

"I didn’t hear from Tony Abbott until Sunday afternoon, in the middle of my daughter Rosie’s second birthday party, and his manner was different. He was complimentary, but he cut straight to the chase and said, ‘Right, I need your support’ and he wanted to start talking about it straight away. He apologised for the way the then government had treated me over Iraq [when Wilkie was targeted by Howard government MPs after he resigned from the Office of National Assessments over the government’s support for the Iraq war]. I suppose it was a bit cynical."

The days that followed were a blur as Wilkie was courted by both sides to help them form a minority government. "it was really intense and he was under an extreme amount of pressure," recalls Burton. "on our home phone, on emails and on our mobiles we were getting messages of support, and also messages of abuse." says Wilkie: "it was a very high-pressure time, but in my opinion Julia Gillard clearly won the negotiations. She proved to be a more accomplished negotiator and I think she read me better than Tony Abbott, and that’s not a criticism of Tony Abbott."

Insult to injuryWILKIE chooses his words carefully as he recounts these events during an interview in his Hobart electoral office. He seems wary of saying anything that might offend Abbott. the two men only resumed their relationship in February following what Wilkie describes as "a frosty silence" between them after his decision to back Gillard. many senior Liberals have not forgiven Wilkie, given that Abbott easily outbid Gillard on one of Wilkie’s key demands — funding for the Royal Hobart Hospital. Abbott offered $1 billion for a new hospital, while Gillard proposed $340 million for a patched-up old one. Wilkie then added insult to injury by criticising Abbott’s offer — which he had courted in the first place — as being over-the-top and irresponsible.

Liberals say this was proof that Wilkie, a two-time failed Greens candidate and an outspoken critic of John Howard, was never going to back the Liberals. "He was obviously anti-Liberal," says Alexander Downer, former Liberal foreign affairs minister. "I don’t think anyone in the party thought Wilkie would support Tony Abbott."

Wilkie disputes this, saying that he kept an open mind during that time and says he was tempted at one stage to swap his allegiance to Abbott after the Opposition leader allegedly promised to double Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake in return for Wilkie’s support. "I must say that it did give me pause for thought," recalls Wilkie. says Burton: "I knew when he told me about the humanitarian intake that he was seriously tempted." Abbott denies he ever made such a promise. Downer says Wilkie should never have aired the contents of private conversations with Abbott. although Wilkie and Abbott now meet regularly in Canberra to discuss issues, Abbott did not respond to an invitation to comment on Wilkie for this article.

Those who seek to pigeonhole Wilkie as a bleeding-heart leftie are often surprised when they meet him. Fellow independent Bob Katter, whose maverick north Queensland brand of politics is the polar opposite of Wilkie’s, admits that he misread him. "I started off with a very low opinion of him," says Katter. "I thought he was one of those way-out leftie types that chases around causes, but that has not been the reality of the man. I have found him to be very sensible and very reasonable and very open-minded, and prepared to lay his head on the line." Katter says he has clashed with Wilkie on issues such as the national broadband network, but admires the principles that guide him. "it is very rare and refreshing to encounter somebody who actually thinks about things and tries to get it right, and who feels a moral responsibility to get it right."

Wilkie’s critics sigh when they hear of people praising his moral compass, which they say he has traded on ever since he threw away his career as an intelligence officer because of his opposition to the Iraq war. "He is a great favourite with the media; the myth of Andrew Wilkie gets bigger every year," says Downer. "He got great media coverage from journalists who opposed the Iraq war." Conservative commentator Gerard Henderson says: "You get a lot of sanctimonious lectures from Wilkie. He had his mates from the sandal-wearing left, but he treated the ONA in a contemptible manner."

In person, Wilkie comes across as more mischievous than sanctimonious. He is quick to laugh at the absurdity of his situation, which now sees him one of Australia’s pivotal political powerbrokers. He cracks jokes easily and one gets the impression he sometimes still pinches himself to check he is not dreaming.

The years, though, have left Wilkie greyer than when I first met him in the early 2000s, when both his marriage and his career were in freefall. on the wall of his office is a framed whistle, given to him by the Melbourne Press Club as a reminder of the moment when he first shot to national prominence in the most unlikely way. during our interview he looks at the whistle and says, "Do you know, it’s eight years today since I quit ONA." the fact that he still recalls the precise date says much about the emotional scars he carries from being a whistleblower.

Many of his younger constituents in Denison have probably never even heard of the national furore Wilkie caused in 2003 when, while working as an intelligence analyst for the Office of National Assessments, he went public to question the chief justification for the Iraq war: Baghdad’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. for an intelligence analyst to publicly dispute the interpretation of WMD intelligence on Iraq, on the eve of the invasion of that country by Australian forces, was a decision that Wilkie knew would end his 20-year military career. it was seen as an act of gross disloyalty by the Howard government, and an act of principled courage by the war’s opponents.

