July 22, 2024


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Former AFR editor-in-chief remembered as one of the greats of Australian journalism


He was charming yet watchful, jovial but caustic, and ever so Irish in his blend of raucous humour, brilliant insights and moody melancholy.

Judith Hoare, a bestselling author and long-time features editor of the Financial Review, says Walsh’s influence was seen nationally.

“Maximilian Walsh deserves to be remembered for more than just his extraordinary intelligence and flair as an economic and political journalist, and a brilliant, open-minded editor who ensured the Financial Review covered the widest possible range of issues,” she says.

“He has a real claim on helping build the modern Australian economy. One of Australia’s larger political figures once told me that, as a political correspondent, Walsh shaped parliamentary debates from the press gallery.”

Max Walsh was born on May 8, 1937, and was brought up in a struggling, Labor-voting family in Sydney’s south-eastern suburbs.

He left school at 16, worked in a chemical factory and became a copy boy in the cavernous reading room at what was the large newspaper empire of John Fairfax and Sons located in Jones Street, Broadway, on the Sydney CBD’s south-west.

After a year, Walsh secured a cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald. It was the height of the Menzies era, and the so-called Protestant ascendancy was epitomised by the Anglo conservativism of the Fairfax flagship where he worked.

Walsh later remarked he was one of the few Catholics to secure a cadetship during the ’50s, although his colleague and rival, Max Suich, who was also a Catholic, became a cadet with the Fairfax-controlled Sydney Sun afternoon newspaper about the same time.

After only nine months, Max Walsh left Fairfax to work at the rival tearaway afternoon tabloid, the Daily Mirror, which had been acquired by Rupert Murdoch, and his hard corporate edge showed in his negotiation of an entry-level third-year cadetship.

He cut his editorial straps as a young crime reporter on the Daily Mirror, working with legendary figures such as Steve Dunleavy, Paul Dougherty, Anthony Curtis and David Halpin, and under the inspired editorship of Zell Rabin.

The late ’50s were the days of a “knock-em-down” newspaper circulation war in Sydney between the Sun and Mirror, with “shock horror probe”-style headlines dominating.

A brilliant young journalist

Managing editor Max Walsh, centre, with editor Fred Brenchley and journalist Anne Summers in the Financial Review newsroom in 1979. 

It was the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and one-time deputy editor of The Observer in London, John Douglas Pringle, who famously described the Sydney Mirror and Sun as “the worst newspapers in the world”.

But the Mirror was a formative influence on Walsh. Decades later, he attended a farewell dinner for the remarkable veteran Canberra political correspondent Alan Ramsey, who, among other things, told his audience that Max Walsh and co at the Mirror “hooned around” in his car.

Walsh bridled at the “hoon” nomenclature. Asked what car he drove at the time, he replied: “a V-8 Ford” – a classic hoon-mobile.

“Hooning around” or not, Max Walsh was a brilliant young journalist. Rapidly promoted, he also worked in Canberra for the Mirror during parliamentary sessions. There he met Maxwell Newton, at that time a flamboyant sybarite and a brilliant journalist.

During one late-night drinking session in Canberra’s Hotel Ainslie, Newton, a budding editor of the Financial Review, said understanding politics required a grasp of economics, so Walsh enrolled at Sydney University.

As a part-time student of economics and government, he competed for top marks with Jim Spigelman, president of the Sydney University SRC, later an adviser to Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam and a one-time chief justice of NSW.

Meanwhile, Max Newton became more established at the editorial helm of the Financial Review, switching it from a weekly to biweekly publishing cycle in 1961. He lured Walsh into the paper’s ranks and the latter pioneered the reporting of Australia’s nascent oil and gas sector amid a boom in energy stocks following discovery of oil at Barrow Island in Western Australia and the Moonie field in Queensland.

“Nobody knew how oil was priced, so the Tariff Board had an inquiry. It was like doing a university degree in oil and gas,” Walsh later said.

After Newton presided over the Financial Review’s emergence as Australia’s first national daily newspaper in 1963, he was recruited by Murdoch to be the first editor of The Australian, and V.J. (Vic) Carroll stepped up to be the Financial Review’s editor.

