Remembering Christopher Pearson

Remembering Christopher Pearson

Adelaide | In October 2004, the Independent Weekly – the forerunner of InDaily – published an extraordinary profile of Christopher Pearson, the Adelaide commentator and former speechwriter to John Howard, who died on Friday night, aged 61.

We republish an edited version today in remembrance of a remarkable South Australian.

Being Christopher Pearson

The Howard Government’s overwhelming election victory was due in part to the support of leading conservative commentators like the former founding editor of the Adelaide Review, Christopher Pearson. Who is he? Jacquelynne Willcox, who was once edited by Pearson and considers him a friend, has some answers.

For the past eight years Christopher Pearson has been writing newspaper columns promoting causes that mirror his own transmogrification from jaunty student radical to comely conservative, cooling his ardor for issues that once had him steaming, like gay rights, while getting hot and bothered over retaining Queen and the Howard Government. Along the way he has developed a propinquity for friendships among our political, religious and media elite, and secured his position in the pantheon of conservative public intellectuals favored by the Prime Minister.

Yet, when in the late 90s he hired me to write investigative articles for his newspaper he showed himself to be a paladin for independence, publishing without question articles that exposed his political friends and caused others, such as the financial partners of his newspaper, a few nervous moments. Indeed, it has only recently been revealed to me that some of my work caused painful rifts with the odd conservative political ally which last to this day.

“Brave? I don’t think I’ve been brave,” he said. “Our job, dear girl, is to question. And that’s all I have been doing.”

I had, despite our friendship, expected him to be a little nervous and somewhat formal when we met up at his Victorian terrace in Adelaide’s Hurtle Square. A recent unflattering portrayal of him as a pompous pretender in a book about the spookier side of Adelaide had left him bruised and wary, particularly as it was written by someone he had considered an intimate friend. Not that Christopher Pearson is unused to mockery and condemnation. Indeed, Attorney General Michael Atkinson confirmed matter-of-factly that Pearson is loathed by large sections of those on the Left of politics.

“He’s hated and that’s one of the reasons I like to spend time with him,” Atkinson said. “The idea of some Left liberal like Chris Schacht spewing that I’ve been seen having lunch with Christopher Pearson appeals to me. It’s dangerous.”

Some might view the rancor directed at Pearson to be well-earned. Once associated with the Left and a friend of the ALP, he is one of the nation’s highest-profile, conservative commentators, cheering loudly for Prime Minister John Howard and a select group of like-minded.

“His vocabulary is so large he can choose just the right nasty word, just obscure enough that the target will have to go to the dictionary,” Atkinson noted. “It is vituperative.”

“Are you well, Christopher?” I asked, searching for reasons why he was panting, perspiring and more starched than he otherwise might have been.

Pearson uses his newspaper column in The Australian, media interviews and appearances in public debates to fire wickedly incisive and cleverly crafted observations of opponents who are rarely as erudite, well read or lucidly cheeky as he. Journalist Margaret Simons was, he wrote, “known to many readers for her column Earth Mother, which is suggestive of her approach”. He was referring to Simons’ book The Meeting of the Waters, a treatise on the Hindmarsh Island affair in which she criticised Pearson’s leading role in bringing the fiasco to national attention. The book featured extensive references to Pearson, including an attempt at describing his personal history and admitted peccadilloes (yet curiously omitted him from its detailed index). He called it, “a curious amalgam of Gaia-style, New Age thinking”.

No, Christopher Pearson is no stranger to attempts to deride him for his caustic mocking of those who cling to shibboleths, take themselves more seriously than they ought and loathe him for his vociferous barracking for leading conservatives such as his friend, Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott (they speak most days), and Sydney’s Archbishop George Pell. Indeed, while I was waiting on his front verandah amid hillocks of unopened plastic-wrapped papers and pamphlets that had spilled from the stuffed letterbox, I recalled that he had caused gasps when he described a candidate in the recent Federal election as a “one-legged lesbian”. Much to my perverse delight, and no doubt Pearson’s, the woman responded by asking seriously if her disability left her unfit “to stand” for public office.

The idea of somebody being chosen, who is 19 years old, vegetarian, lesbian and one-legged is just a perfect example of that kind of tokenism which dooms the Democrats to oblivion, he explained. “They’ve got no idea how candidates like that go down in the real world. It’s not because of sexual orientation in particular, but it’s the constellation of all of those attributes; ridiculously young and ridiculously unrepresentative.”

It is this approach, along with his access to power, which has endeared him to The Australian newspaper’s editor, Chris Mitchell, who also published Pearson in his former paper, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail.

“I don’t think there are many writers who sweat blood like he does over his columns. He spends many hours on honing it and making it right,” Mitchell said. “Indeed, I think it would really bother him if he got something wrong. There is so much more to Christopher that is interesting and nice. He is a more varied person than he’s given credit for.”

