NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
In late 1962, a small group of Canberra-based journalists and public relations professionals began planning the formation of the National Press Club. They held lofty ambitions. Prominent speakers from Australia and abroad would be invited to speak and answer questions over lunch. Annual membership was set at 10 shillings per annum.
This was a different era: the pre-internet age, a time of relative political civility. John Fairfax & Sons was thriving, while the Australian was still on the drawing board. (Sir) Robert Menzies was still prime minister and the male-dominated Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery was led by such lions as Alan Reid and Ian Fitchett.
In the tight confines of ‘old’ Parliament House, Press Gallery reporters had privileged access to the political titans of the day. The concept of a press club as a forum where journalists could listen to and question political leaders was met with scepticism by many.
Tony Eggleton, then in public relations for the Royal Australian Navy and later to become a key figure in the Liberal Party, was instrumental in establishing the National Press Luncheon Club, as it was initially called. He was appointed inaugural chairman in November 1962, while Harry Keen was elected vice-chairman. It would be another two years before John Bennetts of the Melbourne Age would be appointed as the club’s first ‘working press’ chairman.
The fledgling club’s leadership knew they had to cut through Press Gallery cynicism. They invited Menzies to launch the club as its inaugural speaker. However, circumstances conspired against this, and the club’s first address, on 17 June 1963, was delivered by Sir Garfield Barwick, Minister of External Affairs and Attorney-General, who spoke to around 80 guests, including journalists, public relations professionals, diplomatic staff and interstate visitors. Some 50 years later, the National Press Club has become the premium arena in Australia for political and public debate on matters of national and global significance.
During the early years, the rotation of speakers was kept to around one a month. It was only after the club attracted the likes of Menzies and Labor leader Gough Whitlam, and international heavy hitters such as Richard Nixon and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, that the Press Gallery started to take it seriously.
From a base of 55 financial members, the club was able to maintain a steady growth path until it opened its own building in Barton, a few kilometres from Parliament House, on 27 May 1976. Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser delivered a gracious speech. Since then, the National Press Club has undergone significant refurbishment—most recently in 2013.
The club went through tough financial times in the mid-1990s, when it was forced to sell off a number of units in order to pay down its bank debts. And there plenty of drama and protest has occurred regarding many of the club’s speakers— an estimated 1500 protesters for One Nation leader Pauline Hanson in 1997 holds the record.
But the list of speakers, stretching over more than 50 years, is unequalled in Australia. They include political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Kofi Anna, Indira Ghandi, Pierre Trudeau and Vaclav Havel, as well as celebrities like Peter Ustinov and Shirley MacLaine.
Microsoft founder and global philanthropist Bill Gates holds the record for the biggest crowd (around 1200) for his address in February 1994. The lunch was moved to the National Convention Centre to cope with the unprecedented demand for tickets.
Every Australian prime minister from Menzies (with the exception of John McEwen, who addressed the club as acting prime minister) has used the pulpit to launch landmark reforms or to appeal to hardened voters.
Hunter S. Thompson’s celebrated 1976 appearance is remembered fondly, as much for his inebriated state as for the Gonzo journalist’s invitation to the audience to join him post-address in his hotel room.
Over the last several decades, the National Press Club has become an important part of the federal election landscape. The leaders’ debate has become a regular fixture, at times creating controversy in its own right. An address to the National Press Club is now an integral part of the campaign, although opposition leader John Hewson withdrew from his scheduled appearance days before the 1993 election. That decision provided Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating with a golden opportunity to accuse his rival of running scared.
Another leader who fell foul of the National Press Club was Tony Abbott. As Minister for Health in 2007, he turned up 30 minutes late for a debate with Labor’s Nicola Roxon, and was later heard uttering a profanity on camera—a scene replayed on the television news. He has not been late to a Press Club event since.