In 1966, Carroll transferred Walsh to Canberra as the Financial Review’s chief political correspondent. It was, as Walsh said, “an inflection point” – for politics, the economy and for the Financial Review. In the same week as Walsh’s transfer, Robert Menzies retired after a record 16½ continuous years as Liberal prime minister and seven election victories.

‘Pox on both your houses’ approach

Max Walsh quickly became a brilliant political correspondent, equally confident on matters of politics or economics, although, as his own penetrating reporting revealed, the two had a symbiotic relationship. Where he stood out was in integrating both into a narrative that X-rayed through the daily bumf to reveal the real picture.

To Walsh, if not to others, it was “fairly obvious we were falling down the international league table. There was a growing problem which was threatening to get worse.” That “growing problem” was the premature hardening of Australia’s economic arteries as industry sloughed around behind a “protection all round” wall.

Australia’s relative decline framed Walsh’s Canberra coverage. He possessed the intellectual wherewithal and journalistic skills to make it a compelling story and was almost alone in identifying a key failure at the heart of the Australian body politic.

He employed a “pox on both your houses” approach, providing a sort of bipartisan negative editorial cover for his biting, revealing stories. Protectionism was then an article of faith in Canberra, with outstanding exceptions such as South Australian Liberal MP Bert (the Financial Review’s “A Modest Member”) Kelly.

It wasn’t so much “what you might call the textbook reasons of comparative advantage” that had such a corrosive impact on the economy and society, Walsh told me later.

“We had had a protectionist approach, and it was undisciplined. A lot of good people came through, and they all found that they had been corrupted by the system.

“People got protection through their political connections, and for all sorts of other reasons rather than for what you might call the official reasons.

“It reached the stage where [former trade and industry minister] Jack McEwen was writing references for the Tariff Board [precursor of the Productivity Commission], and the reference virtually told you what you had to find.

“It wasn’t being applied in any sense to maximise the national good. It was there to look after sectional interests. It was Max Newton who identified this, and it really was an indefensible position to sustain.”

No one supplanted him

Max Walsh in January 1988. Doris Thomas

Bert Kelly,the MP for Wakefield, “did a marvellous job, and he was the only person on his side who was standing up and talking on tariffs. Labor, with Jim Cairns, was even worse than ‘Black Jack’ [McEwen].”

Walsh’s daily reports, weekly Canberra Observed column and another weekly column published in The Sun-Herald, Fairfax’s mass-market Sunday tabloid, became mandatory reading for mandarins, politicians, lobbyists and the rest of the parliamentary press gallery. He informed, inspired, infuriated and irritated; most of all, he set the agenda.

To understand Walsh’s pulling power, picture the scene at Gough Whitlam’s first garden party as Labor prime minister, held at The Lodge in Canberra.

Tall and imperious, Whitlam held court at one end of the garden, with ministers, public servants, diplomats and journalists revolving around him.

At the other end, Maximilian Walsh was also holding court. An equally large group of politicians, public servants, diplomats and, yes, journalists were radiating around him.

There were imitators and followers, but no one supplanted him. “It is exhilarating to go back and read Max Walsh’s page one stories and Canberra Observed columns from the 1970s that help shape my stewardship of The Australian Financial Review today,” Stutchbury says.

According to Suich, Walsh “led the Financial Review from Canberra on many aspects of political and economic policy, was happy to personally confront the leading politicians and business leaders on policy in King’s Hall of the old Parliament House or at a Sydney business lunch”

“He was a towering, fascinating character and the intelligence, confidence and, just sometimes, the sheer dazzle of his work was an exemplar for the value of a muscular press,” says former features editor Judith Hoare.

“Politicians would come to him, and he maintained relationships across the political divide. He did more than report. Max fought for better policies and remains a huge but unwritten part of the story of how the modern economic wars in Australia were won.”

Richard Ackland, who also worked under Walsh in the Financial Review’s Canberra bureau, recalls his former boss as a “fiercely talented journalist”, one with “an unequalled capacity to explain the complexity of federal finances, and he ran a very good Canberra bureau”.

“He was unequalled in his Canberra coverage, and he was fun. Max was an old-fashioned journalist. He wasn’t technocratic.”

The editor of the Financial Review, Paul Bailey, recalls that in Canberra Walsh “broke story after story, much to the annoyance of those in positions of power. He went on to break new ground making economics readable and linking it with the politics of the day.”