I was aware he was anxious about this insight, lest I might betray the access that our friendship, mutual social acquaintances and former professional relationship allowed. And so he nervously ushered me into his office-cum-sitting room, elegantly cluttered with antique furniture, art works, scholarly journals and magazines and walls of well-read books.

I had expected him to take me on a tour of his grand new abode. After all, he had proudly done so over the years when I visited his other homes, pointing out items of great beauty and deftly relaying each object’s fascinating history in a style that hinted of his early days as a schoolteacher and TAFE lecturer. But that engaging trait had also been ridiculed by our writer friend, and so he eased himself into an armchair and chatted hesitantly, waiting for the interview proper to begin.

“Are you well, Christopher?” I asked, searching for reasons why he was panting, perspiring and more starched than he otherwise might have been.

He said he was. Despite his manner it was a reasonable question, for he had often seemed to me to be a man regularly befelled by serious illnesses and whose lifestyle threatened any small measure of good health he might otherwise enjoy. Christopher Pearson is in his early 50s, myopic and overweight with all the attendant issues associated with those conditions. Despite continual entreaties from his friends, including neighbor, general practitioner and novelist Dr Peter Goldsworthy, Pearson lunches well, and often loudly, in some of Adelaide’s best restaurants. These pastimes, along with his homosexuality, are regularly referred to by his critics.

“In so much as referring to it upsets my friends, it upsets me,” Pearson said dismissively.

While Pearson has regularly referred to himself as celibate, one of his oldest chums described him as a “lapsed homosexual”, a comment that clearly appealed when I relayed it. He smiled broadly and his eyes flashed a sharp twinkle that gave me hope he might abandon his guard and exhibit on tape the dangerous naughtiness I have found so appealing. He didn’t. So I returned to his many revelations about his sexuality. Why had he felt the need to mention his long love affair with the eminent jurist and poet, John Bray, in a literary essay?

“Thee essay title was, ‘The ambiguous business of coming out’,” he said, pausing as though he might be carefully choosing his words. “I felt I couldn’t write such an essay without mentioning the widely known, but publicly unacknowledged, relationships in my life. Bray himself was quite matter-of-fact about the relationship with third parties and I didn’t realise the extent to which others were affected by my speaking about it. It has affected one or two friendships.”

Like many university students of the ’70s, Pearson indulged in radical politics after having been, he said, “a Marxist at age 10″. As a young man, he was active in gay rights campaigns and later edited the ALP’s policy journal, Labor Forum. Though he denies having been a signed-up party member, Lefties with long memories might be forgiven for thinking he was a fellow traveller.

The Hindmarsh Island affair and SA’s State Bank disaster were issues Pearson brought to national attention in his paper The Adelaide Review (it has since been sold) and also in more mainstream newspapers such as The Age, the Courier-Mail, the Australian Financial Review and the Australian, delighting conservatives and angering the Left, who accused him of cynically changing his allegiances.

“I always like Maynard Keynes’ answer to a colleague who accused him of having changed his mind, and he said, ‘When the facts change, I do change my mind. I don’t know about you’,” he sighed, before savoring the opportunity to attack former premier John Bannon.

“As far as the Labor Party was concerned at State level, the facts changed. We once had a rather endearingly old-fashioned Fabian sort of premier. He became less and less Fabian and more and more concerned with consolidating his position in the new class and feather-bedding any number of apparatchiks. He sold out to the ‘greed is good brigade’. The sad thing was he took on their moral values uncritically.”

“He has so much intellectual breadth and I have encouraged him to write on various issues, not just politics,” Mitchell said. “Like the columns he has done on the smile, joy and family holidays. They are all good and thoughtful. I also I think it is a good thing that he is a prominent Adelaide person.”

Though he claims to have once voted for Paul Keating, Pearson’s trenchant support for the Howard leadership saw him take on a four-month consultancy as a prime ministerial speechwriter while still editor of the Adelaide Review. This caused a rift with the paper’s political commentator, Peter Ward, a more traditional journalist for whom a speechwriter’s role was inconsistent with being at the helm of an independent newspaper. (Ward was not available to comment for this article).

The falling-out was exacerbated by Pearson’s revelations about his relationship with Bray, with whom Ward also had a close friendship. Indeed, soap opera-like, Ward lives in the now deceased Bray’s Hurtle Square terrace, which is but one away from where Pearson resides. The Bray-Ward-Hurtle Square connection is one which keeps chatterers and enemies intrigued. According to old friends, the two men and former premier Don Dunstan were all early Pearson influences.

“Bray was,” he said. “Dunstan and Ward much less so.”

The Federal Government has appointed Pearson to three boards: SBS, Foreign Affairs Committee and the National Museum, where he and fellow board member David Barnett, publicly and, many claim, viciously criticised what they saw as its political correctness and skewed view of history. That Pearson is so obviously close to power is seen by his editor Chris Mitchell, to be an advantage, but not the main reason he is so prominently placed on the paper’s Inquirer page.

“He has so much intellectual breadth and I have encouraged him to write on various issues, not just politics,” Mitchell said. “Like the columns he has done on the smile, joy and family holidays. They are all good and thoughtful. I also I think it is a good thing that he is a prominent Adelaide person.”