His now wife Burton, who was working with Wilkie at ONA during that time, recalls the moment he confided his plans to her. "we were travelling in Vietnam together for work, and we were in the hotel room watching protests against the war from around the world. Andrew started checking the hotel room for bugs and turned the TV up really loud, and then told me he was thinking about resigning because of the misuse of intelligence about the reasons for going to war. that was the first I knew about it."

Wilkie’s decision to go public saw him targeted by Opposition MPs, who described him as flaky and irrational. He was especially hurt by strategic leaks to the media that his marriage was on the rocks, implying that Wilkie might be unstable. although he does not regret his actions, he now concedes that the episode almost destroyed him. "it was very hard," he says. "There was not a single aspect of my life left unturned. My job, it cost me a fortune professionally, and I ended up with a rug shop. Relationship-wise, I lost a lot of friends and I pushed a lot of friends away."

One of those he pushed away was the best man at his first wedding, Campbell Newman, who is now hoping to topple Anna Bligh as Queensland premier in the upcoming state election. Wilkie says he and Newman had been best friends, yet they had no contact for years after the Iraq affair. Wilkie blames himself for their estrangement. "I was worried about what he would think, because he is a very conservative Liberal Party man, and a friend of the Howards’. it was probably an assumption that because I had been critical of John Howard that he would disapprove of it."

The two men only re-established their friendship in February this year, after they ran into each other by chance in the corridors of Canberra’s Parliament House. Newman says he was thrilled to reconnect with Wilkie, who he says was his closest friend during their time together in the army. Of the Iraq affair, Newman says: "I don’t agree with the way he went about the so-called whistleblowing, but I believe history says he was right [about WMDs]."

At the 2004 federal election, after Wilkie had lost his marriage, his career and many of his friends, he ran unsuccessfully for the Greens against Howard in the seat of Bennelong. the following year he asked his new girlfriend, Kate Burton, to move to Hobart to start a new life, only to discover that even in Tasmania he was seen as damaged goods. "I applied for a number of jobs, but no one would go near me," recalls Wilkie. "some people probably didn’t like me and some thought I was a hot potato — there were too many risks for them." so he bought a rug shop. "it was difficult and disheartening," he says. "it was very frustrating that we were living in a country where whistleblowers are treated so badly."

Other side of the barricadesBURTON believes that the Iraq experience transformed her husband. "it changed his life, but it also changed his sense of himself," she says. "He was pretty straight until then, and suddenly he found himself aligned with people on the other side of the barricades. His sense of where he fitted into the world changed a lot." the experience awakened in Wilkie a broader interest in politics. "after I left ONA I quickly formed the view that the Iraq war was a dreadful symbol of bad governance in Australia, and if I wanted to help remedy that I should become politically active. By the end of the Bennelong experience in 2004 I had become a very political person, with a great interest in public policy."

In truth, Wilkie was only halfway through a slow political transformation. Born to conservative parents in Tamworth, NSW, Wilkie was a member of the Young Liberals before he joined the army, where he served for 20 years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He sources his first political shift to a period in 1989 when he worked as aide-de-camp to the then governor general, bill Hayden. "that turbocharged my interest in public policy," he says. "it was a very political environment — I remember sitting there with Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser talking about the Dismissal, and Paul Keating was a good mate who would come to Sunday barbecues. I was very impressed with bill Hayden’s interest in social justice, and I think my interest in social justice to this day has some origins in working for bill Hayden. He was very influential." (Hayden recalls Wilkie as an "honourable" man with "a great moral compass".)

At one stage, after he left ONA, Wilkie met Labor Senator John Faulkner to discuss joining the Labor Party, but he decided the fit was not right for him. He even met with the then Democrats leader, Andrew Bartlett, to discuss joining that party. Then he made what he now considers to be his biggest political mistake by running unsuccessfully as a Greens Senate candidate for Tasmania in 2007. Wilkie fell out with the Greens after he tried to broaden their agenda beyond the environment. "I was in the moderate end of the party and they wouldn’t accommodate me," says Wilkie. another insider puts it more bluntly: "They spent no money on Wilkie because he had not come out of the forest. He came up against an old core hardline Greens movement, and they f…ed him over. He was so dispirited that I thought he might give the political game away after that."

But Wilkie didn’t give it away. instead, he ditched the Greens and ran as an independent in the state seat of Denison in the March 2010 Tasmanian election, losing only narrowly. it was that result that spurred him to run as an independent in last year’s federal election.

After flirting with almost every significant Australian political party, how does Wilkie now describe his politics? "the centre," he answers immediately. "Aspects of my world-view could be likened to the Labor left, to the Liberal wets or the Democrats. Somewhere in the centre of the spectrum everything overlaps, so I am in there. while I am socially progressive, I am fiscally conservative. I am probably still changing slowly, but I think I am now politically mature."

His old friend Newman does not see Wilkie’s politics as being in the centre. "I told him I don’t quite see you there, I see you more on the left," he says. But despite their ongoing political differences, Newman is determined not to let them get in the way of their friendship this time.

According to Tasmanian lawyer and former Liberal political staffer Greg Barns, Wilkie is best described as a small-l liberal whose underlying values are equity and fairness. "There is nothing flashy or reckless about Andrew Wilkie," says Barns. "When making a decision he mulls it over, rings up people and genuinely tosses around the alternatives."