Brian Toohey, who also worked in the Canberra bureau under Walsh, became the Financial Review’s chief political correspondent and in later years was a regular columnist, says: “Max Walsh brought tremendous confidence, flair and skill to shaping a distinctive account of the often neglected subjects of how economic and other policies were formed at federal government level in the late 1960s and ’70s”.

“Other journalists such as Laurie Oakes were shaking up the often staid coverage of day-to-day politics typical of an earlier generation of journalists.

“Max stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with difficult politicians such as Labor’s minerals and energy minister, Rex Connor, when others simply wanted to denounce them.”

Hallowed independence, commercial savvy

Max Walsh, aged 47, becomes a member of the Order of Australia in 1984. 

In 1974, Max Walsh was appointed editor of the Financial Review. He inherited a paper with an independent editorial tradition developed by Vic Carroll and consolidated by Peter Robinson, Carroll’s successor, who Walsh in turn replaced.

Max Walsh made his mark as editor. The front page became more emphatic and thematic, editorials morphed into a sort of Walshian play-pit of news breaks and analysis, and the paper retained its hallowed independence while becoming more commercially savvy.

“It was Vic Carroll’s model,” Walsh generously observed on the eve of the Financial Review’s 50th birthday as a national daily newspaper in 2013. “We targeted an audience which was pretty much ourselves – the first generation of the Menzies university students were just coming out of university.”

He broadened the paper by giving Valerie Lawson free rein in the advertising and marketing industries, providing strong coverage of the nascent Australian Broadcasting Tribunal through the muscular reporting of Jefferson Penberthy, launching Chanticleer, foraging in the world of legal and political gossip with Richard Ackland’s On The Rialto, pioneering intelligent coverage of the fast-growing IT sector, and attracting significant increases in advertising revenue. The Financial Review became highly profitable under Walsh.

Colleen Ryan, a trained accountant who began working for the Financial Review during his editorial leadership, broke the “bottom of the harbour” tax scams and later became editor herself.

She recalls joining Terry Ingram, the paper’s Saleroom writer, on a jaunt through Sydney’s antique dealers, comparing quotes on a prized antique item.

They wrote a story comparing the wildly varying quotes, and the author of the lowest quote rang Walsh to complain, alleging illegal behaviour. “Well, if you think someone has committed a crime, why don’t you ring the Paddington police station?” Walsh blurted out before slamming down the phone.

On another occasion, Richard Ackland remembers infuriating a senior stock exchange figure in his On the Rialto column. The latter rang Walsh threatening all manner of legal redress. But his timing was awry, as Walsh had just returned from a long lunch. “Why don’t you just go and f— yourself!” Walsh retorted.

Amid the hurly-burly of a late ’70s editorial floor, Paul Bailey notes that Walsh “led the Financial Review through one of its most important periods, turning it into an agenda-setting powerhouse that campaigned and drove governments to important changes that opened up the Australian economy”.

“He had a fierce intellect buttressed by a superior knowledge of the issues he tackled,” Bailey says. “He had a rigorous, diligent way of researching and was enthralled by the contest of ideas. And he was never afraid to express an opinion.”

According to Suich, Walsh’s partnership with Fred Brenchley, who was editor of the Financial Review while Walsh was editor-in-chief, “was a fertile one”.

“Staff numbers were enlarged, women journalists were recruited and encouraged, ideas were exchanged and argued over in the pub, at lunch and in the office in a rough and tumble collegium. There were regular confrontations with Fairfax management when accruing pay from untaken holidays was calculated and departure contemplated.

“But, as with Tom Fitzgerald, Max Newton and Vic Carroll, the Fairfax board always preferred to harvest their often irritating talent.

“It was in Walsh’s time that the dynamism of his editorial leadership and the growth of the economy led to the Financial Review finally making a profit.

“This was a vital support of his editorial independence. A subsidised paper, even with the most benign of ownership, remains a prisoner of its proprietor’s whim.”

Max Walsh “was just an extraordinary editor”, Colleen Ryan says. “He treated women like he treated men and he respected their intelligence. There were so many strong women on the paper – Anne Summers, Anne Lampe, Robyn Goodfellow and Valerie Lawson.”