A former newspaper journalist himself, Michael Atkinson understands the thinking though he believes Pearson is “on a trajectory that has taken him beyond our city”.

“Still, it would be nice if one day he criticised Tony Abbott and John Howard for something,” he said. “But it doesn’t happen.”

Abbott says it has. Pearson himself points to criticism he has made of the Prime Minister’s judgment, particularly on setting employment targets.

“One of the major experiences shaping my life was having been unemployed and on sickness benefits, writing the odd book review,” he said. “At a time when they (Howard and Costello) were setting targets on inflation and everything else, it seemed to me to suggest a lower priority of concern for the most vulnerable, and a failure of imagination and a failure of leadership.”

Critics have drawn a link between Pearson’s conversion and his close friendship with Tony Abbott (a former seminarian and still practising Catholic), something both men reject.

An only child, Pearson meets the stereotype of a dutiful homosexual son by sharing a home with his mother, who still proudly dotes on her much-wanted only child. He says the arrangement is what any loving “reasonably prosperous unmarried son” would do. It is not inconvenient, for he never considered entering a permanent intimate relationship, as some of his gay friends had.

“Darby and Darby!” he laughed. “No. I don’t know that it was ever really on offer, but no, it did not appeal to me. I had long since come to the conclusion that sex was far more trouble than it was worth and it ceased to be an issue.”

It is often cited by his friends that he is a child of eccentric parents variously described as brilliant, sometimes mad and, particularly in his mother’s case, devoted and ambitious for him. Pearson prefers not to speak of his father, a former IBM manager who later became an Anglican priest. He claims there was no physical violence in his parents’ dysfunctional marriage, but friends often mention a troubled childhood where his father could be said to have not understood his precocious son.

The two have recently developed a rapprochement, which Pearson wishes not to risk by discussing his parents’ marriage, except to say that by necessity they have lived apart for some time. While his mother encouraged and developed her son’s deep curiosity, scholarly achievements (honors degrees in English and French and a teaching diploma) and revelled, he said, that “they had a prodigy on their hands”, he went on to be bullied at Scotch College. Friends who remember those days recall violent incidents Pearson dismisses. “All obviously homosexual people used to get bullied in the 1960s,” he said placidly. “I came from a family where toughness was expected. I was always a child who read encyclopaedically and to whom companions my own age meant very little. When you are just as happy in a book, it is quite possible to lead your youth and childhood quite happily learning. People always assume that solitude is a trial or a burden. I’ve always enjoyed it.”

As well as being a lover of classical history, music and literature, all treasures one associates with an ancient Church, Pearson was influenced in his early life by Christianity in the form of Anglicanism. Indeed, Pearson notes that as a teenager he became a Christian some years before his father did.

“I was asked to sing in the choir,” he recalled.  “The music was beautiful and the language of prayer appealed to me and also the King James Bible got to me. I came to the conclusion that nothing this beautiful could fail to be true. Father came to the church about two years later. We just took it on trust that he had been called to the vocation.”

While he considered joining his father in the Anglican ministry, that idea lapsed alongside his Christian identity when as a young man he began to express his homosexuality. The two did not coalesce, and so he says it was a surprise that some years later he went from “being a nothing in particular to being a Catholic”.

Critics have drawn a link between Pearson’s conversion and his close friendship with Tony Abbott (a former seminarian and still practising Catholic), something both men reject.

“Throughout my friendship with Christopher I have been aware that he was very religious,” Abbott said. “We have from time-to-time discussed religious matters and given each other spiritual advice, but all conversions rely on a relationship with the Holy Spirit and in so much as a person was involved it was Father Chifley.”

Father Ephraem Chifley is a priest who has earned considerable notoriety inside and outside the church for his questioning of moderate Catholics, preference for the Latin Mass and also his devotion to fine dining and drinking. Like Pearson, Father Chifley is a classical scholar, fluent in French and Latin and so it might be said that the two men have complementary intellectual interests as well as culinary ones. As Margaret Simons would say, “the two men were often seen together” and most friends and foes have stories of their revelry around Adelaide’s eating and drinking houses. Pearson says he was initially wary of Chifley for fear he might attempt to convert him, however Chifley laughs this off.

“He always says that,” he told me over a long lunch. “It was obvious to me that he was seeking conversion one night in the Universal Wine Bar. He was denying the Holy Trinity, that’s always a giveaway. People don’t usually go out of their way to deny the recherche aspect of Christianity. Once you do that you’re on the way.”

A central tenet of Christopher Pearson’s creed is to question. But now that the Howard Government is set to take on industrial reform and therefore, Pearson predicts, bring about more employment, productivity and prosperity, what and who would he challenge next? Friends believe the next big question Pearson might ask relates to his own productivity and prosperity: Would he enter religious life?

“They don’t understand how deeply I am attached to my creature comforts,” he laughed. “Lunch?”

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