This is how Wilkie came to embrace the political issue that is closest to his heart — his campaign to put gambling limits on pokies. "People persuaded me that it was an area which needed reform, and social justice is my passion," he says. "as soon as I announced my candidature I became a lightning rod for problem gamblers and their families, and very quickly it moved from being a somewhat theoretical matter to a very personal matter." Now Wilkie is seen as the face of pokies reform. A giant electronic counter sits in his office, ticking over the amount lost each minute by Tasmanians playing the pokies. it was mounted on the roof of his van until recently, but it became a hazard in underground car parks. His pokies platform appears to be popular among his constituents. while Wilkie manned his "mobile office" in Northgate shopping centre, a steady stream of voters stopped to thank him for his support on the issue.

As part of his original deal with Gillard, Wilkie has given the Prime Minister until Budget day in May 2012 to put gambling limits on pokies, or he says he will withdraw his support from the Government. that, in turn, could cause the Government to fall, or trigger an early election. it is a grave threat to make for a man who was elected with only one in five primary votes, but Wilkie is unrepentant that he will abandon Gillard if she cannot deliver on her promise. "yes, and I say that without hesitation — and she knows that." He says that while it would not be his wish to tear down the Government, "I will wear the consequences".

Many political observers believe that killing a Labor government would be political suicide for Wilkie in Denison, where the majority of voters are left-leaning. "I think it is an empty threat, but he likes being in the spotlight," says Henderson. "He is proposing to bring down a Labor government for Tony Abbott. I don’t think he would go over to Tony Abbott."

Logic says this is correct, but Wilkie can be unpredictable. No one expected him to become a whistleblower on Iraq, and he is a bulldog on matters of principle, such as his push for shield laws to help journalists protect their sources, and his belief that the Gillard Government has failed in its moral duty to better protect WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Wilkie sees the asylum-seeker debate in similar social-justice terms, and has called on Abbott to "lance the boil" of racism within elements of the Liberal Party.

Fellow independent MP Rob Oakeshott says those who underestimate Wilkie’s resolve on matters of principle do so at their peril: "I have warmed to how he is willing to really get in the trenches on policy issues that are important to him and his view of the country without being sanctimonious about it." says Barns: "He is a person of great conscience, but if you make ultimatums in politics you have to deliver."

Wilkie has only a small staff and no party machine to help him arrive at policy positions of national significance. He maintains that he is rigorous in his research before taking positions such as his support for the flood levy or his in-principle support for a carbon tax.

Perhaps the greatest irony of his new political career is that he is now a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which oversees the country’s spy agencies, including the ONA. Coalition MPs and some senior intelligence figures are not happy about the appointment. "this is an example of very bad practice rewarded," says Henderson. "What would Wilkie say if people in these organisations, which he will now oversee on the committee, decided to do the same thing he once did at ONA?"

"It’s funny where you end up," says Wilkie. "last week we had a private hearing, and it was the first time since I left ONA that I had in front of me an official secret government document, and I allowed myself a wry smile."

Just a naughty boy?WILKIE has forged a warm relationship with Gillard, and meets with her each parliamentary sitting week. "She has a briefing folder there and we talk about her priorities that are coming up and if I have any concerns. I rather like her. She’s easy to work with, and she’s frank with me. I respect her. I don’t kid myself here, she needs me desperately, but I think our relationship has a personal dimension as well."

Wilkie says he tries to limit his interaction with the other independent MPs, to avoid giving the impression that they are operating as another political party, but he has nothing but praise for them so far. "I believe every one of them is a good man," he says. "They are politically all over the place, but I think I have a good relationship with them.

Oakeshott says Wilkie is a popular figure on the crossbenches. "There is a good-natured, self-deprecating side of him," he says. "When he took his first point of order he crashed and burned, and he was quite open about it. In a parliament full of egos it’s nice to see someone normal. we are just six blokes trying to work it all out and he is up for the fun of that… It’s almost Monty Pythonesque; we are just a bunch of naughty boys."

It was Wilkie’s decision to be a naughty boy at ONA that set him on the path where he now finds himself. although he struggles to find enough time to see his wife and their two daughters, Olive, four, and Rose, two, he is clearly loving his moment in the sun. so is he concerned that he will be a one-term wonder who might one day end up back in the rug shop?

Wilkie parks his car by a lake in Hobart’s north and runs through the figures he needs to retain Denison at the next election. "I reckon I can still hold the seat," he declares, after a quick calculation on his fingers. "People on the mainland didn’t see me coming, they don’t understand Tasmanian politics. It’s more personal here, more word of mouth."

He smiles and then cranks the car into gear and drives off to his evening appointment, his umpteenth in a day that began before dawn. He’s right when he says that people on the mainland did not see Andrew Wilkie coming. How could they? Even Andrew Wilkie didn’t see it.

<a href=",2005:cluster=, 15 Apr 2011 14:03:43 GMT 00:00″>A most wanted man

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