However, the restless element in Max Walsh professional persona re-emerged. Long-time friend-rival Max Suich – their relationship was outwardly congenial but inwardly tense – became editorial chief executive at Fairfax. Walsh moved to Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press and was a political and economic commentator on Channel Nine’s Sunday program.

He fulfilled similar roles on the Carleton-Walsh Report (referred to as “Car-Wash”) on the ABC, and later at Channel Ten.

He also served on the boards of Channel Ten and later Dixon Advisory, where he chaired several of its funds. While at the ABC he also inaugurated The Bottom Line business program with distinguished ABC journalist Maxine McKew. It quickly became known at the ABC as “the Max and Max show”.

But it was ahead of its time, while the ABC has strengthened its current business coverage, often with the able help of a Financial Review diaspora, including former editor and Chanticleer columnist Alan Kohler.

Walsh returned to Fairfax in the mid-’80s, writing a regular column in The Sydney Morning Herald. His final full-time stanza in journalism was spent as editor-in-chief and editor at large of Packer’s weekly Bulletin magazine, not long before its demise, and where he featured a “Lunch with …” column hosted by McKew.

Jim Waley and Max Walsh, the co-hosts of “Sunday”, in 1981. 

“I worked with Max at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Bulletin and the Financial Review as a younger journalist. Max was a superb mentor, and it was easy to look up to him. He was a great leader,” Paul Bailey recalls.

“In the Financial Review Platinum 70 coverage, former Labor prime minister Paul Keating and former Liberal prime minister John Howard both independently cited Walsh’s towering influence on economic policy. To receive such plaudits from both sides of politics was unprecedented.”

“Max Walsh was one of the finest journalists and one of the finest editors we’ve ever produced, and he’s probably the best read editor I’ve ever known,” said Chris Anderson, a former CEO of Optus, Fairfax senior executive and one-time editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald, and who, during a short stint as a senior executive at the ABC, commissioned the “Max and Max” The Bottom Line program.

During his final years, Walsh battled dementia, but a regular stream of visitors paid homage to a great journalist and editor, who was recognised with an Order of Australia in 1984.

Max Walsh is survived by his wife and fellow journalist, Geraldine Walsh, daughters, Sophie and Flicc, and grandson, Xavier.

As Paul Bailey says: “Max Walsh was a giant of Australian journalism.”

Ripe for reform

In 1983, the newly elected Labor government in Canberra, including a treasurer in Paul Keating who learnt more about economics from Walsh than anyone, began dismantling the protectionist wall around the Australian economy.

It followed the Financial Review’s editorial playbook in floating the Australian dollar, reducing tariffs, cutting regulation, introducing enterprise bargaining and privatising companies such as the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, or CSL.

Reminiscing over a – naturally – long lunch in 2013, this is how Max Walsh remembered Labor’s economic reform program and the roles played by Labor prime minister Bob Hawke and treasurer Paul Keating, who later fell out so spectacularly over who should take the credit.

“Paul Keating is one of those blokes – Malcolm Turnbull is the same way – who are pretty shrewd and go out and find themselves mentors.

“Keating said I taught him economics. What I taught him is how important economics are, and he had the good fortune to have a terrific team at Treasury when he got there: [future Westpac CEO David] Morgan and [future treasury secretary and Westpac chairman Ted] Evans were the two important ones.

“He was going to sack [Treasury secretary John] Stone and I said, ‘Why pick a fight in your first week? Do it in six months’ time when everybody feels unbruised about it.

“Paul Keating was very, very shaky at the beginning: not surprising, of course. He was catapulted into the job just before the election. He really felt out of his depth. But his natural self-confidence came through very quickly.”

Walsh believes both Hawke and Keating “deserve credit” for the economic reforms, but also recognised the key role played by the Financial Review. “You have to carry the media along with you,” is the way Walsh put it.

“The truth of the matter was that Hawke decided he’d push for floating the currency. Paul was reluctant to go forward. Credit goes to Hawke for taking the hard decision. The other bloke who was very important was [Reserve Bank governor] Bob Johnston. He made no bones about it; he put the Reserve Bank totally onside. Johnston was an urbane sort of bloke.

“If both the RBA and Treasury had been against it, you wouldn’t have had it [the $A float]. That was tremendously important for the Labor government. It was a very bold step. We never expected they would move as quickly as they did.”


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