Does Ray Martin Think Mike Willesee Changed Australian History With THAT Question?
It was a piece of cake for Mike Willesee. For aspiring Prime Minister John Hewson, not so much.
The infamous "birthday cake interview" is the moment widely regarded as costing the Liberal Party the 1993 federal election -- as opposition leader John Hewson stumbled in a terribly clumsy attempt to explain his party's key election policy, the GST.
In two minutes of television, Mike Willesee completely skewered Hewson. But in trademark style, he didn't do it by being rude or aggressive. Like the best interviewers, Willesee sat back and let his subject do all the damage to himself.
READ MORE: Veteran TV Journalist Mike Willesee Has Died
"If I buy a birthday cake from a cake shop, and the GST is in place, do I pay more or less for that birthday cake?" Willesee opened.
A fair question.
This is what the people wanted to know. The Libs' big election pitch was that the GST would be good for the overall economy. But would it hit the average Aussie in the hip pocket?
Hewson tried to answer that. And sort of did. But mostly didn't.
In fact, his answer was indecipherable and hopelessly complicated. Actually it was even worse than that. It was comically bad, like a script from the classic political satire Yes Minister.
The text of his response is below. Good luck wading through it!
"Well, it will depend whether cakes today in that shop are subject to sales tax, or they're not, firstly. And they may have a sales tax on them. Let's assume that they don't have a sales tax on them... then that birthday cake is going to be sales tax free. Then of course you wouldn't pay -- it would be exempt, would, sorry... there would be no GST on it under our system. If it was one with a sales tax today it would attract the GST, and then the difference would be the difference between the two taxes whatever the sales tax rate is on birthday cakes, how it's decorated, because there will be sales tax perhaps on some of the decorations as well, and then of course the price, the price will reflect that accordingly. But the key point is that there, the average Australian will have more money in their pocket."
Any of that make sense to you? It didn't to voters in 1993, either.
Yet things got even worse as Hewson tried to explain how the GST may or may not apply to candles, decorations and other bits of the cake.
Eventually, Willesee cut through the gobbledygook, as he always did.
"If the answer to a birthday cake is so complex -- you do have an overall problem with the GST, don't you?"
Yes, John Hewson did have a problem. A big one.
And incumbent Prime Minister Paul Keating went on to win his famous "victory for the true believers", very much against the odds.
Did THAT Interview Determine The Election?
Veteran broadcaster Ray Martin thinks the effect might be a little overstated.
We journalists like to think that it changed the election. It probably contributed to it. But I don't think it changed it, Martin told 10 daily.
"Mike was incomparable," five-time Walkley award winner Monica Attard told 10 daily.
Now the Head of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, Attard says the next generation of journalists have much to learn from Willesee.
He famously cornered John Hewson ... with an everyday question -- a lesson to political journalists to this day. Keep it simple, keep it about real people, Attard told 10 daily.
Martin was both a mate and a fan of Willesee's and says interviewers today should do more listening and less talking.
"He did his homework and he was never rude. He asked questions on behalf of people. You didn't really hear too much about Mike Willesee's opinions. He was there to ask questions.
"And he asked the questions that ordinary people would have asked."
For the record, Martin said that Mike Willesee was as tough on the Labor party as he was on the Libs.
The truth in that statement is borne out in this interview with Paul Keating in the lead-up to that same 1993 election.
As for John Hewson, he is well aware that the birthday cake interview with Mike Willesee was far from his greatest moment in public life.
“A good question and a particularly bad answer now I hear it again!” he told Sydney radio station 2GB on Friday afternoon.